SCHOLARS AND specialists often lament that once the United States commits itself to a course of action abroad, it rarely adjusts its path. Bureaucracies prize continuity over innovation and cling to the prevailing orthodoxy. Top officials often embrace positions predetermined by past prejudices and lessons. The gravitational pull of politics induces presidents and secretaries of state to persist with existing policies even when they aren’t working. Although such inflexibility may not be particularly harmful in ordinary times, big problems can arise when the United States finds itself in uncharted territory or facing unexpected geopolitical shifts.
This reality raises the question of how the country can move from failure to success. How do policy makers transcend their penchant for the familiar and bureaucracies move beyond their attachment to continuity? History tells us that mere presidential frustration with a failed policy does not always bring about change. Consider Lyndon Johnson’s failed Vietnam War policy from 1965 to 1968. Presidents facing multiple national issues rarely start over with entirely new strategic paradigms. Inertia, staff influences and operational prejudices all militate against that.
But there are exceptions worthy of study. In essence, for the United States to move from failure to success, three things must happen. Failure must be seen as posing a cataclysmic threat to both national security and the political fortunes of the incumbent party. A plausible alternative strategy must be evident. And a senior policy maker who enjoys presidential trust and confidence must embrace that alternative, convince the president of its viability and subtly impose it on the system.
In America’s postwar history, three occasions stand out as times when success was salvaged from impending failure: the shift in U.S. containment policy during the early stages of the Truman presidency; the changed U.S. approach to the Vietnam War after Richard Nixon’s 1968 election; and George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq. These three cases took place in different international contexts. But they all demonstrate how change actually can occur and highlight the role of key policy makers in fostering such change.
SHORTLY AFTER Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the New York Times assured readers that “there will prevail in Washington a continuity.” The deceased president’s lofty goals, embodied in compacts such as the Atlantic Charter and the Yalta accords, would guide his successor. Roosevelt curiously believed that the United States, China, Britain and the Soviet Union would act as global policemen, patrolling their regional beats and ensuring a level of stability that had eluded the international order for most of the twentieth century. This was a vision predicated on cooperation with unlikely allies and circumspection on behalf of a determined adversary. It was a vision that devalued ideology and assumed pragmatism on the part of the major actors. The ubiquitous European colonial empires would accede to new realities; the revolutionary Soviet leadership would accept the mandates of the new order; and the Chinese Nationalists, however unreliable in the past, would guard the gateways of East Asia.
Joseph Stalin’s increasing penchant for violating his commitments did not dissuade FDR from what he considered his pragmatic vision. Although the peculiar pantheon of gods and devils that occupied the Soviet leader’s mind remained impervious to Roosevelt’s blandishments, that didn’t alter the debilitated president’s strategy. It has been suggested that FDR became skeptical of his own diplomacy as he approached death. It is impossible to know now what he was thinking then. What is beyond doubt is that Roosevelt bequeathed to his successor an uncertain legacy and a policy whose assumptions rested upon a shaky foundation.
The persistent Soviet transgressions did not jolt Harry Truman away from sustaining the fallen leader’s path. Uncertain of himself and surrounded by men with superior knowledge of foreign affairs, Truman was prone to yield, follow and acquiesce. Whether at the Potsdam Conference or in deliberations over Poland, Truman sought to reconcile his call for Eastern European self-determination with his desire to sustain the security cooperation with the Soviet Union. To be sure, Truman soon grew uneasy about his circumstances amid confusion about his options, but the gravitational pull of policy still drew him toward the Yalta accords and its spirit of compromise.
The question of how to approach the Soviet Union turned on one’s perception of the causes behind Moscow’s conduct. The consensus within the U.S. government was that the Soviet Union’s aggressive moves were largely defensive and an American policy of understanding was the best course. Leading policy makers such as Secretary of State James Byrnes acknowledged the Soviet mischief but attributed it to insecurity and vulnerability. A nation that had been devastated twice by the German war machine was bound to be concerned about the developments in its immediate periphery, argued Byrnes and others, and a response of conciliation would take the edge off Soviet actions.
Thus, Truman and his advisers continued to embrace the Grand Alliance and tried to convince the Soviets of its appeal. The United States was prepared to accept a Soviet sphere of influence but hoped that it would have a benign complexion. The attempt to get the Soviets to see the difference between influence and domination consumed much time and attention. But slowly it became apparent that domination was the Soviet goal.
The process by which the United States moved from considering the Soviet Union an ally (if a stubborn and problematic one) to seeing it as an adversary whose ambitions had to be thwarted was halting and extremely difficult. The task of shifting policy from its established pattern to a new framework proved enormously challenging even when the existing approach was increasingly deemed deficient. But then the ingredients materialized that are indispensable to a policy shift of such magnitude. First, the failure to mitigate Soviet ambitions was proving so catastrophic to American security that it had to be addressed energetically and imaginatively. But the two additional factors—a viable alternative to the existing approach and a powerful presidential intimate bent on fostering new thinking—ultimately emerged as well.
Truman had the fortune of inheriting sober minds such as Admiral William Leahy, who acted as his chief of staff, and U.S. ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman, who fed him a steady stream of criticisms of Stalin’s rule and stressed the impracticality of uncritical engagement. Increasingly, these advisers challenged accommodationists such as Harry Hopkins and Henry Wallace. Truman initially was not prone to accept their views and disrupt the continuity of policy, but he now had an alternative explanation should his frustrations require it.
It is here that a memo and a speech added further urgency to the need for a course correction. The strength of George Kennan’s iconic memorandum on the sources of Soviet conduct was that it offered authoritative intellectual validation of the emerging anti-Soviet sentiment percolating within the bureaucracy. The “Long Telegram” eviscerated the popular notion that reassurance and concessions could blunt Soviet power and preserve the Grand Alliance. The idea that bargaining and compromise could foster a durable settlement with Stalin was now exposed as flawed as Kennan portrayed a revolutionary state that required external enemies for legitimization of its internal repression.
The call for confrontation came not only from Kennan’s eloquent pen but also from the elegant oratory of a world leader of nearly unrivaled esteem, Winston Churchill. The former prime minister’s speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, was alarming as well as prophetic. “Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organization intends to do in the future,” he declared. “What are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytizing tendencies.” Churchill quickly moved to the next arena of conflict by keenly noting that “Turkey and Persia are both profoundly alarmed and disturbed at the claims which are being made upon them.” While Kennan had been imprecise about the next flash point of the U.S.-Soviet conflict, Churchill was quick to point to the eastern Mediterranean as a place of Soviet intrigue. Although the essential purpose of the speech was to call for an Anglo-American alliance as a bulwark of resistance to Soviet encroachment, Churchill echoed Kennan in stressing that only power, and not lofty speeches or international organizations, could forestall the Soviet menace.
The intriguing point remains that some of the milestones of the Cold War such as the “Long Telegram,” Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech and even the Soviet attempts to peel off portions of northern Iran were not decisive turning points. The elegance and historical analysis of Kennan’s memorandum concentrated many minds, but there is little to suggest that it redirected the machinery of the state. And as imposing a figure as Churchill was, his speech did not reorient America’s policy toward the Soviet Union. Given the speech’s controversy, Truman quickly backtracked from his implied endorsement by falsely claiming that he had not seen an advance copy. Secretary Byrnes similarly distanced himself from its call for vigilance as he embarked on further summitry with Soviet functionaries. As for Moscow’s moves in Iran, Washington still hoped that it could preserve both cooperation with the Soviet Union and the sovereignty of Iran. The United States did call for Soviet withdrawal of its troops from northern Iran as stipulated by wartime agreements, and it did take its case to the United Nations, but such moves did not imply America’s readiness to abandon the homilies of the Grand Alliance.Image: Pullquote: The future of Iraq remains uncertain. However, there is no doubt that a change in strategy salvaged the American enterprise and saved Iraq from collapsing further into a horrific civil conflict.Essay Types: Essay