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Wilson’s commitment to a world in which democracy could flourish was by itself revolutionary. Equally revolutionary was the second component of his vision — the belief that the key to creating that world lay in extending the reach of international law and building international institutions. The former college president — who ironically during his first term had enthusiastically used American military power to enforce the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine — called on the victorious powers to craft an international agreement that would provide “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” He went to the Paris Peace Conference in December 1918 to push his idea on deeply skeptical European leaders. He was ultimately forced to compromise on many of the particulars of his plan. Nevertheless, in the end he prevailed on the core point. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in July 1919, established a League of Nations that would “respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all.” Wilson returned to the United States convinced that the idea of collective security — “one for all and all for one” — would prevent war and remake world politics.
The idea of the League of Nations was also revolutionary for American politics. Wilson was asking Americans to do more than just cast away their aversion to entangling alliances. The United States, after all, had fought World War I as an “associated” power and not an “allied” one in deference to the traditional reluctance to become tied militarily to other countries. He was asking them to spearhead an international organization that would seek to protect the security of its members, however far they might be from American shores. That would prove the rub.
The Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles is usually recounted as a triumph of traditional isolationism. Isolationists certainly were the treaty’s most vociferous critics. The “irreconcilables” and “bitterenders,” as they were called, were led by Republican Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, a man who had a reputation as an expert on world affairs despite never having left American soil. The irreconcilables were traditional isolationists who vehemently opposed entangling the country in foreign alliances. Borah insisted that if he had his way the League of Nations would be “20,000 leagues under the sea” and he wanted “this treacherous and treasonable scheme” to be “buried in hell.” Even “if the Savior of men would revisit the earth and declare for a League of Nations,” he declared, “I would be opposed to it.”
Although Borah and his fellow irreconcilables lacked the votes to carry the day, many of the Senate’s most ardent internationalists and imperialists also opposed the treaty. What bothered them was not that Wilson wanted to involve the United States in affairs beyond its borders. They were all for that. They simply opposed the way Wilson intended to engage the world. These anti-League internationalists, who included most Republicans and a few Democrats, believed that the United States had to preserve a free hand to act abroad, not tie its fate to the whims and interests of others. They charged that the League would trump the Constitution and usurp Congress’s power to declare war. The leader of the anti-League internationalists, Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, went to the heart of the matter when he asked his colleagues: “Are you willing to put your soldiers and your sailors at the disposition of other nations?”
The victory of the anti-treaty forces heralded for a time the continuation of the policy of the free hand that Lodge and others so loved. By the beginning of the 1930s, however, this unilateral internationalism began giving way to rising isolationist sentiment. As the country entered the Great Depression and war clouds gathered on the European horizon, Americans increasingly retreated to Fortress America.
Some isolationists argued that war would not occur. In July 1939 Senator Borah confidently predicted, “We are not going to have a war. Germany isn’t ready for it. . . . I have my own sources of information.” Others admitted war might occur and that it would be best for the United States to remain apart. Regardless of the reason, the German invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, and Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union came and went without convincing most Americans of the need to act. It took Pearl Harbor to do that.
The foreign policy questions Americans faced at the end of World War II had little to do with what the United States could do abroad. By every measure, America dominated the world as no nation had ever done before. All the other major powers, whether victor or vanquished, were devastated. The United States, in contrast, emerged from the war not only unscathed, but far stronger than it was when it entered the hostilities. Its economy was by far the world’s largest. It possessed the world’s strongest navy and most powerful air force. And it alone held the secret to the world’s most terrifying weapon: the atomic bomb.
The foreign policy questions facing Americans dealt much more with what the United States should do abroad. Some Americans wanted to “bring the boys back home” from Europe and the Pacific and to return to a “normal” life. Others warned against a return to isolationism. But internationalists themselves disagreed on important questions. Should the United States define its interests regionally or globally? What were the threats to U.S. security? How should the United States respond to these threats?
The task of answering these questions fell to President Harry Truman, a man who in many ways was ill prepared for it. By his own admission he was “not a deep thinker.”15 A product of the Democratic political machine in Kansas City, he had cut his political teeth on domestic issues. He had served in the Senate for ten years with modest distinction before becoming Franklin Roosevelt’s surprise choice in 1944 to be his running mate. When FDR died in April 1945, Truman had been vice president for less than three months and had not been included in the administration’s foreign policy deliberations. Indeed, he did not learn that the United States was building an atomic bomb until after he was sworn in as president.
Whatever Truman lacked in experience he more than made up for with a commitment to pursuing Woodrow Wilson’s aims without making his mistakes. During his seven years as president, Truman remade American foreign policy. In March 1947 the former Kansas City haberdasher went before a joint session of Congress and declared what became known as the Truman Doctrine: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Three months later his secretary of state, George c= Marshall, unveiled the Marshall Plan in a commencement address at Harvard, claiming a major role for the United States in rebuilding a war-torn Europe. Two years later, Truman signed the treaty creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).With the stroke of his pen, he cast off America’s traditional aversion to entangling alliances and formally declared that Washington saw its security interests as inextricably linked with those of Western Europe.
The hallmark of Truman’s foreign policy revolution was its blend of power and cooperation. Truman was willing to exercise America’s great power to remake world affairs, both to serve American interests and to advance American values. However, he and his advisers calculated that U.S. power could more easily be sustained, with less chance of engendering resentment, if it were embedded in multilateral institutions. During his presidency, Truman oversaw the creation of much of the infrastructure of the international order: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the Organization of American States among other multilateral organizations. In creating these institutions, he set a precedent: Even though the United States had the power to act as it saw fit, it accepted, at least notionally, that its right to act should be constrained by international law. In marked contrast to the epic League of Nations debate, the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed this multilateral approach.
Nonetheless, Truman’s foreign policy choices were not unanimously applauded. The challenge, however, did not come from isolationists. The smoke pouring from the USS Arizona had shown the vulnerability of Fortress America. The complaints instead came from hard-line conservatives who thought Truman’s policy of containing the Soviet Union was too timid. These critics believed that the United States had a moral and strategic interest in working to liberate nations that had fallen under Soviet control. Truman rejected these calls for “rollback” because he judged the costs of the wars that would inevitably follow as too high.
Proponents of rollback thought they had found their leader in Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike campaigned in 1952 criticizing Truman’s foreign policy and particularly his handling of Korea. The official Republican Party platform denounced containment as a “negative, futile, and immoral” policy that abandoned “countless human beings to a despotism and Godless terrorism.”
However, it is one thing to campaign, another to govern. Once Eisenhower was in office, his actions made clear, in the words of one historian, that Republican rhetoric about “‘liberation’ had been aimed more at freeing the government in Washington from Democrats than at contesting Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.”18 In June 1953 the former Supreme Allied Commander stood by as Soviet troops crushed a revolt in East Germany. The following month he brought the Korean War to an end not by invading North Korea but by signing an armistice with Pyongyang. The next year he rebuffed a French appeal for U.S. military help to relieve the French forces trapped at Dien Bien Phu. Two years after that, Washington again did nothing when Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, crushing yet another revolt against communist rule. Eisenhower’s reason for inaction was not timidity but prudence. Any effort to liberate Eastern Europe by force of arms could have led to a nuclear war that turned American cities into smoking, radiating ruins. With the cost of being wrong so high, the appeal of rollback policies dimmed.
Eisenhower’s embrace of Truman’s foreign policy blueprint solidified America’s basic approach to world affairs for the next half century. Even with the debacle in Vietnam, a basic foreign policy consensus held. The United States had extensive interests overseas that it must be prepared to defend. Washington actively cultivated friends and allies because in a world with a superpower adversary it was dangerous to be without them. International organizations, and especially military alliances, were a key instrument of foreign policy.
At the same time, however, the ever-present Soviet threat muffled the continuing disagreement between the intellectual descendants of Woodrow Wilson and those of Henry Cabot Lodge. Those in the Wilson school cherished the contribution of international law to world stability and prosperity. They took pride in the fact that Washington had championed the creation of international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations and that by doing so the United States was laying the groundwork for the gradual expansion of the rule of law in international affairs. Those in the Lodge school longed for the policy of the free hand but were comforted by the fact that America’s great wealth and military might enabled it to dominate international organizations. In NATO, for example, the United States was not simply Italy with more people. It was the superpower that provided the alliance’s ultimate security guarantee, and as a result it had a disproportionate say over alliance policy. When multilateral organizations refused to heed American wishes, the United States could — and frequently did — act alone.