US Foreign Policy: Between Revenge and Mercy

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US Foreign Policy: Between Revenge and Mercy

Insights from Prof. Zachary Shore.

US Foreign Policy: Between Revenge and Mercy

President Harry S Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Zachary Shore professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of “This is Not Who We Are: America’s Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue” (Cambridge 2023)is the 374th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Explain the essence of “America’s struggle between vengeance and virtue” throughout U.S. history. 

Americans have often declared, “This is not who we are,” whenever their government has acted in unethical or appalling ways. We heard this cry after the murder of George Floyd. We heard it when the government separated migrant children from their parents at the southern border. We’ve heard Presidents Biden, Trump, and others proclaim it, when they felt the country should be different. President Obama uttered the phrase at least 46 times. 

What they are really saying, of course, is that this is not who we want to be.

I wanted to explore an earlier time when Americans declared, “This is not who we are,” a time when America emerged as a superpower: during and after WWII. What I found surprised me. 

During the war, America committed some extremely harsh, some would say cruel, acts against the innocent: interning thousands of citizens on the basis of race; using nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians; and imposing a punishing peace on occupied Germany, exacerbating mass starvation. With each act, Americans insisted that this was not who we are as a people. But the fact was that the country was divided between those who sought revenge and those who favored mercy. 

In my research, I found that the majority of Americans, and the majority of top officials, favored mercy, not revenge, yet a tiny handful of people managed to push their vengeful policies through. I wanted to understand how and why this happened. 

Describe the myriad motivations of past U.S. presidents in grappling with vengeance and virtue in their leadership.

I focused on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Both struggled with this tension, though Truman seemed more troubled than FDR. Roosevelt had expected to use the atomic bomb against Germany, if needed. Fear that the Nazis would develop the weapon first drove the Manhattan Project. And FDR made some remarkably callous statements about castrating Germans and letting them survive on soup kitchens. It’s hard to know how seriously to take his extemporaneous comments, but his actions suggest a man perfectly willing to see average German citizens suffer both from the effects of a nuclear attack and from U.S. policies while under occupation. 

President Truman, in contrast, seemed frequently torn between the desire for vengeance against enemies and the aspiration to treat them honorably. When Senator Russell pleaded with Truman to continue using atomic bombs against Japan, Truman refused, insisting that he had a humane feeling for the innocent women and children of Japan. 

After the war, when Eleanor Roosevelt informed Truman of the vengeful behavior that White Americans were inflicting on returning Japanese Americans, Truman was disgusted. He wrote her, saying, “This disgraceful conduct almost makes you believe that a lot of our Americans have a streak of Nazi in them.” 

And Truman opposed the harsh occupation policy that America had imposed on Germany. He enlisted former President Herbert Hoover to rally support for the feeding of starving Europeans, including the country’s former foes. 

Nonetheless, he did approve the use of the atomic bombs, and he signed the order codifying U.S. occupation policy for Germany, only to eventually overturn it with the Marshall Plan. 

Examine the U.S. government’s decision-making process behind the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and the U.S. public’s response. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the internment decision is just how little support it actually had. We have always been told that the vast majority of Americans supported internment. Much of the literature cites a single poll showing nearly 60 percent in favor of interning Japanese Americans and 93 percent supporting internment of Japanese nationals. 

I found that the U.S. government was conducting its own polls, and they showed that only 14 percent of west coasters (the region where nearly all Japanese Americans lived) favored the idea of interning Japanese Americans. It was a bit higher in southern California at roughly one-third, but still far from the nearly 60 percent we read about in standard histories. I found two other similar government surveys showing support as high as 19 percent and as low as 10 percent. Only after the president issued his executive order calling for internment and officially labeling Japanese Americans as a threat, only then do we really see a spike in support for this.

The other surprise is how few top officials supported the plan. The war secretary was deeply ambivalent. The treasury secretary called it a hysterical overaction. The attorney general flat out opposed it. Even President Roosevelt seemed indifferent toward it, telling the war secretary to handle it however he thought best. It was a tiny handful of men within the government and Army who pushed it through. 

The opponents of internment failed to coordinate their actions, while the advocates worked in close concert. That coordination made all the difference. It took 40 years for the government to acknowledge the grave injustice it committed.

Analyze the role of Christian values in U.S. strategic culture and foreign policymaking.

The men who shaped U.S. foreign policy in the 1940s, as well as for many decades before and after, were almost all self-identified Christians, many of them devout. War Secretary Henry Stimson was particularly guided by his interpretation of a Christian ethic. Those who had divorced, for example, were not welcome in his home. Stimson tried to persuade his generals to halt the fire bombings of Japan and Germany, but he was frequently ignored. He agonized over the use of the atomic bombs on innocent civilians. 

He was not alone. 

Ralph Bard, undersecretary of the navy, an extremely high-ranking national security position in the 1940s before the creation of the Defense Department, was a leader in his church. He tried to persuade the government to provide a demonstration of the atomic bomb on a deserted island, hoping it would convince the Japanese leadership to surrender and thereby avoid its use against the innocent. 

Joseph Grew, the acting secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to Japan, tried, along with many others in government, to allow Japan to retain its Emperor on condition of surrender, and in that way avoid use of the atomic bomb. After the war, Grew became a leading spokesman for the creation of an International Christian University in Japan. All these men and many more held deep convictions toward mercy, yet they failed to overcome the vengeful nature that drove some of America’s harshest wartime acts.

But failure is only half the story. My book also describes the triumph of virtue in the early postwar years, as America undertook tremendous humanitarian campaigns that saved hundreds of millions from malnutrition, starvation, and death. Some of these actions were driven by Cold War impulses to check the appeal of communism, but they were also fueled by Christian ethics of compassion. 

How have wisdom and judgment factored into U.S. foreign policy?

I wrote a separate book on poor judgment in foreign policy – “Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions.” I now want to write a book about wisdom in foreign affairs. Give me a few years to work on it, and then let’s speak again.