Two contrasting approaches to the history of US foreign policy dominate the field.
In this exceptional study, Stephen Wertheim, postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University and member of the Quincy Institute, shows that they are both wrong. In doing so, he defends for our time the merits of a non-interventionist foreign policy.
According to the first approach, America has moved from isolationism in the 18th and 19th centuries to world politics today.
America’s rise to world power is anything but a new topic. Dozens of books examine every major episode in history, especially that of WWII … But the story has been constantly told in terms that obscure and even deny the ruling of armed primacy … Americans have imbibed a version of the same tale: The United States, once in the grip of “isolationism”, rejected its antipathy to global engagement and embraced “internationalism.” The assumption is that the isolationists and internationalists clashed in a protracted struggle, the former winning after a world war and the latter finally winning after a second. (p. 4)
The second approach is different.
“Instead of a reluctant and belated superpower, some critics find the exact opposite: a superpower in the making from the start. The United States, driven in search of profit, driven by the sense of destiny, has not it gradually expanded its power to achieve its supremacy throughout the world? (p. 6). Wertheim has left-wing historians like William Appleman Williams in mind here, but neoconservative Robert Kagan Dangerous nation (2007) also fits into this pattern. (See my review here.)
Wertheim’s main criticism of these approaches is that both accept a myth. American foreign policy has never been isolationist.
It was a defamation term coined after the fact by supporters of America’s entry into World War II to characterize their opponents.
Non-interventionists did not want to isolate America from relations with other nations, but in fact sought to expand commercial and social ties with lands abroad.
In these policies, they continued the traditional American foreign doctrine, in place since Washington and Jefferson, of avoiding entanglement in European power politics.
“It was only during the war that internationalism was associated with military supremacy, whose architects devised the new pejorative term isolationism and redefined internationalism against. For the same reason, it makes no sense to characterize a group of Americans as advocates of isolationism ”(p. 4, emphasis in original).
To support his argument, Wertheim makes full use of the papers of the great American international lawyer Edwin M. Borchard, who moved from defending the League of Nations to strong support for neutrality legislation in the 1930s.
Here however, I do not quite agree with Wertheim’s line of thought. As he tells the story, Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in World War I and the League of Nations he subsequently supported did not mark a turning point in American foreign policy.
If America had joined the league, it would have involved virtually no commitment on her part to use military force. Thus, he sees Borchard’s support for the league as consistent with his subsequent plea for American neutrality.
This, in my opinion, underestimates Wilson’s break with hands-off foreign policy and with it the extent to which Borchard changed his mind during the 1930s, a fact that did not escape his interventionist opponents. . In this regard, Wertheim could usefully have devoted special attention to the ledger of Borchard and William Lage, Neutrality for the United States (Yale, 1937), the swansong of the legalistic approach to foreign policy not only of Borchard but also of his teacher John Bassett Moore.
Wertheim’s view of the league also leads him to view James Thomson Shotwell in an overly favorable light; he was much more interventionist, even in his early years, than Wertheim allows.
More generally, Wertheim fails to note the extent to which the antiwar movement of the 1930s reflected a rejection of Wilson’s non-neutral policies during World War I, although he does mention Harry Elmer Barnes, whom he calls a ” prolific historian and public intellectual ”(p. 45), he underestimates the influence of the revisionist history of Barnes, Sidney Bradshaw Fay and Charles Callan Tansill in the turnaround of public opinion in the 1920s and 1930s. By the way, Tansill, the author of the definitive version America goes to war, would have been delighted with Wertheim’s argument that the Monroe Doctrine was a challenge for the British Navy (p. 20).
Far more significant than these disagreements is Wertheim’s careful research into the formation of American foreign policy after the outbreak of World War II.
As he notes, the Council on Foreign Relations worked closely with the State Department to plan for an end to a war that had just begun. The unexpected fall of France to the hands of the Nazis led CFR experts to favor full support for Britain.
“But why not accept world peace compatible with the Axis vision of Europe for Europeans and Asia for Asians?
In responding to the tripartite pact, the American elites brought American exceptionalism to the fore: Axis supremacy in Asia and Europe would deny the fate of the United States to set the direction of world history … Roosevelt and [Walter] Lippmann, the Axis attempt to lead the world to a new order was undertaken by the wrong party ”(p. 73).
Wertheim rightly points to the influence of die-hard anglophile Walter Lippmann in advancing America towards war and also emphasizes the famous Life 1941 magazine essay, “The American Century,” with its blatant call for American world supremacy.
Wertheim notes that one of the CFR planners was Harvard historian William Leonard Langer, but he should have added that Langer had previously been one of the most resolute historical revisionists and that his interventionist views were somehow a about-face.
In his discussion of elite American Anglophilia, Wertheim rightly draws attention to the Roundtable group, but surprisingly fails to quote Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope (see p. 221n74 for his sources on the round table).
After World War II, America continued to claim world supremacy, and Wertheim ably discusses developments under Harry Truman and his successors.
The United Nations, he says, had no independent power but was just a public relations cover for American domination.
I will leave the details of Wertheim’s discussion to readers, and end with an apt quote from America’s greatest international lawyer of the late 1880s to the 1940s, John Bassett Moore: “In his opinion, ‘nothing could be more absurd. ..that the assumption that the League of Nations failed to preserve world peace because the United States did not become a party to it.
This assumption made America the nation indispensable to world peace, “ apparently ignoring the fact that the United States had not only been guilty of an aggressive foreign war, as in the case of Mexico, but also added to the number of major civil wars. (P. 171).
Wertheim has written one of the best recent books on American foreign policy, and I highly recommend it to anyone who rejects the politics of world domination.
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