Hans J. Morgenthau’s column—devoted to discussing a wide variety of subjects bearing on problems of foreign and domestic politics—has been appearing bi-monthly in COMMENTARY since July of last year. His previous columns have dealt with the Laotion crisis (July), the changed meaning of death and heroism in the nuclear age (September), and Berlin (November).
On September 30 of last year, the eminent French sociologist and columnist Raymond Aron addressed in Le Figaro an open letter to President Kennedy. This letter is both a moving and an important document. It is moving because it is written with sympathy and concern by a man who calls himself an “enthusiastic partisan” of the President. It is important because it raises one of the two great issues of government which will ruin the Kennedy administration and perhaps the country if the President does not meet them successfully.
Mr. Aron addresses himself to the President’s method of deciding issues of foreign policy, taking as his point of departure the invasion of Cuba. The President had to choose between two incompatible courses of action suggested by his advisers: to stage an invasion of Cuba, with American military support if necessary, or not to intervene. In order to avoid the risks which either course of action, consistently pursued, would have entailed, the President tried to steer a middle course, intervening just a little bit but not enough to assure success. Confronted with a choice between black and white, he chose gray. “Yet in foreign policy,” as Mr. Aron puts it, “the half-measure, the compromise ordinarily combines the disadvantages of the two possible policies.”
Mr. Aron was, and perhaps still is, afraid that the President might repeat this error in his approach to the Berlin crisis. For here again, the President must choose between counsels recommending diametrically opposed courses of action: a negotiated settlement which is bound to weaken the American position in West Berlin and West Germany, and an intransigent position which, at the very least for the immediate future, increases the risks of war. As Mr. Aron sees it, the President has chosen, at least in theory, the “hard” line; yet in his style, method, and language he has committed himself also to “flexibility.” In consequence, nobody can be sure whether Mr. Kennedy intends to play the role of Churchill or of Chamberlain. Nobody—the American people, our allies, probably Mr. Khrushchev himself—knows what our negotiating position is, assuming we have one.
Mr. Aron did not answer the question: What has been the matter with Kennedy? For the indecisiveness of the Cuban intervention and the apparent indecisiveness of Mr. Kennedy’s approach to the Berlin crisis are but the manifestations of a deficiency which is deeply embedded in the President’s experience and personality. To put it bluntly: the President does not know what the statesman’s task is while he knows only too well the politician’s, and thus he endeavors to accomplish the task of the statesman with the tools of the politician. Yet the virtues of the politician can easily become vices when they are brought to bear upon the statesman’s task.
The decision of the statesman has three distinctive qualities. It is a commitment to action. It is a commitment to a particular action that precludes all other courses of action. It is a decision taken in the face of the unknown and the unknowable.
The politician can take words for deeds, and insofar as his words seek to influence people to vote for him or for his measures, his words actually are deeds. He can make promises without keeping them, and his promises may not even be expected to be kept. He can run on a platform every two or four years and take his stand on quite different ground in between. He can equivocate between different courses of action and bridge the chasm between incompatible positions by embracing them both. He can vote one way today and another way tomorrow, and if he can’t make up his mind he can abstain from voting. He can try to reduce to a minimum the uncertainties of the future by preparing his action with proper attention to the facts, organization, and planning.
The statesman, especially in his dealings with other nations, can hardly ever afford to do any of these things. His rhetoric is verbalized action, an explanation of deeds done or a foretaste of deeds to come. What still moves us today in the recorded oratory of a Churchill or a Roosevelt is not so much the literary quality per se as the organic connection between the words and the deeds. Listening to those words, we remember the deeds, and we are moved.
The statesman must commit himself to a particular course of action to the exclusion of all others. He must cross the Rubicon or refrain from crossing it, but he cannot have it both ways. If he goes forward he takes certain risks, and if he stands still he takes other risks. There is no riskless middle ground. Nor can he, recoiling before the risks of one course of action, retrace his steps and try some other tack, promising risks different and fewer. He has crossed the Rubicon and cannot undo that crossing.
The statesman must cross the Rubicon not knowing how deep and turbulent the river is, nor what he will find on the other side. He must commit himself to a particular course of action in ignorance of its consequences, and he must be capable of acting decisively in spite of that ignorance. He must be capable of staking the fate of the nation upon a hunch. He must face the impenetrable darkness of the future and still not flinch from walking into it, drawing the nation behind him. Rather than seeking unattainable knowledge, he must reconcile himself to ineluctable ignorance. His is the leading part in a tragedy, and he must act the part.
The extent to which the style of the Kennedy administration resembles the politician’s rather than the statesman’s is revealed not only by the policies it has pursued but more particularly by its mode of operation. Rhetoric has been divorced from action and has tended to be taken as a substitute for it. To give only one glaring example: last July, the President committed himself in a speech to a program of fallout shelters, without having a policy. Ever since, his aides have searched for a sensible policy which would not be too much at variance with the President’s words.
Yet the President cannot help making decisions and the method by which he has reached them suffers from three defects. It is informal to the point of being haphazard. It tends to lose sight of the distinction between what is paramount and must be decided by the President and nobody else, and what is only important enough to be decided not by the President but by somebody else. It has the quality of indecisiveness because it vainly seeks a certainty that is beyond its reach.
The President has wisely discarded the committee system through which his predecessor governed, shielding him from direct contact with the issues in all their complexity. Yet he has unwisely replaced this system with another one that threatens to overwhelm him with an unmanageable variety of issues and opinions.
The President exposes himself deliberately to advice from a great variety of sources. These sources are generally individuals who talk to him at length in his office or over the phone. This system, or lack of it, has the virtue of making the President familiar with all shades of opinion. It has the double vice of making it either too easy or too difficult for the President to make up his mind.
The President may well be swayed by a particular counsel, especially when it is presented with that subjective self-assurance which some mistake for objective certainty, and with that facility for expression and brilliance of formulation which some mistake for depth. Impressed with these qualities of form, he may commit himself to the substance of the advice without being fully aware of the meaning of that commitment. It has been reported on good authority that the President was once presented with advice concerning a policy of capital importance. He approved of that policy orally and asked the individual concerned to instruct the head of the department within whose jurisdiction the policy fell to put it into operation. This was done. When the head of the department some weeks later informed the President of the progress made in the execution of that policy, the President questioned its wisdom, obviously unaware that he had approved it and ordered its execution.
This casualness of policy formation puts two obstacles in the way of the President’s making up his mind. Counseling on the spur of the moment with all kinds of people on all kinds of issues, the President is overwhelmed with issues to be decided and advice to be weighed. In consequence, his mind can no longer perceive clearly the vital distinction between the paramount issues he alone must settle, and the merely important ones which others may decide with or without his guidance. The President has lost sight of the natural relationship that exists between the gravity of the issue to be decided and the level of authority that decides it. Thus some paramount issues will remain unattended or will be ineffectually attended to by officials lacking sufficient authority, while the President will concern himself with secondary issues which could be more effectively disposed of by subordinate authorities.
Thus it has come about after many months of deliberations by a great many officials that if we have a policy with regard to Berlin, neither the American public nor the allies of the United States are aware of it. The New York Times could publish on October 21 a report from Washington under the headline “Allied Confusion Stalls Thompson. Envoy Unable to Get Clear Stand for Moscow Talks.” The result is not only confusion but also the surrender of the determination of policy to some other nation whose interests may or may not coincide with those of the United States. Thus, again, the Times reported on October 26 as the official position of the United States government that “the United States could not get nearer to war than the West Germans wish to go, and could not get nearer to peace than they were willing to go.” Many months of contingency planning did not prepare the administration for the possibility that the East Germans might effectively seal East Berlin off by erecting a wall. Hence the administration did not know what to do when the wall went up in August, and did nothing. The show of force through which the United States in October tried to maintain the status quo concerning the access of its military personnel to East Berlin ended in confused retreat.
The President must overcome the indecisiveness of his own mind. That mind seeks the predictability to which it is accustomed from domestic politics. There meticulous ascertainment of the facts, precise planning, and elaborate organization years in advance paid off in victory in the primaries, the nominating convention, and the elections. To be sure, a margin of uncertainty remained, but it was small compared with what one knew, had prepared and planned for.
The President searches for the same kind of certainty in his conduct of foreign policy. He tries to eliminate the darkness of ignorance and to probe the depth of uncertainty that even so astute a mind as his cannot penetrate, by drawing upon the most luminous and knowledgeable minds he can find and by making use of all the information he can lay his hands on. Yet those dark spots on the landscape of foreign policy are impervious to the most brilliant intelligence, and factual knowledge cannot prevail against them. Thus the President’s mind hestitates and his will falters when he seeks the answer to the riddle in more advice and additional information.
The frantic search for advice and information performs for the President the same function the employment of astrologers and soothsayers did for the princes of old: to create the illusion of certainty where there can be no certainty. The more facile the President’s advisers are with words and the more self-assured they are in their convictions, the more adept they are in encouraging the President in such futile search. They cannot give him what he needs more than anything else: the tragic sense of politics. In view of that need, he could do worse than add to the ranks of his advisers a philosopher who would remind him at regular intervals that there are more questions than answers and that the great decisions must be made in ignorance and without certitude. The President, who knows his history, will remember that the princes of old reserved a place among their advisers for a man who called their attention to the limits of their power beyond which there is the realm of Providence and fate.
This particular issue of government stems from the President’s personal approach to his task. He has created it; it has never before in American history appeared in this way and is not likely to appear so again. The other issue of government with which the President must come to terms is inherent in the American system. All Presidents have had to face it and live with it one way or another. It concerns the relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy.
The issue is posed by the incompatibility between the rational requirements of sound foreign policy and the emotional preferences of a democratically controlled public opinion. As Tocqueville put it with special reference to the United States:
Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient. Democracy is favorable to the increase of the internal resources of a state; it diffuses wealth and comfort, promotes public spirit, and fortifies the respect for law in all classes of society: all these are advantages which have only an indirect influence over the relations which one people bears to another. But a democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience. . . .
The propensity that induces democracies to obey impulse rather than prudence, and to abandon mature design for the gratification of momentary passion, was clearly seen in America on the breaking out of the French Revolution.
Confronted with this dilemma between the requirements of good foreign policy and the preferences of public opinion, the President has the supreme task of reconciling the two. The dilemma is tragic because it can never be fully resolved. If the President pursues uncompromisingly the foreign policy he regards to be sound, as Woodrow Wilson did, he risks losing the support of opinion at home; if he accommodates himself to that opinion at the expense of what sound foreign policy requires, he risks jeopardizing the interests of the country. In order to be able to avoid these two extreme—the one fatal to his personal power, the other fatal to the power of the nation—the President must perform the two historic functions of his office: to be the educator of the people and the conciliator of seemingly irreconcilable positions. The President must impress upon the people the requirements of sound foreign policy by telling them the facts of political life and what they require of the nation, and then strike a compromise which leaves the essence of sound foreign policy intact while assuaging domestic opinion.
It is the measure of Mr. Kennedy’s failure that he has performed neither task. Instead, substituting again the politician’s concerns for the statesman’s, he has tended to subordinate the requirements of sound foreign policy to the requirement of winning elections in 1962 and 1964. The President knows that our Far Eastern policy has so far failed to result in catastrophe not because it is sound but because of circumstances which are likely to change drastically to our disadvantage. The President knows that what we call our German policy has been for fifteen years a verbal commitment to the illusion of unification rather than a policy. But the great mass of the American people know nothing of this because the President has not dared to tell them. To return to the fallout shelters: not only did the President commit himself in words to a fallout shelter program before he had a policy, but he now has committed himself to a policy in order to be able to compete in 1962 and 1964 with Mr. Rockefeller who has developed such a policy for the state of New York.
Yet the President, with his sense and knowledge of history, and groping as he does for his proper place in the scheme of things, cannot but feel where his true mission lies.
It is for the President to reassert his historic role as both the initiator of policy and the awakener of public opinion. It is true that only a strong, wise, and shrewd President can marshal to the support of wise policies the strength and wisdom latent in that slumbering giant—American public opinion. Yet while it is true that great men have rarely been elected President of the United States, it is upon that greatness, which is the greatness of its people personified, that the United States, from Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt, has had to rely in the conduct of its foreign affairs. It is upon that greatness that Western Civilization must rely for its survival.
These words I addressed in 1949 to Mr. Truman and in 1956 to Mr. Eisenhower. It is the measure of the chronic weakness of Presidential leadership that the same words must be addressed to Mr. Kennedy in 1962, at the beginning of his second year in office.