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"Americans Are Losing the Victory..."?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - October 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Many critics of the Bush administration's handling of post-War Iraq highlight their misgivings by comparing it with America's successful post-World War II occupation of Germany. But the occupation of Germany faced much of the same criticism as did the present day occupation of Iraq. Indeed, the language used in both critiques is hauntingly similar.

 

The blog "Jessica's Well" has uncovered a Life Magazine article on the occupation of Germany from 1946. In big, bold letters, the article proclaims that "AMERICANS ARE LOSING THE VICTORY IN EUROPE," and then states that "Destitute Nations Feel That The U.S. Has Failed Them." The article reinforces the alarmism in the headlines:

The troops returning home are worried. "We've lost the peace," men tell you. "We can't make it stick."

A tour of the beaten-up cities of Europe six months after victory is a mighty sobering experience for anyone. Europeans, friend and foe alike, look you accusingly in the face and tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American. They cite the evolution of the word "liberation." Before the Normandy landings it meant to be freed from the tyranny of the Nazis. Now it stands in the minds of the civilians for one thing, looting.

 [. . .]

Never has American prestige in Europe been lower. People never tire of telling you of the ignorance and rowdy-ism of American troops, of our misunderstanding of European conditions. They say that the theft and sale of Army supplies by our troops is the basis of their black market. They blame us for the corruption and disorganization of UNRRA. They blame us for the fumbling timidity of our negotiations with the Soviet Union. They tell us that our mechanical de-nazification policy in Germany is producing results opposite to those we planned. "Have you no statesmen in America?" they ask.

[. . .]

We have swept away Hitlerism, but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse than the disease.

Sound familiar? And lest anyone think that this article was exceptionally pessimistic, consider this reproduction of future Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles' comments discussing the American occupation of Germany -- comments that are derived from Dulles's firsthand experiences in Germany:

The present political set-up in Germany is based on the agreements reached at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. Tehran was made when Churchill felt somewhat shaky. The arrangement did not include the French zone, which was added later. But regardless of its genesis, by and large the scheme is almost entirely unworkable. We have chopped up Baden, W├╝rttemburg, and Hesse into artificial zones. In the case of Saxony, the Russian zone cuts off the American and British zones from their counterparts there. It is difficult to see how the Allies could have done otherwise inasmuch as the Russians would not consent to British and American domination of Germany and the Americans and British likewise refused to consider letting Russia get an advantage. Even so, very little progress is being made toward the centralization of the various services. To complicate matters, the French have been saying that they could not set up an administration in the zone assigned to them until they knew what disposition was going to be made of the Rhine and the Ruhr.

[. . .]

We, ourselves, have excellent men on the job. I have the highest regard for Clay, and Eisenhower is a genius as a diplomat and administrator... Yet I am inclined to think that the problems inherent in the situation are almost too much for us. Our people in Germany are unduly fearful of criticism in the United States. For example, the road between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden is so full of holes that it is almost impossible to drive over it, and one cannot cross the Main between those two places because all the bridges are down. But no repairs are made since the Army feels certain it would be criticized for "restoring the German war potential."

Of course, we now know that the pessimism regarding the occupation of Germany was wrong. West Germany became a prosperous nation, and a stalwart ally in the Cold War. Europe as a whole was rebuilt in one of the most momentous achievements in the history of human statecraft.

Benjamin Franklin reminds us "our critics are our friends, for they show us our faults." But in our search for honest and rigorous criticism, we ought to be wary of clich├ęs and shibboleths -- as they represent a cheap and easy way to avoid rigorous thinking on the occupation in Iraq. It is one thing to find a critique that is cogent and relevant to the times. It is another altogether to find one that is merely making a return appearance from policy discussions of problems past. The former carries credibility and authority, the latter is suspect because it strikes many as unoriginal and contrived.

We shouldn't shy away from speaking about real problems regarding the reconstruction of Iraq. One such problem is the politicization of the grant of $87 billion to further the reconstruction of Iraq. Some members of Congress have sought to convert part of the grant into loans. The excuse made for this action is that Iraqi oil revenues will allow the country to pay us back, but this doesn't change the fact that the Iraqi people will be saddled with a crushing debt in the course of reconstruction.

Our zest for seeking out and delivering criticism shouldn't blind us to the fact that much of the pessimism we are currently hearing regarding Iraq sounds a lot like the criticism that was heard regarding the American occupation of Germany. And despite the negative commentary, the reconstruction of Iraq may very well be considered a success as the occupation of Germany was. Karl Marx once said that "history repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." He might have said the same about historical arguments.
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