Thursday, July 13, 2006

# Posted 9:46 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE BATTLE FOR TRUMAN'S GHOST: Everyone wants to claim the mantle of "Give'm Hell" Harry, the architect of our victory in the Cold War. Liberals. Conservatives. The President.

As I mentioned below, I have something of a personal interest in this battle. And I have some opinions about who deserves to wear the Truman mantle.

The place to begin this discussion is with the President's commencement address at West Point to the Class of 2006. Although talk of Truman was in the air, the President brought it to center stage with his commencement address. He told the Class of 2006 that:
By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War...

Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before -- and like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory.
Interestingly, Bush didn't take the analogy between himself and Truman much further. His next paragraph entails an extended analogy between the Communism of then and the terrorism of now, but that is a point Democrats tend to agree with. With regard to himself and Trumn, Bush allowed much of his message to remain implicit.

Implicit but crystal clear to those who know their recent history. Truman also committed the United States to a bloody and indecisive war that made him a pariah in the White House by the time he left office. For decades, historians reviled Truman while Democrats preferred to identify themselves with FDR.

Although Bush never reminds his audience how reviled Truman was, Bush does take care to point out that Truman predicted his own vindication:
As President Truman put it towards the end of his presidency, "When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the Cold War, it will also say that in those eight years we set the course that can win it."
The question then, is should George Bush derive such confidence from the belated vindication of the haberdasher from Missouri? Peter Beinart says no, in a column entitled Hijacking Harry Truman.

According to Peter, the problem with Bush's address as West Point isn't that he said, but what he didn't say:
Truman did not believe merely in promoting democracy and peace; he believed that doing so required powerful international institutions, which could invest American power with the credibility that the Soviets lacked.

In the years immediately after World War II, the United States encased itself in a web of such bodies -- from the United Nations and NATO to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization). And Truman was frank in recognizing that such institutions gave weaker countries an influence over American actions.
For the moment, Peter will have to forgive me for relying on his column as the authoritative source of his opinons, since I still have not read his book, even though it is sitting on my coffee table as I write this. But I will get to it soon.

Anyhow, I think it is fair to say that Beinart represents multilateralism as an integral part of the Truman legacy. In short, Truman traded power for legitimacy.

But is that really what Truman did? Although NATO is a multilateral institution it really doesn't belong in the same category as the United Nations. NATO was a military alliance of like-minded anti-Communist states, almost all of them democratic. The primary value of NATO was not that it legitimized American power, but that it reassured those in Europe who believed that America might retreat into isolationism once again.

As for the United Nations, it doesn't really belong in the same category as the United Nations either. When it was born in San Francisco in 1945, China and the Soviet Union were American allies. The institution itself was as much an extension of the wartime alliance (to which FDR referred as "the United Nations") as it was an effort to trade power for legitimacy.

Of course, the alliance did not last for long. In that regard, Noemie Emery argues in the Weekly Standard that Truman recognized the inevitable dysfunction of a United Nations with the Soviet Union on its Security Council. Thus, when preparing to go war in Korea, Truman did not consider the approval of the Security Council to be necessary. Emery writes that:
[Truman] did get its consent, only because the Soviet Union blundered by boycotting the Council. But as Max Boot reminds us, "Truman had already committed air and naval forces to combat before the vote," later writing to Acheson that without the U.N., "We would have had to go into Korea alone."
Although I've spent some time studying Truman's foreign policy, I cannot personally vouch for Emery's interpretation of this episode, although she is certainly correct that the Soviets boycotted the relevant vote.

Nonetheless, the more relevant point may be that Truman's aspiring heirs on the Democratic side of the aisle never seem to recognize that the Truman of Korea is not the good multilateralist they want to canonize. For example, the index at the back of Peter Beinart's book doesn't even have an entry for Korea (south, north or otherwise).

I would also like to suggest to my friends in the Truman National Security Project that they begin to grapple with this aspect of Truman's legacy, since it is a subject that comes up very rarely, if at all, during the Project's meetings (at least that I've attended.)

Emery drives this point home mercilessly:
Do not expect the subject of Asia to come up all that often in these [Democrats'] hymns to the liberal hawks.

Above all, do not expect Korea to be brought up at all. Korea, in fact, is Iraq on steroids, a compendium of every complaint that the liberals bring against Bush and his administration: a war of choice that began with an error, that became in effect the mother of quagmires, that cost billions of dollars, killed tens of thousands, and dragged on years longer than anyone looked for, to an inconclusive and troublesome end. It began with a mistake...

What, one wonders, would today's liberal hawks have made of him and Korea, given their penchant for neat, well-planned wars that end quickly, and their standard of zero mistakes?...

If they quail at the expense of Iraq, what would they have said to the expense of Korea? If they quail at casualties of under 3,000, what would they have said to the more than 37,000 dead? Would they have been among the 23 percent who stayed loyal to Harry? Or would there have been second thoughts, mea culpas, and abject, not to say groveling, apologies to the antiwar left?
I'm guessing that Beinart and others would argue that Korea was directly relevant to our national security, whereas Iraq wasn't.

Anyhow, as you can tell from the passage above, Emery is a fierce partisan whose primary concern is the political stakes of today rather than a comprehensive understanding of what Truman stood for back then. Liberal hawks will find plenty objectionable about her article, but I think that she is very much correct about liberal hawks evading the Truman of Korea.

So then, do I have a firm stance on who deserves to appoint themselves as Truman's heir? No, unfortunately I don't. I think that I would really have to develop a much better understanding of how Truman thought about international institutions and about alliances before passing judgment.

But for the moment, I think the ball is in the liberals' court, since they have to explain Korea.
(14) opinions -- Add your opinion

Go back to the left of center historian Patterson's "Grand Expectations", as well as right of center historian Johnson's "Modern Times" (per my challenge back then, I read Patterson, but you didn't rise to the bait and read Johnson).
Anyway, both pretty much paint Truman as a foil for his advisers regarding Korea.
Thankfully HST not only had great instincts, but advisers who shared his love of liberty. That said, thanks to dugout doug, Korea became a disaster and HST bears the brunt of blame as CiC.
Much obliged for the recommendation, MD. But let me point out for the record that your challenge was issued and taken under advisement, but never made into a binding contract.

I do hope to find time to read Johnson's book. Also, I appreciate your volunatry decision to suffer through Patterson's book. But with coffee table already piled high, I dare not commit to any more weighty tomes.
Hey I was there for Bush's USMA speech, and while he did leave things vague enough that you couldn't put your finger on anything offensive I'd say the spirit of it was much along the lines of your characterization of the weekly standard article (the primary concern[being] the political stakes of today rather than a comprehensive understanding of what Truman stood for back then)

But you make some good points about Iraq=Korea.

But whats so wrong with claiming Truman while dodging Korea? I mean Karl Rove claims Teddy Rossevelt. Do you want them to say "Korea was a mistake" or "Iraq was right"?

And one difference that might be relevant, and I phrase this as a question because I really don't know, but was Korea used for domestic, partisan, political advantage in the manner Iraq was?
Truman and the US government misread signals left and right in Korea that could have avoided full-blown Chinese entry into the war. It turned into a useless, bloody avoidable stalemate as a result. There's a huge literature on this in political science and history.

Truman did a lot of good for the world, but Korea was not a shining moment for him. I don't see why Democrats (or Republicans) have to embrace and defend obtuseness and ignorance.
There is most certainly a huge literature on missed signals, as Anon 1:53 points out. However, much of it is outdated and/or simply wrong.

One of the most important reasons for Truman's rise in reputation among historians is the emergence of Chinese and Soviet documents that demonstrate conclusively that Korea was a war of aggression that Mao wanted to wage from the get go.

This doesn't mean Korea was necessarily fought well, but such documents have put to bed much of the old caricature of Truman as reckless and ignorant.
It seems to me that the Chinese were in an anti-west mode at the time.

Do we have any evidence that the Chinese would not have gone into Korea if the UN stayed away from the NK/China border.
In as much as the Korean War made possible South Korea's extraordinary economic and political successes, which would not have happened if the north had won, it should be seen as a tremendous victory; a victory that holds the possibility of a unification with North Korea on terms that would preserve and extend South Korea's successes in the way that West Germany's absorption of East Germany has done (fitfully and imperfectly, but still successfully).

The hatred directed against Truman for the Korean War, like the hatred directed at Bush for the Iraqi War, seems to rest in large measure on a myth of American omnipotence. According to the right-wing version of this myth, if anything is troubling to the American people, it must be because some Americans are foolish or knavish. According to the left-wing version, if anything is troubling to other peoples around the world, it must be because some Americans (or some American institutions) are foolish or knavish. It is long past time for this myth to be laid to rest.

The Korean War continued as it did because Stalin wanted to see it continue. He told Mao that it was an excellent way for the Chinese army to learn how to fight a modern war and that the continuing conflict was shaking up the Truman regime in America. Admittedly, as Herbert Goldhammer pointed out in a brilliant study of the problem in a 1994 Rand paper, we negotiated extremely poorly. But it really took Stalin's death to open up a path to a temporary settlement.

High as the stakes are in the war on terror, they appear to have been much higher in the Korean War where the Truman administration moved this way and that in search of a middle ground we now realize was extremely important to find and hold. Reassuring Mao over his comrades' concerns that the war could escalate with Chinese participation, Stalin told Kim Il Sung that he had told Mao not to worry, if it came to escalation, as it was better to face a "big war" sooner rather than later, if such a war was inevitable. There is not the slightest reason to doubt that Stalin saw a "big war" as one that would involve nuclear weapons and his nearly 175 division army in Europe. His language in this message to Mao, at least as told to Kim, is worth pondering at length before seeking an evaluation of Truman's conduct of the Korean War. And before drawing parallels between the early Cold War and the present. We have faced worse dangers in the past and should draw strength from that in confronting the dangers we now face:

"Of course, I took into account also [the possibility] that the USA, despite its unreadiness for a big war, could still be drawn into a big war out of [considerations of] prestige, which, in turn, would drag China into the war, and along with this draw into the war the USSR, which is bound with China by the Mutual Assistance Pact. Should we fear this? In my opinion, we should not, because together we will be stronger than the USA and England, while the other European capitalist states (with the exception of Germany which is unable to provide any assistance to the United States now) do not present serious military forces. If a war is inevitable, then let it be waged now, and not in a few years when Japanese militarism will be restored as an ally of the USA and when the USA and Japan will have a ready-made bridgehead on the continent in a form of the entire Korea run by Syngman Rhee" Stalin to Mao, 1 October 1950, as reported in Stalin to Kim, 8 October 1950.(http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/ACF1A6.pdf , p. 116).
Whatever Truman's virtues or faults, there was no coordinated policy toward Korea before the conflict began--in fact Truman's Secretary of State Acheson omitted Korea in a discussion of the USA's defense priorities in the Far East in early 1950.

So essentially Truman reversed course in deciding to defend Korea...but maybe if his administration had taken that area seriously, they could have equipped the South Koreans with anti-tank weapons, or even tanks, or even competent infantry, to stop the combined arms attack of the North Koreans.

But then, in the early stages of the conflict, even the US Army was ill-suited to fight any sort of battle. Task Force Smith and other American units were easily destroyed by the North Koreans and American soldiers either fled in panic, died in place, or were tortured and executed because our men were ill-trained, had no tanks, had only the puny 60mm bazookas that didn't even work in World War II...

So maybe Truman does compare to Bush in that their administrations bring about a sea-change in American foreign policy strategy, then don't follow their own strategy, then get invovled in a bloody conflict in which American soldiers are initially ill-suited for the task but evantually succeed, after a fashion.
Myself, I think of the atom bombs -- not the ones dropped on Hiroshima. The ones dropped on in the on code name Crossroads day, on July 1, 1946, in irradiating something like 42,000 American servicemen. Or the Truman that began the above ground nuclear tests at Nevada, which collectively resulted, according to the National Health Institute survey ordered by Congress, in a mere smidgen of 250,000 thyroid cancers in the U.S. I think of the man who, after WWII, basically proceeded to kill about, oh, 4 or 5 times the number of Americans killed by Osama bin Laden.

And I think: how bizarre that anybody would want to be that stinking man's legatee. And how sad it was that Truman didn't die of the melanomas that began showing up, with regularity, on the Atom Veterans -- along with the muscular-nerve disabilities, the throat cancers, lung cancers, deformed children and other concomittants of that insane man's policy.

Too bad. Justice delayed.
Um, I'm kinda missing the part where preventative war In Iraq becomes conceptually equivalent to defending South Korea against a Communist invasion.

And the point of NATO? I'm still a big fan of the quip about keeping the US in, Germany down, and the Soviets out. It served multiple purposes, one of which was, in fact, to extend American power and influence through an institutional arrangement that garnered the kind of legitimacy gains that come from multilateralism. See, for example:

1) Ikenberry's After Victory (which Beinart's book is, arguably, a non-academic version of);
2) Lake's Entangling Relations;
3) Jackson's Civilizing the Enemy
Hi Dan. I haven't read Lake or Jackson, but I paid close attention to Ikenberry's work.

In spite of its theoretical elan, it's diplomatic history is so mangled as to render the entire argument, IMHO, irrelevant. Of course, since few IR scholars know much about doing historical research, the book has become remarkably influential.

Although to make an argument for the other side, I believe that John Gaddis, who knows a tremendous amount of diplomatic history, has very good things to say about Ikenberry's book.

Also, I would add that I reject the analogy between Ikenberry and Beinart's book because Ikenberry attributes zero causal influence to the United States' democratic ideals. He is a very committed liberal or "liberal institutionalist" (with realist leanings), who sees the value of institutions as their ability reconcile competing state interests, not as embodiments of ideology.

In contrast, Beinart sees American ideals as a powerful motive force.
David, the diplomatic history in the book is far from perfect, but you need to do better than to throw around such insults. Rather, you need to show *why* any errors he make are of consequence to the book.

And you are simply wrong about the issue of ideas. Ikenberry doesn't deal with it very much in the book, but he does in other work... he would agree with you very much that American beliefs shaped the post-War order and account for its commitment to quasi-republican principles of international order.

You're also incorrect not to equate the books. Beinart's policy proposals are virtually identical to Ikenberry's, as is his reasoning for why those policies are likely to serve US interests. Be careful to distinguish between arguments about why the US adopts certain policies and argument about what policies are a "good idea."
Furthermore, do you honestly believe that a significant part of the value of institutions -- of any form -- is not how they reconcile competing interests? Is the "value" of institutions simply a matter of what ideas they embody? Indeed, that position strikes me as incoherent, insofar as liberal institutions are designed, at an ideological level, to overcome the pernicious impact of anarchy by allowing states to resolve their conflicts of interest in a rule-based setting.
One argument in Emery's article is that the Korean War, like the Iraq War, was an optional war, with limited planning and disastrous errors due to that limited planning. The implication being that if Bush is excoriated for the blunders in the Iraq War, then Truman should be for his errors in Korea.

However, that argument breaks down in one crucial respect. The Iraq War was optional in both whether to pursue it at all and in its timing. Our country could have waited three months or three years without losing any strategic position. In Korea, the choice was fight then or allow South Korea to be swallowed up entirely. Under that circumstance, sending forces and drafting plans during the action was necessary barring acquiescence to the North's conquest of South Korea. In contrast, Bush had the time to develop a plan before initiating the Iraq War and casually dismissed all plans that were drafted other than by his most loyal followers.
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