READERS FAMILIAR with Robert Dallek's meticulous Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945 may be surprised by his new book, an interpretative re-examination of U.S. foreign policy from the turn of the century through the Nixon presidency. It is a selective, but not always conclusive, search for evidence bearing out his proposition that foreign policy has for the most part reflected domestic anxieties and preoccupations.
Thus, he argues, the pro-Cuban sentiment that pushed McKinley into war with Spain grew out of inarticulated feelings and tensions of Americans who, consciously or not, sought a psychological release from an "oppressive lifestyle" brought on by the conformity required by industrialization.
Theodore Roosevelt embodied the contradictory impulses of the Progressive Era: aggressive nationalism, moralism, realism, promotion of peace and progress, use of force in support of national interest. Although he does not call him a hypocrite, Dallek portrays TR as a manipulator who succeeded because Americans, frustrated by seemingly-insoluble domestic problems, could take solace in Roosevelt's apparent mastery of world affairs.
Later, under Wilson, says Dallek, American foreign policy continued to demand "international conformity to domestic goals" which seemed to be slipping out of reach at home. Progressives looked for foreign places "to do psychic battle with their domestic foes." Although most Americans wanted to stay out of World War I in order to promote an early peace and harmony at home and abroad, when it later seemed necessary to fight, the country did so for abstract goals --universal freedom and justice--reflecting concern over domestic problems.
During the '20s, the nation turned, in Dallek's view, from idealism to concern over special interests. Cynical economic nationalism and political isolation were the order of the day. Fear of radical ideas resulting from mass immigration from Europe grew, the Ku Klux Klan prospered, anarchists were tried and executed. Yet, at the same time, a small group of passionate advocates of peace succeeded at times in engaging widespread support. Dallek attributes their success to a widespread hope that social ills in the United States could be healed by the panacea of disarmament.
Franklin D. Roosevelt learned early in his presidency the power of the nativist and isolationist forces lurking not far under the surface of American politics. After some initial steps toward internationalism, including recognition of the Soviet Union, Roosevelt proposed that the United States join the World Court. But the measure was soundly defeated in the Senate, and the revival of isolationism which resulted dogged FDR's foreign policy for years.
After World War II began in 1939, polls showed that Americans wished to avoid involvement even though the overwhelming majority wanted to see Hitler defeated. Roosevelt worked patiently to overcome this dichotomy in American thinking, but it took the shock of Pearl Harbor to break the isolationist hold and open the way to "another crusade in which Americans once more made world affairs an extension of domestic beliefs."
The binge of internationalism which was thus unleashed, like the earlier Wilsonian version, flowed more from feelings about internal conditions than from realism about the world, according to Dallek. Americans believed that the universal harmony they sought would come only when virtually the entire world--friends and foes alike--embraced the tenets of American life.
With the advent of the Cold War came greater realism in American thinking. Nevertheless tension and conflict between "the old individualism and the new organized machine culture" still affected American foreign policy. During the Truman period, a growing anti-Soviet mood competed with yearnings for joint efforts to keep the peace. But unsophisticated Americans became convinced that the Soviet Union was out to take over the world. Inflation, strikes, shortages and charges of communist infiltration and subversion reawakened old anxieties. Drum beating on behalf of the Truman Doctrine for aid to Greece and Turkey was partly intended to frighten the public but was also partly an expression of the existing mood. Walter Lippmann warned it was a "tocsin of an ideological crusade" which might run out of control.
If Eisenhower brought the "quieter time" Americans yearned for, the period also saw a deepening conflict in American life between inner-direction and other-direction, individualism and group identity. While Americans "seethed wih tension and anxiety" over this conflict, the culture of conformity eventually won out, leaving Americans a single view of both domestic life and the outside world: "a contest between darkness and light, oppression and freedom, evil and good, in which one side or the other must eventually win."
Dallek has difficulty explaining the contradictions in Kennedy's approach to foreign affairs, and cites John L. Gaddis' view that JFK was most afraid of "the threat of embarrassment, of humiliation, of appearing to be weak." But the deeper reason for his overreaction to Soviet provocations was Kennedy's pursuit of "togetherness" in the United States. Kennedy's successful handling of the missile crisis solved the problem, however, and the fears which "served to abet the change in national values from individualism to other direction" shifted from the Soviets to China and Southwest Asia. JFK then saw China as "the great menace . . . to humanity, the free world, and freedom on earth." Kennedy's lack of realism stemmed partly from internal concerns; although he paid homage to individualism, his actions encouraged conformity.
Johnson combined in himself powerful impulses toward both individualism and conformity, but in a world which valued conformity he rationalized accommodation. Dallek's discussion of the interplay among Johnson, Goldwater and the American psyche is provocative but too complex to relate here. His explanation of LBJ's miscalculation on Vietnam? False assumptions about communist intentions, excess moralism, memories of McCarthyism, and--in accordance with the author's thesis--his "compelling concern that a pullback from the Cold War might open the way to a destabilizing shift from large-scale organization and uniformity to romantic individualism or renewed inner direction" in the United States.
Nixon's election in 1968 is described as the nation's concession of defeat, an admission that nothing was left but a return to the old individualism. The discussion of the Nixon presidency is not well focused, perhaps because it is still too recent. Dallek can't resist a long discussion of Vietnam, even though it seems but vaguely linked to his basic thesis. Chile's Allende gets almost as much space as the historic opening to China--perhaps because the new China policy and d,etente with the Soviet Union were merely "as much a reaffirmation of old American habits as a sincere attempt to create a new structure of peace." The ground-breaking SALT agreements are mentioned only as an example of misuse of the bureaucracy. And Dallek ignores Congress' untying of the d,etente package with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment--a piece of legislation teeming with foreign-domestic implications. Watergate is dismissed as not having much significance for the collapse of Nixon's foreign policies.
However, critical one may be of Dallek, he deserves major credit for consciously stepping off into uncharted territory, offering his own controversial interpretations of domestic sources of American foreign policy in order to stimulate discussion and further investigation. Perhaps there are explanations closer to the bone, and more easily demonstrable, than the hazy insights into the American psyche presently available. Does the mood of the masses invariably translate into concrete policy? Dallek's examples suggest not. What role, then, is played by the personality and psychological makeup of key leaders? As a democracy, are we doomed to ineffective foreign policies arrived at as compromises between ignorant, prejudiced voters and weak politicians? Is our only hope a new Theodore Roosevelt, who will jump astride our confused nation and ride off to a glorious tomorrow? Or would he be more likely to lead us to nuclear oblivion? Is the widespread concern about nuclear war the beginning of democratic wisdom or a passing phenomenon?
Whatever the answers to these questions, it should now be clear that we cannot afford to operate in the second half of this century as we did in the first half. Studies like Dallek's should help us face up to our own shortcomings.