Vietnam, as we have learned from the Pentagon papers, was no aberration. It resulted logically from the decisions made and the attitudes assumed throughout the cold war. It was Harry Truman who in 1950 provided aid to the French to put down Ho Chi Minh’s independence movement. It was Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles who continued paying for France’s colonial war and who threatened to intervene with American troops and atomic weapons. After that war was lost, they installed Ngo Dinh Diem and defied the Geneva accords calling for elections to unify Vietnam. Later it was John F. Kennedy, a true believer in the domino theory, who got rid of Diem when he ceased to be malleable and who dispatched American combat troops to ensure an anti-communist South Vietnam. The expansion of the war by Lyndon Johnson and the current efforts of Richard Nixon to achieve with air power and South Vietnamese mercenaries the victory denied American troops are all outgrowths of the same decisions about communism and America’s role in the world.
To reject the war in Vietnam is to question the basic assumptions on which American foreign policy rests. It is to ask not only whether the prevalent conception of the cold war might now be wrong, but whether it was ever right. It means re-examining a set of attitudes, the decisions that flowed from them, and the perceptions on which they were based. This re-examination has been going on for some time in the work of younger historians, many of them disciples of William Appleman Williams and rediscoverers of Charles Beard. While their works are contentious and often heavily slanted toward Marxist economics, they have thrown new light on the cold war and its origins.
They differ from liberal historians in that they condemn not only American behavior, but the motives that lie behind it. For them there is no such thing as accident, inadvertence, or error. American policy is deliberate, single-minded, and determined by the larger economic forces that motivate the society. Whereas liberals and “political realists” criticize American postwar diplomacy for being too ideological or for displaying a faulty concept of the national interest, these radical revisionists see that diplomacy as the necessary instrument of the capitalist order.
Liberal critics such as Morgenthau, Lippmann, and Kennan see the nation swaying between the twin poles of isolationism and globalism, unable to balance its great power with an enlightened concept of its vital interests. They believe American statesmen are “unrealistic” in trying to impose moral judgments on the amoral behavior of nations. They believe like William Pfaff in his eloquently argued new book, Condemned to Freedom, that while Vietnam “has constituted the calamitous triumph of American hypocrisy and cant over American seriousness,” nonetheless, “the regrettable truth is that the foreign policy of the United States in the postwar period has, for the most part, been a popular policy pursued out of Wilsonian motivations and for reformist, even utopian goals.”
To be a liberal critic is not, of course, the same thing as being a liberal policy maker, and nobody is harsher on the politicians than these critics. As Pfaff, whose book is a blistering account of the failure of liberal governments to preserve liberal values, has written,
It took a visionary liberal administration fully to translate the globalism of American rhetoric, which the Republican party wholly shared, into a program of national action. Vietnam was consciously made into a test of liberal international reform by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—of liberal “nation building,” carried on behind a shield of Green Beret counterinsurgent warfare—against the Asian communist “model” of radical national transformation.
Damning though it is, this is essentially a liberal critique resting on assumptions that radicals do not share. It is not American “seriousness” that radicals question, for they believe that those who are responsible for American foreign policy are both serious and determined. Rather it is that American diplomacy is based upon the demands of the world capitalist system, of which the United States is the chief beneficiary and defender. This, and not a condemnation of the Vietnam war or of militarism or of a national security bureaucracy, is what separates them from the liberals. In fact, they deny that the military exerts a heavy weight on foreign policy or that the bureaucracy has a momentum of its own. To their minds American policy is not marked by mistakes and shortsightedness: it has, for the most part, been remarkably successful in imposing an American order upon the world.
Radical historians see American policy as inherently, indeed inexorably, counterrevolutionary. They trace this policy at least as far back as the era of imperial expansion at the turn of the century—marked by the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and the suzerainty over Cuba—and view the Open Door as the rationale for imperial expansionism. Thus, following the analysis used by Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, N. Gordon Levin has written that Wilsonianism “defined the American national interest in liberal-internationalist terms in response to war and social revolution, the two dominant political factors of our time.”1 Similarly, the struggle over the League of Nations was not, as a conventional historiography would have it, one pitting blind isolationism against enlightened involvement, but rather one over whether or not American economic interests could be better protected by a free-hands policy, that is, by unilateralism.
In their analysis of the more recent cold war period, radicals reject the theory that the United States responded defensively to Soviet intransigence, or that, as Kennan and Lippmann would argue, a necessary aid program under the Marshall Plan became unduly militarized in NATO and its sibling alliances. Rather they maintain that the United States challenged Moscow directly by refusing to accept a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, by raising the specter of a rearmed Germany, and by rattling the atomic bomb. Committed to the triumph of capitalism and suppression of revolution, the United States, in the words of Gabriel Kolko, one of the most impassioned of the radicals, was committed to intervene “against the Soviet Union, against the tide of the left, and against Britain as a coequal guardian of world capitalism—in fact, against history as it had been and had yet to become.”2
According to this view, the Russians were not threatening Western Europe and, initially at least, did not intend to dominate Eastern Europe by imposing a system of satellites. All the Russians wanted was a sphere of influence along their borders, similar to the one that the. United States enjoyed in the Western Hemisphere, and a guarantee against German militarism. However, when the United States refused to accept this—and instead openly showed its hostility to the Soviet Union by abruptly canceling lend-lease, ignoring Moscow’s request for a $6 billion loan, and refusing to honor the German reparations plan tentatively agreed to at Yalta—the Russians had no choice but to exert full control over the satellites and build their defenses behind the Iron Curtain. (The brutality and terror used to exert this control have mostly been ignored by the revisionists, just as conventional historians have ignored the brutality of our own client states in Latin America and Asia.)
While the cold war began in Europe, it could not be confined there, since it involved far more than a struggle with Russia over access to Eastern Europe. Its true meaning, according to the radicals, has been the attempt by the United States to achieve a world order congenial to capitalist penetration and to consolidate a nonterritorial empire (“the free world”) whose preservation is considered essential to American security. For a country like the United States, a diplomacy of counterrevolution is not a choice, but a matter of necessity. The empire stands or falls as a whole; it must always be defended at its weakest link. Thus the importance of Vietnam as a test case (“stand by our commitments”) to preserve American hegemony and the capitalist order on which it feeds.
Radicals lean heavily on an economic interpretation of history to back up their analysis. But even liberals who reject this Marxist approach have nonetheless been influenced by elements of the radical argument and have had to revise some of their own theories. Thus Arthur Schlesinger, who in 1966 in a letter to The New York Review declared it was time to “blow the whistle” on revisionism, a year later wrote that “revisionism is an essential part of the process by which history, through the posing of new problems and the investigation of new possibilities, enlarges its perspectives and enriches its insights.”3
Even the designation of the United States as an imperial power, which was once considered absurd, has been accepted by historians on the center and the right. Some, like George Liska, have extolled it,4 while others, like Robert Osgood, have simply taken note of it by defining an imperial power as one whose “vital interests extend far beyond the protection of the homeland [to] embrace all the outlying areas of commitment…[these] become equivalent to the preservation of an international order and a distribution of power upon which order must depend.”5 By this liberal historian’s definition the United States is clearly an imperial, if not necessarily an imperialist, power.
Robert Tucker, a colleague of Liska and Osgood at the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research, takes the argument further by viewing American policy as maintaining a world imperial structure. For those determined to preserve that structure, he states, the war in Vietnam is an integral part of the containment policy that was originally applied to Europe in the late Forties, “and both are found to serve the same vital interests and to further the same over-all purpose of achieving and maintaining a desirable world order.”6 If the containment argument is accepted, then it is irrelevant to insist that the circumstances are different in Asia today from what they were in Europe—for obviously they are. The question is whether the reasons for following a containment policy remain valid.
Tucker comes close to the radicals’ argument when he says that America became a counterrevolutionary power not because nationalistic revolutions dominated by the left would necessarily contribute to Russian or Chinese power, but because leftist regimes would resist American control. Thus Kennedy’s well-known remark that he saw in “descending order of preference” three possibilities in the Dominican Republic following the assassination of Trujillo: “a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.” Lyndon Johnson was simply following suit when he sent the Marines to suppress a popular insurrection in the Dominican Republic against a US-supported military regime in 1965.
Vietnam was part of the same pattern. The American intervention was based on the belief that the failure to contain communism in Southeast Asia would threaten the entire imperial system on which American economic and political hegemony rests. In official speeches this was usually described as the “preservation of world order,” but its meaning was the same. W.W. Rostow, one of the most vocal advocates of the aggression in Vietnam, was particularly outspoken when he explained: “It is on this spot that we have to break the liberation war—Chinese type. If we don’t break it here we shall have to face it again in Thailand, Venezuela, elsewhere. Vietnam is a clear testing ground for our policy in the world.”
The question of interventionism, therefore, is not one of undifferentiated “globalism,” but of ensuring political control wherever it is threatened. Interventions can, of course, be stimulated by domestic politics, as in the Cuban missile crisis, or by the effort to compensate for foreign policy setbacks in other areas. Thus, Kennedy’s decision to send a man to the moon followed on the heels of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and his expansion of the Vietnam war was stimulated by his disastrous encounter with Khrushchev at Vienna. As Chester Bowles has suggested in his recent autobiography, Promises to Keep, Kennedy, uncertain and eager to assert himself, “subconsciously at least, was searching for some issue on which he could prove at relatively low cost that he was, in fact, a tough President who could not be pushed around by the Soviets, the Chinese, or anyone else.” Bowles vocally dissented from Kennedy’s adventure in Vietnam and the militarized liberals who supported and encouraged it. This was one of the reasons he was eased out of the higher councils of the Administration.
Bowles, of course, is no radical, and like many other liberal critics of the war sees Vietnam as illustrating how a nation, “with the very best of intentions, once it loses touch with political realities, can delude itself and its people.” Radical critics would deny both the good intentions and the self-delusion. But even if one does not accept all their premises, particularly the economic determinants, their argument is a powerful one which explains a good deal more about American foreign policy than the conventional liberal critique of “inadvertence” or excessive “moralism.”
To be sure, ideology, idealism, and even domestic politics played a part in the decision to go into Vietnam. There were people who believed, or convinced themselves, that what we were doing in Southeast Asia was not only necessary for our own security, but good for the people who lived there. Moreover, no President has ever been willing to be responsible for the “loss” of any country anywhere to communism. According to Kenneth O’Donnell, John F. Kennedy said he would get us out of Vietnam—just as soon as the 1964 elections were safely over. As Daniel Ellsberg observed in these pages a few months ago,7 “For twenty years,—since the ‘fall of China’ and the rise of McCarthy—Rule 1 of Indochina policy for an American President has been: Do not lose the rest of Vietnam to communism before the next election.” In invoking the specters of Wallace or Reagan and a right-wing reaction to “bugging out” in Vietnam, Nixon, like Kennedy, has clearly shown that at least part of his policy of defending the “free world” is influenced by the next elections.
In addition to domestic political pressures, there is pressure, both public and private, from high-ranking generals and admirals who believe that wars of “containment,” like other wars, are meant to be won—however reluctant they may be to get involved in them in the first place. While it is hardly fair to blame the military for getting us into Vietnam or for an imperial foreign policy that has been designed by civilian lawyers, academicians, and businessmen, the Pentagon nonetheless has a vested interest in an American empire that has to be defended with bases, fleets, and supply lines. In evolving less bellicose policies, any President has to reckon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with their powerful allies on Congressional committees.
Like a good many other liberal historians, Tucker has been persuaded by the radicals to see calculation rather than inadvertence in American interventionism, but has remained skeptical about the economic determinants of foreign policy. In his provocative new book, The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy, he gives the radicals their due on political grounds, but criticizes their “archaic” arguments of dependency on foreign markets and Third World raw materials. His refutation of the Marxist arguments used, for example, by Harry Magdoff in The Age of Imperialism seems convincing. In spite of his skepticism on these grounds, Tucker accepts the radicals’ central thesis of the imperialist nature of America’s counterrevolutionary diplomacy. “America’s interventionist and counter-revolutionary policy,” he writes, “is the expected response of an imperial power with a vital interest in maintaining an order that, apart from the material benefits this order confers, has become synonymous with the nation’s vision of its role in history.”
Adopting key elements of the radical critique, Tucker affirms that the postwar policy of universalism was simply a cover for a spheres of influence policy that the United States pursued for itself but sought to deny the Soviet Union, that the United Nations was manipulated to consolidate America’s leadership, and that in the postwar period we have defined our interests in such a way that “the only policy the Russians could have pursued which would not have incurred American hostility was one that placed Russian security—and not only security—largely at the mercy of the good intentions of others, above all, America.” By this he means that the Russians could not realistically have been expected to accept such programs as the Baruch plan for the control of atomic energy, with its built-in American monopoly, or the restoration of anticommunist governments in Eastern Europe.
In arguing that American imperialism rests on the needs of capitalism for expanding markets and access to raw materials, radicals quote Dean Acheson’s 1944 statement before a Congressional committee that the United States required foreign markets to absorb its “unlimited creative energy” if it were not to slide back into a depression, or Harry Truman’s March, 1947, speech, in which he said, clearing the ground for the forthcoming aid program to Greece and Turkey, that “the American system could survive in America only if it became a world system.” Although Tucker agrees that such statements are revealing of the attitude of American corporate leaders, he denies that they reveal the root of American policy, and suggests that “their purpose is largely to elicit support for a policy that is pursued primarily for quite different reasons.”
Those reasons, he would argue, are rooted in the fear that the United States cannot be secure in a world hostile to its example. To American leaders “the prospect of the growing irrelevance of the American example must raise the issue of American security in the greater than physical sense.” Thus he takes to task radicals who “cannot consistently accept the view that an interventionist and counter-revolutionary America has been motivated more by the prospect that the American example, and, in consequence, American influence, might otherwise become irrelevant than by the prospect that in a hostile world America would no longer enjoy the material benefits her hegemonial position has conferred.”
For Tucker it is not the compulsions of capitalism, “it is power itself, more than a particular form of power, which prompts expansion.” America behaves imperialistically because it has the power to do so. In this sense it is like any other imperial power of the past—regardless of its economic structure. Thus Tucker asks whether a socialist America would pursue a significantly different foreign policy, or whether it would also identify its security with a pro-American world equilibrium. This is a basic question which radicals have not satisfactorily answered, but which is central to any serious criticism of the use of American power.
Whatever their approach to Marxian economics, critics of American interventionism put special emphasis on the early postwar period, which set the pattern for the policies that followed. Radical historians see the United States as largely responsible for the onset of the cold war. Whether one accepts this argument—I do not see how a postwar conflict of interests between America and Russia could easily have been avoided, since both were superpowers with imperial ambitions, and other potential rivals had been eliminated—the way the cold war developed was neither accidental nor predetermined. It resulted from decisions consciously made and deliberately applied, from judgments tenaciously held, and from a series of actions which triggered understandable counterreactions from the other side.
Among revisionists there is general agreement on the origins of the cold war: that American policy after the death of Roosevelt caused the Soviet Union to tighten its hold on Eastern Europe, and that there was no objective Soviet threat to American security to account for the uncompromising anti-Soviet attitude of the Truman Administration. In Architects of Illusion, Lloyd Gardner, for example, summarizes his thoughtful study of American policy makers in the 1940s with the judgment that “responsibility for the way in which the cold war developed, at least, belongs more to the United States,” since at the end of the war “it had much greater opportunity and far more options to influence the course of events than the Soviet Union.” The United States stimulated the cold war, he argues, by trying to use economic aid to force changes in Soviet policy in Eastern Europe, by failing to offer Moscow a guarantee of German disarmament in 1945, and by insisting on the Baruch plan for controlling atomic energy.
Every study of the origins of the cold war inevitably focuses on the Yalta conference of February, 1945, where the three victorious allies, in the final weeks of the war against Nazi Germany, met to work out a political scheme for the postwar world. Since that time there have been numerous studies analyzing why the spirit of co-operation established at Yalta quickly degenerated into the armed confrontation of the cold war. However, there have been few serious accounts of the conference itself. This gap has now been filled by Diane Shaver Clemens’s scrupulously researched Yalta. Using documents from the Soviet archives, as well as American and British records, Clemens has made a full-scale reconstruction of the Yalta conference, discussing the origins of the meeting, the issues debated and resolved there, and the significance of the proceedings.
Her method is to present the positions held by the three powers, examine the arguments made during the course of the conference, and analyze the basis for the compromises reached. From this there emerges a narrative of the disagreements between Roosevelt and Churchill, as well as between them and Stalin, of the areas in which the Western view prevailed, and of the compromises that reflected the military and political realities during the last weeks of the war. She finds that “Soviet proposals were frequently incorporations of positions enunciated by the West,” credits the Russians with a “more congenial and compromising position than postwar history has allowed,” and concludes that the “decisions at Yalta involved compromises by each nation, probably more by the Soviets than by the Western nations”—a position held by many at the time, including the then Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius.
The Soviets certainly were willing to compromise on issues they deemed of peripheral importance, such as Britain’s demand for the creation of a French occupation zone in Germany and the award to France of a seat on the Allied Control Commission. But where they felt vital interests were involved—such as the question of German reparations or the composition of the Polish government—they stood firm. Because these critical issues were never adequately resolved at the conference, both sides interpreted the accords as they wanted to read them, and later felt betrayed when the other side did not agree. The disillusionment with Yalta was mutual, but this was inevitable in view of the equivocal agreements on key issues—particularly reparations and the Polish question.
For Clemens the responsibility was not mutual, but the fault of the United States, which only a few months after the conference “attempted to undo those agreements at Yalta which reflected Soviet interests,” while accusing the Russians of breaking the accords. Specifically, the agreements Washington sought to undo were: the dismemberment of Germany, reparations payable to the Soviet Union, and the composition of the Polish government. Why the sudden decision to renege on Yalta? Clemens offers no satisfactory explanation other than that Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt in April, just two months after the conference, was more bellicose and found himself “in a stronger position” after the successful testing of the atomic bomb.
Whether or not he dropped the bomb on Japan to scare the Russians out of Eastern Europe, as some revisionists charge, it is true that Truman cut off aid to the Soviet Union and tried to use the Soviet request for postwar credits as a pressure tactic to gain political concessions. Even before Yalta such policies were being openly discussed. As early as 1944, Averell Harriman, then ambassador to Moscow, advised Roosevelt to cut back or even eliminate lend-lease, a measure which FDR resisted for good reason—because the US needed Russian help in defeating Germany—but which Truman implemented shortly after becoming President. Harriman’s outspokenly anti-Soviet deputy, George Kennan, urged, even while the German army was still in Russia, that the time had come for a “fullfledged and realistic political showdown with the Soviet leaders.”
In January, 1945, a month before the meeting at Yalta, Harriman discouraged Stalin’s request for a reconstruction loan and cabled Washington that “postwar credits can serve as a useful instrument in our overall relations with the USSR.” Thus even before Yalta powerful forces within the Administration were urging a showdown with the Soviet Union, on the assumption that her economic needs were so great that she would be forced to grant political concessions in Eastern Europe.
By the time Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met at Yalta in February, 1945, Russian troops were only fortyfour miles from Berlin, and Soviet protégés were taking over the new government of Poland. The communist-dominated Lublin regime had already been recognized by Moscow as the sole Polish government. Churchill and Roosevelt insisted on expanding the government by including the so-called London Poles—a conservative group that would have been hostile to the USSR—and by holding free elections. Under pressure Stalin agreed to “free elections,” and to the enlargement of the Polish government—on the understanding that the Lublin group would form the nucleus. In addition the Big Three agreed that Poland’s boundaries would be shifted to the west, with Russia absorbing the territory up to the Curzon line, and with Poland being compensated by the incorporation of former German territories up to the line formed by the Oder and Neisse rivers.
According to liberal historians, Churchill and Roosevelt left Yalta apparently convinced that they had won a major concession from Stalin and that Poland, like the rest of Eastern Europe, would be open to Western economic, political, and cultural influence. Stalin, however, had no such understanding, and the ink was barely dry at Yalta before his puppets took over Poland and shut the West out of Eastern Europe. Immediately there were shouts of betrayal and accusations that the Russians were bent on a plan of world conquest.
Stalin, who never accepted the Western interpretation of Yalta, professed to be shocked, and could not understand why America and Britain would not grant him the free hand in Eastern Europe that he granted them in Western Europe, Latin America, and the eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps he felt that the West had not been serious at Yalta in seeking “free elections.” According to Clemens, there was not even a misunderstanding. The accords on elections and the reorganization of the Polish government were only a “face-saving formula.” “There had been no agreement on Anglo-American principles,” she states. “Each side was aware that a different interpretation prevailed.”
In view of the ambiguous nature of the accords on Poland and on free elections in liberated Europe, it is not surprising that there was soon a conflict between Russia and the West over the meaning of Yalta. Averell Harriman, in a rambling collection of speeches and reminiscences, America and Russia in a Changing World, maintains that “Stalin did agree at Yalta to set up an interim government in Poland, bringing in the London Poles, the free Poles from within Poland, together with the Lublin Poles, and holding ‘free and unfettered’ elections.” He further charges that Stalin went to “extreme lengths in breaking the Yalta agreements…[since] it was agreed that the people in these countries were to decide on their own governments through free elections.”
However, as Clemens makes clear, there was never any written agreement on the meaning or procedures of free elections, or provisions for international supervision. Furthermore, once Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to accept the Lublin group as the nucleus of the postwar Polish government (and they had little choice), it was obvious that the communists would retain control—whatever window dressing might be devised. Churchill, who had shortly before divided up the Balkans with Stalin, well knew that military control was tantamount to political control, and Roosevelt could not have expected any less. As Stalin, according to Djilas, told Tito: “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.”
In view of Harriman’s position during this crucial period in the relations between Russia and the West, there is something disingenuous in his indignation over the imposition of a communist regime in Poland. All along he had been arguing that the United States use its economic power to force Soviet concessions in Eastern Europe. He could hardly have imagined that the Russians, who carried the brunt of the war against Nazi Germany and who, until June, 1944, faced the bulk of Hitler’s armies alone, would voluntarily give up the cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe they had won at such staggering cost. As Walter Lippmann, who was an outspoken critic of the policies of confrontation being pursued by the Truman Administration, wrote:
While the British and Americans held firmly…the whole position in Africa and the Mediterranean…and the whole of Western Germany containing 46 million Germans (compared to 18 million in the Russian zone), the greater part of the demobilized and disbanded veterans of the Wehrmacht and 70 percent of Germany’s prewar heavy industry, they undertook by negotiation and diplomatic pressure to reduce Russia’s position in Eastern Europe—which the Soviet Union had won because the Red Army had defeated two thirds of the German army.
Unlike Harriman, even such an Establishment historian as Herbert Feis finds it hard to accept that Churchill and Roosevelt believed the Russians would allow the communist-controlled provisional government of Poland to be ousted in free elections. They “were not really trusting,” he states in From Trust to Terror, but they had to face realities: “The Red Army was in occupation of Poland, and its agent, the Lublin government, with Soviet tanks in front and behind, was exercising authority throughout the country. The alternative—a major confrontation with the Soviet government while the war with Germany was still being fought—was dismaying to both the Western military and diplomatic leaders.”
Feis believes that it would have been better to risk an open break with Stalin at Yalta over the Polish question than to have maintained the alliance at such a price. That is arguable, but it is at least an honest position. It involves no mock outrage over the events whose implications were understood at the time—particularly by people like Harriman who were intimately involved in decision-making. The accords on Central Europe were a realistic basis for a postwar policy of cooperation among the victorious powers—given the will for such cooperation based on mutual spheres of influence.
It was only later, as Athan Theoharis recounts in The Yalta Myths, that the Democrats—stung by Republican attacks upon Yalta as a “sellout”—tried to cover their flanks by protesting that they had been betrayed by the Russians. By the late 1940s “both Democratic supporters and Republican critics had ceased to view it as a diplomatic conference that tried to achieve peace through compromise and understanding,” he writes. “Instead it had become a symbol of a mistaken or treasonous course of action.”
The Truman Democrats quickly moved to establish their anticommunist credentials by instituting a vicious “loyalty” program in the civil service, and by pursuing a policy of military “containment” designed, in the words of George Kennan used at the time in enunciating the containment doctrine, to confront the Russians with counterforce “at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful world.” Under Acheson this policy was used to justify a huge build-up of military power and its extension all over the globe. Kennan, who had been Harriman’s assistant in Moscow and then the protégé of Truman’s Defense Secretary, James Forrestal, later in his Memoirs deplored the militarization of the containment doctrine and insisted that this was a distortion of what he intended.
There is little doubt that Western policy did become harsher once Truman became President and the disillusionment over the full meaning of Yalta set in. Truman had been in office less than two weeks when he confronted Molotov on April 23 with the demand that the London Poles be integrated into the new Warsaw government and that free elections be held. The next day Stalin wrote Truman and Churchill expressing his puzzlement over these demands. “Poland borders on the Soviet Union which cannot be said about Great Britain or the USA. I do not know whether a genuinely representative government has been established in Greece, or whether the Belgian government is a genuinely democratic one. The Soviet Union was not consulted when those governments were being formed, nor did it claim the right to interfere in those matters, because it realizes how important Belgium and Greece are to the security of Great Britain.” Stalin said he could not understand why “no attempt is made to consider the interests of the Soviet Union in terms of security as well,” and found it inconceivable that the Americans should demand the return of Poland to those who ran that country before the war.
“It was difficult for other outsiders, not just Stalin, to understand the American position,” Stephen E. Ambrose comments in his masterful survey, The Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938. All during the war the United States had never ceased talking about the need to eliminate spheres of influence and balance of power concepts, and to replace them with collective security under the United Nations. But in practice America—while denouncing Soviet control over Eastern Europe—maintained hegemony in Latin America through military dictatorships and might well have lost that hegemony if truly free elections were ever allowed.
Washington’s hypocritical attitude is highlighted by an account Ambrose gives of a telephone conversation in May, 1945, between Secretary of War Henry Stimson and his assistant secretary, John J. McCloy, about how to square an American sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere with the UN. They agreed that a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe would risk war and destroy the UN’s effectiveness. They further agreed that US domination of Latin America had to be maintained. “I think,” said Stimson, “that it’s not asking too much to have our little region over here which never has bothered anybody.” McCloy added that “we ought to have our cake and eat it too…we ought to be free to operate under this regional arrangement in South America, at the same time intervene promptly in Europe; we oughtn’t give away either asset.”
Clearly we had no intention of letting the Russians have their “little region,” although we were intent on retaining ours. The US demanded that the UN Charter provide for regional security groupings—to ensure our hold over Latin America—and the admission, over Stalin’s vigorous protest, of Argentina to the UN in spite of its pro-Nazi wartime position. It was the Polish issue, as Ambrose points out, that provided a chance for Truman to have his cake and eat it. He was convinced by Harriman, his man in Moscow, that the Russians would have to take it, no matter how tough Truman got, because they desperately needed US economic aid for reconstruction. He put on the pressure, but as it turned out, there was a limit, and the cold war was the result.
The full story is laid out in The Rise to Globalism, part of the Pelican history of the United States, edited by Robert Divine, a splendid example of the impact of revisionist analysis on the reinterpretation of American wartime and postwar diplomacy. Engaged, literate, comprehensive, and always stimulating, it is among the best surveys of cold war history that have yet appeared.
Although he is free from apologetic Establishment interpretations of the cold war, Ambrose does not fully accept the radicals’ assumption of Soviet good faith. On the Polish question, for example, he sees the Russians as implacably installing their own protégés. He differs sharply and convincingly with Clemens, who believes that the Russians probably would have allowed “moderately free elections in Poland as promised,” but that “when Western hostility threatened everything short of war with the Soviet Union, the Russians increasingly abandoned free elections and cooperation in favor of consolidation of a defensive perimeter in Eastern Europe.”
It is not necessary to go this far along the road of speculative revisionism to understand how—whatever Truman’s real motives may have been—the Russians could reasonably have believed that Washington was intent on reversing the spirit of cooperation established at Yalta. As Schlesinger has written:
The Russian hope for major Western assistance in post-war reconstruction foundered on three events which the Kremlin could well have interpreted respectively as deliberate sabotage (the loan request), blackmail (lend-lease cancellation), and pro-Germanism (reparations).
In re-examining the origins of the cold war, and the perceptions and motivations of American policy makers, radical historians have helped us to understand how the United States has become an imperial, self-aggrandizing power. Their research has shown that the form the Russo-American confrontation took was not inevitable, that the United States did not simply respond defensively to Soviet aggressive moves, and that there has been nothing inadvertent in our colonial wars and our acquisition of empire.
A weakness of the radicals is their characteristically American view of America’s exceptionalism. Just as conservatives see this nation as the embodiment of goodness and justice, so radicals see it as the fount of evil. Similarly, there is something sentimental about the radicals’ uncritical embrace of Third World movements, and their equation of imperialism with capitalist elites. For radicals, as for everyone else, Vietnam has been a traumatizing experience. But its lesson is not, as some radicals believe, that the United States will inevitably intervene anywhere and everywhere against popular reform movements. In overdrawing the lesson of Vietnam too many radicals, in Pfaff’s words, “have unexpectedly discovered sin but not original sin.”
In using its power crudely, immorally, and imperialistically, the United States has behaved like many great powers in the past. It has done so not for the noble motives claimed by every postwar administration, but for reasons of hegemony, control, and aggrandizement. The fact that the American empire is basically nonterritorial makes it no less imperialistic than its predecessors. Its major distinction is that it is considerably more hypocritical.
We now know that the professed ideals have been essentially a mask for expansionistic, and even immoral, behavior. This imperialist ambition is not for exclusively, or even primarily, by economic need—although certainly there has been a determination to use American power to impose upon the world a democratic capitalistic pattern congenial to American economic interests. The imperialistic drive also rests on a missionary impulse to mold other societies in our own image (“We’re going to turn the Mekong into the Tennessee Valley,” Lyndon Johnson once proclaimed), to assure ourselves of the validity of our institutions by imposing them upon others, and from a sheer will to power that comes, almost irresistibly, from the possession of overwhelming power.
Vietnam has made us aware of the American empire, and the radical historians have helped us to understand how it came into being. The ordeal the society faces today is not simply how to disengage from a disastrous imperial war, but how to dismantle the empire—together with the imperial bureaucracy, the war machine, and the industrial superstructure of the warfare state—before it destroys the nation.
September 2, 1971
Woodrow Wilson and World Politics (Oxford, 1968). ↩
The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy 1943-1945 (Random House, 1970). ↩
“The Origins of the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, October, 1967. ↩
Imperial America: The International Politics of Primacy (Johns Hopkins, 1967). ↩
Osgood, Tucker, et al., America and the World: From the Truman Doctrine to Vietnam (Johns Hopkins, 1970). ↩
Nation or Empire? The Debate over American Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins, 1969). ↩
“Laos: What Nixon Is Up To,” NYR, March 11, 1971. ↩