Home / From Colony to Superpower XV: Little Hitlers

From Colony to Superpower XV: Little Hitlers


Erik leads off the 15th installment of our 20 part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower with a discussion of John Foster Dulles, and of the role of racism in America’s Cold War foreign policy. I’m more interested in Eisenhower’s relationship with the Middle East, China, and the military-industrial complex.

There was a reason why Eisenhower decried the military-industrial complex; he was attacked from the right by Democrats on defense spending. Eisenhower was the product of a much different understanding of the role of the military in American foreign policy, an era in which defense budgets and the military establishment they supported were quite small. Eisenhower did not, however, step back from committing the United States to a hegemonic role in the Western world. Instead, he tried to achieve hegemony on the cheap, relying on nuclear weapons to keep the peace with the Soviet Union and on covert operations to maintain friendly governments around the world. Herring argues that the CIA essentially lucked into victories in Guatemala and Iran (not so lucky for the Guatemalans and the Iranians) which led to unreasonable expectations for the future of US covert operations. Herring also argues that, while nuclear threats were credited by Dulles and Eisenhower with forcing peace in Korea and saving Taiwan, the actual impact of such threats is far less clear.

China plays an interesting role in this chapter. A question came up in the comment thread of the last installment about the role of the China lobby; I’ve responded a bit at the end of that thread. Chiang Kai Shek proved a real problem for Eisenhower and Dulles. The competitive pressures of the Cold War were exacerbated by the fact that domestic supporters of CKS and the Nationalists were ready to pounce on any indication of a weakening commitment to Taiwan. Mao’s victory, after all, had served as the proximate cause for the rise of Joseph McCarthy. Concerned about the security of Taiwan, Eisenhower and Dulles felt compelled to take risks in defense of Quemoy and Matsu, tiny islands off the mainland that were still held by the Nationalists. At this point, the US still felt comfortable in making explicit or very thinly veiled nuclear threats, although it’s unclear just how seriously Mao took such promises. Policy towards the PRC ossified under Eisenhower, as the administration had no interest whatsoever in risking the defection of the right wing of the Republican party, or in opening itself to attack from the right by the Democrats.

Europe, of course, also presented certain difficulties. Eisenhower’s response to the Suez Crisis was, in my view, about as well-crafted as could be expected. I understand that some Israelis still argue that, if only Nasser could have been deposed in 1956, Israel’s security could have been confirmed in the long term. This is plainly insane, for reasons that don’t really need elaboration. In any case, Eisenhower made clear that France and the United Kingdom would be left to the tender mercies of the Soviet Union if they did not desist, and both relented, suitably chastised. This event, along with the rearmament of West Germany, helped to solidify the asymmetric nature of the US relationship with Great Britain, if not with France, and consequently with most of the rest of Western Europe. It’s also interesting to note that US policymakers felt some affinity with religious Muslims, both in the Arab world and in Pakistan.

Herring makes the case that the collapse of relations between the United States and Cuba was mainly the fault of Castro. This is to say that Castro’s vision of Cuba didn’t have a lot of room for the United States; the Eisenhower administration was surprisingly flexible, turning on Batista towards the end and extending feelers towards the new regime. For Castro, however, alienating the United States was a feature, not a bug. Herring is skeptical that the United States could have engaged in any policy that would have produced amity with Cuba, although the invasion and the continuing efforts at destabilization and assassination (which he details in the next chapter) probably didn’t help.

Castro was, I think, the fourth of the “little Hitlers” that emerged during the 1950s. The others were Mao, Khruschev, and Nasser. The Munich Analogy loomed very large in the minds of US policymakers, and there was deep concern that threats were not being identified and reacted to with sufficient speed. The administration’s defense strategy contributed to this; it was difficult to respond to some crises without reference to nuclear weapons, which proved a very limited tool for making countries do what the US wanted. It’s never precisely one or the other, but I do tend to be somewhat more tolerant of the use of the Munich Analogy by people who actually lived through World War II, rather than its use by those who simply wish to screech “Chamberlain!!!!” at any opponent of aggressive military action.

Kennedy, Johnson, and chapter XVI come tomorrow…

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