Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2005

As we mark the anniversaries of the U.S. victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 and our defeat in Vietnam thirty years later, it is appropriate to look at those costly wars for lessons we can use in the 21st century.

During those sixty years, profound changes occurred in America's view of the world and of ourselves as a nation. If 1945 marked the high point of this country's global power and influence, 1975 was the low point. In 2005 the United States possesses unparalleled economic and military power, but its political influence has declined sharply.

What might we learn from this span of history that should guide policymakers today? Here are a few observations, based on my recollections of national euphoria of 1945, disillusionment in 1975, and resurgence of America's self-confidence in the 1980s and 1990s..

Complacency after World War II. Americans believed in 1945 that defeat of Germany and Japan heralded a new, peaceful era in world affairs. They concluded that the mighty U.S. military could be demobilized and that the United Nations would keep the peace. In 1948 Josef Stalin demonstrated that he intended to use the Soviet military grip on Eastern Europe to undermine fragile governments in Western Europe and lure them into Moscow's political orbit. Harry Truman sponsored the Marshall Plan and NATO to enable Western Europe to resist Soviet pressures, but the Korean War diverted U.S. attention to the Far East and opened West Germany and France to the threat of Soviet attack.

Reliance on nuclear strategy. The Eisenhower administration's decision to base U.S. strategy on nuclear retaliation against a Soviet land attack in Europe resulted from its conclusion that NATO troops could not defend against massive Soviet armies in the east. The threat of "massive retaliation" was successful only until Moscow achieved its own nuclear capability in the 1960s. Thereafter, every U.S. president has tried to reduce nuclear weapons and stop their proliferation. Vietnam, an overreach in U.S. strategy. Scholars continue to debate the wisdom of America's intervention in Vietnam, yet the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were convinced that stopping Hanoi's invasion was necessary to prevent Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, from coming under Communist influence and imperiling the U.S. strategic position in Japan. But when the Pentagon did not prevail in Vietnam, after deploying half a million troops, the public said "enough," and a withdrawal resulted. The humiliating U.S. evacuation from Saigon in 1975 marked the nadir of America's global influence and underscored the reality that this ground war in Southeast Asia was a strategic overreach.

Retrenchment, and its rejection. The 1970s saw a major struggle between political groups who wanted to reduce America's military presence abroad and focus instead on its needs at home, and those who were determined to continue the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Both drew lessons from Vietnam. Groups that favored retrenchment were convinced that a deal could be struck with Moscow to end the Cold War and halt the nuclear arms race. Those who were determined to resist Soviet expansion favored confronting Moscow, especially in Central America and Central Asia. Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 was a victory for the hard-liners, and ten years later the Cold War ended..

Renewed complacency. The Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 led to American complacency about the prospects for world peace. As in 1945, America was again the undisputed superpower with no rival in sight. Voters concluded that it was time to concentrate on the country's domestic needs, and Bill Clinton's election in 1992 reflected the mood. He succeeded in rebuilding U.S. economic strength and creating millions of jobs. But he was hampered in dealing with the terrorist threat by the public's complacency. While Americans didn't consider the United Nations capable of maintaining peace abroad; they didn't want U.S. troops to be used to intervene in local conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan.

Overreaction to potential threats. George Bush correctly reacted to the 9/11 attacks by taking the war to the enemy in Afghanistan and crushing Al Qaeda's training camps. But his decision to use force against Iraq was an overreaction, I believe, to the terrorist threat to the United States. Although his administration could also have made the case that America's vital economic interests were at stake if Persian Gulf oil exports were curtailed by anti-U.S. regimes and prices shot up dramatically, his stated reason for going to war--Iraq's weapons of mass destruction--was not substantiated by the evidence. As a result, Bush's ability to persuade the public about new dangers may be impaired.

Two lessons may be drawn about U.S. foreign policy over these sixty years. First, Americans favor a large U.S. international role so long as their leaders articulate realistic objectives and outline a reasonable plan to achieve them without incurring huge costs. That was the lesson of Vietnam, and it is being relearned, with less dire consequences, in Iraq. Second, Americans become overconfident when large wars are won, as in World War II and the Cold War, but turn inward when things go wrong, as in Vietnam. The challenge of leadership is to avoid these extremes.

File last modified on Saturday, 22-MAY-2005 07:25 PM EST

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