In reviewing the history of the English Government, its wars and taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice, not warped by interest, would declare,that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes. — Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man
America in the post–World War II period, as recorded in this series, followed a road to empire that was familiar to our exhausted, nearly bankrupt British ally in 1945. Perpetual-war policies, which Thomas Paine described “as the art of conquering at home,” impoverished Britain and are today destroying the United States.
However, the policy, as it was initiated in postwar America, had its dissenters. Those dissenters included both those who opposed interventionism in principle and others who opposed interventionist methods.
Indeed, the bipartisan, anti-communist post–World War II foreign policy, the policy of containment as hammered out by Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson with the initial support of State Department advisor George Kennan, broke down by the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Previously, both parties had generally accepted the Truman Doctrine and NATO, with all their interventions and nation-building.
But the “loss” of China in 1949 and the disasters of the Korean War presented Republicans with political opportunities many would exploit. Some, such as Sen. Richard Nixon, would actually argue that Truman and Acheson were communist dupes.
Partisanship in foreign policy, combined with the realization that the presidency was arrogating powers at the expense of Congress, would bring an end to the anti-communist consensus. But it did not end the mindless anti-communism or the garrison state that came with it.
Still, there were a few maverick members of Congress who thought there was more at stake than just a foreign-policy disagreement. Those mavericks would fear the institutional arrogation of powers in which Congress became irrelevant in foreign policy and war-making. That is what one commentator has called “presidentialism.”
Presidentialism represents “the unilateral executive,” a president above the law, as described in the book Madison’s Nightmare, by Peter M. Shane. It is the imperial system Americans live with today and it is very different from how their nation began.
“What would doubtless astonish the Framers most,” the historian and philosopher Robert Nisbet wrote in the late 1980s, “is that their precious republic had become an imperial power in the world, much like the Great Britain they had hated in the eighteenth century. Finally, the Framers would almost certainly swoon when they learned that America has been participant in the Seventy-Five Years War that has gone on, rarely punctuated, since 1914,” he wrote in The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America.
What had Truman, and his successors who accepted his system, done?
Imperial foreign policy
In effect, presidents announced that the United States of the mid 20th century, with the same pretensions that characterized the British Empire of the 19th century, would decide how other nations would develop and evolve. Truman and succeeding presidents accepted the view of the world of Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life in the 1940s, who had called for an “American Century.”
The 20th century would be a century, Luce wrote, in which the United States would “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert on the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit.” That last phrase, “as we see fit,” is the phrase that inevitably would lead to an ugly American syndrome, in which an American elite, a so-called best and brightest, would take it upon themselves to remake the world in their image.
The justification was that America was giving democracy — their version of democracy — to parts of the world that had never had it. It is that nation-building idea that both major political parties implicitly or explicitly accept today. Anyone dissenting from that view is branded an isolationist.
Although both major parties would disagree after 1949 about how to carry out an imperial foreign policy, they would still concur on the broad outlines of the garrison state: a permanently large military establishment — well in excess of anything the nation would need to defend itself — as the bedrock of a national security state, much of which is beyond the review of Congress.
Yet even within that broad agreement, bitter controversies erupted over methods. Parts of both major parties sought to establish their bona fides as the more effective anti-communists. They looked for political gains over issues such as loyalty oaths, who was to blame for communist victories abroad, and fictitious missile gaps.
Numerous Republicans in the early 1950s, frustrated that their party had lost five consecutive presidential elections, believed communism could help them regain the White House: Truman supposedly wasn’t tough enough in carrying out the anti-communist policy.
Yet, as we have seen repeatedly in this series, the claim of Truman’s supposed softness on the Reds was untrue. Indeed, Truman’s acceptance of military containment had created a Frankenstein monster, one that Republicans unleashed.
By the beginning of 1950, “the attack of the primitives,” as Acheson acidly termed the Republican anti-communists in his memoirs, “was reaching new heights — and finding new ammunition,” wrote Daniel Yergin in Shattered Peace.
Two years later the Republicans, riding into the presidency, would carry the anti-communist policy further. They would accuse Democrats of being “soft” on communism. Sen. Joe McCarthy, Wisconsin Republican, called the two decades of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies “twenty years of treason.”
Democrats, many Republicans said, did more than accept post–World War II Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe. They had “given away” those countries, as though they had somehow belonged to the United States.
But Republicans, who in the 1952 election had rejected the leadership of the “isolationist” Robert Taft, promised that they would go beyond containment. They promised a policy of “liberation.” Here was another sad chapter in American foreign policy.
Liberation was a policy with tragic consequences. When East Europeans revolted against Soviet-backed regimes in the 1950s, they found that U.S. military aid did not come. It was a result repeated countless other times in the postwar world and as recently as in Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when rebelling Kurds and Shi’ites, egged on by Americans, were massacred.
Many policymakers, such as Eisenhower’s secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, talked a good game of liberation in the 1950s. But who would risk World War III in an age when both major powers had atomic weapons, and when even the lesser powers, such as France and Britain, were working on developing such weapons?
Nevertheless the whole Republican policy of getting tough with the Soviets, a policy embraced by many Democrats, was a sham. It was similar to John Kennedy’s later call for a leviathan state that “would pay any price.”
The irony of Truman’s supposed soft-on-communism policy is that it was actually the Democrats who started the get-tough- with-communism policy. And as we have seen in previous segments, it was the party of Truman that succeeded in destroying what remained of the no-alliance foreign-policy tradition.
The transforming spirit
Despite the evils of Senator McCarthy’s run-amok anti-communism, the post–World War II Red hunt began not with McCarthy. It began with the infamous loyalty oaths of the Truman administration. (Actually, the first Red hunt had been carried out under another Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, whom Truman idolized.)
The loyalty oaths, significantly enough, started with an executive order issued just after the Truman Doctrine speech, which has been identified as a key point in the birth of the permanent warfare state. The order was executed some three years before McCarthy became a national factor with his famous February 1950 Wheeling, West Virginia, speech. That’s where McCarthy claimed the State Department was riddled with communists. The domestic Red hunt went along with the commitment to intervene in civil wars abroad if some communist element could be shown to be present through the principles expounded in NSC-68.
The two major parties in the 1940s and 1950s started to compete to see which one could do the most damage to the anti-alliance, pro-trade policies of George Washington. It was clear that the nation was headed down the path to a permanent warfare state.
In 1961, John Kennedy, whose record on opposing McCarthy was no profile in courage, became president. He won the presidency, in part, by convincing Americans of what turned out to be a specious nuclear missile gap. The speciousness of it was later conceded by Kennedy’s people. Nevertheless, the administration went ahead with a Cold War and counterrevolution policy. It sent the first U.S. troops to Vietnam. It gave approval for regime change in Saigon. That was a horrible amoral policy that by the 1960s was becoming a foreign-policy addiction. It of course required more arms spending and more flawed Cold-War nation-building policies.
Decades after Truman’s presidency, Sen. J. William Fulbright, the long-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1960s and 1970s, would concede that the cold warriors had taken over foreign policy.
“More than any other factor, the anti-communism of the Truman Doctrine has been the guiding spirit of American Foreign Policy since World War II,” he wrote in his book The Crippled Giant. This anti-communism helped to transform the United States from a nation with a no-permanent-alliance foreign policy into one that now has bases in more than 100 nations.
But under the policy of the permanent warfare state the United States became something very different. It became an imperial garrison state that would enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and set up the CIA. The latter came to be the main agency used for toppling governments, under the National Security Act of 1947.
The United States would learn to live with permanently high military budgets that were clearly excessive. Before, defense budgets would have been pared once a war was over. Before, high defense spending would have been a political albatross to be jettisoned as soon as possible. Before, those policies would have been intolerable.
The United States also has high defense budgets today in part because its partners in NATO and other military alliances are “free riders,” according to Melvyn Krauss in How NATO Weakens the West. Krauss, a conservative, concedes that NATO “is making our allies weak.”
Since America’s NATO partners have let their armed forces run down, the United States is required to spend more and more protecting them. In a famous article in The New York Review of Books in the 1980s, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that America’s unequal alliance with the Europeans hurts both America and her allies.
“Dependency corrupts,” he warned, “and not only the dependent partners but also the oversized partner who is making decisions almost singlehandedly.” The changes wrought by NSC-68, the Truman Doctrine, and the founding of NATO took place a long time ago, probably before most of us were born. However, as with a key decision on an entitlement program made decades ago — such as the decision to greatly expand Social Security during the 1972 election with little examination of future costs — the consequences are felt by taxpayers for generations to come.
But the greatest consequence of the warfare state is not economic. The change is more basic. We are not the same people who once condemned empires. We are not the same people who were once suspicious, even sometimes antagonistic, about the moral and economic effects of militarism. How can we return to our roots? We will look at that subject in the final segments of this series.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 edition of Future of Freedom. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).