Monday, February 02, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part X

This is the tenth installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week we discuss Woodrow Wilson's presidency. Rob focuses a great bit on the buildup to World War I and has a lot of interesting things to say about the matter. I agree with his analysis about the Lusitania sinking being an overrated event. It didn't actually change anything. It led to a limited amount of bad press for Germany among the US public, but it's important to note that a lot of said public supported Germany. I think more importantly was that it turned American politicians and business leaders against Germany, but even this was limited and has relatively little to do with the nation's later decision to join the war. Likewise, I agree with Rob that it would have been very difficult for the U.S. to remain out of World War I--as soon as the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, the only way for the U.S. to stay out would have been to give up trading with the British which was clearly not happening.

I'm more interested in how Herring shapes this chapter. Wilson's racist foreign policy leads to even more invasions in Latin America, including the disastrous attempt to apprehend Pancho Villa. This failure is a precursor for the failure of Wilson's foreign policy during and after World War I, ending in the watering down of his Fourteen Points at Versailles and the defeat of the League of Nations at home. While I certainly don't disagree with this analysis, I think it lacks useful context. Wilson's story is a Progressive story. In many ways, Wilson was the ultimate Progressive. Yet we get little context about internal developments in the U.S. during these years. I have long found to many narratives of U.S. foreign policy to exist in a contextual vacuum. A lot of recent scholars are moving beyond these traditional narratives, but Herring doesn't engage this work quite enough for my tastes.

As a scholar of Progressivism, I see these disparate movements as being tied together by a few basic themes. First, an overwhelmingly moralistic way of looking at the world and your involvement in it. Second, a belief that the reformer knew what was best for the world and if just the world would adhere to the provided solution, the problem would simply go away. Third, a lack of deep thinking about many of these problems and a lack of awareness of unintended consequences. Fourth, a view of the world infused with Anglo-Saxon superiority and racism toward other peoples. I'll avoid domestic examples here but can certainly provide them if anyone wants.

All of this describes Woodrow Wilson and his foreign policy. Sure he was racist. But so were most policy makers. Wilson though combined that racism with a self-assured superiority in regards to the rest of the world, a belief that America provided the best model for other nations to follow, and a simplistic idea about social and political problems that led him to catch-all solutions like the Fourteen Points.

Now, you might argue that I'm wrong here. But what you can't argue is that Herring deals with these ideas either way. To what extent do domestic issues and intellectual/political/cultural trends affect U.S. foreign policy? Herring, like most foreign policy scholars, does a good job during the pre-1815 period. But this gets lost in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This is too bad.

A lack of context hurts the chapter in other ways. For instance, what about immigrant groups within the US? Herring mentions that Irish-Americans were upset that the peace treaty didn't deal with Irish independence, but that's about all we hear about them. Yet there were many immigrant groups in the U.S. who openly supported Germany--including the Germans and Irish, which I believe were the 2 largest groups.

Moreover, there was a lot of residual anti-English sentiment among old-stock Americans dating back to the Revolution. I have read with my own eyes books published in 1916 and 1917 convincing Americans that those days are over, that we should get over our dislike of England and realize that Germany is the greatest threat the world faces. That Americans still needed convincing in 1917 that England was our ally was amazing to me. Yet we hear none of this in the chapter.

Similarly, I'd like to see more discussion and awareness of cultural issues. For instance, the same cult of masculinity that so influenced Americans to jump to war with Spain in 1898 played an equally important role against Germany in 1917. In fact, the industrial brutality of the war helped to kill that particular strain of upper-class men's obsession with their own masculinity that influenced hunting legislation, National Parks, the establishment of the Boy Scouts, early anthropology, the Marquis of Queensbury rules in boxing, making football a respectable sport, and many other things. Hunting, boxing, and the Boy Scouts were poor substitutes for the ultimate man-making exercise: war. The Spanish-American War was simply too short to satisfy upper-class men. This is a big reason why Theodore Roosevelt left his career behind to fight in Cuba and why he wanted to fight in Germany--he had prepared his entire life for these battles.

Moreover, these ideas of masculinity were international and influenced our foreign relations. Whether in England, Germany, or the U.S., young middle and upper class men rushed to volunteer for the conflict as soon as they could. That so many of them were slaughtered on the fields of northern France made them realize their romanticization of war was a lie and helped lead to the amazing literature of the war and postwar period. Before the war, the Boy Scouts was an international movement, men from around Europe and America traveled the globe looking for exploring and hunting adventures, and English and German investors went to the U.S. West to play cowboy like TR. People of the time were aware of these ideas and they talked openly in these terms. These constructions of masculinity influenced our interactions with the rest of the world. Yet I'm not seeing much awareness of this in the major works of U.S. foreign policy history and certainly not in Herring.

But it's not as if no historians are looking at cultural connections between the U.S. and the world during the Progressive Era . Daniel Rodgers' excellent history of transatlantic Progressivism, Atlantic Crossings, demonstrates how Progressives in the U.S. were talking to and were influenced by their counterparts in Europe and vice versa. Many of these Progressives entered government and influenced foreign policy. How did these Progressive ideas influence our relations with other nations? We really don't know from Herring.

Now, I'm not trying to be a jerk here. Readers of this series know that I like the book a good bit. I think it is a very solid overview of U.S. foreign policy history. My criticism is of the field more broadly, in particular the major narratives. There are many excellent historians working on the kinds of foreign policy history that I find increasingly satisfying; to a certain extent this is the difference between "diplomatic history" and "U.S. in the world" in the profession. It might seem like a semantic difference, but the latter works to decenter the foreign policy elite and traditional narratives from our understanding of the relations between the United States and the world. It seeks to complicate our narratives by showing how consumers, social workers, civil rights activists, everyday soldiers, and other nontraditional actors shaped our interactions with other nations. Herring is aware of this work and gives occasional nods to it, but ultimately is still writing a traditional foreign policy history with all its benefits and problems.

Rob also wanted to me to talk a bit about Mexico. I've blathered on for so long that I'll keep it short. I think Herring did a pretty good job with this, but I really wish that he would develop a broader narrative framework to encapsulate our interactions with Latin America. He signals changes and continuities between TR, Taft, and Wilson, but I'd like to see sharper clarity on how these Progressive Era presidents and the business interests they allied themselves with in Latin America would shape our dealings with that part of the world through the 20th century. Perhaps the reader can draw those connections for themself, but I'm not sure the non-specialist really would.

Sometimes Herring suggests at these larger frameworks in interesting ways. He points out that John Foster Dulles was a key advisor to Wilson at Versailles. It turns out that Dulles wrote the clause in the peace treaty ascribing all guilt for the war to the Germans. These two men allowed their overweening moralism to affect U.S. foreign policy, often in negative ways. It was Dulles after all who pushed Eisenhower to support Diem; he was confident in that leader because of his Catholicism. That was his major qualification, along with being anti-communist. Wilson and Dulles also followed similar foreign policies in regards to Latin America, using the military (and the CIA for Dulles) to crush resistance to U.S. hegemony and business interests. The Dulles brothers were close to the fruit growers in Guatemala who had their interests threatened by Jacobo Arbenz' government in the 1950s. Allen Dulles' position as CIA head and John Foster Dulles' position as Secretary of State made them unusually capable of using all means necessary to protect their friends and their own investments.

Ultimately though, I don't suspect Herring will draw these connections that sharply in the upcoming chapter on the Eisenhower years.

Overall though, I think Herring summarizes the complexities of the Mexican Revolution to my satisfaction, shows how U.S. racism negatively influenced Haiti, and how U.S. actions in the Dominican Republic led to the rise of the odious Rafael Trujillo. This represents the best of Herring's work--providing a coherent, if traditional, foreign policy narrative that takes at least some of the insights of more non-traditional work into account, while also being willing to call out U.S. presidents for their policies in ways older scholars might not have done so bluntly.

Again, I like the book and I want to stress that. But overall, I found this chapter unsatisfying because there are so many unexplored issues that I think are indicative of my problems with traditional narratives of the field as a whole.

There's more to say but I'll save it for Rob's response.