Passing Through Berlin

Barack Obama is the most left-wing candidate the Democrats have nominated for the presidency since George McGovern. If Obama wins the presidency, I think it is fair to postulate that it will be George McGovern’s first term. Like McGovern, Obama staked out his territory as the antiwar candidate at the left end of the field of Democratic presidential candidates. His antiwar position, including his concocted critique of Hillary Clinton’s purported “saber rattling” on Iran, was his signature issue through the Democratic primaries.

One of the ironies of Obama’s sermon to the Germans last week was his praise of the 1948 airlift that broke the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The heart of the sermon to the Germans was Obama’s “one world” message: “This is the moment to stand as one.” By avoiding any historical detail regarding the airlift, Obama integrates the airlift into his theme of unity:

The odds were stacked against success. In the winter, a heavy fog filled the sky above, and many planes were forced to turn back without dropping off the needed supplies. The streets where we stand were filled with hungry families who had no comfort from the cold.

But in the darkest hours, the people of Berlin kept the flame of hope burning. The people of Berlin refused to give up. And on one fall day, hundreds of thousands of Berliners came here, to the Tiergarten, and heard the city’s mayor implore the world not to give up on freedom. “There is only one possibility,” he said. “For us to stand together united until this battle is won…The people of Berlin have spoken. We have done our duty, and we will keep on doing our duty. People of the world: now do your duty…People of the world, look at Berlin!”

Obama did not even mention the name of Harry Truman. Yet it was Truman’s will alone, together with the resulting efforts of the United States and British military forces, that resulted in the airlift and its improbable success. As David McCullough notes in Truman:

It hardly seemed realistic to expect a major city to be supplied entirely by air for any but a limited time.

In making his decision, for all the political heat and turmoil of the moment, Truman had consulted none of the White House staff or any of his politica advisers….He simply emphasized his intention to stay in Berlin and left no doubt that he meant exactly what he said.

Jeff Jacoby usefully supplies the history missing from Obama’s potted reference to the Berlin airlift.

Also missing from Obama’s account is the political context. Arrayed against Truman and the Truman Doctrine specifically as well as Truman foreign policy generally through the summer and fall of 1948 were Henry Wallace and his supporters urging concessions to the Soviet Union. Is there any doubt that were he alive at that time, Obama would have stood together with George McGovern among them? As Fred Schwarz notes at NRO, contrasting Obama’s views with those of Dewey and Truman in the 1948 presidential race, Obama’s “political views, socialist at home and internationalist abroad, are much more like those of Henry Wallace, the Progressive candidate.”

According to William O’Neill’s brilliant chapter on the Wallace campaign in A Better World, Wallace’s May 1947 political rally in Los Angeles was the biggest political event there in years. Twenty-eight thousand people paid admission to it, donating $32,000 to the Progressive party organization besides.

The keystone of the Wallace campaign was of course its advocacy of an American foreign policy consistent with that of the Soviet Union. Wallace defended the Communist coup in Czechoslovaki, for example, and Senator Glen Taylor, Wallace’s running mate, said that “Nazis” were in charge of “our government, so why should Russia make peace with them?”

O’Neill recalls the eloquent condemnation of Wallace by the liberal journalist Dwight Macdonald. “Macdonald held that Wallace lacked character,” O’Neill writes, “then tried to show why he appealed to certain liberals anyway. Congenial habits of thought was the answer, describing them as follows.” O’Neill quotes Macdonald:

Wallaceland is the mental habitat of Henry Wallace plus a few hundred thousand readers of the New Republic, the Nation, and PM. It is a region of perpetual fogs, caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier. Its natives speak “Wallese,” a debased political dialect.

Here, O’Neill notes, Macdonald had fun with progressive jargon:

Wallese is always employed to Unite rather than to Divide (hence the fog), and to Further Positive, Constructive Aims rather than Merely to Engage in Irresponsible and Destructive Criticism.

Further summarizing Macdonald’s critique, O’Neill notes:

Wallese employed terms as loosely as possible, so as to avoid antagonzing anyone. A phrase like “the general welfare” was prized because it meant all things to all men. “It is understandable that Henry Wallace would not want to endanger such a concept by defining it.”

Macdonald observed that Wallace “took the whole world for his benevolent province, losing whatever contact with reality he had up to then and becoming more and more an oratorical gasbag, a great wind of rhetoric blowing along the trade routes of Stalinoid liberalism.”

Toward the end of his account of the Wallace campaign, O’Neill recalls that Wallace once composed a verse set to the music of “Passing Through,” his favorite folk song. Wallace’s verse includes a critique of Truman foreign policy:

When the Marshall Plan is dead,
And One World is just ahead,
We’ll all be brothers
And no longer passing through.

But for the anachronistic reference to the Marshall Plan, it could have been the theme song of Obama’s sermon to the Germans.

To comment on this post, go here.

Responses