Death of the Statesman as Tragic Hero: Hans Morgenthau on the Vietnam War

| March 2016
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In Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (1946), Hans Morgenthau celebrated the noble role of the statesman, whose tragic destiny entailed accepting the agonizing moral burden of committing lesser evils as the inescapable price for securing the greater good. In this elitist vision, the statesman is primarily accountable to personal conscience rather than to the poorly informed, undisciplined judgment of any democratic electorate. In focusing on the statesman’s pivotal role, Morgenthau glossed over the ways the New Deal and the Second World War had transformed the institutional context within which American presidents made foreign policy. As he shifted his attention to American policy toward Vietnam in the late 1950ss and the 1960s, however, his view of presidential leadership and the executive branch changed significantly. Morgenthau came to see the growth of the national security state and the unaccountable exercise of executive power as a twin threat to the foundations of republican government. His critique emphasized the pathologies of policymaking insulated within this state apparatus. He learned that one problem with the lesser-evil approach is that the moral distinctions on which it is predicated are relative and contingent in practice: that which was once proscribed from the policymaker’s toolbox can readily become the prescribed instrument after the justifying precedent has been established.

Scholars examining the evolution of Morgenthau’s postwar thought have called attention to his shift from an elitist conception of statesmanship to an increasingly republican one that emphasized the importance of the citizenry in the democratic process and identified the national interest with the common good. Morgenthau’s emergence as a prominent, fearless critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam has long been seen as a key part of this story. However, in explaining this evolution, scholars have largely ignored a fundamental change in the historical context during this era: namely, the establishment of the permanent institutional apparatus of the national security state, as exemplified in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Security Agency, and the National Security Council, among other institutions. The declining influence of traditional diplomatic methods in favor of a more militarized foreign policy was reflected in the growing prominence of the Department of Defense over the Department of State in shaping policy. At the same time, Congress and the courts entrusted the executive branch with broad authority over the collection and use of intelligence information, which facilitated the expansion of the government’s secrecy system.

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Category: Issue 30.1, Roundtable: Morgenthau in America

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