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Foreign Relations: The Great Deflation

9 minute read

On the New Frontier, the faces of foreign-policy officials were grimmer, paler and wearier than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis last October. White House and State Department spokesmen talked somberly of a sudden shift from thaw to freeze in the cold war.

The most worrisome sign was the renewed shooting in Laos (see THE WORLD). A Communist takeover there, President Kennedy warned at his press conference, would “put additional pressure” on neighboring Thailand and South Viet Nam, as well as on neutralist, militarily feeble Cambodia.

The Apocalyptic Vision. To a latter-day Rip Van Winkle awakening from a sleep of a few years, the week’s rumblings would at first have seemed quite familiar, reminiscent of earlier cold war crises. But closer examination might indicate a profound change. There was a crisis in Laos that might prove to be painful and prolonged. But missing were the verbal and psychological accompaniments of the cold war crises of the ’50s: the apprehension that the scales of power might be about to tip against the West, the warnings that a climactic showdown might loom ahead.

The apocalyptic vision of a thermonuclear war that would annihilate mankind has, in fact, slowly receded, giving way to the idea, voiced by Winston Churchill back in 1950, that the frightfulness of nuclear weapons makes total war improbable. Peace “through mutual terror.” Churchill called it. A corollary of this concept is that in a nuclear stalemate the threat of nuclear retaliation ceases to be an effective deterrent to small-scale aggression with conventional weapons. In other words, nuclear stalemate can deter big wars but not little wars. To lessen the U.S.’s reliance on what the late John Foster Dulles called “massive retaliatory power,” the Kennedy Administration has built up the U.S.’s conventional military forces, increasing Army combat divisions from 11 to 16 and Air Force tactical wings from 16 to 21.

The Traumatic Wallop. Recent years have also seen a drastic deterioration of Communism’s image: it no longer seems anywhere near as powerful, cunning and successful as it did in the late 19505.

The West overestimated the power of Communism from the very start of the cold war. The Communist conquest of mainland China, Russia’s achievement of a thermonuclear explosion only nine months after the U.S., Russian claims of rapid economic growth—all these added to the Communist image of vast and growing power. Then, in October 1957. Sputnik I struck the U.S. a traumatic psychological wallop. Alarmed voices warned that Russia was speedily wiping out the U.S.’s scientific and technological lead. The climax of the national inferiority complex came in 1960, when the U.S. public became convinced that a “missile gap” confronted the nation, and when John F. Kennedy ran for President insisting that “our power relative to that of the Communists is declining.”

Today the cold-war scales no longer appear to be teetering in such terrible balance. That missile gap proved to be imaginary. Soviet failures in agriculture made it plain that Russia lags far behind the U.S. in overall economic performance. Even more devastating to Communism’s prestige as an economic system was the economic disintegration in Red China that became evident in 1961, with widespread famine and declining industrial output, despite the government’s merciless mobilization of people and resources. Communist China’s economic disasters seemed all the more glaring in contrast with the prosperity of such free-world nations in East Asia as Japan, Formosa, the Philippines.

Abiding Lesson. Communism’s noneconomic blunders and failures contributed to the great deflation. The Berlin Wall gave the world an abiding lesson in the realities of life under Communism. The Chinese invasion of India’s borderlands last year recklessly alienated the biggest free-world nation, the leader of the neutralist bloc. The open ideological clash between Moscow and Peking demolished the facade of Communist unity. Khrushchev has political troubles within his own government. When he said in a speech that, having just turned 69, he could not be expected to hold his posts “for all time,” Western experts read it as a sign that maneuvering for power is already under way within the Soviet hierarchy.

To the uncommitted nations, Communism has come to seem not only less powerful but also much less appealing. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, leader of the emergent United Arab Republic, has accepted massive military and economic aid from Russia, but has also cracked down relentlessly on local Communists. Almost all the new nations of Africa have rejected Communism roundly—even Guinea, which two years ago appeared to be well on the way to becoming a Communist outpost.

While Communism’s image was eroding, the West was growing stronger with the emergence of the Common Market as a great economic power. Together, the Common Market nations nearly match Russia in population (173 million to 222 million), steel production, electric power output and other measures of economic heft. With greater political unity—now temporarily impeded by France’s Charles de Gaulle—the Common Market countries could be a military power comparable to Russia, or even superior. In concert, the Common Market, the U.S. and the British Commonwealth confront Russia with overwhelming economic might.

Eye on the Long View. As a result of the deflation of Communism and the growth of the Common Market, U.S. foreign policy has become more complex.

Under Harry Truman, foreign policy could be largely summed up in the single word “containment” (but in practice it did not quite manage to contain). Under Dwight Eisenhower, the word “liberation” was often used to label policy (but liberation was never really put into practice). A single word will no longer suffice, even as a slogan. The cold war no longer pervades the entire range of foreign policy. The Common Market, for example, is a slice of reality that U.S. foreign policy would have to deal with even if there were no cold war. With the cold war’s intermit tent crises no longer seeming so momentous, one eye of U.S. foreign policy has shifted to the long view.

The Kennedy Administration’s foreign policy is less ambitious than liberation, more positive than containment. Walt Whitman Rostow, head of the State Department’s policy planning board, sums it up like this: “We seek to build a community of independent nations, their governments increasingly responsive to the consent of the governed, cooperating of their own free will in their areas of interdependence, settling their disputes by peaceful means. On the basis of this kind of community of free nations, we seek by every means at our disposal compatible with our own security and that of other free nations to bring the arms race under control and to move the nations now un der Communist control toward acceptance of the principles of national independence, human freedom, international legal order, and peace.”

In Africa and Latin America this policy translates into an effort not to win allies, or even friends, but to help build stable, peaceable and economically sturdy nations, hopefully with governments “responsive to the consent of the governed.” In Latin America, that is the goal of the Administration’s still ill-defined Alliance for Progress. Some other arenas of policy:

∙BERLIN. No change from the Eisenhower-Dulles policy of staying put. Secretary of State Dean Rusk has said that he would like to leave the Berlin question to his successor “just as I found it.”

∙WESTERN EUROPE. The grand design is a united Europe, secure in its economic and military might, and working with the U.S. toward a peaceable and orderly world. Administration thinkers believe that, despite De Gaulle, the tide of history is running that way.

∙CUBA. The Administration’s central objective, essentially negative, is to avoid any action on Cuba that might lead to an armed clash with Russia. That objective extends even to blocking Cuban exile raids from U.S. territory. Only a few weeks ago the President reiterated earlier statements that the presence of Russian troops in Cuba is “unacceptable,” and that Communism in Cuba is “not negotiable.” But he has not devised ways to translate those words into action, beyond efforts to tighten the economic isolation of Cuba. Last week State Department officials reported that the U.S. is preparing to ask the Organization of American States to declare an economic embargo against Cuba.

∙MIDDLE EAST. The State Department thinks that Nasser’s United Arab Republic might be a long-range stabilizing force in the very unstable Middle East. The problem is not to turn Nasser away from Communism—that has already happened —but to prevent war between the U.A.R. and Israel.

∙SOUTHEAST ASIA. Although the President stressed that a Communist takeover in Laos would threaten South Viet Nam and Thailand, the U.S. is not committed by either treaty or promise to military intervention in Laos. In South Viet Nam, in contrast, the U.S. is deeply committed, and U.S. military missions are helping the Vietnamese in their struggle against Communist Viet Cong guerrillas. “We have no plans of rolling back the Viet Cong,” says a State Department official. “We do, however, intend to prevent the Communists from taking over the country.”

And what of Russia? The U.S. policy. says Secretary Rusk, is to “keep talking,” to try to “reduce the areas of conflict,” and to remember the threat that Khrushchev voiced in 1956: “We will bury you!” While in pursuit of this undramatic, unadventurous and often frustrating policy, the U.S. can take comfort from the thought that the threat sounds emptier today than when Khrushchev uttered it.

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