American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 2000

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ETWEEN 1945, WHEN WORLD WAR II ENDED, and 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, we lived in a bipolar world. Since 1991, the United States has been the only superpower. Remarkable opportunities open to a nation with global reach, but with the opportunities come responsibilities and burdens. Diligent leadership from the global power proves essential to maintaining international order, resolving crises, and enabling human progress. And the problems have become more complex and less tractable. This essay will sketch the world America faced in 1950, and the world it faces in the millennium of 2000. It will examine the performance of the American people and their government at those two junctures, and will speculate on what the next half-century may bring in the foreign relations of the United States.

There has always been a thread of self-sufficiency in the American character, a preference for remaining independent of other nations, uninvolved in other peoples’ problems. George Washington’s farewell address of 7 September 1796 is often cited:

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.

Self-absorption is not surprising in a population of immigrants who abandoned other continents to find their own new life. For 150 years, Americans were preoccupied advancing their frontiers across a continent. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans provided natural barriers. When you can travel 3,000 miles speaking English, foreign languages and foreign countries seem less relevant.

The American market became so huge that American producers were hard pressed to supply it. American manufacturers lagged in adapting products to the tastes and needs of overseas consumers. As late as the 1970’s, while Japanese automobile manufacturers captured more and more of the American market, Detroit still resisted building cars for export with the steering wheel on the right. Only in the last thirty years has production for markets abroad become of central importance in the American scheme of things.

Historically, the trauma of war has reinforced America’s intuitive tendency to keep to itself. The United States resisted involvement in World War I for as long as it could, and then, following the war, demobilized rapidly and turned inwards, rejecting participation in the League of Nations which its own president had sponsored. The high tariffs of the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 insulated American industry from the stimulus of foreign competition, and limited the access of American consumers to inexpensive foreign goods. The United States seemed to prefer isolation.

America remained aloof as Hitler advanced across Europe. Defeat of the democracies would have imperiled the United States, but year after year Americans equivocated and delayed, until their hand was forced by the Japanese.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the United States demobilized urgently, turning with relief to domestic concerns, and was at first inattentive to the impending Soviet threat. There were 12.1 million Americans in uniform in 1945. One year later, this number had dropped to three million and continued rapidly to decline, while the Soviets maintained their far larger armies. But the aggressive behavior and the unmistakable expansionism of the Soviet Union obliged the United States to change course, and it did so.

During nearly half a century of Cold War, the United States set aside its inclination to stand apart from the world in order to compete vigorously with the Soviet Union. Political partisanship, normally inherent in a two-party democracy, was largely suspended in regard to foreign policy and national security. Now, as we approach the year 2000, both the international agenda and the circumstances of international relations have changed dramatically. American engagement in world affairs, and steadfast American leadership, are now even more necessary than they were during the Cold War.

However, in the absence of a clear foreign threat, and without robust leadership in Washington, the old American predisposition to concentrate upon problems at home, and to allocate resources to domestic needs at the expense of international matters, has re-emerged. This is a troubling phenomenon. How long it persists will bear upon the international position and the welfare of the United States in the next fifty years.

   The United States and the World at Mid-Century

Between the Yalta Conference (February 1945) and the invasion of South Korea (June 1950), the United States, already the world’s largest economy, transformed itself from a reluctant participant in European and Asian affairs into a committed global power and the leader of the free world. These five years — 1945 to 1950 — were a watershed in American history, comparable to the periods 1776 to 1789 and 1861 to 1865.

A generation of great American leaders — Roosevelt, Stimson, Marshall, Acheson, Truman, Eisenhower — had learned from their experience following World War I, when the allies’ harsh punishment of Germany had contributed to the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism. The League of Nations, ill-designed and without American support, had failed. Protectionism had impeded economic growth. Even in the midst of World War II, Americans were seeking ways to prevent a repetition of the earlier errors.

In the Moscow Declaration of October 1943, the United States, United Kingdom, the USSR, and China called for a new and stronger world organization to replace the League. The United Nations Charter was negotiated in San Francisco in the spring of 1945 and became effective in January 1946. In response to American leadership (and the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) the UN was seated in New York.

Similarly, at the Bretton Woods Conference of July 1944, which prepared for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to be established in Washington the following year, the American delegation under Dean Acheson worked for an open and global economic system. They believed — correctly — that this would benefit the United States. Three years later, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) established a standing mechanism to reduce trade barriers.

Franklin Roosevelt, at Yalta and then during the two months of life remaining to him, closed his eyes to mounting evidence of Soviet post-war intentions. He was determined to maintain grounds for cooperation with his wartime ally and, despite repeated warnings from Winston Churchill, believed he could work with “Uncle Joe.” Harry Truman, although indignant about Soviet duplicity over Poland, apparently felt the same after his first meeting with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference (July 1945). Truman learned while at the conference that America had successfully tested the atomic bomb, and he immediately informed Stalin. From Potsdam, Truman authorized use of the bomb against Japan, which ended the war three weeks later.

By mid-1946, in light of Soviet actions and the deep concern and mistrust expressed by American diplomats (particularly Averill Harriman and his deputy George Kennan in Moscow), American opinion began to harden against Soviet expansionism, the harsh domination of satellite countries in Eastern Europe, and Russian manipulation of communist parties further to the west.

In early 1947, the British informed the United States Government that they could no longer afford the military and economic backing essential to prevent Greece and Turkey from slipping under Soviet control. On February 27, Truman called Congressional leaders, including notably Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, to the White House, where Marshall and Acheson explained the nature of the crisis and the likelihood that if Greece fell to communism other countries would follow. There was bipartisan support for the defense of democracy and freedom. This thesis became the Truman Doctrine, and Congress voted the substantial appropriations requested.

Events moved rapidly. At the Harvard Commencement in June 1947 General Marshall proposed his plan for the reconstruction of Europe, involving a massive expenditure of $17 billion. Congress approved after long debate in April 1948. The Soviets , although nominally invited to participate, declined, hardening the East–West split. George Kennan’s “X” article in the summer of 1947 in Foreign Affairs advocated determined, systematic containment of Soviet expansionism, a doctrine which in essence was to guide the United States for the next four and a half decades.

In July 1947, Congress passed the landmark National Security Act, which established a unified Department of Defense, the National Security Council system, and the Central Intelligence Agency, reforms which were to prove crucial to effective American prosecution of the Cold War.

When the Soviet Union imposed a blockade of surface access to Berlin in June 1948, the United States responded with the brilliantly successful Berlin Airlift. The United States was now determined to stand up to the USSR. The North Atlantic Treaty and the establishment of NATO were ratified overwhelmingly by the Senate in July 1949. This completed the alliance system which, under firm American leadership, would permit the West to prevail over the coming forty-two years of Cold War. One other achievement of this remarkable era should be cited: the Foreign Service Act of 1946, which assured a professional, disciplined and effective American diplomatic service.

Thus, by 1950, five tumultuous years of events and decisions had forged a United States unified in its determination to block the expansion of Soviet power, braced to allocate the resources needed, comfortable with the ideological underpinning of its strategy, equipped and able to lead the free world in a sustained test of strength and diplomacy. America had overcome, at least for a time, its inborn preference to remain aloof from international contention. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United States was prepared to remobilize, and it worked skillfully through the United Nations to legitimize its stand against communist belligerence.




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