The Strategic Thinking That Made America Great By Melvyn P. Leffler

In the last few weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized key allies, called the European Union a foe, and labeled Russia a friendly, respectable competitor. By coddling Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump seeks to appease Russia’s leader, who is not only working systematically to expand Russia’s influence around the globe but also trying to support a growing number of authoritarian leaders who spurn liberal democratic values and free market practices. Trump’s strategy for advancing U.S. greatness is an “America first” agenda: minimizing obligations to allies, treating everyone as a competitor, freeing the United States from the restrictions imposed by multilateral institutions, seeking trade advantages through bilateral negotiations, building up military power, befriending dictators if they support him, and acting unilaterally in a zero-sum framework of international politics.
“Europe First” never meant Europe alone.
Before Trump, the bedrock of U.S. grand strategy for successive administrations, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George H. W. Bush, was “Europe First.” “Europe First” meant seeking democratic allies in key areas of the globe, especially across the Atlantic; embracing multilateral institutions; and thwarting efforts of adversaries to gain control of the preponderant natural resources, industrial infrastructure, and skilled labor of Europe and Asia. It never meant Europe alone. The strategy was the means through which policymakers sought to safeguard democratic capitalism and serve the most vital interests and values of the United States—abroad, but especially at home. Of all the pillars of U.S. foreign policy that Trump has jeopardized since taking office, his abandonment of the “Europe First” strategy stands to be the greatest loss.
On December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation in one of his fireside chats. This chat differed from others Roosevelt had delivered to the American public on the radio since 1933: “This is not a fireside chat on war,” Roosevelt stated. “It is a talk on national security.” It was the first time a U.S. president spoke explicitly about national security and labeled it as such. Roosevelt’s aim was to warn the American people of the threat posed by the Tripartite Pact, signed in Berlin that September by the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Roosevelt’s message was twofold. First, he wanted to inform the public of what his military planners, under the guidance of Admiral Harold E. Stark and General George C. Marshall, had recently resolved: that Germany, not Japan, was the principal threat to U.S. security. Stark feared that Germany would defeat the United Kingdom, dominate the Atlantic, and buy time to assimilate all the resources, industrial infrastructure, and skilled labor of northwestern Europe. No single power, Stark argued, could be permitted to dominate the continent, control the trade routes of the Atlantic, and penetrate the Western Hemisphere. He advised that war with Japan should be avoided while the United States bolstered British and Canadian capabilities and prepared for eventual hostilities on the European continent.
The U.S. strategic plan—“Plan Dog”—prioritized defending Europe from the threat of Nazi Germany. But Roosevelt’s other, perhaps even more important, message to the American people was that the United States could not find safety and security in the Western Hemisphere alone. If the United Kingdom fell to the Nazis, he warned, “all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun—a gun loaded with explosive bullets, economic as well as military.” In other words, configurations of power in the international arena had profound implications for a free political economy at home. “We cannot escape danger . . . ,” Roosevelt insisted, “by crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads.”
Roosevelt was speaking directly to the threat posed by his domestic isolationist foes, the America Firsters—those who believed that the United States could survive and prosper without democratic allies in Europe. Isolationists, Roosevelt warned, might believe they had American interests at heart, but they were actually, however unwittingly, “aiding and abetting” the work of U.S. enemies actively trying to “to stir up suspicion and dissension” among different factions of American society. “Europe First” was a repudiation of the America First movement on strategic, economic, and ideological grounds.
On strategic grounds, “Europe First” meant that Germany must not be allowed to defeat the United Kingdom, assimilate the resources of Europe and the Soviet Union, project its airpower into the Atlantic, and gain control of the sea lanes. Nor could it be permitted to suck Latin American nations into the Nazi orbit through the magnetism of its fascist ideology, the lure of its gigantic market, or the surreptitious behavior of its émigrés and spies.
On economic grounds, this meant that Germany must be prevented from establishing an autarchic economic bloc with quotas, tariffs, exchange controls, and barter agreements. Such an economic bloc would discriminate against American goods, hurt the U.S. economy, and compel Washington to assume more and more power over export trade in order to combat the economic leverage of the Nazi leviathan.
And on ideological and political grounds, German dominance risked making the United States into “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.” The America Firsters might have found the “lone island” prospect appealing, but Roosevelt feared “the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.”
The United States could not be free if it was not linked economically, militarily, strategically, and ideologically to like-minded nations across the oceans.
Roosevelt’s grand strategic concept was simple: the United States could not be free, could not be “first,” indeed could not survive, if it was not linked economically, militarily, strategically, and ideologically to like-minded nations across the oceans. The United Kingdom had to survive and democratic Europe had to be liberated if free enterprise and political liberty were to flourish in the United States. This simple concept would outlast the war, shape the fragile peace that followed, and form the foundation of the political order that triumphed in the Cold War and brought unprecedented wealth and liberty to the peoples of Europe and Asia.
In the spring of 1945, as the hot war drew to a close, the United States’ most eminent experts on international relations authored a study sponsored by the Brookings Institution outlining the nation’s postwar strategic imperatives. Their conclusion was straightforward: no power or coalition of powers could be allowed to gain control of Eurasia. At the time, only the Soviet Union and the former Axis powers were capable of forming the nuclei around which an anti-American coalition could threaten the security of the United States. These experts did not seek conflict with Moscow or predict anything resembling the forthcoming Cold War, but they stated clearly that the indefinite westward expansion of the Soviet Union must not be permitted.
Military planners examined this study and embraced its basic axioms. They assumed that if another war came, it would be protracted, and the side with the superior technological and industrial capabilities would prevail. In peacetime, therefore, it was essential to thwart the Kremlin from gaining control of the industrial infrastructure, skilled labor, raw materials, and forward bases that would allow it to wage war effectively. The United States had to retain allies across the oceans in northwest Europe and northeast Asia. “The potential military strength of the Old World,” argued the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), “in terms of manpower and in terms of war-making capacity is enormously greater than that of [the Western Hemisphere].” Just as it had during World War II, the simple strategic concept of “Europe First” undergirded all else during the Cold War.
At the end of World War II, strategists believed that the Soviet Union was too weak to risk outright military aggression. Furthermore, it lacked an atomic bomb, a strategic air force, and a surface fleet. Despite these weaknesses, U.S. officials, military planners, and intelligence analysts worried about Moscow gaining control of much of Europe through other means. In April 1945, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy went to Europe and reported to his boss Henry Stimson, that “there is a complete economic, social, and political collapse going on in Central Europe, the extent of which is unparalleled in history.” Stimson, in turn, informed President Harry Truman that “pestilence and famine” would afflict Europe the next winter and were likely to be followed by “political revolution and communist infiltration.” Soviet armies already dominated Eastern Europe. And in Western Europe, the Soviets could exploit economic chaos, social turmoil, and political disarray. Communist and socialist parties surged in popularity as the war drew to a close, capturing 20 to 35 percent of the popular vote in France, Italy, and Finland and close to ten percent of the vote in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Throughout Europe, people demanded land reform, nationalization, and social welfare. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party defeated Winston Churchill, began nationalizing industries, and embraced the welfare state.
Economic conditions seemed portentous for many reasons. In 1947, nearly two-thirds of Western Europe’s foreign trade was organized bilaterally through exchange controls, barter agreements, and quantitative restrictions. These arrangements contradicted the multilateral, open commercial and financial arrangements that U.S. officials deemed necessary for full employment and a free political economy at home. In March 1947, less than a week before he declared the doctrine that would bear his name, Truman warned the American people that the proliferation of exchange controls, quotas, and tariffs in Europe would eventually endanger basic freedoms at home, especially its free enterprise system. Much of the world, Truman lamented, was heading toward central planning, and the United States would come under pressure to adopt the same devices in order to fight for markets and raw materials. Thus, he admonished, the country had to champion the new multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Trade Organization in order to thwart totalitarian adversaries abroad and safeguard democratic capitalism at home.
The intentions of Russian Premier Joseph Stalin seemed ominous indeed when he refused to withdraw from Iran in 1946 and pressured Turkey to allow the Soviet Union access to the Turkish Straits. In 1946, civil war erupted in Greece between royalists and communists. The British intensified the sense of crisis by announcing their withdrawal from the eastern Mediterranean. Truman worried that the success of communists in Greece might have a bandwagon effect on the rest of Europe. U.S. inaction “could only result in handing to the Russians vast areas of the globe now denied to them.”
Facing the prospect of strategic defeat, Truman reconfigured his cabinet. He appointed Marshall, just home from a failed mission to resolve the civil war in China, as his secretary of state, and Marshall brought in George Kennan to head the Policy Planning Staff. Truman then went to Congress and declared a bold new initiative. The president would offer U.S. military assistance, economic aid, and advisers to Greece and Turkey so that they would have a free choice between communist totalitarianism and democratic capitalism.
The top military strategists in the United States were on board with Truman’s strategy but at a loss for how to execute it. Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, together with Secretary of War Robert Patterson and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, got together and established the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee to devise a comprehensive program of assistance. They recommended using the urgency of the situation as the chief criterion for determining priorities, putting Austria, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, Korea, and Turkey at the top of the list. The Joint Chiefs of Staff undertook their own study and came up with a different recommendation: prioritize aid to the United Kingdom, France, and western Germany, because the resurgence of German industry was critical for the economic recovery of France and therefore the combined security of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The JCS thinking comported with that of Kennan and his Policy Planning Staff, who were already completing their first papers on an economic recovery for Europe—what would later become the Marshall Plan.
But a large recovery program for Europe promised to be enormously costly and impede rearmament in the United States. Tough choices lay ahead. On the one hand, military analysts calculated it was safe to prioritize reconstruction in Europe over rearmament at home, at least while the Soviet Union was still too weak to threaten the United States directly. On the other hand, European reconstruction imperiled domestic priorities. On the very day Marshall delivered his address at Harvard University, outlining the details of the plan, Truman acknowledged that “foreign aid programs add to our economic problems at home.” Aid to Europe might spur inflation, erode domestic purchasing power, and create budgetary deficits.
Ultimately, strategic thinkers—both civilian and military—concluded that the gains abroad were worth the costs at home. For the United States to survive and prosper with its fundamental institutions and values intact, it had to nurture open trade, economic recovery, and free polities in Europe. If Washington didn’t take action, the long-term balance of power in Europe would be imperiled by the ongoing foreign exchange crisis, the shortage of dollars held by European governments, the economic disarray, the proliferation of controls over trade and investment, and the capacity of European communist parties and the Kremlin to capitalize on these developments. Kennan warned that if these developments occurred, “the traditional concept of U.S. security,” postulating “a reasonable number of free [European] states subservient to no great power,” would be invalidated.
The gains abroad were worth the costs at home.
Marshall recognized that European reconstruction would not be possible without reviving coal production and resuscitating the industrial capabilities of western Germany. France—understandably fearful about the prospect of a powerful Germany—needed absolute assurance that it would have the military support of the United States in the event of Soviet retaliation in the short run or the recrudescence of a German threat in the long run. And so the North Atlantic Treaty, the founding document of the NATO alliance, was catalyzed by the realization that a “Europe First” strategy required co-opting and integrating German power into a community of democracies supported by the power of the United States. Although military planners remonstrated over the absence of capabilities to make good on the guarantees they were incurring, they nevertheless fully supported the treaty. Truman assured other countries that the United States was committed to the alliance: after all, U.S. national security was “deeply involved with that of other free nations.” If Western Europe were to fall to the Soviet Union, the United States would face existential military and economic threats and “would have to take defense measures which might really bankrupt our economy, and change our way of life.”
“Europe First” was the strategic concept that shaped victory in the hot war against the Axis powers and in the Cold War against communist totalitarianism. In both cases, U.S. strategists recognized that the country’s vital interests and fundamental institutions were linked to the survival of like-minded polities in Europe. The United States needed democratic allies to sustain a geopolitical balance of power that furthered its economic interests and political institutions in wartime and peacetime. Those allies, moreover, needed to share a broad commitment to open markets, nondiscriminatory trade, low tariffs, civil liberties, and human rights that were the bedrock of U.S. political and economic life.
In the 1940s, those allies were subject first to Nazi domination and then to communist subversion and Russian adventurism. Today, those same countries are endangered by right-wing populist movements and authoritarian leaders who are inclined to new forms of statism, restrictionism, protectionism, and arbitrary behavior.
Today, as in the 1940s, Russia seeks to exploit the discontent to aggrandize its influence and reshape the configuration of power in international affairs. With Putin reasserting Russia’s strength, now is not the time to abandon the strategic thinking that indisputably made the United States great. Nor is it the time to cause allies to question the strategic guarantees that were indispensable for deterring the Soviet Union or to weaken the multilateral institutions (including the European Union) that serve as the foundational pillars of a liberal international economic order congenial to the free flow of capital, goods, and labor. The U.S. capitalist economy is unlikely to prosper in a world of high tariffs, exchange controls, quantitative restrictions, and bilateral trade arrangements. U.S. security is unlikely to be enhanced in a world where key allies are unmoored and insecure, endangered by a revanchist Russia abroad and populist insurgencies at home, and tempted to act unilaterally and regard the United States as simply another competitor in a world of predatory states.
This was the world that U.S. strategists struggled against during World War II and the Cold War. Today, of course, there are new threats, including the rise of China. Power is also conceived in new ways as the digital revolution complements and supplants the importance of industrial heartlands based on steel, coal, and petroleum. But antiliberal and mercantilist models of international relations pose even greater dangers because the world is more interdependent and interconnected than ever before. For example, the U.S. economy would face huge challenges if it could not continue to borrow trillions of dollars from abroad to finance its private and public spending. Further, the United States cannot escape from the transnational security challenges emanating from climate change. Every day, forest fires, drought, and flooding serve as reminders of how the safety and security of the United States are intertwined with global developments.
The strategic logic that made the United States great in the twentieth century still applies today.
The strategic logic that made the United States great in the twentieth century is simple and still applies today: preserve an open international order and thwart adversaries or coalitions of adversaries from gaining control, either directly or indirectly, of the preponderant resources and industrial infrastructure of Europe and Asia. Deter and contain. Then, seek to co-opt and integrate adversaries into the multilateral institutions that are designed to promote the rule of law, nurture nondiscriminatory trade, encourage open marketplaces, protect human rights, and strengthen civil society. This work takes decades, and setbacks are inevitable. But if the logic of the past is discarded now, the security of the United States will be endangered and the American way of life imperiled.

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