United States Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1941: The Golden Age of American Diplomatic and Military Complacency

United States Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1941: The Golden Age of American Diplomatic and Military Complacency

United States Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1941: The Golden Age of American Diplomatic and Military Complacency

United States Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period, 1918-1941: The Golden Age of American Diplomatic and Military Complacency

Synopsis

This study presents an in-depth survey of the principal policies and personalities of American diplomacy of the era, together with a discussion of recent historiography in the field. For two decades between the two world wars, America pursued a foreign policy course that was, according to Rhodes, shortsighted and self-centered. Believing World War I had been an aberration, Americans naively signed disarmament treaties and a pact renouncing war, while eschewing such inconveniences as enforcement machinery or participation in international organizations. Smug moral superiority, a penurious desire to save money, and naéveté ultimately led to the neglect of America's armed forces even as potential rivals were arming themselves to the teeth.

In contrast to the dynamic drive of the New Deal in domestic policy, foreign policy under Franklin D. Roosevelt was often characterized by a lack of clarity and, reflecting Roosevelt's fear of isolationists and pacifists, by presidential explanations that were frequently evasive, incomplete, or deliberately misleading. One of the period's few successes was the bipartisan Good Neighbor policy, which proved far-sighted commercially and strategically. Rhodes praises Cordell Hull as the outstanding secretary of state of the time, whose judgment was often more on target than others in the State Department and the executive branch.

Excerpt

Veterans of the college classroom have often observed that the very mention of the term “historiography” can cause undergraduate minds to wander and eyes to glaze over. The effect can be especially great when the discussion centers on the historiography of American foreign policy during the interwar period, and for good reason: namely, that the wandering of minds and the closing of eyes is not out of character with the indecisive, directionless, and often shortsighted course of American foreign policy from 1918 to 1941. It was not an era of imaginative, purposeful public diplomacy; on the contrary, the main themes of the era were national introversion, a sullen reaction toward political but not economic or cultural isolation, and general confusion. Historians and students of history like to write and study about bold and dynamic leaders—about winners, not losers. But, in their stewardship of foreign policy, the presidents and secretaries of states of the interwar era were more often losers than winners in that they focused on domestic matters and assigned foreign policy a low priority. Stuck in a historical cycle that was hostile to an extroverted foreign policy, they typically opted for a low-risk strategy of avoiding controversial actions. At critical turning points they often chose to do nothing rather than risk decisive action.

The few triumphs of American diplomacy in the interwar period can be counted on the fingers of one hand: the limitation of battleships—which were practically obsolete—at the Washington Conference of 1921; the Good Neighbor Policy; the signing of an international pact renouncing war, which later proved absurdly unworkable; and the New Deal's belated efforts to encourage and assist Britain on the eve of World War II. Far more numerous were the missed chances of American diplomacy: the failure to join either the League of Nations or the World Court; the failure to maintain amicable Anglo-American, Franco-American, or Soviet-American relations . . .

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