The Sun Never Sets on Postwar America
A Book Review of ‘Tomorrow The World’ by Stephen Wertheim
Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow The World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, Belknap Press Press, 2020.
“And what, I said, will be the best limit for our rulers to fix when they are considering the size of the State and the amount of territory which they are to include, and beyond which they will not go?”
“What limit would you propose?”
“I would allow the State to increase as far as is consistent with unity, that, I think, is the proper limit.”
“Very good,” he said.
~Plato, The Republic
When was the last time the general public had a truly open discussion on to what the limits to Washington’s global frontier are and what they should be? Where does the global power projection of the United States end? Have the post-World War II and post-Cold War settlements made the United States the world’s indispensable nation, or has it put itself in a remarkable state of over-expansion and decline as it stretches its security commitments above and beyond those of any other power in history?
There has never yet been a truly global great power in world history in the universal sense. No nation has ever been able to have its way across the entire planet without significant reversals and eventual decline. A strong case could be made that the United States came the closest of any great power to total global hegemony. But now sees the signs a post-peak decline relative to other powers as well as greater assertion by rivals. It certainly seems like a mythology of exceptionalism is not going to alter the United States’ fate as a subject of history like those who came before.
As Americans we are almost uniformly taught a specific story about the rise of our country from reluctant industrial powerhouse to omnipresent globe-straddling power. This traditional narrative tells us that the United States failed to engage with the rest of the world in the aftermath of the First World War, and that this failure created the conditions that would necessitate us seizing the mantle of leadership during the Second World War lest the process repeat itself. The public, in this story, was against a worldly presence and remained resolutely and shortsightedly isolationist until Pearl Harbor forced the issue. The implication is often that if constant interventionism is not upheld that the general public will return to this view. Thus, the rhetoric of many foreign policy elites has come to continue to assert that the United States is beset by enemies that threaten it on an existential level, even though such paradigms have long been rendered obsolete. Where this historiography correct it would still be about a specific era with quite different variables than today, and a case can be made that story of America’s reluctant rise is not even correct in the first place.
Of course, Pearl Harbor was not some freakish and unprovoked event, but rather the culmination of a breakdown in U.S.-Japanese diplomatic relations related to an economic blockade imposed upon Tokyo in retaliation for its occupation of much of China, an expansionist policy that the U.S. vigorously opposed. The militarists in Japan, no longer able to rely on trade for growth, convinced themselves the only way to break out and establish autarky was through expansion into Southeast Asia, something that would inevitably cause war with Britain and (it was assumed in Tokyo) the United States. Combined with the massive neutrality violating policies of Lend/Lease that the U.S. pursued towards the British and against the Germans, it is obvious that isolationism wasn’t quite the omnipresent policy we were told it was.
This mythology of an absolute binary between constant militarized engagement with the world and total isolationism begins in this era, but it has now evolved into assumptions about Grand Strategy to all of U.S. foreign policy. As Stephen Wertheim’s new book, ‘Tomorrow The World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy’ shows us, isolationism is largely a canard. The specter of isolationism is largely a rhetorical weapon used to demonize a largely non-existent policy position in order to quash all criticism of endless American expansionism. One does not need to be universally opposed to all of American policy since the Second World War to see the immense value of this book in showing the ideological lineage we have inherited that distorts how we talk about Grand Strategy through the present.
Wertheim’s first task is to rebuild the discourse of interwar America as it really was, not as it is retroactively imagined to be. He does this by using archival research that shows, in the very words of people alive at the time, how international the United States was before the Second World War. This internationalism was (excepting the obvious fact that the foundation of the country itself had been built on expansion at the expense of the indigenous population and Mexico) largely non-militaristic. Exceptions occurred of course, most notably during the war with Spain in 1898, but compared to other major powers of the time the United States was much more interested in diplomacy and commerce than it was in militarized competition. This did not change after the First World War, where, despite not joining the League of Nations, the U.S. remained diplomatically active and invested in international trade. Its actions around the Kellog-Briand Pact and the Washington Naval Treaty show an engaged but not militaristic power.
It is often said that generals tend to start each conflict by trying to fight that last war. The same can be said for geostrategists gauging great power competition. Britain and France were largely responsible for defeating the Central Powers in 1918, so it was reasoned in Washington that they could at least contain if not outright defeat the 3rd Reich in 1939. France had, on paper, the strongest army in Europe. It had had the strongest and arguably most important army in World War I, despite a rocky start. The Germans had been beaten before; they would at least be checked again.
But then the unthinkable happened. France fell after a six-week onslaught starting in May of 1940. Britain was left alone, and Germany now controlled the resources and population of an additional major power. One with huge ports and naval assets on the Atlantic Coast. It was this event, the upsetting of all geopolitical assumptions by American strategists, that brought forth the need to sell the public on the idea of the U.S. being a powerbroker not just in the Western Hemisphere, but in Europe and Asia if not the entire world.
The first tactic was to build up the ideology of Anglo-American solidarity. The United States might not be ready to directly intervene in the war, but it could do everything shy of fighting directly to bulk up the British Empire in ‘defense of the English-speaking peoples and their values.’ The League of Nations had failed, so any future collaborative effort would clearly need to be guided by the firm hand of a unified and militarized Anglo-American bloc. This new selling point in the media came about by castigating those opposed to this as ‘isolationists.’ An especially ironic charge given the pro-diplomacy position of most people classified as such. In effect, to refuse to defend the British Empire was now viewed by many as the same position as wanting to turn away from the world entirely.
1941 would change everything yet again. American policymakers had over-estimated trade as a value of a nations power in wartime and under-estimated industrial output. In the Second World War it was Russia who would stand strong rather than France, an inversion of the initial assumptions that came from the first war. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and their initial successes stalled in front of Moscow, it soon became apparent that the Soviet Union was an especially important ally for making the postwar future. The fact that the British were the past, not the future, was then shown clearly later that same year when the Japanese attack on Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma produced a military collapse as calamitous for the British position in Asia as the fall of France had been in Europe. The future would not be between London and Washington, but between Washington and Moscow. And it would not be collaborative.
By the time the U.S. was fully committed to fighting on both fronts for total victory it was obvious that backing up the British Empire behind the lines to keep a favorable balance of power would not be the future of American strategy. As the end of the war came the United States realized it now had half of the planet’s industrial and economic power. Obviously, the United States was going to inherit an unprecedented level of influence in global affairs. The question was, “how much, and to what extent?” It was here that the rhetorical tactics of those who had fought against “isolationism” would be deployed in a new and more expansive way. The United States would replace and surpass the British Empire. The sun would never set on the stars and stripes.
Wertheim deserves immense credit for keeping his personal opinions quite close to the chest. His main point is not to say U.S. policy was entirely wrong in the postwar era or to define a specific point where it went off the rails. He is interested in how events in history circumscribed how we, as a society, discuss issues of grand strategy and the American role in the world. Specifically, how these events created an ideological monopoly for political factions in both major parties whose desire is to see a ceaseless expanding and militarized U.S. foreign policy and ever increasing defense budgets despite there being no existential threat to American security. Even if you, (like myself) believe that U.S. leadership over the immediate postwar world was largely an inevitable and initially positive thing, if you question any subsequent events to that or the logic of a continuing expansion you will be subjected to accusations of “isolationism” or failing to uphold the true American values of perpetual messianic conversion of as much of the world as possible to our economic and political system. We have seen the results of the of the militarized post-9/11 strategic stance for most of the Twenty-First Century as well as the numerous refugee flows and state collapses fueled by regime change and proxy war operations in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
Perhaps more critically for a DC-based policymaking audience is the question of setting limits in the name of a sustainable national security stance. A simple look over the history of great powers begs the question: what major power in history, be it empire or not, has not been fatally undermined by over-expansion? As commitments expand further and further from core areas of interest the expense of military deployment increases and the desire for the average citizen to support those deployments decreases. With this comes a militarization of the overall political culture and the rise of mercenaries. That leads us here, to policies of endless war that enrich private contractors and support politicians tied to their lobbyists, but of no provable benefit to the average citizen at home, and outright chaos and destruction imposed on people abroad. Just taking the War on Terror alone, its apparent there is an enormous cost and very little, if any, gain to be had in the present strategic posture. What we face now is not an existential question of state survival due to foreign threats, but a choice between endless expansion for its own sake or a more sustainable path that has been delegitimized by the rhetoric of a vastly different time with completely dissimilar security imperatives. The call of threatening global militarism in today’s age is revealed to be coming from inside of the house.
One of the most eye-opening parts of Wertheim’s book is a map near the end that shows the global reach of potential future U.S. military bases as imagined by strategists in 1945. Even in that time of unprecedented American power, far more than the U.S. has today compared to our its rivals, it was nowhere near the number as currently exists. As U.S. power relative the rest of the planet has declined, it has increased, rather than decreased, the military nature of its presence abroad. This tends to trap us in quagmires with policymakers often unwilling to extract us from due to fear of looking defeatist or beholden to the chimera of isolationism. Furthermore, the assumption that power vacuums abroad are net benefits to U.S. rivals can be thoroughly debunked seeing the dangerous and intractable nature of conflicts in many of these regions are more likely to become a burden than a positive gain for them. “Tomorrow The World” reminds us that it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to remain so either. If we can expand the options of discourse on grand strategy, we can find a superior and more sustainable path out of our present predicaments.
Christopher Mott is a research fellow at Defense Priorities and a former researcher at the Department of State. He is the author of “The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia” as well as of numerous reports related to geopolitical history and analysis.