Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Donald Rumsfeld and the Perpetuation of the Pearl Harbor Paradigm

Donna Welles
International Relations Theory
Georgia Tech
Oct. 30, 2012

Donald Rumsfeld and the Perpetuation of the Pearl Harbor Paradigm

          Michael Roskin argued in his “From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam: Shifting Generational Paradigms and Foreign Policy” that the oldest and most important question in American Foreign policy was best articulated by Nicholas Spykman in 1942 when he asked, “Shall we protect our interests by defense on this side of the water or by active participation in the lands across the sea?” (pg. 566) Roskin further argued that there are definable generations of American elites who trend toward one of these poles – isolationism or interventionism. Roskin explained that new paradigms emerge which oscillate back and forth between isolationism and interventionism about once every generation.
          Characterized as interventionist, the first of the two paradigms Roskin describes at length is referred to as the ‘Pearl Harbor Paradigm’ because the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 marked the ‘death’ of the preceding paradigm which was characterized by isolationism in the aftermath of World War I. Roskin argued that the Pearl Harbor Paradigm’s natural life cycle began in 1932 when the United States failed to recognize the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (pg. 568) and ended when the Vietnam War proved unwinnable and inconsequential. The life of John F. Kennedy was used to personify the Pearl Harbor Paradigm as a part of Roskin’s convincing effort to explain why the United States entered into the Vietnam War. In parallel, the life of Donald Rumsfeld can be used to argue that the Pearl Harbor Paradigm did not ‘die’ in Vietnam as Roskin suggested, but rather continued into the 21st Century with the United States invasion of Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Development and Integration into Pearl Harbor Paradigm

          For the purposes of illustrating Kennedy’s indoctrination into the Pearl Harbor Paradigm, Roskin discussed both Kennedy’s senior thesis as well as his personal perception of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Titled “While England Slept”, Kennedy chose for his 1940 Harvard senior thesis to write a follow up to Winston Churchill’s 1938 non-fiction work with the same title (pg. 571). Both Kennedy and Churchill condemned the British government under Neville Chamberlin for not taking seriously the threat posed by Nazi Germany and emphasized Britain’s lack of military preparedness. Roskin’s theory dictates that, when these books were published, the isolationist and interventionist paradigms were competing because the bombing of Pearl Harbor had not yet delivered a knockout blow to the receding isolationist paradigm. Indeed there was intergenerational infighting within the Kennedy family itself as Joe Kennedy, then the US Ambassador to the United Kingdon, was a resolute isolationist (pg. 571).
          Similarly, Rumsfeld chose for his 1954 Princeton senior thesis titled, “The Steel Seizure Case of 1952 and its Effects on Presidential Powers” to condemn a Supreme Court decision which resulted in the decline of executive authority. Although it was published after the defeat of the Axis Powers, it had a similar theme as Kennedy’s thesis in that it valued strong, authoritative leadership unencumbered by quibbling legislative bodies. Just as Kennedy and Churchill had condemned Great Britain for showing a lack of leadership in the opposition to Nazi Germany, Rumsfeld condemned the United States Supreme Court for curtailing the power of the Presidency in the early years of the Cold War.
          Kennedy and Rumsfeld were in similar life stages when Pearl Harbor was bombed and thus were shaped in a similar way by the unprovoked attack. In contrast to Dwight D. Eisenhower who was middle aged when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Roskin argued, Kennedy was in his early 20’s and was thus more radically shaped by the event (pg. 573). Recent scholarship has revealed that, despite his great physical infirmities, Kennedy used his family’s political influence to ensure he could serve in the military during World War II. Specifically, Kennedy served as a Patrol Boat captain in the Pacific Theater.
          Rumsfeld was too young to serve his country during World War II as he was only nine years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. However, he was old enough to remember living in Coronado, CA while his father served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific theater. Similar in nature, these experiences reinforce Roskin’s argument that interventionists such as Kennedy and Rumsfeld retain glorified perceptions of military conflict. Kennedy himself, as well as Rumsfeld’s father, and all Allied soldiers returned home as heroes who had avenged the deaths of their countrymen. The defeat of the Axis powers in World War II undoubtedly will be viewed by history as a triumph over evil for many years to come.

Inability to see Threats as Anything other than Monolithic

          Roskin argued that a central part of the competing paradigm theory is that holders of opposing paradigms have great difficulty finding common ground. Kennedy’s life was again used as an example as, during the Cold War, he was unable to view Communism as anything other than “monolithic” (pg. 574). Roskin argued that Kennedy’s foreign policy paradigm had been so deeply influenced by the fight against the Axis powers in World War II that, despite the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960’s, Kennedy continued to view Communism as a one-dimensional threat to American interests. In terms of the conflict in Southeast Asia, Roskin argued that the Kennedy administration was unable to define Vietnam conflict as anything beyond “strategic” (pg. 573).
           Similarly, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld was unable to distinguish the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda from that posed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Moreover, Rumsfeld and his allies in the Department of Defense and in the White House went to great lengths to prove to the American public that Iraq posed a threat to national security. History has revealed that no such threats existed; there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Saddam Hussein had no apparent ties to Al Qaeda.
          Both Vietnam and Iraq Wars Serve as the ‘Natural Death’ of the Pearl Harbor Paradigm. Although Kennedy and Rumsfeld succeeded in using their public offices to further the Pearl Harbor Paradigm by engaging in military conflicts abroad, their efforts failed in the implied long term goal of increasing American prosperity. 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War in addition to an estimated 1 million Vietnamese. The Vietnam War did not result in total victory as had World War II and returning Vietnam veterans were harassed by a new generation of Americans who saw the horrors of war rather than the glory of it. The nearly universally-held belief that the Vietnam War was disastrous for the United States gives credence to Roskin’s argument that the conflict marked the natural death of the ‘Pearl Harbor Paradigm’ as well as the emergence of the isolationist ‘Vietnam Paradigm’.
          Decades later, however, another proponent of the Pearl Harbor Paradigm emerged and was able to mobilize support for military intervention abroad. As the Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, Rumsfeld used his political power to lobby the White House to commit troops to Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As discussed in the previous section, the reasoning behind this insertion of troops was similarly opaque to that of the insertion of troops into Vietnam. The results were in turn similarly as disastrous as throngs of both Americans and Iraqis have died and, burdened by the war debt and international ridicule of American’s nation-building efforts in Iraq, America has drifted away from prosperity rather than toward it. Moreover, America has lost the moral high ground which served as a catalyst for the momentum in the post World War II economic boom.


          In conclusion, Roskin’s argument that a ‘Pearl Harbor Paradigm’ can be used to explain American foreign policy in the 20th C is further reinforced through the example of the life of Donald Rumsfeld. Kennedy and Rumsfeld had similar life experiences that shaped their view of American foreign relations and, as outlined by Roskin, both men were inclined to draw from those experiences when they gained political power. Perhaps, just as the Kennedy era of interventionism was replaced by an isolationist ‘Vietnam Paradigm’, the Rumsfeld era will be replaced by an ‘Iraq Paradigm’. Evidence of this transition already exists in the lack of military intervention by the Obama administration in Syria or Iran. However, the example of Rumsfeld’s life also suggests that the temporal divisions between isolationism and interventionism are not as clearly defined as Roskin suggested.

Roskin, Michael “From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam: Shifting Generational Paradigms and Foreign

Policy” Political Science Quarterly 89 (Fall 1974): 563-588.

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