Monday, April 06, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XVI

This is the sixteenth 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. Rob's entry for the week is here.

This week, Herring covers the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a period dominated by Vietnam. But Vietnam was hardly the only foreign policy crisis faced by the United States. Tensions around the world dominated both administrations. Kennedy was more comfortable dealing with these issues while Johnson preferred to focus on domestic programs. It's entirely expected, though still remarkable, just how many foreign policy issues Cold War administrations had to deal with compared to American history before World War II. In the Cold War context, it's hardly surprising that Johnson's presidency was destroyed by Vietnam. It's hard to believe that any credible presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, would have done much different.

Kennedy comes across as eager to take on the Soviets but inexperienced and underprepared. Khrushchev made him look like a child in early encounters, though the Soviets way overplayed their hand in Cuba. Kennedy handled the Berlin issue poorly and did nothing to fight the erection of the Berlin Wall. He escalated the U.S. presence in Vietnam. While his admirers claim he wouldn't have gotten the nation into a quagmire like Johnson, that's hard to believe. He may have doubted whether his moves were effective, he also wore Cold War blinders that limited his range of decisions. He continued supporting Diem in his early years and then badly blundered the necessary coup to get rid of him. After the coup, the U.S. had no plan on who to replace him or what kind of government would be more effective.

Kennedy's foreign policy is probably best defined by his actions in Latin America. While the Alliance for Progress promised a more enlightened approach to the region and while the Peace Corps looked good, inflexible anticommunism undermined these programs. Cuba defines Kennedy like no other foreign policy issue. The nation was deeply embarrassed by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. That CIA and State Department leaders thought that the invasion would spark a popular uprising against Castro shows how badly they misread the situation, and several similar situations in the developing world during these years. On the other hand, Kennedy certainly was a stronger and more responsible leader than either Khrushchev or Castro during the missile crisis. What Khrushchev was thinking placing missiles in Cuba is unfathomable. Castro's anger when Khrushchev backed off is even more bizarre considering his nation was about to be blown into oblivion. Kennedy comes across less well with his undermining of left leaning regimes in South America. He ordered a coup against Guyana of all places, that noted center of key strategic importance, because they seemed leftist. Johnson approved the programs that caused a lot of the real damage in Brazil and Chile, but Kennedy began the process of undermining those countries' electoral democracies in the name of stability and anticommunism. Johnson failed in Latin America as well, particularly in the Dominican Republic, where the possibility of another Castro drove Johnson to distraction and led to another U.S. invasion of that country. For both Kennedy and Johnson, the idea of another Castro was not acceptable. That meant that almost any leader who was at all left of center became a threat to American security, regardless of whether they were actually helping their people achieve the kinds of rights that Americans enjoy every day. Such concerns were trivial in the face of threats to American democracy. And of course business interests.

Of course, Johnson was destroyed by Vietnam, and ultimately by the legacies of Truman's failure to prevent the Chinese Revolution and by the domino theory. This most avoidable tragedy happened in no small part because the United States could not see Ho Chi Minh as anything but a tool of Moscow. What if the U.S. had actually engaged with Ho? He had little interest in fighting the U.S. He just wanted to unite his country. He might have made a terrible leader, but he was certainly no worse than Diem or his successors in South Vietnam. U.S. military actions did little but kill people and solidify support for the Viet Cong. Yet Johnson could do nothing else, partially because of Cold War politics and partially because of his own personality.

Johnson was also taken for a ride by Israel. Israel looks really bad in Herring's discussion of 1967's Six Day War. Defying the United States because they knew at the end they would have American support, Israel launched a surprise attack against Egypt and Syria that was a major short term success for the Jewish state. In the long term though, the headaches Israel has with the occupied territories make that war of conquest seem like a terrible, terrible idea. American support of Israel, along with its continued support of the autocratic Shah in Iran fed Islamic radicalism that would have long term consequences for the region and for the United States.

Overall, the chapter is very strong. I do want to bring up one organizational question. After World War II, Herring resorts to traditional periodization based upon presidential administrations. I really question the utility of this. In the pre-war period, he divides the chapters in sensible blocks that represent real changes in foreign policy focus for the nation. Abandoning this for a more traditional approach toward the end of the book, I wonder if he doesn't undermine his narrative a bit. Splitting Vietnam into 2 chapters seems less than ideal to me. Kennedy continued Eisenhower's foreign policy in many respects, particularly as regards Cuba. Including the whole Cuba story in one chapter and then all of Vietnam in a second makes a lot of sense. The Gulf of Tonkin would be a great place to begin the next chapter. Instead, we will be begin next week in 1969, a time that only makes sense in the sense of a new presidential administration.