Clinton’s First Year

Courtesy Reuters


One year’s perspective is a meager basis for judging the impact of any president on the course of American foreign policy. History provides some cautionary examples for both critics and supporters of President Clinton’s first year. Like Clinton, two earlier presidents, Harry Truman and Warren Harding, took office at historic moments when eras of great struggle had come to an end, when old enemies had been defeated and the world looked like a much safer place. Both came to be judged very differently by history than they were judged after their first year in office: Truman because he moved to a much clearer and stronger course; Harding because his early success was based on illusions--illusions that helped to produce the debacle of the 1930s.

Despite the admiration with which Harry Truman’s conduct of foreign policy is now widely viewed, his first postwar year in foreign policy was a stumbling performance, marked by growing tension between the president and Secretary of State James Byrnes and confusion about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. It was not until the end of his second full year in office, with George Marshall as his new secretary of state and with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, that the policy of containment first became clear. It was not until decades later that the success of that policy brought it the praise that is fully its due.

Warren Harding got off to a much stronger start in foreign policy, assisted by a secretary of state of extraordinary legal abilities, Charles Evans Hughes, a former justice of the Supreme Court and presidential nominee. In Hughes’ capable hands a foreign policy of retreat and isolation was successfully presented as the active pursuit of peace by means of diplomacy and economic leverage, without the unpleasantness of serious security commitments. The Washington Conference on Naval Armaments was convened in 1921 and concluded its work before the end of Harding’s first

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