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American Hubris: From Truman to the Persian Gulf

I.

The deadly incident on May 17 in the Persian Gulf in which thirty-seven American sailors were killed and the Navy frigate Stark was disabled by an Iraqi missile has again raised the question: What is happening to American foreign policy? Is it merely that we have suffered a series of unlucky mishaps—in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon, and now the Persian Gulf? Or is something seriously at fault with the doctrine that has governed our actions ever since the end of the Second World War?

A series of costly misadventures over several decades cannot be considered a string of aberrations. Something deeper and more troublesome must be at work to account for them. They cannot be blamed on one party or the other; they have afflicted Democratic as well as Republican administrations. Former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick is not wrong to call herself a Truman Republican; the so-called Reagan Doctrine is a variant of the Truman Doctrine—if there is any real difference between them.

This doctrine has been the source of American hubris for forty years and shows no sign of being retired. It is time to reexamine it and to assess what its consequences have been. How did the Truman Doctrine come about in the first place? Where has it led us?

1.

To understand the origin and influence of the Truman Doctrine, it is necessary to go back to what the United States was like in world affairs before 1947.

The United States had begun to consider itself a “world power” only a half-century earlier. The term itself apparently appeared in its original German version, Weltmacht, where it seems to be more at home, in the 1880s. It was first applied to the United States in 1898 as a result of the so-called Spanish-American War, primarily through the acquisition of the Philippine Islands, which was an unintended byproduct of that war. The first American book with the title World Politics came out in 1900.1 The first book with the title America As a World Power appeared in 1907, and another one, The United States As a World Power, the following year.2

The change from a hemispheric to a world power was reflected in the various editions of James Bryce’s celebrated The American Commonwealth. In the first edition published in 1888, Bryce thought that he had to say “but little” about American foreign relations. In the revised edition of 1920, he noted: “Americans have latterly been wont to speak of themselves as having become, through the events of 1898, a World Power.” Mr. Dooley sighed at the time for the good old days before we became “a wurruld power” and “now, be Hivins, we have no peace iv mind.”

The United States may have awakened one day in 1898 to find itself a “world power,” but it was only a beginning. Theodore Roosevelt tried in the next decade to play a role befitting such a status, without much success. Woodrow Wilson backed into the First World War at a late stage and died disappointed that he could not make the country live up to what he considered to be its international responsibility. The 1920s were two-faced—political isolationism went along with economic and financial internationalism. Franklin D. Roosevelt found in 1937 as a result of the hostile reaction to his “quarantine speech” against the Japanese aggression in China that the United States was still unwilling to assert itself in international conflicts.

In effect, the United States may have been a world power at the outbreak of the Second World War, but it was not equipped like one and it did not act like one. Militarily, according to the chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, it was “not even a third-rate” power. He commanded “the bare skeletons of three and one-half divisions scattered in small pieces over the entire United States” with no facilities and funds even to train them. The Air Force could “hardly have survived a single day of modern aerial combat.”3 Diplomatically, the United States was not much more impressive. Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s staff numbered twenty-one. I doubt whether there is any country in the world today, no matter how small, whose foreign minister does not have a larger staff.

So pessimistic was Roosevelt at the beginning of World War II that the most the United States could do, he said, was to maintain itself as a “citadel” in which Western civilization “may be kept alive.”4 Yet, only two years later, Roosevelt conceived of the United States as a “world policeman.”5 During the war he increased the number of policemen from two (with Great Britain) to three and finally to four—the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, and France. The transition from besieged “citadel” to “world policeman” took place in Roosevelt’s mind within two years—from 1939 to 1941.

As a world power, then, the United States matured, as it were, overnight. There was no time to prepare for the new role, to slide into it gracefully. Doctrines, principles, theories, and, above all, experience of what it meant for the United States to behave as a preeminent world power were lacking. Other imperial powers had learned over centuries; the United States was given a few short years.

2.

By the end of the war, less than six years from the beginning, a sense of absolute power captured the political imagination of Allied leaders. The period did not last long—only about six months—from April to September 1945. That it happened at all, however, shows how far the idea of world power had briefly gone.

This sense of absolute power came with the atomic bomb. The Americans were not the only ones to be temporary victims of the atomic illusion. As early as August 1943, in the midst of the war, when the bomb was still an unknown quantity, Sir John Anderson, then in charge of the British atomic effort, confided to Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada that the first country to possess atomic bombs would gain “absolute control of the world.”6 When Secretary of State James F. Byrnes briefed the new president, Harry S. Truman, on the bomb in April 1945, Byrnes said that it “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”7 Soon afterward, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson told Truman that the atomic bomb “would be certain to have a decisive influence on our relations with other countries.”8 On May 13, Stimson referred in his diary to the bomb as a “master card.”9

All this soothsaying took place before the bomb was tested on July 16 and before anyone could be sure that there was a bomb. After the test, heads were again turned. The chief of the imperial general staff, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, has probably left an exaggerated account of Winston Churchill’s megalomania: “He [Churchill] had at once painted a wonderful picture of himself as the sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he wished, thus all-powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin!”10 Alanbrooke himself went equally far in the opposite direction; he thought that the Russians, who had not yet built a bomb, would try to use it as “a means of obtaining complete control of the Western Hemisphere, if not the whole world.”11 Churchill himself told the House of Commons in August that those who had the bomb possessed “powers which were irresistible.”12 There seems to be enough evidence from different quarters to indicate that the first effect of the bomb was intoxicating.

In any case, the bomb should have had its maximum psychological effect on the Soviets soon after it was dropped in August 1945. By chance, the Soviet reaction was tested only a month later when the newly formed Council of Foreign Ministers met in London in September. The Americans apparently expected the Soviets to capitulate to the bomb. According to Stimson’s diary, Byrnes went to London “very much against any attempt to cooperate with the Russians” because he was counting on “the presence of the bomb in his pocket, so to speak.” 13

But the Soviet foreign minister, V.M. Molotov, behaved as if the atomic bomb did not exist. In London, he was more demanding and disagreeable than ever. Anyone reading the record of that conference might easily imagine that Molotov had come with the bomb in his pocket. Byrnes returned to Washington sadly disillusioned. He told one person that he was “almost ashamed” of himself because of the treatment he had suffered from Molotov; he confided to another that the Russians had adopted an indefensibly “aggressive attitude” on political and territorial matters.14 Byrnes seemed to have forgotten that he was supposed to have been the aggressive one. He lost the confidence of the President, and his career was finished.

A great deal of historical mischief was caused by the “revisionist” thesis that the atomic fantasy of Secretary Byrnes and others toward the end of the war was the basis of what was called cold-war “atomic diplomacy.” It was at best a half-truth. The half-truth was that the bomb did dominate the thinking of some American leaders until August 1945. But the Americans soon learned that there was no such thing as “atomic diplomacy” or, to put it another way, that the atom bomb was not a useful diplomatic instrument. In the next decade, John Foster Dulles was no more successful than Byrnes had been in using the new strategic weapons for diplomatic purposes.

Whatever the bomb or the rhetoric, the United States was effectively forced to share world power with the Soviet Union—and knew it from at least the last quarter of 1945. Yet a popular phrase, “Pax Americana,” took hold. There was no such “Pax,” or at best it was a “Half-Pax.” A Pax Sovietica-Americana would have been closer to the truth, and even that would have been an oversimplification for some parts of the world.

Nevertheless, the illusion of a Pax Americana produced a sense of frustration in American leaders. It was never given up and it was never achieved. Every effort to make good on it has produced disappointment that the rest of the world persistently refuses to play its assigned role in the American scheme of things.

3.

The Truman Doctrine was the original codification of the Pax Americana illusion. The policy was enunciated in reaction to a specific, local situation and took shape in response to a vision of universal ascendancy.

Greece had traditionally been a British client state. As a result of the black winter of 1946, the British in February 1947 decided that they could no longer afford to subsidize Greece. To make matters worse, Communist-led guerrillas were threatening to come down from the north. The imminent British withdrawal from the country set the stage for the Truman Doctrine.

  1. 1

    Paul S. Reinsch, World Politics (Macmillan, 1900).

  2. 2

    John Holiday Latané, America As a World Power, 1897–1907 (Harper and Row, 1907); Archibald Cary Coolidge, The United States As a World Power (Macmillan, 1908).

  3. 3

    Biennial Report of the Chief of Staff of the US Army, General George C. Marshall (July 1, 1943–June 30, 1945).

  4. 4

    The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Macmillan, 1941), p. 150 (September 21, 1939).

  5. 5

    He seems to have expressed the idea in so many words for the first time to Churchill on August 11, 1941, at the Atlantic Conference, which also gave birth to the Atlantic Charter (Foreign Relations of the United States, Vol. 1, 1941, p. 366).

  6. 6

    J.W. Pickersgill, The Mackenzie King Record, Vol. 1 (University of Toronto Press, 1960), p. 532.

  7. 7

    Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, Vol. 1, Years of Decision (Doubleday, 1955), p. 87.

  8. 8

    Memoirs, Vol. 1, p. 87.

  9. 9

    Stimson diary, May 13, 1945 (Yale University Library).

  10. 10

    Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the West, 1943–1945 (London: Collins, 1959), p. 477.

  11. 11

    Triumph in the West, 1943–1945, p. 488.

  12. 12

    Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), August 16, 1945, col. 78.

  13. 13

    Stimson diary, September 4, 1945.

  14. 14

    John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947 (Columbia University Press, 1972), pp 266–267.

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