A Brief Look at How Foreign Affairs Have Shaped Our Country
over the Last Fifty Years
(for the Yale Class of 1964 Fiftieth Reunion Book)
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
In hindsight, the unimaginable often becomes the seemingly inevitable, laying the basis for still more unforeseen but subsequently obvious developments. Over the past fifty years, both America and the international order have undergone metamorphoses that have astonished us. But much of what was to come was foretold by things that happened when we were at Yale, even if we didn’t notice or understand them at the time.
Consider the multiple transformations in our society and its mores since the class of 1964 matriculated in 1960. In the summer of that year, the Food and Drug Administration licensed the first comprehensively effective birth control pill, ushering in the sexual revolution and liberating women from the tyranny of reproductive biology. In November 1960, a court found Lady Chatterley’s Lover not to be obscene, clearing the path for widened tolerance of pornography. In 1961, the U.S. Air Force paid for the development of an integrated circuit-based computer, taking us a first step into the digital age. “Freedom rides” aimed at overthrowing segregation in the South began, followed by James Meredith’s 1962 enrollment at U. Miss., the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the recognition of Martin Luther King as an American icon. These were major milestones in a remarkable revolution in race relations in our country. Forty-four years after our graduation in 1964, we elected our first African-American president.
Many of the changes in our way of life cannot be understood without reference to developments in our foreign relations. The belated rectification of our shameful national history of racial discrimination trimmed our sails to the “winds of change” that blew away European dominance in Africa. (By the end of 1963, there were thirty independent African nations with embassies in Washington and ambassadors at the United Nations in New York. In 1964, Nelson Mandela famously declared that he was prepared to die to end apartheid.) Air Force funding of microelectronics technology aimed at closing an alleged missile gap with the USSR. Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit our planet in April 1961, followed in May by Alan Shepard. The rapid development of computer chips and software owed much to arms and space races calculated to vindicate our military primacy and claims of socioeconomic superiority over our Soviet rival.
It is hard to overstate the extent to which the Cold War shaped our evolution as a polity. Sensing the downside of this, President Eisenhower – a towering figure in our military history — left office in January 1961 with a warning against the danger of “unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex” on our government and politics. (His original draft had – with greater accuracy – referred to the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”)
President Kennedy’s more militarized foreign policies and massive increases in defense spending fostered the emergence of giant industrial corporations whose main reason for existence is the fulfillment of government contracts. We now take “military Keynesianism” for granted. Decisions on defense spending are driven more by lobbyists than defense planners and made mainly in terms of their impact on employment in congressional districts rather than for their relevance to specific threats to our homeland.
Kennedy’s bold inaugural declaration that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” inspired youthful exuberance about American identity. Then the national and personal sacrifices inherent in his brave new vision began to strike home. In March 1961, America was humiliated at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Four months later, the Berlin Wall was built. (At roughly the same time, Israel’s Dimona reactor quietly went critical, advancing a clandestine nuclear weapons program the Jewish state had assured President Kennedy it did not have. Israel’s determination to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is a key factor in our contemporary confrontation with Iran.)
Nineteen sixty-one ended with the dispatch of 18,000 “military advisers” to Vietnam and a declaration of faith in Marxism-Leninism by Fidel Castro, whom we sought even then to ostracize and overthrow. A year later, for the unforgettable thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, we came eyeball to eyeball with the possibility of annihilation in a nuclear exchange with our Soviet enemies. Meanwhile, the Chinese, who seemed even scarier than the Russians, fought a short victorious war with non-aligned but Soviet-leaning India. (The emotional pain of this defeat still drives Indian strategic behavior.)
In retrospect, the persistence of belief in the continuing existence of a “Sino-Soviet bloc” and the role this fantasy played in our wars in Southeast Asia are a truly amazing instance of the triumph of narrative over situational awareness. In July 1960, amidst much acrimony, the Soviets had withdrawn their technicians and ended their aid program in China. Following the Cuban missile crisis and Sino-Indian border war, Beijing broke ambassadorial relations with Moscow. By 1964, the USSR had begun a visible military buildup along China’s northern border. Yet Americans remained in national denial about the division of our enemies until President Nixon finally moved to exploit the rift in 1972.
In the interim, the Cold War continued to shape us. In early 1963, the CIA set up a “Domestic Operations Division,” laying the initial foundation for the eventual emergence of the full-fledged surveillance state revealed fifty years later in the Snowden leaks. By the end of 1964, south Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem had been murdered with official U.S. connivance and President Kennedy had himself been felled by the bullet of an assassin with murky ties to both Cuba and the USSR. Other assassinations of politically prominent Americans ensued amidst occasional race riots. In 1965, teach-ins against the Vietnam War began. In 1966, Senator Fulbright started hearings questioning both the war and the U.S. views of China from which the war in no small measure derived. By 1968, the antiwar movement had driven President Johnson from office. By the early 1970s, it had severely undermined governmental authority in the United States.
It was in these circumstances that in 1972 Nixon opened the door to China. His purpose was to extricate our fractious conscript army from Vietnam and restore domestic tranquility while strengthening the encirclement of the USSR. Nixon had no aspirations to change China itself. But the U.S. shift from containment to engagement with China soon led to profound changes there, with knock-on effects that can only be described as epoch-defining and which have yet fully to play out.
Scofflaw attitudes born of Cold War amorality inspired Nixon’s use of intelligence agency operatives and securocrats to carry out and cover up the Watergate burglary. Watergate brought him down and left his opening to China as his one indisputably positive legacy. Sadly, the notion that national security ends justify illegal means did not depart office with Nixon, as Iran-Contra and other later scandals evidenced. Nor was the “military-industrial-congressional complex” done in by the 1991 demise of the USSR and the existential threat it had posed to the United States. Instead, the nation began a search for new enemies to arm against.
Eisenhower would not have been surprised by this enemy deprivation syndrome. But he could not have imagined that 9/11 would spawn a “counterterrorism-industrial-congressional complex” to parallel the military one of which he had warned. The new national security structure has fostered a wide range of unconstrained governmental activities and illiberal practices that previous generations of Americans, including our founding fathers, would certainly have condemned. These include presidential authorizations of war that ignore the Constitution’s clear reservation of this power to the Congress, the de facto suspension of much of the Bill of Rights (especially the key protections of the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments), and the use of extrajudicial kidnapping, detention, torture, and execution, and other actions in contempt of both the traditions of our republic and international law. Many – perhaps most – Americans remain belligerent, Islamophobic nationalists who are untroubled by this, but growing numbers are concerned about the existential threat to American freedoms from our newborn garrison state. Its securocrats routinely ignore our rights and violate our civil liberties in the name of protecting them.
Nixon’s opening to China – taken to new levels by presidents Carter, Reagan, and their successors – helped containment at last to succeed, fulfilling George Kennan’s vision of the collapse of the Soviet system from its own infirmities. China embraced market economics and integrated itself into the organizations and regulatory structures that had once defined the non-Soviet “free world” (the IMF, IBRD, WTO, etc.). This helped globalize the world economy, raise a billion or more people on several continents from poverty, and bring about massive shifts in the distribution of wealth and power between regions. It transformed China into a formidable economic power and an impressively immovable military object, without, however, making it politically attractive. Asia is now widely seen as the world’s economic center of gravity. It is also increasingly Sinocentric.
This now makes China the clear favorite as the U.S. military opponent of choice. Having been fought to a draw by Muslim insurgents and bearded men in caves, we are applying the “Aiken formula” to them – declaring victory and pivoting away, heading instead to a face-off with China. Like the Soviet Union before it, China is the kind of formidable, high-tech enemy that can justify the spending needed to sustain military-industrial employment.
So here we go again! This time, however, we have few allies. It is noteworthy that it was an American, not a foreigner, who declared us to be the world’s “indispensable nation.” The global infatuation with America is much diminished. Many recent examples demonstrate that our longstanding assumption that, if we lead, others will follow is obsolete.
In its first 160 years, the United States took advantage of its unique geostrategic isolation from both Europe and Asia to avoid entangling alliances. When we contracted them in World War I and II, we ended them as soon as the conflicts that justified them were over. But the alliances we built to contain the USSR have long outlasted our Cold War contest with it. Our global strategy now seems to aim at sustaining the gratifying position of leadership these alliances once afforded us. Our Cold War allies are pleased we still want them, but they do not see what’s in it for them to join us in protracted struggle with either the Chinese or the world’s Muslims.
For now, at least, East Asians value our backing but are reluctant to reciprocate it. India is obsessed with China but remains resolutely non-aligned. Pakistan is full of passive aggression. Europeans are aghast at our unilateralism and deviation from the values of the Enlightenment we once exemplified. (Even Britain is no longer as committed to us as it once was.) We have failed to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. Washington has no present credibility with any party in the Middle East. Africa looks mainly to Asia, South America, and Europe, not the United States. The Western Hemisphere is no longer ours to command – South America is almost as strategically distant from us as it was from North America in pre-Colombian times.
We Americans still live in a superpower but are part of a world over which we have far less sway than in 1960-64. The past fifty years brought many surprises in our foreign relations, some of them leading to still other surprises in both our foreign and domestic affairs. Trends and events abroad have helped determine the justice and tranquility of our society, its security and welfare, and the extent and reliability of its liberties. What happens in the world beyond our borders will continue to shape America. In retrospect, standing in 2064, the class of 2014 will see clearly how it changed us over the coming half century. One thing the class of 1964 has learned the hard way is that only a fool would claim to see this now.
Chas Freeman graduated from Yale a year early and entered the Harvard Law School in 1963 at age twenty, having precociously married and had the first of four children by his then wife. Chas’s daughter and two of his eight grandchildren have Yale undergraduate degrees. His nearly thirty-year career in diplomacy has been followed by twenty years in international business and four books on statecraft and diplomacy.