Tom Wicker Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Presidency, the Press, and
the Cold War: Conversation with Tom Wicker; 11/3/83 by Harry Kreisler

Page 1 of 6

Foreign Policy Issues

Mr. Wicker, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

I want to just throw at you four problems in the world that we, as a country, have to face: Soviet parity in global power, revolution in the Third World, the dangers of the nuclear arms race, and the decline of the competitive position of America in the world economy. Is our foreign policy providing adequate responses to these sets of problems?

No, I wouldn't say so. In the case of Soviet power on a parity with ours, and nuclear arms, which are much the same, I think at least there's a great deal of attention being paid to it. There's an effort made in the talks back and forth with the Soviet Union. We're engaged in three sets of negotiations with them at the moment. So there's at least an effort being made, but unfortunately none of those negotiations are going anywhere.

On the question of Third World countries and the needs of the Third World, I think we are not yet fully cognizant of that and, for example, our whole policy in Central America is based much more nearly on East-West Cold War considerations than it is on the needs of those countries and their relationships with us.

The problem of declining American competitiveness in the world we are just now beginning to confront. American automobile sales are up substantially, but the jobs in the American automobile industry are down substantially. And that wasn't what the unions had in mind. It's not exactly what the American people had hoped for from their industry. What's going to happen to all those people? We have not yet dealt with all those people who are no longer employed in that industry. The hope for high-tech industry, I think, is at least some time away. Plus, there's no guarantee that the high-tech will not find itself better off in Hong Kong and Korea than it does in the United States. So I think we've really just begun to think about that problem. And in that particular case, it is so diffuse in terms of the reactions that are needed from so many different industries and so many different places, it's very difficult for Congress, for example, to pass a law to solve that problem. That won't happen.

Are there any common themes that account for the failure on the part of our foreign policy to adapt to changes in the world in so many of these areas?

Well, I wouldn't want to try to explain any or all of those problems with one glib explanation. But I do think there are some fairly common threads that we see. One, I think the United States really is not knowledgeable enough about the rest of the world, and about problems that it encounters in the rest of the world, and it thinks somehow that all other countries ought to be rather like Chicago or rural Wisconsin and that if they're not, there's something wrong with them rather than us. So I think that's one common thread we encounter.

I think also, in the post- World War II years, we have tended to try to fit everything too much into Cold War patterns. If there's a problem in Africa, it must be the fault of the Russians. That's a very over-simplistic view. I think we have relied too heavily, as the years have gone along, on trying to solve problems with military power, as is more or less the case in Central America now. I don't mean in the sense of just invading and taking over other countries, but thinking that somehow the application of our military power will be the answer.

Perhaps we've also relied too much, quite the opposite, on economic assistance. Not that economic assistance isn't a good thing in many cases, but we have thought that it can do more than, in fact, it can do; that economic development somehow would bring political development along with it, which hasn't always been the case and isn't likely to always be the case.

So I think you find those three themes running rather consistently through American foreign policy since World War II, and it hasn't really mattered very much which administration. The Carter administration was somewhat different from all the others, I think. The Reagan administration is different from all the others in that it follows those trends perhaps more enthusiastically. But generally speaking, I think that those have been constant threads.

What are the institutional forces that in your view prevent the political education of the United States with regard to these realities? Is there, for example, a military - industrial complex that is so dominant that we tend to rely on the military use of power and not on other resources that are available to us to influence events in the world?

Well, there's certainly a military - industrial complex, I don't think there's any doubt about that. They have one in the Soviet Union too. Any major power is going to have that, because the interplay between industry and weaponry is an obvious one. I myself, however, don't think that the military - industrial complex is a major component of our American foreign policy. That is, I don't see the people who make rockets in Washington influencing our politics in Central America. I don't see that. It would be idle to suppose that there's not some influence there of course, but I think the problems go deeper than that, and I don't know that I can fully analyze them for you. Clearly, I think the press, the institution that I belong to, is not doing as outstanding a job as we would hope for. But then, I'm not sure that even if it did, there would be that much difference. There would be some.

I'm inclined to think that the United States is really still in the toddling stage as a superpower, and perhaps things move so fast that we'll never get much beyond that, I don't know. After all, it's less than 40 years since World War II. It's only in that period, less than an adult lifetime, that we have come into the position of dominance, or at least shared dominance, that we have in the world. I think many Americans still operate out of the immediate post- World War II experience, which was the Cold War experience. I think many Americans still have in their mind the image of the United States that we all took into World War II, that is, of a nation of farmers, reluctant to fight but if challenged by the forces of evil, ready to go out and crusade.

I think many of us still look at the United States that way, when in fact, the record is pretty clear that over those 40 years, whether you think it was necessary or not, the United States has been a pretty aggressive power in the sense of projecting its power into various situations in an effort to shape the world in a way that would be congenial to us, and congenial to the peoples involved. I don't think the United States has been an imperial power in the sense of just simply trying to acquire dominance over regions for our own acquisitive purposes. We haven't been trying to acquire assets of some kind. I think we've been trying to shape a world much more nearly because we thought we knew how the world ought to be shaped, to begin with. And secondly, because we wanted that world to be one in which, at best, we could have a reasonably peaceful and reasonably prosperous role. Now we really haven't had anything like the ability to do that that we had thought we had.

As I said earlier, many of us still live in the Cold War experience. I think also that many of our most thoughtful political figures, academics, and others still are living in the glow of the Marshall Plan, because the Marshall Plan was successful. That was probably the most successful American initiative of the superpower period. We did help to rebuild Western Europe, but they had the middle class, they had the skills, they had the knowledge, they had the background to take advantage of what we were doing. When you apply Marshall Plan ideas to Africa or to Central America, why, it simply doesn't work in the same way, if it works at all. We've been very slow to recognize that kind of thing.

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