Whatever the number of pluses in the portrait of Reagan that is beginning to take shape in the final months of his two-term presidency, there will be minuses also, and most of these will stem from his conduct of foreign policy and national defense. At first thought, this is almost bizarre. Wasn’t Reagan the leader who from his first year in office had us walking tall in the world again, and that as the direct result of his firm hold upon foreign and defense strategies? He was indeed. But it is already apparent that there have been significantly more mishaps and acts of ineptitude in these areas than the image of walking tall can easily accommodate. Too often America the giant has been, in foreign areas, a stumbling, spastic, and ill-gaited giant.
Lebanon and the fate of 240 Marines, without arms, without instructions, and soon without lives, continues to haunt. So does the full story of our self-declared victory in Grenada—for which some 8,000 decorations were speedily pumped out—in which several thousand American troops required three days of bumbling before a couple of hundred armed Cubans were put down. There is the Reykjavik summit and its only narrowly avoided disaster of reckless utopianism. Reagan’s rush to the INF treaty and its uprooting of precious nuclear missiles has created doubt in the one center in the world where no doubt should ever exist concerning the United States and its intentions: Western Europe, our oldest and generally most reliable allies.
General de Gaulle once spoke of America’s “itch to intervene.” History suggests he was right: take the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, and a train of lesser interventions since. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in a great power’s occasional intervention in the kind of world that has grown out of the two world wars and their catastrophic effects on old balances of power. There is nothing wrong provided the intervention is clearly in our national interest and on behalf of American security, provided also we have the means of intervening successfully. The last means, at a minimum, necessary armed forces, and with these a technology and a leadership able to cope with such threats.
Each of these conditions may seem at first thought so elementary, so obvious, as to make mention gratuitous. Why else, it may be pityingly asked, would the US intervene except where our national interest, our citizens’ lives and property abroad, have been clearly threatened? Secondly, can it be reasonably doubted that our military, given the infusion of around a trillion dollars during the years immediately following Reagan’s election in 1980, together with the near-trillion already appropriated for spending during the next three years, is at last among, even on top of, the world’s leading military powers? The answer to both questions is, unhappily, ambiguous at best. To the first the only possible answer based in fact is as negative as it is positive. Moralism, global democracy, our brothers’ keeper, and making holy whatever America touches—all these crop up too often in our ventures abroad. Sometimes moralism coexists with national interest, but the difference is nevertheless vast, and moralism often has an antithetical effect upon what is best for the US.
It is very much in the spirit of moralism that Congress makes diplomatic, economic, and psychological war on South Africa. We are unabashed by the fact that we were the last civilized nation to abolish slavery and held blacks afterward in a state of caste-segregation for a hundred years. We are undisturbed that by punishing South Africa, we punish a valuable ally, thus flouting our own national interest. This moralism is not even a general consensus; it is only, as is usually the case, the moralism of a minority—black leaders and students.
In Nicaragua, had Reagan presented solid evidence, the response would surely have been what it was when Soviet missiles were planted in Cuba. As it is most Americans are still dubious. In Reagan’s Nicaragua all one can say is that if there was, and continues to be, an analogous Soviet threat, the Great Communicator has failed abysmally—mixing cries of “wolf” with Epworth League lectures on the dangers of Marxist-Leninist principles taking root in our hemisphere.
We should take comfort. If there is no true Soviet threat to us concealed in Nicaragua, if there is simply Marxism-Leninism, we are indeed fortunate. Such states and peoples generally fall into desuetude with wonderful alacrity. The whole world by now knows of the grim contrast between Communist states and the Pacific Rim capitalisms of Asia.
Moralism in foreign or domestic policy usually generates an altogether inappropriate evangelical zeal. The language of eternal absolutes, of vivid millennialist symbols, is soon invoked. T.R. declared once: “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” I do not recall whether he was speaking about farm prices or the gold standard, but I believe it was only shortly after that the famous handbill was published in Chicago in which his opposition announced: “On Tuesday next at precisely 9:30 A.M. Theodore Roosevelt will walk on the waters of Lake Michigan.” Humor is the most effective weapon against armies of True Believers.
But most moralism in domestic and foreign politics does not contain the spirit of charisma and pentecost. It reflects, rather. President Kennedy’s celebrated promise “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the success and survival of liberty.” Arthur Schlesinger insists that only two months after saying this, Kennedy disavowed that orgiastic excess of moralism. Perhaps. But it was the Kennedy White House that created an American army of close to 20,000 in South Vietnam under the command of a four-star general, and that egregiously deposed Diem, thus making America inescapably our Vietnamese brothers’ keeper—for six years and at heavy cost.
The roots of American moralism, and also exceptionalism, are deep in our history. The American religion that Tocqueville and Bryce identified was and is, to the extent that it still exists, a compound of Christian millennialism on the one hand, and complacent geopolitics (two broad oceans and a plethora of natural resources) on the other. The image of America the Redeemer Nation was a vivid one throughout the 19th century. It was deservedly a proud image. Think of the immigrants who, after settling down in this country, wrote everything from lapidary letters to the old country to significant autobiographies about the transfiguration of their lives in the American Garden. In this century, millions of Eastern Europeans and Asians have justifiably seen their experience as a modern Exodus.
But however touching and noble, the moral and spiritual do not necessarily translate into good public policy and law, or good foreign and defense programs. When, after repeated incidents. President Wilson asked and got from Congress a declaration of war against Germany, the sound reason to give was that already in the minds of most congressmen: the killing of American citizens and violation of their property rights on the open seas. But Woodrow Wilson was unable to live with so pragmatic and commonsensical a reason. He was already disgusted with England and France for their crass view of the war with Germany: that is was a matter of mere survival. It was with special eloquence, then, that he announced the purpose of the war was to make the world safe for democracy—American-style, naturally.
Wilson failed, of course, paralyzed. Vast must have been the floods of self-righteousness that coursed through that crippled body, first in the White House, then in the house on S Street. His posthumous reward was canonization by a large number of Americans. Throughout the 20’s and 30’s, Wilson was sanctified by ever-widening numbers of people. Republican as well as Democrat. It was Wilsonianism that saved Franklin D. Roosevelt from defeat in 1940; Wilsonianism and, of course, the useful Second World War. Roosevelt was in the direct Wilson tradition when he waded in gradually, first affirming neutrality, then declaring for quarantine, then discovering in January 1941 that the real objective of the war—whether Churchill and others fighting it knew this or not—was the global establishment of the Four Freedoms, and then months later wrapping the whole war, including Stalin’s participation from June on, into the Atlantic Charter. It was not a very long step from the charter to the infamous Declaration on Liberated Europe composed at Yalta.
The moralistic urge in American foreign policy has remained strong throughout the four decades since Yalta. National interest and security were quite enough justification for Truman’s agreement to give protection to Greece and Turkey in 1947. But it was probably foreordained that even the man from Missouri would clothe the action in words of cosmic righteousness. Kennedy’s brief presidency was all moralism. There was the promise to go anywhere, bear any burden, the decision to rescue Cuba with a corporal’s guard, and the fatal immersion in South Vietnamese politics.
Ronald Reagan, political child of the Democrats Wilson and FDR, has carried the banner of righteousness regularly during his two terms, never hesitating to gloss a Lebanon, a Grenada, or a Persian Gulf with the hues of eschatology. His fondness for the two kingdoms or cities suggests descent too from Zarathustra. These traits did not, however, prevent the feckless utopianism of the Reykjavik summit, and the decision to deprive Western Europeans of their utterly vital missiles.
Especially within this century, the American republic’s moralism in foreign matters is linked if not anchored to moralism in domestic affairs. No Western country equals the US in the moralistic approach to human behavior: sex, liquor, gambling, reproduction, and now, life-threateningly, drugs, among others. Characteristically, we employ the verbiage of war in our domestic encounters with social problems. It’s forever war: against poverty, illiteracy, environmental pollution, drugs, abortion. We invoked the sovereign state in our war against alcohol 70 years ago, and under the unlamented Eighteenth Amendment we became first among heavy-drinking peoples. Alcohol does indeed present a problem, but nothing like the problem that was presented in the 1920’s by the noxious effluvia of Prohibition: gang wars and corruption threatening police and other civil departments, not to forget the coarsening of those at the bottom who, by the tens of millions, bought bootleg. Drugs are threatening a similar fate at the present time. Cocaine is without doubt a dangerous drug, as is alcohol; but it is unlikely that the substance is doing as much damage to America as are the social poisons which attend its distribution. Perhaps in a couple more decades we shall be able to look back on drug wars, drug terrorism, and the corruption of millions of Americans each year as we now look back on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago.
With domestic moralism we march forth with one hand on the Bible, the other on a legal subpoena, invoking the already despotic national state. With foreign policy moralism, it is one hand on the Bible, the other on an ordering-up of the Marines. The results have not been pretty. President Carter ushered out his administration with Desert One in Iran; a more appalling instance of unguided bumbling in war would be hard to think of But Reagan and his chiefs came close in Grenada, the follow-up report on which is still a tightly guarded secret in the Pentagon. It’s probably just as well. From the unclassified information that came out, the story is grim enough, ranging from the inability to get interservice radio communication all the way to a Navy hospital ship’s refusal to allow an Army helicopter filled with wounded to land on its helicopter deck. The Marines in Lebanon, sent there for the “presence” they could establish where Moslems and Christians intersected; a Navy destitute of minesweepers in the Persian Gulf and now with the Stark and the Vincennes on its naval conscience; each is a technological tribute to the immortal military acronym: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Awesome was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Crowley, in his bland insistence that there was no fault accruing to the Americans in the Vincennes disaster.
We boast about the $300 billion a year we put into national defense, and not improperly so. National defense is absolutely vital in this world. The dangerous Cold War of the past 40 years is by no means over. Whatever glasnost and perestroika may do for the problems of the civil bureaucracy, neither can or presumably will much affect the military bureaucracy. The real power in the Soviet Union since Stalin has been the military. That hasn’t changed significantly, if at all, under Gorbachev.
Our relationship with Communist Russia will remain tense, something calling for incessant vigil. But it is important to keep in mind that the Soviet Union is a militarized, totalitarian national state; it is not well seen as a Vatican in charge of the morals and faith of proletariats of the world. That may be what Trotsky, Bukharin, and others had in mind, but the Moscow Trials and ensuing execution of millions put an end to any possibility of that becoming real. Back in the 1950’s scores of groups in this country, all from the far right, argued that a seamless web connected the Kremlin with every manifestation of communism or socialism on the globe. The very real hostility between Yugoslavia and the Soviets, between Albania and the Soviets, should have prepared our minds for the split between Communist China and Communist Russia. The bitter hatred between the two empires goes back hundreds of years. But in many circles years were required before the reality of the deep chasm between China and Russia was accepted. There were even Americans who believed that Doctor Zhivago was a Kremlin plant arranged through agent Pasternak. The John Birch Society, or certainly its leader, Robert Welch, declared that Eisenhower was a willing front for the Communists, who were the actual governors of the United States. And so on.
We really can’t afford that kind of lunacy during the rest of this century and into the next. Had Congress and the White House been filled with Robert Welches in the 1950’s, the Soviet Union might have struck us with a corporal’s guard, for American military power would surely have been fully occupied in sniffing out Marxist satanism at home, in England, in Sweden, in Tierra del Fuego—everywhere except in the Kremlin. Postmedieval Europe fought many of its political and economic troubles by the expedient of discovering and hanging or burning witches. We can’t afford that kind of indulgence—which is in any event unconstitutional, thank heaven.
The Cold War is still very far from being a chimera. Stalin commenced that war at Teheran while the war with Germany was still in progress. We started to demobilize as completely as we had in 1919, but were saved from it by the very nakedness of Soviet gluttony in Europe. Only our exclusive possession of the atom bomb at that time prevented Stalin from ordering the Red Army into all Germany and France and the Low Countries. What else could have stopped him? We don’t have the luxury of exclusive possession any longer, and it is unrealistic to think that anything, whether a thousand-ship navy or SDI, is ever going to restore that monopoly to us. What remains to us is first a foreign policy that doesn’t go anywhere, pay any price, bear any burden, etc.; that doesn’t punish, even destroy, natural allies by allowing some of our minorities’ moral dudgeon over this or that unpleasantness in the ally to take over; and that contents itself with the constitutionally enjoined “common defense”—with unrelaxing attention to the Soviet Union, the only nation in the world at this hour that can conceivably present a threat to the US. Our second need, and it becomes more grievous all the time, is a military bureaucracy taken out of its gridlock. Desert One, Grenada, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Iran-contra, along with the shocking revelations about the Sergeant Yorks, the General Bradley troop carriers, the B-1 bomber, and the like, all attest to the fact that we are still crippled by a military seemingly resistant to mere outpourings of money. The warnings that Eisenhower voiced in his famous farewell are more pertinent today than they were then.