Air University Review, July-August 1969

Mr. Finletter in the Interim

Brigadier General Noel F. Parrish, USAF (RET)

Thomas K. Finletter is a man of incisive intelligence who has held positions of broad responsibility in our government. He replaced Stuart Symington as Secretary of the Air Force in 1950 and held that post through the critical first two years of the Korean War. He was United States Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 1961 to 1965.

Despite his apparent qualifications as an analyst of foreign policy, Mr. Finletter has written an inconsequential book.* This is disappointing, especially since his Power and Policy (1954) was an informative contribution to strategic thinking at the close of the Korean War.

*Thomas K. Finletter, Interim Report on the U.S. Search for a Substitute for Isolation (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1968, $4.95),187 pp.

Interim Report is a discussion of certain military and diplomatic contacts between the United States and its Eurasian allies over the past twenty-five years. The book recounts a few successes and a few failures in our relationships with nations of the Atlantic Alliance. It decries our failures and even our hopes in South Vietnam. Through all of this Mr. Finletter stoutly maintains that if the United States had worked closely with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at all times it would have found much better solutions to military and diplomatic problems around the globe.

For Mr. Finletter and other advocates of one “grand alliance,” the first and most important line of defense for Western civilization corresponds roughly to the eastern boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire. America’s first duty to humanity and to itself is to defend along that line. Our justly beloved relatives, or most of them, are west of the line, and they possess the military and economic potential we need to supplement our own.

To support this historic doctrine Mr. Finletter points out that the American military and economic commitment to Western Europe has caused peace to prevail there since World War II. Unfortunately, peace has been prevalent almost nowhere else. Mr. Finletter stretches his thesis almost to the point of absurdity by arguing that our present troubles in Asia derive from too little attention paid to Europe rather than too much.

It is a time-honored custom for those who complain of a bad situation to blame it on “the War.” Mr. Finletter is not content with so routine a performance. He manages to fix blame for the Vietnam War, in turn, upon the basic complaint of his book: our failure to engage in more extensive political consultations with allies in Europe.

The complaint is pushed hard. General de Gaulle may be famous as a saboteur of NATO, but Mr. Finletter looks upon him as a victim of our neglect of NATO. American “policy makers,” he declares, have rejected the General’s proposal that South Vietnam be neutralized on the basis of the old Geneva accords. That Hanoi has rejected this old “multilateral guarantee” is not mentioned. 

General de Gaulle is one military man whom Mr. Finletter admires. A “triumphant trip to Moscow” is his term for General de Gaulle’s ceremonial reception by Russian leaders, which actually proved to be of no consequence. Another General, Eisenhower, is criticized by Mr. Finletter for rejecting De Gaulle’s suggestion that France, America, and Britain join in a three-handed effort to settle world problems on behalf of NATO.

Going still further back, Mr. Finletter sees French-British defiance of NATO in attacking Suez as partially caused by the U.S. He says: “The American go-it-alone operation in Vietnam, which by the time of Suez was well under way, must have had much to do with the British and French attitude.”

Neither the British nor the French tried to use this weak alibi. In 1956 the French had not entirely abandoned their interests in southern Indochina, and the few Americans in South Vietnam had certainly not gone very far.

Strange as it may seem, the U.S. is accused by Mr. Finletter of “refusing to allow the French or the British to take any part in its sponsorship of the Diem government.” That the French had their own more dubious candidate for government and that the British did not wish to become involved in the effort to save South Vietnam are overlooked. Equally startling is Mr. Finletter’s accusation that the French tried to persuade the U.S. “to bring pressure on Diem to build a broad popular base for his government” and that the U.S. refused to do this! Of course the French, even after Dien Bien Phu, felt they knew what was best for Vietnam, but Mr. Finletter’s recital of their aims there seems to have gained something in translation.

Many critics of the Vietnam War, including Mr. Finletter, charge that it is “American-dominated.” They often state or imply, as he does, that the Korean War was different in this respect. It is true that a formal U.N. sanction was obtained, but the American sacrifice of men and materiel in Korea was predominant. For good or ill, American military and diplomatic policies prevailed despite frequent disagreements with allies rendering token assistance. In much the same manner the Vietnam War has become increasingly “American-dominated” as other nations have failed to share its burdens. Yet Mr. Finletter says Britain and Pakistan refused to fight in the Vietnam War because it was American-dominated. Surely this statement represents a considerable reversal of cause and effect. 

Another oversight may be suspected in Mr. Finletter’s statement: “Until the very end in 1964 and 1965 . . . our government leaders were convinced that . . . the South Vietnamese could defend themselves alone . . . without combat aid.” Which government leaders? The end of 1964 and the beginning of 1965 coincided with an election and an inauguration in the United States. Though he chides General Maxwell Taylor and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for previous predictions that were wildly optimistic, Mr. Finletter fails to concede the political usefulness of rosy predictions. Anyone acquainted with American leaders who were actually in Vietnam at the time knows well enough that their views were not reflected in the pleasing pre-election statements of the diplomat General and the political Secretary.

Mr. Finletter is right when he observes that the Vietnam War caused a new emphasis on the Far East and away from Europe. The “sale guerre,” as he calls it, has been blamed for everything from the price of tomatoes to the shortage of marihuana. Its contribution to the decline of NATO is undeniable. Yet other causes of the eclipse of Europe existed before the Vietnam War and will remain after it is over.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the rise of Russian nuclear strength relative to our own, which was in some degree inevitable, has been a fundamental cause in the weakening of our world position and of our alliances. In 1948, our nuclear stockpile began a rapid expansion. Until the Russian stockpile and delivery system began such an expansion some years later it appeared inconceivable that the Kremlin would risk a premature challenge to our preponderant nuclear strength. As Russian nuclear strength approaches ours, the danger that the Kremlin might try a conventional challenge appears to increase. There is understandable fear among our allies that we might hesitate to provide a nuclear response to an overwhelming conventional attack against them. Beyond this fear is the almost unspeakable nightmare that some Russian leader may one day come to believe so firmly in the dominance of his own nuclear system as to risk a nuclear gesture or a crippling attack against us or against a more exposed ally while demanding “concessions.” As our security becomes more and more “relative,” faith in the collective security of an alliance also is weakened.

Mr. Finletter’s past writings have dealt extensively with the problem of our necessary reliance upon nuclear weaponry for the protection of distant frontiers. Interim Report mentions it only in passing. It repeats a point Mr. Finletter often made as a crusading Air Force Secretary when, against the opposition of the Air Staff, he established the advance nuclear base at Thule and tried to bring in from SAC at Omaha a much younger General LeMay as his Chief of Staff. The point, as he briefly repeats it, is that the defense of Europe has depended “most importantly [on] the long-range nuclear weapons of the American Strategic Atomic Air of the U.S. Air Force and the complementary atomic weapons of the U.S. Navy.”

Another important statement in Interim Report is less than informative. It concerns the strength provided by NATO’s “thick line of khaki. . . along the dividing line”—an alleged strong and thick line of forces on the ground. There is no such thick line of defensive forces and no strong line of forces on the ground. Only a scattering of national units in assorted sizes and strengths is in existence. These forces have no common system of supply, they are not linked together to form a battle line, and if they were the line would be far too thin to resist a determined Red attack.

For twenty years now it has been the futile goal of American policy to push NATO governments toward a big expansion of their conventional forces. Such an expansion might, by some stretch of the imagination, enable these forces to stop a Red invasion without relying upon American nuclear intervention. The continuing failure of this dream was documented as late as January of this year when the British Minister of Defence, Dennis Healy, reminded the NATO Council that military plans “had to be based on what Europeans are prepared to pay.” He admitted that “if the Russians made a surprise attack, the West would have to reply with nuclear weapons in a day or two.” He asked for agreement on their tactical use.

The same request was advanced in NATO almost twenty years ago. The problem has never been squarely faced. A dangerous fiction of adequate conventional forces for European defense has been maintained; Interim Report does not discourage it.

Saying that Western Europe has been rendered “safe and secure from any Russian menace” does not make it so. Calling this area a “citadel of strength” does not make it defensible by any existing means other than American nuclear weapons. The recent swift movement of massive Russian forces into Czechoslovakia has served to emphasize this obvious fact.

To present the NATO area as a safe and solid base from which to settle the world’s military and diplomatic problems is to claim too much. It is difficult now to argue that isolationism may be avoided through more dependence upon a Europe that is becoming isolationist even more rapidly than the United States. Overlooked in Interim Report is the sad fact that our association with recently colonialist NA TO nations has often embarrassed us with the new nations of Africa and Asia.

Mr. Finletter must be faulted for expanding upon the advantages of a closer connection with NATO while neglecting to examine the disadvantages. Yet his basic premise need not be challenged: the defense of Europe is indeed important to us. Our unswerving resolve to assist in that defense is essential for the maintenance of peace there. Any serious weakening of our military commitment to Europe, particularly our nuclear commitment, could upset not only the world’s political and military equilibrium but also its economic equilibrium, through a loss of confidence in European investments.

In many respects Europe is a military liability. From a strategic standpoint it is too far from us and too close to Russia. Despite NATO, Europe still lacks military unity as well as political unity. It would be disastrous for us to be seduced at last by the wishful belief that Europe can be defended without nuclear weapons and most dangerous for us to give the Russians the impression that we would rely upon such a defense.

Yet Europe is a source of strength to us, morally, economically, and even militarily if we do not overestimate its military potential we cannot afford, for many reasons, to abandon Europe to Communist threats or actions, which means that we must plan and prepare a controlled and credible nuclear defense against any massive conventional invasion.

In his anxiety to establish closer diplomatic ties to Europe, Mr. Finletter goes so far as to state that “worldwide political consultation and unity areas necessary for the West as NATO’S atomic shield is in Europe.” This is comparing a forlorn hope with an established necessity. What would such consultation accomplish, and to what action might it lead? Would it lead, as Mr. Finletter hopes, to agreed NATO policies for areas adjacent to Communist China? What would result if the Atlantic community became a center “from which to coordinate worldwide the political and military policies of Europe and North America”?

According to Mr. Finletter, there should be no policing “of Communism in the extra-treaty areas” by any NATO nation or nations. Consultations within NATO on matters outside NATO should be for one purpose only: to establish peaceful coexistence and “relations of nonwar” with the Communist powers. In other words, NATO must be defended militarily while the rest of the world is defended only diplomatically.

Working closely with our NATO allies on all foreign policy, Mr. Finletter believes, would help keep us “from doing anything foolish.” This may be true, since outside Europe it would tend to keep us from doing anything at all. What evidence is there that our NATO allies are eager to involve themselves, even as consultants, in matters farther east? He cites NATO’S Harmel Report of 1967 as evidence and calls the report “a big jump in the opposite direction of what has been happening in the Alliance since 1964.” The key sentence of this opposite jump, quoted by Mr. Finletter with his italics, is this masterpiece of noninvolvement:

In accordance with established usage, the Allies or such of them as wish to do so will also continue to consult on such problems without commitment and as the case may demand.

This sentence should be included in a “Timid Staff Officer’s Manual” as an example of how to open more exits than entrances and how to make a nonquantum jump while keeping the feet flat on the floor.

It is an unhappy task to disagree on so many points with a man who has devoted as much time, energy, and ambition to the nation’s service as Mr. Finletter has. But should that old albatross, the “multilateral force,” be raised again without arousing a protest? Should former President Lyndon Johnson, who has absorbed enough blame, be denied credit for scuttling this imaginary mixed-crewed flotilla after four years of pressure for it had produced more resistance than support? The notion that an internationally assorted crew on a ship loaded with nuclear missiles would somehow provide international sanction for their use or nonuse remains fantastic.

It is to the credit of NATO military men that this spectral vision came first to nonmilitary academicians and researchers, at least four of whom have claimed or been granted credit for its authorship. Now that a few campuses have themselves become combat areas, we may expect an improved understanding of the most elementary principles of command.

Mr. Finletter defends the multilateral fleet as practical, and even acceptable, to a few NATO countries. He does not establish that it was fully endorsed by the honest seamen of any nation and he admits that the “timing” of the multilateral force, or “nuclear sharing” as he prefers to call the complex plan, was “unfortunate.” He concludes that “it is not possible even now to give the explanation” for the abandonment of this project and that “historians will have to ferret out the facts which have not yet come to light.” Fortunately Henry Kissinger, a historian of the past and present, analyzed the important facts three years ago in his book, The Troubled Partnership.*

*Editor’s note: Henry A. Kissinger’s The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance was reviewed by General Parrish in Air University Review, XVI, 6 (September-October 1965), pp. 83-89.

Interim Report contains many statements that require no comment. Mr. Finletter warns that “political men” should change their ways so as to “attack—and destroy—the institution of war,” and he observes that “peace really can be set up if the three great atomic powers agree.” He chides someone—General LeMay, perhaps?—on Vietnam by saying: “The evidence seems to be clear that the notion that we could win the war by air power is not valid.” And yet, despite his disapproval of our efforts and goals in Vietnam, he insists that “protection for the future safety and freedom of the people of South Vietnam will have to be included in the terms of peace.” Has anyone asked for more?

Further, former Secretary of the Air Force Finletter has not abandoned his nuclear knowledge. He reminds us that “the United States Strategic Atomic Air is more than a match for the Russians and the Chinese combined, even looking ahead some years from now, provided of course that we keep alert and take no chances with our superiority in that all-important area.” The wise and cautious proviso is disturbing.

Since our aim for nuclear superiority in the past produced little more than equality at present, what will be the consequence of our more recent aims for mere parity? Our hopes, and the strength of our alliances, will rise or fall on answers to questions such as this rather than upon the frequency or the extent of any consultations.

Interim Report cannot be recommended for those with little knowledge of NATO, its history, and the complexity of its problems. Most especially it is not recommended for those with scant recollection of how and why we became awkwardly involved in Vietnam. The picture it presents is unbalanced and incomplete. However, Interim Report may be of cautious and critical interest to students of NATO and to veterans of NATO service because it was written by an important man who held an important post.

San Antonio, Texas


Brigadier General Noel F. Parrish, USAF (Ret), (Ph.D., Rice University) is assistant professor of history at Trinity University, San Antonio. Commissioned from flight training in 1932, he flew with attack and transport squadrons, attended the Air Corps Technical School, and from 1938 to 1946 served in the Air Training Command as flying instructor and supervisor; Assistant Director of Training, Eastern Flying Training Command; and Director of Training, later Commander, Tuskegee Army Flying School. Other assignments were as student, Air Command and Staff School and Air War College; Deputy Secretary of the Air Staff, later Special Assistant to the Vice Chief of Staff, Hq USAF; Air Deputy, NATO Defense College, France, and Deputy Director, Military Assistance Division, U.S. European Command, 1954-56; Assistant for Coordination, DCS/Plans and Programs, Hq USAF; and Director, Aerospace Studies Institute, Air University, from 1961 until his retirement in 1964.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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