Part 18 in our twenty part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower brings us to 1974, and Gerald Ford’s unlikely ascension to the office of the Presidency. The chapter ends with the election of Ronald Reagan. In between, Herring expresses unlikely sympathy for the two occupants of the White House; the main villain of the piece is one Henry “Scoop” Jackson, along with the army of neoconservatives that he helped foster.
The over-arching theme of the chapter is the retreat (if only temporary) of the imperial presidency. Congress, emboldened by Watergate and by the Vietnam disaster, wasn’t in the mood to give either Ford or Carter an easy time. Herring challenges the notion that Ford was a bit of a dullard, noting that he had a strong record of compromise legislation in the House. The deck was stacked against, however; with the Democrats in control of Congress and in no mood to compromise, Ford had very limited success. Carter, although enjoying significant Democratic majorities, just didn’t have a solid strategy for dealing with Congress. It’s important to remember that the Democratic party of the 1970s is not the one that exists today, and that party discipline was much lower then than now.
In any case, both Ford and Carter faced challenges from the left and the right. The left tried to reduce the President’s ability to launch and wage illegal wars. The interference from the right was a good deal more destructive, and was led by “Scoop” Jackson of Washington. Jackson intervened in nearly every foreign policy question during this period, almost always to bad effect. In particular, he helped undermine several initiatives to further detente and reduce tensions with the Soviets. His interference didn’t end there, however; he also managed to misjudge US relations with China, and with Iran. Overall, Herring’s portrayal of Scoop Jackson is that of a buffoon; a man who’s inadequate knowledge of foreign affairs didn’t prevent him from taking on the role of demagogue, with destructive consequences. It’s not a portrayal that I particularly disagree with, and I think it’s fair to say that naming a ballistic missile submarine Henry M. Jackson is altogether as embarrassing for the Navy as the Carl Vinson and the John C. Stennis.
Herring argues that Jimmy Carter faced a series of nearly intractable foreign policy problems, and proceeded to handle them in a generally inept way. Carter had very little foreign policy experience, and built a foreign policy team that almost immediately went to war against itself. He didn’t have a strong understanding of how to build domestic support for policy, even when the policies themselves were quite solid. Herring lauds Carter’s commitment to the Panama Canal Treaty, for example, but questions his inability to explain why the treaty was a good idea in the face of conservative criticism. The comparisons with Obama are useful; although we don’t know how the Obama administration will be judged 20 years from now, it’s hard not to read Herring’s account of Carter and think that Obama has proceeded in a much more careful and effective manner, at least so far. Carter was also uncertain as to how to deal with the collapse of detente. Herring points out that detente was inherently limited by the fact that the US and the USSR had very different interests; Carter perhaps expected too much, and interpreted what the Soviets viewed as healthy competiton within detente as a break from detente. By the end of his administration, Carter had become a committed Cold Warrior. Of necessity Herring deals at length with the Iran hostage crisis, noting again that Carter inherited a problem with no solution, but that he didn’t distinguish himself even within that constraint.
One country in particular seems to be missing from Herring’s account; Indonesia. Obviously, it’s not Herring’s responsibility to discuss US relations with every country in the world, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on between the US and Indonesia during the Cold War, and thus far Herring hasn’t paid it much attention. In this chapter, Herring doesn’t have any discussion of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor (under Ford’s watch), of post-invasion relations between the US and Indonesia (under Carter’s watch), or of the role that Indonesia played in US Cold War strategy. Much the same could be said of the Philippines; I’m curious to see how Herring with deal with the end of the Marcos regime during the Reagan administration.