By Tom Allon
When I was a college student at Cornell University more than three decades ago I decided to major in history because I felt it would allow me to understand the roots of so many 20th-century riddles that plagued me.
How did the Holocaust happen? Couldn’t America have prevented it if it intervened earlier? Why did we care so much about a small Communist country in Southeast Asia that we were willing to send tens of thousands of our young men to die in those killing fields? Why didn’t the countries of Europe decimated by World War I learn from their tragic mistake just two decades earlier before they rushed headlong into another period of bloodshed and devastation?
Studying history would at least allow me to dive into these troubling questions, particularly the first two that affected me directly as the son of Holocaust survivors. When it came time to choose a concentration of study in the history department, I opted for American foreign policy. I thought it would be an interesting prism through which to study world events and also because of Professor Walter LaFeber, whose scholarship and teaching about the Cold War and the history of American foreign policy made him a legend on the Cornell campus.
But then one day at dinner, a cynical graduate student I lived with mocked my major decision.
“There is no history of American foreign policy,” he proclaimed to my horror. “It changes every four or eight years when there is a new president who changes course.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation as this year’s presidential primaries confront chaotic and ever-changing global issues. Our next president will need to tackle very complicated problems and must learn from the mistakes of the past.
In addition to recalling my college studies on foreign policy, I have also been remembering another period: When I was 11 years old, my family moved to Munich, Germany from the Upper West Side. It was 1973, and the world seemed as chaotic as it is now. But then the perceived enemy was Russia, not radical Islamic terrorism, which only hit our shores in 2001.
I attended the American Military School, which was situated on a large military base, one of many that America placed all around Germany in the wake of World War II. I remember traveling to other military bases to play basketball against other pre-teen American ex-pats whose fathers were in the military. It was a fascinating subculture—Americans who moved around the world from military base to military base in order to keep the peace.
I’ll never forget one ominous day in October 1973, when my best friend Scott, whose father was head of American military intelligence in Germany, told me that American troops had been put on “alert.” This meant, he whispered to me, there might be another World War brewing in the aftermath of the tense “October War” in the Middle East. America and Russia rattled sabers in this conflict and the American troops in Germany and throughout Europe provided a bulwark against any further Soviet aggression in the region or in the Middle East.
Today, more than four decades later, America has very few military outposts in Europe, and virtually none in Germany. In a few weeks, I will be visiting some relatives there, and I am curious what became of that military base that really stood for America’s “soft power” in the world.
As Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk tough about ISIS, I wonder whether it is time for America to try to wield this kind of “soft power” again. America’s presence in Europe in the second half of the 20th century not only assured Germans would not militarize again, it also contained the Soviets and allowed America to be powerful without ever going to war.
In the post-Vietnam era—with the exception of George W. Bush’s tragically misguided military intervention in Iraq, the costly conflagration in Afghanistan, and the failed mission in Libya a few years ago—America has had a peaceful 50-year period. One major factor is because America asserted its position in the world through its omnipresence, not its military escapades.
As we enter a post-Obama foreign policy world in the next year, I would like to hear a candidate who echoes Theodore Roosevelt’s famous slogan about American power: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”
In this extremely loud and sometimes embarrassing primary season, a candidate who does so will be a welcome addition to the political scene.
Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallo