The interesting question is not who started the cold war. The search for causes is as elusive in politics as in theology. Rather it is why the confrontation between America and Russia took the form it did. What was it about the way American leaders viewed the world—and America’s place in the world—that induced them to launch a global policy of intervention and counterrevolution? To study American postwar foreign policy is to examine why, in Henry Steele Commager’s words, “the nation which fought the first revolution [has] become the leading opponent of revolution throughout the globe.”
The debate between the globalists and their critics is still often phrased in archaic terms. Interventionists, obsessed with the misapplied analogies of the 1930s, label any criticism of American globalism as “neo-isolationism,” which is defined, to use Walter Laqueur’s description, as “opting out of world politics.”1 Most liberals naturally shrink from the term and explain that what they really mean is a “new internationalism.” This, on closer inspection, generally turns out to be a policy of global activism without the marines or the B-52s: the kind of vague moral involvement preached by George McGovern.
The United States, of course, was never an isolationist power. Certainly not toward Latin America, where since the Monroe Doctrine it has demanded and maintained a tightly controlled sphere of influence. And not toward Asia, where it has been intervening since the acquisition of the Philippines in 1898. Not even consistently toward Europe, where Wilson deviously supported Britain for three years before inducing the German U-boat reaction that justified American intervention, and where the interwar period was marked by persistent economic expansion.
But only recently has the taboo of isolationism begun to lose its force. “Compared to people who thought they could run the universe,” Walter Lippmann recently replied to his critics, “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.” Even Senator Richard Russell, long the Pentagon’s sugar daddy, confessed in 1969, “I guess I must be an isolationist. I don’t think you ought to pick up 100,000 or 200,000 or 500,000 American boys and ship them off somewhere to fight and get killed in a war as remotely concerned with their interests as this one is.”
The old taboo has been broken by Robert W. Tucker in his provocative short book, A New Isolationism: Threat or Promise? “Isolationism,” he argues, “could be undertaken without sacrifice of or jeopardy to physical security, material well-being or the integrity of our institutions.” Tucker points out that isolationism in the interwar period meant only a refusal to guarantee the 1919 status quo against military change. The new isolationism would be different from that of the past because the conditions have changed dramatically. It would not be marked by the old suspicion of foreigners, or by insistence on complete freedom of action, or by the old belief that intervention was all right in Asia but not in Europe. On the contrary, a new isolationism would probably first be applied in Asia.
As Tucker makes clear, isolationism is not the refusal to enter into any foreign relationships, but only certain ones, particularly alliances. It precludes not involvement but intervention. Alliances which formerly were necessary to shore up a nation’s security can no longer be justified on such grounds by nuclear powers. No alliance can enhance the physical security of the US now that it is no longer dependent on what happens outside North America so far as military defense is concerned. That is the revolution caused by nuclear weapons. As these weapons become dispersed to other nations it will become obvious that peace is more divisible than it has been for a very long time.
While the revolution in weapons has transformed the military situation, the abatement of the cold war has undermined the fear that hostile powers could unite to shut out America from the rest of the world. It is no longer possible to believe that an American withdrawal from any region would lead to world communist domination. Similarly, it is unrealistic to assume that the United States would be denied access to the Third World. Most under-developed states, even those headed by revolutionary regimes, have even greater economic need of America than America has of them. And any rival that tried to control such states would run into the same opposition that has greeted American intervention. There is little to indicate that the Soviets would be more successful than we have been.
When they raise the specter of isolationism, most critics usually have Europe in mind. Tucker observes that it is perfectly possible to follow an isolationist policy toward one region and not toward another. But even if the United States were to withdraw from Western Europe, there is no convincing reason why the Europeans should not be able to provide for their own defense. This would inevitably require that nuclear weapons be under European control. Yet such weapons would make the American presence and the American guarantee redundant. The implications are clear: “…either our dominant military position in relation to Western Europe remains, or the alliance eventually lapses.” Equal partnership demands a European nuclear force. But with such a force there is no need for a military partnership.
Tucker is under no illusions about the likely effects of an American withdrawal. It would not be accompanied by a parallel Soviet withdrawal: the Russians are in Eastern Europe because they think control of their client regimes essential to their security. Further American withdrawal would probably be accompanied by a decrease in American influence and an increase in Russian influence over European affairs. This need not pose a danger to American security, and certainly does not mean Soviet domination of Western Europe. But could Americans accept it?
Here Tucker strips away the rhetoric of orthodox interventionists and radical revisionists. By “security” both really mean something more than physical security. If a new isolationism poses no serious dangers to the nation’s survival, it does threaten America’s view of its place in the world. “The price of the new isolationism,” Tucker makes clear, “is that America would have to abandon its aspirations to an order that has become synonymous with the nation’s vision of its role in history.” This is what is hardest of all to accept.
Tucker’s tightly reasoned analysis undercuts most of the clichés that both the right and the left use in discussing American foreign policy. It is a pity that he did not take the space to develop his argument further and elaborate some of the touchy issues—such as the psychological and political effects of an American withdrawal from Europe—that he examines with such deftness. Nor does he deal adequately with American economic interests and their increasingly fierce competition with Europe and Japan. A full analysis of the alternatives to global interventionism has yet to be made. But as a starter, Tucker’s is a valuable essay whose thesis is presented imaginatively and with a relentless logic.
Its argument still seems heretical to those who view American postwar interventionism not only as the necessary response to communist aggression but as unsullied by such crass considerations as self-interest or economic and political advantage. George Ball, then undersecretary of state, explained shortly after Lyndon Johnson launched the bombing against North Vietnam that the United States was engaged in “something new and unique in world history—a role of world responsibility divorced from territorial or narrow national interests.”
The Vietnam war made such statements increasingly hard to swallow, even by those who were convinced of American benevolence. When liberals turned against the war they explained it as a terrible mistake—a mistake not because our motives were wrong, but because we misunderstood the stakes involved and thus overreached. “The tragedy of Vietnam is the tragedy of the catastrophic overextension and misapplication of valid principles,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in 1969. According to this argument we misjudged China’s intentions and erroneously applied the containment doctrine to an Asian civil war. Step by step we got more deeply involved, the victim of our own good intentions and of a military machine geared to victory. Thus the quagmire theory.
The Pentagon Papers, with their documentation of a deliberate policy of deception and planned aggression, make it hard to go along with the quagmire theory, and least of all with the view of the war as the failure of good intentions. The effort is not made any easier by the spectacle of leading officials of the Johnson administration suddenly discovering the folly of the Vietnam war on Richard Nixon’s inauguration day. For radicals, of course, there was nothing benevolent, misguided, or accidental about our actions in Vietnam. The war was an essential part of a global policy of suppression of revolutionary movements and the extension of an American-directed world order along capitalist lines. Vietnam was seen as a proving-ground for the preservation of the American empire. It was the kind of war that the American military machine, vastly augmented and equipped for counter-guerrilla warfare by the Kennedy administration, had been groomed to fight. In an age of nuclear stalemate, the future of the world, the Kennedy liberals believed, would be decided in the jungles and mountains of the Third World.
While they take opposite views about the virtues of the American empire, both radicals and liberal-interventionists share the belief that America has a world order to maintain. Both view the empire not as a burden that can be discarded when it becomes troublesome, but as an essential part of what America is all about. Both share a belief in American exceptionalism—that this country is either the salvation of the world or its destroyer. “The world does rely on American power, does count on American power, does look to American power,” according to Irving Kristol, “for the preservation of a decent level of international law and order.” For Gabriel Kolko on the other hand, American imperialism is the cause of most of the world’s miseries. “The elimination of American hegemony is the essential precondition for the emergence of a nation and a world in which mass hunger, suppression, and war are no longer the inevitable and continuous characteristics of modern civilization.”2 The demise of the empire will—depending on which of these writers one believes—usher in either the abyss or the millennium. The possibility that it might involve neither is a truly un-American thought.
Kolko’s ponderous assaults on the liberals’ assumption of American benevolence have had a powerful effect on the interpretation of the cold war and its origins. In The Politics of War Kolko concentrated on the period 1943-1945 and drew a dyspeptic portrait of Roosevelt’s diplomacy. Instead of a war-weary country eager to disarm and live peacefully under the charter of the United Nations, he showed official Washington in conflict with Great Britain for the control of world capitalism, eager to restore the prefascist status quo, and determined to stop the tide of change in Europe and the Third World.
Together with such younger historians as Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, Gar Alperovitz, and Diane Clemens, Kolko has powerfully challenged the conventional assumption of American innocence in the early postwar period and forced a fundamental re-evaluation of American cold war diplomacy. Even historians of extremely orthodox views have been forced to take the radical criticism into account—to attack it, if nothing else. Many have quietly absorbed much of it into their own recent writings without formally shifting position, thereby practicing a subtle form of the revisionism they otherwise deplore.3
Kolko’s latest book, The Limits of Power, written with his wife Joyce, carries the chronicle of American empire-building from the end of the war, through the Truman years, to 1954 and the accession of Eisenhower. As weighty, as scholarly, and nearly as impenetrable as its predecessor, this volume shifts the focus away from the contest with Russia to an examination of America’s global economic and political objectives. The novelty of the Kolkos’ approach is that it puts the Russo-American rivalry into the background as simply one of the several theaters in which the United States was engaged in its efforts to secure world hegemony. In their view the cold war was a side show and the real drama was the effort of the United States to use its unparalleled wealth and military power to dominate its allies, suppress social change, and ensure the triumph of the capitalist order.
The objective of American policy at the end of the war, we are told, was “to restructure the world so that American business could trade, operate and profit without restrictions everywhere.” On this there was “absolute unanimity” among American leaders. They believed that the American system could function only in a world of free access to raw materials and stable capitalist trading partners—the “Open Door,” in short. Since their policy “necessitated conservative, and ultimately subservient, political control throughout the globe,” American officials sought to restore the traditional ruling classes of Germany and Japan, integrate these nations into an American-directed capitalist system, break down the rival sterling bloc controlled by Great Britain, and suppress the revolutionary movements of the left which were presumably poised to seize power in Europe and the Third World.
The Kolkos’ argument is provocative and wide-ranging. It is unfortunate that they have not been able to present it in a more readable and organized form. This enormous book rambles on interminably, and the major themes get lost in peripheral digression. The task is not made any easier by the prose. Subjects and verbs get misplaced, or even disappear altogether, and sentences stumble on in a maze of dependent clauses. In a discussion of Germany, for example, we are informed that:
The internationalization of internal social crises and conflict in Europe as well as Asia therefore became the defining contextual fact of the postwar era. It alters the process of social innovation and transcends the normal confrontations of classes and power in national states to distort and often modify the outcome everywhere. For now the intimate relationship of all change in Europe to America’s peace aims creates the problem of United States intervention into the affairs of the European states, profoundly coloring the entire historical process in the postwar era.
To make things worse for the reader with a scholarly or professional interest in such matters—the only person likely to read such a book—the Kolkos have the annoying habit of using multiple citations. A paragraph with dramatic quotations and startling allegations will be followed by a single footnote number, referring back to a dozen or more references to manuscript collections scattered throughout the United States and England.
More difficult than the style, however, is the argument which defines American foreign policy almost exclusively as the product of economic determinism. The tone is set in the very first pages, where we are told:
A society’s goals, in the last analysis, reflect its objective needs—economic, strategic, and political—in the light of the requirements of its very specific structure of power. Since this power structure in America has existed over many decades in a capitalist form, its demands are the common premises for the application of American power—one…which in reality has always reflected the class structure and class needs.
Given this view of the state, the people who administer it are largely irrelevant. They would not be in positions of authority unless they shared the goals of the ruling class. Thus the Kolkos declare that “there is little intrinsic significance in the nature of the bureaucratic selection process and administrative elite,” whether or not it is chosen by democratic methods. Carried to its logical conclusion, this view should lead them to maintain—like their orthodox adversaries—that the cold war was inevitable, a result of “ineluctable historical forces.” The nature of the capitalist system would have made it virtually impossible for American officials to have behaved otherwise. Least of all could they have acquiesced in Russia’s legitimate security requirements in Eastern Europe. But few revisionists, not even the Kolkos themselves, go that far to absolve the makers of foreign policy whose actions they so condemn.
Not only do they fail to go that far, but they display a remarkable faith in the importance and the intellectual ability of the people who staff the American government. Listening to their accounts of the machinations behind the scenes, one could only assume that during the entire cold war we have been led by a band of titans. These are men who apparently never made a mistake in their relentless efforts to throw open the world to American capitalism and squash revolutionary movements wherever they appear. Have we really been unfair to Averell Harriman or Arthur Vandenberg or Harry Truman all these years in failing to see them as the infallible intellectual giants that the Kolkos parade before us?
The dominant figures in the Kolkos’ chamber of horrors, however, are the businessmen, who may be shadowy figures to the public but whose insatiable search for markets makes them prime movers in America’s postwar drive toward world hegemony. Such men as the cotton broker Will Clayton, the Wall Street financier William Draper, and Joseph Dodge, a Detroit banker “who was to help formulate and implement many of the most important foreign policy decisions of the period,” become more important than the politicians. Their statements on economic matters are equated with American foreign policy goals—a connection which is for the most part asserted rather than demonstrated.
As for the Russians, the Kolkos argue, they never represented a security threat to the United States—and American leaders knew it. “Their laxity until 1947 in consolidating power along their borders revealed a fundamental desire to avoid unnecessarily offending the West.” Far from being expansionist or aggressive, the Soviet leaders were “docile” and conservative, interested only in their own security—even though this meant selling out the world revolution. The Kolkos, in fact, have contempt for Soviet policy. But they believe that the Soviet threat was a bogey invented by the Truman administration to pry money from a skeptical Congress for rearmament and economic aid to Europe. Tensions were deliberately kept high, despite Moscow’s desire to negotiate differences. Indeed, “any Soviet offer to negotiate assumed the nature of a threat rather than an opportunity to Washington after 1946, for it diminished the artificial, increasingly contrived sense of national crisis which was far more essential to containing Congress and the American people than Bolshevism.”
On the question of Washington’s lack of interest in negotiations, the Kolkos are supported by liberal and orthodox critics. For example, Adam Yarmolinsky, while explicitly denying that Washington invented the Soviet menace, has written that a preoccupation with the threat of a Russian attack on Western Europe “has made it virtually impossible to test whether the USSR might be willing to arrive at a European diplomatic settlement. Between 1950 and 1953 the Truman administration rejected all Soviet suggestions for negotiation of an all-German peace treaty. In 1957-1958 the Eisenhower administration rejected Polish foreign minister Rapacki’s scheme for a denuclearized zone in central Europe.”4
The Kolkos maintain the Russian threat was largely fabricated to create a climate of fear that would provide congressional and public support for the Truman administration’s economic and political goals. Chief among these was organizing the world economy. Since big business could not provide the money for rebuilding Europe after the war and restoring America’s major overseas market, Washington “wholly assumed the obligation of furnishing the political and military protection it knew an integrated world capitalism demanded.” The $3.75 billion loan to Britain in 1946—with its demand for free convertibility of sterling and the reduction of import restrictions—was not charity, but a calculated effort to “develop American export trade and to penetrate nations under British sterling restrictions.”
Similarly, the Marshall Plan was strictly an economic arrangement between America and Western Europe. There was never any intention, the Kolkos maintain, of letting the Russians participate: “If they had it would be only by abandoning Bolshevism and state trading, and integrating the USSR and those nations within its bloc into a capitalist trading sphere—largely placing its economy under the guidance of the United States and Europe.”
In this judgment, the Kolkos again are not alone. In his memoirs, Witness to History, Charles Bohlen recalls that Marshall was worried because a plan that explictly excluded the Soviet Union would look suspicious, while “Soviet acceptance might easily kill the plan in Congress.” Bohlen and George Kennan reassured the secretary of state that they “did not feel that the Soviet Union would accept American verification of the use of the goods and funds. Furthermore, we did not think the Soviet Union would be able to maintain its control over Eastern Europe if those countries were able to participate in the cooperative venture.” They were right, of course. After their counter-proposals were spurned, the Russians rejected the Marshall Plan, taking their satellites with them. Congress then passed the authorization bill.
But not immediately. For a time it was stuck in committee and was pried loose, according to Bohlen, only by the communist coup in Czechoslovakia. The brutal Soviet action in Prague may have galvanized Congress into approving the Marshall Plan. But it hardly furnished evidence for a new policy of Soviet aggressiveness that the administration claimed. “The sudden consolidation of communist power in Czechoslovakia in 1948,” as Kennan has written, “was not a sign of any ‘new Soviet aggressiveness,’ and had nothing to do with any Soviet decision to launch its military forces against the West.” Instead, it “flowed logically from the inauguration of the Marshall Plan program, and was confidently predicted by US government observers six months in advance of the event.”5
If it was not a surprise to insiders, the Czech coup provided dramatic justification for an interventionist policy whose outlines had been laid down in the Truman Doctrine in early 1947. Although the initial objectives of aid to Greece and Turkey were modest, the program was sold to Congress by evoking the specter of communism on the march. In his memoirs Dean Acheson proudly recalls how he won over skeptical congressmen by drawing a vivid picture of how “Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open these countries to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east….”6
Since the administration’s goal, according to the Kolkos, was a huge rearmament program and a global policy of counterrevolution wherever “the Left” threatened to seize power, “nothing was superior to a world crisis, real or fancied, and conjuring up the menace of Russia and communism.” It was not, however, until 1950 that the real breakthrough occurred. Fear of communist armies on the move in Korea released the hold of conservatives on the congressional purse, and gave powerful support for the rearmament program the administration had already approved in the plan known as NSC-68. Military spending jumped from $13.1 billion in fiscal 1950 to $44.1 billion in 1952, and the armed forces increased from 1.6 million men to 3.6 million. “Had the Korean crisis not occurred,” the Kolkos inevitably comment, “it would have been necessary to manufacture an equivalent….”
The analysis of the Korean war is the most tightly argued and successful part of the Kolkos’ compendious study. They provide convincing evidence for their belief—widely shared by libera critics—that the communist attack in Korea had local causes and was not an aggressive gambit by Moscow against the West. If anything, it was defensive, according to George Kennan, who connects it to the peace treaty then being pressed upon Japan by the United States. The treaty, which excluded the Russians, and provided for American naval and air bases in Japan, may have convinced Moscow, Kennan suggests, that it dare not allow the southern half of Korea to remain in unfriendly hands.7 But the North Korean attack was interpreted—or at least presented to Congress and the people—as the first move in the Kremlin’s plan to bolshevize the world by force of arms.
Common ground between Kennan and the Kolkos, of course, is very narrow. Where he sees American leaders sincerely, though erroneously, convinced of a military threat from the Soviet Union, they consider it a sham which allowed the Truman administration to push through the NSC-68 rearmament plan. But if the question of motivation is momentarily set aside, then both the Kolkos and Kennan agree that Washington had no interest in negotiating a settlement with Moscow. “I cannot, on reflection,” Kennan wrote, “think of any major problem in which we were prepared to make any significant concessions in order to reach agreement with the Russians—certainly not with relation to Germany, or nuclear weaponry, or Japan.”
The brunt of Kennan’s criticism falls upon officials, such as Acheson, who were more interested in rearmament than in a settlement, and with the Pentagon for “pursuing a highly militarized policy, disbelieving in the possibility for peace and concerned only with the shaping of our posture for a war regarded as inevitable.” Sent to Moscow as ambassador in May, 1952, Kennan grew increasingly troubled by Washington’s belligerent attitude:
Trying to distinguish what might be the kernal of sincerity in that great shell of exaggeration and distortion in which Soviet statements were normally included, I began to ask myself whether, even accepting the disingenuousness of most of the Soviet propaganda about the aggressive aims of the United States and NATO, we had not contributed, and were not continuing to contribute—by the overmilitarization of our policies and statements—to a belief in Moscow that it was war we were after, that we had settled for its inevitability, that it was only a matter of time before we would unleash it.
To counter what he believed to be a disastrous misreading of Soviet intentions, he sent a long dispatch—included as an annex to his second volume of memoirs—to the State Department in September, 1952. This remarkable document—as important as, though far less influential than, his belligerent “long telegram” of February, 1946—was meant to calm Washington’s fears and lead it toward negotiations. “The Russians,” he argued in summarizing his message,
had no intention of attacking western Europe in those postwar years, and thought we must have known it. For this reason, the manner in which NATO was formed and presented to the Western public, i.e., as a response to the “Soviet threat,” and as a “deterrent” to Soviet aggression, mystified them and caused them to search for some sinister hidden motive in our policy. This effect had been reinforced by our steps toward the rearmament of Germany and Japan, by the manner in which we ourselves had interpreted and presented our action in Korea, and by Leninist doctrine.
By this time, however, the lines were firmly drawn. There was little interest in an accommodation with Moscow. The emphasis was on rearmament and the integration of Western Europe into a tight alliance directed from Washington. Kennan’s eloquent warnings scarcely created a ripple in official circles.
Obviously those warnings were not rooted in any sympathy for Soviet leaders or sentimentality about Soviet intentions. Only a few years earlier, when he had been assistant to Harriman in the Moscow embassy and then triumphantly brought back to Washington as Forrestal’s protégé on the policy planning staff, Kennan had written equally eloquent warnings against Soviet ambitions. As author of the famous “X” article and father of the containment doctrine, he provided the intellectual justification for the Truman Doctrine, even though he later came to deplore its militarization and globalism. What is significant is not so much his early distrust of the Soviet Union as the way in which his superiors seized upon his warnings, while ignoring his later pleas for an accommodation with Moscow based on the neutralization of Germany and respect for spheres of influence in Europe.
Charles Bohlen, who entered the foreign service a few years after Kennan and succeeded him as ambassador to Moscow, shared Kennan’s suspicion of the Russians, but little of his belief in the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Throughout the cold war Bohlen remained a loyal foreign service officer who held and, as his memoirs make clear, continues to hold the orthodox assumptions about the cold war and the intention of the Russians to communize the world. During the war, he reminds us in Witness to History 1929-1969, he told his superiors that “the Bolsheviks wanted more than reasonable protection for their borders; they wanted to extend their control in the Mediterranean and westward into Europe.” After the Potsdam conference, where he served as interpreter to Truman, as he had to Roosevelt at Teheran and Yalta, he believed “there was little that could be done to induce the Soviet Union to become a reasonable and cooperative member of the world community.”
His service as ambassador to Moscow from 1953 to 1957 seems, if anything, to have confirmed these views. However, he now feels that perhaps an opportunity to negotiate may have been lost and regrets that he did not urge Eisenhower to accept Churchill’s request for a summit meeting with Malenkov. “After the death of Stalin,” he muses,
…there might have been opportunities for an adjustment of some of the outstanding questions, particularly regarding Germany. In addition to the extraordinary act of Pravda’s publishing the text of a speech by President Eisenhower calling for peace, the Soviet press let up on its hysterical Hate America campaign…. Soon after his assumption of power, Malenkov himself said in a statement that there were no issues that could not be negotiated. Khrushchev subsequently charged that Malenkov and Beria had been contemplating a change in Soviet policy on Germany, possibly relinquishing the hold on East Germany and permitting some form of unification in return for a demilitarized, neutralized Germany.
But Dulles was hardly interested, and there is little in these memoirs to indicate that Bohlen’s attitude toward relations with the Russians was very different from that of his superiors.
Throughout his long career he remained a charming and adept but essentially conservative bureaucrat. Two episodes he tells about himself are particularly revealing. The first took place in April, 1961, when Kennedy said he would like to talk to him about Cuba. Bohlen demurred, “like an idiot,” in his words, on the grounds that he was no expert on Latin America, although he had already been tipped off to the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, and thought it unwise.
The second incident concerned the missile crisis. While Bohlen believed that the missiles had to be taken out one way or the other, he “favored using diplomatic means to the ultimate before turning to force.” Apparently valuing his judgment, Kennedy invited him to a White House meeting to discuss what course to take before publicly revealing that the missile sites had been discovered. Bohlen again demurred, saying he had to give a speech in New York that afternoon, and was sailing for Europe the next day to take up his post as ambassador to France. Despite Kennedy’s urgent request that he change his plans, Bohlen remained firm and sailed as scheduled, hearing the news of Kennedy’s ultimatum to Khrushchev while in mid-Atlantic.
It is impossible to know whether Bohlen’s presence at the meeting would have made any difference. But Kennedy’s refusal to allow Khrushchev a face-saving way out through secret diplomacy was the great failure of his overpraised handling of the missile crisis. Not only could his ultimatum have led to nuclear war, it also helped to hasten Khrushchev’s demise, contributing, as Kennan wrote of the Soviet leader’s earlier embarrassment over the U-2 incident, to the “shattering of the political career of the only Soviet statesman of the post-Stalin period with whom we might conceivably have worked out a firmer sort of coexistence and the replacement of his dominant influence by that of a coterie of military and police officials far more reactionary and militaristic in temper.” While Bohlen notes that Khrushchev “might have been willing to explore paths toward detente that his cautious successors hesitated to tread,” he ignores any American responsibility for the chairman’s downfall. His only comment is one of wistful regret that the “snub-nosed, roly-poly Russian did not remain the leader of his country a few more years.”
A canny foreign service officer who rose to the top by his wits, his social grace, his ability to please his superiors, and his willingness to play by the rules of the game, Bohlen is a man of conventional opinions. With the help of Robert H. Phelps he has written a conventional book of memoirs which casts little new light on the tumultuous events of the forty years it covers, but which manages to be entertaining and graceful. Reading it is rather like attending a diplomatic dinner party where high-level platitudes are exchanged with a self-assurance relieved by the good manners of the host and the amusing anecdotes of the guests.
It is curious that a man of such uncontroversial views became so controversial during the McCarthy period when his appointment as ambassador to the Soviet Union was unsuccessfully challenged by right-wing diehards in the Senate. After returning from a four-year stint in Moscow he was exiled to Manila by Dulles, but was restored to official favor under Kennedy. He served as ambassador to France for five years, sharing Washington’s general misunderstanding of Gaullist policies and antipathy to the General’s style. An amusing raconteur, he occasionally enlivened dinner parties by clever, deprecating impersonations of de Gaulle. Unsurprisingly, this did not increase his effectiveness as ambassador at a time of especially tense relations between Washington and Paris.
Throughout this period of tumultuous changes, Bohlen’s convictions remained unshaken. If he has seriously considered the views of his old colleague George Kennan, he gives no sign of having done so in this book. “What caused the cold war?” he asks in its closing pages. “The cold war can be traced to the seizure of power by the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic party in 1917.” And America’s role in the great confrontation? “The United States was selected as target number one simply because it was the chief source of power left in the noncommunist world after the war.” So much for revisionism. As for the future, Bohlen advises that there is “little that the United States can do except to continue along the lines of the policy that has been generally followed since World War II.”
This is a counsel heartily agreed to by many who still see most of the world’s troubles caused by a vague and protean but nonetheless insidious form of international communist conspiracy whose headquarters float ethereally somewhere between Moscow, Peking, Hanoi, and perhaps Havana. Chief among these are Eugene Rostow and a new gladiator in the lists of the counterrevisionists, Robert James Maddox, whose recent broadsides will be considered in the next issue.
(This is the first of two articles.)
May 31, 1973
“Neo-Isolationism and the World of the Seventies,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (Georgetown University). ↩
Kristol, “We Can’t Resign as the World’s Policeman,” New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1968; Kolko, The Roots of American Foreign Policy (Beacon, 1969), p. 87. ↩
For example, Adam Ulam: “ it is simply a challenge to common sense to envisage the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1950 as either desirous or apprehensive of a major war the Soviet Union was bent on expanding her sphere of power and influence but without incurring the risk of war” (Expansion and Coexistence, 1968), p. 404. ↩
“The Military Establishment,” Foreign Policy, Winter, 1970-1971. ↩
Memoirs 1950-1963 (Atlantic, Little-Brown, 1972), p. 333. ↩
Present at the Creation (Norton, 1969), p. 219. ↩
In the second volume of his memoirs Kennan recalls his 1948 warning to the State Department against a unilateral peace treaty with Japan providing for US bases. Instead he urged an agreement with the Russians for a US withdrawal from Japan in return for a guarantee against the communization of all Korea. But Acheson, who succeeded Marshall in 1949 as Secretary of State, was determined to push through the treaty. In February, 1950, US News & World Report carried a two-page spread showing the proposed bases. On February 14, the Russians signed a treaty with the new government of China binding the parties to take measures “for the purpose of preventing aggressive action on the part of Japan or any other state which should unite with Japan, directly or indirectly, in acts of aggression.” Two days later Pravda laid down the official line by printing the US News story and condemning the Japanese-American base accord. This clearly indicated, according to Kennan, that “the question of a Japanese peace treaty was not without relation to the provisions of the Sino-Soviet treaty and to the behavior of both of the contracting parties in the policies toward Korea during the decisive months that ensued” (pp. 39-45). ↩