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The U.S. Triumphs When Leaders Find a Path Between Isolation and Hubris

Standing up for U.S. values doesn't mean abandoning caution.

By , a professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School.
An honor guard from the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division stands along the top of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
An honor guard from the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division stands along the top of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
An honor guard from the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division stands along the top of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during Veterans Day observances in Washington on Nov. 11. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The United States has the power to do great things. It often lacks the judgment to do wise things. It wasn’t always this way, and it need not stay this way much longer. America could change course—if it understands why it blunders.

The United States has the power to do great things. It often lacks the judgment to do wise things. It wasn’t always this way, and it need not stay this way much longer. America could change course—if it understands why it blunders.

It is hard to face the disastrous string of decisions that produced Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, and now Afghanistan, and not feel both despondent and perplexed. How did a country that won World War II, launched the Marshall Plan, rebuilt Germany and Japan into stable democratic and economic powerhouses, and triumphed in the Cold War manage to botch so many foreign interventions?

The secret lies hidden in America’s ascendence. We can learn more not from what successful presidencies did but rather from what they did not do. They did not overreach, because they recognized the limits of American power. Yet they also did not retrench, because they saw the need for American ideals in the world.

The United States emerged from World War II as the undisputed leader of the free world. Its enemies were vanquished and occupied. Its rivals for global influence, Britain and France, were physically devastated and financially distressed. And although Soviet influence extended far beyond Russian borders, for the first four years after victory, the United States enjoyed a monopoly on nuclear weapons. With so much power and so little opposition, it seemed as though the country could do almost anything, but America’s leaders sometimes managed to keep hubris at bay.

America’s first genuine postwar challenge came in 1945, as Soviet forces exerted their influence over Eastern Europe, erecting police states, murdering political opponents, censoring media, and maneuvering for total control. When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin played hardball in Bulgaria and Romania, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his Secretary of State James Byrnes had a choice: either risk a rupture with Moscow so soon after the war or recognize that those countries fell within the Soviet sphere.

No American statesman relished the prospect of total Soviet control in any country, but they had the sense to see that the United States simply could not get everything it wanted. It could not engage in another war so soon after the last one, especially with soldiers desperate to get home. There were also many Eastern Europeans who felt drawn to communism, as it offered the prospect of a more equal society. And so instead of escalation, Byrnes pushed back in another contested region. Stalin hoped to have at least some influence in Japan, but this was the Asian nation of greatest importance to America. Essentially, the two great powers tacitly agreed that each had to respect each other’s domain. Neither could have all that it wanted, because neither believed that the costs of war were worth it. By necessity, restraint and compromise became the order of the day.

When the president declared the Truman Doctrine two years later, asserting that America would protect the world from oppression, this pronouncement was more rhetoric than real. The United States could aid Greece and Turkey against communist incursions, but it could never defend free people everywhere. No nation wielded that much power. Truman’s “doctrine” was simply a proclamation of peaceful ideals, not a commitment to perpetual war. “If I thought for a moment that the precedent of Greece and Turkey obliged us to try to do the same thing in China,” Policy Planning Chief George Kennan quipped, “I would throw up my hands and say we had better have a whole new approach to the affairs of the world.”

Not all American leaders got the message. In June 1947, the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for a massive intervention in China’s civil war to defend Chiang Kai-shek’s troops. Secretary of State George Marshall turned to Kennan for rebuttal. Kennan advised extending only enough nonmilitary financial aid to the nationalists to avert a precipitous collapse. Marshall and Truman quietly agreed. Kennan, Marshall, and Truman knew that they would be blamed for “losing China,” but it was far better to suffer the calumny of political opponents than to embroil the nation in a war it could not win.

Another year, another crisis. In 1948, Stalin tried to strangle the Western sector by cutting off all food, coal, and medicine to West Berlin, hoping he could compel the West to withdraw. Again, Truman faced a choice: go to war over West Berlin to defend an ally, or retreat in the face of overwhelming Soviet force. When wise leaders find initial options unpalatable, they devise alternatives. Over the course of 15 months, the United States and its allies delivered a stunning 2,334,374 tons of supplies, an amount even greater than Berlin had been receiving by road and rail before the blockade had begun. Truman advanced American values without ever firing a shot.

Two years later, Korea revealed that hubris never flees. It simply lingers, waiting for another chance to sabotage success. When the communist North attacked, American overconfidence was immediately exposed. U.S. military planners had assumed that the North would be too poorly equipped to invade. In fact, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s troops were well armed and well trained by Soviet advisors. Initially, both U.S. and South Korean troops fell back in disarray. During the course of the war, Seoul would change hands four times. On this occasion, Truman saw that force had to be met with counterforce. No airlift could beat back an invading army. But when U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, emboldened by his surprise landing at Incheon, flouted orders and pushed north to unite the entire peninsula, he defied not just his commander in chief but also geostrategic logic. As Truman and the Joint Chiefs understood, China would not accept American troops that close to its border.

9MacArthur’s dictum that there is no substitute for victory was more platitude than precept. It overlooked the unpleasant fact that sometimes the cost of victory, if it can even be achieved, is simply too high, and the best you can hope for is a stalemate. Ideally, the United States would have liked to make all of Korea free and democratic, but American leaders had to temper their ideals with reality. They could not have it all, and half the peninsula was better than none. By accepting a cessation of hostilities and the indefinite division of Korea, American statesmen acknowledged that although their country’s power had limits, it could at least keep democratic ideals alive in the South.

While the war in Korea continued, another Asian conflict threatened to ensnare the United States, but this one differed from Korea. In 1953, the French pleaded with America to support them in their calamitous fight in Vietnam. Every member of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s cabinet, including Vice President Richard Nixon, urged him to back the French in defense against communist expansion. Eisenhower overruled them all. He wrote in his diary that the United States would simply be seen by the Vietnamese as a new colonial overlord. Historians still debate Ike’s true motives, but the General-turned-President understood that Vietnam could hardly be seen as central to the national interest, and supporting French colonialism would not advance American ideals. Tragically, Eisenhower’s prudence gave way as changing conditions lured new leaders toward disaster.

Throughout the early postwar decades, Americans genuinely feared that the Soviet model could overtake them, or bury them, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened. That fear served as a partial restraint, though it also fueled violent, repressive measures such as Operation Condor in Latin America.

But if a series of postwar American leaders and their civilian advisors understood the limits of American power, what, then, explains what happened in Vietnam, a small, technologically backward country? The answer, of course, is that North Vietnam was not alone. It had the support of the communist world, most notably China and the Soviet Union. So long as North Vietnam received arms, ammunition, funds, advisors, and resources from its allies, the United States was indirectly fighting a much more powerful foe.

All of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s and his successor Nixon’s bombing campaigns only hardened the North’s resolve. In short, American leaders failed to know their enemy. Their enemy, in contrast, knew the United States well enough to exploit its weakest link: its need to maintain the American public’s support for the war. Vietnamese leader Le Duan pursued a strategy of sapping the public’s will to fight. His superior approach helped to offset the North’s disadvantages. Le Duan made many errors of his own, but he had a fairly clear sense of America’s limits. Johnson and his advisors did not.

After Vietnam, the United States retrenched somewhat, engaging in smaller, more limited conflicts, while continuing to maintain the Cold War. Less than one year following the fall of the Berlin Wall, while America was still basking in the glow of its Cold War triumph, Iraq invaded Kuwait. U.S. President George H.W. Bush oversaw the ejection of Iraqi forces, and then, crucially, he did not order a drive into Baghdad. Pushing back an invading army is one thing; overturning a regime and rebuilding it is quite another. The elder Bush had the sense to avoid that trap. Though criticized for stopping short, he respected the limits of what could reasonably be achieved. Like sensible statesmen before him, he set a clear objective, met it, and left. He did not overreach.

George H.W. Bush was the last American president to have participated in World War II, either in combat or in government. That was the Greatest Generation that helped to create the American century, and some of them appreciated what it took to build. They embodied a can-do spirit, but one tempered by reality. Can-do did not mean they could do anything. It meant they tried hard to make the difficult possible. They did not blithely insist on the impossible or even the highly unlikely. Obviously, there were many of that same generation who nonetheless advocated reckless military actions, from China to Vietnam to Korea to Cuba. But the ones who learned to respect the limits of American power managed to have greater influence for most of the Cold War’s conflicts. Vietnam was the gravest exception.

George W. Bush did not inherit his father’s wisdom in this regard, but he did inherit American power. As is often the case with an inheritance, the children seldom appreciate what it took to build. The younger Bush was in some sense cursed by a post-Soviet America. He assumed the presidency following a long period of economic growth and relative peace. Neither Russia nor China nor any other state stood as a true peer competitor.

But as anyone who has studied warfare knows, one need not be a peer to be effective. Smart strategies can offset other deficiencies. The invasion of Iraq remains one of America’s greatest fiascos. As I wrote in Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, at least seven distinct cognition traps (or rigid mindsets) combined to undermine American success. But underlying all of those faulty perspectives lay the failure to respect the limits of what the United States could possibly achieve in a land riven by sectarian and regional divides.

If Iraq was a mosaic, Afghanistan was a jigsaw puzzle with part of the pieces missing. Its patchwork of sects, tribes, warlords, factions, criminal syndicates, and regional divides made nation-building in Iraq look simple. The idea that America had the power to forge a national identity in these places was optimistic at best. And yet, it never had to end the way it did. The United States repeatedly sabotaged its own success by underestimating the difficulty, taking a short-term approach, constantly switching strategies, expanding its mission, and mismeasuring morale. The war in Afghanistan could have ended successfully if American objectives had only been more aligned with its capabilities.

The post-Cold War era has given American leaders a distorted view of what their country can achieve. Without the Soviet Union as a counterweight, and lacking thoughtful leaders like Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennan to balance the unrealistically ambitious members in every administration, recent American leaders have misperceived the country’s might. The United States needs to recapture the clear-eyed recognition of its power’s limits without losing the will to defend its values.

America can still help to spread freedom; it just has to do it in smarter ways. For the early postwar generation of leaders, restraint did not mean retrenchment, and advancing ideals did not require adventurism. On the contrary, balance was a secret of their success.

Zachary Shore is a professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School; a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies; and a national security visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of A Sense of the Enemy, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, and This Is Not Who We Are: America’s Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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