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Lessons from History: Defining Moments in the American Presidency and Foreign Policy

By Claunch, Ann | Social Education, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Lessons from History: Defining Moments in the American Presidency and Foreign Policy


Claunch, Ann, Social Education


For much of American history, political leaders have stood by a principle that "politics stops at the water's edge." While political disagreements about domestic policies are seen as inevitable and even healthy, there has been a tradition of trying to avoid partisan disagreements over foreign policy. As a result, intense disagreements over foreign affairs have rarely been the focus of presidential election campaigns. This will not be the case in the upcoming 2008 presidential election.

As the presidential election draws near, students will be bombarded with a barrage of political rhetoric emanating from debates and the media coverage. For this reason, now is an opportune time to support our students in understanding the major issue in this election, foreign policy, by looking to the past. (1)

College courses examining the United States presidency and foreign policy can span a semester. To narrow the scope of study, we can build a framework that allows students to compare what has happened with what is happening now by focusing on critical junctures and defining moments in foreign policy. This article will use primary source and other documents to examine two defining moments chosen from twentieth century presidencies to illuminate the complex issues surrounding foreign affairs: President Wilson's support for the League of Nations and President Roosevelt's agreement with Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Looking through a historical lens will help students develop critical thinking skills that they can also apply to the analysis of the policies of the presidential candidates in the upcoming election.

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Pragmatism and Idealism

Whenever presidents deal with foreign policy--either by choice or by necessity--they inevitably find themselves torn between pragmatism (a focus on what is possible) and idealism (a focus on what is best). Perhaps at opposite ends of this spectrum were the Democratic presidents who led the country during the two world wars. Woodrow Wilson was very much an idealist, striving to create a community of nations in the ashes of the First World War that would deliberate instead of fight and that would substitute justice for revenge. He remained steadfast in his idealistic beliefs, refusing to compromise with American allies who wanted reparations from Germany or with members of Congress who did not want the United States to give up some of its power to a League of Nations. His stubbornness led to the loss of much of what he fought for.

Conversely, Franklin Roosevelt was notably pragmatic in his negotiations with America's allies near the end of World War II. During intense negotiations at Yalta, Roosevelt made numerous accommodations to the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin in exchange for Stalin's assistance in the war effort. Roosevelt was criticized heavily by his political opponents in the United States for making deals with Stalin, but to Roosevelt, defeating Hitler was the overriding concern. (2)

Thinking about the League of Nations

While teaching about Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, the historical context must be set on the international stage as well as in the national political arena. Through the primary and secondary sources, students can examine the formal (government) and the informal (public) narratives of history. A thorough examination of Wilson's words through speeches and journals reveals both the public and the private thinking of a president faced with conflict and compromise in his foreign policies. Through political cartoons, students can judge from the distance of time what public opinion had to say about this president's foreign affairs and perhaps the shaping of his subsequent decisions, or, in this case, what happened to the end goal of the formation of the League of Nations when a president did not compromise and ignored his critics' voices.

Introducing well-chosen sources and discussing the types of sources as well as the causes and the consequences of the events in the documents, provides students with multiple perspectives and supports the students' work in active historical engagement by uncovering the story of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations.

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