History Book Club
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
American Foreign Policy
Sadat, Carter, Begin at Camp David, Sept. 17, 1978
Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, Ninth Edition, 2011.
In this current election season there’s a lot of talk about who’s qualified to be President. How does any man, or woman, prepare for the job of leading the American people? In particular, how do you prepare for conducting relations with countries all over the world? Including countries who are absolutely opposed to us? And including organizations like Daesh, or the Islamic State?
Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley’s excellent book traces the story of American foreign policy from 1938 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been President for five years, right up to 2010, when Barack Obama was President.
Imagine what Roosevelt faced in 1938 when Hitler was annexing Austria, and swallowing up Sudetenland. And then September 1939 when Hitler marched in to Poland, and then Great Britain and France declared war on Germany; 1940 when German troops marched in to Western Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway and France. Great Britain’s Churchill began urgent appeals to Roosevelt, because all of Europe was about to fall under the heel of Hitler.
FDR made a lot of mistakes during that war, but thank God, he did a lot of things right, and so when he died in April 1945, Germany was within one month of surrendering, and Japan surrendered four months later.
As a naval officer aboard U.S. Navy ships and submarines, and serving in Tehran, Moscow and Japan, I was far down the chain of command, but from the time of Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, it was possible to see what the President knew, and what he did, and what meant the difference in life and death for people all over the world.
As a young officer aboard a destroyer, we were ordered to patrol the Straits of Formosa to defend little Taiwan against the Chinese Communists during the days of Eisenhower (1958). Months later, as we arrived home to Long Beach, CA, we were ordered to load more ammunition and head for the Panama Canal and on to Lebanon, when things were heating up in the Middle East.
A couple of years later, John Kennedy was President, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) threatened a nuclear war with the USSR. The submarine I was on was part of a barrier spread all across the Atlantic, to oppose the Soviet submarines that we expected would be heading our way.
One of the negotiating points that ended that crisis was for the Russians to pull their missile launchers out of Cuba, and for us to remove our missiles, targeted at the Soviet Union, from Turkey. My Polaris submarine was ordered to sail to the waters off Turkey to replace that missile coverage. During that patrol, we received the message that Kennedy had been assassinated (1963). A few hours later, we got the message to get ready to launch missiles. In those hours after the killing, we didn’t know if World War III was starting, or what. Turned out it was just a readiness exercise, and we stood down.
Nixon visits Shah, Tehran, May 31, 1972
A few years later, when Richard Nixon was President, I was serving in Iran, advising the military staff of the Shah. The Shah was a close ally of the United States, but when Nixon came to visit (1972), there were minor bombings all over Tehran, and a U.S. Air Force general was injured by a terrorist bomb attack, and two Iranians were killed. We were just learning that there was a lot of anger. That anger boiled up into revolution a few years later.
According to Ambrose and Brinkley, the CIA in Iran never really grasped what was happening in Iran during these days, so the eventual revolution came as a surprise.
Next I commanded a destroyer making gunnery raids against North Viet Nam as Nixon started his massive Christmas bombing of Hanoi. Months later, I was commanding an ammunition ship carrying munitions to supply the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War.
Then, just as Ronald Reagan relieved Jimmy Carter as President, Iran released the American hostages it had been holding. I was sent to the Soviet Union as a naval attaché, collecting intelligence all over the country, and working with a network of NATO officers that gathered and shared intelligence about the Soviet bloc.
Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, 1986
Finally, during my last year in uniform, I served in the Pentagon when Reagan met with Gorbachev in Iceland and the two leaders made a bizarre agreement to eliminate missiles that caught everyone by surprise. That resulted in a December 1987 agreement (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) which was hailed as a great breakthrough in arms reduction.
When I hear Donald Trump dismiss foreign policy with the casualness of some barroom blowhard, I cannot believe he actually has a chance to be our President.
He claims that he already knows more about ISIS than those generals and admirals; that his experience running international beauty pageants taught him a lot about working with foreigners. He emphatically states that NATO has outlived its usefulness, when he has no way of knowing how NATO works, and the myriad ways that we have worked with fellow officers of other countries for decades, learning and teaching better warfighting techniques, and gaining intelligence that could not be obtained from our own people. [Even in Moscow, NATO attachés gathered often to discuss intelligence findings. We learned much from French, West German, Italian, Norwegian, Japanese, British and Canadian attachés, as well as Swedish and Swiss.]
Ambrose and Brinkley have a lot to say about every President, and how they conducted foreign policy, from FDR to George W. Bush and a little about Barack Obama. I’d like to focus on two Presidential administrations.
Jimmy Carter brought very little exposure to foreigners with him when he became President in 1977. Although he had graduated from the Naval Academy and served aboard the first nuclear submarine, he soon left the Navy and became a peanut farmer and then Governor of Georgia.
Carter was a religious man, and he meant to defend human rights in his presidency. When we hear Trump talking about “making America rich again” and “Killing families of terrorists” and instituting torture, it is such a jarring contrast with this really good, but naïve, man. Ambrose and Brinkley wrote that Carter was the least-experienced president in the post-World War II era.
Jimmy Carter took over relations with Iran as developed by Richard Nixon. In 1977, as he took office, he declared that “human rights is the soul of our foreign policy.” Also that year he stated that Iran is an “island of stability” in one of the more troubled areas of the world. At the start of his administration he declared that the U.S. had paid too much attention to the USSR, and not enough to arms reduction and to opposing the repressive right-wing dictatorships around the world.
Ambrose and Brinkley found that Carter’s goals were wildly impractical, they aroused resentment in the USSR and contributed to the downfall of America’s oldest and staunchest ally in the Middle East. Instead of reducing nuclear arms, they increased at about the same rate as his predecessors.
Riots began in Iran in 1977 and in February 1979 the Shah left the country. Shortly afterward, Ayatollah Khomeini, brought back from exile in Paris, took over. Carter and his aides did not have a clue how to handle this. Ambrose and Brinkley wrote that Carter saw danger where there was none, and didn’t see it where it existed.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian “students” took over the American Embassy in Tehran, and took 100 hostages. Carter’s statements elevated their importance in the eyes of the Iranians, and the hostage crisis dominated the American news for the rest of Carter’s administration.
On April 25, 1980, upon Carter’s orders, American forces initiated a mission (Operation Eagle Claw) to rescue the hostages that was a colossal screw-up. The world was watching as events unfolded. It turned out that Carter had demanded such absolute secrecy that the various participants in the mission did not coordinate with each other. Obviously they had not used Iranian experts to assist, because they attempted to land aircraft and helicopters in the famous Dasht-i-Lut desert in southeastern Iran, and encountered violent sandstorms. Any Iran expert could have warned them about “the wind of 120 days”. Shortly after the fiasco our Atlantic Fleet Commander told us in an audience at the Naval War College that the Pentagon plucked helicopters from one squadron, took pilots from another, flew them onto an unfamiliar carrier, all to carry Delta Force on one of its first missions. Because of secrecy there was almost no coordination. Helicopters fitted for desert operations should have been fitted with sand filters; these were not. Also there should have been more redundancy of equipment to overcome the unexpected.
Carter pursued peace in the Middle East and made a major foreign policy achievement when he got Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel to agree on a peace treaty in 1979. Henry Kissinger had tried so hard to get this, but Carter did it.
The Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed in Washington March 26, 1979, following the 1978 Camp David Accords. Sadly, it infuriated the Arab world so much that Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
This peace treaty should have been the most notable success in Carter’s presidency, but it was overshadowed by the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the debacle in the desert. Carter’s poor handling of the Iran crisis was instrumental in handing him the worst defeat of an incumbent president, even including Hoover in 1932, wrote Ambrose and Brinkley.
As Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as President in January, 1981, word came in that the aircraft carrying the 52 American hostages had cleared Iranian airspace and was en route home. This was the first indication Americans got that this would be a different presidency.
Where Carter continually projected the wrong “optics”, the former movie star was expert: Carter carrying his own suitcase. Carter talking to the nation with a sad face, and wearing a cardigan sweater. Reagan always looked upbeat. His “It’s morning in America!” projected his infectious optimism.
Where Carter tried to push his “human rights” agenda, and ended up being repeatedly embarrassed by the Soviets, Reagan approached them with a stern visage that conveyed the idea that he would take no foolishness from them. He really was no expert at dealing with Russians, but his natural approach was to talk to them as one would talk to a mule.
Wherever I went in the USSR, Russians would ask me, “Does Reagan want war?” He definitely had their attention.
Reagan struggled mightily to defeat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and hold back communism elsewhere in the Americas; he got in a lot of trouble with his shady Iran-Contra Affair, when his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North became the man of the hour, in a deal that involved having Israel ship banned arms to Iran, and payments going to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain when Reagan was President, credited him with ending the Cold War. Ambrose and Brinkley were not so generous, granting that luck was with him. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union began to implode, partially because they could not and would not keep up with an arms race made tremendously more expensive by Reagan’s strategic defense initiative.
In the end, Ambrose and Brinkley noted that Reagan is considered one of America’s top ten presidents with lasting influence on history.
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2016
Wednesday, August, 31, 2016: Germs and Plagues: A history of epidemics in the world. Plague of Athens (429 BC), Plague of Justinian (541 AD), “Black Death” in 1346, Cocoliztli Epidemic in Mexico (1528), Wampanoag Smallpox in 1616, 1918 Flu Pandemic, more.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Scaremongering and Witch Hunts in America.Salem Witch Trials, House Un-American Activities Committee; McCarthy Investigations; more.
Harry Truman holds Chicago Tribune that reported Dewey's "Victory"
Wednesday, October 26, 2016: Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.
December: No Meeting