You never know how a planned class discussion will go or the direction it will take. Today my survey courses explored some primary sources which lay out American foreign policy in the late 1940s. I asked my students to think about the challenges that emerged by the end of WWII and how those challenges sent the United States down a very different path compared with its response to WWI. I show clips from videos about the Red Scare and HUAC meetings along with images of hydrogen bombs and the classic "Duck and Cover." In class today we read through Harry Truman’s 1947 address (Truman Doctrine/Containment) to Congress in which he asks for
$400,000 400 million dollars to be used to help the nations of Turkey and Greece deal with civil war and the "threat" of communism. It’s a fairly easy document for students to interpret and it beautifully sets up this country’s foreign policy for the next 50 years. We talked about this along with the question of what responsibilities the United States was faced with in the aftermath of WWII. In short, students had to think about what kind of world the United States was attempting to bring about through its actions?
As we went through the document we came across the following line: "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes." One of my students was struck by the last few words and asked for an explanation. I asked the class which word stood out and they suggested the word "order." What is an orderly political process? A few of the students suggested that it is a democratic system, but than another student suggested that it may not involve democracy. What a wonderful teaching moment, and one that I did not want to slip away. With the relationship between order and political systems in mind I asked the class to reflect on the war in Iraq as a case study. We agreed that one of the goals of the Bush administration was to bring democracy to the country, but that at this point it was unlikely that such a lofty goal is still possible. I then asked the class to think about what they would be willing to comprise for. Would they settle for a nation that was without the kinds of political opportunities – the hallmarks of democracy – that we take for granted in exchange for "order" and stability. Would this be satisfactory narrowly understood in terms of what is best for our foreign policy. We can imagine a country that is stable without the kinds of violence that have grown all too common, but that maintains "friendly" relations with the United States. One student asked whether both the Iraqi people and the United States would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power. Is order along with authoritarian violence rather than a democracy sufficient from this perspective? I tend not to answer these types of questions for fear that I may influence their thinking, but I was surprised by how many students agreed with this assessment. I wanted the class to consider the possibility that American security may have to do with external conditions that go beyond concerns for freedom and democracy. It’s not meant as an indictment, but as a comment on the history of America’s foreign relations.
American foreign policy is incredibly complex following WWII. It straddles both a concern for democracy and freedom on the one hand along with very practical decisions that highlight "order" and stability over human rights. We didn’t come to any firm conclusions in connection with all of this, but it is nice to know that the class will be able to consider different moments of American interventionism during the Cold War within a wide context that considers a range of factors.