Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945“1960:
The Soul of Containment

by William Inboden

Cambridge University Press, 368 pages, $80

A few years ago the new American ambassador to Beijing was asked for his thoughts about China’s persecution of underground Protestant house churches. “What,” he asked, “is a house church?” The State Department’s briefings for the envoy had evidently omitted the subject. And he probably saw questions of religion as largely irrelevant to his mission.

It was not always so. In Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945“1960 , a revealing new history of the early Cold War, William Inboden relates the story of another envoy, J. Leighton Stuart, who had served in China as a Presbyterian missionary for forty years before being tapped as ambassador”a post he held from 1945 to 1953, a period spanning the civil war, the victory of Mao, and the early years of the communist regime. His experience as a missionary fed a deep love for China and informed his advice to Washington as it developed its policy toward Mao’s government.

Indeed, in Inboden’s skillful telling, religious ideas and actors, especially Protestant ones, were critical to forging what he calls a ­“diplomatic theology of containment””the policy of military, ideological, economic, and spiritual resistance that over the next half century helped secure communism’s demise. Until now, historians of the Cold War have largely ignored the spiritual side of containment. They have paid scant attention, for example, to Dwight Eisenhower’s endorsement of the Foundation for Religious Action in the Social and Civil Order, which not only sought a national spiritual renewal in order to fight the Cold War but also proposed covert initiatives abroad, such as “a spiritual offensive movement against [Vietnamese] communism in which the active agents will be native Buddhists, Cao-Daiists, Catholics, and other men and women of conviction.” (Those records declassified thus far do not tell us whether the project was funded or not.)

To some, a “theology of containment” might raise echoes of the Christian right’s supposed influence on George W. Bush’s Middle East “freedom agenda.” But that narrative is largely a fantasy of the left (the neoconservatives who forged Bush’s policy were highly secular in outlook). It deserves its own Inboden-like treatment, which is to say carefully researched and dispassionate, the beneficiary of a good historian’s gimlet eye for the truth. In fact, the influence of Protestantism on early U.S. containment policy was profound”it steeled American resolve to defeat this mortal enemy”but it was also complex and occasionally produced bad ideas.

For at least fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, Protestant ideas and actors continued more or less as the dominant cultural influence in American society and politics, though the influence of Protestantism had already begun, in Inboden’s words, “a precipitous decline” because of its internal divisions over theology, politics, and foreign policy. Liberals fought with Niebuhrian realists over the role of the United Nations and whether to cooperate with Stalin and Mao. Evangelicals accused mainline churches of abandoning faith in God for social ethics and of placing their trust in human institutions. Fundamentalists distrusted them all.

In fact, Inboden writes, Protestantism’s disarray undermined the ability of churches and clergy to influence U.S. foreign policy. Leighton Stuart’s deep Christian love for China, for example, fed a dangerous ambivalence over Mao’s project. Stuart was anticommunist, but he continued to hope that Mao would remain open to democracy and Christianity. As a result, his policy recommendations as ambassador had little impact. Only in 1954, after he had left his post, did Stuart condemn communism as an “evil monstrosity” that denies the existence of God, seeks world domination, and “cannot be appeased.” Stuart’s divided views could stand as an icon of the Protestantism of his time, which was, in its churches and clergy, deeply conflicted over the nature and threat of the Soviet Union and China. Even the evangelicals and the fundamentalists, despite their fierce anticommunism, were highly suspicious of what they saw as the instrumentalization of Christianity at work in the new public theology of containment. They were not its primary agents.

Then who was? Inboden’s answer is intriguing: It was America’s secular political leaders, especially its presidents. To be sure, neither Truman nor Eisenhower were secularists . Truman was a Bible-believing Baptist; Eisenhower, raised as a Mennonite, was the only president to be baptized while in office and to deliver his own inaugural prayer. Both drew deeply on Protestant sources in viewing the Cold War as a religious conflict against a foe that threatened both religion and civilization.

Both believed that defeating Soviet and Chinese communism would require more than a successful military strategy. As Truman put it, “If the civilized world . . . is to survive, the gigantic power which man has acquired through atomic energy must be matched by spiritual strength of greater magnitude.” Accordingly, both presidents sought to craft and employ in foreign policy what Inboden (drawing on the work of Will Herberg) calls an American civil religion. Bereft of most doctrinal particularities, it was a spiritual call to arms designed to attract all people of faith, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.

This presidential use of civil religion was widely criticized, less as a crossing of constitutional boundaries (although early separationists were beginning to stir) than as too radical a departure from the fundamentals of Christianity. Evangelicals and fundamentalists saw it as dangerous syncretism. Even mainline liberals were suspicious, especially as the new public theology spawned covert activities such as Truman’s CIA funding of Berlin’s Lutheran bishop Otto Dibelius or the proposal by Eisenhower’s Psychological Strategy Board to send a million Bibles to the Soviet Union.

As for American Catholics, Inboden includes tantalizing but largely unexplored references to thinkers such as the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who may have seen the project less as Christian reductionism than as a product of natural-law reasoning. Catholics such as Bishop Fulton Sheen were willing participants in the new strategy.

Interestingly, while American Protestants could not agree on the nature and reach of communism, they were convinced of the dangers of Catholicism. All feared domestic Catholic influence, and all wanted American diplomacy to curb Catholic influence abroad.

In fact, the anti-Catholicism of Protestant interest groups was so strong that it proved a significant obstacle to Harry Truman’s anticommunist strategy. Fired by his vision of a broad, multireligious front against the Soviets, Truman set out to gain support from a potentially powerful ally, Pius XII, whose anticommunist credentials were beyond question.

The president chose as his unofficial envoy to the Holy See one Myron Taylor, a patrician Episcopalian industrialist whom Inboden labels “one of the more quixotic, controversial, and elusive figures in the annals of American diplomacy.” Taylor shared Truman’s vision of a pan-Christian and pan-religious front against communism, and he spent years working covertly with the Vatican and lobbying powerful Protestant organizations, such as the World Council of Churches, to cooperate with Catholics in the Cold War. Truman also sought to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. But Protestant resentments and internal conflicts proved too strong. In the end, Truman reluctantly abandoned his quest to engage Catholics in his containment policy.

A pity, that. It was left to President Reagan to establish formal relations with the Holy See in the 1980s and to establish the kind of cooperation that many historians now credit with tipping the scales against a communist regime weakened by its own internal contradictions. Reagan’s fierce condemnation of communism as evil, his policies of nuclear rearmament and strategic defense, and the religious and moral assault mounted by John Paul II proved too much for the rotting Soviet system to bear.

It is interesting that, in a country widely credited with (or accused of) being the most religious in the Western world, this book was not written until two decades after the end of the Cold War. In Inboden’s case, the excuse is a good one: He has been busy elsewhere, serving as a congressional staffer (in both houses and for both parties), as an official in the State Department (where we worked together), and as a senior director of the National Security Council.

For other historians of the Cold War, however, the explanation is more troubling: Many are secularists who have simply ignored the religious basis for Cold War decisions and for containment policy. It is not simply that scholars of diplomacy are personally irreligious, although many doubtless are. The deeper problem is a habit of thinking about the world”shared by their counterparts in the foreign-affairs establishment”that dismisses the subject of religion in human affairs as entirely personal, too divisive, or too irrational to be the subject of scholarly analysis or of diplomacy itself.

To cite but two examples, neither Henry Kissinger’s magisterial Diplomacy nor Walter McDougall’s Pulitzer Prize“winning Promised Land, Crusader State pay much attention to the influence of religion in the actions of either Truman or Eisenhower in shaping Cold War policy. Inboden’s work, however, makes it difficult not to conclude that America’s resolve to contain communism would have been significantly weaker “ perhaps fatally so”without the civil religion constructed by Truman and carried on by Eisenhower.

As Inboden notes, history books are not cookbooks from which recipes might breezily be extracted for addressing the future. But, apart from its genuinely new and pro­vocative contribution to American history, his book leaves us with a profoundly unsettling question. However doctrinally diluted or exclusivist it was, the Protestant-derived civil religion of the 1940s and 1950s provided America the context with which to understand and resist the mortal threat of ­communism.

In other words, our shared religious principles helped us to understand who we were”and who the enemy was”back in the days of the Cold War.

Do we still have the principles”and the wisdom”to know either?

Thomas F. Farr is visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University.