Historians try to do the impossible: recreate and preserve the past. We do so knowing that the product, even at its most encyclopedic, will inevitably be imperfect and incomplete. The resultant telescoping of events can have the effect of robbing the past of its fullness and complexity.
In diplomatic history, what is sometimes lost in the retelling is the deliberative part of policy-making. That is certainly true in popular versions of history. In our haste, we too often cut to the chase: the decision. In memory, we see decision rather than deliberation. The danger is that it then becomes easy to forget the deliberation ever happened.
When this tendency infects politics and punditry at a tumultuous time, we get the kind of excitable hand-wringing that has dominated both fields for the last several weeks. John McCain and Lindsey Graham fret in the New York Times that President Obama is “dithering” on ISIS. The second ISIS video showing the beheading of an American journalist adds to the sense of urgency that something—and one suspects, in the minds of some people, anything—must be done. Maureen Dowd blasts Obama’s deliberations and absurdly asserts that “panic is a sign of clear thinking.” David Brooks longs for the post-World War II visionary decisiveness of Harry Truman, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson.
Brooks, with his “the sky is falling” alarmism about the state of the world, makes some truly astounding statements. Incredibly, he asserts: “There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can.”
Centuries? Does Brooks not know that the 19th century saw the western states “gobble up” much of the rest of the world? Does he think that doesn’t count because their empires were not often immediately “around them”? Did the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 not count simply because the U.S. didn’t annex the country?
That absurdity aside, his main point is that “Putin and ISIS … are threats to our civilizational order.” He longs for “a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.” That, he argues, is what Truman, Marshall, and Acheson did after World War II.
Brooks is guilty of the kind of telescoping I mentioned above. With the Truman Doctrine, he says, those leaders were “establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.”
What Brooks does not mention is that the policy of containment was not fully formed or articulated until nearly two years after the defeat of Hitler. As Alonzo Hamby puts it in Man of the People, his biography of Truman, “[a]s late as the fall of 1946, [Truman] presided over a foreign policy that was more a response to disparate crises than a strategically unified whole.” Sounds familiar.
While there were voices in his administration calling for a tougher line on the Soviet Union, Truman himself was often seen by critics as vacillating between a soft and hard approach. According to Hamby, the Truman Doctrine speech—seen by Brooks as emblematic of a clear vision of the rules of civilization—was “[l]ess the product of a consciously formulated strategy than of a rush of events that demanded a decision.” Again, sounds familiar.
Brooks says: “People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era.” Perhaps, but that is only because, in retrospect, we can conveniently forget the nearly two years of indecision that preceded the Truman Doctrine speech. That shadow is cast primarily by a romanticized notion of the past that emerges out of ignorance of its complexity.
It also seems worth noting that the proposals Truman made in that March 1947 speech were fairly modest. There was no call for American military intervention, no boots on the ground, no air strikes–just a statement of political support for the Greek government and a fairly modest proposal to increase financial aid to it. In short, it was not at all unlike the statements of support for Ukraine and Iraq that Obama has made.
No doubt Brooks would object that it was the principle Truman announced, not the specific proposals, that mattered: “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” Truman said.
Any student of the cold war knows, however, that the stark universalism of that statement, its refusal to distinguish carefully between vital and peripheral issues, led to disasters like the American war in Vietnam, and led the “father of containment,” George Kennan, to decry what his idea became in practice.
In addition, when Truman prudently recognized the limits of American power in China, he was savagely lambasted by reactionary politicians who blamed him for “losing” China, and not living up to the universalism of his own doctrine. Rep. Richard Nixon denounced Dean Acheson as an appeaser, referring sneeringly to “Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” Sen. William Jenner said that Gen. George Marshall was “a living lie” who was “eager to play the role of a front man for traitors.” Joe McCarthy accused Marshall of being part of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Such are the political costs of recognizing the limits of American power.
Despite all of the carping of the critics, Obama’s deliberations, his refusal to engage in dramatic, impulsive gestures that may do more harm than good, his desire to line up allies for a concerted, considered, long-term response to the challenges represented by Putin and ISIS represent the historical policy-making norm, not dangerous “dithering.”
Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.