Blogs > Cliopatria > Alonzo Hamby: Review of Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism

Oct 23, 2006 2:39 pm

Alonzo Hamby: Review of Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism

[Alonzo L. Hamby, distinguished professor of history at Ohio University, is the author of Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman and, more recently, For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.]

In June 1941, just after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, Senator Harry S. Truman commented: "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them think anything of their pledged word."

The sentiment was common at the time. Nonetheless, it would haunt Truman after he unexpectedly became president on April 12, 1945, and found himself forced to deal with a Soviet nation that had become an important and oft-sentimentalized wartime ally. In later years, a generation of New Left historians would cite Truman's off-the-cuff remark as evidence of a reactionary and mean-spirited attitude that led to a long, needless Cold War. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding sees Truman's words as evidence of his insight: Her assertion that he was "the first Cold Warrior" is meant as a tribute. He was, she believes, the authentic author of containment.

Most of us probably think containment was developed by George F. Kennan a year or so after the end of World War II--first in a "long telegram" from the American embassy in Moscow, then in the anonymous "X" article ("The Sources of Soviet Conduct") for Foreign Affairs about a year later. Spalding reminds us that the containment Kennan, a classical "realist," advocated would have been weak and ineffectual. The containment that Harry Truman implemented--based on ideological politics and a "universalist" doctrine--was robust, got the job done, and stemmed directly from Truman's innermost convictions.

Foreign policy realism, once a doctrine of arch-conservatives such as Metternich and Bismarck, has been in bad odor among American conservatives for a generation now. Spalding is one of many intellectuals on the right who have found forceful advocacy of democracy at once exhilarating and effective. They contrast what they believe to be the defeatist compromising of realists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to Ronald Reagan's blunt ideological Cold War-ending rhetoric. In this book, Kennan is a proxy for Nixon and Kissinger, Truman a proxy for Reagan.

The author, a political scientist trained in foreign policy, international relations theory, and political thought, concentrates on the intellectual basis of the Cold War. Her central concern is an implied contest of ideas between Truman and Kennan. Truman prevails as surely and as surprisingly as he prevailed over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.

George F. Kennan, who died last year at the age of 101, was for a half-century a hallowed name among scholars of American foreign relations. Cousin of an important late 19th-century writer on Russia, educated at Princeton, trained to be a Russian specialist in the Foreign Service of the 1920s, he was minister-counselor at the American embassy in Moscow by the end of World War II. A "long telegram" he sent from there to Washington in February 1946 provided a new and much-needed paradigm to an American foreign policy establishment befuddled by manifestations of discord and hostility from the Soviets.

The Soviet Union, motivated by a combination of ideology and historic Russian expansionism, Kennan asserted, was implacably expansionist and irredeemably hostile to the Western world. Unlike Nazi Germany, however, it had no timetable. "Impervious to logic of reason . . . it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw--and usually does--when strong resistance is countered at any point."

Read by administration officials from the president on down, the telegram was the catalyst for a policy of containing Soviet ambitions, primarily in Europe and the Middle East. A little over a year later, President Truman asked Congress for a package of aid to Greece and Turkey, both threatened by Soviet designs. He also proclaimed the Truman Doctrine: "[I]t must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

Kennan, by then back in Washington and head of the State Department's Policy Planning staff, approved of the aid program. His concern, which remained private until he left the Foreign Service, centered on Truman's doctrine. He later wrote that it "placed our aid to Greece in the framework of a universal policy" and established an open-ended commitment. What Truman saw as a ringing endorsement of democratic self-determination, Kennan envisioned as a millennial declaration that severed necessary and inevitable relationships between ends and means.

In the beginning, these were qualms. Aid to Greece and Turkey was a rousing success. Moreover, the Truman Doctrine was overshadowed by the Marshall Plan, which greatly facilitated the economic recovery of war-ravaged Western Europe and effectively stalled Communist drives for power in France and Italy. As Kennan noted at the time, the Marshall Plan did not represent a universal model. Europe's needs were "clear in outline, readily susceptible of short-term solution, and of urgent importance to the interests of this country."

A broader public thought Kennan was the author of the Truman Doctrine and an anti-Communist paladin. In fact, he was a professional diplomat of the highest caliber trained in a traditional school of foreign policy "realism," a deceptively simple term that deserves more exploration than it gets in this study. Realism can vary considerably with the temperament of a particular realist, but it has certain general characteristics.

Realists reject moralistic approaches to the conduct of diplomacy, which they believe should be about the advancement of national interests--limited and sharply defined. The means by which interests are pursued must be feasible. Realism, as Kennan understood it, took national power--military and otherwise--into account, but it was primarily about compromise and finding a tolerable balance of power among adversaries. Cognizant of Communist millennialism, Kennan worried about a dangerous and costly American counterpart. By and large, he thought the United States could and should deal with the Soviet Union as if it were a traditional nation state. No pacifist, he favored a limited military response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950; but like most Western liberal diplomats, he thought the task of diplomacy was the avoidance of war.

He also preferred a diplomacy unsullied by politicians. Writing of the obsequious State Department deference to Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican leader who made Truman's foreign policy possible, Kennan commented: "I could not accept the assumption that Senators were all such idiots that they deserved admiring applause every time they could be persuaded by the State Department to do something sensible." Here was an unabashed elitist, downright disapproving of democratic politics.

By 1949, George Kennan was perhaps the most visible Foreign Service officer in American history. He also was probably the most misunderstood, and increasingly at odds with his superiors. He had seen the Berlin blockade of 1948-49 as an opportunity for a diplomatic initiative to establish a reunified, demilitarized Germany. Instead, the United States and its allies resorted to a dramatic and successful airlift. The establishment of West and East German states followed. When the Western European allies sought American defense guarantees, Kennan quietly opposed the resulting North Atlantic Treaty and the establishment of NATO. Spalding's treatment of Kennan is a bit one-dimensional, but she is unequivocally correct in declaring that his response to Soviet imperialism was far too tepid.

The new secretary of state, Dean Acheson, thought Kennan impossibly soft-minded, eased him out as Policy Planning director, and replaced him with Paul Nitze. Nitze was soon at work on NSC-68, a policy statement that embraced ideological struggle and called for a vigorous rearmament program to counter a worldwide Communist threat. Spalding is on firm ground when she argues that the document is best read as a statement of values and a long-term strategy of waiting-out the Soviet Union rather than as preparation for an inevitable global war. But let it be noted also that Acheson and Nitze had no particular quarrel with Kennan about realism. They clearly considered themselves realists, more so than Kennan because they felt that effective containment required hard military power.

Spalding places Truman at the end of a continuum of the three major Democratic presidents of the 20th century, all of whom presented themselves as defenders of liberal democracy: Woodrow Wilson, who put all his faith in a universal international assembly; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who conceived of the neo-Wilsonian United Nations as an idealistic cover for the practice of power politics; and Truman, for whom "free peoples and free governments were always more essential . . . than any specific international organization."

An ideologically driven maker of American foreign policy at a time when one was badly needed, Truman was willing to spend military and economic resources to fulfill his sense of America's mission in the world. His version of containment--deployment of the Navy to the eastern Mediterranean, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, and a limited military intervention in Korea--was much more ambitious than Kennan's. Yet Truman considered himself a Wilsonian and had admired Wilson for more than 30 years when he became president. He likewise considered himself a Rooseveltian and never missed a chance to tell people he was pursuing what he believed to be FDR's policies.

Truman's ideas on foreign relations were never as fully developed as Kennan's, but they had a long history, dating from his service in World War I. As a senator (1935-45), he had been increasingly apprehensive about the menace of totalitarianism, strongly supportive of large increases in the military budget, and anti-isolationist. There was no doubt in his mind about the efficacy and the righteousness of American power.

Always skeptical of the Soviet Union, Truman was nonetheless committed to the alliance when he became president and especially anxious to secure Soviet participation in the final stage of the war against Japan. His divided impulses took him back and forth. At first bluntly protesting Soviet failure to adhere to the letter of the Yalta agreements on Poland, he backed off in order to secure Soviet cooperation on the establishment of the United Nations. A graduate of the notorious Pendergast machine in Kansas City, he knew that the term "free elections" was a relative one. An honest man who had come up the political ladder surrounded by crooks and grafters, he had long, firsthand experience in dealing with moral ambiguity. Meeting Stalin at Potsdam, he saw, as did many other Americans, a Russian version of a tough American political boss who might give his word reluctantly but would keep his pledges.

Mounting tensions over Soviet behavior in Iran, Turkey, and Greece, continued consolidations of Soviet power in Eastern Europe, and squabbling over the sharing of atomic energy led Truman to believe, by early 1946, that Moscow was more foe than friend. Kennan's long telegram doubtless helped crystallize these sentiments for him. Aside from retaining areas already under its military occupation, the Soviet Union tended to back off when confronted with American firmness, thereby vindicating both Kennan's analysis and Truman's instincts.

Truman's foreign policy, despite Kennan's fears, was selective about the fights it picked, defending only the defensible: Western Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It wrote off China as less essential to American interests and beyond American resources. Far from defining the Cold War as a military confrontation, Truman slashed military expenditures with reckless abandon until the Korean war forced a reversal. Even then, the administration kept the Korean fighting localized. The president did not sign off on NSC-68 until the Korean war was three months old.

Truman's farewell speech as president, in 1953, reflected his considered sentiments. The use of nuclear weapons and the consequences of a nuclear war were unthinkable, he declared. The Communist world operated under a set of fatally flawed assumptions. To block Soviet expansion was to guarantee eventual change in the Soviet Union. "In the long run," he declared, "the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man." Operationally, the sentiment was little different from Kennan's prescription, but it was backed by more power and push than Kennan would have preferred.

Spalding tends to depict Kennan and Truman as polar opposites. She is strongest in her argument that Kennan saw the Cold War as just another episode in a long international history of balance of power politics and had an excessively limited view of American power (soft and hard), weakest in her assertion that he posited "moral equivalence" between the Communist and liberal democratic worlds. Kennan clearly detested Stalinism, but he was a midlevel diplomat trained to deal with the world as it was, not as he would have preferred it to be.

Vision and ideals have to come from the top. Truman had both, and he understood that they had to be expressed as simple truths. A hard, practical politician, he realized that the wider world, as much as his own domestic political universe, was riddled with imperfections that would not disappear overnight. He appears to have arrived at something approaching Reinhold Niebuhr's sense that moral behavior was difficult and ambiguous in an amoral world. Nonetheless, Spalding makes rather too much of his religious faith, which was real but more nominal than it may seem from the perspective of an age in which atheism has become the default religion of the intellectuals and Christianity has been relegated to the status of a cult.

She subjects key texts by both Kennan and Truman to the close analysis reserved for systematic political thought. Neither man, however, was a systematic thinker. In the end Truman's temperament was more important than his intellect, and Kennan never quite grasped the need for a guiding cause in American foreign policy. The differences between them were substantial but less fundamental than the author would have us believe.

It is tempting to argue with this book on many secondary issues, but Elizabeth Edwards Spalding has the one big issue right. It was Harry Truman who defined containment, not George Kennan. And that was a good thing.

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William J. Stepp - 11/21/2006

"...the Marshall Plan, ... greatly facilitated the economic recovery of war-ravaged Western Europe and effectively stalled Communist drives for power in France and Italy."

This is the standard liberal interpretation of the Marshall Plan, but as Tyler Cowen pointed out in 1985, it was too small a percentage of Germany's GDP to have mattered much. It was more symbolic than substantive. Ludwig Erhard's free market policies were far more important to Germany's post-war recovery.
Liberals, being pro-government intervention and generally ambivalent about markets and trade when not hostile toward them, refuse to acknowledge both these points, as far as I'm aware.
The Marshall Plan also forced American taxpayers to subsidize American farmers and export industries, for whom it was a kind of full employment policy.