America, Europe, and German Rearmament, August-September 1950




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This extraordinary aggressiveness was not out of character for Acheson, and its wellspring was not simply anti-Communism or extreme distrust of the Soviet Union. His general hawkishness can in fact be traced back to the summer of 1941, when, as a mid-level State Department official, he played a major role in shaping the policy that put the United States on a collision course with Japan. Acheson was one of a handful of officials who helped engineer the oil embargo in mid-1941--a development that led directly to a sharp crisis in U.S.-Japanese relations and ultimately to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December.72

His aggressiveness was also apparent in the early 1960s. During the Berlin and Cuban missile crises especially, he pushed for very tough policies. In 1963, he even called (in a talk to the Institute for Strategic Studies) for what amounted to a policy of armed intervention in East Germany.73 When he was attacked for taking this line, he lashed out at his critics: "Call me anything you like, but don't call me a fool; everybody knows I'm not a fool." "I will not say that Mr. Acheson is a fool," one of his critics replied. "I will only say that he is completely and utterly reckless."74

Acheson often sneered at those he viewed as soft and indecisive. After Eisenhower took office in 1953, Acheson complained repeatedly to Truman about the "weakness" of the new administration.75 After the Democrats returned to power in 1961, President Kennedy allowed Acheson to play a major role in the making of American policy, but Acheson viewed the young president with barely-concealed contempt. The Kennedy administration, in his view, was weak, indecisive, and obsessed with appearances.76 He even criticized the administration in public, going so far at one point that he was virtually forced to apologize.77

At another point, he practically told the president to his face that he was indecisive. Kennedy had asked Acheson to look into the balance of payments problem, and in early 1963 he presented his report to the president. It was a "very strong, vivid, Achesonian presentation. And the President thanked him and said, 'Well, we have to think about that.' Acheson said, 'There's nothing to think about, Mr. President. All you have to do is decide. Here it is, and why don't you decide?'" Kennedy turned red, and then broke up the meeting. He was furious. "It's a long time before Dean Acheson's going to be here again," he remarked to an aide.78 As for Acheson, he continued to criticize Kennedy as weak and indecisive, even after Kennedy's death.79

Acheson treated President Johnson the same way he had treated President Kennedy. When he met with Johnson in 1965, he was so irritated by the president's whining and indecisiveness that he "blew [his] top" and told him to his face that all the trouble America was having in Europe "came about because under him and Kennedy there had been no American leadership at all. The idea that the Europeans could come to their own conclusion had led to an unchallenged de Gaulle."80

These stories reveal a lot about Acheson. A man who could deal with presidents that way was not the type of person who would allow himself to be pushed around by mere military officers on a issue of central political importance--above all at a time when he was at the height of his power and had the full confidence of President Truman. Nor was he the type who would be understanding if he thought allied leaders were reluctant to face up to fundamental problems and make the really tough decisions.

Acheson, in fact, did not believe in taking a soft line with the allies or in treating them as full partners. In 1961, he played the key role in shaping the new Kennedy administration's policy on NATO issues; the goal of that policy was to get the Europeans "out of the nuclear business" (as people said at the time)--that is, to concentrate power, and especially nuclear power, in American hands.81

Acheson, moreover, was not the sort of statesman who viewed consultation and compromise as ends in themselves. At one point during the Berlin crisis in 1961, he complained that the U.S. had been trying too hard to reach agreement with the Europeans. The U.S. government did not need to coordinate policy with the allies, he said, "we need to tell them."82 "We must not be too delicate," he said at another point, "about being vigorous in our leadership." It was America's job, practically America's duty, to lay down the law to the allies. The United States--and he actually used this phrase--was "the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen."83 "In the final analysis," he told McGeorge Bundy, "the United States [is] the locomotive at the head of mankind, and the rest of the world is the caboose."84

American interests were fundamental; European concerns were of purely secondary importance. Paul Nitze, who was very close to Acheson throughout this period, made the point quite explicitly in 1954. The "primary goal," he said, was the "preservation of the United States and the continuation of a 'salutary' world environment"; the "avoidance of war" was of secondary importance. "Even if war were to destroy the world as we know it today, still the US must win that war decisively." He then again stressed the point that "the preservation of the US" was "the overriding goal, not the fate of our allies."85

People like Nitze and Acheson were thus not inclined to take European interests too seriously or to deal with the Europeans on a basis of mutual respect. And Acheson himself was clearly not the kind of person who would have found it difficult to deal roughly with the allies in September 1950.
The Meaning of the Story

The goal here was to test a particular interpretation of what happened in the late summer of 1950. According to that interpretation, the military authorities had essentially forced the package plan on Acheson, who had accepted it reluctantly, and only after a struggle. The basic conclusion here is that that interpretation simply does not stand up in the light of the evidence from late 1950 and in the light of what we know about Acheson in general. The policy the U.S. government pursued at the New York Conference is not to be understood as a more or less accidental by-product of a bureaucratic dispute in Washington. The way Acheson dealt with the allies at the New York conference--the bare-knuckled tactics he pursued, the way he tried to lay down the law to the Europeans, the way he dismissed their most fundamental concerns out of hand--has to be seen as deliberate: he knew what he was doing, and he had not been forced by the Pentagon to proceed in that way. There is certainly no evidence that he thought those tactics were "murderous": he did not give way on this point after a long battle; he never complained at the time about the military's (alleged) insistence on this strategy; he never raised the issue with Truman or expressed misgivings about the policy as he was carrying it out.

Does this mean that the Acheson interpretation was a complete fabrication? The truth is probably not quite that simple. For Acheson, as for many people in public life, honesty was not the top priority, and he was fully capable of deliberately misleading the public on these issues.86 But that in itself does not mean that the Acheson story about the package plan was manufactured out of whole cloth.

Indeed—in a certain sense at least--there was probably some basis to the story. After all, the military authorities were willing to send over the American troops only if the European allies agreed to provide the balance of the forces needed to make an effective defense possible, and the JCS did believe that German forces would be needed for that purpose. So in that sense, from the military point of view, German rearmament was certainly a vital part of the package. But this was at the level of fundamental objectives, not at the level of tactics, and the basic JCS view was consistent with a relatively soft negotiating strategy: if the State Department (to paraphrase Nitze) had called for emphasizing the U.S. troop commitment and only then gradually "weaving in" the question of a German defense contribution, it is hard to believe that the JCS would have objected. But an agreement on the part of the JCS that all the elements of the problem were interconnected could be interpreted as a call for presenting the allies with a single package: the basic policy could be interpreted as translating directly into a particular negotiating strategy. The basic military point of view, in other words, could serve as cover--that is, as a kind of license for pursuing the sort of negotiating policy State Department officials considered essential at this point.87 The fact that the military view could be interpreted (or misinterpreted) in this way--whether deliberately or not is not the issue here--made it easier for Acheson and his advisors to do what they probably really wanted to do in any case.

This is all quite speculative, of course, and there is really not enough evidence to get to the bottom of this particular issue. But these uncertainties should not be allowed to obscure the facts that the documents are able to establish. And one thing, at least, is very clear: the State Department did not fight the military over the package plan. If Acheson actually thought the tactics the U.S. government adopted were "murderous," he certainly had a very odd way of showing it.

Why is this story important? Partly because it shows how easy it is for scholars to get taken in by self-serving memoir accounts, and thus how crucial it is to test claims against the archival evidence; partly because of what it tells us about civil-military relations in the United States, about the willingness and ability of the military leadership to impose its views on issues of great political importance, and about the validity of the bureaucratic politics theory of policy-making in general; but mainly because of the light it throws on the political meaning of what happened in September 1950. The American government did not just stumble along and adopt a policy against its better judgment because of pressure from the military; the package policy was adopted quite deliberately; and that fact has a certain bearing on how American policy toward Europe during the early Cold War period is to be interpreted.

There has been a certain tendency in recent years to idealize U.S.-European relations during the Cold War period. The argument is that the NATO system worked because, no matter how lopsided power relations were, the Americans did not simply insist on running the show. Instinctively the democratic countries dealt with the problems that arose in their relations with each other the same way they dealt with domestic issues: not through coercion, but through persuasion and compromise, "by cutting deals instead of imposing wills."88 The democratic habit of compromise, of give and take, was the bedrock upon which the Atlantic Alliance was built. The Americans treated their allies with respect, and this, it is said, was one major reason why the Europeans were able to live with a system that rested so heavily on American power.89

The story of how the U.S. government managed the German rearmament issue in late 1950 suggests that things were not quite so simple. The Americans were capable of dealing rather roughly with their European allies, even on issues of absolutely central political importance. If the package plan story tells us nothing else, it certainly tells us that. And the fact that the Americans were capable of treating their allies that way had a certain bearing on how many people, especially in Europe, thought about core political issues.

In 1880, after a remarkable electoral campaign, William Gladstone was swept back into office as prime minister of Great Britain. Gladstone, in that campaign, had laid out a series of principles on which British foreign policy was to be based; one fundamental aim was "to cultivate to the utmost the concert of Europe." Five years later, Gladstone's policy lay in ruins. He had managed to alienate every other major power in Europe--even France and Germany had come together in 1884 in a short-lived anti-British entente--and in 1885 his government fell from power. The Gladstone government had achieved its "long desired 'Concert of Europe'" all right, Lord Salisbury noted bitterly at the time. It had succeeded in "uniting the continent of Europe--against England."90

The parallel with American policy during the early Cold War period is striking. The U.S. government very much wanted the European countries to come together as a political unit, and support for European unification was one of the basic tenets of American foreign policy in this period.91 But it was not American preaching that led the Europeans to cooperate with each other and begin to form themselves into a bloc. The United States played an important role in the European integration process, but America had an impact mainly because of the kind of policy she pursued--a policy which, on occasion, did not pay due regard to the most basic interests of the European allies.

Acheson's policy in late 1950 is perhaps the most important case in point. Acheson was pressing for a course of action that would have greatly increased the risk of war at a time when western Europe was particularly vulnerable. The U.S. government could treat its allies like that--it could pursue a policy that might well have led to total disaster for Europe--only because the United States was so much stronger than any single European country. It followed that there had to be a counterweight to American power within the western alliance, a counterweight based on the sense that the Europeans had major strategic interests in common and that those interests were distinct from those of the United States. The events of late 1950 helped push the Europeans--especially the French and the Germans--to that conclusion: it helped get them to see why they had to put their differences aside and come together as a kind of strategic unit. This episode thus plays an important role in the history of European integration, and indeed in the history of the western alliance as a whole.

NOTES
Copies of the more important unpublished documents cited here are available on the internet (http://www.polisci.ucla.edu/faculty/trachtenberg/1950.html); those documents are marked in the notes with an asterisk.




1. Minutes of foreign ministers' meetings, September 12-13, 1950, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1950, vol. 3 (Washington: GPO, 1977), pp. 1192, 1208. Henceforth references to this source will be cited in the following form: FRUS 1950, 3:1192, 1208.

2. This claim is somewhat at variance with the conventional wisdom on this point. See, for example, Laurence Martin, "The American Decision to Rearm Germany," in American Civil-Military Decisions: A Book of Case Studies, ed. Harold Stein (Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1963), 658: "To the end of the New York meetings, however, the French representative refused to accept even the principle of German rearmament." But the real story is not nearly that simple.

3. Foreign ministers' private meeting, September 12, 1950, FRUS 1950, 3:1200.

4. Acheson to Truman and Acting Secretary, September 16, 1950, ibid., 312-313.

5. Acheson-Schuman meeting, September 12, 1950, and meeting of British, French and American foreign ministers and high commissioners, September 14, 1950, ibid., 287, 299-300.

6. Acheson-Schuman meeting, September 12, 1950, ibid., 287-88.

7. Schuman and Bevin in meeting of British, French and American foreign ministers and high commissioners, September 14, 1950, ibid., 296-97. This fear of provoking a Soviet attack had been an important element in French policy since early 1948. The concern at that time was that the Russians would interpret movement toward the establishment of a West German state as a major step toward German rearmament, which, it was felt, might provoke preventive military action. See, for example, Chauvel to Bonnet, March 18 and May 19, 1948, Bonnet Papers, vol. 1, and Massigli to Foreign Ministry, May 3, 1948, Massigli Papers, vol. 67, both French Foreign Ministry Archives [FFMA], Paris. In 1950, this factor continued to play a fundamental role in French policy on the issue, even before the German rearmament question was pushed to the top of the agenda by the events in Korea in June. See, for example, a Quai d'Orsay memorandum from April 1950, published in Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland und Frankreich: Dokumente 1949-1963, ed. Horst Möller and Klaus Hildebrand, (Munich: K.G. Saur, 1997), 1:376: "We can expect the Americans to bring up the question of an eventual German contribution to the rearmament of the western powers. A program of that sort is acceptable to us only to the extent that it would not constitute a provocation vis-à-vis the USSR." On these issues in general, and for the Bradley quotation in particular, see the discussion in Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 96-100, 111-12, and in Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 118-127, 130-31.

8. McCloy to Acheson, June 13, 1950, President's Secretary's Files [PSF], box 178, Germany, folder 2, Harry S Truman Library [HSTL], Independence, Missouri.

9. "Probable Soviet Reactions to a Remilitarization of Western Germany," NIE 17, December 27, 1950, both in PSF/253/HSTL.

10. "Soviet Courses of Action with Respect to Germany," NIE 4, January 29, 1951, PSF/253/HSTL.

11. Raymond Poidevin, Robert Schuman, homme d'état: 1886-1963 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1986), 220.

12. For the best study of the subject, see Georges-Henri Soutou, L'Alliance incertaine: Les rapports politico-stratégiques franco-allemands, 1954-1996 (Paris: Fayard, 1996). Soutou begins his story in 1954, which, as he points out (for example, on p. 22), is when a real bilateral Franco-German strategic relationship began. This is true enough; the point here is simply that the thinking had begun to take shape a number of years earlier.

13. *Bérard to Foreign Ministry, mid-October 1950, series "Europe 1949-55," subseries "Allemagne," volume 187 (formerly vol. 70), folio 7, FFMA.

14. Bérard’s next sentence is also worth noting, because it shows how French officials were already thinking in terms of balancing between Germany and America within the western alliance: "This is not to say that one has to think in terms of a western army from which the Americans would be excluded, and within which the French and the Germans would provide the main forces. Such a solution might some day force us to fight, if not 'for the king of Prussia' ['pour le roi de Prusse'--a French expression implying that one is not getting anything for oneself in return], then at least for the reconquest of Prussia." *Bérard to Foreign Ministry, October 17, 1950, Europe 1949-55, Allemagne, vol. 187 (formerly vol. 70), ff. 16-17, FFMA. These documents shed light not only on the beginnings of European integration (and on the origins of the European Defense Community project in particular), but also on the evolution of Franco-German relations. Adenauer, for example, is often portrayed as pursuing a very pro-American policy at this point; the standard view is that his attitude toward France at this time was relatively cool. Note the tone, for example, of the discussion in Hans-Peter Schwarz, Adenauer: Der Aufstieg, 1876-1952, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1986), 836. But it is clear from these French sources that the roots of his later policy were already in place in 1950.

15. *Bérard to Foreign Ministry, October 17, 1950 (as in n. 14).

16. See, for example, Martin, "Decision to Rearm Germany," 656-657; Robert McGeehan, The German Rearmament Question: American Diplomacy and European Defense after World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 41, 47; David McLellan, Dean Acheson: The State Department Years (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976), 328-329; James Chace, Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 324; David Clay Large, Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 84-85; Saki Dockrill, Britain's Policy for West German Rearmament, 1950-1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 32-33.

17. McLellan, Acheson, 328.

18. Martin, "American Decision to Rearm Germany," 656.

19. Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: Norton, 1969), 438; McLellan, Acheson, 329; McGeehan, German Rearmament Question, 41.

20. Acheson, Present at the Creation, 438.

21. Ibid., 440; Dean Acheson, Sketches from Life of Men I Have Known (New York: Harper, 1961), 26, 41; McGeehan, German Rearmament Question, 41.

22. Martin, "American Decision to Rearm Germany," 657.

23. McGeehan, German Rearmament Question, 41. This aspect of the argument is emphasized in Thomas Schwartz, America's Germany: John J. McCloy and the Federal Republic of Germany (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 134.

24. The two published accounts Acheson gave--Present at the Creation, 437-440, and Sketches from Life, 25-27, 41-43--are cited frequently in the historical literature relating to this issue. Scholars sometimes also relied on information Acheson provided in personal interviews. See Martin, "Decision to Rearm Germany," 665, and McLellan, Acheson, viii. Other sources are sometimes cited, but this additional evidence turns out upon examination to be quite weak. McLellan, for example, cites a memorandum of a conversation between Acheson and JCS Chairman Bradley on August 30 from the Acheson Papers at the Truman Library as supporting his contention that Acheson had at this point "given in to the military point of view" (329). But according to the archivists at the Truman Library, no such document exists in that collection. The press accounts cited in n. 41 in the Martin article also do not prove the point they are meant to support. They are cited to back up the claim that the JCS was insisting on including German rearmament in the package, but the picture they give is that the German rearmament issue was a relatively minor issue ("only an incidental part of a much larger American program") and that the U.S. government had not embraced the package concept ("Acheson has not definitely made it a condition without which the United States would refuse to send troops to Europe"). "Western Europe" (editorial),
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