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Book Traces Resentment of U.S. Foreign Policy

Date: April 17, 2002
By Kelly Lucyszyn
Photo by Lisa Ventre
Archive: Research News

What if America's handling of foreign policy across the ocean five decades ago had encouraged some other countries, particularly in the Middle East, to view the United States in a more positive light? What if the actions of one man 50 years ago changed the world as we know it today?

What if?

A very small question with answers so vast and unknown they put a different perspective on history and current events.

"It is a pretty superficial question, but people keep asking 'why do they hate us,'" said Raymond Walters College history professor John McNay talking about Muslim extremists and other people who have been critical of American foreign policy. McNay argues that policies adopted in the former colonial world by the United States in the early Cold War, particularly those championed by former Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson, encouraged the negative perceptions and misperceptions held by many people today in the Middle East and elsewhere in the developing world. John McNay

In his recent book Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy, McNay looks at Acheson, the Secretary of State under President Harry Truman, 1949-1952, and his policies toward parts of the former British Empire. He examines in a series of case studies: Ireland and the conflict over Northern Ireland; India and the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir; and in the Islamic world, conflict over oil in Iran and the conflict over the Suez Canal and military bases in Egypt.

The political decisions made some 50 years ago are currently having an impact on the American struggle with terrorism today because of the resentments they initiated then, even if inadvertently, McNay said. "There were missed opportunities to create positive relationships with the emerging nations."

"Acheson is thought of as the patron saint of policy makers who call themselves realists," McNay said. "But in many ways he wasn't a true realist. When dealing with the world outside of Europe, he was more of a romantic, nostalgic imperialist."

Genuine realists, as McNay explains, make decisions based on cold calculations of a nation's interest. And, they are flexible in their policy positions knowing that as times change, so must policy. McNay's book argues that these basic tenets of realists were violated by Acheson in his policies toward the former colonial world, and that this stems from influences that were important in his childhood, most importantly his Ulster Protestant upbringing that caused him to believe imperial influence was a great benefit to the world. These early concepts were then reinforced by his schooling at Groton School and Yale University.

"Despite my criticisms, there is a lot to admire about Dean Acheson," McNay said. "He was a cerebral and thoughtful person who sought to live a life guided by honorable principles. Unfortunately, it was some of those principles that led to his policies supporting the old imperial structures in Asia and Africa."

Because Acheson believed so firmly that American and British interests were nearly identical 50 years ago, he caused the United States to consistently side with the British in the former colonial world to the detriment of American interests. This also created an animosity toward America from countries such as Iran. While showing a united front with the imperial powers against Soviet expansion in Europe makes some sense, McNay observed, it was the transferring of that policy to Asia and Africa that caused difficulties still being faced today. McNay believes there was little upside to his policy of binding American diplomacy to British interests since Britain's power was relentlessly on the decline in the period.

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