Michael C. C. Adams
On the eve of World War II many Americans were reluctant to see the United States embark on overseas involvements. Yet the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seemingly united the nation in determination to achieve total victory in Asia and Europe. Underutilized industrial plants expanded to full capacity producing war materials for the United States and its allies. Unemployment was sucked up by the armed services and war work. Many Americans’ standard of living improved, and the United States became the wealthiest nation in world history.
Over time, this proud record became magnified into the “Good War” myth that has distorted America’s very real achievement. As the era of total victories receded and the United States went from leading creditor to debtor nation, the 1940s appeared as a golden age when everything worked better, people were united, and the United States saved the world for democracy (an exaggeration that ignored the huge contributions of America’s allies, including the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China). In fact, during World War II the United States experienced marked class, sex and gender, and racial tensions. Groups such as gays made some social progress, but the poor, especially many African Americans, were left behind. After being welcomed into the work force, women were pressured to go home when veterans returned looking for jobs in late 1945–1946, losing many of the gains they had made during the conflict. Wartime prosperity stunted the development of a welfare state; universal medical care and social security were cast as unnecessary. Combat had been a horrific experience, leaving many casualties with major physical or emotional wounds that took years to heal. Like all major global events, World War II was complex and nuanced, and it requires careful interpretation.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it.
A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West.
These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.
The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.
Since the social sciences began to emerge as scholarly disciplines in the last quarter of the 19th century, they have frequently offered authoritative intellectual frameworks that have justified, and even shaped, a variety of U.S. foreign policy efforts. They played an important role in U.S. imperial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scholars devised racialized theories of social evolution that legitimated the confinement and assimilation of Native Americans and endorsed civilizing schemes in the Philippines, Cuba, and elsewhere. As attention shifted to Europe during and after World War I, social scientists working at the behest of Woodrow Wilson attempted to engineer a “scientific peace” at Versailles. The desire to render global politics the domain of objective, neutral experts intensified during World War II and the Cold War. After 1945, the social sciences became increasingly central players in foreign affairs, offering intellectual frameworks—like modernization theory—and bureaucratic tools—like systems analysis—that shaped U.S. interventions in developing nations, guided nuclear strategy, and justified the increasing use of the U.S. military around the world.
Throughout these eras, social scientists often reinforced American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States stands at the pinnacle of social and political development, and as such has a duty to spread liberty and democracy around the globe. The scholarly embrace of conventional political values was not the result of state coercion or financial co-optation; by and large social scientists and policymakers shared common American values. But other social scientists used their knowledge and intellectual authority to critique American foreign policy. The history of the relationship between social science and foreign relations offers important insights into the changing politics and ethics of expertise in American public policy.
Ted R. Bromund
The Special Relationship is a term used to describe the close relations between the United States and the United Kingdom. It applies particularly to the governmental realms of foreign, defense, security, and intelligence policy, but it also captures a broader sense that both public and private relations between the United States and Britain are particularly deep and close. The Special Relationship is thus a term for a reality that came into being over time as the result of political leadership as well as ideas and events outside the formal arena of politics.
After the political break of the American Revolution and in spite of sporadic cooperation in the 19th century, it was not until the Great Rapprochement of the 1890s that the idea that Britain and the United States had a special kind of relationship took hold. This decade, in turn, created the basis for the Special Relationship, a term first used by Winston Churchill in 1944. Churchill did the most to build the relationship, convinced as he was that close friendship between Britain and the United States was the cornerstone of world peace and prosperity. During and after the Second World War, many others on both sides of the Atlantic came to agree with Churchill.
The post-1945 era witnessed a flowering of the relationship, which was cemented—not without many controversies and crises—by the emerging Cold War against the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War in 1989, the relationship remained close, though it was severely tested by further security crises, Britain’s declining defense spending, the evolving implications of Britain’s membership in the European Union, the relative decline of Europe, and an increasing U.S. interest in Asia. Yet on many public and private levels, relations between the United States and Britain continue to be particularly deep, and thus the Special Relationship endures.
Although the League of Nations was the first permanent organization established with the purpose of maintaining international peace, it built on the work of a series of 19th-century intergovernmental institutions. The destructiveness of World War I led American and British statesmen to champion a league as a means of maintaining postwar global order. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson followed his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, in advocating American membership of an international peace league, although Wilson’s vision for reforming global affairs was more radical. In Britain, public opinion had begun to coalesce in favor of a league from the outset of the war, though David Lloyd George and many of his Cabinet colleagues were initially skeptical of its benefits. However, Lloyd George was determined to establish an alliance with the United States and warmed to the league idea when Jan Christian Smuts presented a blueprint for an organization that served that end.
The creation of the League was a predominantly British and American affair. Yet Wilson was unable to convince Americans to commit themselves to membership in the new organization. The Franco-British-dominated League enjoyed some early successes. Its high point was reached when Europe was infused with the “Spirit of Locarno” in the mid-1920s and the United States played an economically crucial, if politically constrained, role in advancing Continental peace. This tenuous basis for international order collapsed as a result of the economic chaos of the early 1930s, as the League proved incapable of containing the ambitions of revisionist powers in Europe and Asia. Despite its ultimate limitations as a peacekeeping body, recent scholarship has emphasized the League’s relative successes in stabilizing new states, safeguarding minorities, managing the evolution of colonies into notionally sovereign states, and policing transnational trafficking; in doing so, it paved the way for the creation of the United Nations.
For almost a century and a half, successive American governments adopted a general policy of neutrality on the world stage, eschewing involvement in European conflicts and, after the Quasi War with France, alliances with European powers. Neutrality, enshrined as a core principle of American foreign relations by the outgoing President George Washington in 1796, remained such for more than a century.
Finally, in the 20th century, the United States emerged as a world power and a belligerent in the two world wars and the Cold War. This article explores the modern conflict between traditional American attitudes toward neutrality and the global agenda embraced by successive U.S. governments, beginning with entry in the First World War. With the United States immersed in these titanic struggles, the traditional U.S. support for neutrality eroded considerably. During the First World War, the United States showed some sympathy for the predicaments of the remaining neutral powers. In the Second World War it applied considerable pressure to those states still trading with Germany. During the Cold War, the United States was sometimes impatient with the choices of states to remain uncommitted in the global struggle, while at times it showed understanding for neutrality and pursued constructive relations with neutral states. The wide varieties of neutrality in each of these conflicts complicated the choices of U.S. policy makers. Americans remained torn between memory of their own long history of neutrality and a capacity to understand its potential value, on one hand, and a predilection to approach conflicts as moral struggles, on the other.
Relations between the United States and Argentina can be best described as a cautious embrace punctuated by moments of intense frustration. Although never the center of U.S.–Latin American relations, Argentina has attempted to create a position of influence in the region. As a result, the United States has worked with Argentina and other nations of the Southern Cone—the region of South America that comprises Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and southern Brazil—on matters of trade and economic development as well as hemispheric security and leadership. While Argentina has attempted to assert its position as one of Latin America’s most developed nations and therefore a regional leader, the equal partnership sought from the United States never materialized for the Southern Cone nation. Instead, competition for markets and U.S. interventionist and unilateral tendencies kept Argentina from attaining the influence and wealth it so desired. At the same time, the United States saw Argentina as an unreliable ally too sensitive to the pull of its volatile domestic politics. The two nations enjoyed moments of cooperation in World War I, the Cold War, and the 1990s, when Argentine leaders could balance this particular external partnership with internal demands. Yet at these times Argentine leaders found themselves walking a fine line as detractors back home saw cooperation with the United States as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty and autonomy. There has always been potential for a productive partnership, but each side’s intransigence and unique concerns limited this relationship’s accomplishments and led to a historical imbalance of power.
James F. Siekmeier
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. officials often viewed Bolivia as both a potential “test case” for U.S. economic foreign policy and a place where Washington’s broad visions for Latin America might be implemented relatively easily. After World War II, Washington leaders sought to show both Latin America and the nonindustrialized world that a relatively open economy could produce significant economic wealth for Bolivia’s working and middle classes, thus giving the United States a significant victory in the Cold War. Washington sought a Bolivia widely open to U.S. influence, and Bolivia often seemed an especially pliable country. In order to achieve their goals in Bolivia, U.S. leaders dispensed a large amount of economic assistance to Bolivia in the 1950s—a remarkable development in two senses. First, the U.S. government, generally loath to aid Third World nations, gave this assistance to a revolutionary regime. Second, the U.S. aid program for Bolivia proved to be a precursor to the Alliance for Progress, the massive aid program for Latin America in the 1960s that comprised the largest U.S. economic aid program in the Third World. Although U.S. leaders achieved their goal of a relatively stable, noncommunist Bolivia, the decision in the late 1950s to significantly increase U.S. military assistance to Bolivia’s relatively small military emboldened that military, which staged a coup in 1964, snuffing out democracy for nearly two decades. The country’s long history of dependency in both export markets and public- and private-sector capital investment led Washington leaders to think that dependency would translate into leverage over Bolivian policy. However, the historical record is mixed in this regard. Some Bolivian governments have accommodated U.S. demands; others have successfully resisted them.
Patrick William Kelly
The relationship between Chile and the United States pivoted on the intertwined questions of how much political and economic influence Americans would exert over Chile and the degree to which Chileans could chart their own path. Given Chile’s tradition of constitutional government and relative economic development, it established itself as a regional power player in Latin America. Unencumbered by direct US military interventions that marked the history of the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, Chile was a leader in movements to promote Pan-Americanism, inter-American solidarity, and anti-imperialism. But the advent of the Cold War in the 1940s, and especially after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, brought an increase in bilateral tensions. The United States turned Chile into a “model democracy” for the Alliance for Progress, but frustration over its failures to enact meaningful social and economic reform polarized Chilean society, resulting in the election of Marxist Salvador Allende in 1970. The most contentious period in US-Chilean relations was during the Nixon administration when it worked, alongside anti-Allende Chileans, to destabilize Allende’s government, which the Chilean military overthrew on September 11, 1973. The Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990), while anti-Communist, clashed with the United States over Pinochet’s radicalization of the Cold War and the issue of Chilean human rights abuses. The Reagan administration—which came to power on a platform that reversed the Carter administration’s critique of Chile—reversed course and began to support the return of democracy to Chile, which took place in 1990. Since then, Pinochet’s legacy of neoliberal restructuring of the Chilean economy looms large, overshadowed perhaps only by his unexpected role in fomenting a global culture of human rights that has ended the era of impunity for Latin American dictators.
Jason C. Parker
The decolonization of the European overseas empires had its intellectual roots early in the modern era, but its culmination occurred during the Cold War that loomed large in post-1945 international history. This culmination thus coincided with the American rise to superpower status and presented the United States with a dilemma. While philosophically sympathetic to the aspirations of anticolonial nationalist movements abroad, the United States’ vastly greater postwar global security burdens made it averse to the instability that decolonization might bring and that communists might exploit. This fear, and the need to share those burdens with European allies who were themselves still colonial landlords, led Washington to proceed cautiously. The three “waves” of the decolonization process—medium-sized in the late 1940s, large in the half-decade around 1960, and small in the mid-1970s—prompted the American use of a variety of tools and techniques to influence how it unfolded.
Prior to independence, this influence was usually channeled through the metropolitan authority then winding down. After independence, Washington continued and often expanded the use of these tools, in most cases on a bilateral basis. In some theaters, such as Korea, Vietnam, and the Congo, through the use of certain of these tools, notably covert espionage or overt military operations, Cold War dynamics enveloped, intensified, and repossessed local decolonization struggles. In most theaters, other tools, such as traditional or public diplomacy or economic or technical development aid, affixed the Cold War into the background as a local transition unfolded. In all cases, the overriding American imperative was to minimize instability and neutralize actors on the ground who could invite communist gains.
U.S. imperialism took a variety of forms in the early 20th century, ranging from colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines to protectorates in Cuba, Panama, and other countries in Latin America, and open door policies such as that in China. Formal colonies would be ruled with U.S.-appointed colonial governors and supported by U.S. troops. Protectorates and open door policies promoted business expansion overseas through American oversight of foreign governments and, in the case of threats to economic and strategic interests, the deployment of U.S. marines. In all of these imperial forms, U.S. empire-building both reflected and shaped complex social, cultural, and political histories with ramifications for both foreign nations and America itself.