Sunday, March 29, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XV

This is the fifteenth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week covers the Eisenhower administration (1953-61). I know Eisenhower's reputation has risen over the last 20 years. And he does seem to have had a pretty solid temperament for these difficult years. Nonetheless, I was surprised at the ineptitude of much of Eisenhower's foreign policy. His reliance on John Foster Dulles, arguably the worst Secretary of State in U.S. history, was a major problem. Dulles' reliance on Christianity as a major factor in his dealings with the world led to disaster, his favoring covert operations created some of the worst long-term messes in American foreign policy history, some of which still affect us today; his personality alienated key allies like Britain's Anthony Eden, and his racism blinded the government to the nationalist movements of Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Of course, most of the American foreign policy establishment shared in that racism. Thinking brown people incapable of self-government, Eisenhower and Dulles continued earlier indifference to Latin American dictators, sought to create a US client state in South Vietnam, and thought we could maneuver the Middle East toward our interests. These were all colossal mistakes. Four incidents serve to show these follies. Dulles and Eisenhower's belief in the efficacy of covert operations led to the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. The former, which led to the dictatorial Shah being placed in power, fed the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While Americans don't understand why Iran doesn't like us, they know very well why. It's not because they hate freedom, it's because of bitterness extending back to 1953. In Guatemala, the overthrow of Arbenz because he nationalized United Fruit Company land they were no longer using created instability and continued U.S. support of governments that killed, at a minimum, 100,000 citizens over coming decades. The interference in South Vietnam, ignoring the legitimacy of Ho Chi Minh's leadership and supporting Diem, primarily because he was a Catholic and therefore was one of us, set the stage for the nation's greatest foreign policy disaster. Continuing to think of men like Fulgencio Batista as our friend, ignoring legitimate nationalist concerns from the Cuban people, and believing the nation to be a vassal state set the stage for Fidel Castro's victory in 1959. A dozen more examples could be provided.

Of course, this all occurred in the Cold War context, right? Too often, I think this is used as an excuse for terrible foreign policy decisions that created great suffering for people around the world and that did not make the United States a safer nation. In reality, neither Eisenhower and Dulles in the US nor Khrushchev in the Soviet Union were particularly suitable leaders for such difficult. Both consistently misread the other, making often irresponsible decisions. On the US side, the U-2 spy plane missions that led to the shooting down of Gary Powers was particularly stupid. These missions accomplished nothing and led to great embarrassment to the U.S. Eisenhower personally approved the mission (though with reservations). Meanwhile Khrushchev simply didn't have the education or self-confidence to make correct decisions in many cases. He actually believed on his 1959 trip to the U.S. that Camp David might be a trick to capture him. Certainly crushing opposition in Hungary was a propagandistic nightmare for the USSR.

One other point about American foreign policy I found infuriating during these years was the falseness of American propaganda. Herring points out that propaganda dropped on eastern Europe during the 1950s promising American support for freedom fighters helped convince dissidents in the region to rebel against Soviet authority. When the Soviets rolled into Budapest, America did nothing. This happened again and again during the Cold War years, perhaps most devastatingly at the end of the Cold War when George H.W. Bush encouraged rebellions against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then stood by when Saddam brutally crushed them.

There's much else to talk about, including the Suez crisis, rising tensions between Pakistan and India, China, and much more about Europe. But I'll let Rob take over.