Courtesy Reuters

The Myth of American Isolationism -- Reinterpreting the Past

In This Review

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

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

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