Foreign Policy and the Crisis Mentality

This comment by the junior senator from South Dakota inaugurates a new ATLANTIC feature.

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 wellbeing. 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 way.

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 there 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.

Communist devils

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 twoparty political dialogue, especially since 1950.

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 tellingpolitical results. Politicians out of power have found it expedient to 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 for the United States —some politicians worked overtime to keep the crisis boiling. Any step to ease tensions was quickly branded as a softening of 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 stance toward revolutionary Asian leaders while embracing the comfortable old despotisms.

Looking back on the Bay of Tonkin incidents of August, 1964, one wonders if a crisis was manufactured by the Administration to justify a 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 allout 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 crisisoriented 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 Americansupplied 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 countries’ needs.

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 Washington,

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 public servant.

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 of doom.”