I deplore the hysterical sort of anti-Communism which, it seems to me, is gaining currency in this country. — George Kennan 1946, George Kennan, a Study in Character, by John Lukas
Eventually, the Truman Doctrine, with its interventions around the globe, blew up. Yet the ideas of the doctrine — America as the self-appointed policeman of the world, relentless anti-communism, and a nation always on war footing — would dominate American foreign policy for decades after the Truman administration. They still do.
But even before Truman left office, many Americans were disgusted with his imperial foreign policy. What went wrong?
This policy idea led to stalemate in the Korean War of 1950-53. That was a war blundered into in part through a confusing application of George Kennan’s containment doctrine. His idea had been expanded and distorted, according to Kennan, a State Department star for a short time in the late 1940s. It was expanded to apply beyond Western Europe and Greece to land wars in Asia. However, those wars had nothing to do with vital U.S. security interests.
The ABC/XYZ policy
The Korean War followed what was to become a familiar pattern in the U.S. government. The government is authorized to do ABC. It ends up breaking any limits and doing XYZ. The war began with the Truman administration’s saying it had limited goals.
Military intervention, said Secretary of State Dean Acheson, was “solely for the purpose of restoring the Republic of Korea prior to the invasion from the North.” Yet before it ended the United States had expanded the war deep into the North and nearly found itself fighting World War III.
And the idea of American intervention and how far it would go was basically the decision of the president, who simply ignored Congress. That would become a repeating legal and constitutional problem: A president, acting without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war, would commit the nation to achieve military goals.
The commitment initially would seem to have the backing of most Americans. Only later do questions come about the origins of the war, the extent of the commitment, and whether the intervention was ever necessary. Eventually, Congress and the public seek to rein in an imperial president, but only after many lives have been lost.
As the United States became bogged down in Korea, the president’s popularity plummeted. Indeed, it dropped so much that in the winter of 1951-52 he had the lowest presidential popularity rating of any president since polls had been taken. Some suggested that he should resign.
Under the Constitution Truman could have sought another term, but he didn’t even try. The war foreclosed a creditable reelection effort in 1952. The same would happen to Lyndon Johnson. He also was driven from office 16 years later owing to another foreign mess, the Vietnam War.
Yet the policy begun by Truman in Greece and Turkey would be substantially continued by succeeding administrations. America’s activist foreign policy, no matter how much presidents and policymakers claimed success, would come a cropper in Korea. And the failures of Korea would also be repeated in the longest-running, possibly most unpopular, war in the history of the United States: Vietnam.
It all started, as we have seen in a previous segment of this series, with Truman. America’s role in Vietnam, first by invoking the Truman Doctrine to preserve French control of Indo-China and later by direct American involvement, was the result of the president’s misinterpretation of Kennan’s containment idea. In 1947 Truman believed it meant increasing aid to the French empire in Vietnam.
“The Vietnam War,” wrote Jerry Sanders in Peddlers of Crisis, was “the linear descendant of Greece in 1947.” And the frequent nation-building of the United States today is the result of the Greek policy.
Misreading the world
U.S. interventionist policy was an example of how America consistently misread the world. It demonstrated myopia about the unique varieties of communism, socialism, and even fascism. The problem with the Truman Doctrine was that none of those philosophies could be easily classified. Each had its unique approach, depending on the country.
What exactly was the communism the United States was fighting in Korea or Vietnam? Did Truman and his administration understand it? Surely it was not one thing. And surely it changed from country to country.
Communism in Greece wasn’t communism in the Soviet Union or China, even though Russian communists would persistently claim Moscow as the center of the communist universe. But Truman never understood that those were real disputes.
Those disputes would be a big part of the history of communism, as predicted by German communist Rosa Luxemburg. In 1918 she criticized Lenin and Trotsky for calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat in other countries. “The socialist system of society,” she said, “should only be, and can only be, a historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences….”
And since each country experienced history in its own way, the view of each socialist or communist party was unique. By the 1960s, the Italian Communist Party under Palmiro Togliatti proclaimed the autonomy of each communist party.
“Nowadays,” he said, “there can be neither a leading Party nor a leading state, nor a single center laying down the direction and organization of the world communist movement,” according to The Three Faces of Marxism, by Wolfgang Leonhard.
Even fascism had its variants. For instance, Ioannis Metaxas, Greece’s virtual military dictator in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was a fascist. Yet we have seen that he took steps to oppose fascist Germany because he was first a Greek nationalist.
In Spain, Franco’s version of fascism was also different from Germany’s version. He never allowed the Spanish fascist party, the Phalange, to hold a majority of the cabinet posts in the government. He constantly frustrated Hitler, according to Stanley Paine in Franco and Hitler.
The American foreign policy on Franco, by the way, showed the contradictions of an interventionist foreign policy. It sought to demonize enemies and pump up the accomplishments of anti-communist friends. In the 1940s and 1950s, Franco went from being a dictator despised by Truman to being an American ally later praised by President Eisenhower.
Truman and his successors missed the inherent problems in a policy based on correcting all communist evils everywhere. The policy was confused. It was often difficult to define who was and was not evil. It could change quickly.
The mistake of treating communism everywhere as one evil thing was compounded as both other presidents and mainstream historians accepted the interventionist model. They often eulogize Truman for his anti-communist foreign policies. (A 2005 poll of historians conducted by the Federalist Society and the Wall Street Journal rated Truman as a “near great” president.) Yet Truman’s foreign-policy misjudgments were numerous.
It’s easy to blame the Cold War on any number of things, depending on one’s point of view. But it’s clear that the conflict was at least in part the result of blunders by many American leaders. They were and are leaders with a naive understanding of foreign cultures. Unfortunately, their mistakes are often repeated today.
For instance, the Americans, under the sway of a mindless anti-communism, never needed to make war on the Vietnamese, who, after their victory in 1975, presided over a wrecked country. (Stanley Karnow, in his Vietnam, a History, would entitle his initial chapter “The War Nobody Won.”)
Yet the communist Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh had always been the natural allies of the Americans because of their fears of Chinese imperialism. Unfortunately, American policy-makers, blinded by the Truman Doctrine, could never grasp that. They never seemed to remember the World War II years of cooperation between Americans and Ho’s Viet Minh.
There was also Truman’s tragic misreading of the Chinese communist leaders, which led to a long and deadly Korean War. Upon coming to power in 1949, the Chinese were ready to deal with the Americans, despite their anti-capitalism rhetoric.
The Soviets had been slow to provide help and move out of Manchuria after World War II. They pushed Mao for a coalition government when the Chinese communists believed they were about to win the Chinese Civil War after World War II. That push was part of a litany of double-crosses that Stalin had committed against his supposed Chinese comrades over decades. In the case of Red China, American policy had pitiful results a year later in the Korean War.
The tragedy of Korea
America’s military clash with the Chinese in the Korean War might have been avoided or limited. Kennan and a few others wanted the United States to stop at the South Korean/North Korean border and not advance. They cautioned that both the Soviets and the Chinese would be alarmed. And had China and the United States merely had diplomatic or some other kind of relations, that part of the war might have never happened.
The problem, says Robert Dallek, in The Lost Peace, is that both sides turned up the rhetoric at the end of the 1940s. “But all the apocalyptic talk in the U.S. and Peking and Moscow about destroying communism and capitalism made more rational decisions on both sides all but impossible,” he writes.
Here was a war between China and the United States that might have been avoided if U.S. troops had stayed clear of the Chinese border. Victorious American troops, who had beaten most of the North Korean army and moved close to the Chinese border, were confident that they were about to win the final battle of the war.
The UN/U.S. commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, told Truman that the Red Chinese would never intervene. And even if they did, he said they would never be able to bring significant forces into the war because most of them would be destroyed by American air power.
MacArthur, like the “best and brightest” of the later Kennedy/Johnson administrations who believed American power would prevail in Vietnam, was wrong. (MacArthur, by the way, met with John Kennedy in 1962. And, to the surprise of Kennedy, he warned him against sending more troops to Vietnam.)
The Chinese attack in the winter of 1950-51 was a “catastrophe,” wrote Walter Millis in Arms and Men. Of a war with China in 1950, Gen. Omar Bradley had famously told Congress it would be “the wrong war in the wrong place with the wrong enemy at the wrong time.”
Yet the wrong war was fought, as have been many others since.
How and why?
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).