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The menopause of empire.

Before we get down to the really serious stuff about Monica and Kathleen, I plan just a little foreplay here about the origins of the American empire and the meaning of the Cold War, how it started, who started it, who benefited. The twentieth century and the second Christian millennium are heading hand in hand for the exit. Personally, I thought they'd never go without taking us with them.

We all know that centuries and millennia are just arbitrary markings--a bit like the bookkeeping at Paramount Pictures. But symbolically, they mean a lot. This goes particularly for the one indisposable--or does the President say indispensable?--nation on Earth, and the last self-styled global empire, loaded down with nukes, bases, and debts.

I have now lived through nearly three-quarters of this century. I enlisted in the Army of the United States at seventeen, went to the Pacific, did nothing useful--I was just there, as Richard M. Nixon says, when the bombs were falling. Actually, the bombs were not really falling on either one of us. I was writing a novel, and he was making a fortune playing poker.

Now, suddenly, it's 1998. Last year, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Also, more ominously, last July 26 was the fiftieth anniversary of the National Security Act that, without any national debate or the people's consent, replaced the old American republic with a national security state very much in the global empire business. Let us get into the time machine.

It is the ides of August 1945. Germany and Japan have surrendered, and some thirteen million Americans are headed home. Home turned out to be a sort of fairground where fireworks go off, and the band plays "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," and an endlessly enticing fun house flings open its doors, and we file through. We enjoy halls and mirrors where everyone is comically distorted, ride through all the various tunnels of love, and take scary tours of horror chambers, where skeletons and cobwebs and bats push past us. And suitably chilled and thrilled, we're ready for the exit and everyday life.

But, to the consternation of some and the apparent indifference of the rest, we were never really allowed to leave the fun house. It has become a permanent part of our world, as were those goblins sitting under the apple tree.

Officially, the United States was at peace. Much of Europe and most of Japan were in ruins, often literally, certainly economically. We alone had all our cities and a sort of booming economy--sort of, because it depended on war production and there was, as far as anyone could tell, no war in the offing. Briefly, the arts flourished. It looked like it was going to be a golden age. The Glass Menagerie was staged, Copland's Appalachian Spring was played, a film called The Lost Weekend--not a bad title for what we'd gone through--won an Academy Award. And the as-yet-unexiled Richard Wright published the much-admired work Black Boy, while Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County was banned for obscenity in parts of the country, though it would be allowed out today in Washington.

Quaintly, each city had at least three or four daily newspapers, while New York, as befitted the world's capital, had seventeen newspapers. But a novelty, television, had begun to appear in household after household, its cold, gray, distorting eye relentlessly projecting a fun house view of the world.

Those who followed the ugly new minted word "media" began to note that often while watching television we kept fading in and out of the chamber of horrors. Our ally in the recent war, Uncle Joe Stalin, as the Accidental President Harry S. Truman called him, was growing horns and fangs that dripped blood. On Earth we were the only great unruined power with atomic weapons, and we were somehow at terrible risk.

Why? How?

The trouble appeared to be over Germany, which on February 11, 1945, had been split at the Yalta Summit meeting into four zones--American, Soviet, British, and French. As the Russians had done the most fighting and suffered the greatest losses, it was agreed that they should have an early crack at reparations from Germany to the extent of $20 billion.

At a later meeting at Potsdam, the new President Truman, with Stalin and Churchill, reconfirmed Yalta and opted for the unification of Germany under the four victorious powers. But something had happened between the euphoria of Yalta and the edginess of Potsdam.

As the meeting progressed, the atom bomb was tried out successfully in a New Mexico desert. We were now able to incinerate Japan, or the Soviets for that matter, and we no longer needed Russia's help to defeat Japan. We started to renege on our agreements with Stalin, particularly reparations from Germany. We also quietly shelved the notion agreed upon at Yalta of a united Germany under four-power control. Our aim now was to unite the three western zones of Germany and integrate them into our Western Europe, restoring in the process Germany's economy, hence fewer reparations.

Then, as of May 1946, we began to rearm Germany. Stalin went up the wall at this betrayal. The Cold War was on.

At home, the media were beginning to prepare the attentive few for disappointment. Suddenly we were faced with the highest personal income taxes in American history to pay for more and more weapons, among them the world killer hydrogen bomb. Why? Because the Russians were coming. No one knew quite why they were coming or with what. Weren't they still burying twenty million dead?

Official explanations for all this made very little sense. But then, as Truman's Secretary of State Dean Acheson narrowly observed, "In the State Department we used to discuss how much time that mythical average American citizen put in each day listening, reading, and arguing about the world outside his country. It seemed to us that ten minutes a day would be a high average." So why bore the people? Secret bipartisan government is best for what, after all, is or should be a society of docile workers, enthusiastic consumers, obedient soldiers who will believe just about anything for at least ten minutes.

The national security state, the NATO alliance, the forty years Cold War, were all created without the consent, much less the advice, of the American people. Of course, there were elections during the crucial time, but Truman-Dewey, Eisenhower-Stevenson, Kennedy-Nixon were of a single mind as to the desirability of inventing first a many-tentacled enemy--communism, the star of the chamber of horrors--then, to combat so much evil, install a permanent wartime state at home, with loyalty oaths, the national peacetime draft, and secret police to keep watch over homegrown traitors, as the few enemies of the national security state were known.

Then followed forty years of mindless wars, which created a debt of $5 trillion that hugely benefited aerospace companies and firms like General Electric, whose longtime TV spokesman, Ronald Reagan, eventually retired to the White House.

Why go into all of this now? Have we not done marvelously well? Certainly, European bankers envy our powerless labor unions (only 14 percent of the lucky funsters are privileged to belong to a union), and our industries (lean, mean, down-sized). There is no particular place for the redundant to go, except into the hell of sizzle and fry and burn.

Today, we give orders to every country on our globe--tell them with whom to trade and to which of our courts they must show up for indictment should they disobey. Yet we have come to what Tennessee Williams once called a "moon of pause."

I asked him, "What on Earth does that mean, Tennessee?"

"It is," he said loftily, "the actual Greek translation of menopause."

I said that the word "moon" did not come from "menses"--Latin, not Greek, for month.

"Then what," he asked suspiciously, "is the Latin for moon?"

And I told him it was "luna," and all the fun he might have with the word "lunatic."

He sighed and cut.

But "a moon of pause" seems a nice dotty phrase for the change of life that our empire is now going through with no enemy and no discernible function.

While we were at our busiest in the fun house, no one ever tot us what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was really about. On March 17, 1948, the Treaty of Brussels called for a military alliance of Britain, France, and Benelux to be joined by the U.S. and Canada. The impetus behind NATO was the United States, whose principal foreign policy since the Administration of George Washington was to avoid entangling alliances. Now, as the Russians were supposed to be coming, we replaced the old republic with a newborn national security state and set up shop as the major European power west of the Elbe. We were now hell-bent on the permanent division of Germany between our Western zone (plus the French and British zones) and the Soviet sector to the East. Serenely, we broke every agreement that we had made with our former ally, the now horrendous communist enemy. For those interested in the details, Carolyn Eisenberg's Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949, is a masterful survey of an empire, sometimes blindly, sometimes brilliantly assembling itself.

Although the Soviets still wanted to live by our original arrangements at Yalta, and even Potsdam, we had decided unilaterally to restore the German economy in order to enfold a rearmed Germany into Western Europe, thus isolating the Soviet Union, a nation which had not recovered from the Second World War and had no nuclear weapons.

It was Dean Acheson again who elegantly explained all the lies that he was obliged to tell Congress in the ten-minute attention span of the average American. This is gorgeous stuff. "If we did make our points clearer than truth," says Acheson, writing in his memoirs, "we did not differ from most other educators and could hardly do otherwise."

Qualification must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness--almost brutality--in carrying home a point. Thus for two generations, Americans have been conditioned by their overlords so that at the word "communism" there is a Pavlovian reflex as the brain goes totally dead.

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Walter Bedell Smith wrote in December 1947, "The difficulty under which we labor is that in spite of our announced position we really do not want, nor intend to accept, German unification in any terms the Russians might agree to, even though they seem to meet most of our requirements." This is higher diplomacy.

Stalin's frustration led to the famous blockade of the Allied section of Berlin, overcome by General Lucius Clay's successful airlift. As Eisenberg writes, with the inception of the Berlin blockade, President Truman articulated a simple story that featured the Russians trampling the wartime agreements in their ruthless grab of the former German capital. The President did not explain that the United States had abandoned Yalta and Potsdam, that it was pushing the formation of a West German state against the misgivings of many Europeans, and that the Soviets had launched the blockade to prevent partition. This was fun-house politics at its most tragical.

On March 12, 1947, Truman addressed Congress to proclaim what would be known as the Truman Doctrine, in which he targeted our ally of two years earlier as the enemy. The subject at hand was a civil war in Greece, supposedly directed by the Soviets. We could not tolerate this as suddenly--this is his quotation--"the policy of the United States is to support free people." Thus Truman made the entire world the specific business of the United States. Although Greek insurgents were getting some help from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the Soviets gave none. They still hoped that the British, whose business Greece had been, would keep order. But as Britain had neither the resources nor the will, they called on the U.S. to step it

Behind the usual closed doors, Acheson was stirring up Congress with Iago-like intensity. "Russian pressure of some sort," he said, "has brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration."

Senators gasped, grew pale, wondered how to get more defense contracts into their states.

Of the major politicians, only former Vice President Henry Wallace dared answer Truman's clearer-than-truth version of history. Wallace said, "Yesterday, March 12, 1947, marked a turning point in American history. For it is not a Greek crisis that we face; it is an American crisis. Yesterday, President Truman proposed, in effect, that America police Russia's every border. There is no regime too reactionary for us, provided it stands in Russia's expansionist path. There is no country too remote to serve as a scene of a contest which may widen until it becomes a world war."

Nine days after Truman declared war on communism, he installed a federal loyalty oath program. All government employees had to now swear allegiance to the new order. Henry Wallace struck again: "The President's Executive Order creates a master index of public servants from the janitor in the village post office to the Cabinet members. They are to be sifted and tested and watched and appraised."

Truman was nervously aware that many regarded Wallace as the true heir to Roosevelt's New Deal. Wallace was also likely to enter the Presidential race of 1948. Truman now left truth behind in the dust. Here is his quote: "The attempt of Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin et al. to fool the world--and the American Crackpots Association, represented by Joe Davies, Henry Wallace, Claude Pepper, and the actors and artists in immoral Greenwich Village--is just like Hitler's and Mussolini's so-called socialist states." Give 'em hell, Harry.

In the wake of Truman's cuckoo-like emergence from the old-fashioned closets of the republic, a new American state was being born in order to save the nation and the great globe itself from communism. The nature of this militarized state was from the beginning beyond rational debate. Characteristically, Truman and Acheson insisted on closed hearings of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations--these matters were too important to share with the people whose spare ten minutes was now more and more filling up with television. The media spoke with a single voice. Time-Life publisher Henry Luce said it loudest: "God has founded America as a global beacon of freedom." (He once said to me the great task for the United States in the American century is the Christianization of China. I remember thinking then we were really in trouble.)

Dissenters like Wallace were labeled communists and ceased to engage meaningfully in public life. An ancestral voice in his own time, Wallace spoke again on May 21, 1947: "Today, in blind fear of communism, we are turning aside from the United Nations. We are approaching a century of fear." And thus far he has proved to be half right. On July 26, 1947, Congress enacted the National Security Act, which created the National Security Council, still going strong, and the Central Intelligence Agency, still apparently hung over a cliff as the result of decades of bad intelligence, not to mention all those cheery traitors for whom the country club at Langley, Virginia, was once an impenetrable cover.

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created, only Charles De Gaulle got the point of what we were doing. He took France out of our Cosa Nostra and developed his own atomic bomb. But France was still very much linked to the empire, through the CIA and other secret forces.

Political control was exerted within the empire, not only driving the Labor prime minister, Harold Wilson, around a bend too far, but preventing Italy from ever having a cohesive government by not allowing the historic compromise, a government of Christian Democrats and Communists.

The Soviets promptly cracked down on their client states--Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany--and the wall went up in Berlin.

From 1950 to 1990, Europe was dangerously divided and armed to the teeth. But as American producers of weapons were never richer, all was well for their world.

At Yalta, Roosevelt wanted to break up the European colonial empires, particularly that of the French. Of Indochina, FDR said France has milked it for 100 years. For the time being, he proposed a U.N. trusteeship. Then he died.

Unlike Roosevelt, Truman was not a philatelist. Had he been a stamp collector, he might have known where the various countries in the world were and who lived in them. Like every good American, he knew he hated communism; he also hated socialism, which may or may not have been the same thing--no one was ever quite sure.

Yet as early as the American election of 1848, socialism--imported by comical German immigrants with noses always in books--was an ominous spectre calculated to enrage a raw capitalist society with labor unions, health care, and other devil's work. It is still being fiercely resisted a century and a half later.

In 1946, when Ho Chi Minh asked the United States to take Indochina under its wing, Truman said, No way, you are some kind of Fu Manchu Communist--the worst. In August 1945, Truman told De Gaulle that the French could return to Indochina--we were no longer FDR anti-imperialists. As Ho had his northern republic, the French installed Bao Dai in the South. On February 1, 1950, the State Department came to this extraordinary conclusion: "The choice confronting the United States is to support the French in Indochina or face the extension of communism over the remainder of the continental area of Southeast Asia, and possibly further westward." Thus without shepherds or even a napalm star, the domino theory was born in a humble State Department manger.

On May 8, 1950, Acheson recommended economic and military aid to the French in Vietnam. By 1955, the U.S. was paying 40 percent of the French costs for that war. For a quarter century, the United States was to fight in Vietnam because our ignorant leaders and their sharp-eyed financiers never realized that the game is not dominoes but chess.

Happily, nothing ever stays the same. During the last days of the waning moon, a haphazard Western European Union was being cobbled together. Then the Soviet Union, demonstrating its pure viciousness, abruptly folded. The two Germanys that we had so painstakingly kept apart reunited. Washington was suddenly adrift, and in the sky, the moon of empire paused.

Neither Reagan nor Bush had much knowledge of history or geography; nevertheless, orders still kept coming from the White House, but they were less and less heeded because everyone knew that the oval one had a bank overdraft of $5 trillion, and he could no longer give presents to good clients or wage war without first passing the hat to the Germans and the Japanese, as he was obliged to do when Ted Turner had his light show for CNN in the Persian Gulf.

Gradually, it is now becoming evident to even the most distracted funster that there is no longer any need for NATO because there is no enemy. One might say there never really was one, even when NATO was started. But over the years, we did succeed in creating a pretty dangerous Soviet funhouse-mirror version of ourselves. Although the United States may yet, in support of Israel, declare war on one billion Muslims, the Europeans will stay out of that one. They recall 1529, when the Turks besieged Vienna, not as obliging guest workers, but as world conquerors. The time has now come for the Europeans to free themselves of their American masters.

Our motive for hanging on to empire is obvious. With an expanded NATO, our arms makers, if not workers, are in for a bonanza. As it is, American sales of weapons went up 23 percent last year while restrictions on sales to Latin America are being lifted. Chile, ever menaced by Ecuador, plans to buy twenty-four F-16 jet fighters.

But it is an expanded NATO that causes true joy in the boardrooms. Upon joining NATO, the lucky new club member is obliged to buy expensive weapons from the likes of Lockheed Martin. Since the new members have precarious economies and the old ones are not exactly booming, the American taxpayer--a wan goose that lays few eggs--will have to borrow even more money to foot the bill, which the Congressional Budget Office says should come to $125 billion over fifteen years, with the U.S. paying most of it. Yeltsin correctly sees this as a hostile move against Russia, not to mention an expensive renewal of the Cold War.

There comes a moment when empires cease to exert energy and become symbolic or existential, as we used to say back in the 1940s. The current wrangling over NATO demonstrates what a quandary a symbolic empire is in when it wants to maintain its view of itself at home and abroad and yet lacks the mind, much less the resources, to impose its hegemony upon its former client states.

In the absence of money and common will, nothing much will probably happen. Meanwhile, there's a new and better world ready to be born. The optimum economic unit in the world is now the city-state. Thanks to technology, everyone knows or can know something about everyone else on the planet. The message now pounding in over the Internet is the irrelevancy, not to mention the sheer danger, of the traditional nation-state, much less empire.

The common Euro Market will evolve not so much into a union of ancient bloodstained states as a mosaic of homogeneous regions like the Spanish-French Basques or city-states like Milan, each loosely linked in trade with a clearinghouse information center at Brussels. People who want to be rid of onerous nation-states should be left to go in order to pursue (and even--why not?--overtake) happiness, the goal, or so we Americans have always pretended to believe, of the human enterprise.

So, on that predictably sententious American note, I am tempted to enjoin the movers and shakers of this world to recall the Greek doctor's oath: "Above all, do no harm." Hippocrates also wrote--and this goes for the moved and the shaken of the world--"Life is short, but the art is long, the opportunity fleeting, the experiment perilous, the judgment difficult."
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Title Annotation:postwar American foreign policy
Author:Vidal, Gore
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1998
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