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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

U.S. Restraint

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Biewen: It's interesting, Roy Flint talks about the importance of the Korean War in shaping the Cold War, but…he puts more emphasis on the willingness of Truman to move at that point to a more forceful position. And clearly that's half of the story, but the other half is this decision of relative restraint.

Weathersby: Yes, it's both. Certainly we solidified NATO, made it into a real military alliance. Prior to the Korean War it had really been just a paper alliance. We solidified the French position in Indo-China, our position in the Philippines, in Taiwan, established permanent or indefinite bases in Japan and in Germany, tripled defense spending. So there was a massive increase in military strength and in military presence around the world. But at the same time, yes, the pattern was set that we would resist Soviet expansion in other parts of the world, but we would do it in a way short of all-out war with the Soviets. It's worth keeping that in mind as we look at the post-Cold War world because what the country is confronted with now is shaping its policy in an environment where we do not have another power large enough, strong enough to intimidate us militarily, to make us afraid of war with it. So if we are going to have constraints on our war making, the restraints have to come from someplace else. It's been a long time since we felt constraints for other reasons. So a lot of what is happening right now is a feeling our way, to, are we going to be constrained at all? What will constrain us? Public opinion? Fear of unintended consequences? Perhaps economic constraints might come about very quickly.

You know, what will it be? But this is a, I think it helps us understand how profoundly different our situation is right now to really get a clear handle on how the presence of the Soviets was such a profound limitation on us for a long time.

Biewen: And some would argue that the international community, or maybe the U.N., should be a constraint. That for example in the case of the Iraq war, that there was a significant break in tradition by, not exactly going it alone, but going against the view of the U.N. and our allies. How big a break was that with U.S. foreign policy?

Weathersby: Well, it was a very big break in terms of our relations with our allies, but if we look at it on a broader scale in crude terms we could say, well, U.S. power was constrained by coming up against a power, a rival power big enough to threaten us just as we constrained the Soviets with a rival power big enough to threaten them.

So on the most basic level of power perception, what we have is some within the American leadership concluding, well, we don't have any rival power that can threaten us. Not a conventional military power. We have only terrorists who can threaten us. So therefore we don't need to be constrained in our use of military force by any other country. This is President Bush's approach: if they want to join us, fine, if not we can do it ourselves. That's just a really profoundly different situation and that also did not apply to our country preceding World War II, either. So this is the first time this country has ever been in that situation. Other countries have - China in earlier centuries, the Roman Empire - but this situation is very new for us.