Anyone watching the PBS series "The War" had to come away with a profound appreciation of the extraordinary sacrifices that millions of young Americans made to defend the American way of life in the Second World War.
Tens of thousands of deaths were sustained by U.S. soldiers at the Hurtgen Forest and Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and by Marines and infantry at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. These casualties are mind boggling when compared with other wars in American history, with the exception of the Civil War.
Ken Burns, who produced this impressive series of stories from war fronts as well as the U.S. home front, said in an interview that he undertook the project because he is concerned that high school students know little about World War II and how close America and Britain came to losing it in 1941-42.
Most Americans today are unaware of the huge efforts made by the Truman administration, after Nazi Germany was crushed, to rescue the nearly bankrupt economies of Western European. President Truman was convinced that unless America provided large aid, particularly to France, Italy, and Belgium, they might bow to internal Communist pressures and align their foreign policies with Moscow.
Many younger people know about the Marshall Plan that helped Western Europe turn the tide against communism, but they don't appreciate the Herculean efforts made by President Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall, and a group of dedicated civilian leaders to win congressional approval of this multi-billion dollar aid plan. In 1947 most Americans favored a return to the country's prewar policy of non-entanglement abroad and were not persuaded that a large aid program for Europe was warranted.
A new book, The Most Noble Adventure by Greg Behrman, provides a fascinating account of how the White House and State Department organized a massive campaign to sell the public on the need to save Europe from Soviet-sponsored communism.
One of the book's relevant points for the current debate on Iraq is Secretary Marshall's patient negotiations with leaders of the Republican-dominated Congress to secure funding for what came to be called the Marshall Plan. Without bi-partisan cooperation between a Democratic president a Republican-controlled Congress, the aid program would not been approved.
For those of us who lived through this period of postwar history, Behrman's account is a sobering reminder of the national debate and the difficulty that Truman and Marshall had to sell a skeptical country on a fundamental idea: since America had now emerged from war as the world's richest and most powerful country, was it going to turn its back on Europe and again retreat into isolation?
America faces a similar crucial question regarding its role in the Middle East.
Many think that because we won the Cold War and are now the undisputed superpower, it's not necessary to be involved militarily in many parts of the world, for example, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Lebanon, and Persian Gulf. They are convinced that the defense budget should be reduced and the "peace dividend" should be used to restore the nation's transportation system, expand health care, and protect the borders against illegal immigrants.
The reality, however, is that America cannot turn its back on the Middle East any more than it could abandon Europe after the end of the great war of 1941-45. The reason? This country has vital economic and political interests at stake in the Middle East; we would suffer real hardship if terrorists and hostile governments forced us to withdraw.
Recently, the Washington Post, (Sept. 22, A2) reported that Bush believes that by the end of his term, Iraq will be stable enough that his successor, either a Republican or Democrat, will keep an American force there to help Iraq build its democratic system. Bush recalls that Truman's successor, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, continued his policy toward Europe by embracing the Marshall Plan and the NATO alliance.
Is there a parallel between Bush's expectations for his Middle East policy and Truman's success in winning Republican support for his European objectives?
Probably not. The major reason is the unlikely possibility that congressional Democrats will agree to any compromise on Iraq that is acceptable to Bush. Without cooperation between the branches, the president's hope that his policy on Iraq will continue in 2009 is probably wishful thinking, unless a pro-Iraq Republican is elected next year.
File last modified on Wednesday, 17-OCTOBER-2007 11:10 PM EST