In response to:
Reagan's Junta from the January 29, 1987 issue
To the Editors:
I am grateful to Theodore Draper for putting, in “Reagan’s Junta,” the current foreign policy scandal into historical perspective. I would suggest, however, that the analytic framework into which to set “the American problem of being a superpower and a democracy” be considerably enlarged.
First, we should keep in mind that American democracy is the product of an external security unprecedented among modern states. Virtually until World War II the dynamics of American life originated within the body politic; in the absence of hostile neighbors domestic affairs shaped American history. World War II then brought a drastic change. As the foremost superpower the United States became the center of the free world, deeply involved in the affairs of all other countries. As a result, the demands of foreign policy rose to the fore, posing a challenge for which their past had not prepared the American people. How now would they fit institutions and attitudes evolved under exceptional security into an increasingly uncertain and even threatening involvement in global affairs? Obviously, some structural adjustments in the institutions of government had to be made, the first introduced in 1947: the CIA, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council. Having lost its exceptionality, the American government followed the pattern of the European states traditionally exposed to external threats and therefore less democratic in their conduct of both foreign and domestic affairs. Let’s admit it: democracy thrives best under conditions of external security, as in the British Isles or in North America. No country now enjoys such boons.
Second, for a closer look at the key problem: how can the exigencies of a globally oriented foreign policy be related to the limited understanding of citizens preoccupied with making ends meet in the overburdened circumstances of their daily lives? How is it possible to strike a fair balance between the demands of foreign relations, intelligible only to a small minority, and the pressures of domestic politics generated by people ignorant—blatantly ignorant—of the world in which they live? Judging by the experience of the Old World countries, let alone the newcomers after World War II, the pressures of foreign policy limit the freedom of domestic politics; those pressures are now at work also in the United States. Is it then impossible to combine democracy with superpower status? A truly democratic foreign policy, we would have to reply, is possible only in a country endowed with a highly educated electorate, an electorate in command of the alien realities surrounding their country. In the absence of such support the government—any government—is driven to conduct in one way or another an underground foreign policy, especially where attitudes and institutions developed in the long years of innocence still prevail. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War Americans received their first insight into that underworld; the recent revelations about Reaganite foreign policy afford another glimpse into that subterranean labyrinth.
Which brings to mind a third point: Paul Nitze’s well-heeded advice in NSC-68 that the United States uses Soviet methods in the cold war against the Soviet Union. The dirty tricks evolved in the insecurity of both government and revolutionaries in tsarist Russia have, after 1917, become part of Soviet foreign relations. Now they have become part of American foreign relations as well; prompted by their mutual adjustments, enemies become more alike.
And how does the American public react to that fact? The answer to the American problem of combining the role of the foremost superpower with a functioning democracy lies in an educated electorate capable of integrating the requirements of an enlightened and constructive relationship with the bulk of humanity into their daily lives. Are we moving in that direction?
Theodore H. Von Laue
Theodore Draper replies:
Martin Mayer’s “clean up” needs cleaning up.
I did not say that former Secretary of State Byrnes was “the locus of serious opposition” to an independent CIA, so there is no point in denying it. I merely noted that Byrnes had wanted the new intelligence operation to be responsible to the State Department, a different matter. My point was that his failure to get his way “foreshadowed the end of the State Department’s traditionally predominant role in the making and execution of American foreign policy.” Who should get the credit for having been “the locus of serious opposition” has little or nothing to do with it.
Acheson’s role was never mentioned by me and does nothing to dispute what I said about Byrnes. Acheson criticized the proposed setup on the ground that the President would not be able to control it. This was not the issue in my article.
As for George Kennan’s role, we might as well get it exactly right, as long as we are being meticulous. The “notion of a covert operations branch” came to others besides Kennan. He has related that “some of us in the United States government, including myself, my friend the late Allen Dulles…and certain members of our respective staffs, came to the conclusion that the government had need of…an agency for secret operations” (Memoirs, 1950–1963, p. 202). In any case, I see no reason why Kennan had to be dragged into this discussion.
In his memoirs, Eisenhower mentions Gray in the most perfunctory way and relegates Cutler to even less in a footnote (Waging Peace, p. 319). That Gray and Cutler may have been “first-rate men” has nothing to do with the case; they were first-rate in a different way.
I wrote that “the post of national security adviser did not take off until early in the Kennedy administration in 1961” with the appointment of McGeorge Bundy. That observation was hardly original with me. The recent report of the Special Review Board, the so-called Tower Commission, on the Iran-contra affair, studied the development of the post and concluded that there was a significant difference between Eisenhower’s appointees and Bundy: “It was not until President Kennedy, with McGeorge Bundy in the role, that the position took on its current form. Bundy emerged as an important personal advisor to the President on national security affairs” (p. II-2).
Mayer’s final paragraph muddles too much for brief comment. It is enough to say that Rusk could not have been altogether blameless if Kennedy admittedly “didn’t like the State Department much.”
Professor Von Laue’s letter touches on a different and far more serious problem. His second point would need a far more extensive and lengthy consideration than a mere reply can provide here. Nevertheless, some things need to be said, however briefly:
Even if foreign affairs is “intelligible only to a small minority,” that minority in a nation of about 240 million is still quite considerable. It certainly constitutes a critical mass capable of passing informed judgment on official policy. It is not necessary or realistic to expect the entire electorate, even in a democracy, to live up to the highest standards deemed essential by Professor Von Laue. It has long been recognized that our type of representative democracy requires such a critical mass of informed, public-spirited citizens to function reasonably well. The main problem is not with “the limited understanding of citizens preoccupied with making ends meet”; it is with those who are more affluent and better educated and must live up to their civic responsibilities.
Education alone will not save us. The people who brought us the Iran-contra fiasco were among the better educated, and their apologists are even highly educated. Even if the entire electorate were more highly educated, we could still get into similar trouble so long as some educated officials organized themselves into a junta to do as they pleased by conspiring to evade democratic safeguards.
Thus the key problem is within the “educated minority”; it is not between the educated and uneducated. All educated people do not think in the same way, are not educated in the same things, and do not make education the sole factor in their political lives. Uneducated people have life experiences that are not without political value, especially if they are expected to pay the highest price in matters of life and death. If education mattered the most, Germany would have successfully resisted Hitler; the German universities were among the first and worst hotbeds of the Nazi infection.
It would seem very late in the day to admonish Americans to get rid of “attitudes and institutions developed in the long years of innocence.” Such counsel of superior European wisdom is all the harder to take if we are expected to seek the guidance of “the experience of the Old World countries, let alone the newcomers after World War II.” If the lessons they are supposed to teach us are that “the pressures of foreign policy limit the freedom of domestic politics” and that it is “impossible to combine democracy with superpower status,” their examples are far from encouraging.
Professor Von Laue seems to think that “dirty tricks” are a Russian invention and that our adoption of them makes us and the Soviets more alike. His history is faulty, to be charitable, and his deduction no better. The most different political and social systems have employed dirty tricks throughout the ages without losing their identities. It is, moreover, one thing to play dirty tricks on others; it is another thing to play dirty tricks on our own constitutional order and against our best traditions.
Professor Von Laue’s preachment does not appear in a political vacuum. It is designed to reconcile us to the skullduggery of what I have called the Reagan junta. As an abstract exercise in statecraft, his advice would make us despair of combining democracy with superpower status. As a comment on the particular circumstances which now face us, it is an implicit rationalization in defense of “dirty tricks” that hurt us more than anyone else.
April 23, 1987