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After 50 Years, a Great Military Debate Resumes

by Ira Chernus on Oct 30, 2000

Ira Chernus

         In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, an unexpected
difference has emerged about the proper use of U.S. military forces.
Governor Bush wants the United States to use its troops more unilaterally,
and he wants them used primarily for fighting. Vice President Gore is more
inclined to act cooperatively with allies and to use troops for
peacekeeping. This difference revives a debate that most of us thought was
settled nearly 50 years ago.

         In the early 1950s, it was called the Great Debate.  The argument
was whether the United States should send troops to Europe and commit
itself to acting in concert with NATO allies.  Senator Robert A. Taft
(R-Ohio) led the forces against this commitment. The Taftites were not
isolationists. They wanted the United States deeply involved around the
world. But they wanted America to be free to act alone. They feared that
alliances would  become entangling and expensive.

         The Truman administration was determined to see the United
States  build up Europe and the entire "free world" by commitments to act
together with its allies. Many Republicans shared Truman's view, including
Dwight D. Eisenhower. He ran for president in 1952, he said, primarily to
prevent Taft from getting the Republican nomination.  Eisenhower shared the
Taftites' fears of excessive military spending. But his way of keeping
costs down was to create more military alliances, to place more of the
burden of fighting upon America's allies.

         Once Ike became president, Taft's views seemed irrelevant to U.S.
policy, and they remained largely a historical curiosity until this year,
when the Bush campaign began promoting its own version of unilateralism.
Many of Bush's advisors worked for his father, former president George
Bush; surely they have in mind the consequences of the coalition the elder
Bush forged to win the Persian Gulf War.

         By the time that war ended, the United States owed major
diplomatic chits throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. What
looked at first like immense freedom of action turned out to be just the
kind of limitation that the Taftites warned of half a century ago. So now
the younger Bush wants a policy closer to Taft's. And he would expand the
military budget more slowly than the Democrats, in the Taftite spirit.

         But there is one crucial difference. In Taft's day, the NATO
allies had little strength beyond what the United States could provide.
America could pretty well ignore their concerns. Today the European Union
is an immense force to be reckoned with in every respect. In the future,
when Germany has recovered from the shock of reunification, European force
will likely be even harder to ignore.

         So the Bush people seem to be proposing a compromise. The United
States will cede control of Europe to the Europeans. In return, America
will get troops out of Europe and assume the right to unilateral action in
Asia, Africa and Latin America.

            Now that the Cold War is gone, Bush's advisors want to turn the clock back
to pre-Truman days, when FDR dreamed of the "four policemen" ruling their
spheres of influence. In Bush's vision, however, there will be only two
spheres: Europe policed by the NATO powers and everything else policed by
the United States.

         Policing is indeed the issue. The new Great Debate on military
policy is essentially about how best to protect the globalized economic
system. That system is constantly widening the gap between rich and poor.
The have-nots already show signs of resistance, aided by middle-class
supporters who take to the streets wherever the guardians of the global
system gather. This coalition of resistance is bound to grow.

         The Democrats want us involved all over the world, in every
possible way, to protect the emerging global economy, despite its
inequities. The Republicans want our responsibilities more narrowly
defined, and our freedom to act more stoutly asserted, in defense of

         A totally different approach comes from a third candidate, the
Green Party's Ralph Nader. He would restructure the global system to narrow
the gap between rich and poor. With much less resistance to suppress, the
diplomatic problems of policing would dissolve. And the U.S. military, with
little to do, could be radically downsized.

         Henry Wallace ran for president as a third party candidate in
1948, representing the same left side of the spectrum that Nader represents
today. He was no more a socialist than Nader is. But he wanted to avoid the
Cold War. He wanted the United States to offer the world less military
power and more economic and social justice. Democratic red-baiting
discredited Wallace, leaving the GOP and the Democrats to hold their Great
Debate about how to wage the Cold War.

       The lesson then was the same as it is today. Debates over minor
differences become "great" only when genuine alternatives cannot be heard.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.