The Decline of American Statesmanship

The first great book I’ve read this year is George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Despite being almost 1000 pages, Colony to Superpower provides a fast-paced yet thorough tour of American foreign policy since Independence that shows the areas where different policies form a coherent whole, and where foreign policy has undergone major discontinuities. By the end of it, I felt like I had been introduced to my own country.

Herring takes a decidedly unsentimental look at many the myths promulgated by the triumphalist tradition in American historiography, but he doesn’t descend into the bitterness and anger that mark A People’s History of the United States. If Herring is bothered by the injustice and ruthless self-interest that have often characterized American policy, he goes to pains to understand and explain how the principals perceived their own actions and how those unfair policies may have benefited the country. What does bother Herring is the self-satisfaction and forgetfulness that run rampant through the American narrative. The United States is a sometime villain and sometime hero, and usually something in between. Yet it insists on depicting itself as more principled and a greater force for good than any other nation.

This is not new information, but seeing the history of American foreign policy puts a sharp point on it. While the plight of the Native American tribes is well-documented and regretted, the United States has done a much poorer job coming to terms with its predations against Spain, its outright assault on Mexico while that country was in its infancy, and its constant meddling in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. The chapter on the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War was the saddest of any save the last. When you consider how often Americans take a snide and condescending attitude to our “backwards” and “corrupt” hemispheric neighbors, it’s horrifying that the U.S. has never really accepted responsibility for the corrupting and retarding influence it exerted on them.

However, the most profound shift in the book came with the end of WWII and the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s death, U.S. foreign policy seemed mostly effective and level-headed. There were administrations who managed foreign affairs in a ham-handed and vicious manner, but the responsible caretakers of U.S. interests were quick to reassert themselves. They conducted themselves professionally abroad, and tended to have a high regard for the processes of diplomacy. The high-water mark seemed to come with Franklin Roosevelt, who did an admirable job of curbing U.S. adventurism within the hemisphere while coming to an early understanding of the threat posed by Hitler. As Herring himself points out, FDR may have used a lot of underhanded and deceptive tactics to bring the U.S. into the war against Germany prior to 1941, but Hitler’s Germany stands as an exceptional case if ever there was one.

The problem, Herring says, is that FDR’s successors used his methods for their own purposes, which were never as noble. Even worse, the country seemed to lose its sense of balance after his death. Herring demonstrates that there was a profound and abrupt reactionary tilt to American policy almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death. Although Roosevelt was as capable as anyone at acting decisively, he was also the sort of man to make decisions in a calm, pragmatic fashion. Truman and the foreign policy team that coalesced around him were not.

Whatever FDR would have done about the Soviet Union’s burgeoning imperialism in Eastern Europe, it probably would have been handled more gracefully than Truman’s instantaneous bellicosity. From the day he assumed the office, Truman took a hard, threatening line against the Soviets that only served to stoke their suspicions that the U.S. was an enemy. Furthermore, Truman’s doctrine of containment placed the United States squarely on the wrong side of history during the retreat of the colonial powers, serving to alienate beyond hope the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and most of Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, he demolished the role of the State Department by creating the National Security Council. American foreign policy, once the domain of diplomatic professionals, would be dominated from then on by a growing class of “defense intellectuals” and military officers.

It is also true that the Cold War bred a cycle of hysteria that afflicts the country to this day. The Republicans and Democrats routinely labeled one another as “soft” on communism, squelching any dissent regarding core assumptions of American policy and only disagreeing about how extreme the U.S. response should be. And so Kennedy took office already boxed in by the anti-Communist rhetoric he used to attack Richard Nixon, and Johnson would commit himself to Vietnam in order to guard his right flank during the 1964 election. Now, terrorism plays the part of communism in the national discourse, with the same effects on policy discussions.

One of the ultimate lessons of From Colony to Superpower, and one of its most troubling conclusions, is that the United States has not been able to debate security policy rationally since 1945. As its economic and military power have increased, the capability and sophistication of its foreign policy apparatus and its polity have diminished, to the point where the latter have begun to destroy the former.

  1. I agree strongly with the idea that the Cold War corrupted American’s political culture and foreign policy, but I disagree that the blame should be put on Truman.

    Though Truman made some ham-handed mistakes in his time, foreign policy was not one of them. Truman’s doctrine of containment was more humane and subtle than that of his successors. When he did choose action, such as at the Berlin Airlift and in Korea, that action was clearly provoked and brought results. I’d also assert that Truman’s clear anti-communist stance was a welcome change after the drift and sloppy compromises of FDR’s final year in office.

    For me, the rot starts during the Eisenhower years. Eisenhower was able to gloss over some pretty ugly happenings with his personal popularity. Eisenhower was also the one who brought us the Shah, formulated the Bay of Pigs, elevated Nixon to a place of national prominence, and refused to address the McCarthy disaster.

    Finally, I do agree that the NSC is a very redundant cabinet position.

    • It’s not so much that I blame Truman for most of America’s Cold War excesses, but that a profound shift occurred when Roosevelt died and Truman gave that shift some of its character. I don’t think it’s fair to call Roosevelt’s last year as drifting and sloppy, either, because the nature of the wartime alliance was that Roosevelt couldn’t start an open discussion of what would be the major postwar issues. Roosevelt knew that the colonial era was done for, but Churchill was on some level in denial of that fact. Eastern Europe was not something they could really talk about with the Soviets so long as the Red Army was doing the lion’s share of the fighting against Germany. Roosevelt never did articulate what he wanted the postwar world to look like, but then he never really had the opportunity prior to his death.

      Now as for Truman, my biggest problem is that he set the stage for a lot of what would follow. He should never have signed off on the National Security Act of 1947, which pretty much eliminated the possibility that policy would ever go back to being made on a peacetime footing. He had absolutely no regard for the State Department and the experience contained within it, which meant that even wise policy shifts were handled in a bellicose fashion. Containment might have been the right approach to take against the Soviet Union (certainly better than rollback), but he made clear to the Soviets that he considered them an enemy well before the war ended. Furthermore, Korea was a travesty. He let MacArthur run rampant and only fired him after Mac had provoked the Chinese and walked his entire army into the largest ambush in modern military history. For the remainder of his time in office, Korea was a bloody stalemate that he never did figure out how to end.

      That said, I also understand that the Republican Party was there holding a gun to Truman’s head throughout most of his worst moments. The Republicans had become a thoroughly reactionary, extreme party by the end of Truman’s term. Frankly, it might have been healthier for the country had a decent and moderate man like Dewey won the 1948 election, because he might have been able to curb his party’s darker tendencies. The fact is that the Republicans created a fiction about China that they used as a cudgel against Truman, and it’s a tactic they’ve used ever since. Truman, like every president that followed, was not free to adopt a moderate policy because one of America’s political parties was overcome by extremism.

      And yeah, Ike played a big part in all this as well. My father and I were chatting the other day, and he pointed out that Ike’s warning about the “military-industrial complex” is less noble and prescient when you consider that he only thought to deliver that warning on his way out the door, as he handed his successor an out of control CIA and an arrogant, almost treasonous Pentagon.

  2. I may be getting out of my depth here, because most of my Truman-specific information is being drawn from David McCullough’s biography and, well – though McCullough is a great storyteller, he has a bit of a tendency to idolize.

    I think Truman, like LBJ, desperately wanted to be a domestic president, but kept getting forced (or stumbling) into foreign crises.

    I’m curious – in what instances did Truman ignore the advice of the state department? My understanding was that he had a very close partnership with Dean Acheson. Note I’m not asking in a facetious way, I genuinely don’t know and I’d like to so I can continue the discussion better informed.

    • That’s the danger with McCullough’s books: he takes a heroic view of history and identifies strongly with his subjects, with the result that he tends to understate the effects of their flaws. But he’s just so damned readable, and his sympathetic lens does allow us to see the world as his subjects might have.

      Truman did have a good relationship with Acheson, and Acheson had respect for the State Department and its professionalism. However, Truman himself did not have a high regard for the professional diplomats and analysts who worked at State. He was indifferent to the advice of the “China hands” who strongly warned against becoming too closely tied to Chiang’s Guomindang forces. The Chinese Communists had never quite known what to make of the US, but the decision to effectively hand the country over to the GMD clarified matters for them.

      The formulation of containment doctrine is also instructive. Truman reached the conclusion (not without reason) that Stalin was a ruthless, conniving expansionist, but didn’t quite know what to do about it. George Kennan’s Long Telegram comes out of Moscow and gives him the exact analytical framework Truman wanted. It was confirmation of his and Acheson’s suspicions, so they call Kennan home to help formulate policy. For a moment, Kennan is a star player in Soviet policy, but not necessarily because of his superb analysis. Rather, Truman and Acheson liked hearing that the Soviets were paranoid, opportunistic, and incapable of accurately perceiving the world. They weren’t irrational, but they would make decisions based on dangerously faulty assumptions. And they were implacable.

      However, as Truman’s approach to containment became more activist and militaristic (a shift Acheson helped formulate), Kennan realized that the US was overreacting to and misreading the Soviets. This time, though, nobody cared. His professional insight was appreciated only so long as it conformed with Truman’s gut-level reading of the Soviet Union. The moment Kennan started to argue that the Soviets were less expansionist and menacing than they appeared, Kennan’s influence evaporated.

      Have you read Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter or Rhodes’ Dark Sun? Both tell their stories brilliantly, and both give you a better feeling for the Truman administration. Halberstam takes the view that Truman should have lost the 1948 election, and that victory was a fluke. The Democrats were exhausted and the country was mostly tired of them, and so Truman won a narrow victory that left him too weak to deal effectively with the crises that marked his second term. Furthermore, his victory helped kill Republican moderation, which meant that Truman had to deal with an incredibly hostile, reactionary Congress at a time when it was crucial the US be able to take moderate policy positions.

      Rhodes, for his part, does a really good job of describing the shift in thinking brought about by the end of WW2 and the advent of nuclear weapons. The period is impossible to understand without seeing how fatalism and fear started to dominate the policy-making process.

  3. If you haven’t, you should check out Dan Brown’s “Hardcore History.” He notes while recounting the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage that the conflict managed to turn Rome from a regional power into a global power. Likewise, the second World War turned America from a regional power to a major power – the first superpower. Before WW2 American might was checked vis a vis Europe, Japan, and Russia. After the war and a few nukes, the US was pretty much the only major power left with infrastructure. Perhaps also, though, we became enamored with our new strength and, perhaps, Messianic ideology?

    • The weird thing about the US after WW2 was that it didn’t seem enamored of its strength, but became obsessed instead with its vulnerabilities (real or imagined). It was like all our strength had to be put to work making the country’s position in the world absolutely unassailable, and the more the US butted up against the reality that it’s incredible strength was still insufficient to dictate events around the world, the more paranoid it got. Anytime things went against the US, it was further proof that the country was being undermined by foreign agents and traitors.

      That’s not to say there weren’t quite a few Americans were were enamored of American strength. Guys like MacArthur and Curtis LeMay felt that squandering the nuclear monopoly was unconscionable, and were still agitating for nuclear war when the monopoly gave way to being a mere advantage.

      Where I think the Roman comparison works is in the way increased power always seems to demand greater commitments and less elegant solutions. The Roman Empire expanded in part because there was always a frontier, and there was always trouble on it. When the frontier was Sicily, they pushed Carthage off the island. When the frontier was the Mediterranean, they conquered Carthage and its Iberian possessions. When the frontier was the Alps, they occupied southern Gaul. That in turn brought the legions into the rest of Gaul.

      Less powerful states eventually have to accept certain base levels of insecurity. But the Americans and Romans both had the luxury of striking out against a world that always seemed to be posing some kind of threat on some periphery of the empire.

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