The Unwise Men: The Decline of a Caste

What have been the truly creative moments in American foreign policy during the last three quarters of a century, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt and ending with George W. Bush? That question is too rarely posed, and not only because of its inherent difficulties. What seems creative to some will seem almost banal to others. Worse, any such analysis risks a certain romanticizing of the past, in effect suggesting that there was one very creative period, and that we have witnessed a time of declension ever since. That proposition is too simplistic, but it is possible to argue that the period beginning with Franklin Roosevelt was a time of bold innovation of foreign policy that continued under Truman and was in effect ratified, though not greatly extended, in the less illustrious years of Dwight Eisenhower.

Beginning with John F. Kennedy, and continuing with Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, we witnessed something of a seismic change, a second period of post-war foreign policy, with some very noteworthy achievements and some spectacular failures. It is in the period since, however, beginning with Ronald Reagan, and continuing with Bill Clinton and the two Bushes, that we see greater failures and fewer conspicuous successes.

A close examination of these three generations of foreign policy makers suggests that the theme of decline is not wholly exaggerated and may come closer to reflecting reality than those who would prefer to see this period as one of steady or intermittent progress. The question, obviously, is how to explain the decline: whether to attribute it to less able individuals in command of the nation’s foreign policy, to more difficult, perhaps almost intractable foreign policy issues, or to intellectual failures. My own inclination is to believe that all three conditions have obtained, and that it is the last that has been most determining. We have lived through a barren intellectual time, with each era more barren than the last, and now reside in what I choose to call “America’s locust years.”

To see the Roosevelt/Truman/Eisenhower years as a unit is to advance what some may see as two moderately controversial propositions. While Eisenhower cannot be said to rank in the same class as Roosevelt or Truman, he pursued foreign policies largely crafted by his immediate predecessors and by the remarkable galaxy of advisers who served these two war presidents. To write of their administrations is to consider leaders as different as General George Marshall and Dean Acheson, diplomats as distinguished as George Kennan and Charles Bohlen, and any number of others who figured prominently as foreign policy architects in a critical period when the United States introduced policy innovations as considerable as any previously attempted. Nor is it possible to ignore the role of confidants, men such as Harry Hopkins and Sumner Welles.

Only in his second term, with the growing menace from Nazi Germany, did Roosevelt transfer his attention to foreign policy, making it his chief concern. With Cordell Hull as his secretary of state, Roosevelt recognized that foreign policy, as distinct from trade policy, was not the secretary’s strongest suit. He believed—and it was not simply an expression of vanity—that he understood foreign affairs as few others in the country did, that his service for eight years as assistant secretary of the navy under Woodrow Wilson had taught him much of what a president could and could not do. When war broke out in Europe, Roosevelt saw the need to strengthen his administration by co-opting prominent Republicans to serve in it, and settled on Henry Stimson as secretary of war and Frank Knox as secretary of the navy. Stimson, with his long and distinguished service in Republican administrations, not least as secretary of state under Hoover, proved to be a more substantial figure in Roosevelt’s cabinet than those who had served him longer, but no one at the height of the war imagined that he had become a principal architect of the nation’s foreign policy. That remained the president’s prerogative, and Roosevelt made certain that no one ever thought seriously to challenge him in that domain.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor some imagined that Winston Churchill, Roosevelt’s principal transatlantic ally, became the president’s principal geopolitical instructor. But Roosevelt, always suspicious of Churchill, seeing him as something of an unreconstructed imperialist, could never wholly accept or endorse either his tactical or strategic proposals. Harry Hopkins, an invaluable aide, served as the president’s interlocutor with both Churchill and Stalin, but Roosevelt never doubted that he alone understood these leaders. In the decisions he made at Tehran and Yalta, he exercised the ample powers that resided in his office as commander in chief. Although professional advisers, and diplomats like Bohlen, were assigned to accompany the president to Yalta, there is no evidence that they ever greatly influenced him. Indeed, the most extraordinary thing about these war years is how much their successes and failures can be ascribed to Roosevelt alone. Not since Wilson had sat in the White House did any president assume so total a command of the nation’s foreign policy. Enjoying obvious popular support, and able to control large Democratic majorities in Congress, Roosevelt’s four successful bids for the presidency gave him a unique eminence.

With Roosevelt’s death and the arrival of Harry Truman in the Oval Office, the situation changed dramatically. Truman never believed that his years in the Senate gave him any special competence in foreign affairs, and ultimately he turned to Marshall, one of his great World War II military heroes. Modest but firm, Marshall had learned much about foreign affairs in his wartime role as army chief of staff, and Truman felt respect bordering on awe for what he correctly saw as Marshall’s dignity, discretion, and decisiveness. With Marshall, he introduced the Point Four program that gave economic aid to Greece and Turkey, both seemingly threatened by Communist takeovers, and, more importantly, developed the economic aid program for struggling Western European democracies that came to bear his name. When Marshall retired, Truman appointed Dean Acheson, his loyal deputy, to succeed him. Again, what characterized Truman’s relation with his new secretary was his total loyalty to him, his absolute confidence in his judgment. That loyalty was severely tested by the charges brought by Senator Joseph McCarthy, always searching for Communists in the government, but Truman never succumbed to the pressure the senator from Wisconsin persistently applied on the Senate floor and in the media.

The Truman years were a time of venturesome American diplomacy. The 1924 reforms that had made America’s diplomatic service something other than a playground for the rich and powerful brought a new generation of distinguished foreign service officers, none more prominent than George Kennan, whose famous X Article, first published anonymously in Foreign Affairs, gave the country a new appreciation of the character and ambitions of the Soviet Union. Through innovative federal support programs, the study of international relations in America’s leading universities took on new distinction and importance. The country came to have a new appreciation of the qualities of its defeated enemies—Germany, Japan, and Italy—but also of its European allies, especially the United Kingdom. Neither before World War I nor during the inter-war years had the United States been so imaginatively preoccupied with the world abroad as in the Truman era. This was truly the golden age of American diplomacy.

Truman’s diplomacy was inspired; he achieved two incontestably great objectives: the creation of an alliance of European democracies faithful to the policies he favored and the development of new institutions that gave greater security to the United States and its allies. Increasingly suspicious of the Soviet Union, Truman accepted Kennan’s severe but accurate judgment of Soviet intentions and began the process that led to the creation of NATO in his second term, the most important alliance the United States ever agreed to enter. He also guaranteed that Japan would remain a loyal ally of the United States. While his critics condemned him for “losing China,” there is reason to doubt that he could ever have kept Mao Zedong from seizing power. The Truman years were a time of major diplomatic negotiations of a kind not previously attempted, and never so systematically and successfully pursued in later administrations.

Eisenhower cannot be credited with comparable accomplishments. Though he succeeded in bringing the Korean War to an end, as promised, it was one of his few early successes. Relying very much on John Foster Dulles, his secretary of state, Eisenhower had many opportunities to alter the country’s foreign policy, not least following the death of Stalin, but he never thought it necessary to do so. The Cold War persisted during his time in office, and in 1956 when the United Kingdom, France, and Israel moved against Egypt, Eisenhower showed hostility toward his allies that reflected in substantial measure his pique with their independence. For him, the United States was the supreme power, holding back the Russian hordes, and its allies were expected to show their allegiance to that power. In his second term, as in his first, with Dulles ailing and incapable of recognizing the new conditions that existed in Europe, stagnation seemed to substitute for policy. There were no political accomplishments comparable to those of the Roosevelt and Truman eras.

Eisenhower never understood why the kind of world hegemony that the United States enjoyed early in the post-war period could not be maintained. Europe’s economic recovery, greatly helped by the United States, guaranteed that it would no longer be as supine as it had been when its cities lay in ruins and its economy was shattered. Though many Americans exaggerated the extent of Soviet progress, making too much of its success with the Sputnik launch, there can be no question that Eisenhower and Dulles, by the late 1950s, seemed exhausted both politically and intellectually. These were old men fighting battles that scarcely reflected new realities in Europe and Asia. Their diplomatic and political legacy was negligible, though Eisenhower came in time to be prized for having avoided the kinds of war that became increasingly common in the 1960s and 1970s.

Here we come to a second phase of post-war foreign policy, characterized by a new generation of “wise men”—officials like McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Robert McNamara—who were bewildered by the war in Vietnam and constantly showed the limits of their understanding. In theory, Kennedy came into office to move the nation away from the lethargy that had become its most commonly criticized attribute. Kennedy, more than Truman or Eisenhower, depended on professors to help him frame a foreign policy that they expected would be both innovative and effective. With men like Rusk as secretary of state, McNamara as secretary of defense, Bundy as national security adviser, and Walt Rostow as his deputy, not to speak of the ever-present presidential brother, Robert, who imagined himself a foreign policy expert, the president began with a bold gesture, the decision to invade Cuba and unseat Castro. The invasion ended in disaster. Khrushchev’s subsequent decision to install missiles in Cuba, believing that they would not be immediately detected, and that the president would not dare to challenge him, proved to be mistaken on both counts. The Soviet debacle, often portrayed as Kennedy’s finest hour, certainly gave him new world renown, but his assassination denied him the opportunity to serve a second term, which he confidently expected would redeem any shortcomings of the first.

How does one account for the paucity of foreign policy achievements in these supposedly heroic thousand days? John F. Kennedy was perhaps the most overrated of the post-war presidents. The contributions that both Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Kenneth Galbraith made to the propagation of the idea that he was uniquely endowed as a political leader concealed a dearth of political accomplishment that seems more apparent today than at the moment of his untimely death. His thousand days were not a time of great achievements, but of greater debacles narrowly averted. Johnson, pursuing Kennedy’s policies—imagining that this proved his loyalty to the fallen hero—made a fundamental mistake in engaging in a war in Vietnam that he believed he could win. He failed to understand the character of that war, so different from any America had ever fought, and failed to see that it led him to become even further estranged from his European allies who had been the mainstay of earlier important political and economic collaborations.

Johnson never replaced the Kennedy crew until his military policies had already failed, having expanded the war in ways bound to be disastrous. Neither Bundy nor McNamara ought to have been retained in office for as long as Johnson, beguiled by their intelligence, chose to keep them. No one in Johnson’s immediate entourage dared to disagree with him. Ill-served by men who genuinely feared him and knew that they had consented to the policies he had adopted, they worked indefatigably for ends they knew he approved of. When Johnson finally realized that the war could not be won, and sought to disengage, there were few in his government able to help him to do so expeditiously. His mistakes contributed to the defeat of his would-be successor, Hubert Humphrey, and brought into office the individual whom many had once considered a political casualty unlikely ever to redeem himself.

The Nixon administration was as different from the Eisenhower administration as the Kennedy administration had been from that of Harry Truman. The most significant appointment Nixon made was certainly that of Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser. While those who scarcely knew the German-born Jewish intellectual imagined he resembled his Harvard predecessor, Bundy, the two could not have been less alike. Bundy, vastly impressed by the office of the president, respectful of its traditions and its recent incumbents, lacked the intellectual acuteness of Kissinger. Putting the matter perhaps too bluntly, Bundy was a superb servant of others; Kissinger aspired to appear to be that, but in fact had a higher ambition, which was to shape the foreign policy of the country. His published works showed an originality that had no equivalent in the relatively insignificant articles Bundy had written. Bundy had heroes, including Stimson and other renowned American public servants, and never saw himself as their superior intellectually or politically. Kissinger showed no comparable respect or reticence. Though held by some to be the disciple of Metternich and/or Bismarck, a dubious and very romantic identification in my view, he was neither. A less romantic portrayal would have represented him as a fairly recent European Jewish émigré scholar, seeking to strike out on intellectual paths not previously taken by his teachers. He owed much to his experience in the military occupation of Germany and even more to his superb undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard.

Alas, those he brought with him into government, though often gifted, were in no sense his intellectual equals. Serving a very peculiar master, President Nixon, Kissinger learned very early how to get on with him, excluding others from any comparable influence. In Nixon’s first term, the two worked together to reduce the American military commitment in Vietnam substantially, with the president claiming from the beginning that his only aim was to secure good terms from the North Vietnamese, guaranteeing the survival of South Vietnam. Unafraid to invade Cambodia, able to withstand the most severe criticism from those unable to see that extension of the war as legitimate, Nixon showed his habitual determination even under what were universally recognized to be very adverse political circumstances.

Gerald Ford tried to govern as Nixon had, relying heavily on Kissinger, but in the end divesting him of one of his roles as national security adviser. The most significant of his actions may have been to launch both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld on national political careers that made them so consequential in the administrations of Reagan and the younger Bush. He also elevated Brent Scowcroft, one of the public servants discovered by Kissinger.

Jimmy Carter may have been the weirdest of all the late twentieth-century presidents. Industrious and dedicated, he lacked the political nuance of his predecessors who knew how to overcome more substantial political and military obstacles. Carter may have been the least consequential Democratic president in the period that opened with Woodrow Wilson. With Zbigniew Brzezinski as his national security adviser and Cyrus Vance as his secretary of state, Carter imagined he had a foreign policy team as distinguished as any the Republicans had ever been able to claim. He deceived himself. Brzezinski was not the equal of Kissinger, and Vance, though honorable and committed, lacked the muscle that had made someone like Acheson so formidable in even his most difficult days. In the end, Carter came with claims of virtue, but these were not enough to compensate for a lack of feel for the complexities of foreign policy decision-making. Carter pretended to know more than he did, and lacked the interlocutors who might have corrected him. The pose of modesty concealed a barely suppressed and little controlled arrogance. This second phase of post-war foreign policy was not nearly as creative and ambitious as the first, but hardly as banal and intellectually impoverished as what was to come.

As one gazes at the final period, one can see that the ambition was there, common to many of the presidents and those who served them, but the tools for their success and the personnel were no longer apparent or seemingly available. In the years that followed the Republican return to office with Ronald Reagan, only one Democrat held the presidency, and Bill Clinton could never claim to have been a major foreign policy innovator, though in his more ebullient moments he imagined he could obtain that distinction. Reagan certainly claimed it, not least for helping to destroy the Soviet Union, whose final disintegration came during the administration of Bush the elder. If there was no new Dean Acheson in these last years, and certainly no new Henry Kissinger, the Republicans who served Reagan and the Bushes, military leaders like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft and civilians like James Baker and George Shultz, believed that they achieved a fair measure of success on their political watches.

While Reagan was fortunate in the time he came to power, his first years were difficult and in many ways unpromising. Ronald Reagan lived with very few key ideas, but they protected him against the mistake made by many of his liberal predecessors, who tended greatly to overestimate Soviet influence and power. Reagan, for complex reasons, knew the Soviets to be less formidable than they pretended to be. He never felt great awe for Soviet military power, and imagined that America’s was more than its equal, a democracy with strengths that the Soviet Union could never claim.

Reagan managed to be present at what was soon seen to be the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and though the final act occurred under his successor, George H. W. Bush, he received the lion’s share of the credit for the feat. He left an enhanced presidential office to his vice president, who gained considerable prestige through his easy victory in the Gulf War. Bush was less dim than some believed him to be, and, though many greatly exaggerated his political experience, it was never as great as he and his partisans pretended or as is claimed by many today. His accomplishments seemed considerable for a moment; they appear substantially less impressive when compared with what Reagan managed to accomplish.

That is even more the case of Bill Clinton, a Democratic “faker” who talked incessantly, strutted about, and showed conspicuous charisma and charm that often protected him against his numerous and influential enemies. His legacy proved insubstantial, made to appear considerable only by comparison with that of his successor. Clinton arrived with no substantial foreign policy credentials, and neither of his secretaries of state gave him the advice that allowed him to make a distinctive record. An argument can be made that Warren Christopher was too old for the job and that Madeleine Albright was intellectually unsuited to it, but the major mistake Clinton made was to believe that he himself understood foreign policy issues and could be relied on to handle them. His one moderately inspired appointment was of Richard Holbrooke, who enjoyed a real success in negotiating the very complex Bosnia issue. The other appointments made by Clinton were for the greater part mediocre and pedestrian.

The election of George W. Bush brought into the White House a man who lacked anything that could be mistaken for a command of foreign policy. Bringing with him as vice president a crafty but ideologically opinionated Dick Cheney gave him what many thought to be intellectual muscle, but in fact Cheney brought mostly a penchant for mouthing neoconservative shibboleths, masquerading as geopolitical wisdom. Bush without Cheney would have been recognized as a novice in government; with him he appeared resolute and courageous, determined to exhibit his strength. The gait was less revealing than the talk, too often banal and at times incoherent. The year 2001 began an eight-year presidential hiatus, a time of war and intellectual stagnation. Whether the situation would have been different under Al Gore no one could doubt. The nation elected George W. Bush in 2000, re-elected him in 2004, and paid heavily for both mistakes. It is too early to pass judgment on the Obama administration, but it is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the decline in the presidency in the first nine years of the twenty-first century.

Inevitably, the question must be asked: was the first period, that of Roosevelt and Truman, as creative as has been suggested, and if so, why? Was the second period less so, and why? Finally, why do the present years appear to be so barren?

Three propositions need to be considered. First, is it possible that the new methods for selecting candidates for the presidency are not working as well as those who first praised them for their democratic bias expected and believed? In short, have the primaries that have given us men like the Bushes, Clinton, and Reagan proved less effective in giving us men of great political skill than those less populist conventions that once gave us men like Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy?

Second, is it possible that those who serve contemporary presidents are simply less talented than those who once agreed to serve in these positions? Are Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright, to take only a few of the more prominent cases, the equals of Dean Acheson, George Marshall, or Dean Rusk? Or, to avoid any imputation of sexism, do we have in Colin Powell, George Shultz, and James Steinberg the equivalent of Harry Hopkins, John McCloy, and James Forestall? Do men like Sandy Berger and Tony Lake, so influential in recent years, compare with those who first made the National Security Council so consequential, McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger? Is it conceivable that there has been a falling-off in the quality of those prepared to serve in the federal government?

Finally, and most importantly, is it possible that we do not understand the complexity of contemporary foreign policy issues, and appear almost helpless in seeking to define them? We no longer have a single adversary, and it is proving difficult to know which of the several who merit that opprobrium deserve our continuing attention. More significantly, perhaps, we no longer lead an alliance of strong and ambitious European (and Asian) states willing to take direction from us. The United States today does not enjoy the confidence that came so easily in an earlier time.

In short, we appear to be living in an empty intellectual time, and the question is whether we are likely soon to find an early exit from our present dilemmas. Do those appointed by Barack Obama to foreign policy positions show promise of great innovation? Are too many of them Clinton “retreads,” and was this almost inevitable? Ought the new president not be searching for a new generation of able government servants, and where would he be well advised to look for these men and women? Should it be in America’s leading universities, in the so-called established “think tanks,” or among the most promising of the country’s leading young lawyers? Or will he find more of the same in these places—mediocre intellects, partisan operatives, men and women unequal to the challenges of the world around them?

Stephen R. Graubard is former editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and professor of history at Brown University.

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