In November 1782, during the peace negotiations with Great Britain, John Adams talked with one of the British commissioners about the future relationship of the American republic with the European political system. In his diary he reproduced the exchange.

"You are afraid," says Mr. Otis today, "of being made the tool of the powers of Europe." "Indeed I am," says I. "What powers?" said he. "All of them," said I. "It is obvious that all the powers of Europe will be continually maneuvering with us, to work us into their real or imaginary balances of power. They will all wish to make of us a make-weight candle, when they are weighing out their pounds. Indeed, it is not surprising, for we shall very often, if not always, be able to turn the scale. But I think it ought to be our rule not to meddle. . . ."

Adams was expressing what, in the course of the next 150 years, was to become an article of faith with many Americans, the belief that, having won its freedom from the old world, the American republic should have as little contact with it as possible. What other course was feasible, given the nature of the European system of politics? Regarded from this side of the Atlantic, it appeared to be animated by the whims of princes and the intrigues of diplomats and characterized by continual friction between its members, by an endless search for an equilibrium that was in reality neither attainable nor desired, and, intermittently, by wasting and destructive wars. It represented a perpetual menace to American liberties because its members were constantly seeking to involve the republic in their tangled affairs, and because American statesmen were not always as deaf as they should be to their seductions. Safety, therefore, lay in complete abstention from political contact with Europe.

This conclusion, formulated more drastically in 1793 by John Quincy Adams when he wrote that, in the face of the European struggle for power, it was the duty of Americans "to remain the peaceable and silent, though sorrowful, spectators of the sanguinary scene," inspired the isolationism that came to be considered by many to be the traditional foreign policy of the United States. Yet from the very beginning of the republic's history, the belief that the American posture should be one of rigorous aloofness from European affairs was challenged by two contrary views. The first held that it was patently impossible for the United States to remain indifferent to the convolutions of European power politics without running intolerable risks to its security and that, therefore, the proper line for American statesmen to follow was one of defensive accommodation to the balance of power, adjusting their policy to its nature at any particular moment, and exploiting the opportunities that it offered for the promotion of American interests. The second held that it was ideologically undesirable for the United States to impose self-denying ordinances upon itself, since occasions were bound to arise on which it was its duty to intervene in European affairs; that it must recognize its natural affinity with other peoples struggling to be free and must be willing to support them; that it must understand that there was, indeed, a balance of ideas in the world as well as a balance of power, and that it was only by tipping the former in the direction of liberty that humanity could be freed from the evils of the latter.


Although their public declarations sometimes suggested the opposite, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and Jefferson all realized that balance-of-power politics was a game that American statesmen would have to learn to play. As a country that had to dispose of its growing agricultural surpluses in order to be able to purchase the manufactured goods it needed, the United States was dependent upon the trading agreements that it could negotiate with mercantilist states that used such agreements as political weapons. In addition, as long as Great Britain, France and Spain retained possessions in North America, it was impossible for the republic's leaders to ignore with impunity the shifting relations among those states. Despite his aversion to what he called "romantick European Continental Connections" and "whims about the balance of power," Benjamin Franklin realized that his country was caught up in the contention of the powers whether it liked it or not. Because he recognized that the United States was vulnerable to attack as long as the British government maintained armed forts along its northern and western frontiers, Franklin became the advocate of a continuation of the wartime alliance with France, and his government followed his advice.

Later on, when the government of the French Republic took advantage of its position as an ally to enlist American citizens for service in its wars and to make propaganda against the U.S. government's policy of neutrality, Hamilton and Washington effected the termination of the French connection, but not because they opposed alliances in principle or believed that the European policy of their country should be a purely negative one. Hamilton, whose instincts were akin to those of the shrewdest Realpolitiker of his time, was perfectly willing to make arrangements with European governments as long as they promised to bring tangible advantages to his country; he objected, however, to the basing of foreign policy upon sentimental affinity or gratitude or any other emotion that would, in his words, involve "sacrifices of our substantial interests, preferences inconsistent with sound policy, or complaisances incompatible with our safety."

As for Washington, in the great political testament of 1796 in which he warned his countrymen against "interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe" and "entangl[ing] our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour, or Caprice," he never for a moment recommended that the United States relinquish the freedom of choice that an independent state necessarily possesses in its foreign-political decisions or suggested that it forswear the use of any diplomatic expedients that might serve to support its policies or defend its interests. He declared that "the Great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations" should be "in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible," and he added that, while the United States was building up the material strength that would reduce its present vulnerability to external pressure, "it would be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of [Europe's] politics." But he also spoke explicitly of the possible necessity of "temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."

Thomas Jefferson's two terms as President were filled with such emergencies, and he responded to them positively, realistically, and with considerable diplomatic adroitness, having no compunction about resorting to methods that he had reprobated, at other times, when they were employed by old-world statesmen. Indeed, he became a highly sophisticated practitioner of the politics of menace and maneuver and bluff, shrewd in his anticipation of the intrusion of imponderable factors in developing situations and in his judgment of their effects, and quick to seize upon opportunities for advancing American interests by intimations of support or opposition to the embattled powers. The great triumph of his first term, the acquisition of Louisiana, was doubtless due in some part to Napoleon's frustrations in San Domingo and to the distractions caused by the renewal of the war in Europe, but Louisiana could not have been won if Jefferson had not made the most of those circumstances, if he had not been ingenious in playing the powers off against each other, and if he had not, in the end, made it clear to Napoleon's Ministers that any French attempt to take possession at New Orleans would force the United States "to marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."

During Jefferson's second term, the European balance offered no opportunities for American manipulation in the national interest. After Austerlitz and Trafalgar, politics were polarized in such a way as to deprive the President of any leverage in the European conflict; there was nothing that he could do for either party, short of joining it in the war, that could induce it to support American interests, and no threat that he could make that would be plausible enough to discourage it from violating American rights. In his vain struggle to protect American shipping against British interference and American crews against British impressment, Jefferson was daily confronted with palpable and distressing evidence of how seriously his country could be injured by shifts in the European equilibrium; and, if he was not goaded into declaring war upon the principal violator of American neutral rights, it was certainly in part at least because he realized that the balance of power was capable of undergoing changes that would be even more dangerous to the United States than the polarization of the years after 1805.

The President's ill-starred embargo policy was rooted, on the one hand, in a realistic appraisal of the disparity of force between Great Britain and the United States and, on the other, in the idealistic conviction that the violations were not enough to justify so serious a response as war; but he may have been influenced by an additional consideration: the suspicion that the French Empire was potentially a greater threat to American liberties than Great Britain and that, despite their present differences, Britain and the United States were tacit partners against the possibility of a domination of the Western world by Napoleon. In 1803, in a letter to an English acquaintance, Jefferson had spoken of Great Britain as "a bulwark against the torrent which has for some time been bearing down all before it," and the thought of what the destruction of that wall might mean to the United States was recurrent as the French Emperor went from triumph to triumph. Even after the United States had, through a series of mischances, drifted into war with Great Britain, the former President could write, "Surely none of us wish to see Bonaparte conquer Russia and lay thus at his feet the whole continent of Europe. This done, England would be but a breakfast. . . . No. It cannot be to our interest that all Europe be reduced to a single monarchy."

The United States was spared the necessity of confronting such a situation. Napoleon was defeated, and the Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe in such a way as to provide a reasonable equilibrium of force among the major powers. For most of the century that followed, the European balance assumed the desirable form that Jefferson had defined in 1812, when he wrote, "We especially ought to pray that the powers of Europe may be so poised and counterpoised among themselves that their own safety may require the presence of all their force at home, leaving the other quarters of the globe in undisturbed tranquillity." The energies of the European governments were absorbed so completely in protecting the Vienna settlement against the threats posed by nationalism and industrialism that the United States had no reason to fear external interference as it went about the job of overcoming its internal divisions, extending its dominion to the shores of California, developing the economic potential of the united land mass, and laying the basis for its emergence at the end of the century as a power of the first rank. It was doubtless frustrating for politicians like Monroe and Calhoun, who longed to demonstrate that they could exploit the differences among European governments as effectively as Jefferson had done during his first term, to discover that this was no longer necessary and that policy could now, in fact, be made by proclamation; but most American leaders accommodated themselves easily enough to the advantages of being able, as Henry Clay said, "to pursue a course exclusively American, uninfluenced by the policy of My Lord Castlereagh, Count Nesselrode, or any other of the great men of Europe." So did the American people, who came, as the years passed, to regard this freedom as a natural state of affairs and one that would continue indefinitely.

By the end of the century, however, after the complicated but flexible Bismarckian version of the balance of power had begun to transform itself into what became the fragile bipolar balance between Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, there were ominous indications that this was a fallacy. American writers like Brooks Adams and Alfred Thayer Mahan responded to the new European conditions by seeking to awaken their countrymen to an awareness that their position had changed too, that it was unreasonable to talk about American isolation while the nation had economic interests in every part of the globe or to pretend to indifference to foreign developments when instability abroad would have immediate repercussions on the American economy. In his essay America's Economic Supremacy, Adams described Germany and Russia as destabilizing factors in the European system, on the one hand, and the Far East on the other, and he intimated that it might become America's responsibility to preserve or restore the equilibrium of those areas. Among those who had the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt, it became doctrine that a policy of active intervention to preserve existing structures was in the American interest, and Henry Cabot Lodge was forever urging the President to use his authority to extricate the other powers from the messes they became involved in.

Roosevelt did not need much persuading. As early as 1897 he had repudiated isolationism as an outmoded idea, and in the first years of the new century his intervention in the ugly Moroccan dispute and his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War were experiments with a new activism designed to strengthen the equilibrium of forces. These interventions, neither of which was entirely happy in its results, were marked by a brash self-confidence that irritated the sensibilities of those old-world diplomats who did not, like Sir Arthur Nicholson at Algeciras, find it faintly comic, and by flashes of arrogance that ill-suited a nation that had for so long stood apart from the mainstream of politics. It is difficult to decide whether the presumption or the naïveté is the more pronounced in Lodge's letter of August 21, 1905, to the President: "Japan has got all we wanted her to get and all that she really needs, and it is not our interest or that of the world generally to have Russia too completely crippled."

In the decade that followed, the mere extension of American good offices in attempts to shore up deteriorating situations no longer seemed sufficient to these self-styled realists. The former diplomat Lewis Einstein, who pointed out in a series of articles that the European balance had for almost a century protected the United States and enabled it to avoid the burden of military expenditures, wrote in 1909 that its preservation might well require more positive commitments. It was high time, he wrote, that the lie be given to "the reverence with which we regard a misinterpreted tradition. Alliances can be entangling only when they are disadvantageous. To guard against their becoming so is the duty of a wise statesmanship." Four years later, impressed by the thought that German power was threatening to subvert the balance, Einstein was wondering whether it might not be necessary for the United States to extend the protection of the Monroe Doctrine to Great Britain.

Theodore Roosevelt carried this thinking a step further. As Europe came closer to war, the former President had a conversation with the German diplomat Baron von Eckhardstein, in which Roosevelt, rather indirectly, warned against a German policy that might weaken or destroy Great Britain's role of "keeping the balance of power in Europe." If Britain were no longer able to fulfill that function, he said, "the United States would be obliged to step in, at least temporarily, to reestablish the balance . . . . never mind against which country or group of countries our efforts may have to be directed. In fact, we are becoming, owing to our strength and geographical situation, more and more the balance of the whole globe."


In addition to those political leaders and writers who were intent upon adjusting American foreign policy to shifts in the European balance of power and to the opportunities and problems that they posed for American interests, there were others whose minds dwelt more on the balance of ideas than on the mere equilibrium of physical force. To these intellectual descendants of the eighteenth-century philosophes and the militant radicalism of Thomas Paine, what was usually called the balance of power was merely the physical manifestation of absolutism and militarism, political reaction and religious obscurantism, the Holy Alliance and the Carlsbad Decrees, the Prussian corporal's cane and the Russian knout, and everything else that was inimical to freedom and individual rights.

In their view, it was the duty of the American republic, which had been conceived in liberty and dedicated to its maintenance, to support revolutions against this ideological system whenever and wherever they occurred, and in the first half of the nineteenth century there were frequent demands that the government come to the aid of national and liberal movements in other lands. The Monroe Doctrine was popular because it seemed to strike a blow for freedom not only in Latin America but in Europe as well, and the Greek revolution of the same period was hailed as a defeat for absolutism and the pretensions of the Holy Alliance. When the news from the Peloponnesus reached the United States, the highly respected North American Review demanded that the government give formal recognition to the revolutionary regime, and innumerable public meetings called for moral, financial, and even military assistance for the rebels. The United States Ambassador in France, Albert Gallatin, went so far as to propose that two or three frigates be sent to the Aegean in order to help destroy the Turkish fleet, and such leading members of Congress as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay wanted an open declaration of sympathy with the Greek cause and the sending of a commissioner to Athens.

Similarly, the year 1830 saw excited demonstrations of support for the July revolution in several American cities, and in Washington President Jackson and members of the Cabinet had no hesitation about appearing at them. The pattern was repeated in 1848, when the tide of revolution swept over Central Europe. The American government not only recognized the Frankfurt Assembly and appointed a minister to this provisional government but also dispatched an envoy to make contact with the revolutionary forces in Hungary. The suppression of the Hungarian revolution by Russian troops caused a storm of indignation in the United States that was more passionate and of longer duration than that caused by the repetition of those tragic events a hundred years later.

The bloodletting in Hungary appeared to threaten Europe with a return to the reactionary days of the Holy Alliance, and many Americans seemed to feel that their country should be prepared to intervene in the looming ideological struggle. In October 1851, at a banquet in London in honor of the Hungarian leader Kossuth, the former U. S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert T. Walker said that, if despotism should spread over the whole of the continent and if England were drawn into the struggle against it, the United States would take part "in the last great battle for freedom." And during Kossuth's subsequent trip to the United States he was entertained with a great deal of spread-eagle oratory about how nations outgrow the principles of foreign policy appropriate to their youth and how the day had come for the United States to abandon the defensive posture of the Monroe Doctrine and to take up the fight against European reaction.

Much of this rhetorical ardor was the by-product of the election campaign of 1852, in which the Democratic Party was trying to embarrass the Whigs by making it appear that their foreign policy was both negative and untrue to the principles of the American Revolution. Thus, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who hoped to win the Democratic nomination, made speeches about defending the cause of European liberty that he probably never meant seriously and soon disavowed. But one cannot charge the movement known as Young America with this kind of disingenuousness. A militant group whose leaders included Edward de Leon, George N. Sanders, Pierre Soulé and William H. Seward, it managed to combine superheated patriotism, expansionism, national self-determination, and democratic internationalism in its philosophy, holding that democracy was the hope of the future and that the United States must lead its forward movement, with weapons in hand if necessary. In May 1852, George N. Sanders wrote in The Democratic Review that, in the ultimate clash between freedom and despotism, the United States and Russia would lead the opposing armies and that the confrontation was inevitable and at hand and should be welcomed.

The support that the United States actually gave to liberal and democratic movements in other countries was, in fact, moral in nature, rather than military. When the issues were fairly posed, the government always bethought itself of John Quincy Adams's sober answer to the ideological zealots. On July 4, 1821, Adams had said of his country: "Wherever the standard of freedom or independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Even so, yielding to the cold logic of this advice left many Americans with a guilty conscience and a vague feeling that they had been untrue to the best instincts of their nation. For they had no doubt that the ideological struggle was a real one and that the United States was destined to be in the van when the victory came. The Democratic Review expressed this faith in 1852 in an article that declared: "The old nonsense about balance of power is wholly out of date, and the doctrine of the solidarity of mankind is beginning to spread; popular sovereignty is on the point of overcoming legitimacy quickly; every day the system, which is now restricted to Europe and America, is expanding; and soon it will embrace Asia, Africa and Oceania."

This One-World vision, as the German historian Günter Moltmann has called it, which inspired the radical Democrats of the 1850s, faded rapidly in the years of sectional conflict and civil war, and it did not revive until after the European system had collapsed of its own weight in 1914, and Woodrow Wilson had embarked upon his great crusade three years later. Wilson's declared purpose was to make the world safe for democracy, and how seriously he regarded that objective can be seen in his tactics during the negotiations with Prince Max von Baden in October 1918, which made the fall of the Hohenzollern dynasty inevitable. A necessary prerequisite for the creation of the new democratic order was the destruction of the balance-of-power system, which, to Wilson as to the mid-century Democrats, had been the mainstay of all the anti-democratic forces in Europe, the plaything of kings and soldiers and diplomats, and the wellspring of popular suffering for hundreds of years.

That the elimination of the classical diplomatic system was his first order of business, Wilson made perfectly clear in his speech to the United States Senate on the essentials of peace on January 22, 1917. In this moving address, which startled the President's future associates by calling for "a peace without victory," he declared:

there must be not a balance of power but a community of power. . . . I am proposing that all nations henceforth avoid entangling alliances that draw them into competitions of power, catch them in a net of intrigue and selfish rivalry, and disturb their own affairs with influences intruded from without. There is no entangling alliance in a concert of power. When all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose, all act in the common interest and are free to live their own lives under a common protection.

It was characteristic of Wilson that, in demanding that the modalities of the traditional diplomatic system be scrapped, he should insist that he was speaking not for himself or for his government but for the common people, and particularly for the fighting men of the free nations. In his speech at the Guildhall in London on December 28, 1918, he said that the soldiers of the Allied armies had

fought to do away with an older order and to establish a new one, and the center and characteristic of the old order was that venerable thing which we used to call the "balance of power"-a thing in which the balance was determined by the sword which was thrown in the one side or the other; a balance which was determined by the unstable equilibrium of competitive interests; a balance which was maintained by jealous watchfulness and an antagonism of interests which, though it was generally latent, was always deep-seated. The men who have fought in this war have been the men from free nations who were determined that that sort of thing should end now and forever.

Grateful as they were for America's aid in defeating Germany, the European governments proved to be singularly resistant to this kind of exhortation and to its ideological implications, and their opposition was not slow in manifesting itself. The ardent Wilsonian Walter Lippmann wrote worriedly to a colleague in September 1918: "It is still most tremendously necessary to teach the European mind . . . that back of all our physical display lies a purpose which strikes at the roots of the old European system." He had reason to be concerned: the pupils rejected the lesson. Clemenceau, for one, was an unabashed supporter of the balance-of-power system, convinced that history had shown it to be the most effective regulator of the relationships among nations. He was not inclined to abandon it for what he considered to be the cloudy formulations of a doctrinaire schoolmaster from a country too young to appreciate the lessons of the past. Without being as brutally frank as the French Premier, the British and the Italians were inclined to agree. Like the negotiators at Vienna a hundred years earlier, they wanted to place the enemy under restraint, to assure themselves of appropriate territorial and economic compensation for their sacrifices, and, when that was done, to formulate a body of treaties and guarantees that would enable them to maintain the new status quo post bellum.

Their determination about following this traditional procedure was so strong that, in order to win their support for the League of Nations that he hoped would be able to prevent a return to the evils of the past, Wilson felt compelled to make concessions to it and to accept compromises that vitiated the Fourteen Points and defeated his hope of attaining a peace without victory. It is unnecessary to rehearse the details of a familiar story. Wilson's struggle at Paris for a just and lasting peace was gallant but unavailing. He was able to temper the most inordinate of the territorial demands of his associates, but the discrepancies between what the Fourteen Points had promised and what the Treaty of Versailles provided were still so palpable that Wilson's critics in America had no difficulty in arguing that he had betrayed his principles, while the nature of the settlement in general made the League of Nations, which he had hoped would be the symbol and embodiment of a new international order, appear to be merely an instrument in the hands of victorious powers who intended to use it to buttress their position. Indeed, in the American debate over the Treaty, the League was attacked as a subtle conspiracy to involve the United States in the old corrupt system of secret treaties and irresponsible commitments. Membership in Wilson's creation would, in the words of ex-Senator Albert Beveridge, "entangle the American nation in a European-Asiatic balance of power."

In the presidential election of 1920, the nation made it clear that it did not desire such entanglement.


Despite the completeness of his defeat, Woodrow Wilson's influence upon American attitudes toward foreign policy in the subsequent period was profound. His eloquent denunciation of balances-of-power politics were not forgotten; indeed, they served to rationalize a policy of abstention from the affairs of post-Versailles Europe, which, in the course of the 1920s revealed itself to be, in spirit and practice, a somewhat less effective version of the system that had collapsed in 1914. Many of Wilson's staunchest supporters became isolationists in the postwar years, believing as firmly as ever in the essential correctness of the late President's analysis of the faults of the international system but disillusioned about the ability of the United States to do anything to correct them. Among them was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, as vice-presidential candidate in 1920, had fought vainly for American adherence to the League of Nations.

Despite the attempts of revisionist historians after 1945 to portray Roosevelt as a man who burned with the desire to demonstrate his virtuosity on the world stage and who maneuvered his country into another war in order to gratify that desire, the most reliable evidence indicates that his isolationism was genuine and deeply felt and that he had not entirely overcome it when the Japanese took the power of decision out of his hands. His attitude toward Europe in the 1920s and during his first two terms as President was determined by the continuing popular rejection of Wilsonianism, by his disenchantment with the League as it proved incapable of controlling militarism and maintaining the public law, and by his aversion for war. As troubles multiplied in Europe and war once more became a distinct possibility, his first instinct was to stand clear. The United States, he believed, should remain a beacon of liberty and a model of sanity for other nations, but not a participant in their affairs.

His namesake's view in 1914 that, if the European balance were subverted, the United States would be obliged to step in and set it right, Franklin Roosevelt resisted until very late. His appeal to Adolf Hitler at the height of the Sudeten crisis to seek a solution by conference was accompanied by the somewhat embarrassed addendum, "The United States has no political involvements in Europe and will assume no obligations in the conduct of the present negotiations." In a letter to William Phillips after the Munich conference, the President speculated about the American attitude if war came and talked about "[picking] up the pieces of European civilization" and helping the European peoples "save what remains of the wreck" after the fighting had stopped. He added, "If we get the idea that the future of our form of government is threatened by a coalition of European dictators, we might wade in with everything we have to give"; but he resisted this alternative long after many of his countrymen believed that the threat had become tangible.

After war came to Europe, his efforts to redress the balance in favor of the democracies were hesitant and slow in implementation (the destroyers-bases deal was not consummated until months after his announcement at Charlottesville in June 1940 that he was extending "the material resources of the nation" to the hard-pressed British), and he gave every appearance of leaning over backward to avoid the charge of wanting to repeat Wilson's unhappy adventure.

Once the United States had become a belligerent, American policy became surprisingly, and not altogether fortunately, Wilsonian in its approach to Europe. To the exasperation of the British allies, the President and his advisers were so conscious of the part played by secret treaties in the American people's rejection of Wilson's peace that they could hardly be induced to talk about the political aspects of the war at all, let alone about the territorial adjustments that would have to be made after the enemy's defeat. British suggestions that it might be well to have firm agreements with the Russians about postwar boundaries in northern Europe and the Balkans met automatic opposition from the Department of State, where the liveliest suspicions reigned concerning British desires to revive the worst aspects of classical diplomacy to the detriment of alliance solidarity. As Cordell Hull explained to Congress after his return from the Foreign Ministers Conference in Moscow in November 1943, there would, once the Four Power Declaration drafted there had taken effect, "no longer be any need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."

Six months later, when Lord Halifax asked what his attitude would be toward an Anglo-Soviet agreement that would define the degree of influence to be exerted by the two powers in Greece and Romania respectively, Hull protested that this would be a dangerous departure from past policy, principles and practice. In his memoirs, the Secretary of State wrote: "I was, in fact, opposed to any division of Europe or sections of Europe into spheres of influence. I had argued this strongly at the Moscow Conference. It seemed to me that any creation of zones of influences would inevitably sow the seeds of future conflict." He was not, Hull added, "a believer in the idea of balance of power or spheres of influence as a means of keeping peace"; he had studied the question during the First World War and was "grounded to the taproots in their iniquitous consequences."

The President was more pragmatic in his tactics than the Secretary of State and more willing to make concessions to imperious necessity, but he was historian enough to remember the cost of appearing to have condoned private arrangements, and he was, in any case, inclined to the view that political discussions should be postponed as far as possible until the military victory had been won. As a result, the traditional prejudice against balance-of-power politics made the early development of an American political strategy impossible, and in the last stages of the war the Soviet government took advantage of this to press more exorbitant demands than they might otherwise have done.

There is no reason to believe that this worried Roosevelt unduly, at least not until the very last months of his life. He was confident that the Grand Alliance would overcome differences about things like boundary lines and reparations and would form the nucleus of a global security organization that would be more effective in meeting the problems of maintaining peace than the old diplomatic system had ever been. In his last speech to Congress, he bravely expressed his belief that Allied solidarity at the recently concluded Yalta Conference promised to do away, once and for all, with unilateralism, exclusive alliances, spheres of influence, and balance of power.


Most Americans who heard that speech would probably have repudiated with indignation any suggestion that, within five years, the United States would be playing the major role in creating a new European balance and would, for the first time in its history, be concluding what to all intents and purposes was a permanently entangling alliance. When the NATO alliance was ratified in 1949, there was, of course, no very widespread understanding that it represented a diplomatic revolution. More than a quarter of a century later, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the German journalist Theo Sommer that "the greatest change in American foreign policy is this, that we are permanently involved in world politics-for America . . . an entirely new experience," he was expressing a conclusion that had been reached only gradually.

In the first years after NATO's creation, there was a reluctance to admit that any long-term commitment had been made; and this was apparent both in Republican attacks upon the defensive nature of containment and in John Foster Dulles' policy of liberation or rollback, which, for a time at least, embodied an optimism about ending the ideological war with a definitive victory that was as unalloyed as that of the Young Democrats of the 1850s. But the liberation policy came to a sorry end in the double crisis of Suez and Hungary in 1956, and the shock caused by the successful Soviet launching of sputnik a year later and the confidently menacing tone of Khrushchev's Berlin ultimatum in 1958 made the status quo seem to be desirable and its maintenance a sensible policy goal. This implied a permanent U.S. role in supporting the balance, since without it there was little doubt that the Soviets could take Berlin and anything else they wanted. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 only emphasized this.

As a result, balance-of-power politics, regarded by John Adams and Thomas Paine as a characteristic expression of the corrupt political system from which the colonies had escaped, by Woodrow Wilson as the principal cause of war between nations, and by the isolationists of 1920 as the sinister reality behind the League of Nations, which would erode American liberty if the United States joined the world community, was soon being practiced openly by American diplomats and on an increasingly elaborate scale. "We must," Secretary of State Kissinger told a group of United States Ambassadors in London in December 1975, "balance off Soviet power around the world through a combination of political, military, and economic means. In the Far East, the People's Republic of China must be a part of our political calculations. In the Middle East . . . we must pursue . . . a policy relevant to regional balance." As for Europe, where the balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact had become more stable after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and where the West German treaties with Poland and the Soviet Union, the Four Power Agreement on Berlin, and the decisions reached at the European Security Conference in Helsinki had reduced the possibility of military violation of existing frontiers, it became the keystone of the new multidimensional balance-of-power system. "Western Europe," Mr. Kissinger said, "continues to be the backbone of our foreign policy."

The American people have supported this European commitment with remarkable steadfastness. At the Teheran Conference Franklin Roosevelt told Marshal Stalin that the United States did not plan to maintain a peacekeeping force in Europe after the war, a statement that doubtless pleased the Soviet leader. Almost 35 years have passed since that meeting, and our forces are still in Europe; and neither the balance-of-payments problem, nor exasperation over the not infrequent foot-dragging of some of our allies on the question of military contributions, nor the traumatizing entanglement in Southeast Asia has destroyed our willingness to keep them there. This, as The Washington Post said not long ago, is "a demonstration of constancy of historical dimensions." The American people seem to have reached the conclusion, after two world wars, that the United States cannot safely ignore what happens to the European balance of power.

But they have also acquired a lively awareness that the balance of power cannot be maintained by military, diplomatic and economic means alone, and that, unless the balance of ideas is in our favor, the other means are bound to fail. The recent row over the so-called Sonnenfeldt doctrine was the result of an uneasy feeling that the government was perhaps forgetting this, and that Helmut Sonnenfeldt's undifferentiated description of Eastern Europe as a natural sphere of Soviet influence-which the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described as "elephantine trampling on the rights and sensibilities of people living under actual or threatened Soviet domination"-could only give the impression that we had lost faith in our ideals and were attempting to maintain our position by the crudest and most ignoble kind of Realpolitik.

Similarly, the concern about whether NATO could survive Communist participation in the governments of Italy and France, which some of our European critics have ascribed to American failure to understand the evolution of the Communist parties of Western Europe and their growing independence from Moscow, is really the result of a not unreasonable suspicion that, if the democratic parties in Europe cannot hold their own against communism in the battle for men's minds, it would be idle to suppose that American assistance would do them any good. If there is a revival of isolationism in the United States, it will not be because Americans have reverted to their nineteenth-century fear of entangling alliances, but rather because they have concluded that the balance of ideas in Europe has become so unfavorable to democracy that such alliances would serve no useful purpose.

It was perhaps to forestall that possibility that, in his Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture in London on June 25, 1976, Secretary of State Kissinger, while telling his European auditors that they had no reason to fear competition with communism, in view of the military strength and economic superiority of the Western alliance, placed less emphasis upon the balance of power than upon the balance of ideas, and reminded his allies that, "if there is an ideological competition, the power of our ideas depends only on our will to uphold them."

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  • Gordon A. Craig is the J. E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Humanities in the Department of History at Stanford University, California. His most recent books include War, Politics and Diplomacy and Europe Since 1815.
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