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.

No U.S. troops would ever be garrisoned in Europe, pledged the Truman administration. That the country had slid into recession by early spring added to restraint. The scary thing about recessions is there’s no telling how deep they’ll go. The return of the 1930s seemed at hand. 

Scholars of diplomatic history pay little attention to economics, even if they happen to be trained as economists, and the epic near-smashup of the Western economies in 1949 is today unknown. The savviest of policymakers, such as Walter F. George, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and twice chairman of Foreign Relations, expected what was slouching on stage to be worse than the crash of 1929. 

Twenty years later, in summer 1949, Britain faced financial calamity, and this time, “bankruptcy” not only looked real but also might encompass that half of the non-communist world which used sterling as a reserve currency. Britain’s collapse would ruin fragile European economies before the North Atlantic allies had time to build themselves an “organization.” Worse would follow. “If Britain goes down, we’ll go down, too, in a matter of months,” said the exceedingly influential Senator George.

Snyder and Martin were visiting U.S. Treasury offices in Europe that July. As the crisis erupted, Acheson claims in his memoir, Snyder “flew back like a modern Paul Revere crying ‘The British are coming!’” But Snyder did no such thing. He and Martin coolly held meetings in London and spent two more weeks completing their work in Europe’s capitals. Such hyperbole adds to the fun of Acheson’s acclaimed Present at the Creation but keeps muddying the record.

Fortunately, Acheson and Snyder got along well. By 1968, they’d co-author an essay on party politics. They reflected wryly on themselves during this era. “All of us in the Cabinet knew who the whipping boys were,” they chortled. “We were.” Each had abrasions with Congress and the press. 

Stakes were immense. That’s why President Truman decided that Snyder, his widely respected Treasury secretary, rather than Acheson, would conduct negotiations with the British—and would do so from within the State Department. 

In all his writings on the early Cold War, Kennan’s biographer, Professor Gaddis, uses only four words to identify Secretary of the Treasury John Wesley Snyder, and does so just once. He is described as “a Missouri political crony” of Truman’s. However, Gaddis is parroting Kennan who, in his memoir, moves from opinion about Snyder to fabrication.

Right before the negotiations began, Undersecretary of State James Webb, a White House favorite, told Kennan why Snyder was placed in charge. “There was no one in Washington who knew the British like Snyder,” the president had explained to him that morning. Nonetheless, Kennan writes that Truman’s decision was due to “obscure reasons of domestic politics,” though Webb had explicitly said otherwise.

Since the war, Snyder had in fact developed fine relations with Britain’s leaders. Unlike Acheson, he had affection for the Mother Country. Moreover, Webb added, in trying to mollify the prickly Kennan, Truman hadn’t quite taken to Acheson whom he found “austere and aloof.” Webb’s remarks exist in Kennan’s unpublished papers but have gone unnoticed.

Kennan wrote about these seismic negotiations in his memoir, and documents show everything he says to be false. He was also backchanneling to Foreign Office contacts that Snyder had been given the chair “for reasons of political expedience,” but his intrigues changed nothing. On August 31, Foreign Secretary Bevin and his top team of negotiators embarked from Southampton, and Bevin told the press they were “probably on one of the most important missions in history.” No one in the West disagreed.

Snyder sat at the head of the table with Acheson in the middle during the Sterling-Dollar Talks of mid-September. For three days, and several weeks after, Snyder navigated the two countries through what could have been political/military/economic/financial catastrophe. Kennan was barely involved, but his memoir says that, despite all the cronyism and politicking he had to endure, the U.S. government ended up following his advice “with the greatest fidelity in all the practical aspects of the talks.” Gaddis, for his part, elaborates on this in Kennan’s biography. “Acheson,” he concludes, “was grateful to Kennan for having rescued the British negotiations from the Anglophobic Snyder.” A careful reader is puzzled by this judgment, but then discovers Gaddis’s sole reference is an assertion by Kennan.

BY SEPTEMBER 1949, Acheson was easing Kennan out of the policy-planning directorship. He had many reasons, including Kennan’s habit of leaking to the press, which became so severe as to get Bevin’s attention. Kennan’s departure wasn’t “self-propelled,” as even the astute biographer Robert Beisner concludes. Pink slips aren’t handed out in such roles, and a dismissal can be hidden behind soothing words.

Kennan, however, still had a task to complete, which he handled reluctantly: he needed to conduct the first interagency meeting of a huge effort that would produce a top-secret National Security Council report for President Truman. Snyder and Acheson had initiated this study because the financial crisis, a Soviet atomic weapons test and China’s collapse had just all occurred at once. What were U.S. national security objectives, and how might those objectives, lots of them involving London, be affected by the future of the British Empire? 

Work began on September 1.

Apparently, historians haven’t read this study, judging from the absence of citations. But it’s in the archives with detailed supporting materials (NSC 68, a staple of Cold War literature, is a spinoff). That neglect is unfortunate, because consensus across the top echelons of State, Defense, Treasury and the cia was profound, as shown once NSC 75 landed on Truman’s desk in mid-July 1950. 

By then, NSC 75 was prosaically titled British Military Commitments. It concluded that the British Empire had done no liquidating or giving up; this enormous entity had instead evolved after 1945. There was no “abandonment of the Indian subcontinent,” as Kennedy writes: the world’s largest democracy and the largest Muslim state were (apparently) now within Britain’s tightknit alliance structure, which made it all the stronger. Moreover, the costs of “replacing” the British Empire’s globe-girdling commitments would be “uncountable”; and Americans weren’t prepared to do so anyway, NSC 75 continued. London’s financial crises seemed resolved, and its assertions that the Empire and Commonwealth were as daunting as ever, with an A-bomb soon to come, sounded plausible.

NSC 75 mostly examined the world beyond Europe. It assessed the Middle East, of course, and saw an ongoing British politico-military presence. There’s no conception that, during 1948, Britain “cut and ran” in Palestine, as yet another historian, Niall Ferguson argues, using today’s heated Middle East-related argot: Britain had skirted a snake pit and NSC 75 showed the sprawling ally to be dominating Jordan, Iraq, essentially all of Egypt, the Gulf, Iran and much else.

America was at war in Korea when NSC 75 was completed in July 1950, and in October, U.S. troops and un allies would cross the 38th Parallel and thrust to the border of China. Then the jaws of history’s biggest ambush snapped shut.

The best that can be said is South Korea was rescued from an attack by Stalin and Kim Il-sung at a cost of 5,394 Americans dead. Yet the counter-invasion into North Korea was a fiasco that resulted in the deaths of 28,345 more Americans. 

France and Britain—and increasingly the United States—saw a common battlefront against Sino-Soviet Communism from the Korean Peninsula down through Indochina to the British Federation of Malaya. Thankfully, Malaya hadn’t vanished or been given up, because its hard currency exports amounted to no less than one-seventh the value of all U.S. exports. Malaya was central to Britain’s economy and, thereby, to the recovery of the other Marshall Plan nations. Yet since 1947, Malaya had been besieged by communist insurrection. Relentlessly, Washington heard from the British that Malaya’s best line of defense was along the Mekong River in Indochina, where French colonial rule was withering before the Viet Minh. 

Given how much about the world of 1945–1950 is misunderstood, it’s unlikely that chronicles of America’s early slide into Vietnam would be better informed. One example suffices. 

From 1946 into 1955, Britain’s Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, Malcolm MacDonald, was his country’s most important figure east of Dover, it was said in Whitehall. Based in Singapore, he was one of the “two Macs” of East Asia (the other being General MacArthur, whom MacDonald consulted when in Japan for his own meetings with the emperor). The fate of Malaya was inseparable from whatever befell Indochina, MacDonald insisted, and from 1948 onward, U.S. leaders and opinionmakers trundled to Singapore to seek guidance from “the wise man of Asia,” as he was known to Time, Inc. Just a few of them included Governor Thomas Dewey (titular head of the Republican Party), Congressman John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, Richard Nixon and Adlai Stevenson, columnist Joseph Alsop, publisher Barry Bingham, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Cardinal Francis Spellman, who was called “the Powerhouse” for his influence on American politics. Every top U.S. commander responsible for Asia and the Pacific went to MacDonald’s Singapore headquarters as well.