Doubt American Exceptionalism?

Remember BerlinBy Joe Gschwendtner

When Mamoru Shigemitsu, the Japanese foreign affairs minister, signed the surrender papers on board the USS Missouri in 1945, the drama of World War II drew to a close. The end of the war set the stage for another great play – one in Berlin where America would take center stage. Unlike the European continent, the United States emerged from the war physically strong, economically robust --- and in a position of global leadership. As the sole owner of nuclear weapons, it would have been possible to dominate the defeated nations of Germany, Italy and Japan and destroy the malevolent Soviet Union. Instead, America harkened back to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. With “malice towards none” our nation helped rebuild a post-war industrial world and launch it into an era of unparalleled prosperity.

This decision to act for the good of all – even our enemies – was perhaps the most significant act of benevolence by a victor that the world has ever seen. It demonstrated how exceptional America truly was. Still, it would be the smoldering Cold War that would force us to seize the stage in Berlin for a command performance.

It was not as if we were unprepared. We were, after all, the nation that proclaimed its Manifest Destiny and the one which de Tocqueville in his 1831 Democracy in America saw as uniquely placed to lead the world in “benevolent enterprises.”

What was lacking however was our failure to recognize that few other nations ever look beyond their own short-sighted, self-interests. This would cost Europe dearly at the end of the World War II when the United States worked hard to be a team player with even the Soviet Union, often to its disadvantage. In fact, much of the turmoil that became the Cold War was the result of our failure to understand Joseph Stalin and the insatiable communist appetite for territory.

From Yalta on, Stalin had fast-talked the allies into post-war concessions as trade-offs for his entry into the war against Japan. The Battle for Berlin had been grueling and in April of 1945, similarly shortsighted U.S. diplomatic accommodations on the battlefield kept U.S. forces out of the city as Soviet forces razed what little remained after allied bombing. House-to-house street-fighting by the Nazis gave communists all the excuses necessary to further dehumanize the war by raping Berlin’s women and girls, and pillaging its remaining booty. These war crimes were not just premeditated but actually promised to the soldiers as rewards for the bitter campaigns that had preceded Berlin’s “Stunde Null” (Zero Hour).

At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Harry Truman arrived with more realistic insights on Soviet eastern European expansionism than his predecessor, FDR. The Russians sought at first to retain all of Berlin but Allied Forces used physical leverage over the Soviets in the German states of Thuringia and Saxony to ensure that Berlin would be an open city, governed by four powers in a ruling body known as the Kommandatura. It was with more than some suspicion that agreements regarding the four country occupation zones were crafted and under these conditions that American forces were actually “admitted” to the city.

In the three years following the war’s end, the Russians were obsessed with reparations and followed a two-pronged exploitation of their spoils. On the one hand, their commissars exacted money from current German production activities while on the other, they stripped prime industrial machinery in their zones and shipped it by railcar back to the motherland.

In Berlin, it went well beyond economics. It became crystal clear to the Allies that Russia had every intention of transforming the city by stealth into a socialist enclave by using trained agitators, labor thugs, and former Nazi hacks. Resistance by the Allies to the Soviet master plan came slowly at first, but it went from warm to a boil almost overnight through friction within the governing combine. By late spring 1948 the fissure was beyond repair. A secretly orchestrated tri-party currency reform replaced inflated occupation Reichsmarks with new Allied Deutschemarks. The Russians were furious and they responded predictably by instituting a blockade of all traffic to and from the non-Soviet sectors. They were sure that the allies would have to submit to Soviet demands or surrender control of Berlin.

It would have been understandable if Washington had done nothing to stop the Russian land grab. Confronting the Soviet military was not a viable option as our remaining occupation forces were pitifully small -- and the potential for another major war was quite real. So it was in June of 1948 that America’s muscular exceptionalism came of age as President Truman announced the Berlin Airlift as the counter-punch to the Russian siege. The decision did not come easily. Many urged “Give-Em-Hell-Harry” to sacrifice Berlin in the name of peace. Fortunately for the citizens of Berlin, the president and his post-war generals were insightful of their enemy and Truman had taken his own full measure of the Russian beast.

The airlift itself was an impossible task. Feeding and providing fuel to a city of some 2 million people with the technology and smaller cargo aircraft of the day was beyond imagining. But there was the American “x factor” -- brilliant doses of ingenuity that revolutionized air freight management, ground approach radar and air operations.

The enormous success of the 11-month air bridge was seen in its numbers: 2.33 million tons of cargo, 277,569 flights, only 101 fatalities and the lifting of the blockade in May of 1949. But this was no solo task. America led the free world air flotilla but the Royal Air Forces of England, New Zealand, and Australia contributed mightily to these monumental numbers. The book Daring Young Men by Richard Reeves (released earlier this year) is a compelling account of this epic success and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand American courage and leadership in the post-war world.

If American exceptionalism was not obvious enough in the Berlin Airlift, it was demonstrated clearly to the whole world in the Marshall Economic Recovery Plan. Through the Marshall Plan, the United States poured upwards of $100 billion in today’s dollars to rebuild Germany and also Europe’s economy. Never in the course of history had one country taken on the responsibility of rebuilding an entire continent, including both its former enemies and exhausted allies.

The plan itself was at its core, foreign policy. It recognized that freedom in the old world would be doomed if the new world could not breathe economic life and hope into the ashes of war. Russia was also in dire straits but when offered participation in the plan, Stalin could not countenance it. The Marshall Plan was more than just a “most noble adventure” as Greg Behrman has detailed in his book of the same name; it was the signature foreign policy achievement of its time. When reinforced militarily with the NATO Treaty executed in 1949, the military-economic umbrella it represented became the catalyst of development and then the emergence of a modern-day Europe.

Thirteen years later, in 1961, Europe was back on its feet and surging. In contrast, the Soviet Zone of Germany was in shambles. It is estimated that some 2.5-3.0 million East Germans had found a way to escape Soviet domination – either by going to West Berlin or transiting through on the way to another free country. Coupled with the ongoing economic counter blockade initiated in response to the airlift, the Democratic Republic of Germany was losing its best minds to freedom and was no more than a third world nation. Reacting again to the failure of its political system, the Berlin Wall was hastily thrown up on the night of August 13, 1961.

For 28 years, an isle of freedom endured in a squalid communist sea because the United States, as the free world’s leader, refused to be bullied by ever-changing masters of the failing Soviet communist state. During that time President Kennedy joined the city with his famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner” and decades later Ronald Reagan called on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down his wall. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin wall finally collapsed under the weariness of a dysfunctional political system unable to sustain its own economic promises.

If the story of Berlin is the story of the collapse of communism, it is even more the story of America coming of age. The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall serve as benchmarks of the Cold War – a costly economic, military and political struggle which had the highest of nuclear stakes and was won by a free world with the unswerving, courageous leadership of the United States.

Today, it is fashionable in some circles to denigrate our nation’s glorious past. We have entered into a time in which the intellectual and political leadership of this country has lost sight of our greatness. There is a clattering gong from the growing ranks of apologists who feel the need to expunge the demons of American greatness past. Many of the liberal, political elite fail to see the blessings they are still enjoying from America’s leadership and instead seek to paint our great benevolence in hues of domination and intimidation.

In 2008, Andrew Bacevich in his book, The Limits of Power, called U.S. exceptionalism into question. He concluded that our exceptionalism had become an unsustainable desire for material wealth. He saw the Cold War having given rise to the “Long Peace”, followed by an unbridled decade of interventionism, with the beginning of the “Long War” on 9/11. In essence, Bacevich sees his country with a military industrial complex, picking convenient wars with those who threaten its way of life and the oil pipelines that sustain it. It is a nation that has reached the limits of its power.

The opinions of those like Bacevich threaten to destroy the fabric of our nation and can become self-fulfilling prophecies. By attacking our nation’s very ideals, these detractors keep our nation from success and then point to our struggles as proof of their beliefs. How many of our school textbooks weave national guilt into their historical accounts making for a youthful self-loathing that is cancerous to our culture?

Granted, there are no great leaders and no great nations that have been perfect. And surely, everyone needs humility to recognize faults and correct them. But there is grave danger in being so fault-focused that we begin to believe our detractors. When we believe what our foes are saying, we lose our ability to lead. And right now, strong leadership is what the free world needs most. As a result, this attempted destruction of American exceptionalism is not a purely domestic issue. It has consequences for the entire world.

Exceptionalism recognizes the lonely challenges of leadership, the fundamental rightness and unarguable progress of the western, Judeo-Christian way of life. Moral relativism and post-modern accommodations don’t work when the enemy wages war on a way of life, innocents and children, and against all reason. Since 1776 and the Revolution that followed, our manifest destiny has been to do what is right. Steeled in the high drama of Cold War crisis and the streets of Berlin, we have proven ourselves worthy of the task. While there may be limits to our national power and its projection, our capacity and resolve to lead the free world cannot be in doubt.

Can the free world afford a U.S. retreat from exceptionalism? Consider the alternative: a stew of leadership including socialist bullies and third-rate actors like Iran, North Korea, Yemen, and Venezuela, all stirred in a pot by a hapless United Nations. None of these nations will seek to benefit anyone but themselves even though the only real hope for peace is a world leadership that is characterized by a genuine pursuit of the common good. In this way, American exceptionalism is the last and best bulwark in the fight against terrorism. As in Berlin, the world cannot do without U.S. leadership. The scream for our continuing exceptionalism is primal and strong, but never louder than from those who would be free. May God continue to drive and bless American Exceptionalism!