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The Decline of American Foreign Policy

ISSUE:  Spring 1987
Independent: A Biography of Lewis W. Douglas. By Paul Browder and Thomas G. Smith. Knopf. $30.00.
The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. By Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. Simon & Shuster. $22.95.

The underlying thesis of these two recent books is the decline of American foreign policy and the erosion of political thought in the past quarter century. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas is an intimate account of the role of six postwar Americans in shaping early Cold War policies. Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George F. Kennan, and Dean Acheson sought to guide both the nation, catapulted into a position of world leadership overnight, and an untutored President Harry S. Truman. During the war, men like Lewis M. Douglas prepared the way for postwar leadership, as Independent, a biography by Robert Paul Browder and Thomas G. Smith, makes clear.

Observers ask what accounts for the influence of this group and the force of their thinking. A first answer is wartime experience. In Dean Rusk’s words: “They had experienced the catastrophe of a World War II which could have been prevented [and] . . .which cost more than 50 million lives.” That same experience was shared by two wartime and post-war generations, that of Lovett and McCloy and of Kennan and Rusk both now passing from the scene. Another explanation is that such leaders at an early age were thrust into leadership roles, producing thereby a considerable body of public servants who had already taken part in foreign affairs by the end of World War II. A third answer is the controlling influence of national interest as the determinant of American foreign policy for the members of this generation. Some were conservatives (Douglas and Lovett) and others liberal (Kennan) but none were in the grip of an overpowering ideological view of the world. A fourth element was the merging of an internationalist viewpoint with a belief in strength and diplomacy as the twin pillars of foreign policy. Internationalism influenced Douglas’s argument with the military over allocation of shipping in World War II when he maintained that “the issue was a simple one. Did we want fighting and equipped allies, or did we prefer to fight alone?” Kennan was the intellectual architect of containment but also the tireless advocate of Soviet-American negotiations. Harriman, although the first of the hard-liners, was also a defender of diplomacy and of measured response. Lovett and McCloy were champions of the restoration of American military power but not at the expense of the economy or a possible accommodation with the Soviets.

The common bond that united the group was service to the nation on behalf of principles more ennobling than narrow partisanship. In Paul Nitze’s phrase: “I have never seen such a panoply of first-class people, who never thought of putting their interests before the nation’s.” As the war came to an end, their fear was of an America turning inward, a citizenry wishing, in Harriman’s words, to “go to the movies and drink coke.” They forged a network of alliances organized to limit Soviet expansionism by power and deterrence. The substance of their response would have been the same, militarily and politically at least, if the threat had been czarist rather than Bolshevik.

The policy-making problems they faced were the perennial ones of bureaucratic infighting and conflicts within and between departments and agencies. Douglas complained to Harriman and Roosevelt that representatives of his War Shipping Administration were excluded from the Casablanca Conference despite the ongoing debate over the division between Allied cargo and U.S. military shipping. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent Charles Bohlen into exile as ambassador to the Philippines when they differed on the nature of the Soviet threat. Perhaps because he saw the complexity of implementing containment through the Truman Doctrine or restoring Europe’s economy within the framework of a universal anti-Communist crusade, Kennan was denied a role in policy-making and finally sought refuge at Princeton.

The sources of strength of the Wise Men, so named when President Johnson turned to them in the depths of the struggle in Vietnam, were bound to diminish because of the populist indictment of elitism. Critics condemned them as an American ruling class. As the English journalist, Henry Fairlie, in 1955 had affixed the title “the Establishment” on the men holding power in Great Britain, Richard Rovere in 1961 in a half-serious parody entitled “Notes on the Establishment in America” identified the American elite with John J. McCloy as its chairman emeritus. In a 1966 speech to the Americans for Democratic Action, John Kenneth Galbraith blamed Vietnam on a foreign policy syndicate of “the Dulles-Lovett-McCloy communion.” He associated them with the “Groton ethic” inculcated by Endicott Peabody in his famous prep school. Membership in a high social class produced its own style of leadership which certain groups of Americans found offensive.

Yet consensus on foreign policy resulted less from common social background—McCloy’s mother was a hairdresser and Kennan never escaped the social inferiority he felt as a student at Princeton—and more from a continuing process of intellectual interaction that molded foreign policy thinking. The Wise Men shared in a discourse on foreign policy and defense. In the 1930’s, Kennan and Bohlen helped shape one another’s thinking about the Soviets, and Harriman had an impact on McCloy and Acheson. The group went back to a common intellectual tradition. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Lovett spoke of approaching the problem “as Colonel Stimson would,” the Wall Street lawyer who served both as Secretary of War and Secretary of State under Presidents Taft, Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Proceeding from Wilsonian internationalism, the Wise Men rethought and redefined that viewpoint. They were pragmatists before they were internationalists and Isaacson and Thomas may mislead when they speak of them as “architects of the American Century,” a designation better reserved for founder of Time-Life publications Henry Luce. Only to the extent, they oversold and oversimplified policies in order to gain congressional and popular support for initiatives like the Truman Doctrine and NATO can they be criticized for globalist illusions. If the left in American politics found “the Establishment” driven by ambition for world empire, the right tried to expose it as a gigantic conspiracy. Thus critics on the extremes help us locate the center of gravity of the movement.

Why do we look back then with a certain nostalgia to the postwar establishment in foreign policy? What changed and what went awry for their successors? Of the former, it can be said that with all their failings, the postwar gentlemen-public servants had the self-confidence that is ideally the hallmark of an aristocracy. They knew success outside government, and not one of them moved from public life to influence peddling consulting firms. Their sins were not those of greed and venality. In practice, they understood both the importance and limit of power. Yet their legacy was more impressive in the building of “situations of strength” than in negotiating from strength. Possibly because, with the exception of Kennan, they were doers not theorists, they did little to prepare their successors for the management of power nor did they moderate the claims which had been made for certain policies especially by Acheson. What followed were missed opportunities in arms control, inconclusive responses to the death of Stalin, delayed reactions to the Sino-Soviet split, and, finally, the tragedy of Vietnam.

The Wise Men and Independent take us back to an era in American foreign policy with lessons both positive and negative for the future. The two books can also be valued as safeguards and constraints against the excesses of a more recent era.


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