Friday, February 12, 2010

Eisenhower and East Asia

It takes a foolhardy man to disagree with Professor (!!!) Cummings, but on this occasion a brief rejoinder is in order. In an aptly titled essay ("What the Fuck is Barack Obama Doing?"), Alex analogizes Barack Obama and Dwight Eisenhower. He argues that Obama resembles Eisenhower in that the former's main successes are due to what he has not done. Specifically, Alex argues that "Ike was perhaps most successful for what he did not do...he resisted the temptation to get the US enmeshed in conflicts in East Asia." Although I can't say much about the analogy , Eisenhower's foreign policy is particularly intriguing. Alex's understanding of Eisenhower's East Asian policy reflects the revisionists accounts of the Administration's foreign policy towards the region published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though the work of the revisionists shed light on many aspects of Eisenhower's foreign policy, their consensus need not go unchallenged.

In one of those strange quirks of the historical profession, Robert McMahon's 1986 historiographical essay on Eisenhower's foreign policy has itself become part of the historiography.* McMahon takes to task "Eisenhower Revisionists" who challenge the traditional literature's characterization of Eisenhower as a "bumbling leader who presided over the 'great postponement' of critical national and international issues during the 1950s." (453) The revisionists argue that, in fact, the great virtue of Eisenhower was his wise and admirable self-restraint. McMahon argues that Eisenhower's response to, and fundamental misunderstanding of, third world nationalism expanded U.S. involvement in the world and contributed to instability. Adducing evidence for this claim is not exactly a herculian task---some obvious examples come to mind (Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Lebanon in 1958, and so on). The revisionsts--among them, Robert Divine, John Prados, George Herring, and Richard Immerman--made their strongest case in citing the conflicts over Quemoy and Matsu. Despite strong pressures for intervention, as revealed in Prados's The Sky Would Fall, Eisenhower understood the limits of American power and wisely kept the U.S. out of open-ended military commitments.

The same cannot be said of other conflicts in East Asia. For example, in discussing the Taiwan Straits crises of 1955 and 1958, Divine sums up his take on Eisenhower's statecraft by arguing, "the beauty of Eisenhower's policy is that to this day no one can be sure whether or not...he would have used nuclear weapons." McMahon rightly retorts, "That the brandishing of nuclear weapons can be a thing of beauty under any circumstance is a value judgment that some historians have been unwilling to make." (459) Ironically, of all people!, McMahon cites John Lewis Gaddis's (whom Divine advised at the University of Texas) argument that in fact the episode revealed "how little it would take to push the administration into a war with China involving probable use of nuclear weapons." (Ibid.) Far from showing restraint , based on a plethora of then recently declassified documents, it appears the world barely dodged a nuclear war in large part because of Eisenhower's willingness to take nuclear brinkmanship to the extreme.

Regardless of how one judges the latter case, McMahon's main complaint is the selection bias of the revisionists. Conveniently ignored is the case of Laos where the Eisenhower Administration completely misread local dynamics and dumped large sums of military aid to fight an insurgency which later only served to deepen American involvement in the conflict. A similar critique can be applied to Eisenhower's policy towards Indonesia. The Administration's paranoid view of the Sukarno regime led to its support of Indonesian dissidents in hopes of producing regime change. This policy ended up backfiring on Eisenhower, giving nationalist credence to Sukarno and allowing him to regain some popularity and crush dissidents. Likewise, the CIA's seemingly successful installment of Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines was also dubious, for it sowed the seeds of nationalist opposition in the country and ultimately denied the U.S. a military base and led to a discordant series of diplomatic failures in 1956. One could go on with other examples, but the argument is clear: contrary to the revisionist view, the Eisenhower Administration showed little restraint in East Asia on many occasions and ultimately failed to understand one of the most important political developments of the 20th century--third world nationalism.

William Orangeman Williams

* Robert J. McMahon, "Eisenhower and Third World Nationalism: A Critique of the Revisionists," Political Science Quarterly 101 (1986): 453-73.

No comments:

Post a Comment