Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

maximalistAn early quibble about the book is that it did not lead off (at least that I found) with a definition of Maximalist. From reading the book I’m guessing it means taking an extreme foreign policy position. The problem with that simplistic definition is that Truman took an extreme position in several foreign policy matters, to include the “Truman Doctrine” that kept Turkey and Greece out of the clutches of the Soviets and the Marshall Plan that rescued Europe. Reagan also took extreme positions in standing up to the Soviets, or, in Reagan’s words, “the Evil Empire.” Those “extreme positions” presented America as an aggressive world power.  Obama could also be called a “Maximalist” by my simplistic definition. He took extreme positions that resulted, in my opinion, in sending a message that he is disinterested in the U.S. being a world power.

Despite my quibble, the book does describe the major foreign policy positions of the Presidents from Truman to Obama. Truman had given up on cooperation with the Soviets by 1947. He went before Congress to ask for emergency economic and military support to Turkey and Greece to countermand the “Iron Curtain,” as originally named by Churchill. Marshall expanded Truman’s policy of countering the Soviets while helping desperate people in Europe when he announced what would be known as the “Marshall Plan” at a Harvard commencement in June 1947. Marshall attended meetings with the Soviets fearing that the U.S. language had been too strident. He returned convinced that the criticism of the Soviets had been accurate and appropriate. He said in a nationwide radio address that the Soviets were “…clearly adapted to absolute control. They could only lead to dictatorship and strife.” The message from all sides of U.S. foreign policy became the rallying cry originated by Robert Murphy, senior diplomat to Germany, “The United States must run this show.”  Stalin made a huge strategic blunder by ordering all Eastern European diplomats to pull out of the “Marshall Plan” talks. That decision allowed the plan to focus on the countries the U.S. really wanted to support and significantly reduced the costs.

The U.S. policy of “containment” of the Soviets caused them to be more aggressive. They brought down the democratic government of Czechoslovakia in a Communist coup in February 1948 and began the Berlin blockade. One prominent dissenter of the containment policy was George Kennan, who had warned of Soviet intentions in his “Long Telegram” to the U.S. State Department. Kennan had changed his mind and wrote an allegedly anonymous article under the pseudonym “X.”  That article advocated that, “The State Department’s best-informed and most brilliant Soviet expert believed there was no real Soviet military threat to speak of. There was, in turn, no need to do anything about it.”

A remarkable part of the book is a discussion of the need to revive the West German economy after World War II, which would require overcoming the black market. “The price of a carton of Lucky Strikes—the surrogate currency of the occupation—reached $2,300 at midyear.” The U.S. foreign policy in 1949 had reached a stage where issues such as the West German economy were crucial, but “Agreement with Moscow was not the goal…”

Most policy makers disagreed with Kennan that there was no need to do anything about the Soviets, and the result was the National Security Council report NSC-68. Paul Nitze, reporting to Secretary of State Acheson, was the main author of the report. A primary premise of the report was that the twentieth century had left America unscathed, and, “This fact imposes on us, in our own interests, the responsibility of world leadership.”  NSC-68 laid out the need for increases in defense spending to counter the Soviet threat. The Truman administration made the mistake sending a signal that they weren’t all that interested in South Korea, and the North Koreans attacked on June 24, 1950. Events that followed resulted in military setbacks and achievements, and there was an underlying threat of nuclear war.

Eisenhower became President and expressed his frustration with the failure to end the Korean War.  He said he had “…no use for a plan General MacArthur had suggested to threaten China with a nuclear attack unless it gave up all of North Korea.” He said he was ready to accept the border at the 38th parallel, “But he wanted the Chinese and the Soviets to understand that he was ready for nuclear war to secure this compromise. If diplomacy failed, the United States would attack—without inhibition in our use of weapons.”

Ike scoffed at the idea developed by military planners that 1954 was “…the year of maximum danger…” of World War III. “Deterring the Soviets, he thought, had to depend on being able to blow the hell out of them in a hurry if they start anything.” “The idea that nuclear weapons could keep the peace—and win any war—became an article of faith for budget-minded policy makers.”

Contrary to what I’ve read in other sources, Ike was aghast at the idea of using nuclear weapons to keep the French from being driven out of Indochina. Paris requested the nuclear weapons, and the Pentagon was sympathetic. Ike replied, “We can’t use these awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God!” He was hopeful that the French would lose, which would be a blow against colonialism. Despite the decision on Vietnam, Ike was willing to prevent Communist advances in the Third World by threats to use nuclear weapons. The Chinese began shelling the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu in September 1954. Churchill advised Ike to “write off” the islands, and Ike ignored him. He signed a mutual defense treaty with Chiang Kai-shek in early 1955 and his spokesmen “…emphasized that nuclear weapons were available to turn back a Communist attack.” Ike told reporters, “I see no reason…why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

Adlai Stevenson commented that “…he was unhappy with what he found…” after he had visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue early in the Kennedy administration. He said there was “…the damnedest bunch of boy commandos running around…” Khrushchev threatened to cut off access to Berlin in 1961, which inflamed tensions and brought on fear of a nuclear confrontation. A wall was built through the middle of Berlin, but despite tensions the status quo remained intact with the citizens of East Berlin trapped behind a wall. Dean Rusk explained why Khrushchev backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “We don’t live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours.”

The book portrays Johnson as being mostly resistant to military action in Vietnam, which is counter to my perception. He was said to have told his advisors “…that he would not be rushed into a massive military commitment to South Vietnam.” He was sensitive to pressures of a political “…anti-Communist hysteria at the Democratic Party’s expense, (from the Korean War experience) even if he had to take the country to war unnecessarily.”

Nixon decided on a policy that I found consistent with what I believe Obama would advocate. He said the “…United States would henceforth serve as a weight—not the weight—in the scale.”

President Carter said, “I believe in détente with the Soviet Union.” The goals of the Reagan Administration were significantly different. Reagan’s beliefs were “especially crisp.” “We win, and they lose.” He predicted in a speech to the British Parliament in June 1982 that Marxism-Leninism would be left “…on the ash-heap of history.” He also said, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Dennis Blair, Obama’s first director of intelligence, summed up the approach America uses in foreign policy. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” George Tenet ran the CIA under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and he told a similar joke. “Inside the Beltway for every action there is an unequal and opposite over-reaction.”

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