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From Colony to Superpower XV: Little Hitlers

[ 0 ] April 5, 2009 |

Erik leads off the 15th installment of our 20 part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower with a discussion of John Foster Dulles, and of the role of racism in America’s Cold War foreign policy. I’m more interested in Eisenhower’s relationship with the Middle East, China, and the military-industrial complex.

There was a reason why Eisenhower decried the military-industrial complex; he was attacked from the right by Democrats on defense spending. Eisenhower was the product of a much different understanding of the role of the military in American foreign policy, an era in which defense budgets and the military establishment they supported were quite small. Eisenhower did not, however, step back from committing the United States to a hegemonic role in the Western world. Instead, he tried to achieve hegemony on the cheap, relying on nuclear weapons to keep the peace with the Soviet Union and on covert operations to maintain friendly governments around the world. Herring argues that the CIA essentially lucked into victories in Guatemala and Iran (not so lucky for the Guatemalans and the Iranians) which led to unreasonable expectations for the future of US covert operations. Herring also argues that, while nuclear threats were credited by Dulles and Eisenhower with forcing peace in Korea and saving Taiwan, the actual impact of such threats is far less clear.

China plays an interesting role in this chapter. A question came up in the comment thread of the last installment about the role of the China lobby; I’ve responded a bit at the end of that thread. Chiang Kai Shek proved a real problem for Eisenhower and Dulles. The competitive pressures of the Cold War were exacerbated by the fact that domestic supporters of CKS and the Nationalists were ready to pounce on any indication of a weakening commitment to Taiwan. Mao’s victory, after all, had served as the proximate cause for the rise of Joseph McCarthy. Concerned about the security of Taiwan, Eisenhower and Dulles felt compelled to take risks in defense of Quemoy and Matsu, tiny islands off the mainland that were still held by the Nationalists. At this point, the US still felt comfortable in making explicit or very thinly veiled nuclear threats, although it’s unclear just how seriously Mao took such promises. Policy towards the PRC ossified under Eisenhower, as the administration had no interest whatsoever in risking the defection of the right wing of the Republican party, or in opening itself to attack from the right by the Democrats.

Europe, of course, also presented certain difficulties. Eisenhower’s response to the Suez Crisis was, in my view, about as well-crafted as could be expected. I understand that some Israelis still argue that, if only Nasser could have been deposed in 1956, Israel’s security could have been confirmed in the long term. This is plainly insane, for reasons that don’t really need elaboration. In any case, Eisenhower made clear that France and the United Kingdom would be left to the tender mercies of the Soviet Union if they did not desist, and both relented, suitably chastised. This event, along with the rearmament of West Germany, helped to solidify the asymmetric nature of the US relationship with Great Britain, if not with France, and consequently with most of the rest of Western Europe. It’s also interesting to note that US policymakers felt some affinity with religious Muslims, both in the Arab world and in Pakistan.

Herring makes the case that the collapse of relations between the United States and Cuba was mainly the fault of Castro. This is to say that Castro’s vision of Cuba didn’t have a lot of room for the United States; the Eisenhower administration was surprisingly flexible, turning on Batista towards the end and extending feelers towards the new regime. For Castro, however, alienating the United States was a feature, not a bug. Herring is skeptical that the United States could have engaged in any policy that would have produced amity with Cuba, although the invasion and the continuing efforts at destabilization and assassination (which he details in the next chapter) probably didn’t help.

Castro was, I think, the fourth of the “little Hitlers” that emerged during the 1950s. The others were Mao, Khruschev, and Nasser. The Munich Analogy loomed very large in the minds of US policymakers, and there was deep concern that threats were not being identified and reacted to with sufficient speed. The administration’s defense strategy contributed to this; it was difficult to respond to some crises without reference to nuclear weapons, which proved a very limited tool for making countries do what the US wanted. It’s never precisely one or the other, but I do tend to be somewhat more tolerant of the use of the Munich Analogy by people who actually lived through World War II, rather than its use by those who simply wish to screech “Chamberlain!!!!” at any opponent of aggressive military action.

Kennedy, Johnson, and chapter XVI come tomorrow…


Firedoglake Book Salon, 5pm ET

[ 0 ] March 21, 2009 |

I’m hosting a Firedoglake book salon for Juan Cole’s latest, Engaging the Muslim World, at 5pm this afternoon. Swing by if you get a chance…

From Colony to Superpower XIII: Israel on the Ostsee

[ 0 ] March 7, 2009 |

Erik starts off this week’s discussion of From Colony to Superpower. Chapter XIII covers the years between 1942 and 1945, which involved a rather significant expansion of the global profile of the United States.

Herring talks a bit about the debate that surrounded the decision to pursue the “Germany first” strategy. Naval officers in particular were strongly in favor of leaning towards Asia, as were many of Roosevelt’s critics in Congress. Herring points out that the exertion of effort didn’t, in material terms, really favor the European theater early in the war, and that in any case the distinction was overblown. I wonder, however, how a more vigorous policy could have been pursued in the early years of the Pacific War. The key limitation was the number of warships available, and the ships that won the war (Essex class CVs, Cleveland class CLs, Baltimore class CAs, Fletcher class DDs) wouldn’t appear in numbers until mid-to-late 1943. The early parts of the Pacific War were largely fought with legacy forces, because those forces were available. There are a few instances in which ships could have been transferred from Europe to the Pacific (several members of the North Carolina and South Dakota classes of battleships did tours in Europe prior to deployment to the Pacific), but I don’t know that much more effort could have been exerted than was, indeed, exerted. The one area in which extra effort could have been made, I suppose, was with the USAAF; the bombers allocated to the Eighth Air Force could have been sent to the Pacific, or to China. The latter was tried with disastrous effect in 1944, and it’s hard for me to see how the former could have had decisive effect.

Herring also spends some time discussing Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist tendencies. Roosevelt despised both French and British colonialism, and often came into conflict with both Churchill and De Gaulle regarding the future of the European colonial holdings. The effect of his anti-colonialism was limited, however, by the need to win the war, and by his belief that immediate independence for many of the colonial holdings would be counter-productive. This is to say that while he hated the idea of colonialism, he tended to prefer policies that were in large part similar to the policy of the United States towards the Philippines, in which independence would be guaranteed following a period of tutelage/development. Churchill, being one of the last unreconstructed advocates of Empire, didn’t cotton to this argument. I suspect that Roosevelt underplayed the anti-colonialist card; the French and the British needed the US much more than vice versa, and had Roosevelt been willing to accept a little risk, decolonization could have been accelerated.

Of course, much may have been different if Roosevelt had survived the end of the war. Herring suggests, I think correctly, that one of Roosevelt’s greatest failures was the non-education of Harry Truman. Herring puts a lot of blame on Roosevelt for not making a realistic assessment of his health situation in 1944 and 1945; surely, he suggests, Roosevelt must have had some sense of his own mortality, and thus some idea of the need to bring Truman up to speed. On the other hand, Roosevelt also had a lot on his plate. That said, if Roosevelt was unwilling to bring Truman into his circle after 1944 and educate him regarding the course of the war, then he shouldn’t have accepted Truman as his VP candidate. Truman became VP primarily as compromise between different wings of the Democratic Party, but it’s hard for me to believe that not just Roosevelt but the Democrats as a whole were willing to make no allowance for the President’s mortality. In any case, Truman was a quick learner and proved to be up to the job, but things could have gone much worse.

Erik alludes to the question of a Jewish state in his post; one of the things I learned from the latest chapter of Herring is that King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia proposed that the Allies carve a Jewish state out of Germany, rather than settle Holocaust survivors in British Palestine. Roosevelt and Churchill rejected this proposal out of hand. I’m thinking that there would have been substantial upside; it would have made the connection between the Holocaust and the Jewish state explicit rather than implicit, and would have had the merit of hurting the people who had actually caused the Holocaust rather than those who hadn’t been involved. The German population could have been expelled from, say, Schleswig-Holstein, which is only a bit smaller that present-day Israel. Israel on the Baltic would control the Kiel Canal, and its security could eventually have been guaranteed by NATO. The Germans might complain, but they were enduring far more violent population expulsions in the East. Moreover, present-day Germans seem to have gotten over the loss of Danzig and Konigsberg. That said, the fact of strong Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s rendered this proposal dead on arrival.

Finally, Herring notes Roosevelt’s increasing disenchantment with the State Department as the primary organ of American foreign policy. Roosevelt came to believe, as early as 1940, that the State Department as an institution was insufficient to the challenge presented by modern foreign relations, especially in wartime. It’s interesting to track the role of the State Department across Herring’s account of the history of American foreign policy; it’s not quite right to say that State’s role slowly, steadily declines across the centuries, but it’s not quite wrong, either. State is slowly supplanted both by private actors and other government institutions; after 1940 this accelerates, with the War (and eventually Defense) departments taking an especially large bite. I’m not sure what to make of this, except to suggest that it has more to do with the institutional structure than it does with the culture of State.

From Colony to Superpower XII: The Calm Before…

[ 0 ] February 22, 2009 |

Chapter XII of From Colony to Superpower covers the period between 1932 and 1941. This is, as far as I can recall, the first time that Herring has broken up a presidential administration across chapters. This is, of course, a sensible enough move in the context of the Roosevelt administration…

Herring goes into some detail on international efforts to ameliorate the Great Depression. FDR does not come off well; he has little interest in accomodation with Europe, and minimal diplomatic skill. Given the immense size of the US economy relative to any European economy, this pretty much doomed the effort to create a multilateral response to the Depression. In fairness to Roosevelt, the international economy was not nearly as institutionalized in the 1930s as it would be post-war, but I suspect, nevertheless, that much good could have been accomplished by focusing on the disaster that was overtaking the entire Atlantic community, rather than to disaggregate the problem into a series of separate, national disasters. Although Roosevelt certainly understood the nature of the crisis, he may not have fully grasped its international dimension, or the possibility that international action could remedy, if not solve, certain aspects of the Depression.

Wholly apart from the Depression, the decade 1931-1940 was, of course, quite eventful. Roosevelt followed Hoover’s non-confrontational policy with Japan over Manchuria, but he did break with precedent by extending full diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. Herring doesn’t dwell overmuch on Roosevelt’s conduct of relations with Japan, hitting the high points and moving on. It does merit note that Roosevelt’s Asia policy was well within the American mainstream in the first half of the twentieth century; the US strongly preferred access to China, and was willing to take a number of steps short of war to preserve that access. What changed between 1931 and 1941 was the Japanese invasion of China, and then (perhaps more important) Japan’s linkage with the European Axis and Japan’s seizure of French Indochina. The notion that Roosevelt “forced” Japan into war hardly merits attention; Japan was dependent on US resources in order to pursue its conquest of China and SE Asia. In response to US pressure it could have abandoned such policies; while the outcome of the oil embargo was predictable, it doesn’t follow that Roosevelt was responsible for the Japanese decision.

While the US maintained diplomatic relations with Germany well into the Second World War (although the US ambassador was recalled in 1938), there was never much question as to where Roosevelt’s sympathies lay. Herring’s account doesn’t differ from most other accounts of this period in suggesting that Roosevelt was willing to take reasonable risks on behalf of the United Kingdom, and that he identified Nazi Germany as a serious threat to American security. These steps are familiar; exchange of military information, loans, arms exports, Lend Lease, and eventually direct cooperation in the anti-submarine war. By December 1941, the United States was already de facto at war with Germany; Hitler’s declaration of war simply made things official, and opened American coastal shipping to U-boat devastation.

US relations with Latin America reached a high point during this decade. The US didn’t have the means to muck around in Central America or the Caribbean, nor did Roosevelt have much of a taste for such adventurism. The result was the Good Neighbor policy, which minimized chances for intervention while continuing to push trade contact. The situation became somewhat more complicated with the rise of German influence in Latin America, leading the US to make a variety of trade and political concessions in return for the excision of German capital and advisors. For example, Mexican nationalization of US owned oil assets in 1938 brought hardly a peep from the US, as long as Mexico agreed to minimize its contacts with Japan and the European Axis. Military-to-military connections (these would eventually grow into the School of the Americas) also began during this period.

More soon…

From Colony to Superpower XI: Prelude to Hegemony

[ 0 ] February 14, 2009 |

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.

From Colony to Superpower X: Wilson Epic Fail

[ 0 ] February 1, 2009 |

Chapter X of From Colony to Superpower covers the Wilson administration. There’s a lot here; much of the chapter deals with US relations with Mexico, which Erik is probably a bit more qualified to discuss, and which I’ll accordingly return to in the second round. To start with, I’ll concentrate on Herring’s treatment of the Road to the Great War.

The presence of the United States on the world stage had been steadily increasing since the Revolution. During the Roosevelt administration, the United States became a more or less conventional great power, building and consolidating a colonial empire and evening the field economically and militarily with the most powerful European state. Accompanying this rise to conventionality, such that it was, the idea of American exceptionalism developed and matured. Under the Wilson administration, these strands came together in the construction of a theory that could explain and guide the behavior of the United States in the international sphere; liberal internationalism. It’s not quite right to say that the ideals of liberal internationalism (pursuit of a particular vision of democracy, free trade, international organizations, United States as first among equals) emerged solely from the United States during this period, but it is remarkable the degree to which coherent vision of American foreign policy and the international system was in place by 1916. This vision crossed party boundaries (both Roosevelt and Taft shared general principles with Wilson, although they disagreed on specific points), and offered a narrative of US participation in the First World War. For a variety of reasons, the first US experiment with liberal internationalism was a qualified failure.

Herring capably describes the development of liberal internationalist sentiment (which was structured, in many ways, by the Great War), and the eventual collapse of Wilson’s efforts in Europe and the United States. Abroad, Wilson failed to create what he understood to be an equitable peace with Germany (on his own terms; I think there’s a good argument to be made that Germany should have been punished much more harshly, but Wilson didn’t believe so), to save a reformed Austria-Hungary, to structure new European borders safely and fairly, and most notably to challenge the foundations of European imperialism. At home, he was unable to make the case necessary to enrolling the United States in the central multilateral institution of the period. I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that Wilson’s foreign policy, while ambitious, resulted in utter failure on its own terms.

Herring briefly discusses the Lusitania incident. I have long believed that the sinking of the Lusitania rivals the sinking of the Titanic in the extent to which its significance has been overblown; for all the heat, the actual sinking seems to have had very little impact. The US did not enter the war or substantially change its policy towards Germany as a result of the sinking. The outrage surrounding the loss of Lusitania was one of several reasons why the Germans moderated their submarine policy, but German U-boats were not numerous enough in 1915 to decide the war in any case. Moreover, German behavior of 1917 provided ample causus belli independent of the sinking of Lusitania; this is not to say that the US decision for war was a good one, but rather that the Germans furnished reasons for war (Zimmerman Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare) that would have held in the absence of Lusitania’s destruction. Thus, while the destruction of Lusitania was certainly tragic (and was incidentally not solely the fault of the Germans, as the ship was being used to smuggle arms to the UK), I do not understand why it has earned such a place of priority in accounts of US participation in World War I.

This brings me to a related question. It’s commonplace to argue that US participation in World War I was a tragic and avoidable error. Indeed, I’ve argued so myself. However, I think that while the “tragic” part is sound, the “avoidable” is in much greater question. The United States could have avoided entanglement by observing an embargo against all belligerents, but it’s fair to say that this is not something that an American President could have advocated in 1914. William Jennings Bryan made, as Secretary of State, some effort to limit US trade, which was met by howls of protest from, well, pretty much everyone. It was also inevitable, I think, that American trade would heavily favor the Allies. Without ordering the US Atlantic Fleet to escort convoys to Germany, there was no way to break the British blockade. As such, it’s very difficult to imagine how the United States could have gotten to 1917 without being intricately bound up in the war, formally neutral or not. After that, it’s not easy to construct a scenario under which an American president, even one opposed to the war (and Wilson certainly lacked enthusiasm for it) could have navigated public outrage generated by German diplomatic clumsiness and the renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare. I suppose that the very best that could have been hoped for would be a replay of 1940-41, in which the US engaged in more or less active maritime hostilities against Germany without a declaration of war, or direct intervention on the continent. I do think that this would have represented a better choice in 1917; however, I suspect it would have been very difficult to pull off politically.

Finally, as I’ve argued before, I would liked to have seen more about US military policy; if in the next chapter we don’t get some account of the importance of the Washington Naval Treaty, I’ll be quite put out.

From Colony to Superpower IX: Teddy

[ 0 ] January 30, 2009 |

Some kind, anonymous soul picked up my bag off the street and delivered it to my office, meaning that I didn’t have to buy another copy of Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. Thank you! And so we return to the series at chapter 9, which covers the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, the Great White Fleet, the Roosevelt Corollary, and so forth. See Erik’s commentary first.

Imperial consolidation is the motivating concept of the chapter; the United States consolidated control over both its formal empire (Philippines, Caribbean, South Pacific), and its informal imperial interests in Latin America and Asia. The United States also undertook the modernization and professionalization of its diplomatic corps. This helped the United States achieve a number of notable diplomatic successes, including Roosevelt’s brokering of the Russo-Japanese War. I think it could be argued that the United States achieved full membership in the European Great Power system under Roosevelt, completing a process that had been initiated nearly a century before.

Herring continues to give short shrift to the independent influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan. I think I would have preferred this account to pay greater attention to the intersections between a foreign policy history of the United States and a military history of the United States. By this I don’t mean more detailed attention to the wars that the United States has undertaken, but rather closer scrutiny on the history of the military organizations, and there relationships both foreign and domestic. They are key foreign policy organs, after all, and the popularity of Mahan (and other figures like him) is important, I think, to analysis of US foreign relations during the Roosevelt period. But then the book is still only half over, and I’ll be particularly curious to see how Herring treats the “globalization” of US military power after 1945.

US intervention in the Russo-Japanese War is interesting for several reasons. As discussed earlier, the United States and Imperial Russia maintained unusually cordial relations in the nineteenth century. These relations began to deteriorate as US foreign policy took a more overtly ideological tint, and as American Jews became increasingly concerned with the plight of Eastern European Jews living under Russian governance. While it would be wrong to suggest that Roosevelt and the larger elite foreign policy establishment were unmoved by the plight of Russian Jewry, the primary concerns weren’t precisely altruistic; Americans worried that continued repression of Russian Jews would lead to mass emigration to the United States. Nevertheless, it’s kind of interesting that, given the hysteria that greeted the possibility of Japanese Pacific expansion, US policy on the war was relatively even-handed. Herring suggests that Roosevelt may have been more personally impressed by the Japanese than by the Russians.

More soon….

Herring Mishap

[ 0 ] January 5, 2009 |

This week’s Herring installment will be delayed due to the fact that I apparently left my copy of From Colony to Superpower on the trunk of my car shortly before driving from Lexington to Cincinnati. And it was a signed copy. Damn.

From Colony to Superpower VIII: American Century

[ 0 ] December 29, 2008 |

Chapter VIII of From Colony to Superpower deals with the second Cleveland and first McKinley administrations, covering the Spanish-American War and the beginning of serious US involvement with China.

Herring touches on the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, but I think he gives insufficient attention to the US military buildup between 1893 and 1898. As we discussed last time, the USN in 1890 was demonstrably inferior to even second tier European navies. By 1898 it was capable of crushing the Spanish Navy (really at the bottom of the second tier) and was competitive with any force not named the Royal Navy. The development of the Army was somewhat slower. Herring goes pretty easy on the performance of the Army in the Philippines, although (unsurprisingly, given his thesis) he doesn’t waste time implying that the Spanish-American War was anything but an imperial project. I think a fair argument could be made that an independent Philippine Republic would have fallen victim to either German or Japanese imperialism, but of course this didn’t require a long term occupation by the United States; a defensive treaty allowing for some military cooperation would have sufficed.

Herring briefly mentions the issue of post-war military reconciliation. He suggests that the Spanish-American War provided military professionals from the North and South with an opportunity to heal the rift, so to speak. This is an issue that I’m quite interested in, but unfortunately know almost nothing about. The timeline doesn’t seem quite right to me; some very senior officers in the Spanish-American War must have served in the Civil War, but the numbers would be quite small. I would imagine also that the Indian Wars would have served as the cauldron in which the US Army was, so to speak, reforged. But maybe not; I’ll be tracking down some of the cites that Herring gives on this point.

Herring also gets into US involvement with China, including participation in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. American missionaries and merchants had already extensively visited China, but the late McKinley administration made the first serious efforts at military and political involvement. US concern was motivated mainly by the need to maintain access to China, and thus to prevent its direct partition by Japan, Russia, and the European powers. Although Americans tended to interpret this as altruistic, this belief was not shared by the Chinese. The acquisition of the Philippines and the increased involvement of China were not, of course, coincidental.

More later on the Venezuela Crisis and the promotion of US ministers to ambassadorial rank…

Charlton Heston? Really?

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

I have never pictured Jack Aubrey as looking even vaguely like Charlton Heston, but apparently Patrick O’Brian did. I suppose that I might be more open minded about that possibility if I hadn’t seen Master and Commander before reading the first Aubrey-Maturin novel; the film obviously has its failings, but in general they concern the Maturin character (which is a completely and utterly different animal in the film than in the books), and the related issue of Aubrey being just a trifle too clever. Physically and in mannerism, though, I thought Crowe captured Aubrey almost perfectly. Even Crowe’s performance in Gladiator isn’t particularly Heston-esque, and his turn as Jack Aubrey just didn’t remind me at all of Heston.

From Colony to Superpower 7.2

[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

Paul reminds me of one of the most interesting parts of Chapter VII; the 1891 war crisis between Italy and the United States. The good people of New Orleans saw fit to lynch eleven Italians for roughly the same reasons that the good people of New Orleans ever see fit to lynch people, and the Italian government took offense. There was concern about the possibility of war, and someone noticed that the Italian Navy was actually larger and more capable than its US equivalent. An apology ensued.

Erik brings a second image argument to the table re: the military capabilities question. Heh; it’s so like an American historian to think that the development of ideas and institutions within the United States have a lasting effect on its foreign policy. So reductionist… Anyway, the argument is that a general skepticism towards the Federal government and preference for private actors permeated nineteenth century American politics, minimizing the interest in a large standing military. This isn’t quite the same as blaming the institutions; the US federal government maintained the capacity to mobilize behind big projects, but simply chose not to.

From Colony to Superpower VII: Pacific Dreams

[ 0 ] December 22, 2008 |

Chapter VII of From Colony to Superpower covers the period between 1877 and 1893. Erik talks about missionaries, trade wars, and the generally expansionary US policy in the Pacific. I wish that Herring had dealt in more depth with the tremendous military gap between the United States and the European powers during this period. The United States had a larger population than any European state other than Russia in 1877, and experienced higher population and economic growth than anywhere in Europe between then and 1893. The US industrial base was competitive with that of the UK, and larger than any other European country. Yet US military power was comparatively miniscule. To give a sense of the gap, check this out (average 1877-1893, COW):

Country Military Expenditure/Person % in Uniform
UK $ 0.76 0.73
France $ 0.93 1.47
Spain $ 0.40 0.85
Germany $ 1.02 0.53
Italy $ 0.43 0.72
United States $ 0.22 0.07

That’s a pretty substantial gap, especially given that US GDP, total population, and steel production were all at or near the top of the list during this period. Some of this can be explained by the geographic situation of the United States; France needed more troops because it was next to Germany, for example. This only takes us so far; territorial threat can’t explain why the US retained huge standing military forces post-1945, and in any case the US was certainly developing global interests during this period. Rather, I think there was simply a different understanding of the utility of military force in Europe than in the United States. It would be wrong to say that the US was a pacifist country (as witnessed by the ongoing conquest of the West), but Americans certainly don’t seem to have seen the point of large standing military establishments. To put it another way, the US was economically and demographically capable, even at this early date, of competing for hegemony with Britain and Germany. Americans chose not to. The US didn’t even build a world class Navy, as it would during the 1920s and 1930s.

Apart from the post-war experiences of Germany and Japan (which are obviously dependent on much different factors) I’m not sure there’s another example of a potential hegemon that simply chose not to compete. There are various unsatisfactory explanations for this (Fareed Zakaria’s terrible book comes to mind) but Herring, unfortunately, does not venture much of an effort. In part, this may be because the book’s central thesis is that the United States has never been an isolationist power; this argument is certainly correct to some extent, but there has to be some explanation for the tiny US military profile in the late nineteenth century.

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