THE great quadrennial assize of the American people, completed last November, provoked widespread discussion of American foreign policy. Such discussion raises the general question as to whether or not the partisan struggle for power has, over the years, resulted in the clarification of major issues in the diplomatic field. And, even beyond this, we may ask if partisan rivalry in the field of foreign policy has served the interests of the American people as a whole. The writer, in posing these questions, very obviously is ready with an answer, and the answer is preponderantly in the negative. But before proceeding to examine the matter, I should clear the ground of possible misunderstandings of what it is I am trying to show.

In the first place, no one denies that the partisan struggle is an essential part of the democratic scheme of things. Popular government, to be most effective, requires a party in office and a party in opposition. It requires that the acts of those in office shall be submitted to constant scrutiny and to constant criticism, and that the opportunity shall be afforded to expel from power one political organization and replace it with another. In expressing a doubt as to the utility of presidential elections in clarifying the issues of foreign policy, I do not for a moment intend to denigrate the democratic process itself.

Nor is it intended to suggest that popular government is incompatible with the successful conduct of foreign policy. Though some of our publicists seem to take this point of view, the judgment of history does not confirm any such hypothesis. The totalitarian régimes of Adolf Hitler, of Benito Mussolini and of the Japanese militarists all committed errors greater and more conclusive than any committed by the great democratic nations, and all have disappeared, the victims of their own folly. The brutal régime in power in Russia has many cardinal mistakes in its record--its futile attempt to come to terms with Hitler in 1939, which only strengthened him for the assault of 1941; its provocative policies in the years following the end of the war, which awakened the vigorous opposition of the United States and brought about the redevelopment of American military power; its cavalier treatment of Jugoslavia, which, as we can see today, has led in due course to successful defiance of the Kremlin and to the weakening of the bonds in the satellite states; and now its ruthless repression of the revolution in Hungary. I do not intend in what follows in any way to suggest that the democracies are, in the nature of things, incompetent to deal with questions of foreign affairs, or to take a pessimistic view of the future in this regard.

Thirdly, it is not at all the purpose of this essay to suggest that the popular discussion of foreign affairs is something intrinsically undesirable and that we had best leave to the professionals the conduct of our diplomacy. In a democratic state it is essential that the people should be informed; more than that, it is essential that they should be heeded. No foreign policy will last, and none will succeed, that does not have its roots in public opinion, that cannot be endorsed and sustained by the legislative representatives of the people, that does not correspond to the mores and the prepossessions of the mass of the nation. While the process of negotiation may--and often ought to be--secret, the general purposes and objectives of American foreign policy must be known, must in the long run correspond to the public will. The question is not whether they are to be scrutinized but whether it is more useful to review them in a calm and serene atmosphere or in the heat of popular passion.

The case does not run all one way. First of all, it should be remarked that the election debate could not be avoided even if we wished. It is useless to believe that candidates for high public office will exclude from their appeals to the voter any question on which they think an issue can be made or an error exploited. It is simply not possible to avoid discussing what is uppermost in the public mind. It is asking more than human nature can bear to expect that chinks in the armor of the party in power will not be exploited by the opposition, and exploited to the full.

But we can put the case for public debate on higher grounds than this. To many Americans, even in these latter days, the diplomatic action of the nation is something esoteric. Deeply as questions of foreign policy affect the lives and fortunes of us all, it is still the case that they do not occupy the place, in the minds of many citizens, that is at all commensurate with their real importance. It is therefore something to the good that they have a place in the great quadrennial assize. Despite the exaggerations and distortions of a campaign, the public interest is stimulated; the public knowledge is widened; the public judgment may be in some degree clarified.

Furthermore, a Presidential election frequently makes clear, if not a concrete policy, at least a public mood. For example, the election of 1952--whatever else it did or did not do--made it crystal clear that the American people did not desire the resumption of the Korean War, that they wished the struggle there to be brought to an honorable end if that were at all possible. The election of 1940, to go further back in time, made it reasonably clear that the predominant part of the electorate looked with apprehension on the growth of the power of Hitlerian Germany. The election of 1936, to go still further back in time, took place when isolationist sentiment was dominant. The election of 1924 revealed that American entrance into the League of Nations was a dead issue at that time. This is not to say that the public sentiment, viewed objectively, represented the best interests of the United States in every case. But it did clearly mark the boundaries within which a foreign policy would, perforce, have to proceed.

Moreover, though there is an element of the imponderable in any judgment on the matter, it may well be that there is a longterm effect on foreign policy questions as a result of campaign debate. For example, in the campaign of 1900, the Democrats seemed to be getting nowhere with their issue of anti-imperialism. But the long-term policies by which the territories acquired in 1899 were given a larger and larger degree of independence might conceivably have been less completely and less quickly carried out if it had not been for the Democrats' insistence during the campaign that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. In the same way, in the election of 1920, the friends of the League came in for severe disappointment. But the idea of international collaboration lived on; the idea of collective security, which lay at the heart of the Covenant, survived. And in the longer run it may be that the effort made to emphasize this issue was by no means wasted.

Finally, it may sometimes be the case that the introduction of an important foreign policy issue into a great political campaign has indirect results which are beneficial. It could be maintained, for instance, though it could hardly be mathematically proved, that the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments, 1921-22, was a kind of Republican answer to the Democratic advocacy of the League; that the strong sentiment in favor of international coöperation generated in the Harding-Cox campaign had somehow to be satisfied, and that if there had not been such a vigorous discussion of the Covenant, the question of naval disarmament would have been less successfully dealt with in the period that followed.

None the less, there is a strong argument for the thesis that campaign discussion of foreign policy questions is frequently, perhaps usually, inconclusive on the major issues examined; that the debate is often irrelevant to future policy; that appeals are sometimes made to ethnic interests in a fashion that is not in the long run to the advantage of anybody; and that an issue is often drawn too sharply and a position assumed from which retreat is difficult, no matter how desirable a shift of policy may be.

Before we examine whether a Presidential election does in fact provide a definite decision on important foreign policy issues, it is relevant to observe that in very few campaigns is a single issue dominant. The tendency of the party in power is to point with pride all along the line; the tendency of the party out of power is to attack here, there and everywhere, and its candidate, like the Polish cavalryman, usually mounts his horse and rides off in all directions at once. When this is the case, it is difficult, after the battle is over, to say precisely what it is that has been decided, to separate one problem from another or to measure with any degree of accuracy exactly what the public response was on the given foreign policy question at issue.

There have, indeed, been only three campaigns when a kind of paramountcy might reasonably be assigned to a specific matter in the field of external relations, and on only one of these, it seems fair to say, was a decision actually arrived at. We have to go a long way back to find this situation; we have to go back to 1844. In June of that year a treaty for the annexation of Texas was placed before the Senate by President Tyler and it was decisively defeated. Then came the Presidential election, and the Democratic Party and its candidate declared--and declared without equivocation--for annexation. The other party, the Whigs and their candidate, Henry Clay, hedged. Although the election might easily have swung the other way if it had not been for the presence of the Liberty Party on the ballot in New York State and the fact that this party probably drew more votes from the Whigs than the Democrats, the annexationist party none the less won. And the remarkable fact is that the very Congress which had manifested its opposition to the Texas treaty in June now proceeded by decisive votes, by joint resolution, to bring the Lone Star State into the Union. We can hardly fail to believe that the legislators were influenced by the verdict of the voters.

But in another respect those who voted the Democratic ticket in 1844 on foreign policy grounds may well have cheated themselves. For the victorious party was also pledged to insist upon the recognition of the American right to all of Oregon (then in dispute with Great Britain), and this meant Oregon up to the line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes. Yet in 1846 President Polk came to an understanding with the British Government which defined the boundary for the most part along the line of 49 degrees, and never above it. So much, then, for 1844.

The second occasion on which an attempt was made to bring foreign policy into the campaign as a matter of central importance was the campaign of 1900. Many of the Democrats had been very critical of the treaty of peace with Spain; their leader, William Jennings Bryan, had been bitterly opposed to the annexation of territory that could not be assimilated with the rest of the Union, and the Democratic platform of 1900 denounced the opposition in no uncertain terms, declaring that the question of imperialism constituted the "paramount issue" of the campaign. But, as Professor Bailey cogently pointed out many years ago in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the attempt to keep the minds of the voters on this particular question was by no means a success. The treaty of peace with Spain had already been ratified and this complicated the problem. As the electoral battle proceeded, Bryan tended to skate away from the foreign policy question and turned to domestic issues. The country, prosperous and contented, would probably in any case have returned President McKinley to office; and it would be a bold man who would say that in 1900 the American people definitely affirmed the policy of imperialism. Indeed, it is the best judgment of those who have studied the matter that, if the issue could have been isolated, a contrary verdict would have been rendered.

Of course the most striking case of a debate on foreign policy is the election of 1920. The Senate of the United States had twice defeated the Treaty of Versailles; President Wilson, most inadvisedly as it seems in retrospect, insisted that the matter be thrown into the Presidential campaign; and the Democratic Party in the main supported the President. The Democratic platform called for "the immediate ratification of the treaty without reservations which impair its essential integrity," though, in words the President may not have fully approved, it added that we "do not oppose the acceptance of any reservations making clearer or more specific the obligations of the United States to the League associates." The Republican Party, in a declaration which was a masterpiece of generalities and which left the party free to act in a number of different ways, said not a word about ratification and was equivocal on the question of American membership in the League. One might have thought that a fairly clear choice was presented to the American voter. But it was not so to be. The Republican candidate gave some people the impression that he was for the League and to others the impression that he was against it. Thirty-one distinguished Republicans, including such eminent figures as President Lowell of Harvard, Charles Evans Hughes and Herbert Hoover, urged a vote for Mr. Harding on the ground that this was the only way to bring us into the new world organization; they even went so far as to say that their party would be "bound by every consideration of honor and good faith" to take affirmative action. But, when the Republican Party won, no step was taken to ratify the Treaty of Versailles; Mr. Hughes, the new Secretary of State, in vain urged such a course on the new President, but the so-called irreconcilable wing of the Republican Party called the tune. It is highly probable that many Republican voters desired at least the ratification of the treaty with appropriate reservations; the Vice-President-Elect of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, expressed that opinion at the time; but nothing was done.

In considering this example of the intrusion of party politics into a question of foreign policy, we must, of course, avoid too sweeping a judgment. It is possible to argue that, had the United States joined the League, it would have done so halfheartedly, that it was by no means ready to accept the principle of collective security and that really not much harm was done. But surely some harm was done. For the failure of the treaty deprived the United States of a seat on the reparations commission set up to determine and regulate the payment of the obligations imposed on Germany; and it is a verifiable fact that the absence of the United States from this commission was one of the reasons--perhaps the major reason--why the whole reparations question got out of hand and led to the French invasion of the Ruhr, the passive resistance of the Germans and a tense international situation which might otherwise have been avoided. It is difficult to deny that in this case insistence on carrying a great foreign policy issue to the people turned out to be an unhappy decision.

But more frequent than the attempt to make a clear-cut issue in the course of a Presidential campaign is the tendency to make retrospective judgments instead of enunciating positive policies. This tendency is understandable; and indeed the voter who feels strongly that mistakes have been made in the past has a justifiable reason for desiring a change of administration. None the less, the post facto judgment cannot be said to clarify matters in any very effective way. Take, for example, the campaign of 1916. At that time the controversy with Germany over the submarine had been temporarily put to rest. The Germans had, in the previous May, abandoned the underseas warfare, though reserving the right to resume it if the American Government did not take vigorous action against what the Reich alleged were British violations of international law. Democratic politicians raised the cry, "He kept us out of war." The cry was essentially disingenuous; for no one could say that the President could keep us out of war in the future and, indeed, he was pretty much committed to lead us into war if the government in Berlin again challenged us on the sea. But the Republican candidate, Hughes, was in no very good position to outline a policy different from that of the Democrats. He could not say that he would go to war without a casus belli; he could only criticize what had been done, and this without consistency, sometimes alleging that if he had been in office he would have prevented the submarine challenge and sometimes saying that he would have acted more vigorously if the challenge had been made. Neither the one side nor the other really prepared the country for what was ahead, though perhaps it should be said that Theodore Roosevelt, speaking for the Republicans, attempted to do so. In the same way, in that campaign, Mr. Hughes vigorously criticized Wilsonian policy toward Mexico. There was just reason for so doing, but he could not and did not propose any alternative course.

The same tendency to criticize the past, rather than formulate alternative policy was evident in the campaign just finished. Without in the least assuming that our diplomacy during the past four years has been beyond criticism, without denying the right of the opposition to criticize, it may perhaps be fairly said that very little in the way of constructive commentary came from the debate. To the specific question of the hydrogen bomb I shall return a little later, but, if one puts this matter aside for the moment, the generalization appears sound.

In more than one political campaign where foreign policy has been significant, a deceptive emphasis has been placed on peace. An illustration of this is to be found in the campaign of 1940. Before stating the point, however, it is necessary to say, in simple justice, that President Roosevelt, on the eve of the electoral conflict, put through the famous bases-destroyers deal, one of the most remarkable examples of decisive action in a Presidential year, and that Wendell Willkie accepted the manner, if not the substance, of the decision. Yet, as the political struggle went on, the candidates talked more and more about peace. Those who wish to understand this fully should look at Charles A. Beard's "American Foreign Policy in the Making." Beard arranged in two parallel columns the assurances of Wendell Willkie and Franklin Roosevelt that the United States would keep out of wars, usually "foreign wars," to use a thoroughly sophistical phrase. So far as the debate went, little was done to prepare the country for the lend-lease legislation of the next year, and the Republican candidate, when testifying in favor of that measure in 1941, somewhat jauntily explained his previous utterances on the ground that they were just politics.

The campaign of 1940 is not the only one where the question of peace has been handled in rather rough fashion. The welkin resounded with talk of peace in the campaign of last autumn. Yet, so far as their devotion to peace is concerned, there was no discernible difference between the candidates or the parties. Both, for example, had supported the intervention in Korea in 1950; both wished to limit our commitments in the Orient in 1956. Both were chary of taking any bellicose action in the Near East. Differences as to procedure, differences as to past techniques, yes; but no difference as to essential aims.

The talk of peace in the 1956 campaign almost certainly corresponded with the mood of the voters. Yet surely abstract devotion to peace is not policy. Moreover, in so far as we lay the accent on peace, as if peace could be had by wishing it, we diminish the emphasis on those necessary measures in the field of defense and in the field of negotiation which tend to promote world stability and the legitimate interests of the United States. We tend to create the impression that we are anxious to avoid trouble if not at any cost, at least at almost any cost. We take academic positions in favor of the Hungarian insurgents, for instance, when we have no intention of following protest with action. Or we condemn the action of the British and the French in Egypt without in the least being willing to apply sanctions against them. Things might have been the same even if an election had not been impending; but it is easier to avoid this kind of pronouncement when there is no immediate question of votes involved.

There have been occasions in the past, and there are occasions today, when an electoral campaign is entangled with problems of racial or sectional groups. In the campaign of 1920, for example, the German and the Irish vote were a matter of interest to the politicians; and in catering to them the genuine issues of the campaign were to some degree obscured. The isolationism of 1940 can be traced to certain ethnic considerations. The hard fate of Poland offered an opportunity for an appeal to a special group of our citizens in 1944 and again in 1956. It was difficult to discuss the problem of Israel objectively in the heat of the last campaign, though the Administration itself dealt with the problem courageously. It is not that specific commitments are made which might later prove to be embarrassing; most of our Presidential candidates have been above that. It is merely that considerations extrinsic to the national interest occupy the minds of the voters and deflect their judgment.

To make a different point, there is a danger that positions will be taken from which it is difficult to retreat. It was not wise of the Democrats to talk about 54-40 in 1844 if they intended to compromise on 49. It was not wise of Warren Harding, at the end of the campaign of 1920, to talk of scrapping the League. And in the campaign of 1956 we have an example of a somewhat similar difficulty, in the controversy over the hydrogen bomb. We shall, of course, grant to Adlai Stevenson complete sincerity in his agitation for the abandonment of the testing of the larger hydrogen bombs. The question is a weighty one and--unless we take the position that it is too technical for popular understanding--one that needed to be clarified. But at the same time various questions may be asked with propriety. May not the raising of the problem have produced an undesirable hardening of view on the part of the Administration? Has not discussion of this matter tended to thrust into the background the far-reaching problem of reduction (and inspection) of atomic armaments in general? I put forward these inquiries with some hesitation, but they seem to me to be the right inquiries to make.

But in dealing with electoral issues, we have not answered the whole question posed at the beginning of this article. What of partisan and foreign affairs in general? Here, as in the more restricted area of campaigns, we cannot expect, whatever may be the theory of the matter, that partisanship will cease because we wish it to cease. Just as partisanship sometimes bedevils us in an election, so it sometimes bedevils us between elections. There are many very clear examples drawn from relatively recent history. One of them comes from the experience of the years 1939-41. No one should impugn the motives of those who, in those fateful years, wished sincerely and on what they deemed good grounds to abstain from a positive policy of assistance to Great Britain. But when one examines the votes in Congress, it becomes patent that opposition to the policy of the Administration tended to form along party lines. This was almost wholly true in the debate on the repeal of the arms embargo in the fall of 1939. It was true to a substantial degree in the debate on lend-lease in 1941. It was true of the debate on the extension of the draft in the summer of the same year. It was again emphatically true when the President asked for authority to arm the merchant ships of the United States and to end the restrictions on their free navigation in the fall of that same year. It is not possible to believe that such alignments were based on objective judgment of the issues involved.

The same thing was true of the recall of General MacArthur in 1951. The General himself had sought partisan support just before his recall in his famous letter to Congressman Martin. The discussion that followed turned on a very fundamental and far-reaching question of policy, that is, whether we would limit our operations in Korea and accept a truce there which left the northern part of the country in the hands of the Communists, or whether we should extend our military activities. It certainly did not make it easier to come to a decision when party passions were deeply aroused and when our division on the question, and much that might have been kept secret, was broadcast to the world. Here again the case does not run all one way. To cite only one example, Democratic opposition to any commitment with regard to Quemoy and Matsu may have saved the Administration from a step conceivably embarrassing and unsupported by preponderant opinion. Yet in general our greatest achievements in the field of foreign policy have occurred when there was bipartisan support.

Take, for example, the Good Neighbor Policy. This was really initiated under Republican administrations; it was amplified and extended under Democratic administrations. Though there have been flaws in the record, it has in general given consistency to our diplomatic action in Latin America and would, by most observers, be adjudged a success. Take the Marshall Plan. Here, perhaps, is the greatest diplomatic achievement of the postwar period. It was originated in a Democratic administration and put through a Congress controlled by Republicans. Take the North Atlantic Treaty. It was the product of bipartisan consultation and of bipartisan coöperation. And, while it is harder to judge of its effects than of the effects of the Marshall Plan, it seems probable that by the show of resolution which it embodied, it had much to do with the modification of Russian policy in the years that followed. Take the action of Congress with regard to the régime of General Chiang Kai-shek on the island of Formosa. The policy we have adopted towards Chiang may be variously judged. But is it not certain that by speaking out clearly, as the President did on the question of protecting the island, and by securing from the Congress bipartisan support, he did something to clarify the situation in the Far East? Have not the successes of American foreign policy, in a far more general sense, come when we were united, and not when we were divided?

There is a partial riposte, however, to this last observation. How bring about unity, it may be objected, except through discussion? The answer is, there is no other way. But the discussion will be more likely to reach its goal, the decision arrived at will be more likely to stand the test of time, if we try so far as possible to abstract from it the strong emotional overtones and undertones of an electoral contest, if we discuss it in terms other than those of partisan rivalry.

Our historical experience demonstrates, I believe, that with one exception, it has been difficult to give to a single question in the field of foreign policy a central position in a Presidential campaign; that the natural tendency of candidates for office is to blur, rather than to define sharply, the specific issue; that there is an understandable disposition to retrospective judgment rather than to clear-cut affirmation with regard to the future; that it is easy to resort to shibboleths and abstractions in a way that does little to clarify urgent issues of policy; that the point of view of large groups of voters, particularly the ethnic groups, hampers candid discussion; and that in the heat of the partisan struggle positions may be taken from which it is difficult to retreat. In stating these things, it is by no means to be supposed that we can or will alter the character of American political rivalry; we are asking little less than a substantial change in our political mores. But in proportion as American political leaders seek to exorcise the party spirit, express themselves with candor on the issues, look forward and not backward, and put away the temptation to appeal to special interests, the foreign policy of the United States will develop a consistency that makes effective action possible, and a clarity that is the harbinger of wisdom and the secret of success.

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  • DEXTER PERKINS, Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Rochester, and Professor of American Civilization at Cornell University; Chairman of the Harvard Foundation for Advanced Study and Research; author of "The Monroe Doctrine," "The Evolution of American Foreign Policy" and other works
  • More By Dexter Perkins