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“Sometime Soon . . . the Free Nations Must Make Their Choice”: A Foreign Correspondent Analyzes U.S. Cold War Failures

The Truman Administration’s Cold War policy of containment advocated confronting the Soviet Union, in the words of diplomat George F. Kennan, “with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” In 1952, during the Korean War stalemate, John Foster Dulles authored the Republican Party platform’s foreign policy plank condemning containment. Dulles instead supported the “liberation” of countries within the communist sphere using any means “short of war.” When Republican nominee General Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency and Dulles became his secretary of state, however, containment remained the official U.S. policy. In 1954, as France was losing its battle to regain control of its prewar colony of Indochina—a war funded substantially with U.S. dollars—Congressional leaders refused to support an Eisenhower-Dulles resolution to intervene militarily. In the following opinion piece published just after the French defeat, correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for reporting on the rise of Hitler, offered a critique of containment and an analysis of U.S. options for fighting the Cold War. A great admirer of Dulles, Mowrer believed hopes for peaceful coexistence to be “the opium of the West.”

The Reds Hold Five Big Cards—BUT WE CAN TRUMP THEM

By Edgar Ansel Mowrer

A veteran foreign correspondent sums up the struggle of the free world vs. the Communists. Why are the Reds winning? What should we do?

Perhaps you are one of the millions of Americans who wonder why the free world, in its struggle with the Communists, has taken another “hell of a beating” (to use an expression of the late General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell). I refer to the French surrender of half of Vietnam in Indochina to the Reds—the latest in a series of humiliating and costly setbacks for the United States and her allies.

Before the Indochina defeat, the United States sacrificed the lives of 33,417 American soldiers in an attempt to stop Communist aggression in Korea; yet the Reds still hold half that country and have blocked any final peace settlement. Furthermore, during the last seven years Uncle Sam has invested almost $40,000,000,000 in aid to our allies around the world; yet the Communists still are a potent threat throughout most of Europe and Asia.

The other day an Army general asked me bluntly just what I thought was wrong with us Americans. Why did the Reds continue to score? His question started me investigating—putting questions to specialists and reviewing my own observations.

What follows is the result of that investigation—some basic reasons for Communist gains, and what we can do about them. The main over-all reason for the Red successes, of course, is that the initial advantage always lies with the aggressor rather than the defender. But the full explanation isn’t all that simple. Consider these facts:

1. The Reds are not afraid of an atomic war.

They consider themselves in a state of permanent war with non-Communists. Although they would prefer to conquer without a major shooting (and H-bombing) war, they presumably will start an atomic war if and when they see an opportunity to do so without danger of defeat or severe damage at home. Meanwhile, the risk of provoking such a war does not stop them from attacking us in lesser ways. They have shot down U.S. planes in “neutral” air; denied the Western Powers ground access to their own sectors of Berlin; fomented rebellions in Greece, Iran, Burma, the Philippines and Indochina; and coolly launched North Korean and Chinese hordes against the Republic of Korea.

Russia’s leaders cannot be sure, of course, that their next “local” outrage will not provoke all-out war with the free world. Yet like a hardened poker player, they “bet a million” on each successive hand—and confidently reach for the chips.

Their confidence seems to be well founded. As President Eisenhower has frequently said, our side never will launch a preventive war. What is more, we repeatedly have stopped short of winning even those tests of strength into which we have been drawn; we have failed to punish the enemy severely for fear of provoking the Soviet Union into starting a superwar that neither side can win.

Unquestionably, the outcome of any all-out war would be dubious. That does not deter the Communists one whit, but it paralyzes the free world. Our side, therefore, starts no local rebellions, launches no local attacks. Instead, the Republican administration in America has silently dropped the “liberation” policy it promised to substitute for the Democrats' “containment” and joins our frightened allies in a patient watch for the first sign that Moscow may be ready to kiss and make up.

2. The Communists are without moral restraints.

At home they rule by naked terror. They usually crush discontent silently before it becomes rebellion. When a rare revolt does flare up—as it has in all Communist countries—the Red bosses exterminate the rebels. They even execute their own top leaders on trumped-up charges if they get out of line. They exile whole peoples—like the Tartars of the Crimea—to Siberia for deficient loyalty to the regime. They trail and assassinate without mercy Communist “traitors” who have fled abroad.

Toward non-Communist “enemies,” they act with calculated cruelty. They burn villages, shoot hostages, torture and “brain-wash” prisoners, and rely upon fear to break further resistance.

In addition, the Communist party considers all its members and fellow travelers expendable for any desired purpose. It orders them to risk imprisonment and death in carrying out propaganda, sabotage, espionage, rebellion or overt attack. Its discipline is so strong that these people unhesitatingly sacrifice themselves.

Moscow does not mind their loss. It has plenty more people like them, ready to do and die just to keep the free world off balance. Also, little as we like to hear it, such inhumanity achieves its temporary goals. Whereas partial terror merely stokes the fires of resistance, total terror makes successful revolt all but unthinkable.

Free World Won’t Wage Ruthless War

Terror is a weapon that the free world must forgo. We wish to be moral beings and claim to be so considered. Whether we would use our super-bombs in a war with the U.S.S.R. remains to be seen. (I think we probably would.) But we refrained from dropping an A-bomb in Korea when it might have helped us considerably. Both in Korea and Indochina, the free world’s generals have treated Communist rebels as legitimate prisoners. Unlike our enemies, we have spared villages that knowingly harbored enemies. We have shot no hostages. In Indochina the French did not even take the elementary precaution of moving unreliable populations to areas where they could do no harm.

Neither do we incite our sympathizers behind the iron curtain to make trouble. These people vastly outnumber the Communist sympathizers in our countries. Yet in decency we refrain from urging them to systematic acts that would lead to their imprisonment, torture or execution. In our view, short of all-out war, any such acts are “premature.” By this decision we have renounced the very real advantage of keeping alive permanent anti-Communist propaganda, sabotage, selective assassination and minor revolt in Communist territory.

3. The Communists promise something to everybody.

They are restrained neither by truth nor by consistency. They call war, peace; tyranny, freedom; unrestrained exploitation, social justice. They loudly attack “colonialism” while reducing country after country to colonial status. No matter what you think you want—more food, a better job, personal revenge or, particularly, a whole new world order—the Red Pipers are ready with the promise, if not for today, then surely for tomorrow. They overlook nobody. And the bigger the lie—as Hitler affirmed—the more it sticks.

The United States, on the other hand, promises even less than it can—and does—deliver. Respect for truth is not the only reason for our restraint. Our officials in charge of foreign aid hesitate to make promises for fear of attacks by critics both at home and abroad. Furthermore, our propaganda fails to convince even those people who benefit from our aid. What are our billions, our technical assistance, our good will compared to the promises of perpetual peace and pie-in-the-sky held out by the Communists? The Reds promise to change everything; we seek basically to hold on to what already exists, unsatisfactory as it is to hundreds of millions. On this field we are beaten before we start.

4. Communists everywhere are united.

They are held together by a common goal—world conquest. They think, talk, work and fight under a common symbol—the hammer and the sickle. They have a common general staff. Moscow rules or gives instructions to the rulers of 800,000,000 people. Communists know exactly what is expected of them, and carry out precise orders. When Premier Malenkov in Moscow sneezes, Communists everywhere piously blow their noses.

In contrast, the camp of the free world is a loose collection of separate nations and disconnected alliances. We still lack any world-wide plan, to say nothing of a real general staff or politico-military-economic planning board. Some allied peoples will not commit themselves to anything beyond local defense. Others flirt with neutrality or, like Britain, multiply “unofficial” contacts with the enemy.

For us Americans to say that we want partners, not satellites, is all very fine and democratic—but it leaves us two jumps behind the adversary, never knowing on which members of our group we can count in a given emergency in a given area.

5. Communists put guns before butter.

They coldly sacrifice the living standards of their respective peoples to their political aims. Although their combined economic output is only 40 per cent of ours, they have forged ahead in most branches of the armaments race simply by concentrating on the production of arms at the expense of consumer goods. Thus—according to good authorities—the U.S.S.R. somehow or other manages to equip and keep under arms no less than 175 divisions, 70 European satellite divisions and at least 3,000,000 Asians. If the subject peoples would prefer to eat more and arm less, let them say so—and be jailed or shot!

As one Russian diplomat is said to have told a Western colleague recently, “Soviet policy is to arm and arm and arm. If you don’t keep up with us, we shall fall upon you. If you do keep up, you will provoke a revolution at home.”

Our side puts physical well-being first, security second. And nowhere are living standards more sacred than in the fabulously rich United States, where people live in an abundance that mankind has never seen elsewhere. Despite our defeats, President Eisenhower—with the approval of all the free peoples—still puts butter ahead of guns on the grounds that the expense of maintaining larger armament would “in the long run bankrupt us and disrupt our economy.”

As a result of our refusal to concentrate on defense production, the U.S. seems unable to keep up with the promised deliveries of conventional arms to our still half-helpless Asian allies. Moreover, U.S. ground forces remain smaller than those of little Turkey and Yugoslavia, and our Air Force is believed to be inferior in numbers to that of the U.S.S.R. In consequence—as General Matthew B. Ridgway, Army Chief of Staff, recently told Congress—“the military power ratio is not changing to our advantage.” How can we blame weak and neutral countries for hesitating to join our side?

Treachery and Deceit Win Victories

These, then, are five reasons why the free world is losing ground—losing ground in spite of superior military tradition, of generally better arms, of immense industrial production, of control of the seas, and of the resourcefulness of free men.

Sometime soon, as Admiral Robert B. Carney, Chief of Naval Operations, has warned, the free nations must make their choice—“to do nothing and end in oblivion, to rush around plugging up the dikes” (unsuccessful to date), “or to take measures to lower the pressures against the dikes.”

What measures should we take?

Well, certain steps are out. Our side cannot match the Kremlin in aggression, murder and terror. We shall never, I trust, launch an all-out attack upon the U.S.S.R. unless first attacked, or consciously begin World War III. We are basically unwilling to send our friends behind the iron curtain to torture and premature death. We will not promise the moon to people eager to believe that it consists of succulent cheese.

But we do not have to await destruction like hypnotized rabbits. We can overcome several of our present self-imposed handicaps without any loss of self-respect.

The free peoples might cease rising like hungry trout to each poisoned peace-bait that Moscow dangles before them. We could accept the hard fact that coexistence with the Reds will be just as peaceful as our own strength makes it—and no more.

Recognizing the unsatisfactory aspects of today’s world order, the United States could go further than it ever has in offering to all well-disposed peoples not just aid or a wartime association, but the kind of permanent partnership President Eisenhower recently hinted at—an organization able to enforce permanent peace inside the present United Nations if possible, outside it if necessary.

The free world might start treating all separate Communist-made revolts as parts of Moscow’s continuing offensive. No longer would it meet such aggression with timid local “police actions”; it would wage all-out war against Communist rebels wherever they appeared. (The late French Marshal De Lattre de Tassigny told me in 1951 that he could speedily have suppressed the Indochina rebellion if allowed to evacuate and burn all villages in the fighting zone.)

Further, we might boldly decide to punish any new local attacks instead of merely halting them and leaving the adversary free to pull himself together and try again somewhere else. Effective punishment might make the next Korea the last.

Dangerous? Unquestionably. But if the Reds can coolly risk atomic destruction by repeated aggression, so should free people by punishing the aggressor. In fact, we may have to take that risk or succumb piecemeal.

Finally, our side could make the bitter choice of real military security over rising living standards. We have the means both to create and keep a safe military preponderance (not just a balance of power) provided we translate our statistical superiority in weapons into arms, and our friends into full-fledged allies.

Putting these measures into effect might or might not reverse the present disastrous military trend throughout the world. But those Americans who believe further defeats would be intolerable may think them worth trying.

Source: Edgar Ansel Mowrer, “The Reds Hold Five Big Cards—But We Can Trump Them,” Collier’s, October 29, 1954, 50–51.

See Also:"It Was Vital Not to Lose Vietnam by Force to Communism": Leslie Gelb Analyzes the Roots of U.S. Involvement in Vietnam