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A Document of the Sixties

Editors’ Note: The following document and the commentary accompanying it by Andrew Kopkind are reprinted from the September-October issue of the New Left Review published in London. In that issue, the editors comment: “We have printed the…document as it stands, leaving inconsistencies of syntax, etc, and inaccuracies of spelling unaltered.” Mr. Kopkind has added some footnotes and explanations for the information of American readers.

When those states which have been acquired are accustomed to live at liberty under their own laws, there are three ways of holding them. The first is to despoil them; the second is to go and live there in person; the third is to allow them to live under their own laws, taking a tribute of them, and creating within the country a government composed of a few who will keep it friendly to you. Because this government, being created by the prince, knows that it cannot exist without his friendship and protection, and will do all it can to keep them. What is more, a city used to liberty can be more easily held by means of its citizens than in any other way, if you wish to preserve it…. Whoever becomes the ruler of a free city and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it, for it can always find a motive for rebellion in the name of liberty and of its ancient usages, which are forgotten neither by lapse of time nor by benefits received….”

—Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter V

Lyndon Johnson had rarely troubled himself with the ancient rituals of European diplomacy. By the time he acceded to the Presidency, his experience in international affairs in general had been limited to chance encounters with Pakistani camel-drivers and Vietnamese well-diggers. If Machiavelli’s principles had ever seeped into his political consciousness, he had been impressed only by the first method of princely policy: despoliation. For twenty years, American interests in Western Europe had been promoted and maintained by much more subtle means. Dominant after World War II, the US had established a network of friendly European governments, in many cases hand-picked by officials in Washington. Within a limited framework, self-government was not only permitted but encouraged; only if “rebellion” threatened basic US interests—economic development, military dominance, political alliance, containment of the Left—were the imperial prerogatives of intervention exercised.

Despite Johnson’s inattention in early 1964, the business of tending America’s acquired states in Europe was being done by the aides and advisers to the late President Kennedy. Unwatched by Johnson, the former Kennedy staff men were engaged in an elaborate bureaucratic war-game on the battleground of European policy. Byzantine intrigues were conducted by a group of State Department officials known in Washington as “the theologians,” and in England as “the cabal.” Against them were the “realists” or “pragmatists” collected in the National Security Council of the White House.

The theologians” were the inheritors of the tradition of the Grand Design of Atlantic alliance, the mainstream of US efforts in Europe since the war. The theologians argued for dominance of the Common Market in the European political economy as the central priority of US policy. The objective was to get Britain into the Common Market and keep Germany out of close political alliance with France. Even though the success of that policy might cause temporary difficulties for the US balance of payments position, such disadvantages were seen to be outweighed by the political benefits. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in his history of the Kennedy Administration, “If Britain joined the Market, London could offset the eccentricities of policy in Paris and Bonn; moreover, Britain, with its world obligations, could keep the EEC from becoming a high-tariff, inward-looking, white man’s club.” 1 Schlesinger documented the importance which Kennedy ascribed to Britain’s entry; it was Kennedy who “raised the matter on Britain’s behalf with De Gaulle in Paris in June, 1961,” and when Hugh Gaitskell came to Washington early in 1962, “Kennedy mobilized half the cabinet to tell him that Britain must plunge into Europe.”

As always, Britain’s function had been that of a tool for America to use in the pursuit of its German policy. Germany was and is the primary focus for US interests in Western Europe. Most of Washington’s efforts in the Cold War period were spent securing West Germany in political alliance. For the first several postwar years, fear of Soviet expansionism in Western Europe was used to keep Germany close to the US. Atomic weapons were denied the Germans; whatever the rationalizations may have been for that policy, one very important effect was to keep the West German government begging for nuclear arms or nuclear protection. The “bomb”—that is, the piece of hardware—became a substitute for diplomacy. It was a prime example of the new system of “technology-state-craft” which Washington was developing.

By 1964, much of the stability in Europe that the US had endeavored to maintain throughout the Fifties was becoming unhinged. Detente with Russia—or the prospect of it—was seen by Kennedy to be a desirable policy goal, but the possibility of diminished tensions loosened the US-German alliance. At the time of the Kennedy Administration, Schlesinger wrote, “no one believed in the likelihood of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe unless the Russians thought themselves exempt from nuclear reprisal (and, except for Berlin, not many believed it likely then).”2 According to Schlesinger, Kennedy himself “regarded much of the talk about European nuclear deterrents, multilateral forces, conventional force levels, American divisions and so on as militarily supererogatory since it was based on the expectation of a Soviet attack on Western Europe, ‘than which nothing is less likely.”’3

France’s defection from NATO—real or impending—increased the level of anxiety in Washington. General de Gaulle’s new interest in Eastern Europe and his courtship of West Germany were profoundly unsettling. On top of that, prospects that a Labour Government would be formed in England, with its component of ban-the-bombers and anti-NATO types, compounded the fears.

As Washington saw it, the threat to American power in Europe (the contradiction to imperial dominance which Machiavelli suggested) had two parts. One came from the Right: it was expressed in De Gaulle’s use of Europe’s economic power to compete as a capitalist bloc with the US, and its key was the Franco-German alliance in European politics and the Common Market. The other threat came from the Left: though weaker and more easily isolated, it was finding expression in British agitation for nuclear disarmament, the danger of popular front government in Italy,4 and the always-present if distant contingency of labor uprisings such as finally occurred in France this year. Rapprochement of Western with Eastern Europe was the critical element in both threats.

Out of the immense resources of American diplomacy and technology, Washington policy planners gradually settled on a most unwieldy, unworkable, overcomplicated, and altogether absurd diplomatic contraption to secure its dominant role in Europe once more. The machine was called the Multilateral Nuclear Force, and it was supposed to be a “NATO flotilla of surface ships armed with Polaris missiles, whose atomic warheads would be under US control. Employment and deployment of the missiles would be subject to close and continuing consultation among those NATO Alliance partners who wanted to participate and share the cost.” The heart of the scheme was the use of multinational crews on the ships—Britons, Americans, Greeks, and so forth, all melted together in one floating pot.

President Eisenhower’s last Secretary of State, Christian Herter, broached the idea of a NATO joint nuclear force in 1960. President Kennedy then had the notion that it should take the form of a fleet of Polaris submarines, but gradually the plan evolved into a surface-ship system. Kennedy presented a version of the scheme to Prime Minister Macmillan at Nassau in 1962,5 but the British (and other NATO members) preferred to interpret it in ways somewhat at variance with Kennedy’s understanding. The British interpretation—which Harold Wilson rather fancied—was for a complex of cooperative and combined nuclear forces among Atlantic nations—only one part of which would be the MLF.

For public appreciation in the US, the MLF idea was promoted as a means of keeping atomic weapons from Germany while at the same time appeasing the Germans’ nationalistic and militaristic impulses.6 There were subsidiary arguments: MLF would defuse the charges of an American nuclear monopoly; it would minimize Washington’s preferential treatment of Britain (the bone in De Gaulle’s throat), and it would strengthen Western defenses in Europe.7

But the underlying purpose—to keep Bonn locked into the Alliance—was never successfully concealed, either from the US public or the other NATO governments. Schlesinger said that Kennedy told him after De Gaulle rejected Britain’s entry into the Common Market, “On the political side, our chief objective was to tie Germany more firmly into the structure of Western Europe.”8 In the face of De Gaulle’s challenge to US hegemony—which involved the force de frappe, alliance with Germany, and the exclusion of Britain from Europe—the MLF seemed crucial: “If De Gaulle meant to make Western Germany choose between France and the United States, the MLF in Washington’s view was the way to make it clear that Bonn would find greater security in the Atlantic relationship.”9 Kennedy, Schlesinger continued, wanted the MLF to “fill a vacuum into which, otherwise, Gaullism might seep.”10

The MLF plan fit the designs of the “theologians” in the State Department11 who saw it as a means to reassert American economic and political domination of the Atlantic Alliance.12 They took their European cues from Jean Monnet and the French “Atlanticists.” In general, the “theologians” were closely allied with the “Foreign Policy establishment” in New York and Washington, and its constituency of business and corporate interests.

But the “realists” on the White House staff had interests which were more immediately (and banally) political. They were concerned with domestic affairs, Congressional relations, and the protection of the President from political error. They prided themselves on espousing no particular theology (except the ideology of pragmatism, which is the most constricting of all), but served simply as political entrepreneurs and odd-jobsmen. Quite quickly they saw that the MLF was a bad bet.

Their reasons, of course, were “realistic.” First of all, they saw that Congress was strongly opposed: the liberals because MLF seemed to stand in the way of disarmament, and the conservatives because MLF implied sharing precious atomic secrets with foreigners who were not clever enough to discover the secrets for themselves. Defense Secretary McNamara had tried to convince Congress of MLF’s merit, and had failed. To each of the official arguments for MLF, the White House staff had prepared counter-arguments. MLF would arouse suspicions that Germany was getting too close to its own atomic deterrent; it would actually emphasize US preferential treatment of Britain; it would produce fresh attacks on the American nuclear monopoly; it would not measurably increase Western defense power in Europe.13 “No one denied that the real purpose of MLF was political,” Sorensen wrote, and so the White House staff made its case on political grounds.

  1. 1

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, New York: Fawcett-Crest, 1967, p. 772. (I am indebted to Jeremy Brecher for research and argument on American influence in Europe.)

  2. 2

    Ibid., p. 779.

  3. 3

    Ibid., p. 782.

  4. 4

    Philip L. Geyelin, Lyndon B. Johnson and the World, New York: Praeger, 1966, p. 171.

  5. 5

    Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy, New York: Bantam, 1966, p. 638.

  6. 6

    Geyelin, op. cit., p. 164.

  7. 7

    Sorensen, op. cit., p. 640.

  8. 8

    Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 796.

  9. 9

    Ibid., p. 797.

  10. 10

    Ibid., p. 798.

  11. 11

    The Theologians are a loose association, of course. Various officials were ascribed membership at various times. Among them: Robert Bowie, Harvard law professor, an assistant secretary under Eisenhower, who is thought to have “invented” MLF in a secret report of 1959-1960, and returned to the State Department under Kennedy and Johnson; Henry Owen, the primemover of MLF, now chairman of the State Department Policy Planning Council; Walt W. Rostow, formerly State Department Councilor and Policy Planning Chairman, now principal architect of the Johnson strategy in Vietnam; Robert Schaetzel, former deputy assistant Secretary of State for Europe.

  12. 12

    Many of the problems the “theologians” set for themselves—and never solved—were taken care of by the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia this year. In one blow, it counteracted the fragmenting effects of detente on NATO, discredited Gaullist foreign policy of “one Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals,” and brought West Germany closer to the US than at any time since the erection of the Wall. For the State Department, it was an MLF without tears.

  13. 13

    Sorensen, op. cit., p. 640

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