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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Soelistyo

Reading "Tomorrow, the World" by Stephen Wertheim

This book by historian Stephen Wertheim is an impassioned account of the emergence of US global military dominance after World War II. Since then, not only has the US dwarfed all other states in terms of military spending, but it has also maintained a far-flung system of military bases around the world and deployed its power to fight wars in places as distant as the Middle East and East Asia. Today, US military dominance has become as natural a part of our world as any other - almost axiomatic. However, as Wertheim makes clear, this has been true only since the end of World War II. Yet, how did it come to be?

In dissecting Wertheim's answer (and taking into account the unruly lengths of some of my previous reviews), I will restrict myself to five key messages that, at least, were new to me.

I. "Isolationism" was a carefully constructed myth

One core theme of the book is that of "isolationism" and its opposition to the "internationalism" espoused by proponents of American global supremacy. A common narrative is that in the prewar United States, the American public was strongly "isolationist" in the sense of shunning all connection with the outside world. The United States was then roused out of its slumber by the events of World War II, and has been exercising its true potential ever since.

However, Wertheim contends that the predominant choice of the time was never between "isolationism" and "internationalism", but rather, between two kinds of "internationalism", one which sought liberal interchange of ideas, goods and people without a concomitant expansion of military commitments, and one which maintained that American global military supremacy was required to sustain this liberal interchange. As such, it was a choice not of engaging or disengaging with the world, but of the extent to which the United States would embroil itself in the great power politics of the world. The eventual emergence of the "isolationism" narrative was orchestrated to discredit the opponents of US military supremacy as "isolationists" who sought to disengage from the world altogether.

Hence, instead of a transition from "isolationism" to "internationalism", Wertheim describes a transition between a kind of internationalism that eschewed power politics, to one that asserted US power as the supreme ordering agent of the world. He writes that "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". He claims that in the prewar United States "essentially no one thought of him- or herself" as an "isolationist". Therefore the "claim that the United States ever followed [isolationism] or that influential Americans ever favored it - is a myth" (p.4).

On the contrary, Americans held dear the ability to conduct worldwide commerce and accrue wealth without military entanglement, which they saw themselves as able to transcend as a unique nation. For most of its existence, Americans "pursued capitalist growth and fancied [themselves] exceptional while shunning political and military entanglements in Europe and Asia", despite waging aggressive wars to carve out a sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. By the 1870s, the United States was already the world's largest industrialised economy; however, this economy superiority "did not persuade its ruling elites to pursue military superiority", largely because "they believed Americans could generally conduct commerce without imposing the terms by force" (p.6).

This was an internationalist and non-interventionist ideology that reaches back to the Founders and finds its origin at least partly in American exceptionalism. The United States was "born of exceptionalist nationalism", perceiving itself as "providentially chosen to occupy the vanguard of world history", ushering a world "governed by reason and rules, not force and whim". Hence, George Washington warned his successors to "steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world" while engaging in "liberal intercourse with all nations". Even President James Monroe, who asserted US hegemony over the entire Western Hemisphere, sought to turn this sphere of influence into a zone "exempt from power politics" (p.19).

The prewar United States was thus always internationalist in outlook; not isolationist. It was, however non-interventionist, refusing to embroil itself in the power politics and to take sides in the wars of European great powers, all the while asserting its right to conduct "liberal intercourse with all nations". It had entered conflicts to defend this right; such as in World War I, where Germany attacked transatlantic shipping and thus threatened America's ability to conduct free trade with Europe (p.23). However, even when it did intervene, it never embarked on "anything resembling the project of global supremacy" that it conceived during World War II.

Wertheim locates the point of transition as this war, and in particular, the fall of France in May 1940.

II. American involvement in World War II began in May 1940, not December 1941

As evidenced by the US-British destroyers-for-bases deal (September 1940) and lend-lease aid (March 1941 onwards), the Americans were involved in the war long before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941. According to Wertheim, the primary trigger was the fall of France to Nazi Germany in May 1940.

From September 1939 to May 1940, the administration of US president Franklin D. Roosevelt expected a "drawn-out stalemate" in Europe along the lines of World War I. Its main strategy at this stage was to "intervene as a kind of umpire" in the conflict, and mediate a peace between Germany on one side, and the Anglo-French alliance on the other. As for the America, it would "not make security commitments beyond the 'natural unit' of its Pan-American sphere", preferring to "leave the politics of Europe to Europeans". This dovetailed with a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) assessment that the American public judged "military and political tie-ups" in Europe to be "taboo" (pp.40-42).

This all changed when the Wehrmacht proved capable of flattening France, a great power with the world's strongest army, thus upending the balance of power in Europe completely. Germany now threatened to extend its conquest to the Britain, jeopardising the British Empire and upending the power balance of the entire world.

The fall of France triggered such a shock to US elites because it "shattered the premises of U.S. foreign relations" - namely, that Americans would be able to freely conduct business, trade and other forms of "liberal intercourse" around the world in an unrestricted manner. Despite the aversion of the US to "military and political tie-ups", it maintained a strong stake in this kind of world, in which it can access foreign lands and markets without limit (p.48). Americans had heretofore assumed the ability to "send goods, money, people and ideas far and wide without needing to take on corresponding political entanglements" (p.52).

Now, what threatened America was "the prospect of a solely hemispheric existence, walled off, in every respect, from the rest of the earth". The US would continue to exercise dominance over much of the Western Hemisphere, yet this bloc would face the "Nazi New Order in Europe", against which it would live a "warlike" existence (p.48).

As such, when the Japanese attacked US naval bases in Hawaii on December 7th, 1941, the attack "caused nowhere near as deep a shock as the fall of France" (p.134). Pearl Harbor turned the United States into a formal belligerent of the war. However, the US rationale for partaking in the conflict - which it had done since late 1940 - had already come into being with the fall of France. Yet, we need to explain just why the prospect of a "solely hemispheric existence" seemed so threatening to US policymakers.

III. America's anxiety stemmed partly from its exceptionalist ambition

Bounded to its east and west by vast oceans, the continental United States faced no discernable threat in 1940, even from a Nazi empire in control of Europe. As Wertheim puts it, "most conceded that Panzer tanks were not about to roll through Washington D.C.". US foreign policy elites saw Hitler's conquests as a crisis not of US security, but of "what they called world order". They determined that the United States should not "tolerate a world in which totalitarians possessed preeminent power" (p.51).

Wertheim summarises their reasoning in two key points, both based off the axiom that the United States should not "confine peaceful, liberal exchange to its own hemisphere", suffering the loss of trade to the rest of the world (p.52). The first point was that America's economic position vis-à-vis the rest of the world might weaken.

In July 1940, the influential commentator Walter Lippmann penned a Life magazine article titled "The Economic Consequences of a German Victory". In it, he warned that the defeat of Britain would hand totalitarian states the control of all the industrial "workshops of the world" apart from North America - that is, Japan, Russia and Western Europe. Totalitarian states could mobilise "gigantic government monopolies managed by dictators and backed by enormous armed force" in these vast territories, against which American manufacturers, farmers and labours would not be able to compete. To do business with them would resemble "naked soldiers trying to stop a charge of tanks" (pp.52,53).

In response, the United States could, in theory, improve its bargaining position by adopting the same model of governmental organisation and control of trade, so as to "meet the German monopoly with an American one". However, Lippmann dismissed such a regimentation of the American economy as an assault on free-market capitalism, which was unacceptable. The closing off of Europe to American trade would thus make the American economy either less competitive, or less capitalist (p.53).

The only alternative was to maintain areas of free trade outside the zone of totalitarian control. Moreover, one key lesson learnt by US policymakers from the fall of France was that "pacific forms of engagement [i.e., free trade] ... would extend only as far as military force permitted" (p.49). Whereas American elites had before enjoyed the possibility of "liberal intercourse" without military engagement, Hitler's conquests impressed on them the necessity of the latter to maintain the former. Therefore, the key concept after May 1940 was to delineate and secure free-trade areas of the world that would present a "minimum of trade dislocation" for the United States economy, and which American power could also dominate and militarily defend (p.55).

This spurred US planners - particularly in the Council on Foreign Relations, America's foremost think tank - to concoct schemes for this region, such as the "quarter sphere" concept or the "Grand Area" concept; the idea being to create an economic entity that could provide as much of its import requirements and absorb as much of its exports internally as possible, i.e., be economically self-sufficient with as little adjustment as possible. Only American dominance of an area blessed with a "superiority of economic power over that of the German sphere" could maintain America's bargaining power vis-à-vis its potential enemies (p.69).

Therefore, American anxieties in the spring of 1940 were based on a strong geo-economic logic. However, Wertheim criticises studies of this period that focus predominantly or exclusively on economic factors alone (he cites the 1977 book Imperial Brain Trust as one such case; my review of that book - which contains a more detailed description of the Grand Area - can be found here). Underneath the geo-economic rationale for fearing hemispheric isolation lay a particular conception possessed by American elites, of the country they governed.

According to Wertheim, they saw America's mission in the greater scheme of things as globe-spanning. Rather than being a normal nation-state, America was to be the exceptional nation that would give "law and order to the world", and act as the "font of world history". This sentiment was echoed by Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, who claimed that now the United States shouldered "the duty to hold western civilization in trust". Similarly, Walter Lippmann stressed the importance of "preserv[ing] the order of the world in which the American nations were born and have flourished"; while Lippmann counselled hemispheric defence as a first step, he maintained that its main purpose was to establish "a citadel so strong in its defenses that by our own example the world can eventually be redeemed and pacified and made whole again" (pp.58,59).

It was this vision of America's role in the world - rather than America's physical security - that was threatened by Hitler's conquests in 1940. The United States would be constantly on the defensive - on the "receiving end of world history" - rather than be its driver. Roosevelt lamented that a caged-in United States would be "a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force". Such a fate would be "the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents". Wertheim points out that as Roosevelt spoke these words, the United States possessed the world's largest economy and dominated the entire Western Hemisphere. However, in spite of this, Roosevelt had "rendered economic strength and hemispheric supremacy as tantamount to total enclosure, indeed imprisonment"; physical security and wealth would not be enough if America now turned into "a passive suffered acted upon by history rather than an agent making history" (pp.57,58).

Hence, the fear of US elites of a future in hemispheric isolation was rooted not only in geo-economic terms, but also the discourse of national identity and American exceptionalism. In response, planners at the CFR delineated the future boundaries of a US-controlled world that would exist alongside a German-controlled world. The planners concluded that to attain a bearable level of economic self-sufficiency, the United States would have to control essentially the entire world except for the German-controlled areas (continental Europe and North Africa) and the Soviet Union, which they thought would remain neutral in the conflict in any case*.

*What I found intriguing was that due to the negligible foreign trade of the Soviet Union - and despite its enormous industrial capacity and raw material base - the CFR planners decided to ignore this area entirely in their calculations.

Hence, on October 19th, 1940, the CFR sent the State Department a memorandum that asserted that the Roosevelt administration required an "integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States within the non-German world" (p.69). However, left open was the question of exactly how US military dominance was to be implemented, apart from the massive ongoing armaments drive and support of the British Empire. In the coming years, two options were explored: exercising American power through a "world organization", such as some improved version of the defunct League of Nations, or policing the world through an exclusive military alliance with Great Britain and its white settler dominions.

IV. US elites sought an American-British alliance to police the postwar world

Wertheim notes that in 1941, the idea of an Anglo-American political or military union "vaulted to the forefront of U.S. politics" (p.94), motivated at least partly by the desire to unite the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon peoples. CFR organisational director Francis Miller, one of the main advocates of this approach, encouraged "folk-thinking, namely, a sense of kinship with Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders". The CFR similarly stressed to the State Department that "Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and even Germany have closer racial ties to the United States than does Latin America", implying that Anglo-Saxon union made more sense than a purely hemispheric policy (p.60).

Whereas this sort of "folk-thinking" had never raised widespread interest in Anglo-Saxon union before, now in 1941, the idea had "advanced to a stage where it has become an acute political question", according to CFR director Whitney Shepardson (p.94). Indeed, Wertheim notes that throughout most of 1941, the alternative idea of a "world organization" was viewed by postwar planners far less favourably than the idea of America "polic[ing] the world through an exclusive alliance with Great Britain and its white Dominions". They imagined a scheme whereby the alliance would operate a global network of joint military bases, with the United States even extending a form of citizenship to "Anglo-Saxons the world over", which would grant all citizens' rights except to vote or hold political office (p.84).

Why was the idea of Anglo-American unity so popular in the United States in 1941? Wertheim dismisses pure "Anglophilia" as the sole driving factor. While racial, linguistic and cultural ties may have played a role, they did so alongside geopolitical factors related to the progress of the war.

By 1941, postwar planners were imagining a Nazi Germany unable to defeat Britain yet in control of continental Europe. Meanwhile, the rest of the world would "belong to the Anglophone powers, their fleets intact, as they waged a warlike peace with Nazi Europe" - in other words, a cold war between Nazi Europe and the Anglophone-controlled world (p.97). In this "warlike peace" Great Britain could serve as an invaluable ally. Not only were the British actually fighting the Germans, but they possessed an imperial system that seemed to be "proving itself vital in the war against the Axis and equally vital to the preservation of order after the war", which the United States could take advantage of as a senior partner*. In the present war, that imperial system had allowed the British to "draw upon vast resources for their sustenance and to bring into operation against their enemies economic, military and naval pressures on a world-wide scale", in the words of Undersecretary Sumner Welles. (p.99).

*The balance of strength determined that the United States would indeed be the senior partner, rather than Great Britain.

Furthermore, an exclusive Anglo-American alliance could act far more effectively than a more inclusive international police force. George Fielding Eliot, a military officer with experience in Australian, Canadian and American forces, stressed to the CFR that force had to be "overwhelming in scale and capable of rapid deployment" or else it would be useless. In a broad-based international organisation, there were obstacles to this aim; namely, the "diversity of interests and outlooks, the diffusion of responsibility, the absence of superintending authority". Eliot therefore concluded that "Anglo-American sea-power is in fact a world-wide power capable of immediate application ... and seems likely to be the only power answering that description" (p.100).

Similarly, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of CFR magazine Foreign Affairs, insisted that "the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international order would rest upon the United States and the British Empire for an indeterminate period following a Nazi defeat". He added that "whether this responsibility is discharged openly or whether it is under the guise of enforcing the decisions of a new or revived League of Nations is of secondary importance from a technical military point of view" (p.101). Indeed, Armstrong saw this mission of America and Britain as global in nature; they "must be in control of the necessary air and naval bases which will enable them, acting jointly or in close cooperation, to contain any possible hostile force" (emphasis added; p.104).

As such, the idea of Anglo-American unity had gained much popularity among US policy elites, both in private institutions such as the CFR and in the State Department itself. CFR planners urged Roosevelt to release a declaration of postwar principles that would dramatise Anglo-American cooperation, and he obliged on August 14th, 1941, signing what came to be known as the "Atlantic Charter" alongside Winston Churchill.

Today, the idea of Anglo-Saxon cooperation is alive and well, manifest in agreements such as the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, or the "AUKUS" security pact struck in 2021 between Australia, the UK and the US, asserting Anglo-Saxon power in the Indo-Pacific.

However, as the year 1941 came to a close, the idea of an Anglo-American military alliance to police the world gradually fell out of favour against the idea of a new world organisation.

V. The UN was intended as a vehicle for the projection of American power

Wertheim identifies two key factors that drove the emergence of world organisation as a viable idea: the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Nazi Germany, and the problem of garnering (domestic) public support for the worldwide deployment of American power.

Prior to Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Soviet Union figured only "peripherally in Americans' postwar thinking", due to the fact that the Soviet Union was neutral in the war, and in any case its contribution to world trade was "scant". Moreover, in the first several months of the German invasion, it appeared as if the Soviet Union might capitulate, and thus be prevented from emerging as a "mighty factor in the postwar world" (p.97).

Still, Operation Barbarossa spurred American planners to realise that the Soviet Union, now firmly in the Grand Alliance with America and Britain, might assert its place in the eventual postwar peace settlement. This "provoke[d] a rethinking of formal American-British exclusivity", given that a victorious Soviet Union might resist and oppose a world order ruled exclusively from Washington and London (p.124).

However, Wertheim notes that the Anglo-Saxon alliance could have simply been extended to the Soviet Union to form a "Big Three" alliance (p.126). Why did planners perceive the requirement of a world organisation?

The determining factor was public opinion at home. Wertheim claims that in planning the global expansion of postwar US military power, foreign policy elites "identified domestic political opinion to be a paramount challenge and an immediate priority". Indeed, the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 faced widespread criticism in Congress and the public space in general. Senator Arthur Capper voiced his opposition to "our attempting to police all Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Seven Seas ... and to our paying the costs of all their wars". Similarly, John Foster Dulles, at the Federal Council of Churches, attacked the idea of "Anglo-Saxon military and economic hegemony", preferring instead the creation of "international organs having the power to make decisions in which others will participate as a matter of right". He accused Roosevelt of hypocrisy for promising in the Atlantic Charter to "seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other" while acquiring for the United States a "dominant position in the world comparable to that of England in the last century ... It seems to me that this is in fact 'aggrandizement, territorial or otherwise'" (pp.126-128).

In August 1941, CFR planners could thus note that the Atlantic Charter "fell like a dead duck" in Congress, and express doubt that "exclusively American or American-British arrangements could ever be made acceptable". In early December, the CFR wrote to the State Department criticising the charter "less for its content than for its optics", noting that "an imperialistic connotation may all too easily be given to the projected American-British policing of the seas, not only by Axis propaganda-mongers, but by perfectly sincere people as well" (emphasis in the original). They concluded that it would be "harder to sell the 'Atlantic Charter' to the American people than it was Wilson's [failed League of Nations] program" (p.128).

At stake was what Adolf Berle, Assistant Secretary of State, referred to as the "natural aversion to war and [the] natural inclination to optimism" of the American public, which imbued them with a perennial aversion to power politics and American entanglement in them. The solution was to mask the exercise of American power in a project that intended not to draw America into power politics, but to transcend power politics as a harbinger of world peace. Postwar planners thus introduced the idea of world organisation to "gesture rather faintly at ending power politics while implementing power politics on a global scale"; such a scheme would "flatter the public's sensibilities, making supremacy safe for democracy" (p.132).

Hence in September 1941, CFR planners made clear to the State Department that their proposals for world organisation were aimed above all at preserving Anglo-American hegemony. They warned that "Anglo-Americanism, if not carefully directed, may be made to appear as an attempt at world hegemony". However, Anglo-American power may be saved my embedding it within a wider world organisation, which was valued by postwar planners above all for its "symbolic power" (p.125).

Therefore, from its inception, postwar planners imagined this world organisation not as a "vehicle for expressing public opinion and controlling military power", but rather as a "device for managing public opinion and projecting military power" (p.133). This was achieved by "vesting real power to make decisions solely in the U.S.-led Big Four. including Britain and the Soviet Union and perhaps France or China". As a small, exclusive body wielding real military power, this inner council could take decisive action. However, it was also important to make smaller powers feel as if their opinions mattered as well, even if this was not the case in reality. Thus, the CFR's Hamilton Armstrong asserted the aim of "instilling the fullest possible sense of participation" in the smaller powers. The CFR's Isaiah Bowman noted that while the Big Four would retain control, a method was desired whereby "all states could be given recognition and given opportunity to regard themselves as participants in the decisions made" (p.139).

Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was equally blunt; what was required was "a sop for the smaller states; some organization in which they could be represented and made to feel themselves participants". Hence, apart from the executive council of great powers, the planners decided to retain a "successor to the League of Nations Assembly" that could allow small states and defeated powers to "meet and ventilate their grievances", without placing any binding commitments at all on the great powers (p.139). In March 1943, Roosevelt himself pitched this proposal to the British, insisting that the Big Four would make "all the more important decisions" while small countries would meet in the universal assembly merely to"blow off steam" (p.142).

Perhaps most extraordinary was the realisation that the United States could exert more control embedded in a world organisation than in an informal alliance of great powers. This was due to several factors; one was the fact that the eventual UN Charter (and its early drafts) required every member nation to "make its forces and facilities available to the great powers", thus enhancing the global policing capabilities of the United States (p.142). Second, some proposals for the United Nations imagined that the United States would gain influence in the administration of colonial territories under a renewed "mandates" scheme. Hence, Roosevelt told Welles that the "new trustees administrating French North Africa ... might well be American" (p.140). Lastly, a world organisation would "allow other United Nations to associate themselves with [the United States] in the exercise of [its] power", thereby endowing the application of American power with international legitimacy (p.144).

Thus, the United Nations was conceptualised by postwar planners as an answer to the "presentation problem" of (Anglo-)American hegemony, all the while maintaining that hegemony itself.

VI. Reflections

Stephen Wertheim has written a comprehensive account of the transition of US elite opinion from an internationalist ideology that espoused liberal intercourse without military supremacy, to an outlook that saw US supremacy as essential to underpin the liberal world order that underlay this intercourse.

This supremacy would be assured most of all by the world-wide presence of the US military; a network of alliances and bases that enables the confident deployment of American power in virtually all regions of the globe. However, US dominance is expressed also in institutions such as the United Nations, where the United States and two of its allies sit permanently on the Security Council. Hence, the transition to American supremacy was accompanied also by a comprehensive revolution in world order.

The only other account of this transition that I have read is Imperial Brain Trust by Lawrence Shoup and William Minter. However, the present book differs from Imperial Brain Trust in two key respects. The first is that while Imperial Brain Trust viewed the transition through a predominantly Marxist/economist lens, painting it as the effort of US elites to maintain their domestic position and wealth, Wertheim's book also directs attention to the nationalist/exceptionalist/ideological dimension. While the former views it through the lens. of domestic class conflict and its international requirements, the latter speaks more in terms of American exceptionalism and liberal discourse.

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive: free trade and other forms of liberal intercourse typically favour the economic elite, and the fierce defence of the right to conduct it could certainly be interpreted as an attempt by these elites - who often control the levers of power in Washington - to maintain their wealth and its sources.

The second difference is that Imperial Brain Trust couches the Marxist/economic logic for US global supremacy as existing prior to World War II; the war merely presented the opportunity for this vision to be realised. Advocates of this view suggest that after the "victory of popular isolationism following World War I", elites banded together to organise "outside the state in order to hasten the day when they could realize the interests of private capital in U.S. global leadership". On the contrary, Wertheim criticises this strain of thought as ascribing to US elites "more prescience than they possessed". Members of elite institutes such as the Council on Foreign Relations "hardly envisioned the United States attaining global military supremacy before 1940". In Wertheim's view, it was the progress of the war - in particular, the fall of France - that spurred US elites to develop a worldview that demanded such supremacy (pp.38,39).

The emphasis on nationalist ideology is certainly intriguing. It will be interesting to observe how this exceptionalist narrative fares as the United States faces a world of rising powers.



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