Do you know what black-and-white thinking is? It’s a way of seeing situations and events as moral choices between good and evil, right and wrong, either/or, with nothing in between.
This type of thinking is absolutely essential in life-or-death situations. The choices are stark where dramatic decisive action is required. Most of the time, though, black-and-white thinking limits our options and causes us to see the world with too narrow a focus.
President Dwight Eisenhower falls into the category of a black-and-white thinker. He was a great general during World War II who planned and executed the Normandy invasion of France, the largest amphibious invasion in world history. To do this he had to organize more than 300,000 soldiers, thousands of ships and planes, tanks and trucks, to be in the right place at the right time.
Failure would mean the death of thousands and the possible loss of the war against the Nazis. This is an example of black-and-white, life-and-death decision making. It was the best approach in this case.
Because of Eisenhower’s success in the defeat of fascism in Europe during World War II, the American people elected him to two terms as president in the 1950s. His goal was to give America peace for a generation after a world war, followed by the bloody Korean War. He reached his goal. Not one American soldier died during his administration from combat.
Eisenhower saw the world in black-and-white terms as a titanic struggle between Soviet communism and American democracy/capitalism. To stop the communists from taking over the world, the Eisenhower administration would subvert weak democracies that had elected leftist-leaning leaders.
Eisenhower used the CIA to overthrow the democratically-elected leaders of Iran, the Congo and Guatemala. It gained us 25 years of peace. In Iran, the U.S. government helped the shah return to power. This ushered in 25 years of repression and brutality upon the Iranian people.
He bought us a generation of peace, but at the cost of anger, hostility and distrust from the Iranians who sought revenge in 1979 by taking 50 American embassy staff in Tehran hostage for 444 days. We are still living with Eisenhower’s decision in dealing with Iran today. This is an example of black-and-white thinking with negative consequences.
Another black-and-white thinking president was Lyndon B. Johnson in regard to the Vietnam conflict. He escalated the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. Johnson bought into the Domino Theory, first promulgated by Eisenhower.
The theory goes that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, then, eventually all of Southeast Asia would fall like dominos set up next to each other. Next, the countries of South Asia would collapse before communism, and so on.
Many Americans and Vietnamese died because of Johnson and the Pentagon’s belief in this theory. Eventually it was proven false by President Richard Nixon who pitted the Chinese communists and the Soviet Union against each other. Nixon played on their shared suspicions and fears, allowing the U.S. to withdraw from the Vietnam conflict.
Looking back, it is obvious that this theory was flawed. It was based on the fear generated by the Cold War. The Domino Theory did not take into account the fact that the Vietnamese communists saw the Vietnam conflict as really a civil war between North and South, not solely as a struggle between communism and capitalism.
Additionally, the North Vietnamese saw the U.S. presence in the 1960s in their country as just one more foreign imperialist power. Before the Americans arrived, there had been the Chinese, the French and the Japanese. The Vietnamese kicked all of them out in turn.
Black-and-white thinking in regard to Johnson and Vietnam was a disaster both for his presidency and the nation. Had Johnson understood the Vietnamese in terms of their history rather than only as communists, we might never have gotten involved in Vietnam.
It’s my opinion that black-and-white, either/or type thinking occurs when either we are ignorant of all the facets and/or inexperienced in dealing with an issue. It also comes from fear that causes us to think with tunnel vision. At times of high danger, this is an effective defense, but during times where the stakes are not imminent, it blinds us to other, better options.
This type of thinking is common in the world today. Osama Bin Laden saw the world as a struggle between his brand of Islam and the West. It is also common today in U.S. politics where politicians are highly polarized into their either/or mentalities. The lack of the ability to compromise — the opposite of black and white thinking — has largely paralyzed our government.
There is a time and a place for black-and-white thinking, as with Eisenhower’s conquest of Nazism, but when it comes to our government, compromise is really what most Americans hunger for from their leaders.