WASHINGTON — Washington.-- While White House and Congress were talking about the future of Iraq and its ruler, I happened across a yellowed clipping of a dispatch from The Sun's Dewey Fleming about the World War II Truman-Stalin-Atlee conference at Potsdam.
"Big 3 Agree to Eliminate German Industry. Reich to Be Farm Area," said the headline.
This was August, 1945, less than three months after Nazi Germany's surrender, four days before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. For two weeks, the Allied leaders met in the Berlin suburbs to work out the shape of postwar Europe.
"Germany shall be stripped of all industry that could possibly be used for military production. . . . The future economy of that beaten nation shall be based primarily upon agriculture and a bare minimum of essential and purely peaceful manufacture," wrote Fleming.
That was not the only clipping that sounded vaguely familiar here in 1991. A few days later after that report, when two bombs had leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan had sent surrender feelers through Switzerland. One of the key questions was whether Emperor Hirohito could remain on his throne.
"The Allies have agreed to let the Japanese keep their emperor," Fleming wrote, "on two conditions: 1. It is understood that he is to be no more than a puppet ruler, subject to orders of the supreme Allied commander; 2. . . . he may be ousted at any time such expulsion is the 'freely expressed will of the Japanese people.' "
Precedent is not always a reliable guide to war or diplomacy, because at least half the decisions of the past were wrong. But politicians, even insects, learn more from mistakes than from triumphs.
It didn't take long for Truman to realize the mistake of trying to convert Germany to a pastoral economy. As soon as Stalin's postwar obtuseness became clear, the United States began to build up a capitalist West Germany to prevent its fall to communism. Thanks to the Marshall Plan and billions of U.S. dollars, West Germany arose from the ashes of 1945 to become the powerhouse of today.
Along the way, Germany has metamorphosed from occupied nation to front-line bastion in the cold war to increasingly independent ally as the cold war fades away. It has been technically advanced and politically blind enough for some of its amoral industrialists to sell chemical war capability to Iraq and Libya. It is wealthy enough to pay the entire bill for Allied intervention in the Persian Gulf, but has deigned to do only so much.
Whatever the trials of having such a strong and self-centered ally, I am confident that if Truman were alive today, he still would say we were right not to turn Germany into a vast potato farm.
Is that any lesson for those who would turn today's Iraq into a primitive, pre-industrial society as punishment for what it did to Kuwait? Do those who insist that Saddam Hussein be removed from power, if not from the face of the earth, have anything to learn from how the Allies handled Hirohito after World War II?
The United Nations has pledged to make Iraq pay for all the destruction it has caused. That is the only way to make sure international law is respected in the future, say lawyers who worked the field after earlier wars. Iraq had a $50 billion debt before it invaded Kuwait, and rebuilding that country alone is estimated to cost at least $200 billion. The damage to Kuwait is only now being realized; before the ground war began, the guess was some $60 billion.
Although Iraq was the world's No. 2 oil producer, most its production facilities have been destroyed. Even if it had the income and the imported management and labor it had before the war, rebuilding would take years.
If Saddam Hussein remains in power, finding foreign credits to replace oil income will be unlikely. And without oil income, the demand for reparations could force the country to live at bare subsistence levels for two or more decades. This is the opinion of some U.S. officials, who do not seem sad at the prospect.
Some Arabs suggest a Middle East version of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Iraq and Kuwait. But congressmen already have spoken up against any effort to have the American taxpayer put back what Saddam Hussein tore down.
As after World Wars I and II, the winners face a serious test, of how to make Iraq an example for other would-be aggressors without flattening its people and making them dangerous. Yellowed clippings are not a reliable guide to every situation, but what happened after each of those wars is worth remembering.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.