Thursday, September 15, 2016

American Umpire (Shell Studios, Hoover Institution, Cato Institute, WETA/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Tuesday night, right after the first episode of The Contenders (an eight-part series about 16 different Presidential candidates, two per episode, that opened with Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic nomination in 1972 despite the dual handicap of being Black and a woman, and John McCain’s candidacies in 2000 and 2008), PBS showed an interesting one-hour program called American Umpire that presented a surprisingly compelling overview of American foreign policy since our declaration of independence in 1776. The surprise was due to the fact that the principal sponsors of the program were two conservative think tanks, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the libertarian Cato Institute — and yet, despite a few factual errors and hints of Right-wing bias, it was overall a fair-minded program whose bottom line was a deep questioning of whether the U.S. should continue in its costly role of being “policeman of the world” that we assumed after being part of the winning side in World War II and then ending up in a 34-year Cold War with our former World War II ally, the Soviet Union. American Umpire featured a wide array of guests, ranging from such pillars of the foreign policy establishment as former Secretaries of State George Schultz (under Ronald Reagan), Madeleine Albright (under Bill Clinton) and Condoleeza Rice (under George W. Bush) to various journalists, historians and others to present a broad picture of U.S. foreign policy’s past, present and potential future.

The show argues that the first President, George Washington, laid down three broad principles that would govern how the U.S. conducted its relations with other nations that pretty much endured until America’s entry into World War I shook them and World War II and the Cold War shattered them completely. The first was neutrality: instead of participating in other countries’ wars the U.S. would impartially offer its resources in trade to anyone who asked. The second was nonintervention: the U.S. wouldn’t get involved either in attacking or defending other countries, so we didn’t get ourselves involved in the round robin of endless wars that had beset Europe for centuries. The third was that the U.S. would not maintain a permanent (“standing”) military; if we found ourselves at war we’d raise one ad hoc on the basis of state militias — the real purpose of the Second Amendment, contrary to the Right-wing crazies who have used it to enshrine an individual right to bear arms, was so that when the nation was in danger and the militia recruiters came a-calling, the people they recruited would have weapons with which to fight. Though as the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military under the Continental Congress during the American Revolution George Washington had been driven nuts by the limitations of relying on state militias — including the fact that if their terms of enlistment ran out in the middle of a battle they could go home and, since they’d been credentialed by their individual states rather than any federal government, he could do almost nothing to stop them; he also worked incredibly hard to instill in them a common sense of purpose and level of discipline similar to that of the British military they were fighting — as President he shared the concern of a lot of his contemporaries that a standing army and a democracy were incompatible: sooner or later the military would use its monopoly on force to unseat the republican government and take over themselves. (The history of the rest of the American hemisphere since it won independence from Spain and Portugal is a sorry testimony to Washington’s correct analysis.)

Indeed, it’s often occurred to me that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would be astounded at the fact that the President’s constitutional power of commander-in-chief routinely extends throughout his term, from the moment he takes office until he leaves it four or eight years later. According to the Constitution, it’s supposed to be Congress’s job to decide when the U.S. is at war by making a formal declaration to that effect, and then — and only then — the President assumes his (or, maybe after this year, her?) role as commander-in-chief of the army raised to fight the war Congress has declared. (The whole idea that Congress declares war is, as Bush II attorney John Yoo said of the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint” — so much so that the last time Congress actually declared war was December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor.) The show made a few dubious factual assertions; for one, it said the U.S. was the first country in the world to unite previously existing republics into a federal system (it was Switzerland, which declared independence and founded the Swiss Confederation in 1648, 140 years before the U.S. Constitution went into effect). More importantly, it said that until 1917 the U.S. never directly intervened in another country’s war. That may have been true in Europe and the rest of the eastern hemisphere, but it was decidedly not true for the western hemisphere, which under the Monroe Doctrine the U.S. essentially declared its “sphere of influence” (much the way the Soviet Union regarded eastern Europe as its “sphere of influence” between 1945 and 1989) and claimed for itself the right to intervene in the political and military affairs of any American country, ostensibly to prevent its reconquest by the European colonial powers but actually to make sure they weren’t governed by any leader, party or group that threatened U.S. economic interests in the region.

The show quotes John Quincy Adams as saying, “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” but while he said that he was also serving as Monroe’s Secretary of State and actually writing what came to be called the Monroe Doctrine. In the 19th century, in addition to fighting the Civil War, the U.S. intervened in Mexico in 1846-48 (and ultimately conquered two-fifths of the territory Mexico had inherited when it declared and won independence from Spain), in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, and in plenty of other places in what it considered its post-colonial American sphere of influence. It also reached beyond the Americas and the former Spanish colonies in the Pacific, establishing a military presence in China in the late 19th century to ensure what was called the “Open Door Policy,” so that instead of China being conquered and divided up among the big European powers the way Africa and southern Asia had been, it would be allowed to remain nominally independent but be subjected to economic exploitation from all Western countries on an equal basis. Nonetheless, as the program argued, the U.S. did pursue a policy throughout the 19th century of noninvolvement in European wars and avoided alliances with any one European country against another. Then World War I began and, though for the first three years the U.S. remained nominally neutral and sold arms and resources to both sides, there was a subtle but unmistakable “tilt” towards Britain and France, and against Germany, that got stronger with the sinking of the U.S.S. Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 and reached a climax in early 1917, when Germany’s declaration that they had a right to use submarines to sink any ships taking weapons or anything else to Britain prompted President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war and put the U.S. firmly on the side of the British and French against the Germans. Britain and France won the war, largely because American help came in time to tip the balance decisively against the Germans and their played-out allies, Austro-Hungary and Turkey — though, as this show points out, Wilson refrained from declaring the U.S. formally “allied” with Britain and France. Instead U.S. troops fought alongside British and French ones but under separate command and under the mandate of a totally separate declaration of war against Germany.

After World War I public sentiment in the U.S. turned overwhelmingly against future involvement in Europe’s conflicts — the U.S. Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations (the international organization Wilson had proposed and hoped would settle international disputes peaceably from then on) and Republican Warren G. Harding, who famously (and malapropistically — the word he meant was “normality”) promised “a return to normalcy.” As President, Harding called an international conference in Washington, D.C. in November 1921 — his speech at its opening on November 12 was recorded on Victor and is available at; it’s astonishing in that Harding’s arguments against war — not only the loss of life and the destruction of property but the enormous amounts of money wasted in the production of armaments that could be used for improving the lives of ordinary citizens — sound more like the rhetoric of a radical peacenik than a Republican President. During the 1920’s, as American Umpire shows, under American leadership the major powers — Britain, France, Japan — actually not only signed disarmament treaties but actually destroyed some of their own ships and other military equipment to get their arms down to the limits specified in the treaties. Then the Great Depression of 1929 hit and international tensions escalated, and Germany in particular was taken over by the Nazis (who had actually manipulated the German government because they did so much better when the German economy was tanking, and so much worse when it was doing well, they deliberately sabotaged the German government’s negotiations to reduce the crippling burden of reparations payments the Germans owed to France under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I), but as the makers of American Umpire, director James Shelley and writers Elizabeth Cobbs and John Mikulsak, use 1930’s newsreel footage to point out, even under the growing threat of fascism in general and Nazism in particular, American public opinion remained strongly isolationist throughout the decade.

The show points out that the U.S. Congress passed no fewer than five neutrality acts, each stronger than the one before it, and President Franklin Roosevelt reluctantly signed each one even though (a point they don’t mention) he was fully aware of the danger the Nazis posed to the U.S. and had carried on a secret correspondence with Winston Churchill, in which the letters on both sides were signed, “Former Naval Person” (since during World War I Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty in Britain and Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the U.S.). Ultimately the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hitler declared war on the U.S. a day later (which made Roosevelt heave several sighs of relief because he’d been able to get a declaration of war against Japan but it was uncertain he could have got one against Germany, which hadn’t directly attacked us, until Germany obliging declared war on us first). The U.S., of course, ended up on the winning side of World War II along with Britain and Russia, and Russia set up its own “sphere of influence” in eastern Europe and — at least according to the historical analysis of this program; other sources differ — attempted to foment Communist revolutions in Greece and Italy, leading President Harry Truman to proclaim the so-called “Truman Doctrine” that from now on the U.S. would intervene anywhere in the world where “freedom” was threatened — i.e., wherever Communist revolutions, whether Soviet-backed or home-grown, arose and fought against the kinds of conservative capitalist governments the U.S. wanted established throughout the world. The U.S. formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a whole slew of interlocking alliances that eventually encompassed virtually the whole non-Communist “free” world, and also assumed the principal burden of protecting western Europe from any threat of a Soviet attack. The U.S. also decided that Germany and Japan would no longer be trusted to have powerful militaries of their own, and instead we would assume the burden of their defense budget. At the same time the U.S. also decided that the threat not only of the Soviet Union but also China, after Mao Zedong (or however we’re spelling his name this week) and the Communists won their revolution in 1949, required that we build up Germany and Japan as buffer states, under non-fascist but safely conservative governments.

The result was that from the 1950’s to the 1980’s West Germany and Japan built up their economies, vastly expanded their production of consumer goods, and successfully marketed them to American consumers — which they could do at least partly because, without the burden of maintaining a military establishment, they could put more of their national budgets into developing their civilian economies for both domestic consumption and export. Flash-forward again to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and its eastern European “sphere of influence” in 1989 — presented in this film, as in most American reportage, as the unambiguous triumph of capitalist democracy over Communist dictatorship — and to a growing critique of American foreign policy from the libertarian Right and, in this year’s Presidential campaign, by Donald Trump, to the effect that it’s time for the U.S. to back off the task of defending the rest of the world and insist that other countries, particularly places like western Europe and Japan that are cleaning our clock economically, to pay more of their fair share for their own defense. This show attempts a serious and sober-minded presentation of an idea that when Trump talks about it talks, as my husband Charles has said, like a “protection” racketeer in a 1930’s gangster movie: “Nice little country you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if anything ‘happened’ to it.” While all the former secretaries of state interviewed in the program recite the usual American elites’ party line that the U.S. has to be the world’s policeman and international stability would collapse completely if we withdrew or cut back our defense spending the way the libertarians and Trump are proposing (though Trump is also promising a huge military buildup even though it’s unclear exactly what he wants to do with a much larger version of a U.S. military that is already bigger than almost all the other militaries of the world combined), it’s clear that Shelley, Cobbs and Mikulak seriously believe that the time has come for the U.S. to make its next sweeping re-evaluation of its role in the world and back away from being the world’s policeman and maintaining the network of military bases the late Chalmers Johnson said was the bulwark of America’s version of an empire.

This debate, such as it is, is being played out in the context of a Presidential campaign that, even more than usual, is about trivialities — Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and her personal health, Donald Trump’s swaggering style and the degree to which it’s getting in the way of his winning an election even in an era in which overwhelming numbers of Americans are hungering for “change” without much idea of just what sort of “change” they want. To the extent the campaign is about issues, it’s about domestic issues — particularly the so-called “recovery” from the 2008 recession, whose benefits have gone almost totally to the 1 percent — and the threat of terrorism, though quite a few Americans have retreated to a neo-isolationist position and really don’t care what happens in the rest of the world except to the extent that it looses terrorists to kill Americans on our own soil. You’ve got a foreign-policy establishment unshakably committed to maintaining America’s military pre-eminence in the world, a counter-argument from both the Left and the libertarian Right that we’re spending more than we need to on so-called “defense” that helps other countries to the detriment of the U.S., and a confused political system that doesn’t know how to respond except by throwing up as the two major-party Presidential candidates a woman who’s part and parcel of the Establishment and a man who seems to think in temper tantrums. This year’s election — and the issues American Umpire is raising — will largely be determined by whether the American people so desperately want change they’re willing to take a chance on Donald Trump, of all people, to deliver it; or whether they’re so scared by him they’re willing to vote for the ultra-Establishment candidate on the Shakespearean principle that we should “rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of.”