Monday, February 26, 2007

Germany and Iraq, Part 4

[posted by Callimachus]

"No country can regain its self-respect nor progress to maturity in democratic processes in the presence of large occupying forces. ... Allied control over Germany should be exercised through leadership and not through command." [Lucius D. Clay, July 19, 1946]

"In the long run, the American people will never tolerate an area under American control in which there is chaos and hunger." [Clay, paraphrasing, and agreeing with, U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson]


Lucius D. Clay, to me, is a key to why the U.S. occupation of Germany worked. But that may be because I find it easier to latch on to human personalities than historical abstractions.

Clay's great historical moment came during the Berlin airlift, but what he did as U.S. military proconsul in Germany during the two years before that may have been more important. He was the right man for the job -- and a lot of that was pure luck. But what mattered most was that he worked in a matrix -- not of a "well-planned" or "organized" occupation regime, but rather one that had the full support and engagement of the political and civilian leaders of America.

Clay had to deal with an occupied nation partitioned between four powers and armies with different agendas. His own bosses, as he said, didn't know what they wanted. In the reverse of the situation in modern Iraq, the people of the occupied country stood firmly for their unity, while the occupiers -- especially France -- favored of permanent partition, and all were in some degree committed to a weak Germany. Clay inherited a job with no blueprint for success and impossible, conflicting expectations of what it would look like. The press, as always, made things more difficult than they needed to be. That kicked up popular objections at home, and some politicians tried to capitalize.

Son of a U.S. senator and descendant of Henry Clay and himself, Lucius Clay was a West Pointer, a career military man, but one with a solid understanding of politics. That in itself is harder to find in America today than it once was. West Point may be more open to Americans of all backgrounds today, but when it stopped being, among other things, a career path for sons of the political elite, a certain cross-pollination stopped happening.

Clay was brusque, arbitrary, and every bit as independent as MacArthur was in Japan, but with two fewer stars than MacArthur he had to fight harder for his autonomy, and he had to exploit the bureaucracy rather than brushing it aside as his colleague in Japan did. Consequently he makes for a less stellar biography.

Another quality that set him apart from anyone now available for the job in Iraq was that, thanks to the New Deal and the war, Clay's generation had grown up managing things on a national scale. In 1940, he became head of the emergency Defence Airport Program and organized the building or expanding of more than 250 airports, anticipating America's entry into World War II. When the war began, Clay became Director of War Department Material. He also served on the Munitions Assignment Board and the War Production Board.

But until he was appointed military governor in Germany, Clay had no intention of going there and had done no research on the place. "I truly wasn't the least bit interested at that time," he said later. "I didn't care what they did in Germany. I hadn't thought about it. It wasn't going to be my responsibility, and I was still hoping that one of these days I'd be back in the combat Army."

He never saw JCS 1067, the crucial document outlining U.S. policies and goals in occupied Germany, till he got on the plane to cross the Atlantic and assume his job.

He came to Germany knowing next to nothing about what he would face when he got there. As far as I can tell, he never learned to speak German. And he never considered that a handicap. "You don't think about handicaps when you're given a job in the Army. You go do it. Period."

It was a job for a man with civilian sensibilities but with military authority and discipline. Clay had all that. Many of the civilian candidates mentioned for the post before it was offered to him had inevitable deep ties to the big U.S. banking and industrial firms that would necessarily be involved in the occupation. Clay did not.

From the start, he insisted the military government in Germany be removed from the control of the General Staff, the better to create a civilian-heavy corps not serving purely U.S. military purposes and tangled in Army red tape. In part this was to have more of a free hand in making decisions. In part, too, he wanted to lure the kind of minds who would not happily work for a G5 within a military system.

This, and his realization that the German people needed a hand up, not further punishment, swung him into alignment with the State Department. Clay was a New Deal Democrat, but in the Roosevelt administration, State was the bastion of conservatism. It was dominated by blue-blood New Englanders, Skull and Bones alumni, and headed by conservative Republican Henry L. Stimson. The suspicion in the more left-leaning branches of Roosevelt's government was that State secretly prefered Hitler to Stalin. In some cases it may have been true. The New Dealers, Roosevelt and Clay among them, believed for too long Stalin was someone you could do business with and that the Soviet Union was just another country, playing by the same rules.

Together, Stimson and Clay steered German occupation away from the original draconian plan that technically governed it. Clay also spent much of his time fighting off Army chiefs of staff, ignoring protocols and the tactical command structure.

Clay had the power to order fundamental changes in the German social fabric. Clay used this power selectively. When it came to the German media, he kept a close eye on it, but to nurture it, not quash it. It was not censored, but protected.

Party-owned newspapers had been the norm in pre-war Germany. Clay banned them outright (by refusing the licenses without which a newspaper could not publish). Not just for the anti-democratic parties, but for all of them.

During a key phase at the start of the occupation, a U.S. military-run newspaper was the main media outlet in the American zone. But it was a freewheeling and independent minded operation, as conflicted in its mission as the U.S. itself, and eventually it caught on with the Germans and gave them an example of a free press at work, yet one not determined to destroy the occupation authorities.

Later, Clay made a point of inviting reporters from the fledgling German papers to his press conferences. At first they stood agog as the American newsmen peppered the man in uniform with prying questions. Later, they joined in.

Clay was a native of Marietta, Georgia, then still a pretty little town in the red hills of Georgia and not a bedroom enclave for Atlanta. It still had much old architecture, only because Sherman's armies passed through it during a wet spell, which prevented them from burning it down entirely.

Clay was shaped by his unique American experience, and the nightmare memory of an old war. He inherited the Southerner's contempt for scalawags and carpetbaggers. Thus he sought to keep his distance from the Germans he placed in local control, and to keep German operations segregated from U.S. ones, because he wanted these men to be leaders of a future independent Germany, and he feared too close association with the Americans would taint them as collaborators in the eyes of the Germans.

He need not have worried. The Germans just weren't like that. It was one case where C. Vann Woodward's "burden of Southern history" really did play a role in current events. But it turned out to be beside the point.

I think many of the points ticked off against the Bush Administration are not the reasons historians will find for faulting him: Lack of a firm plan, and uncertain expectations for what you want from an occupation, are not on their own a recipe for failure. Nor are they a guarantee of success. In a situation so large and shifting and malleable, no amount of preparation guarantees anything.

Without any deep background understanding of the nation or the situation, with a set of instructions devised more out of domestic political needs than German realities, with a sensitivity attuned to a different occupation in a different time and place, Clay yet succeeded in his job.

Clay was able to rely on a government and a nation that, no matter how confused it was about what it wanted, was in the habit of throwing its best resources into a job. Important positions and advisorships in Clay's office were filled by university presidents, leading professors, and former governors. Among those who had a hand in reconstruction of Germany was the poet Archibald MacLeish.

It never would have occurred to the Bush administration to approach leading major university presidents and poets to work in rebuilding Iraq. It never would have occurred to presidents or poets to offer. We have been at war for 5 years now. Unless you're tied by love to one of the fraction of a percent of Americans who serve in uniform, what material difference has this fact made in your life?

It was left to John McCain, the president's old enemy, to say the thing that needed to be said about Iraq, the thing Clay's generation would have understood implicitly:

In Iraq our national security interests and our national values converge. Iraq is truly the test of a generation, for America and for our role in the world. Faced with similar challenges, previous generations of Americans have passed such tests with honor. It is now our turn to demonstrate that our power, ennobled by our principles, is the greatest force for good on earth today. Iraq's transformation into a secure democracy and a force for freedom in the greater Middle East is the calling of our age. We can succeed. We must succeed.

[Part 1, part 2, part 3]

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