How to Reverse Failed Policy

How to Reverse Failed Policy

Mini Teaser: U.S. policy makers have all too often clung to orthodoxies even as they fail. Yet a select few have managed to turn the ship of state around, to a better course.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

To be sure, the events of 1946 were not without consequence. Given the egregious nature of the Soviets’ conduct, those prone toward firmness were even more fortified in their views. Still, the advocates of cooperation, who had the advantage of continuity on their side, stressed that the Soviet actions were unexceptional for a great power. The Soviets might have to be rebuffed on occasion—as they were in Iran—but that hardly meant ushering in a new doctrine that treated the Kremlin like an adversary with a global appetite that had to be resisted systematically. Amid this debate, Truman stood confused, oscillating between dramatically differing alternatives. A sweeping transformation of American policy required not just presidential frustration and a bureaucratic constituency with a discerning alternative but also a senior official enjoying the president’s confidence and prone to break down existing barriers to new thinking. That person was Dean Acheson. The United States may still not have had a coherent containment strategy in 1946 had Acheson not been in government service.

Acheson’s centrality in the Truman administration stemmed from his proximity and temperament. As an effective State Department number two—and given Byrnes’s frequent absences from Washington—Acheson spent much time with Truman. And, unlike many members of the East Coast establishment who belittled Truman as an unworthy successor to FDR, Acheson treated him with respect and deference, thus gaining the insecure president’s confidence. As a result, Acheson was pivotally positioned to guide U.S. policy in a different direction.

Acheson already was exposed to a steady diet of anti-Soviet advocacy from some of his aides as well as his friend Averell Harriman. However, even though he found Soviet truculence disturbing, he seemed averse to abandoning the core assumptions animating the Grand Alliance. He insisted on continued negotiations and attempted to ease the Soviet Union into the emerging international structures as a means of alleviating its suspicions. He feared the discord over Germany would lead to a division of Europe, a prospect he didn’t like. He wanted the Soviet troops out of Iran but in a manner that did not inject additional tensions into great-power relations. He admired Churchill but cancelled a New York dinner appearance with him once the prime minister’s Iron Curtain speech proved controversial. He favored sharing nuclear information with the Soviet Union and went so far as to coauthor a plan for international control of nuclear technologies. These were hardly attributes of a cold warrior battling against the naïveté of his countrymen.

But developments in Turkey proved decisive in establishing the containment doctrine. Since 1945, Moscow had been pressing the Turkish government to allow Soviet ships to pass through the Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In August 1946, the Soviets augmented their demand with ominous naval maneuvers in the Black Sea and the dispatch of additional forces to the Balkans. Ankara, fearing a Soviet invasion, appealed to the West for assistance.

The Turkish crisis was pivotal for Acheson. All along, he had seen various episodes of Soviet aggression as unrelated events. Thus, he had made no connection between Stalin’s brutal methods in Eastern Europe and his expansionist efforts in the Mediterranean. Now he saw a pattern of Soviet aggression, which disabused him of the notion that conciliation would temper Stalin’s ambitions. He concluded the only real deterrent to Soviet plans for engulfing Turkey and the Middle East would be the “conviction that the pursuance of such a policy will result in a war with the United States.” Meeting with Truman, Acheson argued that the imperative was not just negating Stalin’s designs on Turkey but confronting him with a new approach of firmness and confrontation. In a memorable exchange, Acheson turned to Truman and asked if he understood the gravity of the moment. “We might as well find out whether the Russians [are] bent on world conquest now as in five or ten years,” declared Truman. The president’s inclination toward toughness was now buttressed and legitimized by the man he came to trust. The months of dithering came to an end as the United States would now pursue a new policy of vigilance.

Ultimately, it was Stalin’s aggression in the periphery of Europe that provoked a new direction in U.S. policy. The Soviet moves in the Turkish Straits finally tipped the bureaucratic scales, adding the considerable weight of Acheson to the ranks of those who were calling for change. Faced with joint Anglo-American protest, Stalin quietly backed off his claims on the straits. The fact that the new policy of firmness yielded results so quickly further affirmed its logic. Although the great initiatives of the containment doctrine such as the Marshall Plan and the establishment of NATO would come later, 1946 proved the decisive year in shifting the conceptual foundation of U.S. policy away from conciliation and toward containment.

National-security decisions sometimes seem clearer viewed in retrospect. The process that propelled Truman toward his reconsideration was never without hesitancy, second-guessing and ambiguity. Despite his awareness that the Soviets were violating their pledges, Truman still harbored lingering hopes of rebuilding past cooperation. Although George Kennan is often credited with ushering in the age of containment, it was Dean Acheson who guided U.S. policy away from its predetermined course. Acheson’s formidable intellectual powers allowed him to grasp the salience of the moment and the need for strategies that met the exigencies of the time. Possessing the trust of his president and the inner confidence to revisit and change his assumptions, Acheson used his critical position to translate his vision into a successful policy.

MANY OBSERVERS have long assumed that the terms of the 1973 peace treaty ending the Vietnam War were largely the same as those available in 1969. Thus, the war was prolonged for no reason other than Richard Nixon’s obsession with credibility. North Vietnam’s swift victory in 1975 seemingly lends credence to this perception. However, such views simplify a far more complicated diplomatic dance.

America’s Vietnam policy changed under Nixon in a manner that compelled Hanoi to alter its war objectives and accept a compromise settlement. True, the peace treaty could be enforced only through American airpower and continued material assistance to Saigon, and neither continued after Nixon became embroiled in the debilitating Watergate scandal. Still, the changes brought about by Nixon altered the context of the war and compelled Hanoi to accept an agreement that could have preserved South Vietnamese sovereignty.

While an under secretary of state was critical to ushering in a different Cold War policy, it was the president himself who guided the Vietnam shift. Nixon proved the rarest of presidents, taking command of both the direction and the details of a policy. As early as 1967, in his important Foreign Affairs article, Nixon clearly understood that America’s path in Vietnam had to change radically. “The war has imposed severe strains on the United States, not only militarily and economically but socially and politically as well,” conceded the future presidential candidate. Although aided by Henry Kissinger, this would be a top-down assault on the assumptions and processes by a president unimpressed by an unimaginative bureaucracy. Nixon, whose mastery of foreign affairs exceeded that of most presidents, actively participated in formulating a new strategy to salvage America’s Indochina effort. Among his most innovative policy changes was a realignment in great-power relations that proved crucial in inducing Hanoi to come to terms with the United States.

By 1969, America’s war effort in Vietnam was unsustainable due to stalemate on the battlefield and turmoil at home. To the extent that Hanoi participated in talks, its terms called for a unilateral American withdrawal, cessation of all attacks on North Vietnam, the replacement of the Saigon regime with a coalition of neutralists and Communists, and respect for the territorial unity of Vietnam. Clearly, the North looked at diplomacy as a means of dividing the Western camp and empowering the U.S. peace movement. Upon becoming president, Nixon confronted an adversary whose diplomacy was driven by the notion that revolutionary violence could transform the situation and that there was no point in bargaining seriously with capitalist barons. Hanoi’s objective remained the defeat of the United States, and the talks were merely an extension of that aim.

The new Nixon strategy for reclaiming the initiative had a number of components. He assumed initially that bluster could nudge Hanoi away from its intransigence. An unimpressed North Vietnamese leadership not only persisted with its infiltrations but also rejected Nixon’s offer of secret talks. Having been rebuffed, Nixon launched a new strategy. He removed some of the restraints on his military operations, particularly in escalating the air war. He embraced General Creighton Abrams’s replacement of General William Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy strategy with a more robust counterinsurgency one. A result was the near destruction of Hanoi’s southern Communist cadre, and its privileged sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia also came under sustained attack. The intensification of the military assaults presented Hanoi with a new and more ominous reality.

Meanwhile, the Americans initiated a “Vietnamization” program designed to transfer much of the ground fighting to South Vietnamese armed forces. This strategy not only buttressed South Vietnamese capabilities but also transformed the conflict into a Vietnamese one. The North had long depicted its war as emancipating Vietnam from the clutches of Western imperialism. Now it was a civil war with Vietnamese fighting each other. The enhanced capacity of South Vietnam and the disruption of the North’s supply lines did much to soften Hanoi. The argument can be made that despite the success of such tactics, given Hanoi’s resilience, it would soon find ways to cope with these measures. But Nixon added his détente with the Soviet Union and reconciliation with China, which differentiated the president from his predecessors and made a profound impression on the North.

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