Domestic Politics: The Man behind Diplomacy's Iron Mask

 Matt Meltzer '06

The relationship between a nation's domestic and international politics is very much like the relationship between a person's internal biological processes and their outward behavior. For example, when one experiences heartburn, one expresses discomfort by uttering disagreeable language, scouring the medicine cabinet for that ever-elusive bottle of Prilosec, and at last reposing until the unpleasantness passes. However, during an adrenaline rush, one instead becomes excessively hyper, jovial, and inspires everyone in the vicinity with this newfound animation. Despite the evident differences between these symptoms, both of these examples demonstrate the fact that outward behavior is a function of internal biological processes. Nations, in this respect, behave very much like people. Even the United States finds itself the victim of the occasional heartburn and adrenaline rush. Hers, however, are brought on by the internal influence of pressure groups and lobbyists, economic interests, popular sentiments, and intra-governmental politics rather than beef enchiladas or the New York City Marathon. Instead of foul language and animation, our nation's internal biology has manifested with phenomena like the Korean War and the current terrorist conflict. Here, in the same spirit as the human body, what goes on insidepolitical heartburn and economic adrenalinedetermines what is observed on the outside. A nation's international politics can best be explained as the outward expression of its domestic pressures.

Korea: the Heartburn in the American Polity

Having just won the Second World War, the United States was, given any possible criterion, the world's vanguard power. It led the industrialized nations in per capita Gross Domestic Product, total military expenditures, scientific research, and productive capacity (Kennedy 369). Its armed forces were the most advanced, best equipped, and most efficiently organized in the world. Nevertheless, even at its zenith, the United States trembled with fear at the beats of the slow but unmistakably augmenting tempo of the communist proliferation. The mere suggestion of communist aspirants at even the farthest corner of the globe was enough to throw the polity into a panic. Joined with the bottled economic and military momentum following the end of World War II and the political considerations of loosing China to the communists in 1949, the country descended into the abyss of what would become one of its greatest foreign policy blunders of the twentieth century.

The specter of a communist insurrection, however hysterical and irrational it may have been, left an indelible mark on post-war America. The proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and President Truman's Loyalty Review Board in the late 1940s are just two examples that proved these fears reached well beyond popular sentiment to the very summit of American government. Consequently, this meant that such fears would perpetually occupy a post of the highest priority on the country's domestic (and thus international) agenda (Bailey 896-897). The Korean conflict emerged at the very moment these fears reached the apex. Only months before the communist North invaded the democratic South, Senator Joseph McCarthy went public with his infamous list of suspected Communists sympathizers in the State Department (LaFeber 111). When the Korean conflict broke out in June of 1950, the intensity of these fears made inevitable a future American involvement in the conflict's resolution. Walter LaFeber notes that, had American leaders ignored Korea in the face of the current domestic political crisis, "perhaps even more important would be the psychological effects. It would be taken by many as a sign that the force of communism is irresistible and would lead to an attitude of defeatism" (LaFeber 108). In the end, most of these sentiments turned out to be little more than raw hysterics,1 but they did succeed in amplifying the competition between the superpowers for dominance in worldwide political and economic affairs. As long as national opinion perceived even the slightest threat from the Soviets and their aspirations of communist expansion, the United States remained poised to obliterate it, even if only for the sake of soothing its own domestic fears.

Psychological worries were not the only domestic impetus behind the American intervention in Korea. Despite the fact that it had just defeated the most formidable military alliance in all of human history, the United States economy did the unthinkable and imploded in 1946 (Bailey 877). How could this have possibly happened only a year after what was the most robust economic expansion in the United States' history? The answer is simple: along with the Axis, the United States also defeated its wartime economy. This meant a decrease in government expenditures as a percentage of aggregate demand, which provoked a significant contraction in GDP. Additionally, since the government and not the private sector employed all of these workers, the end of wartime production also meant the end of the need for wartime laborers. That year alone, nearly 4.6 million workers left their factories to join the lines at unemployment offices. However, this predicament was not without a solution. The growing American competition with the Soviet Union and the Comintern meant that the United States would have to defend itselfand its reputation as the preeminent manufacturer of defense technology. The only thing it needed now was a reason to flex its muscle. The conflict in Korea presented the United States with a ripe opportunity to do just that.

The answer to pushing actual GDP back up to potential GDP was in re-energizing military expenditures: "The economic upturn of 1950 was fueled by massive appropriations for the Korean War, and defense spending accounted for some ten percent of GDP throughout the ensuing decade. Pentagon dollars primed the pumps of high-technology industries such as aerospace, plastics, and electronics- areas in which the United States reigned supreme" (Bailey 879). This is not to say that President Truman, Dean Acheson, and Douglas MacArthur involved the United States in the Korean conflict with the exclusive intention of pushing the economy back to full employment. Rather, the fact that the foundation for wartime production was already built by the Second World War made going to war in 1950 a viable course of action. Recalibrating these resources after only five years of dormancy took almost no effort at all. Had the United States been in a position similar to that of 1939, with a dearth of any type of productive capability for military technology, our diplomacy in regards to the Korean conflict would have been much different, and it is unlikely that we would have seriously considered a military intervention.

The Truman administration was also keenly aware of the foreign investment, potential export markets, and natural resources that would be sacrificed to communist interests if the United States remained idle on the Korean issue. Such a loss would have been devastating to the home front's sensitive mindset. Newly established as Japan's benefactor, the livelihood of the Japanese economy became a key American interest in the aftermath of the Second World War. Incidentally, the tender Japanese economy depended primarily on its trade with Korea for survival. If Japan could not trade with Korea, its economy would inevitably dive southward; along with it would go recently made investments by American corporations as well the government's ability to repay American loans. Such defaults augment the national debt and create draconian prospects for the lending nation's domestic economy. United States involvement in Korea also promised a window into Indochina, a region rich with rubber, oil, and tin; production inputs that could be cheaply supplied to budding American industries (LeFeber 123). In light of its economic expansion, the United States "would [be] much more dependent on the importation of raw materials and minerals. 'No nation in modern times," [Assistant Secretary of State Will Clayton] warned, 'can long expect to enjoy a rising standard of living without increased foreign trade'" (LaFeber 87). Even Secretary Acheson confessed that "Foreign economic policy is a major instrument in the conduct of US foreign relations" (LaFeber 97). Forgoing Korea would have been forgoing the prospects for increases in both the country's long-term growth and standard of living.

Never to be cast aside, pressures within the Truman administration were significant in greasing the rails for war. According to Walter LaFeber, "Truman and Acheson moved to the offensive globally for two reasons: the Korean War gave them an opportunity to shut up their critics at home and to take advantages of new openings abroad" (LaFeber 105). Secretary Acheson's recent embarrassments in China and the Hiss case further fueled the Truman Administration's hunger for victory (LaFeber 105). As the oracle of Truman's upper echelon, any assault on Acheson's credibility in foreign policy duly asphyxiated the entire administration's ability to conduct business. The 1950 congressional elections further tightened their oxygen supply. The Republicans gained twenty-eight seats in the House of Representatives, and another five in the Senate.

Among the freshman class of Senators was one Richard Nixon, well-known for his tenure in the House as an ardent crusader against the radical left. In Allison's analysis, "Decisions and actions advance and impede each player's conception of the national interest, his organization's interest, operational objectives, and other personal concerns. These overlapping interests constitute the stakes for which games are played" (Allison 298) The administration believed Korea to be their conflict in shining armor. In one intervention, they could restore their dignity and prove to the powerful China Lobby in Washington that they were not the same administration that lost China only the year before (LaFeber 105). Since the administration directly controlled the war operations, they would have an exclusive impact on the results (Allison 300). If they were to succeed, nobody could say that it wasn't because of their fortitude in dealing with international affairs. Unfortunately for them however, history decided to be not so kind to their political interestsor to their enduring legacy as American statesmen. America's economic, political, and popular heartburn in 1950 effectively presaged its ruinous intervention in Korea; "[t]he United States suffered 142,000 casualties in Korea not for 'collective security' or the United Nations, but because the executive branch of the government decided that the invasion signaled a direct threat to American interests" (LaFeber 105).

Rushing Adrenaline: Petroleum and Poor Policy

On September 20, 2001, nine days after the grimmest Tuesday morning in American history, President Bush posed and answered the following question to his countrymen: "Why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chambera democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedomsour freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other" ("Address to a Joint Session of Congress"). Perhaps these motives did partially fuel the September attacks (Samuel Huntington would certainly support this opinion), but such an assumption is too simplistic and too rhetorical to fully account for the massive terrorist networks that were responsible for them. Pat Buchanan puts this nicely into perspective: "If these analyses are correct, it would appear that bin Laden and his gang in Tora Bora had simply stumbled onto a copy of the Bill of Rights and gone berserk" (Buchanan x). A better answer to the President's question is found by studying the history of the United States' foreign policy in the Middle East from 1950-2003 and the accompanying economic needs that encouraged these policies.

The United States began its involvement in Middle Eastern politics after the conclusion of World War II, when the British Mandate was relinquished to the United Nations. Horrified by the Nazi genocide and resulting extermination of the European Jews, both American and world opinion took up the cause of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and pressed this interest through the United Nations until the state was formed in 1948. American involvement in the region further accelerated in 1951 when a nationalist movement in Iran threatened to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a move that if left unchecked, would have interrupted the steady rhythm of America's oil trade (LaFeber 157). Shocking the American oil trade is the same thing as shoving a hatchet into the economy's rib cage. Given that oil is a production input to the manufacture of almost all goods, a decline or arrest in its supply would entail devastating economic consequences. Thus, in only a few short years, American participationand indeed dominationin Middle Eastern politics became a requisite step in assuring that the adrenaline of its economic expansion in the 1950s would continue to run strong.

The United States dove headfirst into an empty Olympic-size swimming pool with its decision to intervene on behalf of the Shah of Iran in 1951. When the Central Intelligence Agency began receiving reports that the leader of the nationalist movement, Mohammed Mossadegh, entered the Soviet orbit, they began assisting the Shah's forces with guns, trucks, armored cars, and communications devices (LaFeber 157). This endeared the United States to the Shah (who for pleasure starved his people and terrorized them with secret police), and led him to repay his benefactor with forty percent of the oil produced yearly in Iran (LaFeber 157). Since everyone benefits from mutualism, the United States continued to lend effusive political and economic support to the Shah's regime in the three decades that followed the 1951 coup. In return, the United States received a cheap and steady supply of oil, which it desperately needed to keep its economic boom running nicely along. Marveling at the efficacy of this policy, the United States pursued a similar course in Saudi Arabia, where another corrupt monarchy (the House of Saud) reigned by the divine right of the derrick. The purpose behind each of these mutual relationships was twofold: one, to curb Soviet political and economic influence in expanding the communist movement, and two, to satisfy domestic industrial growth with cheap foreign inputs. Both items held severe consequences on the American home front in the 1950s and 1960s. As in the Korean conflict, American foreign policy is now again steered by demands from home.

The rushing adrenaline of American industry, however, couldn't continue forever with its charade in the Mideast. Two years after President Carter toasted his regime "an island of stability," in 1977 (LaFeber 288), a group of vigilantes overthrew the Shah of Iran and, swearing allegiance to the Ayatollah Khomeini, instituted a form of pseudo religious-populist government now commonly referred to as Islamic Fundamentalism (Bailey 981). (This fundamentalism would eventually be the force responsible for converting the dispossessed and directionless into terrorists in the 1990s.)(Crenshaw 427-435) Those in Iran and the Arab world now began to see the United States as "The Great Satan" instead of The Great Benefactor. In the late 1970s, the guardian angel of Arab governments, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, raised oil prices so much that it threw the United States into its worst economic recession since the Depression (Bailey 981). Suffice it to say that the thank you card for this calamity was self-addressed.

The Iranian conflict explains the historical rhetoric behind the current terrorist war, and the Gulf War and its aftereffects explain its rapid organization in the 1990s. During the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the United States lent considerable support to an Iraqi dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein, who in exchange for political support agreed to supply oil. In 1990, taking America's support for granted, Saddam invaded the tiny yet oil-endowed emirate of Kuwait. In concert with the United Nations, the United States and its allies acted to expel Saddam from Kuwait and dismantle his military to ensure the region's future collective security. While "preserving the oil" is the standard explanation for the United States' intervention, an explanation to which there is certainly an element of truth, there does exist a more convoluted, historically sensitive one that is easy to overlook. American support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war resulted from the 1979 Iranian coup; that is to say, if the Shah were in power during the war, the United States would probably have pledged its support the other way around.

Instead, because the Shah had been overthrown for being a puppet of American interests at his people's expense, Iran was now an adversary and the United States assisted the Iraqis in the war. Maniacally believing that American support meant he could now meddle in the region with impunity, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Surprise, surprise! The Americans and their allies forced his hand and smashed his regime to bits. Twelve years later, depraved with a spiteful heart, it makes perfect sense that he would use whatever industrial capabilities left at his disposal to produce weapons of mass destruction and sell them to terrorists willing to use them.2 Thus going to war with Saddam in 1990 and 2003 are both fallouts of the economically imperial policies of the 1950s. That Saddam is wanton and twisted, there is no question. Regrettably, he is also a mutant result of our domestic interests gone amok.

Saddam Hussein was not the only party that went away from the Gulf War with his tail between his legs. The United States' former citizen-ally against the Soviets in Afghanistan, one by the name of Osama bin Laden, declared outrage at the stationing of American troops on sacred Saudi soil. To counteract this "American perfidy," he called upon his family fortunes and connections in the Arab underworld and incorporated the terrorist network that is today known as Al-Qaeda. To give his grievances a larger sense of history, bin Laden echoed the sentiments of the Iranians in 1979 and those in Palestine at the turn of the century. Over the course of the next ten years, the world witnessed a gradual crescendo of violence: an attempted but botched bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the destruction of American military installations in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the African embassy bombings in 1998, the damage to the USS Cole in 2000, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in September of 2001. In an interview with CNN, bin Laden attempted to justify his conduct as the reaction to America's "aggressive interventions against Muslims in the whole world" through the support of Israel and corrupt regimes in the Arab world (Crenshaw 427-435). (Never mind that their leaders willingly betrayed them and repeatedly deceived American officials in the process.) Nevertheless, the exaction of domestic interests through foolhardy foreign initiatives is partially responsible for creating the villain whose very name makes the most glimmering of angels seize in disgust. As Mr. Buchanan states, "The terrorists are over here because we are over there" (Buchanan xi). The rushing adrenaline of the American economic expansion in the 1950s and 1960s thus unwittingly beckoned the worst national security crisis in American history.

An Inherently Hamiltonian Predisposition?

Admittedly, the motives behind the calamitous American involvements in Korea and the Middle East appear to be very much in the spirit of the Hamiltonian, or economics-oriented, tradition of foreign policy. There is very little to rebut the significant role that domestic economics played in both of these interventions; the recalibration of the wartime economy in regards to Korea, and the search for cheap oil in the Middle East. While the pressure exerted by interest groups and governmental politics doesn't directly fall under it, their spirits ring of Machiavelli and thus, by default, the Hamiltonian tradition. Claims that American support for Israel derives from its status as the Middle East's lone democracy attrite slightly when one considers the vast interest payments the United States stands to earn on its outstanding debt with Israel. The current war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism, both quintessentially Jacksonian, are in fact results of our economically imperial policies towards Iran in the 1950s. Even the communist hysteria had Hamiltonian underpinnings. Those in the upper echelons of government committed our forces to Korea not out of fear of an imminent Soviet invasion of the United States, but rather to preclude potential Soviet seizures of resource-rich areas and nascent export markets in Southeast Asia and the Orient. From this angle, it appears that the Hamiltonian tradition, by way of domestic politics, is the one that dominates American foreign policy.

And yet, the Hamiltonians cannot fully explain the communist hysteria that partially inspired the Korean calamity or America's support for Israel's democracy. There is something to be said for the Jacksonians and even the airy Wilsonians. Although anti-communist crusades in the vein of Joseph McCarthy's Senate Hearings are now seen as the bane of the 1950s, they were fueled by a genuine undertone of fear of a worldwide communist insurrection. After the end of the Second World War, the Soviets plowed through Eastern Europe like a blowtorch through cool whip. There can be no question that this did not inspire a sense of dread in the hearts of American politicians and civilians alike, even if it was occasionally exploited for political or economic gain. Perhaps the Truman administration believed that by securing exclusive access to economically-fertile areas, they could best fight and limit the specter of Soviet expansion. The simultaneous benefit that the American economy received was then a fortunate by-product of this strategy, not its centerpiece. If so, this would tilt the Korean intervention slightly more towards the Jacksonian tradition. And even though the current Iraqi war and the terrorist conflict have Hamiltonian origins, it appears by all measures that they will have a Jacksonian finale. The Wilsonian argument in favor of Israel is a bit more obscure; history questions its credibility, but it can still be vindicated by American success in cultivating Afghani and Iraqi democracy. The reason for this is such: if the purpose behind American support for Israel has been the encouragement of the growth of democracy in the Mideast, then American alliances with the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein contradicted their own expressed foreign policy goals. If the United States corrects the ills of history and creates genuine, operating democracies in these recently liberated territories, they may be able to somewhat reestablish the Wilsonian legacy. Only timeand our domestic pressureswill tell for sure.


1 Richard Nixon's prosecution of Alger Hiss is a notable exception to this statement.

2 At the time this paper was first written, Hussein's weapons capabilities were unknown but assumed to be vast. Time, however, has proven that this might not have been the case. I have left the original sentence in place as I believe it is important to maintaining the integrity of the original argument.


"Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the Ameri can People," delivered by President George W. Bush. September 20, 2001, 9:00pm EDT, United States Capitol, Washington DC. 09/20010920-8.html.

Allison, Graham and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd edition. New York: Longman, 1999.

Bailey, Thomas and David Kennedy. The American Pageant, 10th edition. Lexington: DC Heath, 1994.

Buchanan, Patrick J. A Republic, Not an Empire. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999.

Crenshaw, Martha. "Why America? The Globalization of Civil War." Current History, Dec 2001.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House, 1987.

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 5th edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.


Matt Meltzer is an honors economics major and history minor.  This paper was written for Professor James Kurth's Political Science 4: International Politics.