World War I began between the major European powers over the spark lit by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke by a Serbian in Sarajevo. However, the real issue for the side the U.S. eventually took was the growing power of recently unified Germany in the continental heartland, thus threatening the balance of power crafted a century earlier and the positions of Britain, France and Russia. German economists and politicians spoke openly of a self-contained central European empire controlled by Germany and this brought the issue of the Open Door in Europe into question for the U.S. Wilson issued an executive decree emphasizing American neutrality, but this had no legal standing. In time Congress did rule that certain commodities were contraband and could not be sold to either warring side, yet most American bankers and industrialists preferred to trade with both sides, wherever there were profits to be made.
The British Navy soon settled that issue. Still dominating the seas the Royal Navy blockaded German ports and effectively halted American trade with the Triple Alliance. Unable to reciprocate in kind the Germans began to employ the new sea weapon, the submarine, sinking British merchant ships carrying American goods. This, in turn, did not sit well with American insurance underwriters. Meanwhile, American banks were extending significant credit and loans to the British and French to cover the cost of their American imports, and the U.S. government was loaning money to the British Exchequer. American shippers were also violating the neutrality policy by secretly loading contraband, like weapons and ammunition, aboard ships bound for Britain.
Since American trade with Germany and its allies had all but vanished as a result of the British blockade the U.S. very quickly began to build up a vested interest in the outcome of the war. Should Britain and France lose, the peace terms imposed on them by Germany would undoubtedly render them unable to repay loans and credits, and German victory might mean the closure of many European markets too. Though Wilson was running for re-election on his record of neutrality, enormous political and economic pressure was placed on him to side with the Triple Entente, despite the fact that the majority of Americans favored neutrality.
In 1915 the Germans learned that the British passenger liner, the Lusitania, was also loading banned ammunition in its hold. The German government informed Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, and also took out large advertisements in New York daily newspapers, warning the passengers that the presence of weapons aboard the ship made it a legitimate enemy target. Bryan attempted to intervene but was rebuked (later to resign) and passengers were told that the Germans would never dare to sink the ship. The Lusitania was sunk with the loss of 128 American lives, and another thousand or so British passengers. War hawks in Congress, on Wall Street and in the press immediately raised the slogan “freedom of the seas” and insisted on war with Germany, gleeful that a pretext for war had arrived. Germany however backed off and promised to cease attacks on merchant vessels departing the U.S.. But at about the same time the Zimmerman Note was revealed in which Germany, fearing U.S. entry, secretly told Mexico that in exchange for a declaration of war, Germany would aid that nation to regain the American southwest, lost almost 70 years earlier in the Mexican War. These twin outrages stoked the furnace of war for the hawks: all that was needed was more flame. Wilson could have intervened against the departure of the Lusitania, after all, he knew of the ongoing and extensive trade in contraband. He could easily have dismissed the Zimmerman Note as desperate nonsense: Germany was in no position to give military aid to Mexico in North America. Despite his proclaimed neutrality Wilson did nothing to stop the drift toward war demanded by forces behind the scenes.
In the spring of 1917, with the German public suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and German forces suffering battlefield setbacks, Germany resumed submarine attacks against ships carrying goods to Britain. When two American vessels were sunk, Wilson asked for and received a Congressional declaration of war. He had only recently been re-elected on the slogan, "He kept us out of war" and yet events throughout his presidency, of which he had been well aware, had been impelling him toward just that outcome.
American entry, coupled with increasing German inability to equip troops and feed its domestic population, tipped the balance of the war. Germany was forced to ask for an armistice, in which it hoped at least to gain some of its war aims. However, despite Wilson’s attempt to achieve his “peace without victory,” the British and French, taking advantage of internal domestic turmoil in Germany, imposed draconian peace terms, thereby setting up the preconditions for another round of war in the future.
Despite Wilson’s failure to win Senate approval of the Versailles peace terms, and to enter the League of Nations, the U.S. was catapulted by the war to the very forefront of power. Its economy had grown exponentially as a result of war production, and New York had effectively replaced London as the finance capital of the world. The U.S. stood as virtually the only creditor nation. Having waged a war “to make the world safe for democracy” Americans quickly saw that very little in the way of such democracy had developed overseas, and it was mortally wounded at home.
Many groups had been outraged over Wilson's betrayal of neutrality. His government's response was to enact Sedition and Espionage Acts designed to silence the opposition, going so far as to jail many of those who took the First Amendment at face value. Even Eugene Debs, one of the most prominent politicians in the nation, who had been one of Wilson's opponents in the election of 1912, was imprisoned for his compelling stand against the war. Though the Supreme Court upheld these acts, it later declared them unconstitutional but not before severe damage had been done to the Bill of Rights, and the power of the executive had been enhanced beyond the original Constitution. Even after the war was won, Wilson's Department of Justice continued its war against pacifists, socialists and trade unionists in its infamous "Red Scare," which, for the first time in the nation's history created a secret police force, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though most Americans see the FBI as primarily fighter against organized crime, its initial mandate was to intimidate political opposition to the dominant parties.
In Europe, Russia, formerly an ally of Britain and France, had withdrawn from the war in a state of collapse, to then succumb to the Bolshevik Revolution. In response Washington sent troops, with others, to strangle the communist baby in its cradle, an armed intervention in Russia all but forgotten here but one which had the effect of tightening the grip of totalitarianism in that country. Faced with constant aggression from outsiders, the Soviet state quickly devolved into a brutal struggle for power internally, a clash won by the most ruthless of the Bolsheviks, Stalin.
Germany’s economy collapsed, and civil war broke out between communists and right-wing veterans of the war. Though the communists were routed, and many murdered, resulting weakness ensured that Germany would have to accept the humiliating diktat of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Later, vengeful war veterans would form the nucleus of the Nazi Party and they would hold the communists, the Jews and the victorious British and French responsible, thereby setting up what would become World War II and the Holocaust.
In Asia the hopes of tiny Vietnam were dashed when the plank of self-determination in Wilson’s Fourteen Points was declared to apply only to the small nations of Europe and not to the European colonies. Japan, too, rankled at the treatment it received. An ally of Britain against Germany, Japan was not allowed possession of Germany’s Pacific colonies, while Britain and the U.S. attempted to impose second-class military status on the nation in hope to avert Japanese expansion into mainland Asia. Both approaches eventually resulted in the opposite of what was intended.
IV. World War II and the Early Cold War
American involvement in World War II, for the most part, has not received the same kind of critical treatment as many other wars in our history for the essential reason that it is portrayed as the “Good War” because the savagery of Nazism and Japanese militarism were defeated. Those critics who have surfaced, some, who previous to their critical analyses, were highly respected pillars of the academic establishment, have been universally derided as crackpots, conspiracy cranks, or apologists for Axis aggression, or even anti-Semitic. The record shows that the Roosevelt Administration did very little to save European Jews from Hitler’s Holocaust. When the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 the “Final Solution” was not yet known in Washington, and despite later entreaties by American Jewish leaders, FDR refused either to ransom Jews from Nazi occupied Europe, or to bomb the death camps.1 The American public was disturbed by Japanese atrocities in China but not to the extent that citizens believed that direct intervention was warranted.
Until the attack at Pearl Harbor the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens opposed entry into the war. Moreover, neither Germany nor Japan had the remotest chance to invade, much less occupy, the U.S. In May 1941 Adolf Berle, Assistant Secretary of State declared that “a naval invasion of the Western Hemisphere is out of the question.” The military correspondent at the New York Times, Hanson Baldwin, wrote that “No air power now assembled is capable of bringing that kind of power against the United States.” 2No long range bomber existed that could reach the U.S. across either the Pacific or Atlantic, and neither Germany nor Japan had aircraft carriers that could get within range of the American mainland. While some analysts worried that a Germany in control of the territory and resources of the European heartland might at some future point be a military threat, no such rationale surfaced by FDR to justify war during the lead-up to it. The U.S. continental territory was under no direct military threat from either of the two most powerful Axis nations. War resulted from causes that had far more to do with economic security as defined by financial elites, including FDR, a former Wall Street attorney.
In 1931-1932 Japan invaded and annexed Manchuria, and for the remainder of the decade progressively took over coastal China, and in 1940 invaded Indochina. Japan’s announced goal was a “Monroe Doctrine for Asia,”3 but this came directly into conflict with the Open Door policy of the U.S., a goal that since its articulation in 1899 has been at the heart of American foreign policy the world over. Whether it is called the Open Door or globalization, access to resources around the globe, and penetration of global markets on American terms is the fundamental goal of American foreign policy.
The Open Door originally envisioned untrammeled access to the resources, labor and markets of East Asia. But in 1933 Japan closed the door to American trade in Manchuria. In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt told an informant that “the American people would not go to war to preserve the integrity of China” but the U.S. would go to war to maintain “their right to trade with China."4 In November 1938 Tokyo announced its intention to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity sphere and would close all markets throughout this empire, thereby attempting to dominate the same sort of economic sphere that the U.S. enjoyed throughout the Western Hemisphere.
If these setbacks for U.S. policy were not bad enough, worse things were transpiring in Europe. As one response to the Great Depression, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt hoped to open new markets for American exports and renew older ones. But because of an unfavorable trade balance with the U.S. Germany adopted bilateral barter agreements with its other trading partners. By the mid-1930s such agreements with Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay had, said Secretary of State Cordell Hull, "artificially displaced our Latin American trade."5 In 1940, continental markets were effectively closed when Hitler overran Central and Western Europe and declared "America for the Americans. Europe for the Europeans."
Hitler's potential control over much of the European continent was deeply troubling to American financiers and industrialists, though Wall Street itself had provided the plans and capital for Germany’s renascence after World War I, and even contributed to Hitler’s election campaign, when the hope was that Germany would be the anchor for a European general market closely tied to the American economy. German industrialists and financiers had been closely allied with their counterparts in America but Hitler’s move toward continental autarky spelled trouble for the U.S.’s emergence from the Great Depression.6 Germany’s plan to dominate the European heartland, however, did not pose any military threat even in the relative long-term. This was demonstrated by early 1941 during the Battle of Britain when Hitler signally failed to cross the English Channel, and then made the fatal error of invading the Soviet Union. As the Magazine of Wall Street put the matter: "If Hitler cannot cross the English Channel, how can he cross the Atlantic Ocean?"7 This view was shared by most military observers.
But for the nation's financial elite the real threat lay elsewhere. Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau said: "The Germans will form a sort of overall trading corporation and what are we to do about our cotton and wheat?" Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long stated that, "If Germany wins this war and subordinates Europe every commercial order will be routed to Berlin and filled under its orders somewhere in Europe rather than in the United States."8 A major lord of Wall Street, Bernard Baruch, spoke for many:
Germany does not have to conquer us in a military sense. By enslaving her own labor and that of the conquered countries, she can place in the markets of the world products at a price with which we could not compete. This will destroy our standards of living and shake to its depths our moral and physical fiber, already strained to the breaking point.9
Baruch's point was affirmed also by Thomas Lamont of the First National City Bank of New York:
Under a Hitler victory we should find ourselves in the midst of a country-wide depression so deep and so profound as to make the worst of the last ten years look like a happy and bountiful time.10
In flagrant violation of the Neutrality laws passed by Congress FDR secretly ordered the American Navy to begin actively assisting British warships in their military actions against German submarines. At first such activities were confined to helping British ships locate the submarines, but before long the U.S. vessels were firing on the German ships too. The result was that a number of U.S. Navy vessels engaged in open combat in the North Atlantic with Germany, leading to the loss of American life. Roosevelt called the subs the "rattlesnakes of the sea" and attempted to persuade the public that Germany had attacked first. However, he was undermined by his own Navy Secretary who told the New York Times the truth.11 Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, wrote to a subordinate:” The Navy is already in the war in the Atlantic, but the country doesn’t seem to realize it...Whether the country knows it or not, we are at war.”12
FDR's actions were clearly intended to provoke Germany into retaliation that would then cause a hostile reaction in American public opinion. While they failed to impel the U.S. into war, the forays persuaded Hitler that FDR fully intended to find a way into war with Germany, just as the U.S. had in World War I. This consideration was central to the Axis pact that tied Germany, Japan and Italy in a defensive alliance designed to deter a U.S. strike against any one of these nations. Undoubtedly, Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. only a few days after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, coupled with his erroneous belief that the Japanese had inflicted a mortal blow to the American fleet, was designed to force the U.S. to fight on two fronts, and thus be weakened considerably.
While the president's and the nation's financiers' attention was fixed upon European affairs since Europe's markets combined were the largest source of America's export dollars, Asia remained of vital concern. As Japan continued its conquests along the East Asian littoral Fortune magazine editorialized:
With a population of more than 400 million China is the biggest single potential market in the world. A strong China, able and willing to protect the principle of the open market in the Far East, would be worth billions of dollars to the United States.13
Most such arguments were made behind the closed, mahogany paneled doors of Washington or Wall Street. The most public argument for American intervention throughout the troubled world, and perhaps the most influential in business circles, was made in the nation’s most popular magazine by Henry R. Luce.
And the cure [for failure in U.S. foreign policy] is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit ...(emphasis added)
Our thinking of world trade today is on ridiculously small terms. For example, we think of Asia as being worth only a few hundred millions a year to us. Actually, in the decades to come Asia will be worth to us exactly zero-or else it will be worth to us four, five, ten billions of dollars a year. And the latter are the terms we must think in, or else confess a pitiful impotence14.
Japan’s attack on the American bases in Hawaii has become the legendary paradigm of the “American way of war” which holds that the U.S. departs from the path of peace only when the misdeeds of others leave no alternative. Yet the historical record clearly indicates that the Roosevelt administration followed policies that effectively left Japan with two choices, what Yale political scientist Bruce Russet, called Japan’s “Hobson’s choice.”15 The island nation could accept permanent subordinate status to the western powers in the international arena or go to war with what Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, architect of the strike at Pearl Harbor, called the “sleeping giant.” FDR's repeated circumventions of the Neutrality Act clearly favored the British again, as in World War I. When the president froze Japanese assets in the U.S., embargoed vital oil and steel exports, and then in August 1941, and again even more harshly just ten days before Pearl Harbor, issued an ultimatum to Japan to withdraw its troops from China and Indochina,16 Japan's government concluded the U.S. left it a choice either to accede, and then suffer the certainty of a military coup, or go to war to protect the gains made over the previous decade. No serious politician could entertain doubt about the choice Japan would make.
In 1939 Admiral James O. Richardson, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, was ordered by FDR to move the fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. Simultaneously, American air and sea forces were beefed up in the Philippines, within striking distance of Japanese bases in Formosa (present day Taiwan). Both Richardson, and other navy and army officials, immediately warned that these actions would be seen as a grave provocation by the Japanese to which they might respond preemptively. In his book, published after the war, Richardson detailed the conversation he had with FDR. To the Admiral's warning about the threat of war FDR responded, "Sooner or later the Japanese would commit an overt act against the United States and the nation would be willing to enter the war."17 Because of his frank opposition to his commander-in-chief's policies Richardson was replaced by Admiral Husband Kimmell. But the admiral was not alone in his assessment of the president. FDR’s own secretary of war, Henry Stimson, confided to his diary that “the President shows evidence of waiting for the accidental shot of some irresponsible captain on either side to be the occasion of his going to war.”18
Japan did indeed take the measures employed against it as an indication that the U.S. fully intended to find a way to thwart its growing empire. When ordered to develop plans to attack the American base at Pearl Harbor Admiral Yamamoto told his superiors that Japan could not hope to win such a war; the best outcome, and that was a long shot, would be if Japan could succeed in destroying the American fleet and thus buy time to build Pacific defenses and negotiate a settlement with the U.S.19
When the U.S. Navy began to draw up its “War Plan Orange,” after Japan’s stunning defeats of China in 1895 and of Russia in 1905, it was clear to both sides that the newly acquired U.S. base at Pearl Harbor would be the key to the outcome. Therefore, American commanders had always known that Pearl Harbor could be, and probably would be, the target of a surprise attack.20 The Japanese had initiated war with Russia in just such a manner. Admiral Richardson had warned that “The Navy had been expecting and planning for a Japanese surprise attack for many years.”21 In January 1941 Richardson’s superior, Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, declared: “If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or at the naval base at Pearl Harbor.”22 So at least twice during the 1930’s the base’s defenses were tested in mock air raids conducted by U.S. warplanes. Nevertheless, adequate defenses against a real attack were never prepared. After returning from his inspection of facilities at Pearl Harbor in 1939, General "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Force said the defenses were inadequate, "the target presented was an airman's dream-a concentration difficult to miss."23
We now know that the code-decrypting system known as "MAGIC" was providing substantial information on Japanese plans and decisions.24 In 1941 only the Japanese diplomatic code had been broken but that provided plenty of vital information. On November 15, 1941, after swearing them to secrecy, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall informed a key group of Washington newsmen that “ We are preparing a defensive war against Japan, whereas the Japs believe we are preparing only to defend the Philippines...We know what they know about us and they don’t know we know it.”25 According to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, FDR told his top advisers on November 25 “that we were likely to be attacked perhaps as soon as next Monday (December 1) and the question raised was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without too much danger to ourselves.”26
Washington also knew that Japan would not accept the ultimatum to withdraw its troops from East Asia issued by Secretary Hull on FDR’s orders, and that the Japanese had decided that war was their only solution. As a consequence all U.S. Pacific commanders were issued a "war warning" on November 27 when MAGIC informed the U.S. government that the Japanese carrier fleet had left home waters. To navy commanders Admiral Stark said: “Negotiations with Japan have ceased, and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.” General Marshall dispatched similar warnings, adding, “The United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” 27
According to the testimony of numerous former navy specialists in the craft of radio direction finding (RDFs), critical information about the track of the Japanese fleet was dispatched to Washington. Though the Japanese fleet was instructed to maintain radio silence, at a few key junctures in its Pacific transit it was forced to communicate via radio between vessels and this allowed RFDs to show that the fleet was sailing due east.28 It might have orders to attack the U.S. facilities at Midway or Wake Island, but logic dictated that an attack on these places would serve no military purpose. If Admiral Yamamoto's gamble was to be realized, the U.S. fleet would have to be destroyed, and it was based at Pearl Harbor.
In addition, the FBI had known for over a year that spies were operating out of the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu, and keeping careful watch on the islands’ military facilities. They were transmitting key information back to Tokyo constantly, including detailed information about the berths of the battleships. In the first six days of December these spies sent messages that ominously spoke to a forthcoming sneak attack. On December 2 one intercept said: “All American personnel given shore leave as usual. Pearl Harbor not on alert.” On December 6 the spies’ final transmission stated, "All clear...no barrage balloons [air defenses] are up...there is an opportunity for a surprise attack against these places.”29 Also that day, upon reading a separate and key Japanese transmission, FDR told his closest aide, Harry Hopkins, “This means war.”30
Importantly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been long aware of the espionage in Hawaii, and J. Edgar Hoover wanted to arrest the spies. He was asked by Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle to desist: “No expulsion is possible as any charge leading to ouster would reveal American crytographic success to Japan.”31
To their credit the senior navy and army commanders on Hawaii, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, attempted to protect their respective bases. Kimmel deployed his carriers to the west of Hawaii, anticipating correctly that any attack would come from that direction. Washington ordered him not to place his fleet in a position that would “precipitate Japanese action.” Then he was ordered by Washington instead to dispatch army aircraft to Wake and Midway ( a third carrier was sent to San Diego for repairs), a move that removed the vital carriers from Pearl Harbor.32 Short wanted to disperse his aircraft across the islands, so they would not all be vulnerable in one place, but he was ordered to keep them in concentrated airstrips with increased ground security.33 Knowing that U.S. cryptographers had broken some vital Japanese codes to some of which they had been privy, both senior officers took these official countermeasures from their superiors to mean that Washington did not anticipate an attack at Pearl Harbor. That is one reason the island's defenses were down that fateful morning of December 7, 1941.
Short's air force was destroyed on the ground. Kimmel's carrier airplanes were no longer present. The official explanation for the absence of the carriers has always been that Washington wished to beef up defenses elsewhere in the Pacific but that line of argument makes no sense given that if Japan had attacked those tiny bases she would still be at war with the U.S. but without having inflicted the crippling blow necessary for Japan’s strategy to be fulfilled. One thing is certain: Two of those three carriers were present at the critical Battle of Midway six months later, where intelligence gathered by MAGIC allowed the U.S. to draw the main fleet of the Japanese into a trap and into a resounding defeat that effectively broke the back of Japan's entire strategic offensive. After Midway Japan was essentially defeated though it would take time, and hundreds of thousands of American lives, to dislodge Japanese forces from their Pacific island redoubts.34
Another extremely curious set of facts involves the events in the Philippines only eight hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Once Oahu was bombed an all-out alert was transmitted so it was certain that U.S. forces in the Philippines knew that the U.S. was at war. Their commander was General Douglas MacArthur, who had for years been preparing the islands' defenses. His orders, never carried out, were to bomb Japanese bases in Formosa, Indochina, and China. When the Japanese attacked only hours after Pearl Harbor his subordinates begged him to get U.S. aircraft off the ground to counterattack. For reasons never explained, MacArthur refused to give these orders and the American air forces in the Philippines were destroyed on the ground where they were concentrated, wingtip to wingtip. These forces may not have been able to stop the Japanese takeover of the Philippines but no attempt was made. As a result of the Japanese victory in the Philippines, tens of thousands of American and Filipino troops were taken prisoner, many of them to die horrible deaths owing to beatings and starvation, in what became the worst single defeat in American military history in terms of loss of life, worse even than Pearl Harbor. Yet, not only was MacArthur, not punished, as both Kimmell and Short were, he was promoted and given the Congressional Medal of Honor, though lieutenants at the scene said that MacArthur had never emerged from his fortified command center into the line of fire, the ostensible requirement for the honor.35
Though nearly 400,000 Americans died in World War II, this was by far the lowest casualty rate of any of the major combatants, owing to the enormous advantages of U.S. firepower. A striking example of this is the ratio of American combat deaths at Iwo Jima, 7,500, to Japanese deaths, 100,000. The British war historian, John Keegan, estimated that it took the U.S. approximately 25,000 rounds of ammunition, ranging from M-1 bullets to 18 inch naval shells, to kill one Japanese soldier in that month-long battle.36
Unlike its allies and enemies alike, the U.S. also suffered no devastation to its continental territory, and endured by far the fewest casualties. Indeed, at war's end the U.S. was far richer than when it entered, and because all others had spent themselves, it emerged as the dominant power on the planet.
Even before the war ended, however, the specter of mass unemployment surfaced again. In 1944, Charles Wilson, former chief of General Electric, and FDR”s wartime production czar, had worried about the 16 million GIs who would shortly return to civilian life. Would breadlines await them? War production was manifestly the only real factor that had ended the Great Depression but even so it had absorbed only a fraction of those formerly unemployed. The bulk of young would-be workers were now wearing military uniforms. Wilson’s answer was a “permanent war economy.” But for that a permanent enemy would be required.37
Thus yesterday’s ally was rapidly depicted as the new threat and danger on the horizon. Though the Soviet Union had undergone the most extensive devastation in the history of warfare – between 25-30 million dead, 70,000 cities and towns utterly destroyed, transportation and agriculture crippled- Americans were bombarded with propaganda to the effect that Stalin had illegitimately annexed Eastern Europe and was now poised to take over the world. While communist propaganda did call for worldwide revolution, the revolt of the so-called “third world” that would begin in Greece, Palestine, India, Indonesia, Korea and Vietnam was not directed from Moscow. Incipient anti-colonial struggles across the planet, were a response to centuries of European (and Japanese) misrule, as well as the newly appreciated fact among the colonized that the Europeans were finished as empire builders.
Stalin sought to take advantage of western imperial decline to foster traditional Russian foreign policy aims, especially national security, rather than to spread the true faith of communism. The Red Army’s occupation of Eastern and Central Europe was a result of having waged successful war against the Nazi juggernaut. The Soviets occupied these nations because many had allied themselves with Hitler and sent troops into Soviet territory.
The Yalta Accords had effectively assented to a division of Europe between the U.S., Britain, and the USSR in keeping with military realities. Washington, employing Churchill’s hypocritical phrase, began to assert that Stalin had drawn an “Iron Curtain” across Europe and that he had to be “contained.” No sooner had the dust of WWII settled than the popular media began to assault the public with doomsday scenarios of Soviet launched nuclear missiles falling on Washington, even though the U.S. was the sole atomic power, and most intelligence studies insisted that Stalin was years away from acquiring nukes.38
The notion that it was moral opposition to communist totalitarianism that animated American policy is widely held but this idea is contravened by the fact that throughout the Cold War Washington overthrew democracies and filled the vacuums with dictatorships every bit as brutal and criminal as anything to be found in the communist world. And Stalin’s presumed intransigence is called into question by the facts that he withdrew Soviet troops from Iran, Manchuria, North Korea, and Austria in line with wartime agreements, hardly the actions of someone bent on global domination. Rather Stalin’s power, while great, was still limited by the vastly superior power of the U.S., as the history of containment proved, and his actions were those of a ruler cannily, if savagely, preserving what he possessed.
Clearly the Soviets attempted to exploit popular revolutions wherever they could but Washington was also intervening across the planet and on a much greater scale. The wars in Korea and Vietnam were the brainchildren not of Moscow or Beijing but stemmed from indigenous political movements that had arisen in response to the depredations of Europeans or Japanese, and the aid given to U.S. client regimes in Seoul and Saigon dwarfed the contributions of the so-called communist monolith.
The deeper crisis facing American geo-political supremacy was the devastation of the global capitalist economy engendered by the war. U.S. policy faced a five-pronged threat: 1.) that the ruined nations of capitalist Europe- both friend and former foe- would revert to the sort of economic nationalism of the prewar years, and close their markets. 2.) that post-war impoverishment in the devastated regions would lead to support for socialists and communists and that might lead to accommodation with the Soviets. 3.) that both Europe and the Asian rim could not buy American goods owing to their lack of dollars, and this would stall the American economy at the moment war production was ending. 4.) That the European colonies and Korea were in revolt and threatening to take themselves in independent directions, thereby potentially removing themselves as sources of cheap labor and resources and markets for American goods. 5.) Finally, that American federal tax revenues, which had been increased ostensibly for the emergency of war, would have to be maintained. In the face of widespread opposition to the new taxes, some way would have to be found to persuade the public that taxes would continue to rise.39
The central goal of postwar U.S. policy became the economic and financial reconstruction of Germany as the new axis of an integrated European market for American goods and services, coupled with a similar program for Japan in East Asia that effectively would grant Japan management rights over the very empire it had just lost, but now under American supervision. As then U.N. ambassador John Foster Dulles put it, “a healthy Europe” could not be “divided into small compartments.” It had to be organized into “an integrated market big enough to justify modern methods of mass production for mass consumption.” Having challenged the U.S. and Europe’s empires, both Germany and Japan would now become junior partners in “America Inc., “sharing in the benefits of a global economy while thwarting the opposition of communists and economic nationalists.” 40
Just as the key to the American victory in World War II had depended upon allied access to the fuel upon which industrial and military production and deployment had depended, so postwar policy increasingly focused upon control of oil. As the State Department’s Petroleum Division put matters even before the war ended, oil was “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” As early as 1943 the Standard Oil Company of California had urged the Roosevelt Administration to extend Lend-Lease aid to Saudi Arabia and bring it under the U.S.’s protective umbrella. According to analysts in the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, the first priority of U.S. policy toward the region should be to safeguard and develop, “The vast oil resources of Saudi Arabia, now in American hands under a concession held by American nationals.”41
On February 14, 1945, the war rapidly heading toward Allied victory, FDR met with Saudi King Ibn Saud aboard a U.S. warship in the Suez Canal. No documentary evidence exists to delineate what was agreed but the facts of history indicate a clear alliance between the two nations based on oil. In 1946 a State Department position paper declared:
Our petroleum policy is predicated on a mutual recognition of a very extensive joint interest and upon controlof the great bulk of the petroleum resources of the worldUS-UK agreement upon the broad, forward-looking pattern of the development and utilization of petroleum resources under the control of nationals of the two countries is of the highest strategic and commercial importance. 42
Inclusion of Britain in this condominium was actually somewhat disingenuous since the British Empire was collapsing as a direct result of the wartime "imperial overstretch," and Washington was playing Rome to Britain's Athens. Indeed, American oil policy was aimed at controlling wartime allies as well as erstwhile enemies. As James Forrestal, shortly to be named the first Secretary of Defense, put matters in 1947, "whoever sits on the valve of Middle East oil may control the destiny of Europe."43 The next year, George Kennan, the architect of the anti-communist containment policy, and chief of policy planning at the State Department, wrote that "U.S. control over Japanese oil imports would help provide 'veto power' over Japan's military and industrial policies."44
The Truman Doctrine of 1947 purportedly sought to declare war on communism but also effectively globalized the Monroe Doctrine in support of traditional goals. An early draft of Truman’s message read as follows:
Two great wars and an intervening world depression have weakened the [capitalist] system almost everywhere except in the United Statesif, by default, we permit free enterprise to disappear in other countries of the world, the very existence of our democracy will be gravely threatened. 45
What Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson feared was a return to self-contained, exclusive economic blocs that would freeze American enterprise out. Whether that took the form of Stalinism, state socialism, state capitalism, economic nationalism, or Arab nationalism made little difference. What official Washington meant by “free enterprise” was freedom for American corporations and financial institutions to penetrate the markets of the world on American terms. Obviously that would limit, at the very least, the freedom of others.
Fearing that such language would make the policy appear “like an investment prospectus” the final draft of the Truman Doctrine, the one that became public, was retro-fitted to emphasize the global threat of communism.46
Yet the cost of reconstructing ruined economies and taking on the financial burdens in Greece and Turkey from Britain were an enormous drain on the U.S. budget, especially in the continuing absence, despite the Marshall Plan, of Europe’s ability to buy from American producers.
Meanwhile, the American public was slow to take seriously the threat of Soviet communism, and was balking at continued taxation at wartime levels.
Then, in 1949, the near simultaneous shocks of the Chinese Communist Revolution, and the earlier than predicted Soviet atomic bomb success altered Washington’s initial plans. Though genuine China experts emphasized that tensions between the Chinese communists and Stalin portended a future rift, and insisted that China posed no threat to the U.S., and though the Soviets did not have the strategic forward bases to conduct atomic air assaults on the U.S., the Truman Administration’s response to these events helped to induce and accelerate a national hysteria and wrought the utter reorientation of U.S. foreign policy.
Militarization, unprecedented in American history, became the order of the day.
The Soviet A-Bomb was predictable. Considerable evidence exists to conclude that one of the major factors in the decision to use the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had as much to do with sending a clear message to Stalin as to the Japanese intransigents. Stalin was shocked by the atomic bombings, not because he was squeamish obviously, but because he now had at hand prima facie evidence that the Americans could be as ruthless as himself. Certainly the Soviets drew a clear conclusion from the vaporization of the two cities and they then pulled out all the stops in their own scientific establishment to meet the U.S. on its own nuclear terms.
Ironically, in the name of meeting what it claimed was a deadly threat, Washington’s policies toward the Soviets hastened them to create the far graver threat of the capability to wreak nuclear annihilation upon the U.S., a threat which nearly came to pass on more than one occasion, but especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and which still exists in the form of Russia’s still formidable nuclear arsenal.
Liberals and conservatives blamed China’s march to communism on Moscow but the reality was that the corrupt rule of Washington’s client, Jiang Jieshi, provided the vacuum which Mao Zedong readily filled. The communists had resisted the Japanese fiercely while Jiang’s troops confined their military activities to plundering their fellow Chinese. Communists rode to power in China on the crest of popular support, and as a result of Chinese conditions, not because puppet-masters in the U.S.S.R. orchestrated events.47 At any rate the sudden withdrawal of all of northeast Asia from the global capitalist system seriously deranged Washington’s reconstruction plans for Japan, which required access to the region’s resources and markets, just as it did before World War II.
The National Security Council was established in 1947, ostensibly to rectify intelligence weaknesses that had led to Pearl Harbor but in reality to coordinate the new Cold War. In 1952 it issued one of the most pivotal documents in the annals of U.S. foreign policy, National Security Memorandum No. 68 (NSC 68). Arguing that a quantum leap in military spending might distort the Soviet-bloc and Chinese economies to the point where they would develop military hardware over consumer goods, “guns over butter,” and thereby foster internal upheaval, NSC 68 called for a tripling of the U.S. military budget, accompanied by parallel tax increases, the reining in of labor, reduction of social welfare spending, and greater propaganda measures domestically to build public consensus for a heated up crusade against communism.48
There was, however, one significant problem. The fiscally conservative Congress balked at the enormity of the appropriations requested. Two months later relief arrived. In the deathless and cynical words of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “Thank God! Korea came along and saved us.”
Korea had been divided by agreement between Washington and Moscow at the end of World War II, with plans for reunification to be decided in future. As was the case in China, matters were complicated by the fact that indigenous Korean opposition to Japanese rule had been led by the communists. Thus communists believed they had a right to establish the post war government, or at the very least to play a major role in any postwar regime that would encompass the entire peninsula. Korean anti-communists hoped to purge their rivals entirely. Led by the American client Syngman Rhee, they were determined to reunify Korea on their terms, and until the war began had to be restrained by Washington from attacking the north.
Only weeks before North Korean communist forces crossed the 38th Parallel into the south, Secretary Acheson had written Korea out of the U.S. “defense perimeter” but now the North Korean “invasion” of their own country was touted as evidence of the growing Soviet-led communist menace to the free world. Washington declared that it organized the U.N. “coalition” to drive the northerners out of the south but once that objective had been achieved General Douglas MacArthur went beyond his mandate, crossed into the north, and indicated his intention to drive the communists from power altogether. This had the inexorable effect of drawing China into the war. When the Chinese forced American troops into retreat MacArthur’s erstwhile victory stood at the brink of disaster, since the Chinese appeared capable of driving American forces off the Korean peninsula entirely. MacArthur therefore openly advocated the use of nuclear weapons, joined by numerous members of Congress, and the world stood at the brink of another global conflagration.
The Chinese, however, stopped their advance at the 38th Parallel, restoring the status quo ante bellum, and forced the North Korean communists into peace negotiations.
When in 1953 an armistice was signed, over 3 million Koreans were dead, more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed, and the political boundaries of the nation were exactly what they had been when the war began. Though Washington claimed that it had achieved a victory for democracy, the new southern regime proved as dictatorial and brutal as many other American clients, killing or imprisoning all communists remaining in the south, and later brutally suppressing dissent form any quarter. But South Korea was now safe to become a haven for massive American foreign investment.
North Korea actually developed economically as well under communist rule, though political freedoms were totally absent. When Soviet subsidies lapsed, however, in the early 1990s, North Korea‘s rulers devoted what resources remained to military readiness, including development of nuclear arms, and forced its citizens into dire poverty, facts that have been used most recently to declare North Korea a “rogue state.” Indeed, North Korea is undoubtedly the most militarized nation on earth. Yet, another salient fact, but one which has been missing from the discussion, is that when American pilots returned to their carriers in 1953 they reported that there were virtually no targets remaining to be bombed. Most of the north’s population was living in underground shelters. Massive dams along the Yalu River had been destroyed from the air causing massive flooding and loss of life, while simultaneously destroying crops over a vast area, therefore leading to mass famine. Nazis were executed after World War II for similar violations of the Geneva Convention that the international tribunal ruled were war crimes. What might the American mindset be had we ever undergone such devastation?