Tuesday, March 03, 2009

From Colony to Superpower, Part XIII

This is the thirteenth 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.

That World War II is the most transformative and important event in the twentieth century seems without question. In the United States, the nation rapidly transitioned from a country committed to limited engagement with the world outside of trade to the world's most powerful nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the primary architect of this project. In the last chapter, Herring seemed rather critical of FDR, and to a certain extent he remains so here. But Roosevelt also did a tremendous job preparing the U.S. for the war against significant domestic opposition in the 18 months before the war, allowing a still unprepared U.S. to transition into the war fairly quickly. A lesser leader might not have done this and it could have been 1943 before the U.S. was ready to fight at all. Generally, the narrative of the war is fairly uninteresting to me. I basically don't care about wars as a subject of study, except for their domestic implications. So I'll move on to some specific issues of interest.

One problem with a lot of diplomatic histories is that wars dominate the narrative at the expense of other topics. To no small extent, Herring does this as well; it's understandable but his tentative interests in the cultural side of America's relations with the world almost totally disappear in this chapter. I do think he does a good job discussing Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. This is one of the strongest sections of the book. He shows both the benefits of the Good Neighbor policy in Latin America for short-term stability and its downside through allowing dictators like Somoza and Trujillo to consolidate their repressive regimes with tacit U.S. support. The sons of these two leaders even attended West Point. The minimal weapons provided by the U.S. allowed these governments to kill its own civilians. Whether the Good Neighbor policy was in the best long-term interests of the nation is a question Herring doesn't really explore.

In the Middle East, Herring does a great job getting into how the U.S. comes to see oil as the world's most important resource and how by 1943, the nation is becoming increasingly involved in Iran and other nations to ensure a steady supply both for the war and the postwar world. In Asia, Roosevelt wanted to slowly bring colonialism to an end, something fiercely resisted by Churchill and De Gaulle. But his own racism, and the racism of the entire nation, made taking the proper actions unlikely. Thinking the Vietnamese and other Asians were children who needed to be protected, the U.S. ultimately did little to end colonialism and moreover began to see itself dictating policy to the region. In China, Chiang's corruption became ever more obvious during World War II. Chiang had powerful friends but constantly frustrated the U.S. government who frankly saw Mao's communist movement as more effective and quite likely the winners of the Chinese civil war.

Herring also usefully discusses the fate of the Jews. While many criticize Roosevelt for not doing more to stop the Holocaust, Herring points out that he faced massive anti-Semitism both in the State Department and the U.S. population. Plus, nothing he could have done would likely have saved many Jewish lives. Roosevelt's classic ambivalence shows up very strongly in figuring out what to do with Jews after the war. He gave lip service to both Jews and Muslims on the issue and never had a strong plan, but he could also see the hornet's nest he was walking into. It's almost taboo to say this, but the establishment of Israel is one of the great foreign policy disasters of the 20th century. While one cannot question that Jews were not safe most anywhere in Europe, creating a state under constant siege that has to displace the people already living there and then oppressing them in occupied territories has not exactly been a huge success. The failure of the Jewish state to establish long-term stability in the face of low birthrates compared to the Islamic population suggests either it losing its Jewish identity or apartheid; either way, it's likely that we'll still be dealing with these same problems in another 60 years.

The person who comes off the worst in this chapter is Churchill. It's not surprising--Churchill was an excellent wartime leader but was a bastard of the first order who had no business leading the British during peacetime. His racism, outright colonialism, willingness to sell nations out, and unwillingness to consider changing Britain's traditional foreign policy prerogatives in the face of the obvious decline of the empire did little to make him a sympathetic leader today. Of course, he was facing massive challenges and perhaps changing who he was is way to unrealistic, but I have trouble arguing with the British people throwing him out of office the first chance they got.

Finally, no discussion of the war is complete without the atomic bomb. Herring is right in criticizing FDR for keeping Truman (and all his VPs) out of the loop. Although I'm sure he didn't want to dwell on his mortality, it was clear by early 1945 that FDR was running out of time. Truman was completely unprepared for the task of steering the nation through the end of the war. However, he did pretty well. His most controversial move was using the atomic bomb against Japan. It was unnecessary and immoral, but also almost inevitable. The nation spent such a huge amount of money on the thing that to not use it would have caused incredible outrage in Congress and among the general public, perhaps leading to the impeachment of Truman and the end of many politicians' and soldiers' careers. Without an outright surrender of the hated Japanese, there was no chance Truman would have made any other decision, and I think the same is true of Roosevelt, although of course we can't know.

There's more to say about US-Soviet relations, Yalta, and all of that, but I'll leave it to Rob and respond to his piece.