Monday, February 23, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XII

This is the twelfth 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. You can see Rob's entry for the week here.

This week covers Franklin Roosevelt's administration up to Pearl Harbor. According to Herring, the Great Depression turned American inward in a way they did not in the 1920s. Usually, the 20s and 30s are seen as a general period of isolation. Herring argues against this, but I'm not entirely convinced the Depression represents as sharp a break as he claims. I don't have strong examples in my favor, but Herring just sort of says this without really showing it. It makes sense that the nation would turn inward as a response to massive economic crisis, but it also seems that there are a lot of continuities between the two decades.

Roosevelt's foreign policy was dominated by dealing with the Depression and then preparing for World War II. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union, a positive step, although it certainly didn't lead to long-term good relations. He also instituted the Good Neighbor policy in Latin America, preferring stability to expensive American invasions. The Good Neighbor policy rightfully comes in for a lot of criticism. It allowed dictators like Fulgencio Batista to come to power in Cuba. Rather than push for democracy or some kind of more responsive government. Cuba was trying to work this under under Grau, but American interests in Cuba undermined his popular movement. The long-term implications of Batista and US policy set the stage for Castro.

On the other hand, a US government not blatantly riding roughshod over the rights of Latin America was a pretty welcome change after 35 years of invasion. Moreover, it would seem like a better time from the perspective of postwar Latin America, when the CIA and American military are active everywhere fighting "communism," broadly defined as "people demanding the rights that Americans enjoy everyday." This of course was unacceptable in the Cold War context and would lead to some of the most reprehensible US foreign policy actions.

Of course, the dominant issue of the period was the rising tide of German and Japanese militarism. Herring shows how ineffective the world was in dealing with both countries. When the Japanese invaded China, they rightfully believed the League of Nations would do nothing. That the United States was not part of the League didn't help, but there's certainly little reason to believe it would have made much difference. In Europe, FDR recognized some of the potential problems fairly early but faced a hostile domestic climate for any U.S. involvement. It really took the invasion of France to wake the nation up.

Herring is critical of much of Roosevelt's policy over these issues, but I think this is a little unfair. He was rightfully focused on domestic issues during his first two terms--after all, the fate of the nation was at stake here. I suppose he could have handled issues like the Italy-Ethiopia war better, but ultimately this was of pretty minor interest for the United States. Spain definitely went bad. Trying to stay out of it meant handing the nation over to Franco. But again, working with the Soviets would have been extremely difficult in 1937 and there was the same widespread domestic opposition to significant involvement. Certainly Lend-Lease furthered U.S. interests in important ways, as did the expansion of the American defense zone into the mid-Atlantic.

Finally, there is the issue of Pearl Harbor. Herring is also critical of American foreign policy toward Japan in this period, saying that we ended up with a 2 front war when we weren't prepared for 1 front. Perhaps, but what were the alternatives? To continue trading with a hostile power bent on taking over all of Asia? If you define all foreign policy questions as whether it is the U.S.' narrow interests to further policy, maybe you can criticize FDR. And certainly there were some clunky moves. But if you at all think the U.S. has some obligation to limit its trade with openly hostile nations, cutting off supplies to Japan makes a lot more sense. Yes, it did help convince the Japanese that it was in their interests to declare war on the United States. But the other side would have been aiding and abetting Japanese militarism.