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“We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862

The events of the past are constantly shaping the future course of human events. Because of this, there are few instances in the past century where the course of world history could actually be shifted in a major way. As I said earlier, I believe that there have only been three of them in the past sixty some odd years: The period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War (1945-1950), the 1980’s and the end of the Cold War and the period from September 11, 2001 to today.

Even though I believe that the current period can be viewed as a historical turning point, I also think that the window on this period is rapidly closing. Once that window is closed, it is likely that we will be once again gripped tightly by history. Our future choices will be constrained by the choices made in the next few months. Consequently, I think it is important to examine the events which occurred after World War II to see if we can learn anything from that time.

The choices made at the beginning of the Cold War were the starting point from which future political, military and economic actions were taken. It is at the very beginning of a new historical period that the most important choices are made. In a democratic society like the United States, it is where political alliances are formulated and the parties choose on what ground the debate will be held. Those initial choices impose contraints upon all future actions. Once those choices are made, dramatic movement becomes very difficult. I believe that this decade, the first decade of the 21st century, is one of those starting points. Therefore, I think its important to look at the last such starting point, during the start of the Cold War. I think that the lessons learned there are useful to us today.

The Cold War took shape between 1946 and 1950 as a result of the conflicting ideologies and security interests of the United States and the Soviet Union. These nations had emerged from World War II as the new leaders of the world and the choices their leaders, Truman, Acheson and Stalin, among others, made in the four or so years after WWII would inexorably gave direction to the next forty. With their newfound power (and make no mistake, in 1946 both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were newbs at wielding worldwide power) they were determined to make sure that the war and economic devastation which had recently affected both of them would not happen again.

For the Soviet Union the threat was external. Germany’s invasion during World War II was just the latest example of Western aggression against Russia. Stalin was determined to make his borders secure.

The United States policy goals in the immediate post-WWII period revolved around two suns: economic prosperity at home and the desire to build a peaceful democratic world based on the US model. The American people were freshly scarred. First by the Great Depression and then war. Emerging from World War II at “the pinnacle of world power” (Churchill), the United States was determined to make sure that foreign aggression would not interfere with the country’s economic security.

Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin mostly put aside conflict between the West and the Soviet Union during the war. As Churchill put it: “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find occasion to make a favorable reference to the Devil.” As a result of this inability and unwillingness to deal with issues at Yalta however, when President Roosevelt died in 1945 the best hope for compromise would die with him.

Harry Truman was initially inclined to continue Roosevelt’s policies. In 1945, conflict was not inevitable. The political situation was still favorable enough for Henry Stimson to suggest sharing nuclear power with the Soviets. He believed that “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 your distrust.” As the year passed and the United States exploded its first atomic bomb,Truman’s position began to harden. By the end of 1945 neither side was willing to give in to the other. The uneasy alliances of war had given way to distrust on both sides.

On February 22, 1946, George Kennan sent his Long Telegram. Eleven days later Churchill proclaimed that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Soviet ambassador Nikolai Novikov opined that “the foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the postwar period by a striving for world supremacy.”

The Cold War deepened in 1947 when President Truman applied Kennan’s containment policy, via the Truman Doctrine, to Greece, Turkey and the rest of Europe. In 1948 the Marshall Plan passed through Congress and the United States became more and more entrenched in its fight against communism. Through all of this time, however, the existence of the Cold War was frail. Compromise, albeit unlikely, was possible, and these two formidable nations may still have found a way to coexist peacefully.

When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in the fall of 1949, leaving mainland China under the control of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Cold War began in earnest. The loss of China to communism confirmed for Americans the existence of a monolithic communist threat bent on dominating the world. In April 1950, the National Security Council presented NSC-68 to President Truman, urging huge increases in defense spending in order to counter the Soviet Union’s quest for world domination. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 20, 1950, the positions presented in NSC-68 became doctrine.

It had taken five years but by June 1950, there was no turning back. The Cold War was on and future political debate had to take place with the constraints imposed by the war.

From the time that the United States “lost” China in 1949 until the end of the Cold War in 1989 the United States’ foreign-policy took on a repetitive, almost tragicomic quality. Decisions made during the Truman administration were the starting point for the decisions made during the rest of the century. After Europe, containment doctrine was applied to Asia, then to the Middle East, and finally to Latin America. Anti-communism and containment became the immediate response to any nationalist revolution. The U.S defended the western world from the Evil Empire. The Soviet Union defended itself from the threat of annihilation by the West.

I won’t attempt to make artificial comparisons between the events that have occurred over the last seven years to specific events that led to the Cold War. It is important to recognize however that the last few years have provided us with a number of events, actions and foreign policy approaches which, together, are shaping the direction which we are headed. These things will constrain our freedom to make choices in the future. What things? The War on Terrorism. The Bush Doctrine. The Patriot Act. FISA and telecom immunity. Immigration reform. The role of NATO and the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy.

I’ll use the next article in this survey to examine some of the merits of these doctrines and policies. Whether I think that they should be continued or rolled back. I think it is important however to take time to discuss separately how these policies, in conjunction with each other, are constricting the choices we will have in the future.

These policies are not yet fully implemented. They have not had a chance to firmly entrench themselves in the same way that “anti-communism” had by the early 1950’s. We, as a society, still have time to chart a different direction, should we deem it desirable or necessary.

It seems to me however that this coming election is the last best chance to change tack. Clearly, the positions espoused by the two likely candidates, McCain and Obama, stand in stark contrast to each other. McCain is likely to continue to pursue, in some form or another, many of the policies enumerated above. Obama professes a belief in charting a new, less contentious foreign policy. (FWIW, I believe that Clinton, for all her protestations to the contrary during the Democratic Primaries, has more McCain in her than Obama).

Choice can be a wonderful thing. It may be a while before we have this much choice again. What will we do with it?

Articles In This Series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Wrong Reasons to Support the Iraq Invasion
Part 3: Invading Iraq Was the Correct Choice
Part 4: America Must Remain Motivated to Engage the World
Part 5: The United States Has the Means to Lead the World
Part 6: The 2008 Election is a Historical Inflection Point: Will the U.S. Change Direction?