Commentary Magazine


Topic: Marshall Plan

Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

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One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.

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Truman’s Earned More Than a Train Station

Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

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Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

It wasn’t just what Truman did, but what he built that sets him apart. In Leslie Gelb’s book on power and strategy, he claims there were three occasions when American presidents concocted “brilliant” strategies to help win the Cold War. Truman’s foreign policy was one of those three, but is reserved for special commendation from Gelb: “The Truman team’s strategy marked the golden age of U.S. foreign policy, as glorious in our history as the founding fathers’ creation of the Constitution.”

That may sound like hyperbole–or worse, to the ears of an anti-interventionist–but the fact remains it’s not easy to talk about American foreign policy without bumping into Truman in the hallway. I wrote earlier today about the National Security Agency, for example: a creation of the Truman administration. So is NATO, a constant topic of discussion these days with the unrest in Ukraine. We are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, but Truman arguably started the ball rolling at the federal level with the integration of the Armed Forces.

Any time we talk of economic intervention we reference the Marshall Plan, but many forget just what postwar Europe looked like when Truman came into office. A couple of recent books, including Ian Buruma’s haunting Year Zero and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent, review the extent of the damage, the violence, the sickness, the hunger, the hate, and the rubble from which today’s peaceful European Union rose.

We don’t need to recount all of Truman’s successes and trailblazing–but that’s the point. We could throw in the Truman Doctrine, the success of South Korea, victory in the Pacific, etc. The list is long indeed. So McCaskill is right on the money: Truman deserves more. But a train station?

There is some logic to it, as the Post mentions: “Union Station once housed U.S. Car No. 1, or the presidential rail car, which Truman used for campaigning and other out-of-town trips.” Great. The building “once housed” a car Truman used.

There is also the matter of the name. D.C.’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she’s fine with adding Truman’s name to the building, “so long as ‘Union Station’ remained a part of it,” according to the Post. Welcome to Harry S. Truman Union Station. Not only does that not exactly roll right off the tongue, but in all likelihood everyone will still call it Union Station. (Unlike Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which everyone calls “Reagan” or “Reagan National.”)

Of course, Truman himself was too humble to want such things anyway. On MSNBC this morning, Chuck Todd confronted McCaskill with a letter Truman wrote in which he said he had “no desire to have roads, bridges, or buildings named after me.” (Hey, he didn’t say “monuments.”) McCaskill said the thought might make Truman a bit “cranky,” but she’d press on.

After Truman was sworn in, he famously told reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” It’s easy to imagine that’s how he felt: he tried to decline the vice presidency, finally guilted into it by a president who then ignored him. The responsibility he inherited with no previous guidance, armed only with common sense and Midwestern American values, was that of the world hanging in the balance. A look at the world today makes it pretty clear a train station doesn’t quite do him justice.

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The Czech Coup to the Berlin Airlift at 65

Andrei Cherny begins his history of the 1948 Berlin Airlift with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the outpouring of support for America around the world was overwhelming, Cherny says the reaction in Berlin stood apart. Berliners instinctively started pouring into the street near the Brandenburg Gate, and soon there were 200,000 of them. One stooped, elderly woman was asked by onlookers why she was crying. “I love Americans,” she said, then stood straight and smiled. “You see, I was a girl during the Airlift….”

Yesterday was exactly sixty-five years since General Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany after World War II, told Colonel Frank Howley, the American military governor of Berlin, “Frank, I’m ordering some planes in,” beginning the Berlin Airlift. In the postwar division of Germany, although Berlin sat in the Soviet zone it was divided with the Western powers and ruled by a joint command. The Soviets grew increasingly suspicious of what they believed to be a Western intent to unify Germany by, among other tactics, outcompeting the Soviets in the capital. After the introduction of a Western currency in West Berlin, the Soviets withdrew from the joint command and cut off Western land access to the city.

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Andrei Cherny begins his history of the 1948 Berlin Airlift with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the outpouring of support for America around the world was overwhelming, Cherny says the reaction in Berlin stood apart. Berliners instinctively started pouring into the street near the Brandenburg Gate, and soon there were 200,000 of them. One stooped, elderly woman was asked by onlookers why she was crying. “I love Americans,” she said, then stood straight and smiled. “You see, I was a girl during the Airlift….”

Yesterday was exactly sixty-five years since General Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany after World War II, told Colonel Frank Howley, the American military governor of Berlin, “Frank, I’m ordering some planes in,” beginning the Berlin Airlift. In the postwar division of Germany, although Berlin sat in the Soviet zone it was divided with the Western powers and ruled by a joint command. The Soviets grew increasingly suspicious of what they believed to be a Western intent to unify Germany by, among other tactics, outcompeting the Soviets in the capital. After the introduction of a Western currency in West Berlin, the Soviets withdrew from the joint command and cut off Western land access to the city.

The West, led by the United States, could not simply accede to this bullying and leave the Berliners in their care to the Soviets. “We shall stay, period,” said President Truman. The only way to get to their sector of Berlin, however, was now by air. And so American warplanes were loaded with food and coal and flown every day into the city for a year.

The Berlin Airlift sent the right message simultaneously to Germany, the free world, and the Stalin regime. And as much as it remains a splendid show of American resolve and ingenuity, it cannot be considered in a vacuum. The Berlin blockade was the result of Soviet fears of an encroaching Western-led economic recovery that would discredit the Soviet system lagging behind in adjacent sectors of postwar Europe. And that had much to do with the European Recovery Program, better known simply as the Marshall Plan, which was crafted and debated throughout the previous year but signed by Truman in April 1948.

The bitter winter of 1947 had made it clear that Europe had more to fear from a collapsed Germany than a resurgent one. Truman once and for all put an end to the Morgenthau Plan–agreed to by a fading FDR who later claimed to have no memory of signing onto the plan at a bilateral summit with Winston Churchill–to raze Germany and set the country back decades, if not centuries, on economic development and industrial capabilities. The Marshall Plan commenced the recovery of Europe, Germany included.

But the Marshall Plan (and the ongoing 1948 discussions that would result in the establishment of NATO the following year) must also be understood in the context that produced this sense of urgency that essentially created the postwar military order. And no one event did as much to shake the West out of its relative complacency than the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia barely a month before Truman signed the Marshall Plan.

The culmination of the coup, in February 1948, served as the wakeup call. The Czech government was made up of Communist and non-Communist ministers, and the Soviet loyalists had thoroughly infiltrated the country to the point where they were ready to force a confrontation. Scheduled elections were looming in a few months, but non-Communist ministers worried that by then the Communists would have the game rigged and there would be no way to hold free elections. So they forced a crisis by resigning from the government en masse, hoping to get more than half the ministers to resign, breaking the quorum. They failed to get enough ministers to step down, essentially leaving posts open for their enemies, and Communist control was further solidified.

That was the end of a coup three years in the making, however. Evelyn Gordon wrote earlier about the free world’s abandonment of Czechoslovakia before World War II, but they again abandoned it after the war. Dwight Eisenhower famously refused to race the Soviets to Berlin at the end of the war because he thought the German capital to be of mostly symbolic value, and the war in the Pacific wasn’t over. But he also believed that he had no business making “political” considerations when his job was to make military decisions. The postwar fate of a city was, in Eisenhower’s mind, strictly political.

He used that same justification not to press forward to liberate Prague. In 1945 the American troops arrived on the Czech border, where Eisenhower said they would stop. Marshall agreed. General Patton did not, and with the outbreak of fighting between Czech insurgents and German troops within the country Patton was able to get Eisenhower to press on. But Eisenhower halted the advance fifty miles from Prague when the Red Army was 200 miles away.

It was a terrible mistake. The Allies shared military occupation of Czechoslovakia, but the refusal to liberate Prague had both practical and symbolic consequences. Symbolically, “We sold the country down the river,” Igor Lukes quotes an American diplomatic official saying regretfully. “We could have liberated Prague. After the war we spent a lot of time trying to convince the Czechs that they weren’t part of the East Bloc. But no matter what we said the Soviets came to Prague first.”

The practical effects were worse. With the exiled Czech president out of the country during the war and Prague open for the taking, Communists and their sympathizers were able to get a major foothold in governance and security–which was exceptionally important, obviously, for the Soviet efforts at establishing the iron curtain and putting Czechoslovakia on their side of it.

There was blame enough to go around, including from Czech officials too willing to play ball in the early postwar days with Stalin. But those officials learned a lesson from Yalta: if the Western powers were willing to sell out the Polish government in exile after fighting a war ostensibly over the invasion of Poland, they would be willing to sell out the Czechs too. Of course, the Polish fate more or less awaited the Czechs anyway, because Western leaders were not the only ones naively putting their faith in Stalin’s word.

The refusal to liberate Prague ultimately consigned a generally pro-Western country to Soviet police-state terror. It taught the West the importance of geopolitical hinge states as well–a lesson Stalin didn’t need. And it stands as a reminder, sixty-five years later, of the moral incoherence and strategic folly of forgetting who our true allies are.

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