Monday, January 10, 2011

What We're Reading: The Lost Peace

The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953
By Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek is a distinguished historian of 20th Century America, perhaps best known for his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson and His Times. His previous works on Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and American foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century have prepared him for the speculations he offers here on the critical leadership decisions that were formative in the early years of the Cold War.

As an epigram to his book, Dallek quotes Benjamin Franklin, “An assembly of great men is the greatest fool on earth.” It is a perceptive observation, and is a criticism perhaps especially relevant to our culture of technocratic expertise. It reminded me of my days as an undergraduate political science student reading with utter disbelief the historical transcripts from the Kennedy White House of the discussions between the president and his key advisors during the Cuban Missile crisis, the discussion among those that David Halberstam in his famous book called “the best and the brightest.” They were meetings characterized by disconnections of so many in the room from each other’s concerns, an attachment to narrow and proprietary perspectives that ignored the larger picture. Their advice was of such limited help to the president in the crisis. Witnessing how alone John Kennedy was in trying to resolve things was disconcerting and disturbing, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten.

Dallek’s portraits of the leaders and the decision-making that were key to the early years of the Cold War are more sympathetic and forgiving than Franklin’s epigram. His purpose is to explore how the opportunity for a more peaceful world was lost in the years immediately following WWII, to draw lessons from some of the missteps by leaders at this crucial time, and ultimately to reaffirm a hope that wise counsel and the ability to learn from the mistakes of the time can make leaders more circumspect in the future as they try to manage national security interests and issues of war and peace. His chronicle of missed opportunities and mistakes is to be seen not “as an admission of hopelessness but as a reminder that the flawed leadership of the past was less the consequence of circumstances than of choice.” The key to effective leadership in foreign policy, he maintains, depends on “a realistic grasp of current considerations and of relevant historical analogies.” It is an argument for the relevance and importance of history, I suppose, at a time when historiography seems to be in decline.

But here’s the problem: For this reader, the lesson of Dallek’s account is not that wrong choices were made, but that there were so few alternate choices that were possible or plausible. Dallek fails to make the case that on the basic issues that framed the Cold War there were a lot of likely alternatives, and he often admits that other possibilities he raised were not likely options in the circumstances. He makes a much better case when he discusses the decisions made in the Korean War, a timely account these days, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. The lesson, rather, seems to be that there is a long road of cultural, social, and political choices, one that involves countless small and large decisions along the way, that frame the range of choices we have once we arrive at a crossroads or crisis. Wisdom is not merely something required in a crisis, it is something that must be of long duration and endemic in the exercise of domestic and international leadership.

What Dallek is superbly prepared to write about from his studies of Truman and Johnson, and what is the strongest aspect of The Lost Peace, is his exposition of the problems faced by a democratic government in formulating foreign policy, something that Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated so many years ago in Democracy in America. Truman’s options in dealing with the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and with trying to influence the outcome of events in China were severely impacted by domestic politics, particularly the ascendancy of McCarthyism. America’s foreign policy decisions, at the height of its international power in the last 50 years, have been similarly vexed by the self-serving exigencies and polarizing dynamic of domestic political gamesmanship. The lessons learned from this are, arguably, the most important ones that should be taken from The Lost Peace.

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