Wednesday, June 4, 2014

AHA Conference Review: Sunday January 5, 2014, 11:00-1:00

The last panel of the conference for me was "New Perspectives on American 'Internationalism' and 'Isolationism' from World War II to the Cold War."

In "Will to Lead the World: Planning Peace before Entering the War, 1939-41," Stephen Wertheim argued that while war waged across Europe in 1939 and 1940, elites in the United States laid the foundations for a post-war superiority. The Fall of France in June 1940 showed how fragile the old order had been, and Nazi Germany's Blitzkrieg across the borders of what, Donal Rumsfeld would later famously call "Old Europe", demonstrated to these elites that the United States had to assert itself as the dominant global force. This new attitude to domination was captured by Henry Luce's famous editorial, "The American Century." Isolationism was discredited as dangerous, inimical to American interests, and selfish. Internationalism would be built on military might and international organizations that emanated from the crucial alliance between the United States and Great Britain.

In "Beyond Isolationists versus Internationalists: Rethinking Conservative Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War," Christopher McKnight Nichols made a case to take the post-war isolationists as serious thinkers about the role of America in the world. He further argued that the term isolationist should be discarded, and the debate recast as one between nationalists and transnationalists. He outlined six arguments used by the nationalists (formerly known as the isolationists) that centered on the bad experiences under Wilson, the expense of maintaing a global military presence, the threat it posed to American exceptionalism, and the threat of domestic tyranny. Nichols discussed Robert Taft's position on foreign policy in detail, making the case that Taft was a nationalist, not an isolationist, who favored some forms of international engagement (United Nations and courts) but not others (NATO). I came away with a much deeper understanding of the post-war anti-internationalist viewpoint.

In "The Great Debate of the Korean War, the Republican Party, and U.S. Cold War Internationalism: Origins, Significance, Legacies," Kevin Kim examined the post-war foreign policy proposals of former-president Herbert Hoover. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about Hoover's post-presidential views of international affairs, and it was a little surprising to hear about them. He opposed war in 1939, and favored negotiation with Germany. His attitude in the Pacific was very much the same, and, according to Kim, Hoover proposed "unconditional peace" with Japan after the fall of Germany. A strong Japan, he felt, could block Soviet expansion into Asia. The use of the atomic bomb revolted him. In Korea, Hoover preferred an air war with no US ground troops. As a Cold War strategy he preferred a "fortress America" approach to the Cold War, with an emphasis on air power. Kim argues while his version of fortress America looked a lot like the New Look policies adopted during the Eisenhower administration, Hoover wanted to also pull US troops out of Europe, greatly reduce foreign aid, and tie assistance to specific policies. It was an interesting discussion, but I think the title of the paper should have named Hoover.

Three distinguished historians called into question some of the assertions of the panel. Melvyn Leffler argued that Wertheim's vocabulary was a little too strong. By arguing that American elite sought global superiority, he overstated their position. It was a case of survival, Leffler argued, not establishing superiority. John Milton Cooper felt that isolationism was still a useful descriptor, and that Nichols had gone too far in trying to paint Taft as not being the isolationist he in fact was. There still are isolationists, Cooper argued, naming a few including Pat Buchanan. Justus Doenecke questioned if Hoover and Taft had really thought out their positions. Both had some nutty ideas. Did Hoover really think anyone in the United States would have supported a president in 1945 who called for "unconditional peace" with Japan?  

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