To Americans, Europe was a dangerous place of dukes and despots, of bitter rivalries and entangling alliances among a collection of squabbling old countries. The isolationist streak ran wide and deep in the early 1900s. Even after 1917, when American soldiers joined the Allies in the First World War, the Senate refused to
ratify U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the peace organization championed by President Woodrow Wilson. And when Europe erupted in war again in 1939, the United States at first limited its involvement to supplying Britain with aircraft and old ships. Only after Japanese bombers obliterated the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, did Congress declare war on Japan and join the struggle against the other Axis powers, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Since then, however, the U.S. commitment to Europe has been vast and constant. It evolved after the war into a policy of containing the Communist threat through economic aid and the combined military muscle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, now 16 nations strong. It is a commitment that has lasted more than four decades but that, now, could be undergoing a significant change: a reduction of the U.S. military role in
Europe—not because of isolationism, but because of the cost and because the Communists no longer seem so threatening. Slogan: President George Bush calls it “Beyond containment”—his slogan for U.S. policy in a post-Cold War era. The President, like Ronald Reagan before him, has scrambled to respond to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s
arms-reduction initiatives and democratic reforms. Meanwhile, the annual cost of maintaining the U.S. military presence in Europe is a staggering $210 billion. In May, Bush announced that he would withdraw 30,000 U.S. troops from Europe if the Soviets pull back 325,000 troops, leaving each with 275,000 troops in Europe. Some analysts see that as the beginning of a process leading to U.S. withdrawal from Europe. “If things proceed as they appear to be,” said Jay Kosminsky, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington, D.C., “it is quite possible that over the next century a new European order will develop. Europe could become whole and free, and the United States could return to the role of a traditional peripheral power.” Washington was far out on the periphery— and committed to neutrality—in 1939. But as the Germans marched triumphantly across Europe, the United States agreed in June, 1940, to sell millions of dollars worth of arms and aircraft to Britain. And, in September, it sold 50 aging destroyers to London in exchange for 99-year leases on air and naval bases in three British colonies, including the Argentia base in Newfoundland. The next year, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the President to lend arms to the allies—an $8billion program that grew to $55 billion by war’s end. When U.S. servicemen entered the fighting, they played prominent roles, with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower commanding Allied forces in Europe for the Normandy invasion on June 6,1944, and until victory 11 months later. In all, 292,000 Americans were killed in the Second World War. Isolationism disappeared.
Power: In the postwar era, the United States accepted the role as a world power with a special interest in Europe. In July, 1945—less than a month before the Japanese surrender— the Senate, which 26 years earlier had refused to join the League, overwhelmingly ratified the charter of the United Nations. As Moscow established control over Eastern Europe, President Harry Truman launched a far-reaching policy—containment—in May, 1947. Pledging aid to war-wracked Greece and Soviet-threatened Turkey, he vowed to help “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” In June, Washington unveiled the Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, under which it gave enormous economic aid to help Europe recover. And in April, 1949, the United States joined with 11 other nations to form NATO, its first peacetime strategic alliance with European powers.
Now, if the momentum toward disarmament proceeds, Europe will be without the dominating presence of the U.S. superpower. Washington pays more toward NATO’s $350-billion annual costs than the other 15 members combined. U.S. officers perennially head the Supreme Allied Commands for Europe and the Atlantic, the two highest NATO military posts, and the 276 U.S. military bases in Europe—from Iceland to Greece—serve not only for defence but also as listening posts and refuelling stations.
Presence: But the easing of East-West tensions—and the hard realities of the U.S. budget deficit—have led Bush to talk openly of reducing that presence. Many Europeans plainly welcome the prospect. “Not so long ago, any whisper of a withdrawal of U.S. troops brought shrieks from Europe,” said Jeffrey Record, a defence analyst at Washington’s nonpartisan Hudson Institute. “But this time, when Bush said he was prepared to pull out 30,000 men, nobody protested. There is a sense in Europe that the Cold War is over and that the natural consequence should be a significant reduction in the U.S. troop presence.” If that happens, the U.S. role in Europe could begin to move full circle, from a fearful isolation to a confident disengagement.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.