Postdoctoral Fellow, University Center for Human Values and Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance, WWS
"When American Supremacy Seemed Strange: The Birth of U.S. Global Primacy in World War II"
In 2016, Stephen Wertheim asserted, scholars do not know why, or even when, American officials and intellectuals decided the United States ought to lead the world — to become the supreme political and military power holding itself responsible for enforcing global order. In his telling, they have obscured the question, unable to imagine the United States in any role except chief arbiter of world affairs. To be sure, historians have either cast the United States prior to World War II as a superpower-in-embryo or asked what took so long for “isolationism” to get out of the way. But these accounts assume America’s will to lead the world was latent all along. They cannot explain why before 1940, Americans, especially self-identified internationalists, abjured armed supremacy, thinking it imperialistic.
Indeed, for most of their history, Dr. Wertheim explained, Americans claimed their nation was exceptional because it did not covet armed supremacy over the world. Accusing Europeans of seeking domination, American diplomats and intellectuals countered with what they called “internationalism.” They hoped peaceful intercourse could supplant the reign of force: the international circulation of goods, ideas, and people would give expression to the harmony of interest among nations and prevent the resort to war. True, the United States had developed the world’s largest economy already in the latter part of the 19th century, but decade after decade, its leaders still did not think economic supremacy necessitated political-military supremacy. And while projecting force into Latin America and the Pacific, they cited the aim of building a New World free from power politics. To dominate power politics globally sounded like the kind of great-power imperialism that Americans always condemned in others.
Even after World War II had broken out in Europe in 1939, Dr. Wertheim showed, American officials who convened in the State Department determined that one thing was certain: the United States would undertake no political-military commitments after the war. Then, in the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany conquered France. Suddenly Hitler was master of the continent and seemed likely to defeat Britain and its empire. The prospect of an Axis-led world reversed American assumptions about the potentialities of international society. Now any peaceful intercourse, far from replacing armed force, seemed to depend upon armed force. Dr. Wertheim argued that in official and especially semiofficial circles, American postwar planners scrambled to map “the living space” required to safeguard U.S. economic and geopolitical interests. Planners in the Council on Foreign Relations — working secretly for the State Department — mulled over which world regions to protect, adding more and more, before concluding that America must defend the entire planet. Out of the death of nineteenth-century internationalism, the idea of U.S. global supremacy as internationalism was born.
Practicalities were still not resolved, however. In 1941, planners for the postwar preferred an exclusive partnership with Great Britain and its white Dominions to replace the more inclusive yet failed League of Nations. They developed elaborate blueprints for uniting the “English-speaking peoples” to police the postwar world, and FDR endorsed this vision in the Atlantic Charter, often misinterpreted as an anticolonial document. But their Pax Anglo-Americana “fell like a dead duck” upon Congress and the American people, to whom U.S. supremacy sounded imperialistic, contrary to traditional internationalist ideals. According to Dr. Wertheim, policy elites launched a campaign to legitimate U.S. political-military preeminence. From 1942 to 1945, they formulated a narrative that turned armed supremacy into the epitome of “internationalism,” a term they appropriated and redefined in opposition to their newly coined pejorative “isolationism.” These terms were then projected backwards to define the supposed history of the American public from its origins.
Then, Dr. Wertheim observed, the postwar planners reversed course and decided to revive a universal world organization to replace the League of Nations, but less to eliminate war or promote law than to cleanse U.S. power in the eyes of the American public as well as foreign states. Harnessing the resonance of prior efforts to end power politics in the name of internationalism, the United Nations, in Dr. Wertheim’s telling, became an instrument to implement power politics. Thus legitimated, global supremacy, unthinkable before the war, became by the end the only plausible alternative.
Following the talk – a combination of richly empirical discoveries and deliberately provocative arguments characteristic of The Nation magazine – a lively debate ensued. Was not American global supremacy a logical, indeed a necessary response to the genuine threat of Nazism and Japanese aggression? What were the concrete alternatives to American global supremacy for confronting the very real Soviet menace? Similarly, could the global economy – and all the wealth generated, including the Japanese economic miracle and the Chinese economic miracle – have come into being without American global supremacy? Was the sudden turn in 1940 to embracing American global supremacy, and the work to make it happen and be legitimated, something to be cheered as an achievement, notwithstanding its downsides?