At the height of the opposition to the Vietnam war, government officials frequently warned that should the American effort be defeated there, the result would be a right-wing backlash at home and a lapse into isolationism. Obviously the right-wing backlash never materialized, but just as obviously an isolationist mood has taken hold of the country since we left Vietnam. Not that this latter phenomenon is obvious to everyone. Isolationism has for so long been a dirty word in the American political vocabulary that the ideas and sentiments it describes have been forced to travel under different colors. Isolationists, in short, are unlikely to call themselves isolationists nowadays and will almost certainly bristle with indignation if anyone else calls them by that name. But if we were to forgo the use of this term, we would make it harder to understand the implications of a point of view which more and more people are being persuaded to adopt, sometimes without full awareness of what it is they are committing themselves to. It is therefore necessary to the clarification of public discourse, not to mention certain other and even more important objectives, that the word isolationism be retained.
There are and always have been several varieties of isolationism, but they all have a common core which can be summarized quite simply in the proposition that the United States should never go to war for any purpose other than the defense of its own territory against attack.1 But if we are to understand the special force of the isolationist proposition today, we must bear in mind that it addresses itself to an America which for the past twenty-five years has played an interventionist role unprecedented for this country in range, in depth, and in seriousness. In the period after World War II the United States undertook an obligation to check the spread of Communist power and influence everywhere in the world—by political means where possible and by military means where necessary. Playing this role involved an incredible number of “entangling alliances” which did indeed, just as George Washington warned they would, drag us into foreign wars—two of them, and in faraway places of which (as it could much more truly have been said than it was by Neville Chamberlain of England’s relation to Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s) we knew nothing, and less than nothing. It is in opposition to this role that isolationism defines itself today. The general isolationist view is still, as it has always been, that the United States has no business going to war for any reason other than the defense of its own territory against attack. But translated into the particularities of world affairs today, isolationism amounts to saying that the United States should no longer do anything to check the spread of Communist power and influence anywhere in the world.
As recently as a few months ago, this definition would have been dismissed in certain quarters as applying to only a few marginal extremists. No “serious” or “responsible” person, one would have been told, and certainly no one in authority, holds such exaggerated views. But after the almost universal opposition to American intervention of any kind in Portugal at a time when a Communist minority was threatening to take over that country; after the overwhelmingly negative congressional response to any form of financial or military aid to the anti-Communist forces in Angola at a time when the Soviet Union was pouring in many millions of dollars and more than ten-thousand Cuban proxies to support a “Marxist” faction there; after the outcry which greeted the revelation that the CIA has spent a few million dollars to help anti-Communist politicians in Italy at a moment when the Italian Communist party is on the point of acquiring a significant share of power within the national government—after all this, how else is one to characterize the views of very large numbers of “serious” and “responsible” people in this country? No doubt many such people think they believe there are things the United States should do to check the spread of Communist power and influence in the world. But what? It goes without saying that the circumstances under which American military action for these purposes would be approved by such people are by now impossible to imagine. But it is even becoming difficult to imagine any political and economic measures far short of war or the threat of war which they would recommend or support to contain the spread of Communism.
It would be a great mistake to assume that these people, the new isolationists, are all liberals (or what is nowadays called liberals). Many, or even most, so-called liberals today are indeed isolationists, but so are many “conservatives.” For just as a bi-partisan consensus in support of anti-Communist interventionism developed in this country after World War II, we are now witnessing the emergence of a consensus in support of the new isolationism which cuts across party lines and unites a wide variety of otherwise divergent ideological groupings.
It is nevertheless true that the new isolationism is for the moment most visible among liberals. This is itself a measure of the enormous change which has taken place in the political culture of the country, for only yesterday it was interventionism which was most visible among American liberals. There is of course an old tradition of liberal isolationism which was still very influential as recently as the late 1930’s when the New Republic, the leading liberal magazine of the day, opposed American entry into World War II. But by then the prevailing winds of liberal sentiment were already blowing so powerfully in the other direction that it is fair to describe the liberals of that period as the party of intervention.
To be sure, World War II was a war against Hitler and fascism, and it was fought in alliance with the Soviet Union—a combination which made the case against isolationism and in favor of interventionism irresistible to all shadings of liberal opinion. The case for an interventionist policy aimed against the Soviet Union after the war, however, was less compelling to liberal opinion. Indeed there was a split among liberals on the issue. But the pro-Soviet element (made up for the most part of Communists who had in the days of the Popular Front of the mid-1930’s taken to calling themselves liberals—“liberals in a hurry”—and their fellow-travelers) turned out to be very weak. The pathetic showing of their presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, against Harry Truman, the candidate of the anti-Communist liberals, in 1948 crippled them as an effective force, and McCarthyism then moved in to administer the coup de grâce.
By “McCarthyism” here I am referring to more than a demagogic technique of accusation or to the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy himself; I mean the entire range of public and private harassment of Communists and their sympathizers, real and alleged, inside the government and out. Contrary to the liberal mythology of today, Communists and fellow-travelers had moved into the State Department (and other agencies of government) during the Roosevelt administration; and while very few of them were actually engaged in espionage or committed acts of treason, they could hardly have been expected to work enthusiastically for an anti-Communist foreign policy. On the other hand, despite an occasional spectacular case like Alger Hiss, Communist influence within the government itself was never so great as to pose a serious threat to the carrying out of policy, which leads one to speculate that purging the government of Communist sympathizers was not the main purpose of McCarthyism. In any event, whatever its conscious intent may have been, its main effect—and the reason in all probability it was tolerated for so long by both major parties—was to bring home the Communist threat, to make it domestic, in order to mobilize popular support for a policy of fighting Communism abroad. McCarthyism was a way, in other words, of transforming what might have seemed a remote abstraction into a clear and present danger, so that sending money to Europe or sending troops to Korea could be represented as necessary measures of self-defense against a danger which had already moved inside the gates and even, as it were, under every bed.
Liberals of all shades of opinion deplored and denounced McCarthyism, but the anti-Communists among them were even less sympathetic than the McCarthyites to the kind of liberalism that was either unambiguously pro-Soviet or that was “soft” on Communism. These anti-Communist liberals were themselves waging an ideological war against the Stalinoid influence within their own political ranks—a war so successful that by 1960 their candidate for the Presidency, John F. Kennedy, running against Richard Nixon, a man who had literally built his career on anti-Communist fervor, was able to charge the Eisenhower administration, a conservative Republican administration and one in which John Foster Dulles himself had been Secretary of State, with laxity in responding to the Communist threat.
As surely, then, as liberals had been the party of intervention in the fight against fascism, liberals became the preeminent party of intervention in the fight against Communism. It is true that the anti-Communist rhetoric of the conservatives was more strident than that of the liberals. The conservatives tended to speak of Communism as “absolute evil,” and they held out hopes of a “rollback” of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and of “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek against the mainland, whereas the liberals spoke more mildly of containing Soviet expansionism and of winning the hearts and minds of what was still being called the “underdeveloped world.” In practice, however, the liberals tended to be more aggressive than the conservatives in the use of American power, whether political, economic, or military. While liberals and conservatives agreed that the positive objective of an anti-Communist foreign policy was to defend the “free world” against the threat of totalitarianism, it was primarily the liberals who pressed for political and economic initiatives to encourage democratic reforms and the development of free institutions in all those countries which were part of the free world only, or anyway largely, in the sense that they were not part of the Communist world.
Thus liberals kept insisting that the best way to fight Communism was not by building a system of anti-Communist military alliances such as John Foster Dulles specialized in; it was far better, and more effective, said the liberals, to fight Communism by eradicating the social and political injustices which were in their view the breeding grounds of Communist support. Nor were liberals diffident about their ability to show other countries how such injustices could be remedied. Plans and programs for land reform, industrial development, democratic electoral systems, and the like were drawn up, and Americans were dispatched to every nook and cranny of the non-Communist world to supervise their implementation. Any regime which resisted such reforms, moreover, was unlikely to win much sympathy from the liberals. Thus the New York Times, in its editorial on the assassination of Diem and Nhu in November 1963, commented: “The coup in Saigon was inevitable, and, given the stubborn refusal of President Diem to institute political reforms that had long been urged upon him, it was by this time highly desirable.”
In consonance with this attitude toward political assassination, liberals—for all that they often deplored the gross conservative emphasis on military power as the main weapon in the fight against Communism and for the defense of freedom and democracy—also tended to be bolder in the use of force than conservatives. It was under a liberal administration that the United States went into Korea and under a conservative administration that the Korean war was brought to an end. It was Eisenhower who refused to intervene in Indochina and Nixon who terminated the American involvement there; between those two points, Kennedy and Johnson, liberal Democrats both, went to war to prevent the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists of the North. In this they were supported by the liberal “establishment” as a whole, including such major organs of liberal opinion as the Washington Post and the New York Times. As the Times put it in 1963 in explaining the “strategic importance” of Vietnam for the United States: “. . . [I]t is not just the prestige and the billions of dollars of the past decade that must be salvaged, nor the honor of 16,500 American soldiers now committed to Vietnam that must be redeemed there. Really at stake is the ability of the West, and particularly of the United States, to withstand the third major form of aggression attempted by Communist nations since World War II.”
But if it was the liberals—and the “best and brightest” among them—who led the United States into the Vietnam war, it was also the liberals who later turned against this war which they themselves had made, who led (or at least coopted) the opposition to it, and who developed or propagated all the arguments against it. Some liberals said that the American intervention had been a mistake; some said that the American intervention had been immoral; some said that the American intervention had been a crime.
Whatever the precise ground or whatever the degree of intensity with which liberal opposition was expressed, however, the effect of this turn in liberal opinion was to call much more than the Vietnam war itself into question. Doubts were now raised about the entire role of the United States in world affairs. Had it after all been such a good idea for the United States to undertake the containment of Communist power? Was such a policy still necessary? Was it viable? Was it desirable?
To all these questions more and more liberals were coming to answer, No; and the measure of their deepening isolationism was the slogan on which their candidate in the 1972 presidential election ran. Twelve years earlier John F. Kennedy had promised “to get the country moving again,” by which he meant, among other things, that he would pursue a more vigorously active foreign policy in opposition to Communism than Eisenhower had; and he promised in his inaugural address that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” In 1972, George McGovern, sounding an old isolationist refrain, asked America to “come home again,” by which he meant, and was understood to mean, not only that he would take the country out of Vietnam but that he would—in a favorite liberal phrase of the day—“reorder our priorities” from an emphasis on foreign affairs to a primary concern with domestic problems.
Of course there would still be foreign affairs even in this scheme of things, but they would now be based on cooperation rather than power and conflict and competition. Our new role would be determined by an understanding, in another favorite liberal phrase of the day, of the growing “interdependence” of the world and the declining capacity of the great powers to impose their will on other countries. The world was becoming a place in which—as a prominent exponent of this view would later put it—“nobody was in charge.” The United States could no longer control its own allies or clients, and even the Soviet Union was having similar troubles, as witness the break-up of the Communist world into opposing camps and the growing independence of national Communist parties in Europe and elsewhere of Russian control. Nor could either the United States or the Soviet Union any longer throw its weight around with impunity. Sadat could expel Soviet technicians from Egypt without fear of military reprisal, and the once mighty United States (as would soon be demonstrated in irrefutable terms) could be held helplessly at the mercy of a few otherwise impotent oil sheikhdoms. Given all this, a kind of peaceful collective bargaining on a planetary scale must inevitably be the order of the future.
Whatever else may have been envisaged by the liberals for the United States in this truly brave new world, it was certainly not the use of American power to check the spread of Communism and “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
The new isolationism of the liberals came to a highly dramatic head shortly after the 1972 election in an attack (led by one major organ of liberal opinion and former supporter both of presidential power and of American military intervention in Vietnam, the Washington Post) on the powers of the Presidency; and subsequent to that, in a campaign (led by the other major organ of liberal opinion and erstwhile proponent of American interventionism, the New York Times) against the CIA—that is, against, respectively, the main instrument for conducting an overt anti-Communist foreign policy, and the main instrument for conducting a covert anti-Communist foreign policy. To be sure, this was not the issue explicitly or perhaps even consciously raised by the Watergate and CIA investigations, but it is hard to believe that liberals would have mounted an offensive against “the imperial Presidency” or the CIA at a time when they were still enthusiastic about anti-Communist interventionism. Indeed, the Presidency would never have grown to “imperial” proportions without the encouragement and support of liberals, who encouraged and supported it precisely (though not exclusively—there were also domestic considerations) because such a Presidency was necessary to the carrying out of an interventionist foreign policy. So too with the CIA, which was as much a liberal creation as “the imperial Presidency” and whose political tone large numbers of anti-Communist liberals—including scholars, writers, and trade unionists—evidently found sufficiently congenial until just the other day.
Would the liberals have mounted an offensive against the powers of the Presidency if one of their own had been sitting in the White House in 1972? Perhaps: the isolationist current had grown very strong by then among liberals, it was pressing hard for institutional change, and the obvious first target was the Presidency. Fortunately for the liberals, however, the office was now occupied not by a Kennedy or even by a Johnson, but by their ancient enemy Richard Nixon, a man they detested with a passion only matched in living memory by the hatred of Wall Street for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Nixon was forging a new coalition which, there was good reason to fear after the 1972 landslide, might freeze the liberals out of the White House for as long as the New Deal coalition had frozen the conservatives out in an earlier day. The liberals would therefore have had every incentive to go after Nixon even if an attack on the powers of the Presidency had not been demanded by their deepening isolationist mood. As it was, they were presented with an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the person of Richard Nixon, to improve their future political prospects, and at the same time to dissociate themselves entirely from the very presidential prerogatives which they had formerly helped to establish and justify but which now no longer suited either their political interests or their new political beliefs.
It is no wonder that the liberals should have seized on such an opportunity. But it will always be a great and impenetrable wonder that Nixon cooperated—by acquiescing in the pointless break-in of the Democratic offices in the Watergate, by participating in the cover-up, by first taping his own incriminating conversations and then failing to destroy the tapes while he still had time to do so. Nevertheless, cooperate Nixon did, and he, who had originally risen to national prominence through the exploitation of a congressional investigating committee, was now destroyed by exactly the same instrument but to exactly the opposite effect. In exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent, Congressman Richard Nixon had made a major contribution to the bringing home of the Communist menace and therefore to the mobilization of popular support for an interventionist foreign policy. In being exposed as an abuser of the public trust, President Richard Nixon made a major contribution to the weakening of the single most important institutional instrument for the execution of an interventionist foreign policy and therefore to the entrenchment of the new isolationism.
The campaign against the CIA was an equally vivid case of dramatic reversal. In fact, the entire episode was like a replay of the days when committees both in the House and the Senate were investigating the activities of the Communist party—especially its underground activities—and when anti-Communist staff members and other bureaucrats leaked a daily diet of sensational revelations to an entirely complaisant and uncritical press. Now the same thing was happening, but this time it was an agency of our own government which was in the dock, investigated by both houses of Congress, exposed and held up to public scorn by the media, harassed by private vigilante groups (such epiphenomena of McCarthyism as Red Channels and “Aware!” had their obverse equivalents in Counterspy and The Fifth Estate), and portrayed as virtually unlimited in its power to harm. The Communist once supposed to be under every American bed was now replaced by a CIA agent, and the very people who had once ridiculed this exaggerated idea of Communist infiltration into American life saw nothing paranoid in analogous fantasies about the CIA.
Abuses were another matter, for the CIA had undoubtedly been guilty of abuses. But then so had there undoubtedly been Communists working in the State Department in the days of McCarthyism—and no more than merely purging the State Department of its few Communist employees seemed the true purpose of McCarthyism did cleaning up these abuses seem to be the animating passion of the liberal attack on the CIA. While there was much pious talk both in Congress and in the press about reforming the CIA, there was also much—unmistakably more sincere—talk among liberals about abolishing it altogether, or at least restricting it to the gathering of information and destroying its ability (through statute or strict congressional oversight) to conduct covert operations of any kind against the spread of Communism. For if what McCarthyism did was mobilize support for an anti-Communist foreign policy by making the danger of Communism seem domestic and immediate, the attack on the CIA was conversely bound to help demobilize support for an anti-Communist foreign policy by representing such a policy not only as a threat to the freedom and independence of other countries, but also as a sinister danger to American liberties here at home.
The new liberal isolationists, then, in their campaign against “the imperial Presidency,” first damaged the main institutional capability the United States possesses for conducting an overt fight against the spread of Communist power in the world; and then in their campaign against the CIA they helped reduce the main American institutional capability for conducting a covert fight against the spread of Communist power in the world.
But what about the conservatives? Listening to the speeches of Republican politicians or reading the writings of conservative ideologues in the past few years, one would get the impression that they are entirely untouched by the new isolationist spirit which now pervades the Democratic party and the liberal community—that they are even mounting a determined opposition to this spirit. Richard Nixon repeatedly spoke of the need to keep America strong in order to balance Soviet power, and he authorized action first to prevent Allende from taking over the government in Chile and then to topple him after he did. Gerald Ford pleaded with Congress to make a last-ditch effort to save Cambodia and South Vietnam from falling to the Communists. Henry Kissinger strongly supported sending aid to the anti-Communist forces first in Portugal and then in Angola and warned of the dire consequences of Communist participation in the government of Italy and other West European countries. All this is entirely consistent with the hard line conservatives have always taken on the issue of fighting Communism.
But the truth is that conservatives in office and in practice have been rather less bellicose than their standard rhetorical gestures would lead one to suppose. John Foster Dulles encouraged the idea that the United States would work for the liberation of Eastern Europe from Communist rule, but the Eisenhower administration did nothing when the Hungarian revolution erupted. After Richard Nixon took over conduct of the war in Vietnam, he sent troops to Laos and Cambodia and bombers to Hanoi, but he also withdrew all American forces from that part of the world, inaugurated a policy of détente with the Soviet Union, and opened up relations with Communist China. Gerald Ford, his successor, went to Helsinki to sign a declaration legitimating Soviet control of Eastern Europe without even insisting on a reasonable quid pro quo, refused to meet with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for fear of offending the Soviet Union, and continued the Nixon policy of supplying the Soviets with grain and technology in exchange for little more than a smile from Leonid Brezhnev.
This curious habit of speaking loudly and carrying a small stick is equally characteristic of Henry Kissinger, who often sounds like Churchill and just as often acts like Chamberlain. Is Kissinger then an isolationist? The suggestion seems absurd until one coldly considers the actual content of the policy toward Communist power with which he has been associated or over which he has presided for the past seven years. However one might choose to describe this policy, one would scarcely call it a species of anti-Communist intervention-ism. It is, rather, a policy of phased American withdrawal from anti-Communist interventionism undertaken in recoil from the trauma of Vietnam. For among conservatives no less than among liberals, the experience of Vietnam raised doubts about the continued desirability of an American foreign policy based on active opposition to the spread of Communism. One might almost go so far as to say that in withdrawing from Vietnam, in inaugurating a détente with the Soviet Union, and in opening up relations with Communist China, Richard Nixon was executing in almost every detail the new foreign-policy program of the liberals (in this way “dishing” the liberals, as the Tory Disraeli said he had “dished the Whigs” by executing their idea of democratizing the franchise). But thanks to Nixon’s decision to withdraw gradually from Vietnam instead of all at once in 1969-70, the liberals were left free to go on attacking him; and thanks to the presence of Henry Kissinger in his administration, they had someone other than Nixon to whom they could assign credit (as indeed they did in those far-off days, to the point of virtual beatification) for a foreign policy which in every other respect was indistinguishable from their own: a policy, that is, of withdrawal from anti-Communist interventionism.
That withdrawal from anti-Communist interventionism was Nixon’s policy in Southeast Asia no one would any longer dispute. Whether he and/or Kissinger intended something similar elsewhere in the world is not entirely clear. In private Kissinger has been heard to say—and in public to suggest—that the Soviet Union is in an aggressive imperialist phase while the West has moved into the first stages of a Spenglerian decline. The implication is that Soviet preeminence in the world is inevitable, and that the best the United States can do is get out of the way as gracefully as possible, in as dignified a manner as possible, and with a minimum of such disruptive (or “destabilizing”) consequences as might draw us into conflicts with the Russians for which we no longer have the power or the stomach.
According to this reading of his, a responsible statesman presented with such conditions by the inexorable movement of history will do what he can to insure an orderly retreat; otherwise circumstances might easily get out of control, with very bloody consequences for all concerned. He will also attempt (as Metternich in roughly analogous conditions did) to slow the process down; after all, who knows what might happen to change things or even to forestall the inevitable for an indefinite length of time? Thus there will be moments when a show of force will have to be mounted or an impression of resolution conveyed. But the overall direction will be back: in the American case today, back to the Western hemisphere and possibly even to the territorial limits of the United States, where, protected by an invulnerable arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of destroying the Soviet Union many times over, we ourselves would be safe from Soviet invasion or attack.
Does this mean that even Western Europe and Japan would be left to their own devices? So it would seem, for if avoiding war, or even the serious risk of war, with a newly aggressive Soviet Union is now the overriding imperative of American foreign policy, it follows that we can no longer afford to extend protection even to Western Europe and Japan, whose survival as free societies may, in this conception of the world, still be desirable but can no longer be considered a vital American interest.
It also follows, and by the same logic, that the United States can no longer afford to play an active role in the affairs of the Middle East. Middle Eastern oil is a convenience to this country, but it is not a vital necessity—certainly not vital enough to justify the risk of war with the Russians (as the United States demonstrated in its pacific response to the embargo and the price rise only two years ago). Middle Eastern oil is, however, vital to Western Europe and Japan, a matter quite literally of economic life or death. If the Soviet Union were to gain control over the oil, Europe and Japan would be at the mercy of the Russians. So long as it is considered a vital interest of the United States to prevent such a thing from coming to pass, we have a vital interest in the Middle East. If, on the other hand, the United States is no longer willing or able to prevent the spread of Soviet power even over Western Europe and Japan, then we no longer have a vital interest in the Middle East, and we should be preparing to withdraw.
But if this is our objective—as Henry Kissinger’s view of the nature of world affairs today suggests that it is or should be—why are we apparently doing the opposite? For far from withdrawing, the United States has to all appearances been deepening its involvement in the Middle East; and far from avoiding a confrontation with the Russians, we have evidently been attempting to expand our influence in the Arab world at their expense. Or so it would seem to the naked eye. Not so long ago, however, the United States, in the process of withdrawing from its involvement in a different area of the world, also seemed for a time to be getting in deeper. Thus the bombing of Hanoi, the mining of Haiphong harbor, the invasion of Laos and Cambodia looked to many people like a widening of the Vietnam war when, as everyone now knows, all these actions were actually a tactic in an overall strategy of withdrawal. What I am suggesting is that the deepening of the American diplomatic presence in the Middle East may be comparable to the “widening” of the war in Indochina. There the United States reversed the classic pattern of reculer pour mieux sauter, retreating in order to advance. Instead of retreating in order to advance, we advanced in order to retreat. There is a reason for thinking that American policy in the Middle East under Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford may also be a matter of sauter pour mieux reculer. The reason is Israel.
In Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger put pressure on a reluctant Saigon government to accept the Paris Accords, a deal involving concessions which that government considered risky in exchange not for commensurate concessions from the other side but rather for American guarantees and promises of future support. There is an uncanny structural similarity between these arrangements and the Sinai Agreement of 1975, in which the United States forced a reluctant Israel to make serious concessions not in exchange for a proportional quid pro quo from Egypt but in exchange for pledges of future American military aid. The Paris Accords represented a finished series of negotiations while the Sinai Agreement was only the first “step” in a process to be completed either by further “steps” along the same route or by a wholesale arrangement of a similar nature negotiated at Geneva. But except for this, the two agreements bear a very strong family resemblance. Given this resemblance in structure and approach, it seems reasonable to ask whether they may also not have been designed with a similar end in view.
As is clear in retrospect, the function of the Paris Accords was to persuade ourselves and everyone else that peace had come to Vietnam and that the United States could honorably and in all good conscience go home. The United States government has now evidently persuaded itself that the Arabs no longer wish to destroy Israel, that the only thing at this point which threatens Israel’s existence is Israel’s own “intransigence,” and that it is for the Israelis’ own good that they be forced and bribed into making what they themselves consider dangerously one-sided concessions. Is the United States then preparing to drag a reluctant Israel into a Geneva Agreement which we and all the rest of the world will celebrate as the achievement of peace, so that with the problem of Israel’s existence finally settled, at least to our own satisfaction, we would then be free to withdraw from the Middle East—and the risk of any further confrontation with the Russians—just as we did from Vietnam?
Of course, Israel is not Vietnam. Everyone says so, and everyone is right. Israel is a democracy, it has cultural and other affinities with the United States, it commands enormous popular sympathy in this country (and not only among Jews), and it asks not for American soldiers to defend it but only for arms to help it defend itself. For all these reasons, it is almost inconceivable that the United States would force Israel into a settlement guaranteed by promises of American aid and then fail to make good on our promises as we failed to make good on our promises to South Vietnam. The fact remains, however, that if American policy is to be built on the assumption that we no longer have the will or the ability to check the spread of Soviet power, withdrawal from the Middle East—and from Western Europe and Japan—where confrontations with the Soviets are ever-present possibilities, becomes an ineluctable necessity; and the future of Western Europe, Japan, and Israel becomes ominously problematic.
Bearing in mind, then, that isolationism today means refraining from the use of force to prevent the spread of Communism anywhere in the world except the United States (and perhaps its immediate environs), it is by no means absurd to see Henry Kissinger as an isolationist—a reluctant and heavy-hearted isolationist who would no doubt much rather be presiding over the growth of an empire, but who finds no realistic alternative to the withdrawal of the United States from the role it has played since the end of World War II in checking the expansion of Communist power. If under such conditions the West Europeans or anyone else should find a way of resisting Soviet domination, so much the better. If not, just as we can now trade with the Soviet Union itself, not to mention other Communist countries, so we could do business with a Finlandized Europe or a Sovietized Middle East.
This coming together of the liberal idea that “nobody is in charge” with the conservative idea that we can under any circumstances do business with Brezhnev—that there is, in other words, developing a new “planetary bargain” in which our coinage will, for the liberals, be moral and, for the conservatives, financial—has been described by Peter L. Berger as “the greening of American foreign policy.”
Of such a “greening” it is clear that the major, in fact the only, beneficiary would be the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is a great superpower, and it has moreover entered into a period of active imperialist expansionism. When the “Chamberlain” side of Kissinger asks American critics of the SALT agreements, “What in the name of God is strategic superiority? What do you do with it?,” he might better address the question to the Russians, who seem to know very well both what it is and what you do with it, and who could easily enough give him the answer. What you do with it is intimidate other nuclear powers who might wish to stand in your way when you start to move ahead. And just as the United States shows every sign of pulling back and moving out of their way, the Russians show every sign of intending to move ahead: in the past they maintained a navy designed for defensive purposes only, but now they are building a navy designed for offensive purposes as well. We, on the other hand, are refusing to construct enough ships to keep up with normal attrition, let alone with the Russian build-up. The Russians are on the road, then, to achieving superiority not only in strategic nuclear weapons but in conventional forces as well. Once they have done so, they can be expected to go as far as their own ideological and imperial ambitions, and the absence of effective resistance, will carry them—and that could well be to the ends of the earth.
While many American liberals, dreaming the dream of a new international order of which no one is in charge, still seem unaware of the extent of Soviet ambitions, and the extent to which they have thus far been limited in action by American power, almost everyone else in the world understands both these things very well—including, most notably and most significantly, the mainland Chinese and the Communist parties of Western Europe. Knowing their Russian cousins with an intimacy that only members of the same family can command, the Communists of China, Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, and France not only recognize that an isolationist America will have the effect of exposing the rest of the world to Soviet domination; they are all also desperately afraid that an isolationist America will leave even them exposed to Soviet domination.
The ironies here verge on the comic. In America, critics of anti-Communist interventionism have pointed to the break-up of a monolithic Communist world as an argument for abandoning that policy. Perhaps, they have said, it made sense for the United States to intervene in Africa and Asia to prevent local Communist takeovers at a time when all Communists were centrally controlled by Moscow, but it makes no sense at all at a time when any given Communist regime is as likely to be an enemy as an instrument of Soviet expansionism. Yet now it turns out that the very ability of some national Communist movements to remain independent of Moscow was all along a by-product of the success of American power in containing the Soviet Union. Moreover, to make the comedy of the situation even more bizarre, the United States is now being asked by the Communists of China and of Western Europe to remain active in the fight against Soviet expansionism (or “hegemonism”), to stay in and strengthen NATO, and to maintain a credible nuclear umbrella over Japan and Korea. Here then is a new use for American power: to save Communism from the Russians.
Is this what the United States should do? Would making the world safe for Communism in a variety of national forms be a better use for American power than making the world safe for Soviet Communism alone? It is difficult to see why. Communism, whether dominated by Moscow or not, has been a curse. To this day there is not a single Communist country in the world in which even the mildest criticism of the government, not verbal and most certainly not organizational, is permitted. To be sure, people are no longer shot or imprisoned with such orgiastic promiscuity in the Soviet Union as they were in the years when some sixty million persons passed through the system of prison camps Solzhenitsyn calls the Gulag Archipelago—political prisoners, people whose only crime, that is, was opposition or even suspected opposition to the regime. Yet neither can Soviet citizens today speak their minds in public, let alone organize politically, without being thrown into jails or insane asylums where they are “cured” of their irrational ideas and then released or deported. Nor is there the slightest possibility that even the most minimal degree of civil or political liberty will ever be allowed under Communism. In Yugoslavia, where a bit more freedom has been permitted from time to time than in other Communist countries, hundreds of people were recently thrown into prison for speaking their minds in a new crackdown the dimensions of which are yet to be determined. In Cuba, by Castro’s own count, there are still over 22,000 persons in jail for the crime of criticizing his regime.
Communism, in brief, has enslaved every people which has had the misfortune to be forced to live under it—and there is still not a single case of any people freely choosing by majority vote to live under it. The one Communist government which has ever come to power through the polls did so in Chile, where the “Marxists” received about 35 per cent of the vote and then proceeded to alienate the population by wrecking the economy (which was then of course blamed on the machinations of the CIA).
This record is consistent with the abysmal economic performance of Communist governments everywhere, emphatically including the Soviet Union. After sixty years of Communist rule, the only thing the Russians seem to be good at is producing nuclear bombs and missiles. The Soviet Union is still unable to feed itself despite vast expanses of fertile land, and still has to apply to the United States for technological help in developing other industries. Not only, then, do they destroy liberty and humane culture wherever their writ extends (“A curse on all Bolsheviks,” said the great Bolshevik Leon Trotsky himself, “they bring a dryness and a hardness into life”), the Communists do not even make good on their promises to improve the material lot of the people. Nor do they make good on their claim to serve the value of equality. Everywhere they begin by dispossessing and murdering the older ruling classes (in Cambodia, they emptied an entire city, driving some three million people, including infants, graybeards, and invalids, into the countryside at gunpoint to die of starvation or scratch out a dubious living from the earth—a New York Times correspondent, witnessing this, was astonished but did not feel he could pass judgment on so novel a revolutionary “experiment”). But as Djilas and others have shown, everywhere the old inequalities of class and rank and status are gradually reintroduced. China, we are told, is an exception. Perhaps. Who knows anything about China? The Italian Communists, we are told, are different. They believe in democracy and pluralism and they are very good at running Bologna. In fact, they are not even Communists at all: they are urban reformers, or they are social-democratic marranos, the Third Force of old in disguise. Perhaps. Who knows anything about what the Italian Communists would do if they ever acquired power? Probably not even the Italian Communists themselves.
In short, if a world dominated by Soviet Communism is likely to be a world given over to barbarism and misery, the chances are that a world dominated by Communism in a variety of national guises would be an improvement only to the extent that it is better to be enslaved by autonomous local tyrants than by puppets of a foreign land.
Nor could the United States survive as a democracy in either kind of world. The new isolationists say that Communism has acquired so much power—power in the form of Soviet nuclear capability, power in the form of Russian imperial dynamism, power in the form of the size and potential of the population of China, power in the form of the persuasiveness of Marxist ideology to the masses of mankind—that we have no choice but to accommodate ourselves to it. The liberals among them believe that such an accommodation is a precondition for the development of a new and more peaceful and more equitable world order. The conservatives entertain no such wishful illusions. Conservative isolationism does not promise that getting out of the way of the Russians, or playing off one form of Communism against another, will usher in the golden age. It merely holds out hope for the survival of our own democratic system.
But this vision, on its face so hard-headed and mature and unillusioned about the nature of things, is at bottom as wishful as the liberal dream of a new international order based on interdependence and cooperation. It is an American version of the old Soviet idea of “socialism in one country,” and it is even more vulnerable to the criticisms which were made against that idea by the proponents of the “theory of capitalist encirclement.” No matter how large or how invulnerable our second-strike nuclear forces might be, a Communist culture global in its dimensions—whether or not it was under the control of Moscow—would be impossible to shut out entirely. The Communist temptation to subvert and undermine the last remaining democratic society would be irresistible, and to combat such subversion would require a degree of repression which would itself endanger democratic freedoms. Yet even if it were somehow possible to combine a high degree of repression with a satisfactory degree of political liberty, the will to resist so universally prevalent a “truth” would in all likelihood grow weaker and weaker within the United States itself.
We can even now detect foreshadowings of how this process might work. Thus the idea that we are unable to do anything about the spread of Communist power in the world has already—such are the psychological dynamics involved—begun to merge into the view that anti-Communist action is undesirable anyway since there is nothing extraordinarily wrong with Communism as such. The Soviet Union has fewer apologists in the United States than ever before, but this is not because more people have become convinced that it is a wicked and dangerous country; it is because fewer and fewer people any longer consider the Soviet Union to be any better than the United States. Yet neither do many people seem any longer to think that the Soviet Union is significantly worse than the United States: they have their problems, we have ours. Communist China, on the other hand, is nowadays very popular—with liberals because it is so egalitarian and with conservatives because it is so hard-working and disciplined. Other Communist countries are either ignored or, like Cuba and North Vietnam, sympathetically treated for the most part in the American press.
What we see in this newly tolerant, and even benevolent, attitude toward Communism is the slow erosion of our own sense of political value in response to the Communist challenge—an accommodation in the sphere of ideas to match the accommodation we have been making in the sphere of power. Our own political culture has always held up liberty as the highest political value, while the political culture of Communism has always scoffed at and denigrated liberty as a bourgeois delusion. Therefore our unwillingness or inability to condemn their crimes against political liberty—which they of course do not regard as crimes at all—can fairly be described as a symptom of the surrender of our political culture to theirs. This becomes especially clear when we join with them in condemning the very same political crimes when committed by right-wing dictatorships; and it becomes clearest of all when we join with them in denouncing ourselves, who in this respect are probably less guilty than any other nation in the world, for being a “repressive” or even an incipiently fascist society.
This particular species of anti-Americanism has (at least in America itself) subsided lately, but only to be replaced by its obverse: a tendency, now widespread both here and in the Western democracies generally, to dismiss liberty as unimportant in comparison with rival values like equality and community which the political culture of Communism honors more highly (though infinitely more, of course, in the breach than in the observance). What good is freedom, one often hears it said, when it can coexist with racial discrimination, or discrepancies in the distribution of wealth, or alienation, or pollution of the air and water? One rarely hears it said that (as an honest socialist once observed) those countries which have put liberty ahead of equality have generally ended up doing better by equality—and, one might add, most other desirable social objectives—than those with the reverse priority. And even more rarely does one hear it said, either in America or in the other Western democracies, that liberty is a blessing in itself, quite apart from the many blessings which have flowed from it wherever it has been given a chance.
A European intellectual recently characterized this kind of spiritual surrender as “Finlandization from within.”
If, therefore, to make the world safe for Soviet Communism by withdrawing, or using American power to make the world safe for Communism in a variety of national guises (including, in the bitter end, an American one) were the only alternatives open to the United States, there would indeed be cause for panic and despair everywhere on the earth. But these are not the only alternatives open to the United States. There is a third—and that is to use American power to make the world safe for democracy.
The idea of making the world safe for democracy was much ridiculed after World War I, and its cold-war equivalent, defending the free world, was much ridiculed in its own time as well. In the 20’s the ridicule had a pacifist tinge—how could anything good be expected to come out of anything so hideous as the war in the trenches had been? But in the cold war, it was not so much the idea of defending the free world which came under attack as the claim that American policy was actually based on any such objective. Listing the non-free countries with which we were allied in the fight against Communism became a drearily familiar refrain in the polemics of the 50’s and 60’s, reaching its climax in the sustained assault on one South Vietnamese government after another for its offenses against liberty and democracy. How could we claim to be defending freedom when we were defending regimes like these? Surely in doing so we were showing that we were really up to something else—making the world safe for capitalism, or acting out paranoid fantasies of an imaginary Communist menace, or merely throwing our imperial weight around for its own sweet sake.
Yet the United States was leading a free-world alliance in the entirely meaningful sense that every free society in the world was either a member of the alliance or under its protection. It is true that out of prudential considerations, like the need for bases, certain authoritarian regimes and right-wing dictatorships were also included in the alliance, but in view of the fact that such associations were important in holding back the single greatest and most powerful threat to freedom on the face of the earth, they could be justified as an unfortunate political and military necessity. And even on the level of moral argument, the case could be made that the dictatorships of Franco and Salazar, or of Park and Thieu, at least left room for a greater degree of freedom than the Communist countries, and were also far more likely to be replaced in the future by democratic governments. (Indeed, while there is still not a single instance of any Communist regime being overthrown and succeeded by a democratic government, Spain and Portugal today have a fighting chance to acquire democratic freedoms and Greece has already done so.)
There is, in addition, one other sense in which the United States could truly have been described as the defender, or even as the evangelist, of freedom and democracy. I refer to the efforts of many different kinds which were constantly being made by the United States to convert the non-democratic countries of the non-Communist world into democratic societies. These efforts succeeded magnificently in West Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan; they met with varying degrees of failure almost everywhere else, and they got us into deep trouble in Vietnam (where we sanctioned the assassination of Diem in order to establish a more representative government in Saigon and therefore found ourselves assuming complete responsibility for its fate). That efforts of this nature were made at all is sufficient testimony to the purposes of the United States in the fight against Communism. But that they were made in Vietnam in combination with a large-scale military intervention is of course also what threw the entire policy of which they were a part into discredit and disgrace.
Does that policy deserve such discredit and disgrace? Did the aim of defending the free world against the spread of Communism necessarily dictate an American military intervention in Southeast Asia? In principle yes, but in practice obviously not. Even at the time, there were staunch anti-Communists who warned, on purely prudential grounds, against going to war in Vietnam. We could not, they said, win such a war; it would drag on interminably; it would tear our society apart, as the Algerian war was tearing French society apart; and it would dissipate our power to conduct an effective fight against Communist expansion elsewhere.2
From this point of view, Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time; and when we intervened we deceived ourselves first as to its character and then as to its progress. When we were losing we said we were winning, and in a desperate effort to win, we applied military force in ways that were at once brutal and inhibited and that inspired widespread repugnance at home. But wrong as the war the United States fought in Vietnam was in all these respects, it was not wrong in the purposes for which it was fought. Those purposes were to check the spread of Communism into a country which, though not free, still enjoyed more liberty than any Communist regime allows (and certainly more than it has enjoyed since falling to the Communists), and by so doing, to discourage further Communist aggressions against other countries in which liberty already existed or at least had a chance to develop. That the American military intervention in Vietnam ended in failure, and worse than failure, is an argument not against those purposes but against the lack of wisdom with which they were in that instance pursued.
This is not, of course, the “lesson” which has generally been drawn from Vietnam. The main lesson many people wish to teach is the isolationist lesson that we can no longer do anything to make the world safe for democracy—anything either to check the spread of Communism or “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The new liberal isolationists say that we lack the power and the new conservative isolationists say that we lack the will.
Do we lack the power? Certainly not if power is measured in the brute terms of economic, technological, and military capacity. By all those standards we are still the most powerful country in the world. In fact, our fantastic agricultural productivity and continuing technological inventiveness have increased our power as against that of the Soviet Union; and because of Soviet dependence on us for grain and technology, our leverage over the Soviets is now greater than ever. If we want to use this kind of power to hold them back, we are in a perfect position to take many measures, within the limits of prudence and practical wisdom, to defend already existing democratic societies, as well as non-democratic societies which show a potential for evolution in the direction of civil and political liberty, against the threat of a system which makes even such a slow evolution impossible.
The issue boils down in the end, then, to the question of will. Have we lost the will to defend the free world—yes, the free world—against the spread of Communism? Contemplating the strength of isolationist sentiment in the United States today, one might easily conclude that we have. Among the elites, both liberal and conservative, isolationism is very strong and may perhaps itself be seen as the symptom of a process of “Finlandization from within” which has already begun to occur. But voices are also once again being raised on the other side, some within the intellectual community, many more within the labor movement, a few in the business world, a few in the world of electoral politics. Even Henry Kissinger’s voice has now at least rhetorically been added to the chorus of opposition. Although his “Chamberlain” face still seems to be in evidence in his approach to the SALT negotiations, he has lately—since Angola and the emergence of a newly aggressive push for Communist participation in the governments of Italy and France—been giving freer and freer rein to his gift for sounding like Churchill. He has expressed concern over “a self-destructive, isolationist course in American life”; he has warned that we may soon “become an isolated fortress island in a hostile and turbulent global sea, awaiting the ultimate confrontation with the only response we will not have denied ourselves—massive retaliation.”
We also know from the extraordinarily enthusiastic response to Daniel P. Moynihan at the UN how exhilarating very large numbers of people in this country find a sheer willingness to proclaim the superiority of our political values to the political culture of Marxism and Communism, how sick they are of creeping Finlandization from within in the sphere of political discourse, how happy they become when they see the United States once again speaking in clear accents as the leader of the “liberty party.”
Still, these sentiments have not yet been decisively tested in the national political arena, and until they are so tested, the question—the ultimately crucial question—of whether the new isolationism is as pervasive among the masses of Americans as it is among the elites—will have to remain moot. If it should turn out that the new isolationism has indeed triumphed among the people as completely as it has among the elites, then the United States will celebrate its two-hundredth birthday by betraying the heritage of liberty which has earned it the wonder and envy of the world from the moment of its founding to this, and by helping to make that world safe for the most determined and ferocious and barbarous enemies of liberty ever to have appeared on the earth.
1 This does not imply that the United States should refuse to enter into commercial relations with other countries. On the contrary, to one variant of the isolationist position, among the worst things about “entangling alliances” is that they tend to be bad for business by cutting off foreign markets which might otherwise be profitable. For example, the farmers of the Midwest, who have traditionally been notorious for their political isolationism (and anti-Communism), are today one of the most enthusiastic centers of support for trading with the Soviet Union. For this reason the term isolationism may well be misleading, suggesting as it does the severing of all connections with the rest of the world. “Neutralism” might be more precise, though it would probably be just as unacceptable as “isolationism” to present-day holders of these views.
2 See, for example, “Asia: The American Algeria” and “Vietnam—Another Korea?” both by Hans J. Morgenthau in COMMENTARY (July 1961 and May 1962, respectively).