The Myth of America as a "Reluctant Superpower"
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Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
by Stephen Wertheim
Harvard University Press, 2020
Two contrasting approaches to the history of American foreign policy dominate the field. In this outstanding study, Stephen Wertheim, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University and a member of the Quincy Institute, shows they are both wrong. In doing so, he vindicates for our time the merits of a noninterventionist foreign policy.
According to the first approach, America moved from isolationism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the global policy of today.
America’s rise to global power is anything but a new topic. Scores of books examine each major episode of the story, especially that of World War II….But the story has been consistently narrated in terms that obscure and even deny the decision for armed primacy…Americans have imbibed a version of the same tale: the United States, once in thrall to "isolationism" cast off its antipathy to global engagement and embraced "internationalism." The premise is that isolationists and internationalists squared off in a prolonged struggle, with the former winning out after one world war and the latter finally prevailing after a second. (p. 4)
The second approach is different. "In place of a reluctant and belated superpower, some critics find just the opposite: a superpower in the making all along. Did not the United States, propelled to seek profits, compelled by a sense of destiny, steadily enlarge its power until reaching its supremacy across the globe?" (p. 6). Wertheim has in mind here leftist historians such as William Appleman Williams, but the neoconservative Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation (2007) also fits this pattern. (See my review of it here.)
Wertheim's main criticism of these approaches is that both accept a myth. America's foreign policy was never isolationist. This was a smear term invented after the fact by proponents of US entry into World War II to characterize their opponents. The noninterventionists did not want to isolate America from dealings with other nations but in fact sought to extend 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. "Only during the war did internationalism come to be associated with military supremacy, whose architects devised the new pejorative term isolationism and redefined internationalism against it. 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 defense of the League of Nations to robust support for neutrality legislation during the 1930s. Here though, I do not altogether agree with Wertheim's line of thought. As he tells the tale, Woodrow Wilson's intervention in World War I and the League of Nations he afterwards supported did not mark a decisive turn in American foreign policy. Had America joined the league, this would have involved on its part virtually no commitment to the use of military force. Thus, he sees Borchard's support for the league as consistent with his later advocacy of American neutrality. This, to my mind, underestimates Wilson's break with noninterventionist foreign policy and with it the extent to which Borchard shifted his opinions during the 1930s, a fact not lost on his interventionist opponents. In this connection, Wertheim could usefully have devoted detailed attention to the great book of Borchard and William Lage, Neutrality for the United States (Yale, 1937), the swan song of the legalistic approach to foreign policy not only of Borchard but of his teacher John Bassett Moore as well. Wertheim's view of the league also leads him to look at James Thomson Shotwell in too favorable a light; he was much more an interventionist, even in his earlier 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 unneutral policies in World War I. Although he mentions 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 turning around public opinion in the 1920s and '30s. By the way, Tansill, the author of the definitive America Goes to War, would have been delighted by Wertheim's point that the Monroe Doctrine was a challenge to the British navy (p. 20).
Far more significant than these disagreements is Wertheim's careful research on the formation of American foreign policy after World War II began. As he notes, the Council on Foreign Relations cooperated closely with the State Department in planning for the end of a war that had barely begun. The unexpected fall of France to the Nazis led the CFR experts to favor all out support for Britain. "But why not accept a world peace compatible with the Axis vision of Europe for the Europeans and Asia for the Asians? In responding to the Tripartite Pact, U.S. elites foregrounded American exceptionalism: Axis supremacy in Asia and Europe would deny the destiny of the United States to define the direction of world history….For Roosevelt and [Walter] Lippmann, the Axis bid to lead the world to a new order was undertaken by the wrong party" (p. 73). Wertheim rightly emphasizes the influence of the inveterate Anglophile Walter Lippmann in moving America toward war and also places appropriate stress on Henry Luce’s famous Life magazine essay of 1941, "The American Century," with its blatant call for American world supremacy. Wertheim notes that one of the CFR planners was the Harvard historian William Leonard Langer, but he ought to have added that Langer had earlier been one of the most resolute historical revisionists and his interventionist views were something of a volte-face. In his discussion of elite American Anglophilia, Wertheim rightly draws attention to the Round Table group but surprisingly fails to cite Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope (see p. 221n74 for his sources on the Round Table).
After World War II, America has continued to claim world supremacy, and Wertheim ably discusses developments under Harry Truman and his successors. The United Nations, he makes clear, had no independent power but was merely a public relations cover for US dominance. I shall leave to readers the details of Wertheim's discussion and close with an apt citation from the greatest American international lawyer from the late 1880s through the 1940s, John Bassett Moore: "In his opinion, 'nothing could be more preposterous…than the supposition that the league of nations failed to preserve the peace of the world because the United States did not become a party to it.' This supposition turned America into the indispensable nation to world peace, 'apparently ignorant of the fact that the United States had not only been guilty of aggressive foreign war, as in the case of Mexico, but had also added to the number of great civil wars'" (p. 171).
Wertheim has written one of the best recent books on American foreign policy, and I highly recommend it to all those who reject the policy of world dominance.