It’s time to acknowledge that foreign policy is fair game in presidential politics.
There is a flimsy line between history’s lessons and its legends, between the talismanic power of oft-told tales and the mist-enshrouded myths that dull our thinking and short-circuit our debates. Just as George Orwell warned of the insidious ways in which clichéd language can undermine clear thought, so too is the case with clichéd history. Yet every year, and perhaps particularly every election year, words and phrases such as “Munich,” “Ronald Reagan,” “Marshall Plan,” and “Sister Souljah” are tossed about with such freewheeling, ahistorical abandon that they have become completely untethered from anything resembling their original truth. Perhaps we can start a new tradition: While we make history by electing a president every fourth November, what if we also retake our history by selecting one such myth and giving it a suitable burial? If so, I nominate 2008 as the year we put the fairy tale that there once was an era when “politics stopped at the water’s edge” out of its misery.
The notion that there existed a bygone age when solons and statesmen put aside politics when it came to foreign policy is false. But aside from its fraudulence, it has come to have a negative effect on our national debates, cutting short vital conversations and contributing to a bipartisan conspiracy of silence on fundamental questions of war and peace.
Such a silence may be hard to discern amid the clatter of our hyper-heated arguments over Iraq, but the dictum has always been observed most in its violations–as a penalty card brandished when discussions stray outside prescribed boundaries. In the years immediately following the attacks of September 11, it inhibited the asking of difficult questions, excused the lack of response to the queries that were asked, curtailed incipient deliberations, and generally provided a cloak for poorly planned adventurism that has set back America’s security and interests while costing us thousands of lives.
The notion that politics should “stop at the water’s edge” become an unwritten maxim of American politics in the years immediately after World War II. Today it conjures up images of the partnership between Democratic President Harry Truman and Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, which produced the centrist congressional majorities responsible for producing the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty.
The phrase entered the popular vernacular in the campaign of 1948–the first campaign of the postwar era, the first campaign of the Cold War, and the first campaign that found America as undisputed leader of the free world. The Republican platform that year–molded personally by Vandenberg–announced the party’s support for “stopping partisan politics at the water’s edge.” In his famous late-night acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Truman echoed that sentiment, proclaiming, “Partisanship should stop at the water’s edge, and I shall continue to preach that through this whole campaign.” So he would–and so would the Republicans–but, for neither the first nor the last time, preaching and practicing turned out to be two entirely different concepts.
From its birth, the rule that delicate international situations were off-limits for debate turned out to be little more than a political head-fake employed by both parties. Take the month of September 1948. On the 25th of the month, the Times reported, Vandenberg told the Michigan State Republican convention that “the Republican party intends to cease partisan politics at the water’s edge.” Yet, that same month, the chairman of the Republican National Committee accused Truman of forging a “working arrangement” with Communists, and the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, in announcing his support of Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, decried “President Truman’s vacillation between appeasement and halfway measures.”
At the same time Vandenberg was giving his speech in Michigan, Truman was on a campaign swing through Texas. While he too would not attack the Republicans directly on foreign policy, he was introduced at stop after stop by Democratic Representative Sam Rayburn, who would tell the crowd that a Truman defeat would mean war. “What would our enemies throughout the world think if we replaced our great leader now?” he asked in his hometown of Bonham, with Truman standing beside him. “Would they think we were going back on our policy of world peace, of world concord, of world order? I am afraid they might.” As the Times put it after a similar introduction from Rayburn a few days earlier in San Antonio, “Whether Mr. Rayburn’s statement had Presidential approval or not, it served to put a severe dent in the previously announced Democratic policy of keeping foreign affairs out of the campaign and ending politics ‘at the water’s edge.’ ” As the 1948 campaign went on, the ruse would eventually be dropped, and both Truman and Dewey would personally accuse the other of acting as a tool of the Communists, who at that very moment had brought the world to the closest it would ever come to World War III, over the issue of Berlin.
But once the heat of the contest had passed, the story that would be remembered was that the candidates had abstained from such rhetoric and that foreign policy played little or no role in that pivotal election. Instead, today we are told that domestic concerns such as crop prices or workers’ wages or a “Do Nothing Congress” or a “Give ‘Em Hell” were the decisive issues of the campaign. “Though conducted against the backdrop of the Cold War, the election of 1948 saw remarkably little debate between Dewey and Truman over it,” wrote Zachary Karabell in his 2000 history of the 1948 election, The Last Campaign. In their classic book Rise to Globalism, Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley, two of the most widely acclaimed historians of twentieth-century America, concluded, “Foreign policy had not been an issue between the major parties in the 1948 campaign.”
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