Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > From “Who Lost China?” to “Who Lost Libya?”

Oct 30, 2012

From “Who Lost China?” to “Who Lost Libya?”


Credit: HNN staff.

“Who lost Libya?” Mitt Romney has not asked the question exactly that way. Neither has Paul Ryan, nor any prominent Republican politician or commentator, as far as I know. But anyone familiar with the history of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s can hardly avoid hearing that question, between the lines, in the GOP assault on the Obama administration’s handling of the September 11 killings in Benghazi.

The “Who lost … ?” pattern first emerged after the communist revolution transformed mainland China in 1949. Republicans angrily demanded, “Who lost China?” The taste of omnipotence coming out of World War II was still fresh in Americans’ mouths. It seemed like the U.S. had such immense power, we could control just about everything that happened everywhere outside the Soviet Union and its eastern European bloc.

The Democrats boasted about that apparent omnipotence. Secretary of State Dean Acheson crowed that the U.S. was “the locomotive at the head of mankind ... the rest of the world is the caboose.” The Democrats assumed that claiming credit for achieving such power could only redound to their political advantage.

Then suddenly the Chinese revolution made it seem like a big “red” chunk of the caboose had come loose and was careening out of control. Given the widespread premise that the U.S. controlled the entire “free world,” it was impossible for many Americans to believe that the Chinese had the power, on their own, to release themselves from America’s grasp.

The only logical way to explain it was to assume that someone within the U.S. government had consciously let China go. Someone had committed treachery. It must have been an inside job.

The Republicans saw this explanation as a great chance to neutralize the points the Democrats had scored on foreign policy throughout the 1940s. They insisted that the traitorous villains had to be inside Acheson’s State Department.

The political dynamite was defused in June 1950, when Truman sent several hundred thousand U.S. troops to fight the communists in Korea. That was hardly his main motive, but it was a welcome political side effect.

However the “Who lost China?” debate had long-lasting effects. Apart from the ensuing purge of the best Asia experts from the State Department (which paved the way for the disastrous U.S. involvement in Vietnam), the debate had a major impact on the narrative of U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

It reinforced the assumption of American omnipotence. To argue seriously about “Who lost China?” implied that we once “had” China, as a sort of possession, and had let it slip from our grasp.

To chalk it up to internal treachery was not merely consistent with the image of U.S. omnipotence; it actually reinforced the image. Now, the story went, just as the U.S. government could hold on to nations at its will, so it could let them go, even though that would always be a mistake.

And the Democrats’ response to the charges -- ramping up the Cold War in Korea and elsewhere -- further reinforced the idea that the U.S. ought to aim, at least, at total control of the “free world.” The Democrats had to say that to reassure a nervous public. The obvious fact that other nations act independently could hardly get a fair hearing.

Nevertheless, the reassuring implications of the debate were offset by a more frightening one. Though we were still holding on to the rest of the “free world,” the “loss” of China showed how fragile our hold was. If we weren’t hyper-vigilant, who knew what country we might lose next. At any time the “dike” might burst (as Dwight Eisenhower warned his National Security Council, as the discussed Vietnam in 1954) and the “red tide” would flood our own homeland.

The reassurance and the fear actually reinforced each other. The more Americans worried about “losing” some other nation, the more they reinforced the premise that the “free world” was indeed a possession under our control. And the more we “had,” the more we had to “lose.” So our global control would always be threatened, it seemed. But the bipartisan narrative agreed that strong, wise, patriotic leaders should be able to keep the “dike” firm and hold on to the “free world” forever.

This myth of homeland insecurity became the fundamental myth of American foreign affairs. And Democrats were haunted by the shadow of the “Who lost China?” question. They were constantly on the defensive, vulnerable to GOP charges of being weak on security. Only in the late 1950s and early 1960s did they successfully fend off those charges.

Although the Cold War ended, the myth and its specter of permanent peril endured. Once the “Iron Curtain” fell, the whole world came to look like a possession that we were supposed to control. Every nation was ours to lose. As Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it in the early ‘90s, “the real threat is the unknown, the uncertain.” The U.S. needed “the ability to respond to the crisis nobody expected, nobody told us about, the contingency that suddenly pops up at 2:00 in the morning.”

During the Democratic primary contest of 2008, some copywriter for the Hillary Clinton campaign advanced the danger hour to 3:00 am. But the impact of that famous “phone call” ad showed that the myth of homeland security, institutionalized during the Cold War years, was still as powerful as ever.

In early September, 2008, Barack Obama was falling behind in the polls; his campaign based on “hope and change” was stumbling. Then suddenly a new peril appeared on the scene: an impending collapse of the economic system that threatened to flood the nation with disaster. Obama was judged most able to fend off that peril and he surged ahead. 

But Obama and his political strategists knew that, as Democrats, they would always be open to charges of being “weak” on security issues. No doubt many factors moved the president to adopt a national security policy in many ways resembled his predecessor’s. But the need to guard his right political flank was surely one of those factors.

Like the Democrats of the late ‘40s, Obama’s 2012 campaign team expected to score lots of political points by crowing about American domination -- in this case, domination of a splintering, Osama bin Laden-less Al Qaeda. Once again, though, calling attention to homeland security issues put the Democrats in a precarious political position. Having intentionally created an impression of a strong U.S. hand controlling events around the world, they were vulnerable to any event that called their total control into question. On September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, that event arrived.

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