Books: Cultural Amnesia — John McCloy |
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During and after World War II, John McCloy (1895–1989) was a key member of the East Coast foreign policy elite, whose story is told in one of the best modern books about American politics, The Wise Men, by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas. The foreign policy elite is often looked on as an old-money nest of privilege in the europhile style, with its members all born into the same lofty social stratum, and attending the same prep schools and colleges. But the fact that it included a man like McCloy, who could, and did, later lay proud claim to having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, is an indication of its true strength: it made room for social mobility impelled by talent and ambition. The other Wise Men were Robert Lovett, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan and Dean Acheson. After the defeat of Hitler, the elite, operating through the State Department and its dependent agencies, built the globalized American system of influence and alliance that expressed the principle of containment, the perceived necessity to block the hegemony of the Soviet Union—the necessity which had first been expressed by George Kennan. A complete and final reversal of America’s traditional isolationism, this world-embracing U.S. foreign policy is the one that we still live under today: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the America of global reach might have found itself off balance, but was unable to draw back. A denigrator such as Gore Vidal calls the elite’s creation the Security State, but the foreign onlooker needs to remember that Vidal himself comes from the elite’s milieu, thus reflecting a far-reaching truth about its power: that it generates even its own contrary forces.

By now, little more than half a century later, the elite’s heritage generates not only most of what is said in favour of its policies, but most of what is said against them. Almost everything that matters on issues relevant not just to U.S. interests, but to the world entire, is written within driving distance of Washington. Armed by close contact with polticians and officials, elegant writers such as Elizabeth Drew, and less elegant ones such as Bob Woodward, have given us, in their shelves of books, the history of how the United States has shaped the modern world. This tradition of higher political journalism goes back to Henry Adams, but by now it has got beyond the status of a useful individual study and become both indispensable and all-embracing. Two of the best recent books about the larger conflicts in the world, Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom and Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, were both written in the United States. So was Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, a book which was taken by some grateful foreign critics as evidence of the U.S.’s modern history of imperialistic interference. Actually Power’s main conclusion, one she probably didn’t want to reach, was quite different. She concluded that nothing stops a genocidal government except armed interference, which, usually, only the United States provides. Whether providing it means inflicting it is the question.

The answer that matters will eventually be arrived at in Washington itself, or else it will not be heeded. The answer, however, will be arrived at through argument, if not through congressional debate. American power is not monolithic. Nor was it in the crucial period after World War II, when there were plenty of voices within the elite who realized that to make anti-communism a popular cause, in order to get the Marshall Plan through Congress, would open the way for McCarthyite demagoguery. They had a right to feel sure, however, that the Marshall Plan itself was benevolent, at least in the sense that it was in America’s long-term interests to be disinterested in the short term. There are those who, in retrospect, and with some plausibility, condemn the Marshall Plan, NATO and the rest of the U.S.’s post-war initiatives in Europe as the elements of an imperialist campaign. But plausibility becomes absurdity when they try to frame the United States with a single purpose, as if it had been totalitarian. They would have a better chance of doing this if they confined their attentions to Latin America, where the U.S.’s anti-Communist strategies were truly disastrous: but even then, its agonized internal reaction to a string of public embarrassments (truly unprincipled states never blush) proved that it was not a totalitarian power.

It wasn’t and still isn’t. It would be easier to analyse if it were. Trying to analyse America and its position in the world, we can’t do without the copious literature that is supplied by America itself. Least of all can we do without that literature when it comes to examining America’s faults, mistakes and crimes: it’s not as if anyone in Europe is going to do a job like Gary Wills or Seymour Hersh. The student in search of a world view can plausibly read in no other language except the English written in America. Doing so, the student could very easily get the idea that America is the world. But at the source of all that literature lies the story of the Wise Men like John McCloy, and they had another idea. Standing sadly victorious in the ruins of older civilizations that they understood and valued, they really did want to bring a complex world back to life, not just to make it over in the image of their own nation. Nor was their grief, and their hope for a better future, confined to Europe. McCloy had an infuential hand in the July 1945 Potsdam Declaration that offered Japan something less harsh than a fully unconditional surrender. If the Japanese war council had spotted the significant gap in the wording that left the way open for negotiation about the Emperor’s fate, they might have accepted the offer, and the atomic bombs need not have been dropped. After they were dropped and Japan surrendered, U.S. foreign policy towards Japan was predicated entirely on an occupation designed to dismantle itself after the country had recovered. Whatever the subsequent developments might seem to say to the contrary, at the end of World War II the last thing the American foreign policy elitists had on their minds was a post-war American empire ruled by force. To misinterpret their essential generosity as an assertion of power is to go beyond cynicism into wilful distortion, by which it becomes impossible to give a realistic account of America’s actions even when we find them offensive.

* * *
An economically stable Europe, with the impetus it can give to free ideas,
is one of the greatest assurances of security and peace we can hope to obtain.

ONE OF THE stars of the group of American diplomats and civil servants that was later to become known as the East Coast foreign policy elite, McCloy had just been driven through the ruins of Berlin, where he saw women and children pulling apart a dead horse with their bare hands. The McCloy-Stimson memos on the subject of rebuilding Europe with economic aid were a big stimulus to what eventually happened, but essentially all the members of the East Coast foreign policy elite reached the same conclusion: whatever the putative merits of an isolationist attitude pre-war, a post-war isolationist attitude was impossible for the United States, and the best way of taking a political initiative in Europe would be to help its devastated nations to recover economically. Nor did common compassion allow any other course. Some of the elite’s members—certainly Dean Acheson, “Chip” Bohlen and Averell Harriman—thought initially that the Soviet Union should be among the nations offered help. No members of the elite, not even George Kennan, favoured a purely military answer to Soviet encroachment, even as the reports coming out of the Soviet-occupied East European countries became more and more dismaying. Kennan’s famous Long Telegram, sent to Washington from his post in Moscow in March 1946, is sometimes interpreted that way. At the time it was being read, indeed, disquiet engendered by Stalin’s behaviour in the satellite countries had grown to the point where Kennan’s emphasis on “containment” was seen as the only theme the telegram had.

But Kennan’s analysis, although distrustful of the USSR’s political intention, never depended on purely military means to contain it. They scarcely could have contained it, since the United States, at the conclusion of the war, had pretty well disarmed. It is hard to remember at this distance—mainly because of the success of a long gauchiste programme to rewrite history—that the Marshall Plan did not need to be imposed on the European nations at gunpoint. Nor were there any guns to impose it if it had. It is also hard to remember at this distance that Kennan’s distrust of Stalin’s intentions, as it was interpreted at the time, would have been understandable even had it been wholly meant. On February 9, 1946, at the Bolshoi Theatre, Stalin made a speech that blamed World War II on the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Lip service was paid to the “freedom loving” Western allies, but only as a preliminary to the renewed emphasis on the time-honoured bugbear “capitalist encirclement.” For many of the encircling capitalists, Stalin’s Bolshoi speech had a more dramatic effect than Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech was to have later on. Churchill’s speech merely confirmed them in the impression that Stalin’s speech had already created. Stalin’s speech itself was merely confirming an impression; the impression given by the Soviet Union’s unyielding ruthlessness over Poland; the impression that it would allow no concessions to democracy in any territory it saw as falling within its sphere of influence. Apart from Kennan, who had never believed that “a community of interest” with the Soviets was possible, the foreign policy elite were honourably reluctant to give up their hopes of cooperation with the Soviet Union, especially on the subject of the atomic bomb. Acheson and Stimson were both for international control, which would have entailed giving the secret to the Soviet Union. (It was not yet known that the Russians already had the secret.) International atomic energy control was an aim not ruled out even as the Marshall Plan idea grew closer to reality. Harriman can be called the father of the Marshall Plan but really it had multiple paternity: almost the whole of the foreign policy elite were in on it.

The only real split was over the question of whether the Russians should participate, and even that split was less over the if than the how. Even Kennan thought they should be invited in, at least in the first instance. (He thought they would withdraw when they realized that not only would they have to give up their claim to reparations, they also would be helping to create what they would see as an encirclement by capitalist countries; but at least the invitation would be on the record, so that the United States would not have to take the blame for dividing Europe.) As it happened, the Russians decided the issue. Molotov could have killed the Marshall Plan by joining it. Instead he walked out, on Stalin’s instructions. Poland and Czechoslovakia, which both desperately needed economic support in order to recover, were plunged deeper into cold night, and Europe was divided. It remains tantalizing to wonder what would have happened if America had found a way of imposing its economic generosity on the Soviet Union, but we must remember that Tantalus, tied to the stake, was never granted that drink. Stalin’s obduracy was the historical fact that defeats imagination. Given his intransigence, no other scenario than armed confrontation was really possible. The idea that the United States chose to fight the Cold War can be discussed, but only in the context of the reality that it could not have chosen to call it off. The Soviet Union had been fighting it since Lenin took power. That was what the Comintern propaganda offensive had meant, and all the deeds that lived up to it. The members of the East Coast foreign policy elite can scarcely be blamed for taking Soviet foreign policy pronouncements at their word.

Nor can they be blamed for subsequent military developments in the European area. A more powerful American military presence was never something that the elitists wanted. Exhausted, like most Americans, after years of tension, they didn’t want to maintain the military presence they already had. It was the European countries who wanted the American presence, so that the Soviets could never start something against them without killing Americans. The effective atomic force of the United States in Europe in 1946 was nil. Later on, after a scraping of the barrel, a single squadron of B-29s arrived, but they could not have delivered an atomic bomb even if it had been divided among them. From the beginning, Europe was an economic battlefield, and remained that way even as it filled up with weapons over the course of decades. When trying to decide what kind of economic battle it was, it helps to remember that the argument stressing American economic imperialism is not very good. As in the case of Japan, America did less to penetrate foreign markets than to finance foreign competitors. But there can be no question about the military battle: there wasn’t one. From the Berlin airlift until the arms race passed its danger point—which was the point before mutual destruction was assured—all the military developments were logical. Western satirists had fun mocking the gung-ho language from the American side of the face-off (since most of the satirists were American themselves, few of them had any idea of what the Soviets sounded like when they were being gung-ho) but the idea that America’s security state grew according to the principle of some sinister initial plan was a fiction in the minds of novelists. It grew, but it grew like Little Topsy. The real danger zone was never Europe, where the two main antagonists were debarred from fighting each other directly. The danger zone was everywhere else, and on this point the East Coast foreign policy elite really was vulnerable to criticism. It had been since the Marshall Plan was formulated, because there was no means of getting the Marshall Plan through Congress without the aid of a Red scare.

The elite had enviable access to the quality press. Acheson leaked information to James Reston, Chip Bohlen to Joe Alsop, James Forrestal to Walter Lippmann: this was an old boy network that left the United Kingdom’s looking atomized. The elite had all been to the same prep schools and colleges and they had large influence in the corridors of Washington. But the United States is a democracy, the separation of powers is a fact, and a measure the size of the Marshall Plan could not be pushed through without the consent of Congress, in which, finally, the voice of the people is the voice of God. If Congress had never needed to be persuaded to finance aid to Greece and Turkey, America could have done without the rhetorical commitment to anti-communism which was mandatory from thence forward. (Here lies the fallacy in Gore Vidal’s otherwise persuasive argument that in the Security State the American people are not consulted: the American foreign policy measure that troubles us most was launched on a wave of demagogic hot air, for no other reason except to secure the allegiance of the people.) The rhetoric opened the way for the suppurating reality of the junior senator from Wisconsin. Though the sum total of injustices brought about by Joe McCarthy in his whole madcap career scarcely amounted to a single day’s depredations in Bulgaria, those who disliked America were given reason for their dislike, and—worse—those with reason to be grateful were given an excuse to express the resentment that the person helped to his feet always feels. Worse still, the domino theory came into operation.

Kennan had been perfectly right about the Kremlin’s intention of subverting democratic government anywhere it could be reached: the Kremlin had never had any other intention, nor—to give it points for honesty—had it ever tried to disguise its aim. But it was a big and presumptuous step to assume that if communism became victorious in any country the countries next door would be toppled by the shock. The step once taken, the temptation was very large to make retaliation pre-emptive, cooperating with incumbent authorities, however brutal, against left-wing protest however justified. What François Furet was later so usefully to deplore as America’s “limited inventory of evil” came fatally into play. The United States went to war against socialism in all its forms. In Europe it could hardly eliminate social democrat governments once they had been constituted. But in Iran in 1953 it could certainly cancel an attempt to nationalize the oil fields, and in Guatemalain 1954 it could certainly influence an election. From Guatemala to the debacle in Vietnam was a direct road. Bob Woodward tells the story of the CIA’s part in this sad process in his lumpily written but vitally informative book Veil. But we need Isaacson and Thomas’s book to face the full tragedy of the East Coast foreign policy elite’s role in putting the country they had served so well on the path to a disaster. Acheson, in particular, could be seen as a figure of Greek tragedy if the true tragic figures were not to be found among thousands of dead soldiers, murdered peasants, and burnt children. But Acheson had been a hawk since long before the first fateful steps down the jungle path into Vietnam. The time when he could envisage cooperating with the Russians was far in the past, at the other end of a long active life. It had been, however, a real desire. What made it impossible was the intractable fact that the Soviet Union was not under the control of the United States.

During the Cold War, a side effect of the antipathy of many Western intellectuals towards U.S. foreign policy, and their distrust of its physical power, was the belief that the United States could change the world in any way it liked. The only brand of American imperialism to which that belief even remotely applies is cultural imperialism. In the long term, U.S. cultural imperialism, wherever in the world it is brought to bear, is bound to be influential. But in the short term, for a smaller country to suppose that it can do nothing to resist U.S. cultural imperialism is a policy of despair, and equally it is a policy of arrogance for us to suppose such a thing on the small country’s behalf. When the Japanese army marched into Singapore and ended the period of British dominance in Southeast Asia, the film showing at the fanciest cinema in the city was The Philadelphia Story. In her novel In the Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif tells us what everyone in Egypt was watching on television on the evening of the Six Day War in 1967. It was Peyton Place. But America was not influencing the decisions of the Japanese army, and in the region of the eastern Mediterranean it has been a continuous lapse on the part of intellectuals in the Arab countries to think that Israel’s foreign policy is exclusively an American creation. One particularly deleterious consequence of that last assumption is that the Arab nations might fail to realize that Israel, rather than be dissolved as a state, and whatever the United States might think desirable, would rather bring the world to an end. Those who credit the United States with a monopoly of powers for working mischief are making the same mistake as those who credit it with a monopoly of powers for doing good. Both sides of the assumption arise from the historical accident that America emerged relatively wealthy from a war that reduced Europe and Japan to poverty for at least a generation, while the Soviet Union, except in the military sense, had been reduced to poverty from its inception and couldn’t recover from it unless it changed its ways.

The East Coast foreign policy elite had large powers of discretion in uniquely favourable circumstances, at a time when their initiatives could palpably alter the world. They were cultivated men, many of them of formidable intellectual and scholarly prowess: they did an impressive job of keeping their heads. But it was inevitable that they should fall prey to the sin of pride, which is at its most insidious when dressed as destiny. As I write, the elite is in its last phase, where it begins to forget the car keys through the effort of remembering the door keys. My mentor Gore Vidal is a case in point. He has forgotten that he was born and bred as a member of the very elite whose evil deeds he castigates in his brilliantly written polemics. The way he remembers it, the elite was even more powerful than it was in reality. In 2001 he published an article in the TLS by which he managed to suggest that the foreign policy of the United States tricked the Japanese Empire into a war in the Pacific. With some reluctance I tried to rebut that contention in the paper’s letters column. Clearly he took exception to a pupil’s rounding on him. But as an Australian I had a good reason. Though Australia’s own foreign policy sometimes tries to give the impression that the country’s future is bound up with the wholesale burgeoning of the region called the Pacific Rim, this glittering dream could not even be dreamed unless in the presence of a seldom spoken-of reality—the reality of a liberal democratic Japan. In view of this indispensable condition, nothing should be done to favour the belief of Japan’s ever-hopeful right wing that it was tricked out of military power by the machinations of Washington. Japan went to war on its own initiative. The reasons went far enough back to look inevitable, but when it came to the point, the Japanese government, such as it was at the time, could have done something else. The same is rarely untrue anywhere in the world. It would help if the world’s very large supply of anti-American commentators could decide on which America we are supposed to be in thrall to: the Machiavellian America that can manipulate any country’s destiny, or the naïve America that can’t find it on the map. While we’re waiting for the decision, it might help if we could realize the magnitude of the fix that America got us out of in 1945, and ask ourselves why we expect a people rich and confident enough to do that to be sensitive as well. Power is bound to sound naïve, because it doesn’t spot the bitter nuances of feeling helpless. The East Coast foreign policy elite were as bright as could be. In their young manhood, they had seen a lot of the world in which America, they correctly guessed, was bound to play a big part, although not even they could guess how big. They had the mental resources to sound as sophisticated as Talleyrand and Metternich put together. If, in retrospect, they look like big, clumsy children—well, they didn’t yet know what it was like not to get their way.