In This Review

In the Time of the Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur--the Generation that Changed America's Role in the World
In the Time of the Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur--the Generation that Changed America's Role in the World
By David Fromkin
Knopf, 1995, pp.

We have here a popular history of American foreign policy from the end of the nineteenth century almost up to the present. It centers around the great political and military leaders born in the decade 1880-90, in particular Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, and Douglas MacArthur. But this theme gets lost in the author's inability to resist putting into the book everything he finds intriguing. He hops about from scene to scene and personality to personality like a historical Walter Winchell. We are told that Major Eisenhower often played golf with Major George Patton; that William G. Bullitt's wife began drinking at breakfast; that at Ambassador Bullitt's first meeting with Stalin the dictator gave him a hearty kiss, which Bullitt returned; that Marshall always refused to laugh at F.D.R.'s jokes, and suffered accordingly; and that John Foster Dulles had a sister who was "an enthusiastic Hitlerite."

This is gossip-column history, with a stress on the colorful detail. No harm in that, perhaps. There are thousands of dull books on America's involvement in foreign affairs during the twentieth century, and David Fromkin's anecdotal approach may not come amiss.

My quarrel with this book concerns the assumptions on which it is based. Because American historians, and indeed Americans generally, widely share these assumptions, they are worth debating.

Toward the end of his book, Fromkin states: "Ever since 1898 [the beginning of the Spanish-American War], the fundamental question about American foreign relations had been whether the United States would choose to play a continuing role in world affairs." The notion that the United States has a real choice in such a momentous decision is related to the beliefs that the United States is naturally isolationist and that, until the Second World War, isolationism was the norm in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, as a result of the humiliations and frustrations of American involvement in Somalia, there have recently been suggestions in the media that the United States is about to return to isolationism.


I want to suggest a different point of view, which, oddly enough, Fromkin's narrative confirms at various points. First, there is nothing unique, as many Americans seem to suppose, in the desire of a society with a strong cultural identity to minimize its foreign contacts. On the contrary, isolationism in this sense has been the norm whenever geography has made it feasible. A characteristic example is ancient Egypt, which, protected by deserts, tried to pursue an isolationist policy for 3,000 years with unparalleled success. In their ideograms and hieroglyphs, the Egyptians made an absolute distinction between themselves and others. To find a more modern example of a hermit state we need look no farther than Japan, which used its surrounding seas to pursue a policy of total isolation, again reflected in its ideograms. China, too, was isolationist for thousands of years, albeit an empire at the same time. Britain has been habitually isolationist even during the centuries when it was acquiring a quarter of the world. The British always regarded the English Channel as a cordon sanitaire to protect them from what they regarded as the continental disease of war. So, too, the Spanish were misled by the Pyrenees and the Russians by the great plains, into believing isolationism feasible, as well as desirable.

The United States, however, has always been an internationalist country. Given the sheer size of the Atlantic, with its temptation to hermitry, the early rulers of the United States were remarkably international-minded. The original 13 colonies had, as a rule, closer links with Europe than with each other, focusing on London and Paris rather than Boston and Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin has perhaps a better claim to be called a cosmopolitan than any other eighteenth-century figure. He was no slouch as a diplomat; indeed, he believed strongly in negotiations and mutually advantageous treaties between nations. Had the British War Office allowed him, George Washington might easily have been a professional soldier in George III's imperial army, pursuing a career in Europe or perhaps even India. America's ruling elite was always far more open toward, interested in, and knowledgeable about the world (especially Europe) than the French Canadians to the north and the Spanish- and Portuguese-Americans to the south. At Ghent in 1814, the U.S. team that negotiated the end of the War of 1812 -- John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, Jonathan Russell, James Asheton Bayard, even Henry Clay -- was every bit as globally conscious and well informed as its English counterpart.

The truth is that, despite the oceans on both sides, the United States was involved with Russia (because of Oregon and Alaska), China (because of trade), Spain, Britain, and other European powers from its earliest days. Isolationism in a strict sense was never an option, and there is no evidence that the American masses, let alone the elites, favored it, especially as immigration widened and deepened ties with Europe. It is true that the United States, through most of the nineteenth century, was concerned with expanding its presence in the Americas rather than with global politics. But exponents of "America First," like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and John L. O'Sullivan--who coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny" in the 1840s--were imperialists rather than isolationists. The only time imperialism was an issue in an American election was in 1900, when the Democrats used it to attack what they saw as President William McKinley's expansionist policies. The voters' approval of American imperialism, if that is what it was, was reflected in McKinley's massive victory, by 292 to 155 electoral votes.

In the nineteenth century, when the United States needed to negotiate on the world stage, as it did during the Civil War, its diplomacy was deft and effective. Europeans find it hard to accept, and most Americans are unaware, that Americans tend to make excellent diplomats because they are thorough and go into matters from the fundamentals upward. I do not know why Fromkin dismisses President Woodrow Wilson's preparations for the Versailles peace negotiations as "amateurish." Colonel Edward House set up this process, know as "The Inquiry," in September 1917 on Wilson's instructions. It consisted of 150 or so experts, mainly academics, under Dr. S. E. Mezes, and was housed in the American Geographical Society building in New York. As a result, Wilson and his colleagues were by far the best briefed delegation at Versailles. They alone had accurate maps and demographic information, describing in detail the many territories the conference was amalgamating or dividing. John Foster Dulles, who was counsel to the U.S. Peace Commission, told me in 1955 that "we Yankees were well ahead of you British and French" when it came to the factual minutiae. Dulles felt that some of the subsequent troubles in central and eastern Europe were the direct result of America's detailed proposals being overridden. Harold Nicolson, who was at Versailles and later wrote the best book on it, insisted, "Had the treaty of peace been drafted safely by the American experts, it would have been one of the wisest as well as the most scientific ever devised."


It is true that the United States appeared isolationist between the wars, and much of the tragedy of the Second World War is attributed to this fact. Fromkin treats this quasi-isolationist period as the norm. His thesis is that the generation born from 1880 to 1890--F.D.R., Eisenhower, Marshall, and others--was able to use the opportunity of the war against Hitler to break away finally from isolationism, "change America's role in the world," and create the epoch in global history he terms "the time of the Americans."

The interwar period, however, is an aberration rather than the norm in America's relationship with the world, the result of accident rather than national will. The blame must rest primarily with Wilson's arrogant obstinacy, and then with his sick state of mind, which together bred his insistence that the treaty he had negotiated at Versailles, including the League of Nations provisions, be ratified unamended. Even before Wilson suffered his first massive stroke, on October 2, 1919, he had told Dulles, whom he had left behind in Paris, that the American delegation must not participate in implementing Versailles until the Senate formally ratified the treaty. Dulles, the very inverse of an isolationist, was refused permission, to his distress, even to assign temporary U.S. delegates to the 35 committees set up to enforce the treaty. This was irrational behavior, but what followed was worse. The American people were not opposed to U.S. participation in the league. Polls taken at the time showed that Americans wanted to join a permanent peacekeeping body by ratios of four or five to one. The Republican majority in the Senate also favored a league of some kind. Fromkin calculates that the true isolationists among the Republicans were not more than a dozen, to which I would add that even some of those might have been won over by well-drafted concessions.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican leader, however he figures in the U.S. mythology, was no isolationist either. Boston Brahmins were internationalists. The senator's great mentors were Henry Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, both internationalists, and all the evidence suggests he aimed for the kind of league they would have approved. In all essentials, Lodge was at least as good an internationalist as Wilson; better, indeed, since less self-righteous and fixed in his views. His "Fourteen Reservations" to Wilson's Fourteen Points were designed to meet valid objections and so ensure overwhelming Senate ratification. Such reservations would have improved the treaty, on balance, and it is pretty clear that the Europeans would have accepted them (even welcomed them, in some cases) rather than forgo U.S. participation in the league. As Fromkin points out, all kinds of people associated with the peacemaking under Wilson, such as Colonel House, Herbert Hoover, and Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan, favored the reservations. The only opponent of any significance was Wilson himself. In March 1920, Lodge controlled 49 senators' votes in favor of the league with reservations. The 23 votes Wilson controlled, added to this 49, were more than enough to secure U.S. membership in the league. But Wilson's 23 supporters voted against the league rather than accept the Lodge reservations. So America rejected membership. An overwhelmingly internationalist country was turned in an isolationist direction as a result of a personal failure of leadership by a dying man.

It can be argued, with more justice, that America was isolationist in the 1930s. A wound-nursing flight from the rest of the world was the mood of the times and was by no means confined to the United States during what the poet W. H. Auden characterized as a "low, dishonest decade." A fear of war that verged on pacifism enveloped Britain and France, too, during these years. Coming after nearly 70 years of dramatic economic expansion had made America the richest and most powerful country on earth, the Depression abruptly reduced half its population to penury. There was an atmosphere of hysteria in parts of the United States during the mid-1930s, not least in Washington, characterized by outbreaks of an intellectual disease to which America is prone: conspiracy theory.

Fromkin has an interesting section on the work of Dorothy Detzer, secretary of the Women's International League, who succeeded in stampeding the Senate toward statutory isolationism by arranging a political marriage between her favorite senator, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, and Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. The two set up a special committee under Nye to hear evidence accusing the international arms trade of fomenting war. Among other things, the Nye committee supposedly proved that links between the Wilson administration, the banks, and the arms trade brought America into the First World War, and that much the same forces, having failed to push America into the league, were now again plotting wars of profit. Nye was undoubtedly an isolationist of sorts, but Vandenberg was an internationalist by instinct who played a notable role during and after the Second World War in creating the United Nations and securing passage of the Marshall Plan. For him, as for Americans as a whole, isolationism in the 1930s was an aberration. At the time, however, the emotional drive to cut off the United States from corrupt Europe was strong, and the hearings of the Nye committee gave birth to the 1935-39 Neutrality Acts. This comprehensive and abject legislation played into the hands of dictators and undermined President Roosevelt's efforts to help democracy in Europe. It also marked a departure from traditional American diplomatic principles, including the explicit doctrine of neutral rights and the hitherto consistent willingness, even while neutral, to distinguish between aggressor and victim nations.

But it was a phase; it passed. Even in the Republican Party, where isolationism flourished in the 1930s, its power was largely negative. No isolationist fared well in national politics. Governor Alfred M. Landon of Kansas was the only isolationist (of a kind) to secure the Republican nomination for president, in 1936, and he succeeded in carrying only two states, Maine and Vermont. Thereafter, as Fromkin points out, Republican isolationists failed to nominate one of their own, even in 1952, when their tremendous effort to push Senator Robert A. Taft's candidacy collapsed beneath the Eisenhower steamroller. Thereafter isolationism was effectively dead in federal politics.


Except for those few isolationist-ridden years of the 1930s, there has never been any substantial argument about whether the United States "would choose to play a continuing role in world affairs." It has to; it wants to; it intends to. The likelihood of Clinton's America, or any other America, shrinking into an isolationist posture is nil, though there will be passionate arguments about the purpose and degree of commitment to intervention and still more about the command structure of international efforts. No American administration or Congress will permit another Somalia-type fiasco, and I suspect that we will soon witness a growing bipartisan demand in America for a thorough reform of the United Nations and a modernization of its peacekeeping role along lines that permit the United States to act as its primary contributor. Like it or not, America will continue to be the world's reluctant sheriff, sometimes arriving late but always getting there. News media like CNN will ensure that Americans know in detail where trouble is afoot, even before the blood is dry and the screams die down. For in the end, America remains an idealistic and moralizing society, which cannot stand idly by when gross wickedness is taking place anywhere in the world. It will be "the time of the Americans" for as far ahead as we can see, and most Americans, in their warm and strong hearts, would not wish it otherwise.

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  • Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. He is currently writing A History of the United States People.
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