Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XIV

This is the fourteenth 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 this week is here.

This week covers the Truman Administration (1945-53). It's amazing thinking about what a huge change these years were for the United States. Before World War II, the U.S. tried very hard to stay out of international commitments unrelated to trade, had little interest in policing the world (outside of Latin America anyway), and had a strongly isolationist population. But the war created a new U.S. foreign policy of one of two world superpowers vying for world control. This is one of many reasons why I think World War II is the second most important event in American history (after the Civil War, and just above the introduction of slavery, the Constitutional Convention, and the civil rights movement). It was so transforming to all of America. Maybe I'll do a full post on this soon.

Anyway, the Truman years brought the beginnings of the Cold War, the atomic bomb, the Korean War, NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Chinese Revolution, the Berlin Airlift, the birth of the CIA, McCarthyism, and many other amazingly important events. That Americans dealt with the transition relatively smoothly is surprising. By this, I mean there was little organized opposition to this shift in U.S. foreign policy, with the most substantive criticisms coming from the right, who wanted the Cold War fought with more vigor.

One of the most disastrous success in U.S. foreign policy history may have been the success of covert operations in Greece in 1948. Not that I think Soviet domination of Greece would have been a good thing, but because it converted many in the foreign policy and intelligence establishments of the value of covert operations, leading to many horrible incidents from Iran and Guatemala to Chile and Indonesia. And of course, the Bay of Pigs.

I do wish Herring had dealt a bit more with Vietnam and the our support of French colonialism. It's mentioned, but only in passing. This was a major blunder, as early support of Ho Chi Minh could have created a peaceful transition to power in Vietnam and avoided the Vietnam War, and by proxy, the Khmer Rouge. On the other hand, the U.S. was not mentally prepared to support anticolonial movements in 1945 and failed to do so in almost every case. Racism toward non-whites still dominated the foreign policy establishment and the Vietnamese being more qualified to run their land than the French occurred to few.

On the other hand, I was pleased to see Herring rely on one of the most interesting books of the new U.S. and the World field, Ed Wehrle's Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War, which I reviewed here. The AFL got deeply involved in American foreign policy during these years, supporting conservative labor movements throughout Europe and eventually Vietnam, Latin America, and other parts of the world. They basically offered themselves up to the CIA as stools, particularly under the leadership of the deeply anti-communist George Meany. This is the kind of work that I hoped Herring would reference throughout his work, expanding our view and broadening our understanding on the nation's foreign relations.

Overall, while Truman left the presidency with low ratings and reputation, it's hard to criticize him too harshly on the foreign policy front. He made some terrible decisions (supporting apartheid South Africa for instance), it's true, and he did provide Roosevelt's leadership. But considering he was pretty unqualified and uninformed on these issues when he took office, it seems that he acquitted himself fairly well. He could have tried to run an armed convoy through to Berlin, he could have committed ever-increasing U.S. aid and military advisers to Chiang Kai-Shek in a losing cause, he could have let MacArthur run roughshod over him and bomb China. These were incredibly challenging years, and I can think of a lot of worse outcomes than where we were in 1953 and I can think of a lot of presidents who would have handled things far less well.