Tuesday, July 14, 2009

If Dewey had won in 1948

Fromkin interestingly speculates that had Dewey won the 1948 election, we would have been “spared some of the more ugly by-products of the cold war . . . .” On page 650 of In the Time of the Americans, Fromkin writes, “Much of the anticommunist hysteria whipped up by the frustrated Republican losers of the 1948 elections in an effort to discredit the Truman administration – and, on the other hand, indulged in defensively by the administration to prove itself more anti-Red than its critics – might have been avoided had the Republicans won. The height of the Red-baiting era in the middle of the century corresponds almost exactly with the presidential term that Truman took away from Dewey: 1949-53.”

Fromkin, at least in 1995 when he wrote this book, didn’t take a position in agreement with Arthur Herman (Joseph McCarthy, Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator, 2000) or Haynes and Klehr (In Denial, Historians, Communism & Espionage, 2003). Haynes, Klehr and a few others got a look at the KGB archives which established what McCarthy and other “red-baiters” had been saying, namely that our government and American Industry were rife with soviet spies. Some people have reviled McCarthy for so long that the effort it would take to reexamine what he said and did seems beyond them. I don’t know if Fromkin is in this mold or not.

Fromkin seems to think that there would have been no anti-Communism, no searching for spies, if Dewey had been elected, if I understand him correctly on this point. If I do understand him, I would hope he would have been proved wrong. Even if Dewey had been elected, there really were soviet spies in American government and industry, and the idea that these spies might have gotten a free pass if Dewey had been elected seems hard to believe. But perhaps he is merely suggesting that Dewey’s administration would have gone about the spy-hunting business with less drama than we actually experienced. If that is what he is saying, I wouldn’t disagree.

Another interesting counterfactual pertains to the “loss of China.” The Communists defeated the Chiang Kai-shek forces in 1949. This occurred on the Democrat’s watch. Fromkin tells us that “The communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 was confusing and troubling to Americans, and it was exploited by the McCarthy wing of the Republican party. [Gad! Was there a “McCarthy wing of the Republican Party”? I hadn’t thought so. He was pictured by Herman as being largely on his own.] Had Dewey been President, perhaps such partisan bitterness could have been avoided. It should have been evident that no matter which party held the White House, the United States could have done nothing to prevent Mao Tse-tung’s victory.

“It should have been clear, too, that whatever else might be said against him, Mao was not really Stalin’s man but an indigenous leader with an agenda of his own. The Kremlin in fact had supported Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao had won leadership of the Communist Party only by defeating the Moscow-anointed faction. Observers with a long view of history foresaw that China was potentially Russia’s most dangerous adversary.

“Yet the Democrats were blamed – successfully – for having let Nationalist China be driven from the mainland. Even in the absence of evidence (and there seems to be none), it is hard to believe that this did not affect Truman and Acheson in their decision the following year to take a stand in Korea.”

This is very interesting speculation – very impressive, and I am once again jealous of Fromkin, for I never thought of this before. No, there is no evidence, but it was out there: China’s agony. I have an uncle that was stationed in China during the Second World War. We had an affinity for China for quite a long time. We were supplying aid to Chiang Kai-shek, so how is it he was “permitted” to lose the civil war with Mao’s forces? I once read Vinegar Joe Stilwell’s difficulties (The Stilwell Papers, 1948) in trying to get the Chinese to effectively fight against the Japanese. He had more luck with Mao than he did with Chiang. Chiang fought against Mao as Mao fought against the Japanese. That is an over-simplification but that was the impression I retain from having read Stilwell in 1962; so I didn’t believe that the U.S. had “lost” China. Chiang Kai-shek lost it despite our trying to help him. I do recall that some argued that we (the Democrats) lost China and if their arguments were as intimidating as Fromkin suggests, perhaps Truman and Acheson were influenced in the direction of not wanting to lose South Korea, but I read no one before Fromkin who makes that connection.

Is Fromkin suggesting that Dewey may not have assisted South Korea against the North? Gad, Fromkin. I hate to think what our world would look like if Kim Jong-il were ruling the entire Korean Peninsula – unless you could come up with a counterfactual that suggested a less radical regime might have assumed power. . . hmmm. But short of a persuasive argument along those lines I believe we were right to support South Korea and hate to think that a Dewey administration would have done anything different in that regard than Truman’s administration did.

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