There is a flimsy line between history’s lessons and its legends, between the talismanic power of oft-told tales and the mist-enshrouded myths that dull our thinking and short-circuit our debates. Just as George Orwell warned of the insidious ways in which clichéd language can undermine clear thought, so too is the case with clichéd history. Yet every year, and perhaps particularly every election year, words and phrases such as “Munich,” “Ronald Reagan,” “Marshall Plan,” and “Sister Souljah” are tossed about with such freewheeling, ahistorical abandon that they have become completely untethered from anything resembling their original truth. Perhaps we can start a new tradition: While we make history by electing a president every fourth November, what if we also retake our history by selecting one such myth and giving it a suitable burial? If so, I nominate 2008 as the year we put the fairy tale that there once was an era when “politics stopped at the water’s edge” out of its misery.
The notion that there existed a bygone age when solons and statesmen put aside politics when it came to foreign policy is false. But aside from its fraudulence, it has come to have a negative effect on our national debates, cutting short vital conversations and contributing to a bipartisan conspiracy of silence on fundamental questions of war and peace.
Such a silence may be hard to discern amid the clatter of our hyper-heated arguments over Iraq, but the dictum has always been observed most in its violations–as a penalty card brandished when discussions stray outside prescribed boundaries. In the years immediately following the attacks of September 11, it inhibited the asking of difficult questions, excused the lack of response to the queries that were asked, curtailed incipient deliberations, and generally provided a cloak for poorly planned adventurism that has set back America’s security and interests while costing us thousands of lives.
The notion that politics should “stop at the water’s edge” become an unwritten maxim of American politics in the years immediately after World War II. Today it conjures up images of the partnership between Democratic President Harry Truman and Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, which produced the centrist congressional majorities responsible for producing the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty.
The phrase entered the popular vernacular in the campaign of 1948–the first campaign of the postwar era, the first campaign of the Cold War, and the first campaign that found America as undisputed leader of the free world. The Republican platform that year–molded personally by Vandenberg–announced the party’s support for “stopping partisan politics at the water’s edge.” In his famous late-night acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Truman echoed that sentiment, proclaiming, “Partisanship should stop at the water’s edge, and I shall continue to preach that through this whole campaign.” So he would–and so would the Republicans–but, for neither the first nor the last time, preaching and practicing turned out to be two entirely different concepts.
From its birth, the rule that delicate international situations were off-limits for debate turned out to be little more than a political head-fake employed by both parties. Take the month of September 1948. On the 25th of the month, the Times reported, Vandenberg told the Michigan State Republican convention that “the Republican party intends to cease partisan politics at the water’s edge.” Yet, that same month, the chairman of the Republican National Committee accused Truman of forging a “working arrangement” with Communists, and the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, in announcing his support of Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, decried “President Truman’s vacillation between appeasement and halfway measures.”
At the same time Vandenberg was giving his speech in Michigan, Truman was on a campaign swing through Texas. While he too would not attack the Republicans directly on foreign policy, he was introduced at stop after stop by Democratic Representative Sam Rayburn, who would tell the crowd that a Truman defeat would mean war. “What would our enemies throughout the world think if we replaced our great leader now?” he asked in his hometown of Bonham, with Truman standing beside him. “Would they think we were going back on our policy of world peace, of world concord, of world order? I am afraid they might.” As the Times put it after a similar introduction from Rayburn a few days earlier in San Antonio, “Whether Mr. Rayburn’s statement had Presidential approval or not, it served to put a severe dent in the previously announced Democratic policy of keeping foreign affairs out of the campaign and ending politics ‘at the water’s edge.’ ” As the 1948 campaign went on, the ruse would eventually be dropped, and both Truman and Dewey would personally accuse the other of acting as a tool of the Communists, who at that very moment had brought the world to the closest it would ever come to World War III, over the issue of Berlin.
But once the heat of the contest had passed, the story that would be remembered was that the candidates had abstained from such rhetoric and that foreign policy played little or no role in that pivotal election. Instead, today we are told that domestic concerns such as crop prices or workers’ wages or a “Do Nothing Congress” or a “Give ‘Em Hell” were the decisive issues of the campaign. “Though conducted against the backdrop of the Cold War, the election of 1948 saw remarkably little debate between Dewey and Truman over it,” wrote Zachary Karabell in his 2000 history of the 1948 election, The Last Campaign. In their classic book Rise to Globalism, Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley, two of the most widely acclaimed historians of twentieth-century America, concluded, “Foreign policy had not been an issue between the major parties in the 1948 campaign.”
The truth is that the conflict with the Soviet Union, the fear of an approaching war, and the siege of Berlin shaped almost every aspect of that election. Yet, then, as now, the nostrum that politics should stop at the water’s edge clipped off a full conversation about issues of war and peace. While the whole universe of tough domestic policy issues could be fully chewed over in political discussion, foreign policy disagreements were not addressed frontally and often relegated to asides and jabs, feints and winks.
These fabled halcyon days continue to exert a powerful force on our political discussions, and America has paid a high price for the credence we give to this bedtime story. That is not to say that the 60 years since 1948 have wanted for disagreements on international issues among presidential candidates. Yet, particularly in the years before the Iraq War, such disagreements were delivered gingerly, in a way that set them apart from the broad spectrum of debate in American politics. The idea that “politics stops at the water’s edge” has served as a club–ready to be used against opponents that crossed an invisible line.
Working on Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, I saw firsthand the attacks that were leveled at President George W. Bush for almost every mention of September 11. ‘’I think the images of 9/11 belong to America, not to parties, not to politics,” said Kerry after Bush released a TV advertisement showing pictures from Ground Zero. Bush should not be making “political hay” out of the attacks and their aftermath, charged Kerry’s spokeswoman. But why shouldn’t Bush have “played the 9/11 card”? What issue of his presidency–what record of action–should he have asked to be judged on in seeking reelection that was more central than the attacks?
Of course, it’s not only Democrats that have walled off foreign policy from the world of political debates. Republicans and others have often reacted to dissent on national security questions as if it were less than patriotic, if not half way down the road to treason. In fact, a slanderous and error-laden book titled Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism became a 2003 runaway bestseller. In the fall of 2007, to take another example, Commentary magazine founder Norman Podhoretz expressed his belief that Democratic critics of the Iraq War were “embracing defeat, calling for American defeat, rooting for American defeat.”
What makes such accusations even possible is the widespread sense that those who question foreign policy decisions are in a violation of political rules. For instance, in April 2004, Senator Joseph Lieberman decried the “poisonous partisan rhetoric about Iraq” in a speech at the Brookings Institution. “In the normal course of American political conduct, policy questions on Iraq become further occasion to create partisan, public division and disagreement,” he said. “Campaign pressures can provoke and intensify it–and the media often perpetuates
and exploits it. Politics as usual at home can and will have unusually bad consequences in Iraq.”
When the final accounting of what went wrong in America’s response to September 11 is rendered, it seems likely that the verdict of history will be not that there was too much “division and disagreement” among our elected officials, but too little for too long. Swept up in the wave of patriotism that followed September 11, intimidated by America’s desire for retribution after the attacks, and aware of the political harm that befell those who opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, many in public life chose to use the admonition that politics and foreign policy should maintain their distance as a cover to avoid a full consideration of the ramifications of giving President Bush the authority to go to war.
Fortunately, as of this writing, the 2008 presidential campaign has exhibited a more open approach to discussion of America’s real foreign policy challenges. When, in June of this year, Senator John McCain’s campaign accused Senator Barack Obama of holding “a September 10 mindset,” Obama did not shy away from engaging directly on the issue or accuse McCain of introducing politics into the sanctified temple of foreign policy. Instead, Obama took the issue head on. “The other side likes to use 9/11 as a political bludgeon. Well, let’s talk about 9/11,” he said before detailing the problems he saw with McCain’s foreign policy. Similarly, though Obama’s patriotism has been questioned for many reasons, it is an astonishing development to consider that his love of country has not been assailed by his opponents on the issue of national security, despite his being the first presidential nominee since George McGovern to oppose a current military operation with troops in harm’s way.
This maturity in addressing the thorny questions of war and peace are long overdue. Certainly, partisanship for purely partisan advantage has no place in foreign policy discussions. But such subjugation of the American interest to political interests should have no place in education policy or economic policy, either. The brand of craven politics that should stop at American shores should also stop at the school house door or the household checking account. What must rise instead is vigorous, open debate, characterized by the sharp disagreement that is expected in a democracy. That is the true definition of politics, and it is the kind we need more of in our foreign policy discussions.
“Now, more than ever, politics must stop at the water’s edge,” Lieberman said in his 2004 Brookings speech, “because now, more than ever, our politics here at home have profound consequences for security within our borders as well as beyond our shores.” Yes, it is true. People all over the world are watching as Americans hash out our decisions on international affairs. But they are not looking for us to speak with one voice. In too many of their countries, that is what they are already used to–it is only one voice that gets to speak, one voice that gets to be heard. What they want to hear, what they should get the chance to hear, is a full panoply of voices struggling with difficult decisions openly and honestly. If we are to export our democracy–and there are billions whose futures depend on our doing so–then we must show all the people who live beyond our water’s edge that an unfettered debate is one in which no subjects are out of bounds.