Read Erik’s contribution first; for some reason he seems to think that Calvin Coolidge was a boring guy. He also talks a bit about US policy towards Latin America and the infant Soviet Union. I think that I found this chapter quite a bit more interesting than he did.
One of the strengths of Herring’s account is that he focuses on the behavior of private actors as much as the government itself. Private actors, from missionaries to bankers to investors, made an enormous contribution to US foreign policy during this decade. Such actors always play a role, of course, but the relative disinterest of Coolidge and Harding to foreign policy made the phenomenon particularly visible during their tenure. Indeed, two of the most important foreign policy programs pursued by these administrations, famine assistance to the Soviet Union and European debt relief, consisted substantially of government coordination of private assistance. The former may have saved the Soviet Union, while the latter preserved, for a while, the European peace. Reparations-driven financial collapse threatened the continent on more than one occasion, and the combination of public and private US diplomacy helped broker continued peace and stability. This accomplishment could not head off either the onset of the Great Depression or the collapse of the post-Great War political settlement, but it did serve to delay continental financial disaster. This pretty much represented the extent of US willingness to engage in a leadership role in European affairs; whether such limited engagement should be seen as admirable restraint or abdication of responsibility is a question for another day…
I had worried a bit about how Herring was going to treat the naval disarmament treaties, given his lack of attention to military affairs in previous chapters. Herring doesn’t disappoint, however; he makes clear the novelty of the treaties, the role that the US played in bringing them about, and the impact they had on Great Power relations in the 1920s. The treaties secured a balance of power between the five major naval players in the international system, and in so doing saved the budgets of Japan and the United Kingdom. That the US played such a pivotal role is notable given that its economy and productive capacity exceeded the other two competitors; it’s not quite right to say that the United States gave up a clear advantage (Japan and the UK had a fraying alliance), but neither is it quite wrong. The treaties placed limits on the number of capital ships allowed to the UK, the US, Japan, France, and Italy, and compelled the scrapping or demilitarization of many warships. In most cases, these warships were less than fifteen years old. It shouldn’t be surprise readers of this site that I think the interwar naval limitation treaties have been understudied in political science.
Herring pays a fair amount of attention to the Peace Progressives, a group of mostly Midwestern, mostly Republican lawmakers. The Peace Progressives believed in both world peace and fiscal responsibility; in so doing they made the (almost heretical in the current political climate) connection that weapons cost money, and that the interest of small government is best served by tight limitations on the size of military forces. The pursuit of international routes to peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact, for example) abetted the interest in fiscal responsibility by reducing the need for large military establishments. I think it’s odd that this combination (preference for low tax, low domestic expenditure, low defense expenditure) seems to occur so rarely in the American political context; perhaps the development of the military-industrial complex served to capture pro-business (such that the term has any meaning…) legislators, or the perceived threat of communism helped purge Republican party doves?
Finally, since I’m so late in producing my contribution, and as blogging time will be short while I’m in NYC, we’ll be pushing back chapter XII until next week.