By Donald Nuechterlein
When six World War II combat veterans appeared at the war memorial May 8 with President and Mrs. Trump, it reminded us of two major truths: the great sacrifices these and other troops made to defeat Nazi Germany; and the fundamental changes in foreign policy the U.S. followed during next seventy years.
Before 1941, most Americans opposed entering another European war because of their disillusionment over U.S. participation in World War l. But after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, public opinion shifted quickly. Yet, even though most Americans turned away from isolationism, when President Harry Truman proposed to assist Western Europe to recover from its desperate postwar conditions, many Republicans objected. They argued that the United States would be tied down in Europe indefinitely. The Marshall Plan was passed by Congress in 1948 with enough Republican support to signal a major shift away from isolationism. With the NATO security treaty in 1949, the focus was on bolstering Europe’s security
Impact of Korean War. Communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. After American and allied troops defeated the invaders, the question for President Truman was whether to authorize General MacArthur to head north and unify Korea under non-Communist control. MacArthur assured him China would not intervene. In 1949 China was unified under the iron control of Mao Zedong’s Red Arm, and he approved North Korea’s plan to unify the peninsula .under its leadership. As U.S. troops moved into North Korea, Mao sent a Chinese army to stop them before they reached China’s border at the Yalu. The war entered a new, desperate phase. U.S. and allied forces fought Chinese and North Korean troops for two and a half years and by 1952 Americans lost support for the war. In November elections, they chose General Dwight Eisenhower, hero of WWII. He pledged to end the war and threatened China and North Korea with a larger war. In May 1953 an armistice was signed, but no peace treaty followed.
Eisenhower decided to isolate China by building alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and potentially South Vietnam. Like Korea, Vietnam was divided between Communist north and non-Communist south, In the 1960s presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson intervened in Vietnam’s civil war, and . Eventually half a million troops were in Vietnam. In March 1968 Johnson decided to admit failure. History repeated itself in November when voters elected a Republican, Richard Nixon, as president. He pledged to end the war honorably but failed when North Vietnam’s troops overran the south after American forces departed. Nixon also reversed. U.S. policy on China by his dramatic 1971 visit to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong. This opened relations between the two countries, frozen since 1949.
Impact of end to Cold War. When the Cold War ended in 1990 and the Soviet Union collapsed a year later, the strategic map of Europe changed dramatically. Eastern states like Poland, Hungary, and Baltic States, planned to join Europe economically and become members of NATO’s security pact. Germany, long divided between east and west, emerged as an economic power/ Russia, smaller than the USSR, adopted a state-run capitalist system, and no longer posed a military threat to Western Europe and the U.S. American troops withdrew from Germany and Europe chose to build its economic independence through the new European Union.
The U.S. was suddenly thrust into a military role in the Middle East by the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. It altered the international outlook for the new president, George W; Bush. He quickly decided to invade Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaeda’s terrorist network, and install a pro-western government. In 2003, Bush invaded Iraq, ousted its dictator, Saddam Hussein, who threatened his neighbors. These interventions propelled the United States into new, costly commitments.
As occurred in 1952 and 1968, the American public tired of these new wars and elected Barack Obama president in 2008. He pledged to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq but was only partially successful. In 2016 voters decided to change course again and elected Donald Trump who promised to put “America first.”
By November 2020, a major question for voters is: do they want fundamental change in foreign policy away from the global security role America sustained after 1945, or a more detached view of its national interests. In my view, the country is ready for major change regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is president in 2021. The prolonged violence in our major cities will speed the process.
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist who lives near Charlottesville. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.