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Foreign Policy and the Crisis Mentality
by George McGovern
In his Crisis papers of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine observed: "'Tis
surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country."
Yet Paine was so fearful of the tendency of men to become indifferent or weary
in times of crisis and conflict that he believed even panics produce "as much
good as hurt."
If he were permitted to review our own time, he would doubtless conclude that
the problem of maintaining a proper course between panic and complacency has
taken on new dimensions, for the thirteen colonies which leveled their muskets
against the established order have evolved into the world's mightiest power in
a highly dangerous nuclear age. This is a responsibility which demands a rare
capacity to distinguish between fundamental forces at work around the globe and
localized crises of uncertain significance.
But there is a disturbing American tendency to overreact to certain ideological
and military factors while overlooking issues of vastly greater relevance to
our safety and well-being. A civil insurrection in Santo Domingo or Vietnam is
dramatic, but what is its significance compared with such quiet challenges as
the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the surging of nationalism and social
upheavals in the developing world, or the mounting crisis of hunger and
population? What, too, is the relationship of the quality and strength of our
own society to our position in the world? How will the world see us if we
succeed in pacifying Vietnam but fail to pacify Chicago?
Many Americans, having grown impatient with the frustrations of the cold war,
see each international tension as an urgent crisis calling for a direct and
decisive attack on the enemy. Moreover, there must be no halfway measures:
"Either get in or get out!" Those who suggest that there may be a proper limit
to American power are branded as "neo-isolationists." A preference for the
peacekeeping actions of the United Nations over a freewheeling unilateral
interventionism is, for example, a sure sign of "neo-isolationism."
I believe that, in fact, we are in danger of seeing the isolationists of the
1920s and 1930s replaced by the neo-imperialists, who somehow imagine that the
United States has a mandate to impose an American solution the world around.
Those who see the United States in this role not only want U.S. police action
in each trouble spot, but with decisive speed. The old isolationists and the
new imperialists may be cut from the same cloth in that both look with disdain
on the claims of the international community in contrast with the American
For example, the neo-imperialists' solution to the long, inconclusive struggle
in Vietnam is a crushing military onslaught. They reject the outlook expressed
not so long ago by General Maxwell Taylor when, as ambassador to Saigon, he
said that the issue here is "very largely a political, economic, and
psychological problem." They would prefer the approach of former Senator
Goldwater, who said of Vietnam: "I would turn to my Joint Chiefs of Staff and
say: 'Fellows, we made the decision to win. Now it's your problem.'"
In this scheme of things, the Soviet Union and Mainland China are viewed not as
major world powers with which we must live, but as diabolical conspiracies that
sooner or later we must face in battle. The answer to other lesser threats,
such as Fidel Castro, is the U.S. Marine Corps. If a political rebellion occurs
in the Dominican Republic, send in American troops and worry about such
international niceties as the UN and the OAS later. The answer to the Berlin
problem is simple: "Tear down the wall."
There are doubtless many explanations for the crisis outlook.
For one thing, America is a comparatively new country that has been largely
separated from the turmoil of world politics for most of our history. During
the nineteenth century, we relied on the British to put out the fires that
flared from time to time in out-of-the-way places. We were free to concentrate
on the development of our own economy and institutions. Pulled into World War I
by the course of events, we swung back to an even more ardent isolationist
course in the 1920s and 1930s. It is thus not surprising that faced with a
vastly greater international involvement after World War II, we have frequently
overreacted to incidents that an older, more mature society would have regarded
as "business as usual."
Second, many Americans have not assimilated a sense of the world's diversity,
nor do we look at events from an international vantage point. The older nations
of Europe, steeped in the maelstrom of continental politics and with a century
or more of colonial experience in every corner of the globe, have acquired a
cosmopolitan view of the world. But when a political coup is attempted against
an unpopular government in the Dominican Republic, or student rioting changes
government policies in Japan, or De Gaulle seeks the leadership of Europe after
liquidating hopeless French ventures in Asia and Africa, or a guerrilla
movement threatens to bring down a much more generously armed American-backed
regime in Saigon, we are unable to equate these events with our own experience.
The revolution in mass communications instantly brings such developments into
our living rooms, but there has been no corresponding increase in our capacity
to evaluate the swift changes of our convulsive age.
A third explanation of our tendency to react strongly to events is the unique
power of Communism (as a general menace) and of the Soviet Union or China or
Cuba or North Vietnam (as the precise devil) to challenge a variety of deeply
felt American dreams and values at their core. For the democratically oriented
American public, these are evil forces which deny open political discussion,
religious freedom, bona fide elections, and a framework of law and legal
process. For those businessmen to whom a large portion of the world represents
an essential area for expansion, Communism presents a dangerous challenge to
capitalist ground rules. For Americans who dream of the United States
exercising a dominant role in potentially unlimited areas of world development,
to whom Theodore Roosevelt, and later, Henry Luce and others, have spoken,
Moscow, Peking, Havana, and Hanoi are challenges to the American Century. And
finally, for that sizable and vociferous minority whose views are premised on
the assumption that conspiracies and dark alien powers sway world affairs—to
whom the late Senator Joseph McCarthy was the Angel Gabriel—Communist
propaganda is tailor-made.
Thus, the American consensus against Communism—no matter the variety—is
rooted in a very real set of challenges and denials. It is not easily dismissed
as "hysteria." Its deep traditional sources lead to an almost irresistible
identification of any event related to Communism as a crisis, a dire and
fundamental threat to basic values.
Our crisis tendency has been given additional force by the nature of our
political leadership and our two-party political dialogue, especially since
In the years immediately following World War II, thanks to the leadership of
men such as the late Senator Vandenberg, our foreign policy was conducted in a
bipartisan manner largely free from political rancor and partisan duels. This
was the period which launched the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, Point IV,
and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But with the triumph of Communism in China in 1949, the North Korean attack of
1950, and the breaking of our nuclear monopoly by the Soviet Union, the
comparative confidence and calm of post-war American foreign policy were
shattered. The first strains of the postwar world were beginning to wear on the
American public even before the Korean conflict.
It was these cold-war tensions which set the stage for the poisoning of
American political life by the late Senator McCarthy in the early 1950s. Many
government officials and politicians still find it expedient to demonstrate
their "Americanism" by frequent outbursts of rhetoric directed at the Communist
enemy. The two political parties, having generally agreed on basic foreign
policy objectives, wage a recurring battle over which party is taking the
harder line against the Communists.
Fuel On The Fire
Foreign policy, more mysterious and remote than domestic issues, is ideal grist
for the political mill. The average citizen knows enough about social security
to be somewhat invulnerable to loose charges against the program. But a
prediction of disaster in the Caribbean based on alleged evil in high places is
beyond the capacity of our citizens to evaluate.
This kind of exercise has been a major cause of the crisis mentality. Having
agreed for years on basic foreign policy assumptions and especially the
containment of Communism, our political party leaders have found it necessary
to devise other areas of combat. Each side knows that it must capitalize
quickly on even inconsequential events lest the opposition do so first with
telling political results. Politicians out of power have found it expedient
interpret each international incident as a mortal danger to the republic.
Politicians in power must demonstrate that they are taking swift and forceful
steps to save the nation from disaster.
No doubt the late President Kennedy benefited in the 1960 presidential campaign
from the fact that Castro had come to power during a Republican Administration
while at the same time the Russians were moving ahead of us in the missile
race. Once in power, the new President was under pressure to take a hard,
activist line on Cuba. Even after the nuclear showdown of October, 1962, when
the Russian missiles were withdrawn from Cuba—a sensational cold-war victory
the United States—some politicians worked overtime to keep the crisis boiling.
Any step to ease tension was quickly branded as a softening resolve.
American domestic political considerations have probably motivated our
deepening involvement in Vietnam since the 1950s as much as any other factor.
The Republicans accused the Democrats of "losing" China to the Communists in
the 1940s; Secretary of State Dulles did not want to "lose" Southeast Asia in
the 1950s and see the tables reversed. Whatever else was prudent, it was safest
in terms of domestic politics to take a tough, militaristic stand toward
revolutionary Asian leaders while embracing the comfortable despotisms.
Looking back on the Bay of Tonkin incidents of August, 1964, one wonders if a
crisis was manufactured by the Administration to justify politically popular
aerial reprisal against Hanoi backed by a strongly worded congressional
resolution—all of this at the beginning of a national election when
Administration firmness was being questioned by the political challenger.
Again in February, 1965, American planes began bombing in both North and South
Vietnam in response to a nighttime Viet Cong attack which killed several
Americans in one of our barracks near Pleiku. Senator Goldwater had earned a
"trigger-happy" label in 1964 for recommending the use of American bombers in
Vietnam, but Administration spokesmen rationalized the bombing in 1965 by
dramatic references to the Viet Cong's dastardly "sneak attack"—implying that
enemy troops should attack only in broad daylight after a fair warning.
Apparently our spokesmen had forgotten our schoolboy pride in George
Washington's "sneak attack" on the British after he and his rebel forces stole
across the Delaware River.
An American Illusion
The meagerness of genuine discussion about fundamental issues and our tendency
to magnify minor incidents have caused us to miss many opportunities for
constructive new initiatives both at home and abroad. We have, for example,
concentrated too heavily and too long on an all-out military response to the
international challenge while neglecting the economic, political, and moral
sources of our strength. Frequently we have confused means with ends and then
argued about those means with all the passion ordinarily reserved for sacred
principles. The crisis mentality and the emphasis on means always call for more
and bigger weapons. The crisis addict becomes impatient when it is suggested
that a nation's strength is measured as much by the quality of its schools, the
health of its citizens, the vigor of its economy, and the treatment of
minorities as by the size of its weapons. He lacks the perspective to realize
that the steady, peaceful development of Asia, Africa, and Latin America is of
far greater significance to American security than the political color of
future regimes in Vietnam or in the Dominican Republic.
Foreign aid for
underdeveloped countries is a favorite target of crisis-oriented citizens and
legislators, who are much more comfortable appropriating $50 billion annually
for arms than $2 billion for economic development. The results of foreign aid
are too slow to satisfy the mind dominated by a sense of crisis. Indeed, even
an economic boycott (Cuba) or limited military action (Korea and Vietnam) is
frustrating and unsatisfying to the crisis-prone individual, who would prefer
to "clean up the mess" overnight.
Foreign aid bills have been presented to Congress year after year as a stopgap
against the spread of Communism rather than as an investment in social and
economic development. Poverty-stricken countries have been encouraged by
shipment of American arms to build military machines as part of "the free
world" defense against Communist aggression. But in the summer of 1965,
Pakistan threw its American-supplied Patton tanks into war with India's
American-supplied Sherman tanks. The final irony came when the Soviet Union,
theoretically a potential target of the tanks, mediated an end to the war. This
was scarcely a convincing demonstration of U.S. wisdom in determining other
While recognizing our responsibility to influence world affairs in the
direction of peaceful development as best we can, we will do well to heed
D.W. Brogan's warning of "the illusion of American omnipotence." There is a tendency
for some Americans to assume that every distressing situation, no matter how
remote, is the result of a failure on our part. During the late 1940s and early
1950s, we talked about "losing China," as though we had somehow been in command
of China's destiny. But as Professor Brogan has reminded us, "A great many
things happen in the world regardless of whether the American people wish them
or not." For example, we ought to take every reasonable step to ensure the
success of the Alliance for Progress and the defeat of Castroism in Latin
America, but we must also recognize that the success of these efforts depends
more on decisions that are made in Latin-American capitals than in
Furthermore, we must be willing to look at our own view of the world with at
least as critical an eye as we apply to the views of others. Those who have
suggested that college students protesting our Vietnam policy should be
automatically drafted are, in effect, calling for a moratorium on conscience
and freedom. It would be ironic indeed to surrender liberty in America in the
name of its advancement in Vietnam. Instead of intimidating the public
dissenter, we ought to welcome his independence and give his views a careful
hearing. Instead of promoting the government official who plays it safe by
avoiding thoughts that might irritate his superiors, we ought to encourage
intellectual integrity and moral courage as the most precious qualities of the
Stop, Look, And Listen
If we are to strengthen our position in the world, we must be willing to look
carefully and critically at all foreign policy assumptions, including our
present course in Southeast Asia and our insistence that the world's largest
nation be excluded from the United Nations.
We can well afford to listen thoughtfully to the views of experienced leaders
abroad, including General de Gaulle, despite his peculiar faculty for
irritating Washington. The French successfully and gracefully terminated
self-defeating campaigns in Southeast Asia and North Africa; in the process
they might have gained certain insights that are worth our evaluation.
America has achieved a position of power and influence in the world that is
unprecedented. We have often used that power generously and courageously,
perhaps more than any other nation of our age. I have no doubt of our capacity
to respond effectively to a genuine crisis that calls for vigorous and decisive
action. I should like to believe that we will also develop a talent for
discovering and responding rationally to the underlying forces at work in our
time. But to those innumerable tensions, struggles, and incidents of the future
that we neither can nor should control, I hope we will manifest a measure of
Ralph Waldo Emerson's wisdom: "Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a
popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack
Volume 219, No. 1, pp. 55–57