Sunday, February 08, 2009

Herring Review, Part XI

This is the eleventh 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 is about the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations. Getting sleepy yet? It's not quite that boring, but it's not the most interesting period of American foreign relations either. I've always found the 1920s to be one of the most difficult periods of American history to talk about. It's a period of great modernization and a lot of continuity with the Progressive Era, but also is a major break from that previous time, sometimes it seems on the same issues, particularly on the role of reform in American society. It almost feels like an outlier of American history. What's really going on I think is a kind of last gasp of 19th century America--the craziness of the Progressive Era subsided and Americans got their beloved return to normalcy, but modernism couldn't be put away. Neither could science, social reform, a growing federal government, diversity, or women working outside the home.

And neither could the world. Herring's thesis here is that given the world of the 1920s and given American domestic policy, the United States could not have done much more than it did to change the future. He stresses that while the U.S. avoided most treaties that required actual commitment, the nation certainly was not isolationist, as many historians have asserted. I basically agree with Herring here. The U.S. thought was it was doing worked during the 20s. The nation wanted peace and the Washington Naval Treaties, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and other agreements were designed with this in mind. Herring says that post-World War II criticisms about these treaties are ahistorical and again I mostly agree. It's not fair to accuse Americans of not being able to see the future of Hitler, Mussolini, and Japanese expansion. After all, how many of us saw the financial collapse 2 years ago? You have to judge people based upon their possible range of actions. While there were Americans, particularly international businessmen, who saw some of the problems that would overtake the world in the 1930s, most Americans could not conceive of these disasters. Certainly the relatively dim lights of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge could not. If there is blame to be thrown around for American foreign policy during these years, it should go more to the American people than to the lame leaders they elected.

That said, while Herring does his best to enliven these years, they just aren't that exciting. He notes tentative changes in U.S. policy toward Latin America, with somewhat less military intervention. But ultimately Americans fell back upon invasion when they felt the need. Herring expresses relief that the U.S. didn't go to war with Mexico in the 1920s when Obregon and Calles were undermining American business interests in that nation. But at the same time, we did send in the Marines to put down Augusto Sandino's revolution in Nicaragua. This failed, but we did place Anastasio Somoza in power; he and his family would brutally rule that nation until the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. This is when Trujillo took over in the Dominican Republic and other pro-American brutal dictators established themselves around Latin America. So it's not as if the Republicans ultimately were that different from Wilson in this regard.

I did think it was interesting to be reminded of how American corporations gave crucial support to the Soviets in their darkest hours in the mid 1920s. One might argue that without American economic help, the Soviets would have fallen before 1940. Would this have been good? Probably not, though the Ukrainians might disagree. But a weak Russia would have been a disaster against the Nazis. In any case, the Soviets' desire for rapid modernization fit very well for American companies' desire for international markets. The Americans fooled themselves into thinking they could open up the Soviets through their investments; turns out you can have a brutal dictatorship and economic success at the same time.

There is probably more to say, but I'll pass it off to Rob now.