20 March 2008

The Truman Doctrine

On his Powell History Recommends blog, Scott Powell has posted an excellent essay on the Truman Doctrine.  This doctrine committed America to checking the spread of communism by “supporting free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by the communist government.”  The result was that the United States ended up fighting proxy wars that had nothing to do with legitimate American interests, and providing military and financial aid to some dubious nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia.  In broad strokes, Powell surveys the consequences of this doctrine, which we may now look upon from some distance - and the track record is not good.  It's well worth reading the full text:  The Truman Doctrine vs. American Self-Interest .

This topic called to mind an opinion I've been developing over a long time - namely, we never really needed to worry about the spread of communism.  Notice that I did not say we didn't need to worry about communism; I am saying that we need not have feared the spread of communism in the sense of Eisenhower’s “falling dominoes.”

(Let me inject here that I’m not yet certain about my conclusion; it needs more study.  I am certain about both of the individual premises below, but I don’t know if I’m missing some historical details that would change the context.) 

Here are the two main reasons for my position.  

First, quite simply, communism doesn't work.  It’s a disaster in theory and in practice.  (The moral is the practical, as Ayn Rand identified.)  A country that enslaves its citizens simply cannot prosper in the long term.  Sure, it can buy time by invading its neighbors and living parasitically off its new host, but it will soon drain it dry.  One cannot threaten and beat a man into producing anywhere near the value that a free mind can produce; one cannot indefinitely punish the best people and reward the incompetent.  A communist country will inevitably fall of its own weight.  So... let it fall.

In fact, one could argue that containment did the Soviets a favor.  The more the Soviet Union spread out, the more difficult it was to survive as a communist country.  (Notice that China has survived only by permitting some measure of “capitalism,” such as it is, to creep into the mixture.)  In a free nation, every citizen is (on average) a producer who pulls more than his own weight; in a communist nation, every citizen is (on average) a mouth to feed, a burden to the rest.  Plus, the more heavy-handed the communist government would have to be in order to hold everything together, the more it would foment unrest that would accelerate its demise.  Ironically, perhaps the USSR would have been doomed much earlier if it had spread out quicker.  For all the problems there are with Ronald Reagan as a President, at least he seemed to recognize the bankruptcy of communism; his predecessors saw a lion that needed to be caged, while Reagan saw a puny tick that was helpless without a host.

The second reason is that no matter how well intentioned it may be, no free nation can force another to resist communism.  One cannot make people want to be free; it’s a contradiction in terms.  It is possible to crush an enemy so thoroughly that they reject their former ways and adopt relative freedom - Japan after World War II is an example.  But I don’t see how the United States could have hoped to succeed in stopping communism by sending military forces to a remote jungle, to prop up a population that favored some other, perhaps “milder,” variant of socialism.  

This is not to say that no other nations were worth helping: Scott Powell mentioned Taiwan and possibly South Korea as potentially worthy of aid.  Perhaps there were some small number of relatively weak countries that deserved our help.  But the few countries in the world that demonstrably favored freedom, and thus were allies certainly worthy of support, were also not seriously or immediately threatened by a communist takeover.  I'm thinking here of England, Australia, Japan, Canada, and Israel, which were not direct military targets of the Soviet Union or China.     

I also must stress that in any direct threat by the Soviet Union or any other communist country (and a bunch of ICBM’s with nuclear payloads pointed in our direction certainly seems to constitute a threat), I favor a direct strike against them if militarily possible without committing suicide.  Not a proxy war.  A direct strike.  But that is a separate issue.


Burgess Laughlin said...

This is not to say that no other nations were worth helping: Scott Powell mentioned Taiwan and possibly South Korea as potentially worthy of aid. Perhaps there were some small number of relatively weak countries that deserved our help.

One way to help people in other countries who want to be free is to (1) open our borders to all peaceful and honest individuals from those countries, and (2) abolish all welfare.

The result would be an instance of the principle of greater strength through social distillation: Pro-freedom people will tend to gather in the one place that offers them the most protection, and a result is that in that one place they become the great majority or at least the dominant minority. I suspect that is what happened with the American colonies.

SB said...

I agree completely. That is usually one of the first arguments I make when I hear my colleagues complain about "illegal immigration." If we eliminate government handouts for immigrants - and I believe under Clinton's welfare reform, that is pretty much the case now - then only the right sort of people would want to come here. Let them come. This would not only raise our standard of living, but would simultaneously drain unfree countries of their best people. Those coutries would need to either reform or perish (or exist in primitive squalor).

C. August said...

Some comments about the following statement:

First, quite simply, communism doesn't work. It’s a disaster in theory and in practice. ... A country that enslaves its citizens simply cannot prosper in the long term. ... A communist country will inevitably fall of its own weight. So... let it fall.

I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, it's easy to see now that this is the case, but at the time the Soviets projected quite a bit of strength. Granted, not in 1947, but definitely once they developed a big enough nuclear arsenal to give us pause.

Second, deeper than that, Truman and the rest of the US leadership were ill-equipped to make the identification you did. They held altruism as their moral ideal, and thus were incapable of seeing what made America so strong and made communism so corrupt and worthless.

I'm not making any excuses for their actions. But when I read your post, I was struck by idea that the leaders simply didn't have the right ideas to see the true nature of the communist threat (or fundamental lack thereof).

I think this carries over to your broader point that we never really needed to worry about containing communism. I agree with you, but I don't think there was anyone around who could identify why that was the case, or be able to properly defend that position on any sort of philosophical grounds. It's rather unfortunate and depressing, now that I look at it that way.

On a related note, I posted a piece about presidential doctrines from Monroe to the present, and would be interested in your thoughts about it.

SB said...

You know, now that you mention it, I see another interesting aspect to the fact that our leaders didn’t have the right ideas to properly confront communism. Neither the rationalistic idealism of Truman nor the pragmatism of Eisenhower provided the correct framework. That’s not surprising, of course, but it’s interesting.

Thanks for the link to your presidential doctrines post. I can see there’s a lot of material there so I’m going to spend some time with it.