FRED LOGEVALL: My name is Fred Logevall. I'm the director of the Center and I'm a faculty member in history. And as many of you know, and I'll be brief in terms of my overall introductory remarks. As many of you know, this is a series that has been in existence now for several years. Its purpose is really to bring to campus distinguished outside speaker who have a particular expertise on issues pertaining to, shall we say, the US and the world.
American foreign policy, international affairs. Those things that are of pressing concern at the moment, if you will, in international affairs. But in many cases, people who also have, shall I say, a historical sensibility. And that's certainly true of our speaker today. We have been in existence in terms of this series since 2006. If you have a program, you will see on the back a full list of the speakers that we've had up to, I guess, this year. And I think you'll agree it's a very distinguished list, indeed.
This is our last speaker of the semester. So I don't have more talks to announce to you. I will simply say that we have already planned a number of really exciting visits for the fall and for next spring. So we are at full tilt in terms of our preparations for the next academic year.
And I want to draw your attention in particular to a lund debate. One of the things we do every year is a lund critical debate. And it's also always pertaining to an important issue in world affairs. And we're going to be debating the use of drones in current American foreign policy and more generally. And Matt Evangelista, faculty member in government and our own Heike Michelsen in the Einaudi Center are working together to put together a terrific debate and a terrific program. And we'll have more information on that. I think the debate is going to be in November. And we'll also have several speakers as part of the series next year.
Now, however, I want to introduce today's guest, professor Eric Alterman, who is a distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York graduate school of journalism. He is the liberal media columnist for The Nation. Was just telling me about a piece that he's written on this very day for The Nation, and he's a regular contributor to the Daily Beast, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, The Nation Institute, and the World Policy Institute.
In recent years, Professor Alterman has also been a columnist for Worth, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Moment The Forward, and the Sunday Express of London. He's been regularly featured on MSNBC as well as msnbc.com, and a history consultant to HBO Films.
Professor Alterman is the author of nine books, including most recently The Cause, the Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. And out of the corner of my eye, I can just make out some copies of this important new work. And we will have an opportunity for you to purchase the book afterwards at what I'm sure is a very nice, competitive price. So I hope you'll linger for that.
Also quite recently, Kabuki Democracy the System Versus Barack Obama, which appeared in 2011. I want to draw your attention to an earlier book of Professor Alderman's, which is called Sound and Fury the Making of the Punditocracy. I don't know whether Eric coined the term, but I can tell you that before I read the book-- I think it appeared in 1993, if I recall correctly, and it's also been reissued in a revised version. But I have not encountered the term.
And it's a powerful book on the decline-- and Eric can correct me if I'm misrepresenting it-- but the decline of political discourse in the United States, and the role that self-proclaimed, in many cases, pundits have played, as Professor Alterman sees it, in that decline. But I recommend that book to you, and also, of course, the many other books that he has written.
Professor Altman has been termed, and I quote, "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today," unquote. That's in The National Catholic Reporter. He has been called also, and I quote, "the smartest and funniest political journalist out there," in the San Francisco Chronicle. He's also been the winner of the George Orwell Award, the Jack London Literary Prize, and the Mirror Award for Media Criticism.
He has, finally, a list of distinguished alma maters, I guess I could say. He has a PhD in history from Stanford, a master's degree in international relations from Yale. Not bad institutions. But best of all, most important of all, he has a BA in history and government from Cornell University. And I'm absolutely delighted that he can be with us today to talk about liberalism and American foreign policy. Join me please in welcoming Eric Alterman.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thank you very much. Thanks for coming. If I weren't nervous enough or intimidated enough already, I didn't realize I was going to be introduced by the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner in history. So congratulations on that.
It takes the pressure off me, because you can say you saw him speak today instead of me if people ask you how it went.
Can everybody hear me? Do I have to lean in? No? Yeah, OK. I flew up here this morning, and I see it's the week where perspective students are here. And I remember 35 years ago coming here in that approximately today, and I remember everybody saying what a beautiful day it was. And how lucky I was to have such a nice day. And I kept thinking, what is the big deal? It's a nice day. I get it. If only I had thought about that more carefully, and what that meant.
So I hope there are no prospective students here to hear that. But I'm very pleased to be here, and honored, and a little bit intimidated. I like to just begin a little bit personally for a moment. Because it does mean something to me to be able to speak here.
It's the third time I've spoken at Cornell, I think. The first time I spoke at a lecture series in honor of [? Welton ?] Feber and Joel [? Soby, ?] who were two of the three members of my honors thesis committee. And if you had been in that room in that day, you would never have believed that I would be asked back to speak in their honor. So life can be very surprising.
Let's see. So I came here in 1978. I see I just missed Bob Dylan here. I was once actually on a poster. I spoke like a day after Bob Dylan, and our names are on a poster together. I still have that. Although nothing in life is what it was 40 years ago. But nothing quite so much as Bob Dylan.
That year that I came here, 1977-- I don't know how many people this will apply to-- those of you who are Grateful Dead fans will know that it's like a Lore that the greatest Grateful Dead concert ever was Barton Hall, 1977. I believe it was May '77.
So I got here in September of '78. If you got here in September of '78, there were posters up all over the campus for the Grateful Dead's return to Barton Hall on the first day of classes. So this was going to be great. I was going to come to Cornell, the Grateful Dead were going to welcome me after just having done their [INAUDIBLE] concert.
So that concert was canceled because ROTC would not give them Barton Hall that day. So I still have the poster. The concert commission gave out the posters. And I still have it, and I have it framed. It's worth a lot of money now, actually, because it's 35 years old, and the concert never happened. So that was kind of like a metaphor for my four years at Cornell. This great concert that didn't happen because of ROTC. I was oppressed by the man from the minute I got here.
The great thing about Cornell, you love it and you hate it for the same reasons, in part because it's so beautiful and so isolated. From my perspective as a student here, I was a pretty serious student. And the best thing about it as a student was the fact that the faculty had nowhere to go. They were stuck here. It's I think a little better now, because there's a daily bus to the city. But otherwise there are hardly any flights, and they're expensive. And there's no real transportation.
So I actually got a terrific education, and I think a much better education than if I'd gone to university in a major city. I have one memory, I think this is the case still. But for decades, one book that everybody has to read in graduate school is Ben Anderson's Imagined Communities. And I remember I was a nerd, so sometimes the faculty would let me come to the faculty seminars. And I remember being in a room where Ben Anderson just like mapped this little idea he had out on the-- John, maybe you-- Dick, you remember being there. He just mapped out this little idea that he had on the blackboard, and he was just working it out. And it made perfect sense when he said it. And since then the whole world has embraced that idea.
And that was an extreme example. But I was always really grateful for the relationships that I was able to develop with faculty members and the intellectual inspiration-- not just intellectual inspiration, actually. It was I won't say moral education, but it was sort of exemplary education that I received in those years.
When I was at Cornell, I double majored in history and government with a little more emphasis on history than government. I did my thesis in history. And I was also a columnist for the Cornell Daily Sun. I was trying to figure out who I wanted to be in the world.
There were two polls that I saw at that time. One was provided by my friends and advisors on the faculty. My actual thesis advisor was [? Walton ?] Feber, with whom I worked very closely. At the time in the late '80s, the big political issue for us was US intervention in Central America, and figuring out how to stop that, for those of us who felt that way.
And at the same time, I was also very excited by trying to participate in the world itself. And as I won't say an activist, but as-- and I don't think public intellectual is really the right term, but I was not entirely satisfied, or nor was I entirely skilled to be the kind of historian that Walt represented at the time.
When we argued about Central America, he was working on the book that he published on the US role in Central America, Inevitable Revolutions. And it was certainly very educational, but it wasn't the kind of thing that really mattered a great deal in congressional debates about whether or not we were going to go there and kill people.
My last column in The Nation two weeks ago-- I write every other week-- was a kind of appreciation for the life of the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis who died recently, and who was back then a very lonely but powerful voice writing about these same issues. And I remember trying to figure out my whole life, did I want to be a scholar like my professors here, whose work I so admired, but who didn't seem to have much impact on the public debate, or did I want to throw myself into that debate, but have to give up on the values that I had learned to respect and admire here?
And I bring this up because I actually have spent my life being neither fish nor fowl, being both at the same time. And maybe not doing either one all that well, but getting to do both. I have had a career in academia and a career as a opinionated journalist.
And I say that not only because I'm telling you my life story, I'm actually done now with my life story. But because that is the source of my expertise. I'm never going to win the Pulitzer Prize for history. But I do understand something about the way the way we discuss politics in this country that I think I won't say it's unique, but it's a perspective that is rare. Because I tried very hard to keep up with scholarly debates, and to do justice to scholarly mores in my work while at the same time participating in the actual debates as they take place in politics.
And I do this in part because it's what I do and it's what I enjoy. But I do it more importantly because I think it's how the world actually works. My talk today, The Search for a Liberal Foreign Policy, derives from an observation that just dawned on me as I was writing this book and another book. I wrote two books about American liberalism over a period of eight years. One came out in 2008, and this one came out last year.
And I went into this research really looking forward to learning about-- it's really a people driven history, and really looking forward to learning about people who I could admire and identify with, and the kinds of fights that they were having that I needed a better education about. And I found very few. I won't say none, but almost none.
And the reason is because it turns out there really wasn't much of a liberal foreign policy tradition after Franklin Roosevelt. And I've been thinking about why that is. This is the first time I've given a talk on this topic, or tried to think about it in a systematic way.
But the reason is something that I think I've observed over the course of my career as a journalist and a historian with regard to US foreign policy and the way it operates in our democracy. And that is the way that foreign policy gets made in this country is to anticipate what will be the reaction of the interested public, and to try and head that off in advance.
So that the problem itself becomes secondary to the anticipated public reaction. And that means that the problem, whatever problem it may happen to be, frequently metastasizes into something far worse than it needed to be because no one was actually dealing with the problem. People are dealing with the problem that was created by the attempt to deal with the public reaction.
I've looked at this problem from a number of different perspectives. Most of my nine books-- I would argue all of them, but it would take me a long time to make the argument that they all do this. Most of my nine books are about a single question. Which is, why does the United States behave the way it does in the world?
Because if you just look at what are nakedly this country's interests, they're a long way from the actual actions that this country takes. It takes a lot of explanation to get to what our traditional realist foreign policy interests of the United States and the United States' actions.
So from various phenomena I look to the political culture, and I try to figure out what is actually driving these reactions. So my first book, as Fred was good enough to mention, was a history of punditry which I felt was very important and insufficiently examined. It's actually the first, and I still think the only history of punditry. It came out in 1992, and the second edition of it was published by Cornell University Press in I think 2000, around then. And by the way, yes, I did invent the word punditocracy. It's in the OED with my name on it. So when I die, I will live on in the OED if nothing else.
And then I wrote a book about democracy and foreign policy, about the role that democracy plays in the creation of foreign policy. That was also published by Cornell University Press. And then I wrote a book that I spent 11 years on about the role of presidential dishonesty in our political culture. Not because I'm shocked that presidents are dishonest, but because of this phenomenon I was just describing where a president will feel a need to be dishonest about something fundamental in foreign policy. And that by creating this political problem, the actual issue about which the president was being dishonest will continue to grow, and grow, and grow, and you end up with a much, much worse problem than you otherwise would have because you're dealing with this fictional problem that you've created with your dishonesty.
So I'm going to focus today on examples drawn from that rather than from this history of liberalism, which takes us to the present. But I'll be happy to talk about them. I think this model applies to almost every significant issue with regard to liberals and foreign policy. I can do it with Iraq, I can do it even with Iran today. But I'm going to do it with the areas where, because it was my dissertation, I was forced to go most deeply into the archives, and I know best. And I'm sort of on strongest ground in front of this August audience.
Now, the day that I was invited to give this talk-- I happened to know the date because I took note of it while I was doing my morning reading on the internet. It was January 16th of this year. And I note that, because I happened to pull down a column by George Will, who's probably the most respected of American pundits. Maybe not by liberals, but in the general public. He's been doing it since I was an undergraduate at Cornell. He's been on ABC News forever. The Washington Post. He's won many Pulitzer prizes.
And he wrote a column about the nomination of Chuck Hegel to be Secretary of Defense. And he had a series of questions that he thought Hegel should be asked at his hearing. So this was before everybody decided Hegel was an anti-Semite who wanted Israel to disappear, et cetera.
By the way, that was-- well no, I won't. It so happens that the fellow who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary this year made that very argument about Hegel. And so I gave my condolences to Fred on having to win the same year that this terrible columnist in the Wall Street Journal won as well.
So Will asked a series of questions in his column that day to Hegel. I noted down just a few of them. One of them was, it says you were wrong on Iraq twice by supporting the invasion in the first place, and then opposing the surge. If the surge had not happened, what would have happened in Iraq? Second question, how many sorties, including attacks on Iran's air defense systems, would be required to significantly degrade and delay Iran's nuclear program? Can Israel mount such an air campaign alone?
Then he says, you didn't sign a letter declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization. From your endorsement of US negotiations with Hamas, can we conclude that you oppose the policy of not negotiating with terrorists? And then he quotes Hegel, saying that the Department of Defense was bloated, and can you please give descriptions of what you mean by bloat? And then he says, the Navy has nine aircraft carriers. How many should we have? How is your calculation influenced by the fact that seven weeks ago China for the first time landed a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier?
Well, as I said, George Will is about as good as it gets. And all of these questions are in their own way ridiculous. All of these questions contain all kinds of fundamental assumptions that are, at best, questionable, but in most cases easy to dispute. And some of them are, of course, impossible to answer. Who knows what would have happened in Iraq if there hadn't been any surge? It's unanswerable.
And yet this is the best we can do. George Will is really the best you can hope for in our political discourse. And so my argument that we have a debate that is driven by, particularly with regard to liberals, anticipating the attacks that will be leveled on them, and then those are the actions they take, rather than an actual assessment of the problems facing them is, I think-- I'm giving you a hint of it in the kind of thing that the Obama administration was facing when they pick Hegel that this was the kind of thing they had to anticipate in picking Hegel who, by the way, is a conservative Republican.
Borrowing from one of my works, I wrote out what I hope was a clearer example of the nature of the problem I'm trying to describe, so I'll read that. Here lies the crux of what, as it happens, Walter LaFeber termed America's unresolved Tocqueville problem. In his visionary work on the inner workings of democracy entitled A Preface to Morals, 1919, Walter Lippmann examined what he believed to be the necessary preconditions for the operation of a successful Democratic Republic. A competent, civic minded citizenry with access to relevant details of public policy, and he decides that the entire notion is dangerously utopian and ought to be shelved.
At the heart of Republican theory, in Lippmann's view, stood the omnicompetent citizen. It was believed that if only he could be taught more facts, if only he would take more interest, if only he would listen to more lectures and read more reports, he could gradually be trained to direct public affairs.
Unfortunately, Lippmann concluded, the whole assumption is false. Lippmann argued that the social and political events that determine our collective destiny are well beyond the public's range of experience and expertise to understand. He compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. He lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand, and is unable to direct. Mass political consciousness does not pertain to a factual environment, but to an intermediate pseudo-environment.
Citizens have only limited time and attention to devote to issues of public concern. News is designed for mass consumption, and hence, the media must employ a relatively simple vocabulary and linear storyline to discuss highly complex and decidedly non-linear situations. News comes to us, as Lippmann wrote, helter skelter. This is fine for a baseball box score, a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch. But where the picture is more complex, as, for example, in the matter of a successful policy or the social conditions among a foreign people where the real answer is neither yes or no, but a subtle matter of balanced evidence, then journalism causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding, even misinterpretation.
And here must be added that Lippmann was identifying a problem in 1919, my goodness, that has since metastasized in both time and scope as media sensationalism and public apathy have increased since the publication of his prophetic work. Actually, three prophetic works published over a five year period between 1919 and 1925.
So the three examples I'm going to focus on for the next part of my talk in which I argue that there has been no liberal foreign policy on the part of the United States government since Franklin Roosevelt-- I'm not even really taking a position on whether or not Roosevelt held one. I'm not sufficiently expert on that. I tend to think he probably did before the war.
But since then, because the Democratic presidents that I'll discuss were so worried about proving how tough they were-- about being faced with accusations of being wimpy, or spineless, or pro-communist, or whatever they were-- that they were not actually able to respond to the actual problems. Or were only able to respond to them to a certain degree while at the same time keeping their eye on the anticipated accusations that they were about to face. And again, I feel like I can apply this to almost any major foreign policy issue. But I picked these three, because I know what I'm talking about with these three.
The first one has to do with the origins of the Cold War. So you may or may not know that when Roosevelt negotiated the Yalta agreements, right before he died-- he went to Yalta, came back in February '45, died six weeks later-- Truman had really no idea what had happened. He didn't even know Roosevelt was at Yalta when he was at Yalta. And Roosevelt didn't tell him what he had done there. He didn't really tell almost anyone. And in fact, not he didn't tell them, but the state department lost their copy of the agreement. Which actually has important implications, although they are beyond the scope of my talk today.
And Truman himself was a was a complete naive when it came to foreign policy. He had only met with Roosevelt three times in his entire life before becoming president. And they had not discussed any matters of substance. Truman's most famous quote before becoming president with regard to foreign policy came after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. And he said, "if we see that the Nazis are winning, we should help the commies, and if we see the commies are winning, we should help the Nazis. And thereby enable both sides to kill as many of each other as they can."
So he got a little better after that. That was early, obviously. But he didn't really have a view. He was kind of a blank slate. He did not go into the Cold War as a cold warrior before there was a Cold War. So there was a famous meeting held on April 23rd, 1945, which is 11 days after Roosevelt dies. And the reason they have this meeting is because the Soviet foreign minister Molotov is coming in, and they need to know what to say to him. And the US government hasn't really decided what its policy is going to be towards the Soviet Union.
This is very much disputed. There is no consensus on this point among historians, but it's my view that this is the meeting where Truman decided to become a cold warrior. The meeting where he was preparing for the meeting with Molotov. And interestingly, the military people, who were most respected and had had all the glory from the war, were all anti cold warriors. Colonel Stimson, George Marshall, and Admiral Leahy came in and said, the Soviets are actually living up to their obligations under Yalta and we can continue to work with them. We may not like it, but it's all right. There's no reason for a break. This was Roosevelt's position.
And the civilians, in my view led by Averell Harriman who had been the US ambassador in the Soviet Union, took the opposite position, that it was time to get tough with them, to have a fight, and that was the only thing they would respond to. Because they were chiseling in ways that was unacceptable. And Truman ended up siding with Harriman and the civilians.
And so when Molotov came in, he was very curt with him. Although in Truman's memoirs, he said he talks tough to him and Molotov says, I've never been talked to like that in my life. And Truman says, carry out your agreements and you won't have to be. But there's no evidence that Truman ever said that. No one else records him saying that at that meeting. But interestingly, he put it in his memoirs, because he wanted people to think that that's who he was. And if you read what was for a long time the standard work on this period, John Lewis Gaddis' United States and the Cold War, it's in there as if it actually happened. I don't think it did happen.
Now interestingly, I think it's indisputable that the United States broke the Yalta agreements before the Soviet Union did. It's kind of a minor matter. When the United States invited Argentina to be part of the UN, they were violating the Yalta agreements, because no country that had been on the axis side was allowed to come in without certain agreements being in place. And none of those agreements were in place. And yet the United States engineered it anyway.
My explanation of how the Cold War began-- which again, I don't want to argue about too much, and again, it's rather idiosyncratic, it comes from studying Yalta-- is that the Soviet Union kept to the letter of Yalta. Certainly not the spirit, but kept to the letter of Yalta, and the United States did not. And yet the United States, because Truman and his advisers didn't know what Roosevelt had agreed to, were unaware of the secret agreements having to do with Asia, et cetera. That the United States broke the agreement and accused the Soviets repeatedly of having broken them when the Soviets adhered to them.
And the Soviets really didn't understand what was going on. And they would ask Harriman, of all people, what was going on. What's the big deal? Why can't you just let us carry out what Roosevelt agreed to at Yalta? And what Harriman told Stalin was that, well, we can't because the Polish vote in the United States is too important. So we have to make a we have to make a big deal about how terrible you're treating the Poles, even though there was nothing really in Yalta to protect the Poles. Roosevelt had sacrificed the Poles, pretty much.
When in fact, if you look at the voting patterns in the 1946 and '48 elections, there was maybe a grand total of four districts out of I don't know if how many there were then, but approximately more than 400, that could have conceivably been turned by the Polish vote. The Polish vote was actually tiny. And yet even back then, Harriman was using this as an excuse for why the United States could not refuse to follow through on the deal that it made in Yalta with the Soviets.
And in fact, again, if you read what was the standard work on the Cold War by Gaddis, he posits the origins of the Cold War as follows. He says it's the Soviet Union's fault because Stalin was a dictator, and he had freedom of action. Whereas an American president doesn't have freedom of action. He has to answer to people like the Poles, and Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, and whatever.
And so it should have been up to Stalin to make the concessions the United States, because he didn't have to worry about being re-elected. Whereas an American president does. Which is an indictment of democracy, but also untrue. Because the American president has an enormous ability to sway public opinion, and to create, and to drive public opinion.
In any case, it became the policy of the American president to insist that the Soviets were not keeping their agreements. And he ordered up his aides, Clark Clifford and George Elsey, to draw up an indictment of all of the manners in which the Soviets were violating the agreement so that he could justify the various policies that we today call the Cold War.
And they came back to him and said, actually, Clifford and Elsey, told Truman, quote, "it is difficult to adduce direct evidence of literal violations." they couldn't find anything. And yet the report was written as if they were violating left and right if you don't look too much at the details. Because Truman, Clifford later observed, liked things in black and white.
There are many reasons I think the treatment of Yalta is very important. But one reason is that Yalta became the sort of metaphor for why Democrats could not be trusted with foreign policy. A man named William Bullet, who is Roosevelt's first ambassador to the USSR, wrote an article in Life magazine in August 1948 in which he blamed the loss of China and the turning of, but for the world's communists, entirely on what happened at Yalta.
Life's editors felt compelled to explain that they were publishing the article because like most Americans, they had been worried by the signs that our victory in World War II only marked an interlude before World War III. The reason, Yalta. The problem, as Bullet described it, was this. Three years ago, we stood on the summit of power rarely scaled by any nation. Today only three years later, our insecurity is such that we may be forced into war this year. The fault lay with Soviet, quote unquote, "partisans and sympathizers" working in the State Department, the Treasury Department, the army wartime agencies whose loyalty lay not with America but with Stalin's Russia.
President Roosevelt was inclined to give Stalin, quote, "everything he wanted, and ask nothing in return at Yalta." swept away by the waves of pro-Soviet propaganda, they had launched to win support of the American people for the appeasement line. Roosevelt and his advisors traveled to Yalta, quote "to pave the way for the final triumph of Soviet diplomacy at US expense."
This line, which by the way, led to Communist victory in China, became the line of the Republican Party in a short period of time. And led to the cleansing of the United States state department of all of its Asian experts, because they had participated in this.
It did so through the mechanism primarily-- there were many ways that did it-- but through the mechanism of the Hiss trial. The first Hiss trial began in 1949. But the issue of Alger Hiss and his alleged most likely spying for the Soviet Union first came to light in 1948 shortly after this article appeared through the HUAC committee's hearings in which it became the argument of the Republicans.
I'll quote Karl Mundt South Dakota, who said that Hiss had organized within the State Department one of the communist cells which endeavored to influence Chinese policy and bring about the condemnation of Chiang Kai-Shek. And he had participated in the drafting of the Yalta agreements.
Now, Roosevelt had made secret agreements in order to get the Soviets to invade Japan in order to prevent an American invasion of Japan because nobody knew if the bomb was going to work. And he had lied about those agreements and insisted that he had not made any of these agreements, both to a joint session of Congress and to everyone else. And Truman actually didn't know that these agreements were in existence.
He learned earlier that he admitted-- that's one of those single facts I discovered during my research that diplomatic historians didn't know before I found it. But by that time, his government was trapped by having made all these public accusations. He couldn't say, oops, we were wrong. The Soviets are actually doing what they were supposed to.
So the Hiss trial, Alger Hiss became the linchpin by which the liberals sold out America purposely to the communists. The first trial the jury was hung. In between the first trial the second trial, you had, A, the Soviet atomic bomb test, and B, the communist victory in China. And the second trial Hiss was found guilty, again on this narrative that at Yalta that he and his pro-communist liberal friends had deliberately sold out the United States.
And so at the end of the Hiss trial, Richard Nixon, who is a first or second term congressman from California, goes on the floor of the House and gives a four hour speech about Hiss. He had been one of the leaders of the anti Hiss group in Congress. And that weekend, the junior senator from Wisconsin was supposed to give a talk in Wheeling, West Virginia on the topic of health care and housing issues for seniors. He thought seniors should get better health care.
But instead he lifted Nixon's speech. And at the end of the speech, he said, I have in my hand a list of 373 communists in the State Department, whatever. And the whole phenomenon of McCarthy, which was both a symptom and a cause of the fear that Democrats have of actually having a liberal foreign policy, metastasized.
So you can say in a shorthand the reason that Democrats have always been afraid to actually enunciate a liberal foreign policy is McCarthyism, but it existed before McCarthyism. And McCarthyism certainly made it much worse, and is a great one word shorthand for it, but it's also a symbol as much as a cause.
The legacy of McCarthyism is that, as I said, the State Department was cleaned out, every single Democrat has to prove how tough he is or she is before they can be allowed to be trusted with the reins of government. And that is the prism through which they must address any foreign policy issue.
I'm going to jump ahead now to the second example I use in this book, which is the Cuban Missile Crisis. So again, right before the missile crisis, you had the Bay of Pigs happened. And before the missile crisis began, you had a kind of drumbeat for war against Cuba amongst Republicans, and amongst Republican oriented publications like Time magazine.
Here September 14th, remember, missile crisis was October. September 4th editorial on Time, it says the US simply cannot afford to let Cuba survive indefinitely as a Soviet fortress just off its shores, a cancer throughout the hemisphere. And the subhead of the article was called, Just Get it Over With.
Now, my view of the missile crisis-- which again, I suppose, is somewhat idiosyncratic, although it's true-- which is that John Kennedy was going to make whatever deal he had to make to prevent war over the missiles. That he would have made a public deal if he had to. And that, in fact, the x-com-- the famous committee that Kennedy put together of Republicans and Democrats to advise him-- was actually a political maneuver to keep everybody inside the tent so that he could do what he wanted to do in the first place.
And I can give you the evidence for that. It's not my idea. It's my thesis advisor idea, Barton Bernstein out of Stanford, but it's true in my view. And it's why he kept liberals out of the x-com, because he didn't need to keep liberals in the tent, because he was always going to do the deal. The x-com was all hawks, really.
And the meetings themselves were just a matter of getting these guys to not criticize him when the time came to make whatever compromise he had to make. If Khrushchev had refused the secret deal that ended the crisis to trade the Turkish missiles for the Cuban missiles-- possibly the Greek missiles as well, we don't know-- I think Kennedy would have gone ahead with a public deal. He had set one in motion through a Columbia professor named Andrew Cordier and U Thant, the head of the UN. But we'll never know whether or not that's the case.
Now the thing about Kennedy, it was very brave, I think, to take this position. But he wasn't brave enough to admit it. In other words, he did the right thing. And it was a very lonely position he took within his own government. But he didn't have the nerve to say to the country, this is what I'm doing. He had to be the tough guy. He had to hear these stories about we were eyeball to eyeball, the other guy blinked. He had to face him down. He told people not to brag about the victory, but he was quoted saying, I cut his balls off, referring to Khrushchev.
Now I don't have time to go into as much-- I'm already talking too long, I see. But I can't go into the kind of detail I would like to on this. But if you look at the way Kennedy destroyed the career of Adlai Stevenson, who was the great liberal champion, for proposing that he do exactly what he did.
In those days, the Saturday Evening Post wrote the early definitive story of what happened in the missile crisis. In those days, the authors of that article actually gave it to the Kennedies to edit before they published it, to tell the story the way they wanted it told. And Kennedy himself put in the phrase, Adlai wanted a eunuch, showing how weak and wimpy this great liberal was. When actually, all Stevenson had proposed was just what Kennedy said. We should try this. We may have to go to war, but let's try everything we can to prevent it.
And Stevenson knew what he was doing. At one point he said, maybe it's a good idea to have a quote-unquote "coward" in the room when you're talking about nuclear war. But the Kennedies told this story after the crisis that was false about the crisis and false about Stevenson, and destroyed his career and his reputation amongst people who mattered. They sent John McCloy to the UN to back Stevenson up because they were afraid Stevenson would be too wimpy in the ultimate solution to the crisis, when in fact they did just what Stevenson had proposed. And Stevenson's reputation never recovered from any of that.
So again, they hated Stevenson in the first place. But Stevenson was a perfect vehicle to prove that they were not carrying out the liberal foreign policy that they, in fact, carried out. And in doing so they created this myth of toughness that in my view entrapped Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam as well as a whole social science.
The Cuban Missile Crisis-- it certainly was when I was studying it in detail-- it was the single most studied event in all American history. Graham Allison's book, Essence of Decision, inspired an entire school of thought, inspired an actual school. The Kennedy School of Government was based on Allison's initial analysis, and every fact, just about, he had was wrong. Every fact was based on this phony story that the Kennedys had been able to sell for years, and years, and years, and has since been discredited. So it had enormous implications, and it trapped future liberals.
I'm going much more quickly than I should, but maybe I'll get questions about it, or we can talk about it later privately. I'm really nervous now to be talking about Lyndon Johnson's decision to go to war in the presence of Fred here. But I am sort of relying a lot on his analysis, so it's OK. If you have a problem with anything I say, he'll be here to talk to when I'm done.
So [? Jenlenson ?] is really the most poignant example of this problem that I've ever seen. Again, one could pick any number of examples of how to illustrate this. The one I'm going to pick that I imagine I read about in Professor Logevall's book was a conversation he had on May 27 1964, which is fewer than 60 days before the Gulf of Tonkin incidents with Richard Russell, who was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and an important mentor to LBJ, and I very much honored a historical figure today. He's got a senate office building named after him.
So we have tapes of these conversations. And Russell is saying to LBJ that a war in Vietnam, quote, "would prove the damnedest mess on earth." The United States, he said, would be in quicksand up to its neck. In a followup conversation, Johnson queried Russell about the pro-war faction arguments regarding speech importance in Vietnam. Russell told the president that he was unimpressed with the logic of Kennedy's brain trusters who say the thing has tremendous strategic and economic value, and that we'll lose everything in Southeast Asia if we lose Vietnam. In fact, according to Russel's calculations, it isn't important a damn bit with all these new missile systems.
Johnson admitted that he did not think that the people of this country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less. But he worried that he might be impeached if it did not go to war. Russell, sympathetic, did not minimize the difficulty of how you tell the American people you're coming out of the conflict without thinking that you've been whipped, you've been ruined, you're scared.
"I tell you," Russell told Johnson-- this is incredible when you think about what happened. "It'll be the most expensive venture this country ever went into. It'll take half a million men. They'll be bogged down there for 10 years. If it got to just pulling out, I'd get out." And then Johnson said to Russell, would you mind saying any of this on the floor of the Senate? And Russell said, No way.
As Frederick [? Lovo, ?] among others, has marshaled considerable evidence to argue that if Johnson had really wished to pursue Russell's advice, as well as his own sound instincts, he would have had a pretty clear field for doing so in 1964. The public was entirely disengaged from Vietnam back then. 25% of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization were not even aware of any fighting going on there. Of those who were, a council on a Foreign Relations survey discovered that half favored withdrawal, and only a quarter were definitely in favor of using US ground troops if necessary.
These numbers were confirmed in a University of Michigan poll released in December of that year, where 81% responded positively to the question of whether Lyndon Johnson could arrange a conference with leaders of Southeast Asia and China to see if a peace agreement could be worked out.
The mood of the nation could be characterized as most acquiescent to the idea of greater involvement in the war, as James Reston pointed out in the New York Times, but hardly clamoring for one. And this was obviously long before anybody knew what it would mean to be in that war.
Johnson would have had a lot of support in the Senate for pulling out. The same day he had a conversation with Russell, he got a memo from Mike Mansfield, who was the Senate majority leader at the time. And Mansfield said, "I do not conclude that our national interests are served by deep military involvement in Southeast Asia."
J William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, also favored a negotiated settlement over war. And vice president Hubert Humphrey, who later became one of the strongest supporters of the war, said that 1965 would have been a year of minimum political risk for the Johnson administration, and Johnson could pretty much do whatever he wanted.
There were other important support for a negotiated settlement. New York Times editorial page was in support of a negotiated settlement. Hans Morgenthau and his school of realist professors, who were the most influential academics at the time, were in favor of it. McGeorge Bundy told Johnson that he didn't have to do it. That it was possible to get out without doing it.
And of course, Russell advised that it was crazy. But Johnson replied to Russell, "all these senators who are all saying, let's move, let's go into North, they'd impeach the president who would run out, wouldn't they?" He complained, "run and let the dominoes start falling and God Almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be a warm up."
Then Johnson quoted a friend of his, a Texas wheeler dealer named A.W. Moursund, to Russell. And he said, "god damn, there's nothing that will destroy you as quick as pulling up stakes and running." When Johnson countered, "but I want to kill these folks," Moursund advised the president, "I don't give a damn. I didn't want to kill them in Korea. But if you don't stand up for America, there was nothing a fellow in Johnson City won't forgive, except for being weak."
So again, it's incredible. Johnson knew what he was getting into in Vietnam. And yet he feared more than anything the accusation that he was being weak. He feared a discussion of a war more than he feared the war. Later on in those famous conversations where he would call up in bed, and Doris Goodwin would listen to him whine about how terrible his life was, he told her, everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh to the streets of Saigon, that I'd be doing what Chamberlain did in World War II.
There would follow in this country an endless national debate, a mean, destructive debate, that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson lost their effectiveness from the day that the communists took over China. I believe that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy, and I knew that these problems, taken together, were chicken shit compared to what might happen if we lost in Vietnam.
When George Ball warned him in 1965 that America's campuses were beginning to heat up in opposition to the war, Johnson replied, "George, don't pay any attention to what those little shits on campus do. The great beast is the reactionary element in this country. Those are the people we have to fear."
And then I'll just throw this in as something to think about. The day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the day that we attacked Vietnam, was the day that the three civil rights workers' bodies were discovered in Mississippi. Vietnam wasn't even something that the White House was focused on that day, and they were focused on civil rights bill.
So Lawrence O'Brien, when they were trying to decide what to do about Vietnam, they didn't really know what had happened. Johnson wanted to announce the bombing in time for the 11 o'clock news, which by the way, he did, thereby giving the North Vietnamese advance warning that the bombs were coming, and they shot down. that guy who ran for vice president with Ross Perot.
Anyway, Lawrence O'Brien said, "what effect will bombing the hell out of Vietnam have on the civil rights bill?" Johnson asked O'Brien then, his congressional advisor. And O'Brien replied, "I think Congress will be a little more reluctant to vote against the president. It certainly is not going to hurt us."
Well again, that is my metaphor. I've talked plenty already. I have more to say, but I always have more to say. I've talked plenty. But that this is my operating principle for how liberals address foreign policy issues-- particularly with regard to war and peace, but any foreign policy issue where toughness is demanded, where the attack is coming from the right.
They don't care about those little shits on campus. They care about this great reactionary beast that destroyed Truman's presidency, that warped our discussion in the 1950s, and is still with us today. So that even when the president-- Barack Obama nominated three defense secretaries, two of them have been Republicans. Even when he nominates a conservative Republican to be president, the conservative Republican has to prove how tough he is in order to be Defense Secretary when the United States has a defense budget that is 12 times the size of the next largest country in the world, and larger than every other country in the world put together.
There are no physical threats to the homeland of the United States. None. And yet this need to prove to anyone who might be thinking about threatening us is always front and center in the decision making process. And it's because of the legacy of post-world War II Cold War period, I would argue. But also because of the inability of our political culture to deal with the subtlety necessary to deal with the complexity of foreign policy.
And these two things combine to prevent-- so what I say for the search for a liberal foreign policy, I'm still searching. Because no president has felt himself, since Roosevelt-- who was a man of enormous self-confidence, I must say-- has felt himself sufficiently confident to enact or even consider a liberal foreign policy.
Barack Obama, we can argue about him all day. But his foreign policy's not very different from George W Bush's, and it's really not very different from George H W Bush's. It's not. It's very difficult to find anything, quote unquote, "liberal" in it. It's certainly better than a lot of respects than the previous president, but in some respects it's not, from a liberal perspective. And that is in part because in order to be considered a credible national politician in America, you must embrace these assumptions.
And so I think the problem is one not necessarily of lack of guts, but of a dysfunctional political culture, which is the problem we have in a lot of areas. So I'll stop there, and thanks for listening.
FRED LOGEVALL: So Professor Alterman has agreed to take questions. We have not a huge amount of time, but we have some time. And I open the floor to questions, I suppose, rather than comments, please. Floor is open.
SPEAKER 1: So it's really interesting for your analysis of Cold War liberal conservative paradigms were developed, and I definitely see the parallels to the war on terror. But it's interesting, if you look at the Obama administration's policy towards Korea in recent weeks, with North Korea gearing up, with [INAUDIBLE] being sent to China that [INAUDIBLE] China. So what extent do you think that-- North Korea is sort of the last front of the Cold War, some people say. To what extent do you think that that could be a testing ground for actual liberal foreign policy?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, I don't know much about the North Korean regime. Not very many people do. People aren't afraid of North Korea. They have no reason to be afraid. They can't hurt us. Even if North Korea nuked South Korea and killed our 30,000 troops there, and then we nuked North Korea, a lot of people would die. And that would be really bad. But the problem would be contained. It's not like the Middle East or India Pakistan, which could blow up the world and threaten us.
So the Cold War has lost its ability to threaten people. Terror is the new issue. I mean, I did think it was kind of funny that we sent these carrier battle groups to Guam or whatever, as if it were a real threat. It's definitely a problem. Nobody knows how seriously to take the North Korean leadership. But it doesn't hit these nerves.
And the attempts by conservatives on Fox News to try and rattle these nerves have not worked. Because it's terror. I mean, if you look at the amount of space that North Korea's got compared to Boston, and all of sudden Chechnya, we're all experts on Chechnya now, there's no comparison. So I guess I think the Cold War is really over. Yeah?
SPEAKER 2: You can define what you see as a liberal foreign policy?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Good point, because we haven't had one. I don't know.
SPEAKER 2: Well, what do you think it is?
ERIC ALTERMAN: For a long time when I writing this book, I was trying to figure out the question, is Dean Acheson a liberal? Because Dean Acheson was the bogeyman of conservatives. And he defended Alger Hiss, and he was a very powerful man, very influential, very smart. And he was sort of, as he called his memoir, present at the creation, by which he meant US foreign policy and that world order.
And I couldn't really get a straight answer out of anyone who thought he was a liberal. I mean, he was very pro apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia. And he didn't care about the downtrodden. And he wasn't really interested in the third world at all. So in what sense does he represent what we consider to be traditional liberal values as applied to other countries?
Well the answer is, he was a classical liberal. He believed in free trade, and he believed in not being crazy. Liberal foreign policy, that's all it really means. Don't blow up China. You know, don't use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Try and work things out as best as you can if possible, and then bomb them if you need be.
What would be a liberal foreign policy? well you know, there's an incident-- did you people read the article in the New York Times magazine last week about Pakistan, and the CIA? So there's a guy in Pakistan who is kind of a Blackwater type guy, but he works for a different company. And he kills a couple of Pakistanis on an intelligence mission. And they arrest him.
And everybody in Pakistan in this area wants him to be executed, because he's a symbol of American arrogance. And he keeps killing Pakistanis. And so he's in prison. And the United States is trying to figure out what to do. We can't let our spies be killed by Pakistan, because it sets a terrible precedent for all of our spies everywhere.
So the ambassador in Pakistan is fighting with the CIA chief in the same embassy about how to handle the problem. Because there's two avenues you can try and solve it with. And so the CIA guy has to explain to the ambassador that actually, he outranks him, and that the ambassador should shut up.
And so the ambassador goes to Hillary Clinton and says, get the president to tell this guy that you're in charge. And Leon Panetta who's head of the CIA goes, no, that's not actually the way it works. I'm in charge. I run foreign policy as far as it comes to Pakistan. And president sides with Panetta over Hillary, that the CIA is going to run things when it comes to Pakistan.
So I would say that even with Barack Obama and a country like Pakistan, you could argue that the fist has been counterproductive. All these drones killing people are making things much more difficult. And we really ought to get along with Pakistan, because they have nuclear weapons. And they're always causing trouble with India, and that's how a global conflagration could really begin.
And yet Obama can't risk that. He's got to defer to the secret military side of things. Because in domestic policy, if you're an expert on drugs, let's say, or health care, you can present your evidence and people will judge your evidence and see if your policy works. And if it works, it might get tried. New York might try a pilot program where they don't put drug users in jail, they give them treatment, and so forth because the effects of living with it are better.
But if you want to be a foreign policy expert, the first thing you have to do is prove how tough you are. And if you don't prove how tough you are, and how willing to use force, particularly if you're a Democrat, then you don't get anywhere. You're never taken seriously. You're not ever going to be in a position of power.
I had a little part at the end of my talk which I'm not going to use. There's a woman I know socially a little bit named Suzanne Nossel, And she just became head of PEN America, the organization of writers. And before that she was head of Amnesty International USA. And before that, she worked for Hillary Clinton. And she's had some other foreign policy jobs.
And there was a big attack on her when she got this job with PEN by this leftist critic named Chris Hedges because he said she was a right wing warrior, and PEN has sold out to all of these people. And it was terrible. Well actually, she's not a right wing warrior. She works for Amnesty International. She works for [INAUDIBLE]. She's the liberal side of the foreign policy establishment.
So I have this article from her from 2004, which I was planning to read but I stopped, where every single point in this article-- it appeared in one of these minor academic journals, [INAUDIBLE], Washington Quarterly-- every single point is about Democrats have to prove how tough they are. That the next democratic candidate-- she means Kerry, in this case-- has to prove how tough they are so that the American people will trust them with foreign policy.
This is 2004, and Bush's war has already gone sour. And yet the only thing the person who's on the most liberal side imaginable, the side of Amnesty International, is arguing is the need to demonstrate toughness. And if you want me to read the excerpts I will, but take my word for it.
So I would say that if you try to develop a liberal foreign policy as a foreign policy expert, you are demonstrating your irrelevance to policy making. And so we don't have one. We might have some in academic sense among some academics. My very first internship out of Cornell was at a place called the Institute for Policy Studies, which is a leftist foreign policy think tank. But I don't even know what they think anymore, because I'm someone who spends my time working with. what's going to happen, and nothing they say is ever going to happen. In the Back? You.
SPEAKER 3: I wonder if you might comment as briefly as possible on two cases that lie slightly outside your model. One is Wilson, and the other one's Carter, especially before.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I'm not responsible for Wilson. Wilson is his own thing. He's Wilson. He has his own mishegas going on. Carter fits the model perfectly. Carter was a mixture of liberal and conservative impulses. He first offered the CIA to Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers was interviewing Castro. Bill has never written of this. Bill was interviewing Castro. And they called him up and offered him to be CIA director. And he told Castro, and Castro says, "great, I'll denounce you."
But Bill turned it down. And so he offered it to Ted Sorensen, who had been a conscientious objector in World War II. And like that was the end of that. That was his first lesson that you don't offer someone who had been a conscientious objector head of CIA.
Carter talked about human rights a great deal, but he didn't put it into practice when it was inconvenient. He toasted the Shah. The very first demonstration I ever went to in my life was a pro-American demonstration against the hostage taking by the Cornell students. And they didn't have an Iranian flag, so they burned to the Italian flag. Could say these frat guys going, I-ranian, I-talian. What's the difference? I guess they looked a little similar.
Carter had a mixture of liberal rhetoric and he tried to implement some liberal policies. The liberal policies did not work well enough. They were inconsistent with reality in a short term basis. And they blew up in his face. You know, he had Vance on the one hand, and Brzezinski on the other. And then they were like fighting. They were like-- do you remember the movie Animal House? It's like the devil and the angel, and they were fighting in Carter's head all the time. And eventually he was all Brzezinski, and Vance had to resign.
Now maybe if he had done a better job of implementing those policies, they would have-- I mean, he was really incompetent, Carter. So maybe they would have worked out better. Development requires time. He didn't have time. And by the end of the second year of his term, he was so deeply under attack for the way things were turning out domestically and in foreign policy that he just gave in to the dynamic, which is to just talk tough and be tough.
And he famously said when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that he had learned more in the past six days than he had learned in his whole life about foreign policy. Well, that that was like another cautionary tale for anyone thinking about liberal foreign policy.
SPEAKER 4: I think there's ample evidence, Eric, in favor of the thrust of the argument, which is that Democrats in the Cold War and arguably after the Cold War have, as you said, felt the need to always be tough, be tougher than their opponent. A motto might be, why take the chance? Why take the chance in a domestic political context of advocating the kinds of things that a liberal foreign policy could advocate, which is a respect for negotiations, and a belief in negotiations, a sense of the limits of military power and so forth?
My question to you is, were they justified in that fear of the domestic political implications? You've in a way presented a counterexample with your use of JFK. One could argue-- in fact, I think you were arguing-- that here's an instance in which he adopted a liberal foreign policy in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. He went for a negotiated deal. He decided that the military option wasn't right. And as we all know, obviously he didn't suffer for it. And I mean, that may be in part because, as you've also suggested, of the way he sold what he had done.
And it's a counterfactual question. It's therefore resistant to conclusive answer, Eric. But were Democrats justified in being fearful that they would pay a huge political price if they had done what Hubert Humphrey recommended, as you said, what others at various points have suggested in foreign policy?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well if I may, I have to just fundamentally disagree with you about your interpretation of Kennedy and the missile crisis. He did one thing, but he said he did something else. And nobody knew that he did the first thing. We didn't learn about it till years afterwards. He faced them down. He was eyeball to eyeball, and the other guy blinked. The cooperation was completely unknown at the time. Khrushchev went down.
Khrushchev is one of the heroes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, if you ignore the fact that he put the missiles in the first place, because he kept his word. He never told the world that that deal had been done. And how did the United States get in that mess in the first place while we were doing all these terrible things in Cuba to try to bring down Castro?
You wouldn't believe, actually, some of the things that-- you can't really hold people responsible for contingency plans. Because anyone can draw up contingency plans, and it's another matter to put them into effect. But we actually had contingency plans to shoot down a plane of American students so that we could blame Castro and invade Cuba.
The kind of things that were going on in order to prove how tough we were with regard to Cuba perfectly fit in my paradigm. And so did Kennedy's portrayal of what he had done. And so were the results. So the fact that he actually did the right thing was politically irrelevant. He never tried to defend it.
So then the question becomes, could he have defended it? Could Johnson have done what they did? I have a thought about. I don't know-- as Fred knows much better than I do, we almost went to war in Laos under Eisenhower. And there was a cabinet vote. Should we go to war in Laos? Or a sub-cabinet vote. Don't correct me if I'm wrong. Tell me later privately.
And everyone in the cabinet voted to go to war, everyone in the room, except for Eisenhower. And Eisenhower was so self-confident being Dwight Eisenhower that his vote carried the day. And we didn't go to war in Laos, and there was a negotiated settlement. And it worked out pretty well.
So Republicans can do that. And ex-generals can do that. But even George Marshall was incredibly vulnerable. And he had pretty much the same degree of prestige with regard to his military prowess-- which by the way, is the only way you can get that prestige-- as Eisenhower did.
So no. My answer to your question, as I think about it, is no. The problem is not that the Democrats are wimps. The problem is that the political culture is so easily manipulated, and so gross and distorted, that it's impossible to make the kinds of subtle arguments that are necessary to avoid the tough guy arguments. The tough guy argument is easy to make, and it feels right to a lot of people. To people who are more confident, anyway, than the other side.
SPEAKER 5: So I found your analysis of the problem really convincing, but I wondered if you might venture towards prescription. So how do you remedy this problem that prevents the emergence of a liberal foreign policy, which is, I guess, [INAUDIBLE] formulation of the culmination of the media beset by sensationalism and a public rife with apathy. Is this something that liberals can solve with better PR, or is this something that will require bigger action in our broader [INAUDIBLE]?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, the Lippmann argument is part of a much larger argument that he had over a period of about a decade with John Dewey about what is democracy, and how do you improve it? And I've written about this argument in most of my books. It's very important to me. Basically Lippmann argued for improving expertise, and Dewey argued for better democratic conversation.
And when I wrote Sound and Fury, I was a very strong Deweyite, saying the experts have proven themselves not really wrong, but they have different values than the country. And if we only had more real people involved in the discussion, we would be a much more sensible country.
So then the internet gets invented. And I'm not so crazy about the result with regard to this issue. Because it is a cesspool of misinformation. And you get a lot of good stuff there, but you get a lot of bad stuff. And bad information drives out good information just like money.
So the answer is to find a way to improve our democracy so that we can have better conversation. To prove the Lippmann and the Dewey part simultaneously, I wrote a conclusion chapter to my book on democracy and foreign policy trying to do that. The book got pretty bad reviews mostly in the popular press, because everyone ignored the entire book and attacked my conclusion chapter of how we might do it as unrealistic, and ridiculous, and who did I think I was?
So there's your answer. I mean, the answer is to improve our democracy. To improve our democracy is a very long, difficult discussion, but what choice do we have? Sir?
SPEAKER 6: I just wondered about this whole business about toughness, and why it is that we, at least in my view, I don't think we really address what could be concluded when toughness does not work. Vietnam was a classic example, I would say, wherein toughness didn't work. The interpretation of the Vietnam fiasco that HW reminded us that we're so glad we have now buried, the whole thing was really such a disaster. But our interpretation of it is that we weren't tough enough.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yes.
SPEAKER 6: We didn't have enough bombs. We should have bombed more.
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's what Reagan said.
SPEAKER 6: That's right, exactly how they interpreted it. But what is so interesting to me is that nobody seizes upon the fact that we lost. And usually when I think of losers, I think of countries that get screwed for losing. How has our country been affected in a detrimental way as a consequence of losing in Vietnam? And nobody, I think, really talks about that.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well in the context of the foreign policy debate, which has been dominated by the right on this issue, we were deeply, badly affected by the loss in Vietnam because it proved what the right said would happen, which is that we were a paper tiger. And so the Cubans went into Angola funded by the Russians. And China did what it want, and nobody took us seriously until finally we invaded Grenada and showed that we were back.
The left's interpretation of Vietnam is, we should stay out of places that we don't really understand. So that was useful for a while. That was the Vietnam syndrome. The bumper sticker, El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam was a very effective slogan. Ronald Reagan would have gone into Central America with troops had he been able to, and he was not able to.
I remember, Walter Feber invited the Salvadoran ambassador to speak here during the height of the massacres taking place. And it was like a riot. It was amazing how excited people were. I never seen anything like it before or since. It was only the ambassador, they had to shut down the meeting.
But again, that's a negative argument. We don't know what we're doing, we should stay out. It's not an argument of what we actually should be doing. I mean, if you want to pick examples of the United States having a positive liberal foreign policy, you could find them. The Alliance for Progress had that in mind, the Peace Corps had that in mind. And certainly the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, created by Kennedy American University speech after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There are all these initiatives, but they're tiny compared to the efforts that go to the tough side, the military side. Which is what I was trying to say before with regard to the CIA. The CIA is three times the size of the State Department in terms of its budget and its personnel. And a lot of those State Department people are-- they're not doing anything. They're not making policy, put it that way.
So it's the government is structured this way, and it's structured this way for good reason. Now, I wouldn't say it's structured this way because of the values of the American people. Which I might say if I were like in Pakistan or someplace looking at it, I would say, well, this is who they are. It's not who they are. But it is a reflection of the way power is distributed the American political system. And that is the problem, and that's a function of our dysfunctional democracy.
FRED LOGEVALL: Do we have time for one more? Is there a final question?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Oh, well.
FRED LOGEVALL: Well then what I'm going to do is three things. I was remiss in not thanking some folks who made this possible. So I want to do that now, and that is to say that we're very grateful, as we always are, to the San Giacomo Charitable Foundation for making events like this possible, to the Kessler family, to Mrs. Judy Biggs, and also to the Bartells family.
The second thing I want to do is to remind you about books that are available that Professor Alterman might even be persuaded to sign.
ERIC ALTERMAN: The signature is free.
FRED LOGEVALL: Signature is free. And then the third thing is to thank you all for coming, and ask you to join me in thanking our guest.
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Eric Alterman, Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and columnist for The Nation, gave a talk entitled
The Search for a Liberal Foreign Policy on April 22, as part of the Einaudi Center's Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.
Alterman contends that there has not been a strong tradition of liberal foreign policy after Franklin D. Roosevelt because liberals make foreign policy in anticipation of public reaction and to head off any strong conservative critique rather than focusing on finding a solution to the issue itself.
The Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series features prominent leaders in international affairs who can address topical issues from a variety of perspectives. The Speaker Series is part of the Foreign Policy Initiative at Cornell University led by the Einaudi Center to maximize the intellectual impact of Cornell's outstanding resources in this area.