Truman and the Principles of U.S. Foreign Policy

by Victor Davis Hanson

Wall Street Journal

Jimmy Carter rejected the postwar consensus. President Obama appears to be following a similar path.

Upon entering office, Barack Obama knew little about foreign policy. But then neither did Vice President Harry S. Truman when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945.

President Obama often invokes the supposed mess abroad — especially in Iraq and Afghanistan — left to him by George W. Bush. But Mr. Obama’s inheritance is mild compared to the myriad crises that nearly overwhelmed the rookie President Truman.

All at once Truman had to finish the struggle against Hitler, occupy Europe, and deal with a nominally allied but increasingly bellicose and ascendant Soviet Union. Within months of taking office he had to make the awful decision to drop atomic bombs on Imperial Japan.

At war’s end, Truman was faced with a global propaganda nightmare. Stalin’s victorious Soviet Union — soon to be nuclear — cynically posed as the egalitarian leader for millions of war-impoverished and newly liberated colonial peoples. In contrast, America accepted the difficult responsibility and expense of rebuilding the destitute former European colonial powers and rehabilitating ex-Axis Japan and Germany.

Some of Truman’s initial military decisions proved nearly disastrous. After the atomic bombs forced Japan’s surrender, he was stubbornly convinced that a nuclear air force could ensure American security on the cheap.

The result was that between 1946 and 1949 Truman tried to emasculate the Marine Corps. He mothballed much of the Navy and slashed the Army. Only the Communist invasion of South Korea in the summer of 1950 finally woke him to the reality that there would still be plenty of limited conventional threats in the Cold War, and that he’d better rearm if the U.S. was going to protect its interests and allies.

But the public had already lost confidence in Truman’s military leadership during the so-called Revolt of the Admirals in spring and summer 1949, when top Navy officials blasted the president’s plans to reduce conventional maritime forces. In just four years (between 1947 and 1951), Truman went through four secretaries of defense.

His necessary firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 set off an even greater firestorm. For months Truman had allowed MacArthur far too much leeway to attack his civilian superiors. But when Truman finally dismissed him, he did so in clumsy fashion that won the general iconic status and only fueled doubts about the commander in chief.

No matter: Truman constantly learned from his mistakes. Gradually, the president shed his Wilsonian trust that there would be a postwar global consensus under the aegis of the new United Nations. Instead, he came to believe that too many trans-Atlantic diplomatic elites had been terribly naïve about Stalin’s murderous agenda.

Against the advice of his angry State Department, Truman supported the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. The Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan, the salvation of Greece and Turkey, and success pushing the Communists north of the 38th parallel in Korea all established the parameters of the next half-century of bipartisan American foreign policy. To craft a strategy of communist containment, Truman brought in conservative advisers like Paul Nitze, while working closely with Republican Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg.

Truman’s no-nonsense Secretary of State Dean Acheson summed up the president’s doctrines: “Released from the acceptance of a dogma that builders and wreckers of a new world order could and should work happily and successfully together, he was free to combine our power and coordinate our action with those who did have a common purpose.”

Ever since, most Democrats have embraced Truman’s “common purpose.” That means containing rival anti-Western ideologies, establishing alliances of similarly-minded democratic allies, and periodically standing up to regional thugs.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a departure from this strategy. Mr. Carter started out cutting defense. He questioned the U.S. commitment to South Korea and offered homilies about the inordinate fear of communism. Then there was the short-sighted decision to arm radical Islamists in Pakistan, the abrupt abandonment of the previously allied Shah of Iran, and initial courting of the exiled radical Ruhollah Khomeini. The president seemed stunned into inaction by the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis and the rise of militant Islam. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Communist inroads into Central America, and the alienation of European governments further weakened American interests.

Mr. Obama exhibits both the initial inexperience — and some of the naïveté — of Harry Truman when he took office. He has framed the challenge of radical Islam largely in terms of what a contrite America must do to apologize to the Muslim world, instead of addressing endemic religious intolerance, autocracy, statist economies, tribalism and gender apartheid that help fuel extremism.

The Obama administration reaches out to enemies such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al Assad, the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez. It pays far less attention to British, Colombian, French, Israeli and Japanese allies. In unilateral fashion we withdrew promises of land-based antiballistic missile defense from Eastern Europe, giddy that we might appease the Russians into abrogating their patronage of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But so far the centrifuges keep spinning while we appear unreliable to friends, compliant to rivals, and weak to enemies. The administration has also promised greater support to the U.N., seemingly unworried that the organization’s illiberal majority has often appeased or abetted autocratic governments.

Will an inexperienced Barack Obama, in the fashion of Harry Truman, learn quickly that the world is chaotic and unstable — best dealt with through strength and unabashed confidence in America’s historic role galvanizing democratic allies to confront illiberal aggressors?

Or will a sermonizing Mr. Obama follow the aberrant Democratic path of the sanctimonious Jimmy Carter: finger-wagging at allies, appeasing enemies, publicly faulting his less than perfect predecessors, and hectoring the American people to evolve beyond their supposed prejudices?

America awaits the president’s choice. The world’s safety hinges upon it.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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