The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (5. Pax Americana)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

5. Pax Americana

Ted Grimsrud—January 1, 2011

What kind of peace?

Following the unveiling of the horrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, the Allies had achieved their goal of unconditional surrender from the Axis powers. When the Japanese gave up the fight in August 1945, the United States stood as the world’s one great global power.

The Soviets had the powerful Red Army and the capability to impose their will on the nations they occupied. However, the war to the death with Germany had left tens of millions Soviets dead and countless more wounded and displaced. The main cities had been devastated. You could call the Soviet Union battered but unbowed, but the emphasis would have to be placed on the “battered.”

The British Empire remained intact, for the time being. But clearly it was near the end of the line. Though suffering significantly less damage, both in terms of lost lives and devastated infrastructure, than the War’s other main belligerents (with the crucial exception of the United States), Britain was exhausted, tremendously weakened, headed for a major decline. The Britons would seek to remain active in international affairs, and for the immediate future desperately intent on sustaining a rapidly disintegrating empire. However, clearly by 1945, Britain was essentially a junior partner to the one unambiguously victorious power to emerge from the War, the United States of America.

Never before, certainly, and never since, did the United States have the unquestioned power in the world that the nation had in 1945. The U.S. had the unrivalled economic juggernaut that had crushed the Axis power. Britain, especially, but also the Soviet Union, relied heavily on American economic support to have the resources to carry the battle forward.

American unmatched military might, now confirmed with its development and use of a weapon of such destruction that it reconfigured the very nature of warfare, stretched throughout the world. The Red Army could probably match the U.S. in terms of ability to wage a land war, but certainly not in the air or on the sea. And the Soviet forces were geographically concentrated within the (admittedly huge) boundaries of the Soviet nation state and in the Soviet’s immediate neighbors. The U.S. essentially already in 1945 had the Soviets surrounded with its forces in Europe and the Far East.

Perhaps most importantly, at that moment in time, the United States also occupied the moral high ground. Americans had never been held in such esteem—and never would be again. They had brought the great tyrannies to their knees; the American way of democracy, free enterprise, anti-colonialism, and freedom of thought and expression inspired people everywhere.

So, the answer to the world’s main question—“what kind of peace will follow this terrible war?”—lay in America’s hands in a decisive way. The story of the moral legacy of World War II is to be found most of all in the story of how the United States used this unprecedented global power and prestige.

The world had reason for hope. It did seem that of all the possible outcomes of the War, having the United States, the world’s pioneering democracy, in the driver’s seat was the best one imaginable—and it had come to pass. The purpose statements we have kept in mind throughout our account of the events of the War now came to the place of possible massive implementation.

Especially the Atlantic Charter was meant for just this moment. The western Allies had joined forces, it had been agreed upon, in order to shape a new world order. This new world order would be characterized by political and economic self-determination throughout the world and by comprehensive disarmament founded on an international order founded on rule of law.

A widely used term that started with Franklin Roosevelt and came to be the self-designation for the nations that joined together to defeat the Axis powers was the “united nations.” This designation for war allies morphed into a designation for the rebirth of the old League of Nations. The big difference with the United Nations was that rather than ultimately opting out of participation, the U. S. would be profoundly committed to the success of this new attempt at international collaboration. In fact, the key organizing conference was held in San Francisco, California, USA, and the new headquarters for the United Nations were established in New York City, New York, USA.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the U. S. held in its hand, in the years immediately after World War II, the potential substantially to fulfill the promise of the Atlantic Charter—if the leaders of the U. S. had truly wanted to do so. Certainly, such a task even with the best will, would have been difficult and at best only partially successful. However, the failure to use the victory over tyranny in World War II as the foundation for a world order genuinely focused on political and economic self-determination and global disarmament lays more than anywhere else at the feet of the United States. This failure is the main “aftermath” of the War, as we will see in this chapter and the two to follow.

I will suggest in the pages to follow that one of the main elements of our evaluation of the moral legacy of World War II must be this failure to realize the promise of the purpose statements that had fueled support for the War. Perhaps we could conclude that World War II was a “good war” if that promise had come closer to being fulfilled. However, in light of the actual events, we are likely closer to the truth if we conclude that the means of massive warfare simply are incompatible with the worthy ideals of freedom, self-determination, and disarmament.

When we look at the impact of World War II on the United States, we see a powerful transformation. An essentially non-militarized country with a small, marginally powerful military that operated clearly subordinate to civilian power and democratic checks and balances unleashed its military-industrial forces in an exercise of total mobilization. With this mobilization, the structures of the federal government changed completely with the inauguration of a centralized military structure centered in the newly constructed largest building in the world, autonomously located on the other side of the river from the civilian institutions of power. Then, to entrench this new structure much more deeply, the federal government embarked on a massive, top-secret operation to create nuclear weapons, thereby creating a structure complementary to the centralized military command—and profoundly reinforced the new regime of militarization.

So, when the War ended, for the ideals of the Atlantic Charter and the emerging structures that promised the possibilities of sustainable peace to take hold, the structures of war and militarism would have had to relinquish their newly won dominance over the dynamics of the American federal government. Something like this had happened in the U.S. following the Civil War and following World War I. However, this time the structures of war and militarism had gained too much power. They were not about to step back.

The War established a powerful momentum that proved strongly resistant to all attempts to make American a leader in moving the world more toward Atlantic Charter ideals. The military effort in the War had spread American military power across the globe. The U.S. now had footholds in East Asia, the South Pacific, Western Europe, and elsewhere—and did not want to retreat. So it didn’t.

The conquered nations of Japan and Germany especially remained crucial as locations for massive permanent American military establishments. In many ways, American support for recovery in those two nations is admirable. However, clearly that support did not have as its goal self-determination and disarmament. It is true that one purpose was to prevent re-armament in those two traditionally militaristic societies, a purpose successfully fulfilled. However, while the U.S. prevented their return to militarism, Americans also used their countries as key elements in their militarism—not only as home to many thousands soldiers at various American military bases but also in time as homes to key elements of the American nuclear arsenal. Both Germany and Japan became pawns in the Cold War, with little say on their part.

The War also saw profound growth in the power and wealth of American corporations and helped stimulate expansion of the footprint of many of these corporations around the world. With the expansion in the dominance of these corporations, the possibilities of fostering genuine economic self-determination on the part of the world’s peoples were greatly diminished. American corporations stood to gain tremendously from the global expansion of American military power. These corporations both profited greatly from arms contracts and of had the coercive might of the American military as an aid in solidifying their global footprint when it was resisted (for example, see the discussions below of the role of the U.S. in overthrowing governments in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s largely in service to corporate interests).

Another important (and complicated) dynamic to emerge from World War II was a hostile stance toward the Soviet Union. From the start, this was an alliance of convenience for the Americans (surely also for the Soviets) based simply on the shared commitment to defeat the Nazis. I discussed above the morally problematic elements of this alliance, given that we fought the Nazis in the name of resisting tyranny by actually joining with an equally tyrannical power.

At the same time, the United States did not take the occasion of this alliance to work at forging longer-term connections with the Soviets that could have fostered peaceful post-war coexistence. As soon as it became apparent that the Allied war effort eventually would be successful, the U.S. and Great Britain started imagining postwar conflicts with the Soviets. Rather than responding to these intimations of future potential conflicts as a challenge to find alternative ways of relating to the Soviets that might minimize the possibilities of conflict, the Americans and British began planning for how to prevail in the impending conflicts.

These dynamics may be seen most clearly in the story of the development and use of nuclear weapons. There were important figures in the American government who advocated sharing at least some information about the development of the bomb with the Soviets and, in time, with the broader international community. The hope would be that such sharing, when combined with shared commitments not to develop and use these weapons in the future, would lead to a time of stability and sustainable peace.

The view that prevailed among governmental leaders took the opposite tack. America kept its development of the bomb completely secret from the Soviets right up until the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (ironically, this development was not quite as secret as assumed since the Soviets had several spies embedded closely in the Manhattan Project who kept Stalin well informed). The thought of the winners in the policy debate was that the use of the bomb would totally intimidate the Soviets and guarantee American world dominance. These American leaders also assumed that the Soviets would not be capable of building their own nuclear weapons for many years, if ever. Of course, after the U.S. struck out on its own with the intent to use the bomb as a basis for domination, the Soviets shocked the Americans and everyone else by successfully creating their own nuclear weapons in a very short period of time. And the arms race was off and running.

Even though the Manhattan Project proved not to be much of a secret from the Soviets, the extraordinary measures to ensure its secrecy (most of all from the American people and the structures of American democracy) set the tone for the operations of what we may call the American National Security State. From the start, those leading the Manhattan Project kept the development of nuclear weapons hidden. As it turned out, one step of hiddenness followed another, and a profoundly anti-democratic national security regime was established in the United States. This regime was tied not only with the development of nuclear weapons but also with the use of American military forces and other expressions of American power throughout the world.

The basic question that the U.S. faced in 1945 was how would this incredible power that it had gained to shape the entire world be used. Would the U.S. seek to further the ideals of the Atlantic Charter and use the power to empower others or would it seek to expand this power and use it to dominate others? The American people themselves did not get the chance to answer this question. The acquiescence to the exigencies of total war trained Americans to defer to their leaders on issues of foreign policy and national security.

Policy makers did debate the use of American power in the 1940s. But this debate was mostly kept hidden from the nation at large. The people were not given the opportunity to be part of a national discussion about whether to utilize American power for the sake of creating better possibilities for sustainable peace or for the sake of expanding the wealth and power of American corporations.

The main outworking of World War II for the United States was the transformation of the country from a relatively demilitarized, relatively democratic society to the world’s next great empire. The history of the American Empire since 1945 has most decidedly not been the history of enhanced freedom everywhere in the world. Political and economic self-determination and disarmament have not followed from the establishment of the Pax Americana. So, was World War II worth this outcome?

The Pentagon

In 1941, the United States had not yet become a formal belligerent in what was becoming a world war. However, by this time it clearly would be only a matter of time before that bridge would be crossed. The American military had expanded dramatically in anticipation of full engagement in the War, growing from around 250,000 people under arms in 1937 to several million following the establishment of the military draft in 1941—heading for a high of fourteen million a few years later.

Two times earlier, the United States had undergone a similar mobilization—the Civil War and World War I. On both of those occasions, the rapid growth had been followed by an equally rapid demobilization almost immediately after the war ended. This did not happen following World War II, at least not in as decisive a way. At its peak during the Civil War, the military (Union and Confederacy combined) totaled about 3.2% of the American population, before dropping to about 0.1% in 1866. In 1918, the military had reached about 2.9% of the population, and then dropped to about 0.2%, where it stayed until 1940.

During World War II, the total of people in the military jumped to about 8.6% of the total population. However, while demobilization dropped the numbers drastically again, they never went lower than 1.0% in the years after (that is, until the end of the Vietnam War, when the numbers did slide slightly below 1.0%). So the size of the military as a percentage of the population remained five times bigger after World War II than it had been between 1919 and 1940. Given the rise in the overall population, the absolute numbers of people in the military was closer to ten times as large in post-World War II “peace time” than pre-war.

One of the main differences in the post-World War II era as compared to earlier post-war demobilizations was the existence of a major permanent institution in the federal government that had as its reason for existence the perpetuation of a large military and large military spending—the Pentagon.

With the sudden growth in the size and importance of the military by 1940, President Roosevelt agreed with leaders of the Army that a new headquarters was needed (in Roosevelt’s mind, only until the end of the “emergency”). This would, at least for the time being, also serve as the headquarters of the War Department. As James Carroll puts it in his history of the Pentagon, “The freshly empowered Army wanted its new building to be set apart from the so-called Federal West Executive Area, apart from entanglements with, and the limits of, the seat of government. In a time of peril, the Army was not about to be treated as just another bureaucratic function, alongside Interior and Commerce and Indian Affairs. The Army would transcend.”[1]

The Army settled on a spot on the west side of the Potomac River, in northern Virginia, partly because then the size of the building would not be limited by District of Columbia zoning regulations. Colonel Leslie Groves, known as an effective administration, was chosen to head the building project, and was immediately promoted to General. When Roosevelt saw the plans, he ordered the size of the building to be reduced by half. General Groves, without Roosevelt’s knowledge, retained the original size and, working behind the scenes, had several Virginia congress members make sure the necessary appropriations were sustained. The Pentagon was build rapidly, and Roosevelt had no possibilities to reduce the size once he realized that his orders had been ignored.[2]

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Pentagon was held September 11, 1941. Sixteen months later, the largest building in the United States was ready for occupation. Roosevelt’s concerns about problems that might arise with the relocation of the military headquarters away from the civilian centers of government proved to be prescient. As it turned out, the War Department (renamed the Department of Defense in 1947) stayed in Virginia—along with Army and Navy Headquarters, and the headquarters of third major branch of the military, the Air Force, that was established in 1947. And this seat of power in the Federal government, symbolically now separate from the rest of the government, grew ever larger and unassailable.

Although the different branches of the military continued an often heated and bitter rivalry within the framework of the newly unified structure centered at the Pentagon, they united in successfully resisting all (admittedly mostly feeble) attempts to return the military to the marginal status it had previously always had in United States history during peacetime.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, with victory in hand and the nation’s powerful desire to return to “normalcy,”[3] the future of the military in the United States was in flux. During the debates and turf battles and struggles to define postwar priorities, the cause of the military was enormously enhanced by the presence now (as had not been the case before in American history) of a central and extraordinarily powerful single institution, the Pentagon, to advocate the case for retaining a more powerful military than the U.S. had had before in peacetime.

In 1947, that the role of the military in this postwar period would be markedly different than earlier postwar eras was established with the passage of the National Security Act. This legislation formalized the country’s commitment to sustain an unprecedented level of military presence. In doing so, the Act insured that the militarization of American society initiated with the war effort would continue. Something fundamental about the American nation-state had been transformed. We may see this transformation symbolized by the intent that Roosevelt had for the War Department headquarters to be returned to its previous location near the other federal institutions once the “emergency” had ended. The headquarters remained in the Pentagon, separate from the civilian seats of power—symbolizing that the “emergency” never ended.

The provisions of the National Security Act had enormous impact. It formalized the centralization of the military that the building of the Pentagon had created de facto. Instead of a separate Department of Navy and War Department, we now had a single Department of Defense. The head of the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense, would become a full member of the President’s Cabinet.

The elimination of the term “War Department” for the new term, “Defense Department,” ironically signaled a major change. Before 1947, “War” was seen as an exceptional, rarely encountered situation. The “War Department” rose to prominence on those rare occasions when the nation entered into armed conflict. Now, “Defense” is a permanent situation, always present, always demanding resources, always playing a central role in governmental activity and planning. That greatly increased stature of the American military establishment helped insure that the need for a strong “defense” would always be a high priority.

The location of this establishment across the river from the rest of the government may have been intended to have the symbolic import of the “non-partisan” nature of the national “defense” work, existing above party-based, politicized struggles characteristic of the dynamics of other parts of the federal government. More accurately, though, this geographical separation symbolized the removal of the military from the checks and balances of American democracy. As noted above, Roosevelt faced strong constraints to his desires for the U.S. to join World War II due to the constitutional requirements of Congress’s need formally declare war. As it has turned out, December 8, 1941, was the last time Congress has ever formally declared war. All of the wars since World War II have been waged apart from this exercise of constitutional accountability (or, we could say, this exercise of representational democracy).

The National Security Act of 1947 also authorized the creation of two other institutions that would diminish democratic oversight of American foreign policy, including military actions. One of these was the National Security Council (NSC), the second was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The National Security Council had the mission to provide policy advice to the President on national security matters. In practice, the NSC operated independently of the State Department and Congressional oversight and formulated and executed policy (mostly in secret) outside of the normal democratic channels. The formal membership of the NSC would include the President, Vice-President, Secretaries of Defense, State and Treasury, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military, Director of the CIA, and a presidentially appointed National Security Advisor.

The CIA (to be discussed in more detail below) was established as a greatly expanded successor to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS had been established for intelligence gathering purposes during World War II. It had met with mixed success and nearly was abolished following the War. However, advocates for a sustained military presence argued for a militarized response to the developing conflict with the Soviet Union (what became known as the Cold War), including greatly enhanced military intelligence.

With the centralizing of the branches of the military in the Department of Defense, advocates for enhanced “national security” pushed through approval of an agency that would centralize the intelligence gathering activities. This Central Intelligence Agency had the stated purpose to be a clearinghouse for all the various intelligence gathering activities.

In establishing the CIA, though, the National Security Act did more than establish a clearinghouse for information. It also allowed for “covert activities” defined in this way: “As used in this title, the term ‘covert action’ means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”[4]

This authorization of such “covert activities” soon essentially became a blank check that allowed the CIA, often acting on behalf of the President, and sometimes on its own initiative, to engage in a long series of hidden, violent, disruptive acts around the world that directly intervened in foreign countries. These acts included overthrowing governments, assassinating leaders, and supporting revolutionary activities. The covert activities the CIA engaged in almost always remained hidden from the American public and often from Congress—directly bypassing, that is, the constitutional processes of democracy.

The NSC and the CIA existed as separate agencies from the Pentagon, but the overlap has always been great. These various entities have combined to sustain a powerful momentum since 1945 to ensure that the United States would become an ever-more militarized nation. The Pentagon has stood as the most powerful force for this militarization, gradually eclipsing other elements of the federal government, such as most notably the State Department, in shaping American foreign policy.

By viewing the world through force-oriented lens, Pentagon interests undermined whatever chances the U.S. had to utilize its stature as the world’s superpower in 1945 to further ideals expressed in the Atlantic Charter. A key hope in the Charter was disarmament. However, insofar as the expanded and permanently empowered military establishment in the United States shaped American policies, that hope for disarmament would remain mostly an empty ideal.

The idealistic language of Woodrow Wilson during World War I, gathering support for the Great War by insisting that it would be “the war to end all wars” was not often repeated in the run up to World War II or in the war years. However, the sentiment behind that language, that the best justification for paying the extraordinary price this war demanded was to create a sustainable peace, remained central. Certainly the Atlantic Charter evoked such sentiment.

The very success of the American war effort, however, itself insured that these ideals of disarmament and sustainable peace would be virtually impossible to implement. The War mostly empowered warriors. The dynamics of governance in the United States were transformed, with the result that the forces that insured we would crush our enemies gained and retained their position as the main determinants of the shape of American foreign policy.

Nothing symbolizes this transformation better than the Pentagon—the largest building in the most powerful country in the world. The Pentagon had gained enormous power by 1945—and this power would not be relinquished, only expanded, in the years to come.

The nuclear weapons program

Along with the building of the Pentagon and its eventual institutionalization as the formal home of the Defense Department and the three unified branches of the military (Army, Navy, and Air Force), the second key permanent pillar for the militarization of American society that serves as one of the main moral legacies of World War II is the nuclear weapons program.

In 1939, as the murderous intentions of Nazi Germany increasingly terrified people around the world, a prominent nuclear physicist, Leo Szilard[5], sent a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, also signed by Albert Einstein, that raised the possibility of the creation of a uranium bomb with extraordinary destructive power. Szilard had been the first scientist to conceive of such a weapon and was aware of German scientists who had begun to work on such a project. Anticipating a likely war between the U.S. and Germany, he proposed that the U.S. might want also to seek to create such a weapon.

Szilard, like Einstein, felt horror at the possibility that such a weapon might actually be used. He hoped that successful U.S. work to develop such a weapon would deter the Germans and Japanese. He moved to the U.S. to help build the bomb, but even as the work neared success he organized a petition that urged President Truman to drop the bomb on an uninhabited area to demonstrate its power and persuade the Japanese to surrender. Tragically, this petition did not make it to Truman until after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed.[6]

Roosevelt took Szilard’s 1939 letter seriously and in time began the process that led to the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project, a top-secret program to develop nuclear weapons, was launched October 9, 1941—four weeks after the groundbreaking of the Pentagon and eight weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Project found its impetus, and attracted European physicists such as Szilard, from the impending war with Germany combined with the fear that the Germans might develop with weapon first and would use it without scruples. As it turned out, unbeknownst to those engaged in the Manhattan Project, the German effort to create the bomb never really got off the ground. Regardless, the American project once underway, generated tremendous momentum on its own.

Leslie Groves, off his tremendous success in quickly constructing the Pentagon, was given leadership as the director of the Project. The quest for this mega-weapon became one of the highest priorities in the American government.[7] Roosevelt gave Groves almost unlimited power and resources to complete the Project in as short of time as possible.

As remarkable as the size and speed of the Project was also the success Groves had in keeping it as secret as he did. Given the numbers of people involved, spread across the United States (and spilling into Canada), word of the work that was being done hardly leaked out at all to the surrounding society. Of course, the exception was the presence within the Project of several Soviet spies. As generally has been the case ever since, the main impact of secrecy in military affairs has been to keep knowledge from the American public, not our supposed enemies. Though the U.S. deliberately chose to keep its Soviet allies completely in the dark concerning the Project, Stalin actually knew a great deal of what went on.

In the initial months of the Project, the U.S. worked closely with Britain. However, it soon became clear that the British did not have the resources to pursue this weapon within their own borders (plus, Americans feared that the geographical proximity of Britain to Germany would increase the possibility of the bomb falling into German hands). So, the project became strictly an American endeavor. The Americans pushed the British out almost completely—to the point that the Britons decided that on their own they needed to develop nuclear weapons.[8]

The decision to develop nuclear weapons was made before the U.S. actually entered the War. Even with the extraordinary success of the Project in constructing three usable bombs in just a bit more than three years, circumstances had changed tremendously by the time the bombs were ready. The major impetus for undertaking the project, the fear of Germany creating their own bombs, had been taken away not long after the Project began when it became known that the Germans had abandoned their quest. A second impetus, to be a tool for the unconditional surrender of the Germans, ended by May 1945, when Germany fell without the bomb being used.

The decision by the Americans to go ahead and drop the bomb on Japan has remained one of the most controversial in the history of warfare.[9] James Carroll makes a persuasive case that this decision was both the consequences of the simple momentum of the Manhattan Project (we have invested so much in this process that we need to see it through to the end) and a conscious decision made in that particular context by a few key decision-makers.[10]

Several factors played into the decision, insofar as it was an actual decision. A central background force was Roosevelt’s January 1943 proclamation of the Allied commitment to “unconditional surrender” in the war with the Axis. Germany reached that point in May 1945. Germany’s surrender combined with the Allies achieving access to direct attacks on the Japanese mainland brought them to the place where they could make the final push utterly to defeat Japan.

As the momentum toward crushing of Japanese built (a key moment in this process was the firebombing of Tokyo that resulted in around 85,000 deaths), the Japanese leaders began to seek to negotiate for an end to the conflict. They had one condition they insisted on, though: Emperor Hirohito would retain his position (if only in a purely figurehead sense) and would not be liable for prosecution as a war criminal.

These Japanese peace feelers had little effect as the Americans began to plan for an actual land invasion of Japan. As the story came to be told after the nuclear bombs were used, the U.S. feared losing upwards to one million soldiers’ lives in such an invasion. With the completion of the development of the bomb (successfully, and secretly, tested in New Mexico, July 16, 1945), here was a weapon that would make such an invasion and massive loss of life unnecessary.

This figure of one million deaths was one created as a general estimate some time after the bombings.[11] The military had actually undertaken a formal estimate of possible casualties, but this estimate was not released publicly at the time. Rather than one million deaths, the actual estimate was about 40,000. This formal estimate also concluded that Japan surely would have surrendered before the end of 1945 without the bombs being used and without a land invasion—and this was even with the U.S. still continuing to insist of unconditional surrender.

A couple of other key factors clearly played central roles in the decision to use these bombs on Japanese civilian populations. Partly it was simply a desire to understand better the effect of these weapons. Part of the reason for the choices of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as bomb targets was that they had not suffered major damage from previous aerial attacks. These intact cities offered the best laboratories for observation of the effects of nuclear bombs in “real life.”

More important, surely, was the anticipation on the part of important American leaders (most centrally Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and, of course, President Truman, as well as Leslie Groves) of a struggle in the near future with the Soviet Union for world domination. The Soviets had agreed to enter the war with Japan within three months of the end of the European war, and it seemed likely that were they to engage in the Asian war in a major way they would expect to play an important role in the postwar peace settlement (as they certainly did in Europe).

So, part of the urgency in using the bombs as soon as they were available had to do with preventing the Soviets from gaining a stronger foothold in the Far East, and even more so simply to establish a point of dominance over the Soviet Union due to the American monopoly on this weapon of all weapons. As it turned out, the Americans did get the bombs dropped before the Soviet presence in the Asian war became significant (the Soviets declared war on Japan August 9, and engaged the Japanese in a major battle in Manchuria). Post-war arrangements with Japan were shaped almost exclusively by the United States.

The Americans made their statement about their nuclear capability—and their obvious willingness to use these weapons they possessed. As mentioned above, though, the American secret had not actually been a secret from the Soviets, whose spies had kept them well informed about the progress of the Manhattan Project. However, the tragic irony was that the impact of the Americans’ monopoly on nuclear technology turned out to be exactly the opposite of what they intended. Rather than establishing a position of dominance over the Soviet Union, the American capability spurred the Soviets on to their own development of a comparable capability.

The elderly American Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who had signed off on the development and deployment of the nuclear bombs, nonetheless recognized that it would not be in the best interests of the United States or the world for an arms race and spread of nuclear weaponry to follow from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He argued in the back rooms of American policy making for an attempt to control and limit the spread of nuclear weaponry.

Stimson believed it was inevitable the Soviets would get the bomb. In a memo to Truman, September 11, 1945, Stimson made a proposal that the U.S. “enter into an arrangement with the Russians, the general purpose of which would be to control and limit the use of the atomic bomb.” To so link with the Soviets, Americans could persuade them of the truthfulness of our pledge that “we would stop work on any further improvement in, or manufacture of, the bomb as a military weapon, provided the Russians and the British would do likewise.” As part of the agreement, Americans would “impound what bombs we now have in the United States provided the Russians and the British would agree with us that in no event will they or we use a bomb as an instrument of war unless all three governments agree to that use.” Stimson made a radical suggestion here: the U.S. would voluntarily surrender its monopoly on nuclear weaponry and its exclusive control of its existing bombs.[12]

Stimson was near the end of his career at this point. In an allusion to Joseph Stalin, he wrote in his memo to Truman a plea to seek the path of mutual trust rather than mistrust: “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show him your distrust.”[13]

American leaders made a decision almost as momentous as the actual bombing of the two Japanese cities when they rejected Stimson’s advocacy for sharing nuclear technology and establishing a genuinely mutual regime of arms control with the Soviets and British. Stimson believed that Stalin would resist expansionist tendencies among his advisers and respond favorably to an American initiative for shared control of nuclear capabilities. James Carroll suggests, “events would show Stimson to be right. Moscow is remembered, in the American historical consensus, as only pushing outward during the unsettled postwar period. But in fact the Soviets would withdraw from Iran, leaving Western powers dominant in a nation on Russia’s border. They would evacuate Norway, abandon Communists in Greece, Italy, and Finland, and fail to fully support Communists in China. Even in Germany, in pursuit of collective governance, Stalin would support bourgeois elements over Socialists. Likewise Stalin would yield on the question of control over the entrance to the Black Sea, and he would accept, however unhappily, America’s refusal to follow through on reparations agreements dating to the Potsdam meeting [in the summer of 1945]. If Stimson wanted to approach Stalin in ‘trust,’ it was obviously because he knew that the Soviet leader faced severe constraints of own just then, and knew that the atomic bomb had put Washington in a position of superiority, however pontoon-like in its firmness.”[14]

Truman was willing to consider Stimson’s proposal. Ten days after Stimson circulated his vision for cooperation, Truman made it the focus for the president’s cabinet at their September 21 meeting. In Carroll’s words, “There is reason to conceive of the meeting as a turning point in the American century. What would remain the basic question of the Cold War was put on the table: Is Soviet foreign policy motivated by an offensive strategy for the sake of an ideologically driven global empire or by normal big-power defensiveness, aiming at security?”[15]

Stimson’s proposal actually found support from many cabinet members, including undersecretary of state Dean Acheson, but was sharply opposed by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and later by Secretary of State James Byrnes, who was unable to attend the September 21 meeting. Their legacy of the attack on Hiroshima hung in the balance during these deliberations. If the cabinet and Truman had affirmed and implemented Stimson’s proposal, the outcome of Hiroshima would have, Carroll’s words, been “a balance of power rather than a balance of terror.”[16] Surely, the consequent Soviet behavior would not have been nearly so adversarial.

Surprisingly, at first, the military leaders making up the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported Stimson’s proposal when they learned of it. However, Secretary of the Navy Forrestal (soon to succeed Stimson as Secretary of War [renamed at this time as “Secretary of Defense”]) persuaded the Chiefs to change their stance by emphasizing that their own interests would be furthered by a more hard-line approach to the Soviets.

Forrestal and Secretary of State Byrnes persuaded Truman to reject Stimson’s proposal. For the sake of appearances, the U.S. proposed a kind of international control of the bomb. This approach required sweeping internal inspections of each nation’s nuclear arsenal and insisted that the U.S. would retain custody of some bombs while forbidding the Soviets to do likewise (since they had not yet built bombs)—two elements guaranteed to lead to Soviet rejection (as they did).

This September 21 cabinet meeting was Stimson’s final task as Secretary of War. He had resigned, ready to retire. He was to be replaced by James Forrestal. The nuclear arms race was underway, full speed ahead.

One part of the story of the nuclear arms race is the assumption that with all its scary moments, it is important to recognize that nuclear weapons have not been used since Nagasaki, August 10, 1945. However, as Joseph Gerson shows in his book Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World, nuclear weapons have in a genuine sense actually been used often in American foreign policy ever since.

Gerson argues that the U.S. has used its nuclear capability to enhance its power in the world, thereby accelerating the proliferation of nuclear weapons. “On at least 30 occasions since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every US president has prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war during international crises, confrontations, and wars—primarily in the Third World. And, while insisting that nearly all other nations fulfill their Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations (India being one exception, and Israel, which has not signed the NPT, falling into a category of its own), the US government has never been serious about its Article VI obligation to engage in ‘good faith’ negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.”[17]

Gerson names five ways that the U.S. has used its nuclear arsenal since having the capability of using these weapons. (1) Actually dropping the bombs on human populations—as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (2) To allow the U.S. to dictate international arrangements due to the general possibility that they could use them again. (3) To threaten specific opponents directly with the possibility of a nuclear attack. (4) To make “U.S. ‘conventional forces,’ in the words of former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, ‘meaningful instruments of military and political power.’…Brown was saying that implicit and explicit US nuclear threats were repeatedly used to intimidate those who might consider intervening militarily to assist those the US is determined to attack. (5) To prevent a possible first-strike attack against the U.S. by making the certain outcome of such an attack “Mutually Assured Destruction.”[18]

As well, as Garry Wills argues in his book, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, the presence of the bomb has profoundly subverted democracy. The U.S. invented the atomic bomb in a way that led to victory for the forces of official secrecy and military discipline. The President started the process and authorized secret funding to make it possible. Congress and the media never discovered the existence of the Manhattan Project—or at least never made any awareness public. The Project became the model for further hidden projects and for the way government would operate in general. What began in the context of a wartime “emergency” became the institutional status quo.

Wills summarizes: “The Bomb forever changed the institution of the presidency, since only the President controls ‘the button’ and, by extension, the fate of the world, with no constitutional check. This has been a radical break from the division of powers established by our founding fathers, and it has enfeebled Congress and the courts in the postwar period. The Bomb also placed a stronger emphasis on the President’s military role, creating a cult around the Commander in Chief that has no precedent in American history. The tendency of modern presidents—and presidential candidates—to flaunt military airs is entirely a post-Bomb phenomenon. As well, the Manhattan Project inspired the vast, secretive apparatus of the National Security State, including intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA, which remain largely unaccountable to Congress and the American people.”[19]

Central Intelligence Agency

In some ways, the Central Intelligence Agency is like the proverbial camel who manages to get its nose under the edge of the tent, and then in time manages to get its entire body inside the tent. During World War II, President Roosevelt agreed to create an ad hoc intelligence gathering organization, called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in part due to the Americans’ failure to realize that Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked. Even though the American military had cracked some of Japan’s communication codes and had thereby become aware that some attack was imminent, the government had no central coordinating agency to help put various pieces of information together.

The OSS, led by General William J. Donovan, was not carefully planned or well led, and did not contribute much to the war effort. From the start, OSS leaders seem to have been more interested in exotic schemes of subterfuge and covert violence than careful information gathering and analysis. Due to this undistinguished record, Roosevelt became doubtful about the work of the OSS and appointed his chief White House military aide, Colonel Richard Park, Jr., to prepare a report on how OSS had fared during the War. Park completed his report shortly after Roosevelt’s death in April, 1945, and submitted it to the new president, Harry Truman.

This top-secret report was not widely circulated and only was declassified after the Cold War ended. In it, Colonel Park was unstinting in his negative analysis. The report concluded that the OSS had done “serious harm to the citizens, business interests, and national interests of the United States.” It could not find any examples of how the OSS had contributed to winning the war, only examples of failure.[20]

Some of these negative examples included: “crude and loosely organized” training leaving American spies as “putty in [the] hands” of British agents. Chinese strongman Chiang Kai-shek subverted OSS agents to serve his purposes. OSS operations were compromised by German spies throughout their areas of engagement. Japan learned of OSS plans to compromise Japan’s codes and thus made changes that “resulted in a complete blackout of vital military information” in the summer of 1943. “How many American lives in the Pacific represent the cost of this stupidity in the part of the OSS is unknown.” The OSS provided flawed information that led to thousands of French soldiers falling into a German trap following the fall of Rome in June 1944. “As a result of these errors and miscalculations of the enemy forces by OSS, some 1,100 French troops were killed.”[21]

Park’s report did grant that the OSS had made a few useful contributions, most notably in the field with sabotage missions and rescuing downed pilots and at home with research and information analysis. The report concluded that the analysis branch of OSS should be absorbed into the State Department and the rest should be eliminated. The almost hopeless compromise of OSS personnel makes their use as a secret intelligence agency in the postwar world inconceivable.”[22]

This report confirmed for Truman his already existing deep suspicion of what he saw as an agency way too similar to the Nazi’s Gestapo. Though General Donovan worked tirelessly during the summer of 1945 to save his agency and give it permanent status, on September 20, Truman made his decision known. Donovan was fired and the OSS was to disband.

Donovan, though, had his supporters who shared his conviction that in order to function as a great power, the United States needed a powerful spying agency. Truman’s decision to abolish the OSS set off two years of intense lobbying and resistance. The spy-supporters would not be denied. Aged Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who also strongly opposed a peacetime spying agency, retired at about the same time as Truman’s abolition order. OSS supporters used the time of transition as an opportunity to countermand Truman’s decision. The assistant secretary of war, John McCloy, believed in the OSS and was able to issue an order that continuing operations of the OSS would be sustained on a temporary basis under a new name, Strategic Services Unit. This bought some time.

McCloy formed a secret commission with the task, essentially, to make the case for a permanent spying agency—which could then be presented to Truman as a kind of fait accompli. Over the next couple of years, the advocates for an adversarial response to the Soviet Union gained ascendency in the federal government. Various agencies sought to expand or establish clandestine intelligence departments (e.g., the army, the navy, the FBI).

The pro-spy forces persuaded Truman to change his perspective, and in January, 1946, he appointed a “director of central intelligence”—an appointment made in secret, with no congressional involvement. This person had the task of overseeing the intelligence officers and their support staff remaining from the OSS.

By the next year, advocates for clandestine intelligence work had managed to get the establishment of a large structure, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to be part of the extraordinarily important National Security Act, passed by Congress in 1947. Truman later stated that this new CIA was being created to serve him by delivering daily news bulletins: “It was not intended as a ‘Cloak & Dagger Outfit’! It was intended merely as a center for keeping the President informed on what was going on in the world.” He never wanted the CIA “to act as a spy organization. That was never the intention when it was organized.”[23]

Others obviously had different ideas. The formal law itself left the door open for the CIA to evolve in a direction drastically different than Truman seemingly intended. Along with the emphasis on information gathering and analysis, the National Security Act also allowed for “covert action” in order to influence “conditions abroad” in situations where the involvement of the U.S. should remain secret.

As a consequences of this opening, the CIA as it evolved had a twofold mission—one, gathering and analyzing information and two, engaging in covert action to further America’s foreign policy agendas. Contrary to Truman’s stated wishes, this second mission came to dominate the CIA’s work, and to gain it its reputation.

The National Security Act attempted to establish parameters for these covert acts. When the CIA sought to engage in a covert activity, it was to gain authorization for each activity from a written presidential “finding” that the action was “necessary to support identifiable foreign policy objectives of the United States.” The Act continued, “a finding may not authorize any action that would violate the Constitution or any statute of the United States.” The Act also required congressional involvement. CIA leaders “shall keep the congressional intelligence committees fully and currently informed of all covert actions which are the responsibility of, are engaged in by, or are carried out for on behalf of, any department, agency, or entity of the United States Government including significant failures.” Adding to the congressional role, the Act asserted, “nothing in this Act shall be construed as authority to withhold information from the congressional intelligence committees on the grounds that providing the information to the congressional intelligence committees would constitute the unauthorized disclosure of classified information or information relating to intelligence sources and methods.”[24]

As it turned out, the CIA from the start would be staffed with many people, holdovers from the OSS, who tended not to be concerned about democratic limitations on their actions. As a consequence, the restrictions in the National Security Act—no acts by the CIA that would violate the United States constitution and the CIA’s complete transparency in relation to Congress—simply never played a major role in the operational philosophy of the CIA.

The CIA scarcely distinguished itself in its intelligence work. In one disastrous period, the Agency misread virtually every global crisis. It had no inkling of the Soviet atomic bomb until, to the shock and severe fright of most Americans it was successfully tested. The CIA had been of little help in gaining insights in relation to the conflict that became the Korean War. And disastrously, once that war began, in October 1950, as U.S. General Douglas MacArthur aggressively moved toward the Chinese border, the CIA denied that the Chinese military had gathered in force. Even two days before the Chinese did attack, and nearly completely routed the American troops, the CIA still denied that such an attack was likely.[25]

Allen Dulles, a well-connected advocate of covert operations, gained appointment at the chief of the CIA’s covert operations in 1951. After General Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 and appointed Dulles’s brother, John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, Allen Dulles became the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). This appointment pushed the CIA even harder in the direction of emphasizing covert operations over information gathering and analysis, as well as placing the priority on gathering information through on the ground spies over more prosaic processes.

The two Dulles brothers were united in their hostility toward the Soviet Union and their desires “for the free world to liberate the Soviet satellites.”[26] Such a commitment, when joined with strong support for the Truman doctrine of treating any tilt toward the Soviet Union anywhere in the world as a direct threat to American national security, made it easy to justify secretive campaigns that often involved violence around the world.

While Allen Dulles was DCI, the CIA directly involved itself in the successful overthrow of elected democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala—in both cases justified by the alleged Soviet-tilt of the governments (though, more telling, in both cases American corporations had direct interests that were being threatened by governmental policies that sought to gain more economic self-determination). The CIA also engaged, less successfully, in an attempt to overthrow the government of Indonesia. All three of these actions had disastrous long-term consequences for these three nations.

During this time, as well, the United States began its enormously self-destructive engagement with the nationalist movement in Vietnam. Throughout most of the 1950s, the American role in Vietnam was primarily a matter of covert CIA activities.

In general, the CIA’s work, especially the covert operations championed by Allen Dulles, greatly exacerbated the evolution of American foreign policy away from any actual efforts toward genuine self-determination of the world’s nations and away from genuine moves toward disarmament. The CIA’s covert operations time after time subverted self-determination and served to militarize conflicts and further the spread of armaments and military violence.[27]

The costs of the focus on covet operations that were subversive of democracy within the United States and almost everywhere else where they were implemented were high. With tragic irony, we must also note that the CIA was a terrible failure when it came to providing the American government reliable information concerning the Soviet Union.

Tim Wiener, in his history of the CIA, summarizes this failure thus: “The CIA’s formal estimates of Soviet military strength were not based on intelligence, but on politics and guesswork. Since 1957, the CIA had sent Eisenhower terrifying reports that the Soviet buildup of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles was far faster and much greater than the American arsenal. In 1960, the agency projected a mortal threat to the United States; it told the president that the Soviets would have five hundred ICBMs ready to strike by 1961. The Strategic Air Command used those estimates as the basis for a secret first-strike plan using more than three thousand nuclear weapons to destroy every city and every military outpost from Warsaw to Bejing. But Moscow did not have five hundred nuclear missiles pointed at the United States at the time. It had four.”[28]

Wiener continues with this quote from President Gerald Ford, who as a member of the House of Representatives provided congressional oversight in the early 1960s: “The CIA would come in and paint the most scary picture possible about what the Soviets would do to us—we were going to be second-rate; the Soviets were going to be Number One. They had charts on the wall, they had figures, and their conclusion was that in ten years, the United States would be behind the Soviet Union in military capability, in economic growth. It was a scary presentation. The facts are they were 180 degrees wrong.”[29]

It is impossible to calculate the cost of these misperceptions fueled by the CIA—in terms of American wealth devoted to what was throughout the 1950s a one-sided arms “race,” in terms of the environment due to the rapid expansion of the American nuclear arsenal, in terms of the continual undermining of democratic processes, and in terms of undermining any chance of working with the Soviet Union toward peaceful coexistence (especially after Stalin’s death in March 1953 and the internal changes in the Soviet Union that followed).

Pax Americana replaces Pax Britannica

The transition from the “hot war” of 1939-1945 to what came to be known as the “Cold War” of 1947-1991 is a crucial period of time in the modern world. In many ways, these few years defined the moral legacy of World War II for the United States.

The key point that signaled the defeat advocates of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union among the American policy making elite came with President Truman’s speech, March 12, 1947. The explicit focus of this speech was to announce that the United States would offer military aid to the forces in Turkey and, especially, Greece that struggled with forces aligned with the Communist Party for control of those countries.

The speech was a watershed for several reasons. (1) Truman made clear that he identified Soviet Communism as the implacable foe of the United States, the enemy to be resisted at a high cost if necessary and no longer the ally of World War II. (2) Beyond simply stating the enmity with which the United States would now regard Soviet Communism, Truman committed American military support to this conflict. He indicated that the U.S. would not return to the approach prior to World War II of extreme reluctance to get militarily involved in other country’s conflicts, especially those outside the western hemisphere. (3) To justify intervention on behalf of anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey, Truman presented a basic principle that became known as the “Truman Doctrine.” The Truman Doctrine set the tone for the American side of the Cold War that would last until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. “America must oppose any Communist threat to freedom anywhere in the world.”[30] (4) Not stated openly in Truman’s speech, but implied with the steps he announced, this intervention made clear that as the British Empire diminished and the Britons stepped back from their role as the world’s main imperial power, the United States would be “picking up the reins.”[31]

From the beginning of the Soviet/American/British alliance in the summer of 1940 following Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviets in violation of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty, instability and mistrust characterized the relationship between the Soviets and the western democracies. We have seen, for example, how in the development and deployment of nuclear bombs, the Americans excluded the Soviets from even knowing about the Manhattan Project. Surely, the Americans rushed to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki so as to send a strong signal to the Soviets about America’s overwhelming military capabilities.

We have also seen, though, that important American leaders, most prominently Secretary of War Stimson, nonetheless hoped to establish non-hostile postwar relationships with the Soviets. Stimson proposed that the Americans and Soviets could even cooperate in arms control practices concerning nuclear weaponry. Many historians (of course, not all—this area of study is one of the most controversial in all recent historical studies) argue that the Soviets also hoped to sustain a cordial relationship with the Americans, a style of relating that would involve mutual respect for each nation’s legitimate spheres of influence. Evidence for the Soviet willingness to take this route may be seen in their withdrawal from Iran and Norway and their pulling back from involvement in Greece (more on this below).

Stimson and his allies lost this debate when Truman sided with the more militant members of the policy-making elite and insisted that the U.S. would go alone on the nuclear weaponry route. Even so, the Soviets still gave indications of willingness for cooperate with a regime of peaceful coexistence.

As the Americans followed a rapid course of demobilization of their massive military after August 1945, leaders of the Army, the Navy, and, especially, the newly established independent Air Force came to see that their own interests (i.e., keeping their forces as strong and well-supplied as possible) would be served by increased enmity with the Soviet Union.

The three military branches struggled bitterly with each other for resources and predominance. This struggle helped fuel American intransigence in relation to the Soviet Union. For example, the Air Force eagerly sought the development of a new strategic bomber. James Carroll explains the resultant dynamic: “Setting a pattern that would define the American side of the Cold War dynamic, Air Force advocates went for the jugular of their Army and Navy rivals with the blade of the Soviet threat. The darker Moscow’s intentions could be shown to be, the brighter were Air Force budget prospects. A defining moment in this contest occurred when the legendary bomber commander Carl Spaatz,…Air Force chief, stunned his interrogators at a congressional hearing. Flashing the image on a screen, he replaced the traditional…projection of the globe, which showed the United States protected by two vast oceans, with a polar projection, which showed a hulking Soviet Union all set to gobble Alaska, and then the rest of the forty-eight states, from across the narrowest of straits. America the vulnerable.”[32]

The problematic nature of this emphasis on Soviets as implacable threat, Soviets as our certain enemies—besides flying in the face of recent history where for five years the U.S. and Soviet Union, despite fundamental societal and political differences, had cooperated quite successfully in waging war together—may be seen right away in Truman’s speech. He chose alleged Soviet expansionism as a catalyst for (as he said when questioned about the extremity of his assertions in this speech) “scaring the hell out of the American people.” He felt he had to fan flames of fear in order to push the people to accept this move back into a kind of war footing. In fact, the Soviets were not involved in the struggle in Greece in any appreciable way. Stalin honored the informal agreement he had made with the western Allies at the conference in Yalta, acknowledged spheres of influence, and saw Greece in the British sphere.

The struggle in Greece was between an indigenous Communist Party operating independently of the Soviet Union and a right wing, non-democratic monarchy that the British wanted to restore to power. During the War, the Nazis had taken Greece over with little resistance (and in fact a good deal of collaboration) from the monarchist forces. The resistance to the Nazis, perhaps the fiercest and most effective in all of Europe, came from various leftist and indigenous forces, under the umbrella of the Greek Communists. Even without Soviet aid, the leftists, due to their strong support from much of the Greek population, effectively resisted the British attempts to reinstate the monarchy.

So, Truman waved the flag of Soviet tyranny in order to justify American intervention in a struggle between internal forces and took the side of non-democratic and authoritarian rightists. This was the first of many similarly tragic interventions that America would embark on in the decades to follow echoing similar anti-Soviet sentiments.

Truman’s statement essentially promised that the U.S. would now involve itself militarily virtually anywhere in the world. It was not as if the U.S. had never been willing to use military force on foreign shores before.[33] However, as we have noted throughout this book, the general American philosophy of foreign affairs minimized a sense of responsibility for intervening in overseas conflicts—certainly this was the American position in the 1930s. Now, though, Truman changed the tone of American foreign policy and announced that indeed the U.S. will be sending extensive military aid (with the possibility of actual soldiers, if needed[34]) to foreign lands for a cause that did not obviously affect American national security.

As we will see, this commitment to intervene in Greece opened the door for regular military excursions by the U.S. military—mostly covert, but on numerous occasions out in the open. It is highly likely that not a single one of these excursions would have been acceptable to the American people and even to Congress prior to World War II. That war transformed the way Americans thought about American military force being used around the world.

By embracing military aid to the monarchist forces in Greece, the U.S. in a genuine sense affirmed the military action taken by the British beginning in 1945. The Britons understood the returning of the right wing Greek government to power vis-à-vis the Communist-led resistance forces as a key element of sustaining their imperial status quo.

Part of the significance of the British action is that it followed closely after the Yalta summit meeting that essentially divided Europe into spheres of influence. Prime Minister Churchill’s use of violence to assert British dominance in Greece (which was combined with Stalin’s willing withdrawal of support for the Greek Communists) predated any of the military actions the Soviets took likewise to assert their “sphere of influence” over non-cooperative nations such a Bulgaria. So, the first step in the acceptance of the use of violence for subduing populations who sought self-determination came not from the Soviets, but the British.

For the Americans willingly to step in when the British decided they could not continue the fight signaled the American approval of such violence (directly contradicting the Atlantic Charter’s commitment to self-determination and disarmament).

As the British sought to hand over the task of fighting against the resistance forces in Greece, many American policymakers remained skeptical that such a distant conflict could threaten the U.S. Nor did they believe that the rightist forces in Greece (who had indeed collaborated with the Nazis) deserved American support in any case. Truman appealed to powerful Republican Senator Arthur Vandenburg, a leading bipartisan advocate during the War. Vanderburg allegedly told Truman that Republicans could probably be persuaded to support aid to the Greek rightists with this comment: “Mr. President, the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.” Truman took this advice seriously and gave his famous speech.

Truman did frighten many Americans when he evoked the rising Soviet threat and promised a military response. He stated, “Totalitarian regimes imposed on free people, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundation of international peace and hence the security of the United States.”[35]

This is how historian Robert McMahon summarizes the impact of Truman’s speech: “What is particularly significant about the Truman Doctrine is less that basic fact of power politics that America was filling a void left by the British than the manner in which the American president chose to present his aid proposal. Using hyperbolic language, Manichean imagery, and deliberate simplification to strengthen his public appeal, Truman was trying to build a public and Congressional consensus not just behind this particular commitment but behind a more activist American foreign policy—a policy that would be at once anti-Soviet and anti-communist. The Truman Doctrine thus amounted to a declaration of ideological Cold War along with a declaration of geopolitical Cold War.”[36]

A hugely significant impact of the kind of thinking the Truman Doctrine reflected and furthered was to lump all expressions around the world of what could be classified as “communism” as part of one phenomenon. This idea, that there was only one Communism, underwrote American intervention throughout the Cold War period, leading to mistaking local efforts at self-determination for part of a Soviet effort to establish world domination. Hence, the tragic American misreading of social dynamics in nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cuba—misreadings that led literally to millions deaths in the several decades following Truman’s speech.

The direct historical context for Truman making this speech was when Great Britain informed the Americans early in 1947 that due to a lack of resources following the exhaustive expenditure of resources in fighting World War II, the Britons would have to withdraw their forces from Greece. Given the strength of the resistance forces and their widespread popular support, it seemed certain that the monarchist forces backed by Britain who hence very quickly go down to defeat.

Because of the specter of a Communist victory (albeit not one directly connected to the Soviet Union, despite Truman’s rhetoric in his speech), the Americans found themselves inclined to step in for the British. The U.S. did so, staved off the Communist victory, and established a military dictatorship that dominated Greece for decades to follow.

In more than a symbolic way, the American replacement of Britain in Greece reflected the transformation of the international order. The Americans would not try to duplicate the British Empire in a literal sense. However, in terms of military and economic power projection, the ensuing Pax Americana in many respects would exceed the Pax Britannica.

This power projection found expression in the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance made up of the U.S., Canada, and most western European nations. From the start, the ideal of NATO being made up only of democracies was compromised due to the desire to have dictator-ruled Portugal part of the Alliance due to strategic benefits. In 1952, after the communist threat in Greece had been defeated, the Greeks, along with Turkey (neither remotely functioning as genuine democracies), were also welcomed into NATO, bringing important strategic benefits with them—not least the ability to serve as hosts for major American military bases.

The implications of the Truman Doctrine—committing the U.S. to an entirely new type of wars of choice—did lead to mostly covert military involvement in the Greek civil war. Very shortly, though, this postwar era of permanent military “emergency” would move into a much more costly and widespread military intervention, the Korean War. And the militarization of American foreign policy would proceed apace. The pre-World War II days of avoiding foreign entanglements were gone forever.

[1] James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 2.

[2] Carroll, House, 3.

[3] The term “normalcy” was coined during the 1920 presidential campaign by Republican candidate Warren Harding explicitly as a promise to demobilize from World War I and pull back from foreign military entanglements. Harding’s victory ensured that such a pulling back would happen. The response of the federal government after World War II proved to be quite different.

[4] Quoted in Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 83-84.

[5] Szilard (1898-1964) grew up in a Jewish family in Hungary, moved to Germany for graduate school and his early professional career, and then moved to England after Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. He lived the last third of his life in the United States.

[6] Carroll, House, 59-61.

[7] The classis account of this quest is Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986).

[8] While not nearly the most costly of the problems that emerged due to the U.S. pursuit of nuclear weapons, the split with Great Britain did have negative consequences for both countries. For the British, especially, pursuit of the nuclear capability diverted precious resources during the desperate years of severe economic depravation following the War. It then locked the British into the substantial moral and economic costs of sustaining a nuclear weapons regime that has played no positive role in the nation’s life since 1947.

[9] For just one example of the on-going intensity of the debate, see the account of the controversy over the Smithsonian Institution’s attempt to create a wide-ranging, somewhat critical exhibit marking the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Englehardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for America’s Past (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).

[10] Carroll, House, 53-58.

[11] One early such assertion came in an article published under the name of Secretary of War Stimson in Harper’s in 1948.

[12] Carroll, House, 113.

[13] Carroll, House, 114.

[14] Carroll, House, 115.

[15] Carroll, House, 116.

[16] Carroll, House, 118-19.

[17] Joseph Gerson, Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2007), 2.

[18] Gerson, Empire, 2-3.

[19] Wills, Bomb, dustcover.

[20] Quoted in Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 7.

[21] Quotes from Weiner, Legacy, 7.

[22] Quotes from Weiner, Legacy, 8.

[23] Quotes from Weiner, Legacy, 3.

[24] Quotes from Wills, Bomb, 83-84.

[25] Weiner, Legacy, 59.

[26] Weiner, Legacy, 78.

[27] See Melvin A. Goodman, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

[28] Weiner, Legacy, 183.

[29] Weiner, Legacy, 220-21.

[30] Quoted in Wills, Bomb, 72.

[31] This term comes from one account of this transition: Norman Moss, Picking Up the Reins: America, Britain, and the Postwar World (New York: The Overlook Press, 2008).

[32] Carroll, House, 108.

[33] For a short summary of many of these interventions, going back to the beginning of U.S. nationhood, see William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[34] I only learned a few years ago, several years after my mother’s death, that her brother (an Air Force pilot) lost his life as an American soldier fighting in the Greek civil war.

[35] Quotes from Wills, Bomb, 72-73.

[36] Robert McMahon, The Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 28-29; quoted in Wills, Bomb, 73.

The Long Shadow—Contents of the entire book

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