SIXTY YEARS AGO today, Harry Truman went before a joint session of Congress to announce what became known as the Truman Doctrine. "At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life." With that, an era of bipolarity was inaugurated, dividing the world between forces of good and evil.
The speech amounted, as one of Truman's advisers characterized it, to a declaration of religious war. In the transcendent struggle between Moscow and Washington, "nonalignment" was not an option. Truman declared that the United States would actively support "free" people anywhere who were resisting either internal or external threats to that freedom. The "free world" was born, but so, eventually, were disastrous wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The occasion of Truman's pronouncement was his decision to militarily support one side in the civil war in Greece, and with that, the deadly precedent of American intervention in foreign civil wars was set. Fear of communism became a driving force of politics and a justification for vast military expenditures.
Nine days after announcing the Truman Doctrine, the president issued an executive order mandating loyalty oaths and security checks for federal employees, the start of the domestic red scare. The "paranoid style" of American life, in Richard Hofstadter's phrase, was set.
That style lives. Democrats are lining up to attack the Bush administration's catastrophe in Iraq -- not because that war was wrong to start with, but because it has turned out so badly. The administration, meanwhile, has repudiated its go-it-alone militarism in favor of nascent diplomatic initiatives with North Korea, Syria, and Iran -- not because the virtues of diplomacy are suddenly so evident, but because everything else it tried led to disaster. Bush's failures are prompting important shifts, both by his critics and advisers. But no one is asking basic questions about the assumptions on which US policies have been based for 60 years.
More than adjustments in tactics and strategy are needed. What must be criticized, and even dismantled, is nothing less than the national security state that Truman inaugurated on this date in 1947. The habits of mind that defined American attitudes during the Cold War still provide consoling and profitable structures of meaning, even as dread of communism has been replaced by fear of terrorism. Thus, Truman's "every nation must choose " became Bush's "You are with us or against us." America's political paranoia still projects its worst fears onto the enemy, paradoxically strengthening its most paranoid elements. The monstrous dynamic feeds itself.
The United States has obviously, and accidentally, been reinforcing the most belligerent elements in Iran and North Korea, but it is also doing so in Russia and China. Last week, for example, alarms went off in Washington with the news that China is increasing its military spending by nearly 18 percent this year, bringing its officially acknowledged military budget to $45 billion. Yet who was raising questions about massive American military sales (including missiles) to Taiwan, whose defense build up stimulates Beijing's? Speaking of budgets, who questions the recently unveiled Pentagon total for 2008 of more than $620 billion? (Under Bill Clinton, the defense budget went from $260 billion to about $300 billion.) Even allowing for Iraq and Afghanistan, how can such an astronomical figure be justified?
When the United States announces plans to station elements of its missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, why are Russian complaints dismissed as evidence of Vladimir Putin's megalomania? On this date in 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were admitted to NATO, in violation of American assurances to Moscow that NATO would not move east from the unified Germany. Now NATO looks further east still, toward Georgia and Ukraine. And Putin is the paranoid?
Last week, the Bush administration announced plans for the first new nuclear weapon in more than 20 years, a program of ultimately replacing all American warheads. So much for the nuclear elimination toward which the United States is legally bound to work by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Washington simultaneously assured Russia and China that this renewal of the nuclear arsenal was no cause for them to feel threatened. Hello? Russia and China have no choice but to follow the US lead, inevitably gearing up another arms race. It is 1947 all over again. A precious opportunity to turn the world away from nuclear weapons, and away from war, is once more being squandered -- by America. And what candidate running for president makes anything of this?
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.