Postwar Delusions: Why America Keeps Making Mistakes Abroad

Postwar Delusions: Why America Keeps Making Mistakes Abroad

Voters are blaming the twenty-first century’s forever wars on the foreign policy establishment, just as Washington’s best and brightest were blamed for Vietnam half a century ago. The culpability of today’s prominent mainstream historians, however, has gone unnoticed.

Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson was in the thick of things. He’d rise to head the department, from January 1949–1953, and he may be the most effective individual to ever hold the office. Today, we can’t appreciate his decisions, nor fully grasp the history of this era, without knowing the influences that shaped him. 

Myth has it that Acheson was an “Anglophile” (“of the first order,” writes Logevall) and a “wasp aristocrat” (“a caricature of the breed,” says the cultural critic Jeffrey Hart). In truth, he was the opposite of both stereotypes, and to call Acheson an “anglophile [is] laughable” concludes his foremost biographer, Robert Beisner. Acheson’s record of bitter comments and harsh judgments toward Britain shouldn’t be a surprise for a man of Irish-Scots background, a people famous for disdaining English prerogatives. Acheson adored his father, who had arrived in steerage as a sixteen-year-old working-class immigrant, and it’s revealing that Acheson avoids even saying his father was born in England. 

The main reason for labeling Acheson an “Anglophile” seems to be because he wore decent suits with well-polished shoes and a slightly formal homburg on a slim 6’ frame. Henry Kissinger describes his “Bond Street tailoring,” but there were no tailors on Bond Street in those days. Acheson’s suits simply came from Brooks Brothers in New York and a local shop, Farnsworth-Reed, in Washington. Another reason for the label is that Acheson was an Episcopalian, which to some people means being part of a slavishly Anglophile elite. Of course, Acheson had English friends, like Bevin. But there’s no serious person of those years who was less of an “Anglophile.”

For historians to get Acheson so wrong suggests they could be equally wrong about who the era’s key decisionmakers might be, and how decisions were made. 

Secretary Marshall’s famous speech at Harvard on June 5 was the third great event of a fifteen-week sequence that began with Bevin’s shock tactics over Greece. Marshall had little to do with preparing the speech. He was negotiating overseas, and his undersecretary for economic affairs, Will Clayton, was also spread thin. Kennan by then had returned to Washington to direct State’s policy planning bureau. Marshall’s speech “was largely my own,” Kennan recalled. What could go wrong? 

At this point, the Treasury Department was more involved in international affairs than ever before and, from 1946–1953, it was led by John Wesley Snyder—who was both the most powerful secretary since Albert Gallatin in 1801 and Truman’s closest friend and advisor, as well as second in line to the presidency. In June 1947, Snyder additionally chaired the National Advisory Council, recently created by Congress to be the “coordinating agency for United States international financial policy.” This made him responsible for the terms of foreign loans and assistance programs. 

His lieutenant throughout was William McChesney Martin, known as the “boy wonder of Wall Street,” who’d go on in 1951 to be the longest-serving chairman of the Federal Reserve. Both men had the reputation of being “hard bankers” concerning politically motivated loans. Martin, too, sat on the Advisory Council. Ignoring them might be a bad idea. 

Paul Kennedy, who like Gaddis is part of Yale’s distinguished department of history, rhapsodizes about the launch of the Marshall Plan. Marshall’s words were crafted by “the most brilliant minds at the State Department and on its Policy Planning Staff,” he writes. He neglects the chaos that followed. 

At Harvard, Secretary Marshall had unwittingly made an outright offer that the United States would pick up the entire relief and recovery tab for Europe. Or such was the impression as fantastic sums were quickly attached to his speech—a score, or maybe two, of billions of dollars was being bandied about in the press, on Capitol Hill and in Europe (for a country with a gdp of $250 billion). Meanwhile, stock markets were plunging. To Snyder and Martin, the dangerous confusion was due to a certain cluelessness at the middle rung of the State Department about how the country actually worked. 

Fortunately, Marshall and Snyder were close. Officials could be startled to hear them using first names, which the austere general did with only four or five intimates. Yet three weeks after the Harvard speech, Snyder slammed on the brakes. The United States was still burdened by war debt, and no one knew if the Depression had been licked. To imply that Washington could meet open-ended outlays for goods and services overseas, he told the nation, jeopardized the U.S. economy. Any such enormous undertaking required cautious, knowledgeable preparation. 

Truman had to intervene the next day, on June 26, at a press conference. He agreed with both his two most senior cabinet secretaries. But Moscow had gotten the jump by igniting a campaign to persuade stunned European observers that the Americans were packing up for home as they had after World War I. Moreover, Congress now had excellent reason to fear a spending spree. It wouldn’t allow the Marshall Plan to be run by State no matter what the Bureau of the Budget might recommend; and it would tightly control the money, with major restrictions—like requiring Western Europe’s recipient nations to unite. 

All histories of the Marshall Plan ignore this turmoil. Instead, readers encounter the usual tale of brilliant diplomatic minds at work and maybe some new anecdotes from the archives. Big incidents meanwhile get missed, like Averell Harriman, who ran the Marshall Plan in Europe, not being allowed by the British to attend meetings of the sixteen recipients. The Foreign Office, observed Walter Lippmann, intended to “sabotage” Congress’s demand for a European federation, which is an insight of some interest today.

HISTORICALLY INCLINED journalists have heroized Acheson, Harriman, Kennan and lawyer John J. McCloy—whom Snyder designated president of the World Bank in March 1947 and kept on a tight rein—as the “Wise Men,” along with two other luminaries, Charles Bohlen and Robert Lovett. Yet the notion of six highborn wasps from the best schools rebuilding the world is misleading. For instance, Snyder—without college, like Truman—had tremendous clout, whereas Bohlen had little influence under Truman. Acheson, in turn, was no “lifelong Anglophile,” and three of these six were anything but aristocratic. A graver mistake is to believe that anyone in Washington was fashioning cohesive policies. 

Today, the desperate improvisations of these fateful months—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and Kennan’s articulation of “containment”—are described as the formation of a “strategy,” or even of a “grand strategy,” as by Gaddis. But this view doesn’t fit, even when adding in the North Atlantic Treaty two years later.

 The underpinnings of a strategy must have as few contradictions as possible. All the entities engaged need to be coordinated and aware of the others’ necessities. Stepping higher, a grand strategy entails unifying long-term ends with the most broad-based means. In a constitutional nation, it involves conciliating and encouraging those who form the currents of national opinion and energy. Significantly, it takes time and knowledge to formulate a grand strategy, or at least be aware of the many steps underway. In 1947 there wasn’t any time, or so it seemed.

Instead, the sequence of Truman Doctrine-Marshall Plan-Containment was just shy of winging it. The American public was up for little of this. Emergencies were being met with a mélange of tactics and with minimal long-term perspective. There was little interconnectedness—witness the difficulties between State and Treasury. Not least, had these efforts been brought under any strategic direction, the U.S. armed forces would not have been kept on a shoestring.

In 1948, orders from the Pentagon underscored this fact. 

Democratic Czechoslovakia fell to a Communist coup in February, and the nation’s foreign minister, well known to official Washington, was soon murdered. It’s incorrect to say, with Benn Steil, that “Marshall was unmoved” by either outrage. On the contrary, Marshall evoked “the high-handed procedure of the Nazi regime,” and his words rang coast-to-coast. The year-long Berlin Blockade, which Stalin imposed, followed in June.

Yet all historians who examine these events miss an essential point: the scattered and shrinking number of remaining gis in Europe (around eighty thousand, with twelve combat-ready tanks) had been ordered the previous August not to retaliate should the Red Army blitz to the English Channel, as was widely feared. They could fight only if the Russians hit the U.S. occupation zone in Germany. That was unlikely: the quickest route to the Channel would be through the British zone to the north, which bordered Holland and Belgium. The Americans, as in 1941, weren’t about to go to war unless they were attacked directly. 

As tensions rose with Moscow, the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to worry Russia’s war plans might be counting on another such “fatal delay.” A month after November’s presidential election, Truman finally rescinded the order. The Joint Chiefs hoped his decision would give “notice to Russia and to the world that we are allied to Britain and will readily come to her defense,” but the National Security Council insisted the authorization be kept secret. 

When told correctly, the story of these years is one of enduring American insularity, which also has insights for today. Main Street was so cautious about politico-military ties that few people risked stating the North Atlantic Treaty would be ratified after it was signed in April 1949. Its very name, the North Atlantic Treaty, was a concession to lingering isolationism. It was necessary to emphasize the security of the defending ocean, the Atlantic, and not of the sinful continent, Europe.