The Past Marches On

First published in Human Events, Vol. 10, No. 16, 22 April 1953.

If history is to be considered the process of consolidating the blunders of the past, the Eisenhower administration need disappoint no one. It is busy validating, one by one, the promises and myths that it inherited from Roosevelt and Truman. The campaign talk about "the mess in Washington" assumed that the mess had developed within the last year or two, and was confined to a little routine corruption here and there. But the mess has been in the making for more than half a century.

At the end of the 19th Century the United States began to stir with those promptings of imperialism and altruism which have worked to the mischief of so many puissant states. The sinister Spaniard provided a suitable punching bag. Two days before McKinley went to Congress with a highly misleading message which was an open invitation to war, the Spanish government had agreed to the demands for an armistice in Cuba and American mediation. There was no good reason for war, but there was war anyway. We wound up the war with a couple of costly dependencies, but this was enough to intoxicate the precursors of those who now swoon on the very sight of the phrase "world leadership."

McKinley testified that in lonely sessions on his knees at night he had been guided to the realization that we must "uplift and civilize and Christianize" the Filipinos. He asserted that the war had brought new duties and responsibilities "which we must meet and discharge as becomes a great nation on whose growth and career from the beginning the Ruler of Nations has plainly written the high command and pledge of civilization." This sort of exalted nonsense is familiar to anyone who later attended the evangelical rationalizations of Wilson for intervening in the European war, of Roosevelt promising the millennium, with the four freedoms thrown in for the dog, of Eisenhower treasuring the "crusade in Europe" that somehow went sour, or of Truman, Stevenson, Paul Douglas, or the New York Times preaching the holy war in Korea.

It has been considered clever in recent times to deride certain Republicans for wishing to retreat to the days of McKinley. But the plain fact is that the country has never left the road onto which he wobbled. War, which in 1898 had been a summer's holiday, became a recurrent affliction, until today the country is in the state of a patient who, after three severe coronaries, looks forward with hope to the one which will do him in.

Wilson had some moments of lucidity which persuaded him "that the objects which the statesmen on both sides have in mind in this war (No. 1) are virtually the same." Later, he accommodated his Calvinistic morals to a more congenial view: on April 2, 1917, he sensed "the pride of those who know the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and might…" Since then this privilege has become chronic.

Of course, this war was to proceed according to a magic formula whereby it could become the last war in history. This has become the ignis fatuus that has beckoned American internationalists into every war since. The idea was expounded by Wilson in these terms:

"I am proposing that all nations henceforth avoid entangling alliances which would draw them into competitions of power, catch them in a net of intrigue and selfish rivalry, and disturb their own affairs with influences intruded from without. There is no entangling alliance in a concert of power. When all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose all act in the common interest and are free to live their lives under a common protection."

In short, international organization for collective security was the answer. Wilson tried it out on the Senate in 1919 with results which have been variously portrayed. Sen. Lodge, who had been willing enough for war, observed,

"We may set aside all this empty talk about isolation. Nobody expects to isolate the United States or make it a hermit nation. But there is a wide difference between taking a suitable part and bearing a due responsibility in world affairs and plunging the United States into every controversy and conflict on the face of the globe."

Despite the Senate's rebuff to this automatic device for insuring American participation in every war, the dream of a security that should be "collective" was treasured in numerous breasts. Henry L. Stimson, always a firebrand, tried to persuade President Hoover in 1931 that Japan's behavior in Manchuria warranted a resort to economic sanctions and close collaboration, if possible, with other nations, involving a willingness to accept the predictable consequence of war if sanctions failed. But Mr. Hoover would not agree; so Mr. Stimson hurried off to solicit the incoming President of an opposition party, F.D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt and Hull were ahead of the League of Nations in imposing economic sanctions on Italy in 1935, and, after the conquest of Ethiopia, they stubbornly clung to the Stimson prescription of non-recognition. In 1937 Roosevelt expressed his desire to "quarantine" aggressors, but, as Sumner Welles sadly recounts, it proved "wholly impossible for him for a period of exactly four years to carry out the policy that he himself believed to be vitally important to our security." That is, Roosevelt was not liberated from the restraints of public opinion until he had succeeded, by what Mr. Justice Frankfurter has chosen to call a "series of complicated moves," in maneuvering us into Pearl Harbor.

These complicated moves were, indeed, so devious that it took a Congressional committee many months to listen to 10 million words of testimony that hardly outlined what had occurred. In all the welter of words two statements possess especial significance. One was Roosevelt's confidence to Prime Minister Churchill not quite four months before Pearl Harbor: "I may never declare war; I may make war. If I were to ask Congress to declare war, they might argue about it for three months." The other was the statement of Stimson, situated opportunely in 1941 as Secretary of War: "The question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into firing the first shot without too much danger to ourselves."

If the American people fail to comprehend this sequence of events, the explanation may lie in Woodrow Wilson's account of how the German people were taken into war in 1914. "Such designs," said he, "can be successfully worked out only under cover where nobody has a right to ask such questions."

Mr. Wilson maintained that such cabals are happily impossible where public opinion commands full information concerning all the nation's affairs. But where is the illumination when a restricted group of military men and civilian officials so concert their plans and actions that one may see, as did Lincoln, the "framed timbers" without knowing precisely what goes on beyond the walls? And what of the vast apathy of an uninformed multitude content to substitute a 21-inch screen for the intellect?

Add to these the operations of an organized propaganda capable, apparently, of doping Americans into belief in any myth, and there is formidable reason why public opinion should be so stupefied and stultified that the nation can be led from war to war in pursuit of ever retreating goals. Yet, despite the general numbness, Americans, surveying the results of half a century of intermeddling, dimly perceive that all is not well.

It is certain that even Republicans in office can see certain effects of recent policy. They can discern that Roosevelt's representations of the mechanics of power were spurious, in that he lit on the wrong adversary. They can see that his prospectus of the fruits to be gathered from war was wholly fraudulent. They can smell something fishy about the means employed to put the United States into war at Pearl Harbor. They can sense the corroded morals of Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam.

They can see that such latter day saints as Gen. Marshall, Bedell Smith, and Eisenhower himself are but plaster effigies. They have a hunch that the UN is a papier-mâché front. They can hardly escape the knowledge that Truman promoted the Korean horror in contravention of the Constitution and the public law. They can savor the irony of having fought a world war to destroy the partners in the anti-Comintern pact only that the United States might assume leadership in a new anti-Comintern pact.

This sense of frustration was notably keen as a Republican administration moved in the last few months to verify and confirm the New Deal legacy of idiocy. There was a smothered protest when Gen. Smith was appointed Undersecretary of State, for he was a key man in the calculated triple fumble in the War Department backfield on the eve of Pearl Harbor which made possible the success of the Japanese "surprise." There was an instinctive revulsion even among Republican Senators, who seemingly can absorb any amount of punishment, when the new President forwarded for approval the draft of a resolution which, in effect, proclaimed the wisdom and nobility of the secret diplomacy of Roosevelt and Truman.

The outcry was shrill in the wrangle over confirmation of Charles E. Bohlen, counselor of the Acheson State Department, as Eisenhower's Ambassador to Russia. This man was a symbol of the diplomacy that produced the world mess. A participant in every conference from Tehran through Potsdam, he contemptuously informed Republican senators that it was idle to expect him to direct a word of criticism toward Roosevelt.

Whether the United States is, in fact, a captive of the errors and betrayals of the past may be doubted. But it is hardly in dispute that an all-pervasive propaganda has established a myth of inevitability in American action: All wars are necessary, all wars were good. The burden of proof rests with those who contend that America is better off, that American security has been enhanced, and that prospects of world peace have been improved by American intervention in four wars in half a century. Intervention began with deceit by McKinley; it ends with deceit by Roosevelt and Truman.

Perhaps we would have a rational foreign policy, serviceable to the United States, if Americans could be brought to realize that the first necessity is the renunciation of the lie as an instrument of national policy. Those who say that it is an idle exercise to sift the ashes of past events are all too frequently fearful of the truths that would be screened out in the sifting. The most disheartening fact about the new administration is its disinclination to poke among the clinkers.

April 7, 2006

George Morgenstern, author of Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War, was the chief editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.