Cool It: The Foreign Policy of Young America

A Quiz 1. If Thailand were invaded by outside Communist military forces, what percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to her support? 2. If Italy were invaded by outside Communist military forces, what percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to her support? 3. If West Berlin were invaded by outside Communist ...

A Quiz

A Quiz

1. If Thailand were invaded by outside Communist military forces, what percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to her support?

2. If Italy were invaded by outside Communist military forces, what percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to her support?

3. If West Berlin were invaded by outside Communist military forces, what percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to her support?

4. If Israel were in danger of being overrun by Soviet-aided Arabs, what percent of Americans would favor sending U.S. troops to her support?


1. 25 percent   3. 26 percent

2. 27 percent   4. 9 percent

The questions are hypothetical, and polls of this sort can be notoriously misleading. Still, the dimensions of the result, when published by Time magazine in May 1969, were a surprise to many. They suggested, however imperfectly, an undeniable trend away from the settled assumptions shared by postwar American leaders. The outcome of the poll was less surprising to younger than to older Americans, and this difference in outlook between age-groups merits exploration in depth.

The End of Empire

Historians in the year 2000, looking back with detachment on the cold war, are apt to conclude that the main feature of international life in the period 1945-1970 was neither the expansion of the Soviet Union nor Communist China. Instead it was the global expansion of American influence: military, economic, political and cultural. Visions of Communist aggrandizement fueled the cold war, but the result was to bring about a massive American presence on every continent. As European influence in Afro-Asia declined, the United States filled the vacuum. As Communism challenged the independence of nations around the globe, the United States responded with treaties, troops, aid programs and interventions. The threat seemed so clear, the American response to it so defensive, that few Americans appreciated the scope of U.S. overseas expansion. Yet twenty-five years after the end of World War II, the United States found itself an imperial power. Although the empire had emerged more by default than design, it was an empire of proportions unparalleled in history:

-defense treaties with 42 nations;

-3.5 million men under arms in "peacetime";

-1.1 million soldiers stationed abroad (twice the present total of all other nations

in the world combined);

-2200 military bases in 33 countries;

-a 25-year foreign aid bill of $150 billion;

-a 25-year defense bill of more than one trillion dollars;

-controlling more than half of all direct foreign investments;

-producing considerably more than half of the world’s total manufactured products.

The description of this extended American influence as an "empire" must be heavily qualified, for certain characteristics of the American version distinguish it in significant ways from empires of the past. First, the United States has rarely asserted direct political control, over other countries. Its allies and clients have for the most part exercised considerable independence, and U.S. influence has been brought to bear on a relatively small range of issues. Second, this empire has seemed to differ from others in the extent of its sometimes idealistic commitment to the maintenance of international order, the generation of economic development and the encouragement of democratic government. Third, the American empire has risen in a time of dramatic increases in national power and independence. Its size is, therefore, no measure of its influence relative to that of previous empires. Fourth, though the basic guidelines of postwar American foreign policy were forged by a small group of leaders, these men were able to win support for their policies from the vast majority of American citizens.

It is the author’s central hypothesis that this American empire is becoming a thing of the past. Admittedly the evidence is not clear, but it seems to many that we have already entered the twilight zone of American political and military influence in the world. Imagining again how things will look to the historian of the year 2000, I would be prepared to bet that the distinguishing characteristic of the next thirty years will be the retraction of the power of the United States and the concomitant emergence of other national and international centers of power.

My bet is based on three considerations. First is the depth of the present disenchantment with the policies of the past. Though last year’s Harris poll is certainly no forecast of the actions of the U.S. government, it does suggest something fundamental. The broad bipartisan consensus that characterized American foreign policy for two decades after the Second World War has given way to widespread, bipartisan confusion about the nature of international politics, the character of the challenges that foreign-policy makers confront, and the desirable level of U.S. involvement. This uncertainty infects Americans both young and old, for Vietnam has produced a major shift in American public opinion. The silent majority’s willingness to "fight Communism" in every part of the globe has been sapped. The confidence of most leading businessmen, politicians, professors and journalists–the traditional "establishment" which has heavily influenced public opinion in the past — is badly shaken. Faith in the ability or desirability of active U.S. leadership to promote "international order" has soured. Younger Americans have learned their primary lessons about international politics from a costly, unsuccessful military involvement. In the 1970’s, only the most direct challenge to U.S. security will be able to generate broad public support for the involvement of U.S. troops in a foreign war.

A second consideration is the probable course of international events in the years ahead. The extent to which the current disenchantment can bring about a substantial withdrawal of American political and military influence around the globe depends in important ways on the pressures created by international events. For example, it is not difficult to imagine events that might derail the Nixon doctrine and the U.S. troop withdrawals from every continent that are now in prospect. Obviously, it is impossible to predict what the critical events of the 1970’s will be. Nevertheless, our government and our people are today committed to a retraction rather than a further expansion of American power, and the most plausible projections ahead seem consistent with this attitude.

Third and finally, the attitudes of young Americans today are a harbinger of the future. More than half our population is under age thirty, and many of these young men and women will soon be assuming positions of influence in the government and the society. By the end of this decade, their attitudes will have a significant impact on our foreign policy. Hence this third consideration is of crucial importance, and it takes us back to the starting point of the inquiry: namely, what are the attitudes and axioms of young Americans towards foreign policy for the 1970’s?

Young Americans’ Attitudes: A Short Answer

Forced to give a short answer, I would offer two propositions. First, the current preoccupations of our youth are predominantly, pervasively and indeed almost entirely not issues of foreign policy. Problems of foreign affairs (with the exception of Vietnam) are not what young Americans think about, care about, or hope to spend their public lives doing something about. The public policy issues of greatest concern to them are domestic: the poor, the blacks, the cities, the environment, law and order, the quality of American life. This proposition is stated strongly to emphasize the substantial shift that has occurred. Obviously, some young Americans are more concerned about foreign affairs than others. The Arab-Israeli conflict interests an important sub-set of young people, for whom "dovishness stops at the delicatessen door." But it is important to recognize that issues of foreign affairs simply are not now among the most interesting of young Americans’ preoccupations — as they were in the 1940’s or 1950’s, or even the early 1960’s.

A second proposition modifies the first. To the extent that foreign policy is currently important to most young Americans, their posture expresses a generalized desire to "cool" foreign affairs. They want Vietnam over, defense budgets down, international entanglements cut. Their reading of the consequences of past foreign policies reinforces their argument for new domestic priorities. Hence, they challenge the guidelines that have governed American foreign policy in the postwar era and they insist that the empire which emerged as a consequence of those guidelines be drastically shrunk.

To dig deeper, it is necessary to narrow the scope of the inquiry, paying special attention to the views not of all young people, but of those particular young people most likely to have an influence on foreign policy. Obviously, not all young Americans agree with each other. The views of radical youth shock older Americans and tend therefore to be reported and remembered. But Students for a Democratic Society has far fewer members and sympathizers than the 20 percent of the 21-29 age group that supported George Wallace in the 1968 election.

While a report on the current opinions of various groups of young Americans would be informative, it would not tell us which of these attitudes was most likely to affect foreign policy. To get at the latter question, I have thought it best to concentrate on a select group of college-educated youth who most nearly constitute an elite among their contemporaries, in the sense that they are judged to have a five percent statistical chance of future appointment to a political or executive position in the U.S. government or to a position of comparable influence in the society. A good deal of guesswork and, inevitably, a good deal of error is involved in trying to identify such an "elite" sample. Nonetheless, aided by an older panel of consultants who selected the sampling group, I have conducted conversational interviews with more than 100 "elite" young Americans in the 25-34 age group in an attempt to elicit their views. The sample is biased towards the East and West Coasts and towards "establishment" backgrounds. In conducting the interviews I was not concerned to establish reactions to specific foreign problems so much as to identify the underlying assumptions or axioms of foreign policy which seemed to be shared by the group as a whole.

Thus narrowed, the question becomes: what are the deeper axioms of 25-34-year-old elite Americans towards foreign policy for the 1970’s? In short, what do Vice President Agnew’s "effete intellectual snobs" think now? To what extent these axioms are shared by the broader population of young Americans, and indeed by many older Americans as well, the reader must judge for himself.

A Longer Answer

The axioms of "elite" young Americans (hereafter, simply young Americans) towards foreign policy today are defined in large part as challenges to, and questions about, the axioms reflected in American foreign policy in the postwar era. For purposes of clarity, it will therefore be useful first to formulate the axioms of the earlier period, the viewpoint of older Americans who have shaped our policies since World War II. Painted in broad brush strokes, that viewpoint looks something like this:

Axioms of the Postwar Era

1. The pre-eminent feature of international politics is the conflict between Communism and the Free World.

a. Every nation that falls to Communism increases the power of the Communist bloc in its struggle with the Free World.

2. The surest simple guide to U.S. interests in foreign policy is opposition to Communism.

3. Communism is on the march.

a. Communist governments are rising and Western democracies may be declining. When will the Soviet Union overtake the United States in economic and military strength?

b. Soviet intentions toward Western Europe are essentially aggressive.

c. The main source of unrest, disorder, subversion, and civil war in underdeveloped areas is Communist influence and support.

4. Communism is monolithic.

a. Communism has unique adhesive qualifies that can paste over national and ethnic differences.

5. The United States has the power, responsibility, and right to defend the Free World and maintain international order.

6. Peace is indivisible. Therefore, collective defense is necessary. The new international order is based primarily on U.S. assumption of responsibility, especially in demonstrating the willingness of the United States to resist aggression.

7. The Third World really matters.

a. It is the battleground between Communism and the Free World.

b. Western capital will generate economic development and political stability with a minimum of violence.

c. Instability is the great threat to progress in the Third World.

8. The United States can play an important role in inducing European integration, which will solve the German problem.

9. Military strength is the primary route to national security.

a. Nuclear war is a serious possibility.

b. Nuclear proliferation is such a certain road to disaster that the United States should accept almost any cost and risk to prevent it.

10. While the United States has many domestic needs, the first order of business is U.S. national security, which is closely linked with the security of the Free World.

a. National security means protecting the U.S. from attacks by foreign governments.

Not all of these axioms were believed by every postwar leader. Few were believed by anyone in a completely unadulterated form. Over the course of the last two decades, individual leaders came to question several of them. Nonetheless, these propositions, in more or less sophisticated versions, formed the foundation of the American world view during the cold war. For twenty-five years after World War II American foreign policy was roughly consistent with them.

Lest memory’s revisionist tendencies persuade one too quickly that he never really believed any of these propositions, or that if he did, it was only in the late 1940’s, recall the speech that set the tone of U.S. foreign policy for the last imperial decade:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today, at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty… [The United States will] assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas…

Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to serve surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation" — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself …

I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

There is a substantial gap between the rhetoric of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (January 20, 1961) and the concerns of a new generation that has come to maturity in the sixties. To quote from that address is to emphasize how different the world of 1970 is from the world of 1961. Already most older Americans have extensively modified their cold war axioms on the basis of additional information (for example, about Soviet intentions), the success of some efforts (the revival of Europe), and disappointment about others (Vietnam). But as older elite Americans see it, policies they forged and sacrifices they made have yielded peace, a prosperous, neighborly Europe, and relative stability in the Third World. Younger Americans, however, fail to appreciate this evolution. Some seem to feel that we have peace because people are peaceable; most are skeptical about the reality of problems that their elders think they solved. Exhibiting youth’s characteristic lack of historical perspective, most young Americans today challenge every one of the earlier axioms, and many would go further and assert the contrary of each one. The clearest way to see this contrast is to set out the basic axioms of young Americans, as elicited in the interviews described above, in a similarly stark and summary fashion.

Axioms of Young Americans

1. While there are important differences between Communist and democratic regimes, the distinction between the Communist bloc and the Free World obfuscates more than it illuminates.

2. Opposition to Communism is a misleading guide for U.S. foreign policy.

a. U.S. foreign policy objectives are poorly summarized by the term "anti-Communist."

b. It is not clear why Communist Cuba is worse than free Haiti or Greece.

3. The Soviet Union is an established, status quo-oriented power.

a. Future relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union will be more cooperative than competitive.

4. Nationalism is stronger than Communism.

a. If North Vietnam captured Southeast Asia, would she be a greater or lesser threat to China?

b. If Communist China captured India, China would probably be a lesser rather than a greater threat to the United States.

5. The United States has neither the power, nor the responsibility, nor the right to guarantee the defense of the Free World or to serve as the linchpin of international order.

a. Does the United States have the capability to achieve any worthwhile objectives by the use of military force?

b. At least in the Third World, military involvement is more dangerous than military noninvolvement.

c. What right does the United States have to enforce its concept of what is good for other nations?

d. The United States should reconsider all obligations to defend other nations.

6. Peace is divisible.

7. It is not clear that any development in Latin America, Africa or Asia (with the possible exception of Japan) would affect the security or vital interests of the United States.

a. Violence, instability, and revolution are inevitable in many parts of the world and will be necessary elements in economic and political development.

b. No foreseeable objective in the Third World could justify the expenditure of 40,000 American lives and $I00 billion.

8. Europe has recovered and should now assume primary responsibility for its own problems, including defense.

9. Increasing military strength will only bring increased national insecurity.

a. Strategic "superiority" is meaningless.

b. Nuclear war is incredible, that is, not a real possibility.

c. Nuclear proliferation may be less onerous to the United States than the kind of involvement necessary to prevent it.

10. A number of pressing domestic requirements should have priority over all current issues of foreign affairs.

a. The security, survival, and well-being of the United States is threatened more by problems within the American society than by foreign foes.

b. Is Chicago more likely to be destroyed by the Chinese or by forces within the

domestic society?

Again, these axioms are broad-brush caricature. This formulation represents a "com promise" between the minority, who were well-informed about problems of foreign policy, and the majority, whose lack of knowledge complemented their lack of concern. Still it is surprising how often the well-informed and the ill-informed agreed for quite different reasons. Not all young Americans would subscribe to each of the axioms. Indeed, the axioms are not even internally consistent. Moreover, their formulation as strong assertions more often than as questions suggests that a new, coherent consensus has formed. While many young Americans believe that this is the case, only time and events will be able to separate fashion from fundamentals.

About each axiom it could be said, "it depends." Each is obviously "more complicated than that." But the point about axioms is that they represent presumptions, a mix of values, prediction and judgment. By stating axioms bluntly, without elaboration, the contrast between current and past beliefs is oversimplified. Particular axioms are neither entirely believed nor wholly disbelieved.

Nevertheless, there are real differences of view between younger and older Americans. The gap between the axioms of the leaders of postwar American foreign policy and the current axioms of young Americans is considerable. If today’s young elite Americans are compared with their counterparts in the 1940’s, 1950’s, or early 1960’s, the difference is also striking. If young elite Americans are compared with today’s older elite Americans on the extent of disbelief in the first set of axioms and belief in the second set, the differences are still great. What makes these three sets of differences most significant are the crucial experiences in which these differences in attitudes are grounded.

A Mini-Theory of "Crucial Experiences"

The men who forged postwar American foreign policy did not simply invent their axioms. Their attitudes and beliefs about foreign policy emerged from the experiences which had shaped the world of their youth. Theirs was a vision founded upon and reinforced by disappointment in the aftermath of the First World War, the unavoidable lessons of isolationism, Munich and the failure of the West, the confidence of being morally right in World War II, the unquestionable potency of the American war effort, and false hopes shattered by Communist aggression and by the "loss" of Eastern Europe and China. Given the differences in age between, say, John J. McCloy and John F. Kennedy, the differences between their experiences were enormous. But both McCloy’s generation and the generation that served with Kennedy as junior officers in World War II had grooved in their heads furrows that were fertile for belief in the postwar axioms. Having seen the cost of American isolationism, who could doubt that involvement was necessary? Having fought the good fight against Hitler, who could forget the dangers of letting aggressive totalitarianism go unchecked?

Consider in contrast the experiences of the current generation of young Americans.

Vietnam is to this generation what World War II was to the last. It seems likely that the lessons of Vietnam will have just as much impact on these young people’s conceptions of American foreign policy as the lessons of the First or Second World Wars had on the conceptions of their fathers and grandfathers.

What has the Vietnam experience taught young Americans? First, militant disbelief in the older axioms. The American government’s attempt to stretch the old guidelines in order to justify Vietnam has devalued the currency of the past. This point cannot be overemphasized, for this, more than anything else, accounts for the formulation of newer axioms as direct challenges to the earlier ones. Second, there is deep doubt about the reliability of the U.S. government as a source of information. Stalin taught the older generation to suspect official pronouncements of Communist governments; Lyndon Johnson cracked the credibility of the U.S. government for young Americans. Third, there is awareness that the U.S. government is no more moral — in any simple sense of individual morality — than other governments. The extensive use of firepower against villages, the devastation of entire areas by free droppings of B-52’s, My Lai — facts like these prevent young Americans from sharing their elders’ confidence in the essential moral rightness of America. Fourth, there is recognition that the United States can "lose." All American children learn from their schoolbooks that the United States has never lost a war. But the gargantuan image of brave men, unlimited money and massive modern technology bogged down in a medieval quagmire will not soon be forgotten. Young Americans know that the U.S. is vincible (at least in foreign ventures). Finally, these factors and others converge as the costs of empire costs borne disproportionately by young Americans. Not that many of the young Americans with whom we are concerned actually fought in Vietnam. Most of them watched it unfold on television, worrying about how to escape it by graduate school or other draft deferments. What is more important, many of them made the long march from belief in, or silent approval of the war, through doubt about what their government was doing, to active opposition.

For five years now, this war has kept daily before their consciousness the fact of an unsuccessful imperial venture: killing 43,000 Americans and wounding 250,000 more; devastating a small Asian country and ending the lives of perhaps a million of its people; sucking up more than 100 billion American dollars; deeply dividing the nation at home; and distracting attention from first order business.

No More Vietnams?

To focus entirely on Vietnam as the single "crucial experience" in the lives of young Americans would be to overstate the point. Before Vietnam, America was discovering the blacks, the poor and even less blatant problems in the quality of national life. Even without Vietnam, strains in the American body politic would have etched these issues in the minds of young Americans and forced some national turning inward to meet these needs. Moreover, the changed international trends, which are reflected in the thinking of the "Vietnam generation," were beginning to emerge before the war began. Neither the demise of monolithic Communism, nor the partial convergence of interests between the U.S. and the Soviet Union waited on Vietnam. More important, the fundamental character of international politics in the period of young Americans’ formative experiences has been essentially orderly, relatively stable, indeed almost benign — with the exception of American action in Vietnam. Since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the security and vital interests of the U.S. have not been seriously threatened. That this milieu should have made young Americans less sensitive than their fathers to the Communist threat, the dangers of disorder in the Third World, or the re-emergent power of Japan and Germany is hardly surprising. In sum, while both international and domestic trends reinforce the axioms of young Americans, Vietnam has magnified the conflict between costs of empire and needs at home.

Differences between younger and older Americans are perhaps sharpest when one considers what is likely to be a major issue in American foreign policy for the rest of the century: noninvolvement versus involvement. More specifically, the issue is not whether the U.S. should return to the isolationist posture of the 1930’s. Culture, communications and nuclear weapons have laid that ghost to rest. The real debate to which the cry of "isolationism" is a rhetorical diversion — is over the extent of American military and political involvement overseas. Most older Americans agree today that Vietnam was a mistake and that it is dangerous to intervene in "wars of liberation." Indeed, most older elite Americans would like to narrow the Nixon doctrine even further, establishing a presumption against sending U.S. troops to defend nations threatened by internal disorder and/or subversion. Few Americans call for "More Vietnams!" But these attitudes reflect the full impact of current events. It is not difficult to imagine developments that would cut through these beliefs, uncovering in the minds of older Americans the lessons of the 1930’s and 1940’s. For example, if Thailand were the victim of overt aggression by Chinese Communist troops, many older elite Americans would favor sending troops to defend Thailand. To take a more obvious case, most older elite Americans believe that the U.S. should maintain its commitments to the defense of Western Europe.

About both these cases, young Americans are either uncertain or negative. What lies beneath their surface insistence on "No More Vietnams" is a deep-seated doubt about why U.S. troops should in any circumstances be engaged in military operations in any other part of the world. What will soon be known as the "lessons of involvement" will, I suggest, be no less rooted in the consciousness of young Americans today than were the "lessons of isolationism" in the previous generation.

This contrast highlights our present dilemma. Older elite Americans, like all mature men, have enormous difficulty in escaping the lessons of the past, especially lessons grounded in the crucial experiences of their youth. In a world where the pace of change is ever more rapid, their tendency to fall back on old solutions when confronted with new problems can spell disaster. Younger Americans are able to see the world afresh, and to devise new solutions for new problems. But they have insufficient historical perspective to distinguish between froth and substance in current situations (and the world is certain to be less benign than their axioms imply). Unfortunately, each generation seems fated to rely on the axioms grounded in its own crucial experiences in making its own mistakes. "No More Vietnams!" seems destined to be as misleading a guide for statesmen of the 1970’s and 1980’s as "No More Munichs!" was for leaders of the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.


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