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Was This Empire Necessary?

The Imperial Republic: The United States and the World, 1945-1973

by Raymond Aron
Prentice-Hall, 339 pp., $10.00

Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy

by Ernest R. May
Oxford University Press, 220 pp., $6.95

The Logic of World Power: An Inquiry into the Origins, Currents, and Contradictions of World Politics

by Franz Schurmann
Pantheon, 593 pp., $15.00

One of the ironies about America’s adventure in empire-building is that just about the time we came around to admitting that it existed, the empire began to fall apart. Even its sharpest critics now approach the subject with scholarly analysis rather than indignation; their discussion is beginning to take on the air of a post-mortem rather than of a trial. This is not because the will to dominate has vanished, but because the means to bring it about have diminished. Though the spirit remains willing, the flesh is growing weak.

It is no longer considered bad form, let alone “left-wing,” to discuss America’s imperial role. Thus when Raymond Aron refers to “the imperial republic” he is not making an accusation but merely describing a historical reality. Atlantic loyalist that he is, the distinguished French writer and professor sees nothing particularly shameful about the empire, finding it, like the cold war itself, rooted in the “dialectic of history.”

He does, however, cautiously suggest that is was both counterrevolutionary and exploitative. Within the Third World, “its major, if not its sole, objective seems to me to have been to prevent parties professing Marxism-Leninism or likely to open the way to Marxism- Leninism from coming to power.” Within Europe the empire levied a toll for its nuclear umbrella and its permanent garrison of GIs. “Is not the cost of foreign policy in foreign currency practically the same as the deficit in the US balance of international transactions?” Aron asks in a question meant to answer itself. Washington’s allies “lent it the amount in foreign currency it needed for policing the world.” When de Gaulle said as much a decade ago it was heresy; today it is the common wisdom. “The United States made use of its military pre- dominance to impose a monetary system and, in particular, privileges for the dollar, to which its partners, had they enjoyed full freedom of movement and had they been capable of defending themselves on their own, would never have consented.”

This is, of course, the point documented so superbly by David Calleo and Benjamin Rowland in their recent study, America and the World Political Economy.1 But it is well to be reminded of it by such a traditionalist as Aron. He accepts European dependency as a fact of life, given their postwar weakness and the dubious ambitions of Stalin, who “within the sphere he occupied paid not the slightest regard to the Western powers’ inevitable and legitimate reactions to the liquidation of their friends.” The cold war, he maintains, was rooted in the fact that Washington “could not complacently accept the Sovietization of Eastern Europe.”

This traditional explanation, however, is being increasingly challenged—and by many who could not remotely be labeled revisionists and who suggest that Stalin’s liquidations may have been aggravated rather than limited by US policy. In his elegant essay “Lessons” of the Past, Professor Ernest May points out that it was not at all clear in the early postwar period that Stalin was intent on Sovietizing all of Eastern Europe. The Russians accepted a non- communist government in Hungary until after the Truman Doctrine message in 1947, and until 1948 they accepted a coalition government in Czechoslovakia in which communists played a minority role. It was in occupied Germany and the border states of Poland and Bulgaria that they insisted on complete and brutalized subservience. Truman and his advisers, according to May, “ascribed to Soviet machinations developments which might with equal plausibility have been explained in other ways.” They chose a militant course of action even though the signals they received were highly ambiguous. They assumed that Russia was intent on world conquest—or at least the domination of Europe—not because the evidence was incontrovertible, but because, in May’s view, they had overlearned the “lessons” of the past. In Stalin they saw another Hitler, just as in Vietnam they read the makings of another Munich.

May drives home his point with great skill, showing a number of instances in which American leaders mistakenly interpreted the present in terms of the past. It is a persuasive analysis within its assumptions. However, many will be unconvinced that the cold war and the history of American interventionism can be explained as a series of misperceptions. Radicals, of course, argue that the architects of American diplomacy knew exactly what they were doing: creating an American imperium. Using anticommunism to silence dissent from the left and secure huge military budgets from Congress, they set about to implement a Pax Americana based on the twin pillars of the bomb and the dollar. Binding it all together was a messianic vision of a “mission” to bring about progress and peaceful change as the American elite defined that mission.

As befits the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, May sees bureaucratic politics rather than ideology or interests as the key to American diplomacy. The sudden postwar shift from alliance to hostility toward Moscow can best be explained, he argues, “in small part by the prejudices of US leaders, in larger part by occurrences in Europe and the Middle East, and in perhaps still larger part by the manner in which those occurrences were described and interpreted by the American bureaucracy.” It was this bureaucracy, ponderous and unwieldy, paralyzed by intellectual inertia, back-scratching, rewarding mediocrity, and with “a vested interest in the quasi- imperial status of the United States,” that, he maintains, put the most menacing interpretation on Soviet behavior and blocked for so many years a more flexible American diplomacy.

Franz Schurmann, a well-known sinologist at Berkeley, where he teaches both history and sociology,2 sees “world views” rather than mis-perceptions as central to American foreign policy. “At the root of every operation,” he declares, “no matter how institutionalized and surrounded by long-entrenched bureaucratic interests, is a policy flowing out of some ideology, a world view informed by basic class outlooks.” For him ideology is rooted in the lower classes, “enters the social fabric through the state, and is funneled through the pinnacle of state power, the chief executive.” Therefore, “the major function of great national leaders is to personify certain ideologies from which policies flow.” Schurmann’s years of China-watching have clearly left their mark. Indeed, as he confesses, “nothing has influenced my political thinking so much as years of immersion in the writings of the Chinese Communists.”

To this ideological bent he adds a model of bureaucratic politics designed to show how decisions are made in Washington, Peking, and Moscow. Policy in the American system, he declares, is not imposed from the top but emerges from the incessant struggle between the president and the various military, legislative, and executive bureaucracies. He describes this struggle as one between the “realm of ideology,” as exemplified by presidential power, and the “realm of interests,” centered in the bureaucracies and the pressure groups that feed them.

By marrying ideology with bureaucracy, Schurmann seeks to avoid the sterility of the bureaucratic politics formula, which attempts to explain how “actors” behave in a situation without ever asking how they reached their assumptions. To summarize briefly a complicated, and often unnecessarily convoluted, argument, he maintains that all presidents are preoccupied with ideology and dedicated to the preservation of the American empire. This imperialism was not a product of the cold war, but rather its prime cause. It “was born in 1945 and Franklin D. Roosevelt was its visionary, prophet.” American imperialism flowed almost ineluctably from messianic idealism and unparalleled military-economic power.

When any nation has a political realm of ideology concretely visible in the form of a powerful chief executive, military and political structures with global concerns, and deep ideological currents purporting to bring about peace, progress, and justice in the world, it is on the way to becoming an empire.

Truman inherited FDR’s imperial mantle—although presumably stripping it of its more “progressive” elements—and his successors wore it with enthusiasm. The empire sustained the all-powerful presidency not only abroad but at home as well. The scepter by which the president exercises his command is the atomic bomb. Through his control over nuclear weapons, the president is able to dominate the bureaucracies and pursue an imperial foreign policy. That policy, however, accepts certain limitations. It seeks to contain, not destroy, communism, for the president realizes that a threat to Russia’s vital interests could trigger nuclear war. Thus imperialism and containment are two sides of the same coin. Each superpower is allowed a free hand within its own imperial domain, while clashes are confined to ill-defined border areas such as Korea and Vietnam.

Containment, for Schurmann, is the method by which the empire is preserved from outside threats. Imperialism is the tool by which the president asserts his power within the American government. Since 1945 “the White House strove for greater power just as any other agency, and the policy line that helped it most in that quest was containment, the building of an American empire abroad.”

The president has his enemies, however, those at home being more dangerous than those abroad. Congress, the military, the bureaucracies lie in wait to seize power from him whenever he falters. Right-wing politicians challenge the policy of containment because it is too negative. They want to “roll back” communism wherever it appears and strike at the sources of communist power. These rightists, we are told, are actually anti-imperialist. They do not preach that a Pax Americana is good for the world’s oppressed masses; they have no desire to assume costly commitments in distant parts of the globe. They are Asia-firsters, rather than Europe-firsters. Their natural allies are not on Wall Street—which supports containment because peace is good for profits, and an empire provides new realms for business expansion—but in the military bureaucracies.

These bureaucracies in the Pentagon incessantly challenge the president for power. During any period of executive weakness, “the losers in the bureaucratic power struggles lunge forward with their own views, programs, and interests to try to recapture the power they have lost to the executive.” Thus the real threat to American imperialism is not Moscow or Peking, but in the Pentagon and the Congress. “The true aggressors are within the government.” The battle rages back and forth as each struggles for supremacy. Even though a president may come into office with a rollback mentality, like Nixon, he soon becomes an apostle of containment and imperialism because these buttress his power.

But the president must make compromises with his bureaucratic foes. This is done through various “tradeoffs.” Thus in return for his exclusive control over nuclear weapons, the president allows the military to engage in limited conventional wars. He concentrates on imperial visions while the military fights the insurgents who threaten right-wing client regimes. During the cold war “the predominant form the relationship between the chief executive and the nationalist- military alliance took was a trade-off of global policy for regional power.” The military-industrial complex was allowed to fight its war in Asia so that the president could have a free hand in nuclear summitry.

  1. 1

    Indiana University Press, 1973.

  2. 2

    Commenting on his own foray into sociological speculation, May tells a story about a fellow historian who once asked him what had become of a former colleague. “He isn’t a historian any more,” May told him. “He is now a political scientist.” “Good God!” the friend exclaimed. “Next he’ll be a sociologist!”

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