FLASHBACK

The Plain Lessons of a Bad Decade

The decade of the sixties, in the absence of a massively successful revisionist exercise, will be counted a very dismal period in American foreign policy. Indeed, next only to the cities, it will be considered the prime disaster area of the American polity and it will be accorded much of the blame for the misuse ...

The decade of the sixties, in the absence of a massively successful revisionist exercise, will be counted a very dismal period in American foreign policy. Indeed, next only to the cities, it will be considered the prime disaster area of the American polity and it will be accorded much of the blame for the misuse of energies and resources that caused the trouble in urban ghettos and the alienation and eruption in the universities. The result was in very dim contrast with the promise.

The promise was bright — "Let the word go forth… to friend and foe alike," President Kennedy said in his inaugural address, and no one doubted the power and not many the wisdom of the word. The prestige of foreign policy in 1961 was enormous. No one much cared about who was to run the Treasury. It mattered greatly who was to be the Secretary or Under Secretary or even an Assistant Secretary of State, although there were enough of the latter to form a small union. In the early months of the new Administration, numerous quite marvelous ideas were spawned for strengthening or improving or revising our overseas affairs. There was to be an expanded and reorganized aid program, a Grand Design for Europe (subject to some uncertainty as to what that design might be), the Alliance for Progress, the "Kennedy Round," a Multilateral Force, the Peace Corps, counterinsurgency, an expanded recognition of the role of the new Africa, a dozen other enterprises which did not achieve the dignity of a decently notorious rejection.

Now ten years later one looks back on — seemingly — an uninterrupted series of disasters. The comic-opera affair at the Bay of Pigs; the invasion of the Dominican Republic to abort a Communist revolution that had to be invented after the fact; severe alienation throughout Latin America; broken windows, burned libraries and more or less virulent anti-Americanism elsewhere in the world; over everything else, the brooding, frustrating, endlessly bloody, infinitely expensive and now widely rejected involvement in Indochina.

So it seems in retrospect. And at least one of the successes of these years seems a good deal less compelling when one looks back on it. In the Cuban missile crisis President Kennedy had to balance the danger of blowing up the planet against the risk of political attack at home for appeasing the Communists. This was not an irresponsible choice: to ignore the domestic opposition was to risk losing initiative or office to men who wanted an even more dangerous policy. There is something more than a little wrong with a system that poses a choice between survival and domestic political compulsion. The missile crisis did not show the strength of our policy; it showed the catastrophic visions and resulting pressures to which it was subject. We were in luck, but success in a lottery is no argument for lotteries.

II.

Yet not everything in these years went wrong. Our relations with Western Europe and Japan caused no particular pain; these had been the theaters of ultimate misfortune in the twentieth century, always assuming war to be such. And, over the 1960’s, relations with the Communist countries improved both in the vision and in the reality.

When the decade began, the official vision of the Communist world was still that of a political monolith (the word was still much used) relentlessly bent on the destination of what few were embarrassed to call the Free World. If there were divisions within the Communist world, they were presumably on how best to pursue the revolution. Foreign policy vis-a-vis the "Sino-Soviet bloc," as it still was called, was accordingly a facilitating instrument for a larger conflict. During his long tenure as Secretary of State, Dean Rusk was criticized for his conviction that foreign policy was subordinate to military convenience. But if conflict with the Communist world was the great and inevitable fact, the Rusk view was at least consistent. Diplomacy, like truth, is an early casualty of war.

But that vision has now dissolved. True believers are still to be found in the more airless recesses of the Pentagon. Retired Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs; Joseph Alsop, Kenneth Crawford, one or two other aging sages; cold war diplomats solemnly contemplating the world over their martinis in the Metropolitan Club, still evoke the Communist conspiracy on which their fame and fortune were founded. They rejoice in anything that seems to suggest a revival of the convict; they try to warn a generation that does not share their wisdom. But their audience dwindles, and amusement replaces even nostalgia in what remains. The terrible fact obtrudes. The Communist world is as relentlessly plural as the non-Communist world; China and the Soviet Union are much farther from coordinated action than France and the United States. On the record, too, the Communist powers are cautious — rather more cautious perhaps than the government of the United States — about risking disaster in pursuit of an idea. One must sympathize with those whose lives were predicated on the theory of a more unified and heroic Communism. They are the walking wounded of the cold war.

The cold war vision of Communism always owed much to men whose place in the American pantheon and whose self-confidence of outlook substantially exceeded their information. But there has also been change in the substance of world affairs. When the decade began, the United States and the U.S.S.R. were each equipped with weapons capable, even at the lowest levels of military expectation (then more sanguine than now), of destroying each other and most of the world between. At the end of the decade each was capable of destroying the other from five to fifteen times over. The difference to a population already dead is not decisive. Meantime — and here one can speak with certainty only of the United States — there has been a considerable accretion of knowledge both about the insecurity inherent in the weapons race and the unwisdom of leaving the contest under the control of the armed services and the affiliated weapons industries. It would be optimistic to suggest that this control has yet been broken. But the emergence of the Pentagon and its power as a political issue is one of the major developments of the late sixties. It is something for which one could hardly have hoped at the beginning of the decade.

Meanwhile tension between the two superpowers has diminished in other respects. In the United States there is not quite the same conviction of total economic and social success that there was in 1960 — -at the crest of the Keynesian revolution. One senses similar doubts in the Soviet Union. In our case, at least, self-doubt is a valuable antidote to evangelism — with its capacity both to offend and endanger. At the beginning of the decade to accept coexistence with world Communism suggested a slightly defective moral stance. Among the custodians of the current foreign policy cliché, gathering for the ritual discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, a suggestion along such lines induced a raised eyebrow. Perhaps Khrushchev was coming through a bit too well. That existence and coexistence are identical few now doubt. That the great industrial societies have common requirements in planning, industrial discipline and organization, and common disasters in environmental effects is at least being discussed. Richard Nixon in the fifties spoke the lines of a militant cold warrior; it was on this theme and its domestic repercussions that he founded his political career. John F. Kennedy was at least moderately in the opposition camp. Yet enough has changed in the last ten years so that Nixon’s expressions as President on the Communist menace are both fewer and more pacific than were those of Kennedy. No one will argue, where Mr. Nixon is concerned, that he is responding to anything so simple as a change in conviction.

Difficult problems remain between the United States and the Soviet Union. No bilateral relationship that depends on or is associated with capacity for reciprocal destruction can be regarded with equanimity or considered stable. Circumstances and politics have given us different and relentlessly hostile friends and clients in the Middle East — a problem area which I am deliberately passing over in this article. Still, the larger fact remains. It was not our relations with the Soviet Union that made our foreign policy in the sixties the mess that we have come, not incorrectly, to consider it.

III.

The disaster area of our foreign policy has been in what the knowing unite in calling the Third World. It was here — in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, in minor degree in the Congo, and most of all in Indochina — that the mistakes were made or the disasters occurred. Had it not been for the policy in these parts of the world, Lyndon Johnson would still be President of the United States, the wishes of his wife notwithstanding; Dean Rusk would still be Secretary of State or, at a minimum, in honorable retirement as president of a college well on the Establishment side of the Mason-Dixon line; and Walt Whitman Rostow would be again, in fact or in prospect, a scholar of distinction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Third World has been their and our foreign policy trap. On the visible evidence, this has been also true of the Soviet Union. If from the Soviet foreign office anyone has recently been assigned to Ulan Bator, it has not been for his handling of relations with France, Germany, Britain, or the United States. Indonesia, North Korea, and above all China were where Soviet policy went off the rails. Again, the Third World.

Foreign policy is a gentlemanly profession which sets much store by tradition and continuity, even in error. Far better, one knows, to continue in error than to lower the prestige of a great nation (or its servants) by changing course and thus confessing the mistake. Accordingly, introspection, and even thought, are held in low esteem in the diplomatic estate. However, even brief reflection on the recent history of our relations with the Third World suggests that we have made policy on the basis of a startling succession of wrong assumptions. That this is so will even be conceded. The assumptions being wrong, the results caused deep trouble. What remains to be recognized is that a shift in assumptions, from wrong to right, would produce better results. Such recognition does not come easily, as I shall presently argue. A bureaucracy defends, even with righteousness, the wrong assumptions if they are the ones on which it is operating. But first let me list what we have learned from dealing with the Third World in the last decade. Four lessons seem clear.

1. We have learned, first of all, the limits on our power in this part of the world. Following World War II in Western Europe we developed a Marshall Plan syndrome. This view held that the United States could always work wonders in other countries. Our capital, our energy, our economic system, our idealism, our business statesmen, our special standing with a benign God, all combined to produce such capacity. It seemed so in Europe after World War II. There, economic organization or the capacity for such organization, industrial skills, technical competence, highly developed public administration and services already existed. The only missing ingredients were capital and people with the special blessings of Providence. When these were supplied by the United States the miracles predictably followed.

Elsewhere, we have now learned in the hardest of schools, things are different. Where the preexisting European ingredients of success are missing, the power to work miracles is, not surprisingly, nonexistent. Governments can be influenced but where governments are weak and their power negligible, the power implicit in so influencing them is also predictably negligible. Where organizational, administrative, and technical capacity and skills are lacking — where, in short, there is no industrial base or experience — the economy does not respond to an infusion of capital. For capital is not the missing ingredient. In the colonial era, European powers had a substantial influence on the inner life and development of the Third World countries. This they obtained by creating a structure for colonial administration and having done so, they did not influence, they governed. Given this public framework, industrial, railroad, and modern agricultural development could be induced in reasonably predictable fashion if policy so prescribed. Such a solution is no longer allowed. Thus it has come about that the superpower which seeks to intervene in the Third World remains the victim of the organizational, administrative, and technical vacuum which, after all, is what tends most to distinguish this World.

2. The next lesson that we have learned, or more precisely are relearning, is that Communism and capitalism are concepts of practical significance only at an advanced stage in industrial development. In poor rural societies they have only a rhetorical relevance. Capitalism is not an issue in a country that has yet to experience capitalism, and neither is Communism as an alternative. The Third World consists, by definition, of poor rural societies — that is what undeveloped or underdeveloped countries are. It follows that whether such countries call themselves free, free enterprise, capitalist, socialist or Communist, has, at the lowest levels of development, only terminological significance. They are poor and rural however they describe themselves. For the appreciable future, they will so remain. Even by the crudest power calculus, military or economic, such nations have no vital relation to the economic or strategic position of the developed countries. They do supply raw materials. But even here the typical observation concerns not their power as sources of such supply, but rather their weakness as competitive hewers of wood in the markets of the industrially advanced countries.

It is hard now to see why so much tension developed in the times and early sixties over whether such countries would follow the Communist or non-Communist pattern of development. That alternatives to capitalism only become interesting after there is capitalism (and associated industrialization) was eloquently affirmed by Marx more than a century ago. That capitalism is only an issue if there is capitalism is a proposition not, in its essentials, difficult to grasp. In part, no doubt, our error was the result of a fantastic overestimate (as it now seems) of the speed of economic development in the Third World. Latin American, African, and Asian countries would soon be industrialized. Therewith they would become military powers. To global strategists, a relentlessly amateur calling which the United States nurtured in alarming numbers after World War II, it seemed important, accordingly, that ideological affiliation be not with Moscow, but with Washington and lower Manhattan. We now know, a few special cases such as Formosa and Israel apart, that the process of development is infinitely slow, that the ultimate organization of these societies is far too academic a question to influence the policymaking even of the most passionate ideologue. By the time India, Sub-Sahara Africa, and most of Central or South America are industrialized to anything approaching present Western European levels, even greater changes will have occurred in the United States and the Soviet Union.

But it is a mistake to look for complex reasons for the error when simpler ones avail. American foreign policy in the fifties and sixties was made by men to whom a difference between capitalism and Communism was the only social truth to which they had access. That the difference is one thing in Europe or the United States and some. thing very different in the Congo, Vietnam, even Cuba, was well beyond their reach. Often there was even a measure of pride — tough-mindedness it was called — in rejecting such complications.

3. Next we have learned that although the inner life and development of the Third World is beyond the reach of the power of a superpower, and equally beyond its visible self-concern, the effort to influence that development brings into being a very large civilian and military bureaucracy. Colonial power was exercised rather simply through a line of command which, in general, gave orders. Working indirectly by way of the hearts and minds of a people requires a much more massive table of organization. This is partly because such influence is disappointing in effect and the normal bureaucratic answer to frustration and non-effect is to get more money and more men and build a bigger organization. Military missions, military advisers, active military formations in the more tragic instances, counterinsurgency teams, pacification teams, technical assistance teams, advisers on aid utilization, auditors and inspectors and other instruments against indigenous larceny, information officers, intelligence officers, spooks — the list extends almost indefinitely. Where, as in Vietnam and Laos, the frustration has been nearly total, the bureaucratic input has been all but infinite. But elsewhere as well, in Asia and Latin America and in lesser degree in Africa, the sixties saw the deployment of a huge American military, counterinsurgency, intelligence, diplomatic, public information and aid establishment designed to influence potentially erring governments and people away from Communism.

4. Next we have learned that an overseas bureaucracy, once in existence, develops a life and purpose of its own. Control by Washington is exiguous. Control by the Congress is for practical purposes nonexistent.

This is partly because of the nature of its task. A government that is being seduced by a super. power wishes, at a minimum, to have the deed done in private. So also a foreign politician. Decency has its claims. Surveillance of Communists, or more active military operations to put down subversion, also require public reticence. It is axiomatic that in such matters one does not show his hand to the enemy. Secrecy is also occasioned by the intrinsically high failure rate in these operations. Much of the work of our intelligence and military missions abroad is only possible because no one is aware of how little is obtained for the outlay involved. But secrecy is not the only protection from public scrutiny. The sheer number and variety of such overseas operations in all their different national settings, coupled with the revolving door nature of higher Washington officialdom, also fosters anonymity. Few men in the executive branch remain in office long enough to have knowledge of the affairs of which, nominally, they are in charge. Legislators who must rely on such men for knowledge have even less. This autonomy is combined, in turn, with the tendency for any bureaucracy, military or civilian, in the absence of the strongest of leadership, to continue to do whatever it is doing. This is a matter of the highest importance, one that explains the most basic tendencies of our foreign policy. It calls for special attention.

IV.

The tendency of bureaucracy to find purpose in whatever it is doing is superbly revealed by the experience of the past decade in Vietnam. Without exception every reason originally offered for our intervention there has dissolved. Some have now become ludicrous. This is not the parochial view of an opponent of the war; not even the defenders of the conflict affirm the original reasons for the venture. None now say, though it was doctrine in the early sixties, that our action in Vietnam is in response to a probe deliberately directed from Moscow against a weak point on the perimeter and to be resisted, accordingly, as a matter of global strategy. That the NLF carries the banners of Vietnamese nationalism is now generally (if not quite universally) accepted. Once it was asserted that vital American strategic interests were involved — that, quite literally, if we did not fight in the jungles of Vietnam we would soon be assaulted in the Philippines or even on the beaches of Hawaii. Now that contention is offered only as an exercise in irony. Once it was held that we were saving the fledgling democracy of General Thieu and Marshal Ky. An election was cited in support of the pretense. This vision too has become comic. In the late summer of 1970 much energy was expended on keeping Marshal Ky from coming to Washington for a political rally, lest he remind Americans of the repressive, obscene and incompetent dictatorship with which they are aligned. Once there were the dominoes. Now to cite the domino doctrine is to remind people that it was the war itself that tumbled the first domino (or most of it) in Cambodia. Once it was held in its defense that, purpose aside, the war could readily be resolved by military means. Now the suggestion that the Pentagon is pursuing the chimera of military victory in Vietnam provokes an indignant denial. Once it was a defense of the war that it was a marginal exercise which the American economy could take in stride. That guns could be had with butter was the not excessively novel formulation. Now it is sound doctrine that the war caused the inflation of the latter sixties that still frustrates good economic management. And its conflict with sensible priority in resources use has become a cliché.

It is impossible to think of a case more intellectually inert than that for the Vietnam war. Yet the war continues. This is because the bureaucracy, the military and intelligence bureaucracy in particular, operates not in response to national need but in response to its own need. The national need can dissolve and become ludicrous as in the case of Vietnam. But this does not affect the need of an army for the occupation, prestige, promotions that go with active military operations; the need of the cut for the interest, personal drama, excitement, and outlet for money that go with its Laotian adventures; or the need of the Air Force for bombing as a raison d’être. Since Korea we have been learning and relearning the lesson that strategic air power is ineffective against primitive agriculture or men moving at night along jungle roads. This has had little effect on Air Force doctrine for it happens not to be what the Air Force needs to believe.

But it would be a mistake to picture bureaucratic need in terms of a too specific bureaucratic self-interest. A more important factor is pure organizational momentum. Bureaucracy can always continue to do what it is doing. It is incapable, on its own, of a drastic change of course. And the process by which it insures its continuity — in the case of the Pentagon, by which it prepares budgets, persuades the Bureau of the Budget, instructs its Congressional sycophants — is itself highly organized. Thus the momentum. So it has come about that after all national purpose in Vietnam has dissolved, and this is extensively conceded, bureaucratic purpose and momentum still serve. The change in direction that is involved in stopping military operations, bureaucracy cannot accomplish. Dozens of other activities — military support to Latin American countries, staff services to SEATO and CENTO, bases in Spain, the radar watch in the Arctic, ABM, nuclear carriers, any number of cold war intelligence and counter-subversive activities — owe much or all of their existence to the same momentum. Innocents imagine that when they have shown that purpose has evaporated, function will end. It is not so. Purpose is among the least of bureaucratic needs.

V.

I do not, of course, suggest that a military and foreign policy bureaucracy, once launched on course, can never be diverted. The sixties were particularly favorable to its exercise of inertial power. The prestige of the military and foreign policy establishment, following the successes of World War II and the Marshall Plan, was high — far higher than now. The cold war panic led to a large delegation of power over the fearsome technology and clandestine maneuvering which seemed the only answer to the Communist menace. And this was the age of The Establishment in foreign policy — of the New York and Washington genro which had come to prominence in World War II, under the Marshall Plan, in the German occupation, or under John Foster Dulles. Although the impression was to the contrary, these statesmen had given little independent thought to foreign policy — it was their natural assumption that given their experience and high position in the community, they already knew. In consequence, men such as Dean Rusk as Secretary of State, Allen Dulles and John McCone as heads of CIA, John J. McCloy and Dean Acheson as advisers-at-large, were strongly and even uniquely compliant with the bureaucratic view. It added to their confidence and resulting acquiescence that the bureaucratic case was always couched in the resonant cold war platitudes which as experienced men they associated with sound policy. In the Johnson years it helped also to have a President who, though not lacking in either intelligence or will, was least experienced in the field of foreign policy and (from his Congressional experience) had also a habit of acquiescence on military matters. But the inertial dynamics of the bureaucracy is the major explanation of the disasters of the decade. At the Bay of Pigs, in the Dominican Republic, in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand (as again in Cambodia) the bureaucracy showed its power to sweep the leadership into disaster and against all the counsels of common sense.

VI.

The Lessons of the sixties, as regards foreign policy, are, then, both specific and self-reinforcing. What remains, as noted, is to act on them. The area where our course most needs correction is not Western Europe or Japan. Doubtless there are improvements to be made in both places but the past has not been intolerable. Relations with the Soviet Union, including the indirect encounters in the Middle East and Germany, include a terrible component of latent risk. But it was not here in the last decade that we stumbled.

We stumbled in the Third World. In this world we cannot intervene, need not intervene, and we have intervened. The effort has required a large bureaucracy, military and civilian. This by its nature cannot be controlled. Acting, where action is both impossible of effect and unnecessary, has produced disaster. Given the nature of bureaucracy there is great persistence in disaster. None of this, given the underlying circumstances, is altogether surprising.

The remedial action is also clear. It is greatly and promptly to contract our policy in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This means specifically that we no longer stand guard against what is called Communism in these parts of the world. It means that we no longer distinguish between governments that we like and those of which we disapprove. It means even more specifically that over the generality of Latin America, Africa, and Asia military missions are withdrawn and military aid comes to an end. So also in all three continents do counterinsurgency, countersubversive and intelligence operations. Remaining bases related to the defense of these areas are given up. It means that henceforth the raison d’être of aid and information programs is to assist economic development and inform countries as regards the United States, not to fight Communism. It means that in these countries we should return to orthodox diplomatic relations and give the assistance in capital, technique, or volunteer manpower that an economically and technically advanced country finds it morally rewarding or economically advantageous to render to its less equipped neighbors. Not distinguishing between good and bad governments we recognize all. We also trade with all. Our commercial relations, it is worth noting, will thus be freed from the incubus of suspicion that they reflect some larger imperial ambition.

Foreign policy, especially of the more belligerent sort, is regularly formulated with a view to rejoicing its author and audience with its therapeutic simplicity. But that is not my present intention. This is what must be done. It follows that, although the broad rule of non-intervention and non-presence applies to all of the Third World, differing history will dictate a differing time schedule. Withdrawal from the Philippines and Korea will have to be negotiated. In the case of Korea, withdrawal could be very slow. The SEATO Treaty need not be denounced; it is sufficient that the Asian members know that it is being allowed to wither on the vine. Even the liquidation of the Indochina disaster will take time — although, in principle, no more than is needed to negotiate an amnesty for those that have served us and to move the men to the ports and airports. Bureaucratic momentum being the only reason for continuing the war, there is no case for a more gradual procedure.

VII.

The strength of the nations of the Third World, in relation to the superpowers, lies in the absence of levers by which they can be controlled and the absence of power at the end of the levers. Without public administration there can be no control; there is no industrial society to be controlled. This accords immunity equally to effective intervention by the Communist powers and by the United States. Although one guesses that the Soviets have seen the impracticality of socialism without previous preparation, one cannot guarantee that intervention will not be attempted. One can only be certain that Soviet and Chinese efforts to dominate these countries will encounter the same obdurate circumstances as have we. They will end accordingly in frustration not different from that of the United States in Vietnam or their own experience in Indonesia.

The course here urged does not mean that all will be well in the Third World. This World has no monopoly on peaceful behavior, occasional doctrine to the contrary notwithstanding. The possibility of struggle within and between nations and peoples remains. American withdrawal will not insure good international behavior. Nor will it insure greater reliance on collective reaction to attacks by one country on another, although that might be hoped. It accepts only the lesson of the last decade, which is that our intervention does us no good and, for the people involved, can make everything much worse.

In recent months considerable movement along these lines has been implicit — though with an inconsistent commitment to earlier cold war rhetoric — in the so-called Nixon doctrine. This is much to be welcomed. But it will now be clear that what is here proposed is no mere matter of announcing a change in policy. The present policy sustains and empowers a large bureaucracy which reacts to its own needs. The needed policy disestablishes this bureaucracy. Indeed one of the constraints on foreign policy in the future is that it must be of a nature that it is subject to political as distinct from bureaucratic control. (We cannot guide affairs in Laos; we do not need to do so; and we cannot in any case have a policy that requires that much delegation to the CIA.) None will doubt the extent of the exercise of Presidential and other political authority that will be needed. It is not easy to associate the prospect with the passive tendencies of President Nixon. The proper policy toward the Third World requires not only new doctrine, but also elimination of the need for a large part of the military, intelligence, and civilian bureaucracy that conducts the present policy. The survival of that bureaucracy depends on making policy on the wrong assumptions. It would be naive to imagine that these organizations will acquiesce easily in the change, however effectively they are proven in error and however ghastly the resulting experience. Not wickedness but the dynamics of big organization is involved. It is a far greater factor in our foreign policy than we have even begun to realize.  

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