Seventy-five years ago, Archibald Gary Coolidge, who later became the first Editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote a book with a theme and title entirely novel at that time, "The United States as a World Power." In it he made the first attempt to define the new role in the world then rapidly being assumed by the United States. He remarked that all nations divide mankind into two categories—themselves and everybody else. And he said that Americans would be just as prone as others to cherish the pleasing belief that they had grown great by their own virtues and the favor of a kindly Providence, whereas the progress of other states was marked by unscrupulous rapacity; hence, they would demand that American statesmen keep sharp watch lest nefarious foreigners take advantage of their good nature and honest simplicity. The accuracy of Mr. Coolidge's analysis was corroborated before long by the alacrity with which the American people accepted the idea that they had come into World War I altruistically, in order to make the world safe for democracy ("American" democracy); and again by their readiness to suppose that President Wilson and his advisers at Paris had been bamboozled by wily European statesmen. The latter conception was promoted by American isolationists who depicted the League of Nations as a naïve and useless affair and a trap to involve us in Old World power politics.

The war in Vietnam has been the longest and in some respects the most calamitous war in our history. It has rent the American people apart, spiritually and politically. It is a war which has not been and could not be won, a war which was pushed from small beginnings to an appalling multitude of horrors, many of which we have become conscious of only by degrees. The methods we have used in fighting the war have scandalized and disgusted public opinion in almost all foreign countries.

Not since we withdrew into comfortable isolation in 1920 has the prestige of the United States stood so low. Following Harding's sweeping victory and his announcement that Wilson's League was "now deceased," the League of Nations passed out of the minds of most Americans. Having won the war for their allies, as they put it, Americans considered that they were entitled to attend to their own affairs exclusively. The world was stunned. The United States had won glory by turning the tide of battle in Europe and moral stature by sponsoring, through President Wilson, a program for organizing the peace that the world craved. In their disillusionment, Europeans did not forget America's achievements in the war or minimize what the American Relief Administration and other organizations continued to do in feeding the starving and restoring the wreckage in devastated regions. But something was gone from the picture that the world had formed in wartime of Americans; their adventurousness, their willingness to take risks had disappeared. There were Americans, too, who felt that the American dream had paled and who had twinges of conscience that their country was taking no part in the endeavor to make a new war less likely.

Efforts were made before long to demonstrate that the United States was on the side of peace even though it would not share the alleged risks of becoming a member of the League of Nations. One effort was made in Coolidge's administration, the second in Hoover's. In the summer of 1928 Secretary of State Kellogg took part in negotiating what became the Pact of Paris, the purpose of which was, in the popular phrase, to "outlaw war." It aimed to establish peace by fiat and was acceptable to the U.S. Senate because its signatories were not committed to take any concrete action to prevent aggression. It was harmless except to the extent that it led the American public to suppose that something effective had been done to compensate for the refusal to participate in the League. A second effort to show that the United States was on the side of peace was made by Secretary of State Stimson in January 1932. The League had been struggling vainly to find means to curb the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Stimson sought to back up the effort by committing the United States to a policy of not recognizing the fruits of aggression. The plan was well intentioned, but its effect in slowing the Japanese invasion was nil.

This was not a period in which the United States was influential in world affairs. Materially, it was a Great Power in capital letters; morally, its greatness did not shine. When the Great Depression overwhelmed the United States, as all nations, Roosevelt's spectacular measures of reform gave the American people hope and trust again, but there was little energy left to think about the troubles and dangers of others. The European landscape was black. A new arms race set in. Hitler's advent was a portent of what was to come. Roosevelt made an effort to have the Neutrality Act amended so that the United States need not, by insisting on its rights as a neutral, break a blockade set up by members of the League against an aggressor; the possibility that it would recognize a blockade would be a powerful deterrent to aggression. The Senate refused.

Through the interwar years the picture of the United States in the eyes of the world remained much as it had been after the Senate killed the proposal to join the League, refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and rejected the Tripartite Pact which promised France protection against fresh German attack and which she had accepted as a substitute for seizing territorial guarantees of her own on the Rhine. Nor did it ratify the Protocol of the World Court. American policy was looked upon as quirky and unpredictable.

II

In the first issue of Foreign Affairs Elihu Root expressed a fairly obvious fact in picturesque language: "When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs." It is notable that Mr. Root, having in mind the collapse of four great autocracies following the First World War, referred to autocracies in the past tense, an error of which we soon became aware.

Since the United States is not an autocracy nor is it an oligarchy in the formal meaning of that term, the Vietnam War did not originate in what Mr. Root called sinister purpose. Did it, then, originate in mistaken beliefs? If we did indeed start down the road to war unwittingly and in ignorance, and if we failed to notice the points at which our leaders went wrong in time to curb or deflect them from a doomed failure, what are the characteristics of our society which account for our having been left in such a pitiable situation?

Discussions of the issues raised by these questions, indeed the discussion of all the problems of American foreign relations, are being carried on today in a denatured terminology. The rhetoric of good words and high ideals is everywhere heard; but the opponents of selfish or provincial attitudes are at a disadvantage which they did not face formerly and do not altogether recognize now. The words used to express the highest aspirations have become shopworn. Calls to duty or endeavor like those uttered 50 years ago by Woodrow Wilson today sound hollow and meretricious. The phrases have been used and abused too long.

It was in that period of American public euphoria, misleadingly called "normalcy," that Foreign Affairs was founded. Its purpose was not to promote specific policies, however laudable, but to increase the interest of the American public in foreign policy as such and stimulate their consciousness that they were an integral part of a world society and had a concern for its welfare as a whole. To anyone who had a share in that enterprise there seems to be a similarity in the situation then and now. Actually, however, the forces at work are very different. The risk today is not that the American people may become isolationist; the reality is that the United States is being isolated.

In these conditions, an attempt to write other than cynically about the present situation of the United States seems bound to be an exercise in futility. Yet the attempt must be made. Unless we evaluate and not merely enumerate the elements in our society as they condition the quality of our foreign policy we shall not make progress in changing what we feel is wrong with it. And wrong it must have been. Not, in the experience of the present writer, since the Harding era when we denied our enlightened self-interest and retreated from responsibility in our foreign relationships, while confessing to scandal and tawdry commercialism at home, has the world had such a poor opinion of us. American principles, which sometimes were characterized as naïve but in general were respected as sincere and humane, now are freely called hypocritical and self-serving; the weight of American material and military power, looked to in the past as a mainstay of world stability, is now mistrusted and feared.

III

Once again in the Second World War the United States saved Western civilization. The victory won, it took the lead in forming the United Nations and the Senate voted membership in it almost unanimously. It is now one of the two superpowers, unassailable in nuclear strength. Nevertheless its political power is less than its material power and its prestige is tarnished.

Our methods of fighting the Vietnam War are what have chiefly fanned world opinion against us. But there are other causes of resentment too. Radical changes in the structure of our foreign policy undertaken recently without notice to friends and allies have strengthened a feeling that American policies are conceived for American purposes only. Gratitude for the immense sums given for foreign aid since the war, and especially for the help given Europe in the Marshall Plan, has largely evaporated. Just as the war has sharpened all our internal conflicts, so it has accentuated foreign criticism of American civilization and intensified the resentment of foreign governments that the United States seems more and more to ignore their political interests and economic needs.

In the summer of 1971 President Nixon announced without warning that his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, had been secretly consulting with Premier Chou En-lai in Peking and that he himself was planning a visit there shortly. A month later, he announced that he had unpegged the dollar from gold and ordered a ten percent surcharge on imports; this our allies considered contrary to international agreement. These actions, and to a lesser degree the later announcement that the President also planned to visit Moscow, confirmed the feeling in many foreign offices that American policy was erratic and egocentric.

The President's goal was to come to live-and-let-live terms with two great nations that had long sought to undermine our position in the world and that were hostile to our social and political system. His grand hope was to end the remnants of the cold war with Soviet Russia and make progress toward curtailing the arms race; and to open contacts with the People's Republic of China, with which we had no diplomatic relations and with which we had once come close to war on behalf of our protégé Taiwan. The objectives were admirable, provided the endeavor did not involve sacrificing friendships and alliances with peoples with whom we had had close ties, some of them traditional and in a sense sentimental, some economic and commercial, some rooted in similar concepts of constitutional government, democracy and freedom. In his preoccupation with methods of attaining the goal, and in his excitement as he seemed to near it, the President lost sight of the proviso. The result was a chaotic situation. The stability of the monetary system was further undermined, with our NATO allies among those most adversely affected. Canada, an essential friend and neighbor, Japan, the rising power in East Asia, and India, the largest Asian democracy, were alienated.

The approach to Peking was not precipitate; it had been carefully prepared. But the announcement that the President would go there in person was made in a way that caused maximum embarrassment to the Japanese government. We had been pressing Tokyo to have as little as possible to do with "Red" China, "our mutual enemy." In so doing, we had opened Premier Eisaku Sato to domestic attack for sacrificing Japan's interests to those of the United States. Suddenly he found himself bereft of his excuse for having taken a position opposed in many influential circles. He felt betrayed.

Japan deserves consideration in the forefront of American foreign policy in her own right. Japan is now the world's third industrial power. Japan provides the second largest market, after Canada, for American goods, and a third of her foreign trade is with the United States. "Japan is our most important ally," said President Nixon on February 25, 1971. Our recent policies do not reflect a full awareness of these facts.

The end of our long-time friendship with India came about as a by-product of our efforts to please the People's Republic of China by averting our faces while the army of China's protégé, Pakistan, bloodily repressed a revolt in the eastern half of the country. India was overwhelmed by an influx of refugees from East Pakistan and took the occasion to help weaken her traditional enemy Pakistan and establish the independence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh, meanwhile accepting the support of the Soviet Union in exchange for the peevish "neutrality" of the United States. Our maneuvering included the futile naval demonstration—plainly directed more against the Soviet Union than India—of sending the Enterprise sailing up the Bay of Bengal (and down again). The gainer was the Soviet Union, which signed a treaty of mutual support with India and secured new facilities on the Indian Ocean, where the Soviet fleet will now face the American on better terms.

Canada is our neighbor and, we have always assumed, our staunch friend. The British used to take us for granted, a fact that irked us considerably; the Canadians have been similarly irked that in our eyes Canada is a natural extension of our culture and a part of our economic domain. This has been particularly exasperating because it is based largely on fact. Our periodicals sell in Canada almost to the exclusion of the local product. We have provided the greater part of the capital for developing Canadian raw materials and have acquired majority control of Canadian industries.

The increasingly uncomfortable character of the Canadian-American relationship remained unrecognized by the American public and apparently was given scant consideration in Washington, as shown when President Nixon made his economic and financial announcements, and Secretary of the Treasury Connally at once began negotiations with Canada (as with many nations) in an effort to see that the United States derived maximum benefits from its new economic policy. In the talks with Canada he stressed the need to "rectify" Canada's favorable balance of trade with the United States, and demanded changes in the 1965 pact which allowed Canadian-manufactured automobiles to be shipped across the border duty-free.

Canada pointed out that not only had she suffered annual deficits in overall trade with the United States in the 20 years before 1970 but that for the five years before 1971 she had suffered deficits in the automobile trade up to $625 million. Was Canada to understand that the United States was prepared to trade with her only when she incurred a deficit, and required concessions from her when (for a change) the United States incurred a deficit? And how was Canada, with a trading deficit, to pay the immense sums of interest, dividends and transportation costs arising out of American investments in her industries?

The effort to improve the overall American trade balance and balance of payments, even if this meant resorting to protectionist measures, was of course connected with the financial drain of the war in Vietnam. Canadian public opinion was strongly critical of the war and this increased the opposition to American efforts to secure Canadian concessions to help pay for it. Canadian official resentment was exacerbated by Secretary Connally's seeming lack of understanding for Prime Minister Trudeau's difficulties in submitting to American demands when Canadian elections were in the offing. (American officials are not the only ones that must take account of elections.) In general, Canada simply put down the controversy as an example of the usual self-centered approach of Americans toward their northern neighbor. Our isolation from other peoples is the reverse of 50 years ago; today we are the object, not the subject.

IV

Our age finds it convenient to simplify everything. "Know thyself," a difficult proposition, is supplanted by "Know everybody," not "everybody" as diverse types but as a single prototype-glands, psyches, behavioral reactions and all. That we take refuge in generality is not surprising. Our society has become so complex that the multiplicity of its individual problems overwhelms us. To save our self-respect we turn from the un-understandable particular to the perhaps understandable general.

What is called for is a resolute attempt at complication, as the events detailed above indicate. Interactions must be understood as well as facts. Science and technology are adding to the world's problems, not solving them. Something better than a hit-or-miss relationship must be established between the knowledge amassed by scientists in a multitude of fields and the decision-making processes of those who guide political action. How are discoveries in physics to be related to population trends, urban blight, television addiction, substitutes for standard nutritional resources? The answers will not come out of a computer because judgment as to utility and aesthetic choice cannot be fed in along with the facts. Robert Oppenheimer once said to me that physics had become so recondite that the formulae that demonstrate one scientist's conclusions often remain intelligible only to himself. How, then, is a statesman knowing nothing of science to choose between alternative recommendations regarding, say, the development of ballistic missiles, presented to him by scientific advisers who may not know possible variations in fundamental factors involved?

Those who watched the negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 struggle to find a realistic and usable pattern of the events that were transforming the world around them, and so to act to forestall new tragedy, redeem promises and justify hopes, were conscious that the leaders assembled there, men on the whole of unusual caliber and in some cases unusual idealism, were unable to come to grips individually with more than a single fraction of the problems they faced. Single minds could not encompass such complexities. Since then the condensation of time and space has magnified the complexities and made each component problem more immediate.

This ought to temper our criticism of our leaders as we look back at the remnants of half-understood policies and stumbling actions that strew the path of our involvement in Vietnam. It does not make us feel a need, however, to be lenient in our judgment where they disguised disasters in clichés or cloaked the miseries of millions of refugees, harried hither and yon under a rain of bombs, under comfortable terms like "resettlement" and "reëducation."

It must be made less likely—for it can never be made impossible—for American leaders again to take the country into war unawares. Proposed legislation to limit executive power to conduct an undeclared war by requiring the President to obtain congressional approval of his action within 30 days is misleading; in 30 days a war will have achieved a momentum of its own and will have introduced complications in relations with third powers that neither the public nor Congress will know how to limit or terminate. And of course no domestic legislation can prevent foreign attack, nuclear or otherwise. The prescription for reform is not written in specific terms. If we assume that mistaken beliefs, in Mr. Root's terms, have been responsible for the failure of the American democracy to curb actions of its leaders that are leading to war, the prescription is stunningly large and recovery can come only slowly as a result of a multitude of actions that could give our country a sense of direction again.

The direction is not backward, in nostalgia, to the virtues of our forefathers, except that we will draw from them an adventurous spirit and in that spirit will answer the question, "What is wrong?" with the answer they gave, "Let's do something about it." The direction is forward, to recognize and accept the present ills of our society and to set about curing them—by rehumanizing ourselves, by readopting civility as a part of good behavior, by recognizing that history can inform the future, by encouraging the growth of élites in many fields, not in order to copy them snobbishly but to set intellectual standards to which everyone may in some degree aspire, by asserting that aesthetics is an essential element in art, by reëstablishing learning as opening doors to choice, by leavening the mediocrity of our culture with snatches of unorthodoxy, by welcoming diversity of opinion as an essential element of strength in a democracy.

Is this a dream? The crudeness brought by the mechanization of modern life says, yes it is. But science need not be against us, nor need we be against science. Almost 40 years ago Newton D. Baker wrote in Foreign Affairs: "The triumph of science in the material world encourages us to do some laboratory work with the human spirit. A peaceful world would have been less amazing to George Washington than wireless telegraphy. We must not think too well of atoms at the expense of thinking too ill of men." If we accept that adjuration we may recover our self-confidence and self-respect and regain for our nation the standing in the world's estimation it once possessed.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now