George Kennan had fired the opening ideological salvo of what would come to be known as the Cold War with his "Long Telegram" in early 1946. A series of diplomatic crises had erupted later in that year and each crisis was in turn supported by harsher and harsher rhetoric regarding engagement of the Russians. These events would culminate in the unprecedented US support for the Greek government in the Greek Civil War.
The Greek Civil War
Then in February 1947, Britain announced that they were pulling out of Greece, where they had been supporting a repressive monarchy and battling left-wing insurgents since 1944. Britain was flat broke and they could no longer afford to maintain their presence and operation there.
Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Harry Truman "You need to scare the hell out of the American people," and Truman obliged him, creating what has come to be know as "The Truman Doctrine." Dean Acheson appeared in front of Congress in 1947 and called the situation in Greece "Armageddon." Congress coughed up an unprecedented four hundred million dollars in aid for the Greek monarchy.
As George Herring points out in his magisterial "From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Policy since 1776, the actions the US took in Greece would set the tone for many future conflicts. The
The National Security Act of 1947
This led directly to the creation of the National Security Act of 1947, which drastically reshaped American foreign policy. Truman told the cabinet, "This is only the beginning..." and truer words were never spoken.
This act had three major components: the formation of the National Security Council, the creation of Central Intelligence Agency and the integration of all of the American armed forces under the Department of Defense. This was no mere bureaucratic change: the US was establishing a permanent peacetime internationalist security apparatus, an astonishing change from what had existed prior to World War Two.
The Soviets and the Communist Conspiracy
At the close of World War 2, Stalin had three main objectives: 1) establish dominion over eastern Europe in order to maintain a buffer zone protecting Soviet borders; 2) wreak vengeance on Germany in partial compensation for the 27 million Soviets who died in WW2 and 3) establish control over Iran's oil fields and the Turkish straits in order to give the Soviet navy access to the Mediterranean.
Stalin was completely successful in the first objective, partially successful in the second and failed utterly in the third.
The Truman administration viewed virtually all global political events as a contest between the Soviet Union and the United States. They saw communism as a massive worldwide conspiracy controlled by Joseph Stalin in Moscow and they interpreted every regional conflict as some diabolical machination of Stalin to extend his control over the world.
This perception, while perhaps understandable in light of the uncertainties of the post-war era was frequently simply wrong.
The Greek communists were receiving support from communists in Yugoslavia, but the Soviets were not involved. Moreover, the Greek monarchy was a brutal, corrupt and repressive institution that probably needed overthrowing.
Unfortunately, the Truman administration had no lens to view this situation other than the one that George Kennan had provided. Communism was a monolithic force that must be stopped, no matter what. This led the decision-makers to misinterpret the available data and more importantly, to miss opportunities that would present themselves because they were unable to see beyond the very narrow paradigm that they had locked themselves into.
Framing Errors. Sticky Memes and Cognitive Bias
Recent cognitive science research has confirmed what poets and artists (not to mention politicians) have known for millenia - the human mind craves narrative and loves a story.
To put it another way, we have an innate cognitive bias for the creation and protection of simple narrative schemas that help us understand objective reality. The most successful works of art and the most successful politicians are masters at exploiting this. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell explored these ideas in detail in the 20th century and recent work in neuroscience comes at it from the opposite side but reaches many of the same conclusions. The Hero's Journey. The Hero and the Villain. The Victim and the Victimizer.
As humans, we are suckers for these types of simple narratives. Unfortunately, George Kennan's Long Telegram established just such a narrative - itt was very simple, very compelling and almost impossible to amend once it had been established in the minds of the policy-makers, even when the data suggested that the paradigm was wrong. Sticky memes persist even when there is no data to support them because they appeal to us on a very basic level of our neural processing..
The persistence of Kennan's narrative would have extremely grave implications for subsequent American foreign policy decisions. It would cause the US to ignore friendly overtures from both Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh in the 40's and 50's, to misunderstand nationalist movements from Iran to Guatemala and to create the largest military-industrial complex the world has ever known,
Relevance to Today
So, who cares? The Cold War is over and the US won. That's the way that particular narrative wraps up.
In fact, it's highly relevant to today because as we look back on the Cold War era, we can see very clearly how these framing errors caused us to radically misinterpret the available data.
Today, the US is engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The policy decisions that led to these wars are beyond the scope of this essay. However, the issue of the "framing of the narrative" is highly relevant.
Wars that started with highly specific goals (i.e., find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, destroy Al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan) have morphed, at least in the minds of some policy-makers, into a much larger conflict against "Islamo-fascism" and at least in certain quarters, against Islam itself, which is viewed as a diabolical and monolithic entity much like the "international communist conspiracy" was two generations ago.