The United States and Western Europe since 1945: From "Empire" by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift

By Geir Lundestad | Go to book overview

1 The Historical Setting: The United States and Western Europe before 1945

The United States was born in rebellion against one European power, Great Britain, in cooperation with another, France, whose assistance was crucial in the winning of America's independence. In the war of 1812 the United States again fought against Britain and, since the British were at the same time heavily involved in the struggle against Napoleon, this war too actually brought the United States into cooperation with the French, although now more indirectly.

After these two wars, however, the United States came to heed the warnings against “foreign entanglements” that George Washington had presented in his farewell address. “Why, ” Washington had asked, “by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?” There was no really good answer to this question. In the nineteenth century the United States concentrated on expanding its own territory, protecting it from breaking up through the Civil War, and developing its position in the Western hemisphere and in the Pacific.

Economically and culturally the bonds between the United States and Western Europe were close. The large-scale European immigration to the US was evidence of this; as were the millions of trips back and forth across the Atlantic with the many diverse impulses in both directions that flowed from this. The military-political isolation towards Europe lasted until 6 April 1917 when the United States declared war against Germany. Thus, the United States had become the ally of Britain, France, and, until the October Revolution, also of Russia in the last phase of the First World War. In his Fourteen Points of January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson presented an outline to prevent future wars, particularly in Europe, but, as we know, the Senate refused to go along with Wilson's ideas for the participation of the United States in the League of Nations and for the reorganization of Europe.

In the interwar years America's intervention in the First World War came to be seen as a mistake. The First World War did not become “the war to end future wars.” America's involvement had apparently solved little or nothing. The Europeans had quarrelled in the past; they were soon at it again; they

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