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Looking Backward

Thinking in Time:The Uses of History for Decision-Makers

by Richard E. Neustadt, by Ernest R. May
Free Press, 329 pp., $19.95

In late July 1979 Senator Richard Stone of Florida told President Carter of rumors that the Russians had combat troops in Cuba. If this was true, he said, it would violate agreements made after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Satellite photos confirmed that there were indeed Soviet units on the island. Carter, who at that point was trying to get the Senate to ratify the SALT II treaty he had just signed with the Russians, did not want to endanger the treaty’s passage. He told Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to inform Stone that there was “no evidence of any substantial increase of the Soviet military presence in Cuba.”

Nevertheless, the story was getting around, and was likely soon to appear in the press. Vance and his aides telephoned a few key members of Congress so that they wouldn’t be surprised, and told them it did not amount to much. Most took the news calmly, except for Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was facing a hard reelection fight from an opponent who charged him with being soft on the Russians. Church, who had been attacked by right-wing politicians for supporting the SALT treaty and going to Cuba to confer with Castro, felt it would be prudent to demonstrate his anticommunist credentials. Seizing upon what he had learned from Vance, he demanded the immediate withdrawal of what was now being called the Soviet “brigade,” and urged the President to “draw the line on Russian penetration of this hemisphere.”

Church got his headlines and the administration was hit by a full-blown “foreign policy crisis.” Vance, fearing that the claims about the Soviet troops would imperil the SALT treaty, tried to play them down. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, was less concerned with SALT than with drawing the line against Soviet “adventurism.” Hawks and doves lined up to position themselves on the “brigade” issue. In the middle stood the hapless Carter. As indignation over Soviet perfidy mounted, support for the SALT treaty steadily dwindled.

But an odd thing happened. As more information began to drift in, it became clear that while Stone had been right about the presence of the troops, he was wrong in saying their presence violated agreements. During the 1962 missile crisis President Kennedy had asked the Russians to withdraw their troops, but they had balked and he let the matter drop. A review of old files and conversations with former CIA officials uncovered references to the “brigade” even earlier. It was discovered, as Vance later wrote, that the Soviets “had almost certainly been in Cuba continuously since 1962.” The presence of the unit had simply “faded from the institutional memories of the intelligence agencies.”

An embarrassed Carter sought to bring this farce to an end by citing a letter from Secretary Brezhnev that the unit was simply a “military training center.” In an effort to save face he announced that the US would increase its political and military presence in the Caribbean. The important thing, he told the Senate, was to get on with ratification of the SALT treaty. But Carter’s fumble proved disastrous. Valuable months had been lost during which forces opposed to SALT used the brigade issue to discredit the treaty. While the treaty languished in the Senate, losing many of its supporters, the Soviets sent their troops into Afghanistan. An indignant and defeated Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration.

A number of lessons can be drawn from this episode. For Richard Neustadt and Ernest May it demonstrates the dangers of failing to take into account the history of an issue before engaging with it. The administration while shooting itself in the foot had killed the SALT treaty. The sorry and, indeed, shabby incident could have been avoided had any of the major participants bothered to ask when the Soviet unit had arrived. They simply assumed the Russians had embarked on an act of adventurism. But even someone ignorant of the history of the “brigade” should have asked why the Russians would do this at a time when they were seeking an arms accord pact with the US. One theory that Brzezinksi’s staff told reporters at the time was that the Russians wanted to “test” Carter. But if it was a test, why was it not flaunted? The theory tells more about the psychological insecurity of the Carter administration than about the behavior of the Russians.

Why did no one ever ask when the “brigade” arrived? US intelligence agencies did not have the facts on hand because they were not used to being asked historical questions. Since Carter did not ask them, neither did his assistants. Nor was it customary to ask people who were once in government and had experience with the issue. There were certainly people around—like Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s secretary of state, and Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, who had been in office during the Cuban missile crisis and could have set them straight. Nobody thought to ask them. Nobody posed the elementary question: When did the Soviet troops leave?

Does this seem far-fetched? Not to anyone who has spent time in Washington. But it is a peculiar way to run a government. Viewed from the other side, it may even seem an improbable way. Consider how it might have looked to the Soviets. Working on the perhaps unjustified assumption that American leaders knew what they were doing, the Soviets could quite reasonably have assumed that some deep purpose was involved. Why was Carter picking a fight over Cuba—especially at a time when the SALT treaty was under assault in the Senate? Was this a signal that he was about to sacrifice SALT in order to placate right-wing voters for the upcoming 1980 elections?

At the end of the affair, when one of Vance’s aides explained to Anatoly Dobrynin that the administration simply had suffered a lapse of institutional memory—that it had forgotten about the Soviet unit—the incredulous Soviet ambassador replied: “You don’t expect me to get people in the Kremlin to believe this story?” Whether or not some did, the episode may well have strengthened the hand of the hard-liners in Moscow and tipped the balance on the decision to invade Afghanistan. In any case, the whole business had been, as Vance later mused, a “very costly lapse in memory.”

Should it be thought that the Carter administration was unique in its ignorance and its cavalier indifference to history Neustadt and May give numerous other examples of administrations no less culpable. They cite, for example, the now generally applauded decision by Harry Truman to send American troops to South Korea in June 1950 to repel the North Korean invasion. Here the problem was not forgetfulness, as in the Cuban episode, but rather Truman’s proclivity to draw false analogies from the past.

Though they support Truman’s initial decision, Neustadt and May observe that only a few months earlier the National Security Council, with Truman himself in the chair, endorsed the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Korea was “of little strategic value to the United States and that commitment to United States use of military force in Korea would be ill-advised.”

Why did Truman do enthusiastically in 1950 what he had ruled out in 1949? Partly, no doubt, there were domestic political reasons: he was falling in the polls and the Republicans had accused him of “losing” China to the Communists. Partly, too, he feared that the Europeans might be disheartened if America did not act. And to a high degree his head was full of the fateful events of the 1930s. Truman believed, as he later wrote in his memoirs, that “communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen or twenty years earlier.” He felt certain that “if South Korea was allowed to fall, communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.”

None of Truman’s advisers questioned whether the analogies of the 1930s applied to this case. Memories of that time were so powerful for these men that they simply assumed their relevance to Korea. But the parallel, the authors point out, even if correct was improperly drawn. The goal should have been to stop the aggression, repel the invaders, and restore the status quo ante. This is what the League of Nations had failed to do in the 1930s, and perhaps the reason why the totalitarian states felt free to continue their aggressions.

But Truman did not stop at pushing back the North Koreans. When the victorious American and Allied forces reached the border between the two Koreas, he instructed them to drive forward to “liberate” North Korea. A defensive war became an offensive one. Caught in the exhilaration of success, Truman could not resist the opportunity to show the Republicans that it was the Democrats who really knew how to “roll back” communism. Instead it was the Americans who were now rolled back. The result was a disaster. As American troops approached the Yalu River, the Chinese—who had warned they would enter the war if this occurred—surged across the frontier and pushed the Americans back to the 38th parallel. The war dragged on with terrible casualties until 1952 when public disgust helped to drive the Democrats from office.

Truman might have avoided this disaster had he taken to heart some of the advice given in Neustadt and May’s richly anecdotal primer for statesmen. The two have together taught for a number of years a course at Harvard for executives in public life: legislators, ambassadors, military officers in mid-career. They found that the intelligent people they taught, though knowing surprisingly little history, nonetheless constantly drew on historical analogies to buttress decisions they believed to be right—just as Truman in 1950 drew on his memories of the 1930s. When they were not reading backward into the past to justify their reading of the present, they were oblivious to much that had happened before—assuming it could have no relevance to current problems.

Through a series of examples, or case studies, Neustadt and May try to demonstrate how history can be used to illuminate the choices facing decision makers: how it can clarify the alternatives available and separate the salient issues from the irrelevant or misleading ones. They seek to counter the tendency of people in positions of authority to concentrate single-mindedly on the issue at hand without taking into account how the problem arose and where the course of action they suggest might lead.

They are realistically modest. They do not expect to revolutionize the way decision makers think, or even get them to read history books for guidance. One does not, after all, have to read Thucydides’ account of the ill-fated Athenian campaign against Sicily to know that nations can engage in acts of national folly and self-delusion. And it would not have helped much during the Vietnam War to have read Thucydides—as the key planners of the war undoubtedly had—unless one made a small leap of imagination to go beyond the differences of technology to see the underlying similarities of the two colonial wars undertaken by great imperial powers. What Neustadt and May propose is history as a method, as a way of looking at the present and organizing one’s thinking.

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