The Presidency and Foreign Policy

In the half-century between 1941 and 1991 the ten men who have served as president of the United States have scored some stupendous successes in their role as unquestioned world leader, but they have also suffered some spectacular failures. The greatest successes-the turning back of Nazism, fascism and communism in Europe and of Japanese militarism in Asia-are of such an order of magnitude that they must be described as America's unique gift to the world. That the presidents and their nation did not achieve these triumphs for freedom on their own is obvious, but it is equally obvious that the triumphs could not have been achieved without their leadership and determination. The presidents' contribution to the end of another "ism"-colonialism-has been of lesser importance, though still a positive one, as also their contribution to the advent of peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel, not to mention the continuing existence of Israel.

The failures, however, have been spectacular. They include the unwillingness or inability to prevent communist takeovers in China, Southeast Asia or Cuba, or to create peaceful conditions, much less prosperity, in the Middle East, Africa and Central America. Although some progress has been made in the past few years, American presidents have failed to realize the hopes of the founders of the United Nations for a genuine collective security or an end to the arms race. And they have been unable or unwilling to slow, much less stop, the international arms trade.

The two giants among the presidents since 1941 came at the beginning of that period. Franklin D. Roosevelt committed a reluctant United States to the leading international role and, more specifically, to unalterable opposition to Nazism, fascism and Japanese militarism. Harry S. Truman committed a reluctant United States to the reconstruction of Europe, to the building of democracy in Germany and Japan, to support for Israel, to NATO and the containment of communism. Four decades later the commitments made by Roosevelt and Truman in the 1940s remain the bedrock of American foreign policy. Their successors have been successful as implementors of established policy, not as creators of new policy.

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