- Against the President: Dissent and Decision-Making in the White House—A Historical Perspective
Mark White has selected an interesting and relatively neglected topic, the role and impact of dissenters in the White House on important Cold War issues from 1945 through 1968. He consulted pertinent primary and secondary sources and presents a well-written study that is accessible to both students and specialists. Whether all of White's dissenters really qualify as such is open to question. The main area that could profit from further analysis is the issue of lessons learned from this study, most notably the question of why dissent is so limited and ineffective in the context of modern American foreign policy–making.
White covers the Cold War administrations from Harry Truman through Lyndon Baines Johnson, discussing an adviser in each. With the Truman administration, he starts with Joseph Davies, Harry Hopkins, and Henry Wallace. Davies, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, and Hopkins, a former adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, gained entry to Truman in the spring of 1945 as the new president faced many challenges. Davies received considerable attention from Truman, who sent him off to discuss how to respond to Josif Stalin with Winston Churchill in May 1945 at the same time that Truman sent Hopkins to meet with Stalin in the Kremlin and use either a "baseball bat" or "diplomatic language" to get the Soviet leader to carry out the Yalta agreements. Hopkins had greater short-term success than Davies, but neither official was sufficiently involved in policymaking or in the administration long enough to qualify as a dissenter from Truman's Cold War policies. Wallace, who had been secretary of commerce and later served as vice president under Roosevelt, posed a [End Page 147] more direct challenge to Truman in the spring of 1945 until Truman fired him in September. As one of the most significant New Dealers in Truman's administration, Wallace pushed to keep the wartime Soviet-American partnership alive, an effort that, as White points out, was spurred on by Wallace's uncritical perspective on Stalin and Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. When Wallace kept expressing his views in public forums that upset other foreign policy advisers, Truman told Wallace he had to stop making speeches that dealt with foreign policy issues and a few days later asked him to resign.
White could have selected a more significant dissenter in the Truman administration; for example, George Kennan, who directed the State Department's new Policy Planning Staff from May 1947 until the end of 1949. As a leading advocate of the strategy of containment, Kennan did not anticipate being a dissenter, but he increasingly found himself in disagreement with the White House and Secretary of State Dean Acheson about the relative importance of military containment of the Soviet Union; the desirability of negotiations with Stalin, particularly on the German issue; and the wisdom of using the rhetoric of the Truman Doctrine to expand the Cold War competition into a global conflict.
White's choice of a dissenter in the 1950s is Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, another official who was not that sustained and vigorous in his dissent when he took up Indochina starting with the crisis precipitated by the impending French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. A visit to the Far East in mid-May 1954 reinforced Wilson's concerns about American involvement, and after the Geneva Conference that month Wilson's dissent became more direct. In several National Security Council (NSC) meetings, Wilson questioned Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the wisdom of committing the United States to the South East Asian Treaty Organization, on resisting the proposed election in Vietnam and backing Ngo Dinh Diem, and on defending Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam regardless of the prospects and costs. By late October, Wilson urged Dwight Eisenhower and the NSC to reject a plan to train a South Vietnamese army and, instead, get out of Indochina. In the face of a consensus against...