The disparity between these two accounts highlights the complexity of ideology and the continued disagreement among scholars over its role in the policy process. Moreover, the experience of the United States in the Third World reveals clearly how difficult it is to understand the role of ideology and how ambiguous that role can be. How, for example, do we reconcile American ideology of liberalism with the support of dictators such as Somoza? Must we see ideology as little more than a cynical tool of justification? Or did American officials truly believe in the rhetoric they used? If they believed it, did it drive their decision making? The answer to these questions seems to be an unsatisfying "sometimes." But that in itself is significant. "Sometimes" means that as scholars we must approach the empirical evidence with an open mind, willing to find ideology as a primary cause of decision making or as mostly irrelevant to the policy process. It seems reasonable to conclude that some periods of American history proved more ideological than others, and that some administrations were more influenced by it than others. Moreover, while ideology may always lurk in the background, it may be pushed aside by other considerations in the evolution of particular decisions.
In the context of the Cold War, an open-mindedness toward ideology seems especially important. The Cold War was not only a classic political power struggle, but neither was it a purely ideological conflict. The Cold War rivalry arose over the traditional problems of creating a stable postwar settlement and in particular finding a solution for the instability of central Europe. But the Cold War was also a rivalry between two states that each embraced a universalist ideology (Marxist-Leninism and liberal democracy, respectively), each made certain predictions about the future, and each held certain causative assumptions about the world. American foreign policy during the Cold War thus entwined ideology and interest. A close study of the period shows us the importance of ideology in foreign policy. To ignore ideology in the context of the Cold War is, in some respects, to miss the point.
At the same time, however, renewed scholarly interest in ideology and the continuing debate over its significance has revealed the difficulties the concept entails. For foreign relations historians, causality is a central concern. They want to zero in on why appeasement failed in the 1930s, or how the Cold War began, or why exactly the United States intervened in Vietnam. Finding the role of ideology in the context of these questions is quite a task. Little wonder that many have dismissed ideology altogether, and that even those who have embraced it have often done so with misgivings and qualifications. Yet despite these complexities, we should not too quickly consign ideology to the scholarly rubbish heap. As Geertz has pointed out, events unfold within the bounds of culture, which is open to interpretation. Thus, an awareness of the ideological context of particular decisions adds a layer of complexity and richness to our analysis. It allows us to understand why some policy options appeared more appealing than others, and why some received no attention at all.
Consider for a moment one final example. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, some among John F. Kennedy's advisers argued that the president should authorize a surprise attack on Cuba in an effort to destroy the Soviet missiles. It would have been a dangerous move. Moreover, it is likely that practical considerations would have prevented the plan from progressing beyond the conference table. Yet in rejecting the idea, Kennedy cited none of these reasons. Instead the president referred to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time Franklin Roosevelt had called it a day that would live in infamy. For Kennedy, a surprise attack on Cuba did not fit his image of the United States, and this policy option was quickly ruled out. To be sure, ideology did not determine the outcome of the missile crisis. But an examination of the ideological context of the decision offers us a greater degree of understanding of the Kennedy White House.