Domestic Publics and Twentieth-Century U.S. Foreign Relations
In A Sense of Power, John A. Thompson weighs in on the perennial debate over how and why the United States emerged as a major world power by the middle of the twentieth century. While he emphasizes power and the sense of responsibility it engendered as the driving force behind America’s embrace of extensive overseas commitments after World War II, Thompson also highlights the crucial role domestic public opinion played in shaping U.S. foreign relations. His work shows that the ideas opinion leaders articulated, and that members of the public espoused, sometimes propelled and other times constrained America’s role in the world. The interplay between domestic public opinion and U.S. foreign policy is a key theme that also runs through Michael G. Thompson’s For God And Globe and Joe Renouard’s Human Rights in American Foreign Policy.
This point of thematic cohesion among three books that examine U.S. foreign relations through different scales of time, casts of characters, and lenses of analysis underscores the significance of the questions that their authors seek to answer. In addition to exploring the formation of public opinion and how that opinion translated into meaningful policy influence, these books also ask readers to consider U.S. internationalism anew. Why and in what ways did that internationalism evolve over the course of the twentieth century? Which groups or individuals wrought its evolution? How did the internationalist impulse reflect and refract the historical tensions between realism and idealism [End Page 151] in diplomacy? In various ways, domestic politics and publics lay at the heart of the answers that Thompson, Renouard, and Thompson give to these weighty questions.
John A. Thompson opens A Sense of Power by laying out what he sees as the fundamental problems scholars face in their efforts to explain why the United States took on a major role in world affairs and why it has sought to maintain its predominant global position into the present day. After noting that direct external threats to the nation did not account for the sustained nature of U.S. internationalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he addresses four other common explanatory factors: power, national security, economic interests, and ideology, each of which he finds wanting. To wit, while he does not dispute that preponderant economic and military power ensured that the United States had the capacity to influence global politics, Thompson contends that capabilities alone do not adequately explain U.S. willingness to intervene abroad so extensively and at such cost. He rejects realist arguments that U.S. national security in the postwar period depended on expansive action to prevent a hegemon or coalition of powers from seizing Eurasia and its war-making resources or launching “an amphibious transoceanic invasion” of the United States (p. 13). By virtue of its geography, along with its military and economic prowess, the United States enjoyed a comparatively safe position in the world, he concludes. Likewise, Thompson finds economic arguments unconvincing based on his appraisal of the “limited scale in proportional terms of America’s overseas economic interests” and the lack of a direct connection between sectional economic concerns and U.S. policies (p. 16). His doubts that “the commitment of most Americans to the spreading of freedom and democracy abroad [was] deep enough to sustain strenuous and costly foreign policy enterprises” lead him to dismiss missionary ideology as a sole causative factor (p. 21).
Yet he notes that many Americans came to believe that U.S. security, prosperity, and values depended on the country’s foreign policy commitments—and this belief had a material influence on official decision making. Through the rest of the book, Thompson develops a complex, nuanced interpretation of the U.S. role in the world premised on the idea that Americans recognized their nation’s tremendous power and understood that such power entailed responsibility. This sense of power, he suggests, eventually gave rise to an expansive “conception of the nation’s proper status and influence in world affairs,” which inspired lasting internationalism (p. 24). “Eventually” is the key word, however. Thompson makes clear that a sense of power alone could not sustain ongoing overseas engagements without the key shifts in U.S. public opinion brought on by World War II. Nevertheless, this sense of power ensured that, by the beginning of the Cold War, the public believed that U.S. foreign [End Page 152] policy should foster “a law-governed world order in which international trade could flourish and all states could enjoy security,” a far more intensive project than the narrow pursuit of economic or national security interests (p. 278).
In support of this claim, Thompson focuses on turning points in the history of U.S. foreign relations, key moments when the nation seemed poised to realize its potential as a global power. The first three chapters, covering the period from the end of the Civil War through 1938, draw fascinating parallels between overseas expansion following the Spanish-American War, U.S. involvement in World War I, and American restraint during the interwar years. In these cases, Thompson asserts that the United States declined to embrace an enduring position in world affairs befitting its economic and military strength. After the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars, the public knew that the United States had arrived as a potential player on the world stage. Yet without domestic consensus about if or how it should exercise its power—and finding no compelling reasons to intervene in European affairs—the country limited its hegemony to the Western Hemisphere (p. 55). When compelling reasons did emerge in the form of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram in 1917, the United States entered World War I. But it exercised its full power only temporarily. According to Thompson, after Germany’s defeat, the public proved unwilling to undertake the costs necessary to achieve Woodrow Wilson’s larger vision for a peaceful, capitalist, and democratic world order. Internal pressures also militated against the United States using its financial power to assert control in European affairs during the interwar period. Thompson makes the compelling case that U.S. foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s exhibited striking continuities, as, “in both decades, American statesmen sought a peaceful and liberal world order; [yet] in neither were they prepared to undertake actions or commitments that involved significant cost or any risk of war” (p. 149). Domestic reluctance to bear these costs helps explain the retreats from internationalism that followed these moments of advance in the early twentieth century.
During World War II, public opinion shifted toward a consistent interventionist foreign policy. Strategic, economic, and ideological factors influenced this shift, as did the growing sense, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the nation faced serious existential threats. Although these developments pushed the United States to again exercise its full power, Thompson argues that even events like Pearl Harbor do not fully explain the resurgence of internationalism or its perpetuation after the war (p. 191). Public opinion in favor of internationalism gained momentum gradually after 1941, he notes, and the State Department and President Roosevelt labored to build public support for an ongoing U.S. role in the postwar order (p. 216). Thompson states that Cold War leaders also purposefully framed their objectives for U.S. foreign relations to bolster public consensus in favor of internationalism and the [End Page 153] global promotion of liberal capitalism. The second half of the book explores how the “combination of stark ideological conflict with existential security concerns” ensured domestic support for an extensive U.S. engagement with the world that far outstripped any realistic threats it faced to its physical safety or economic viability (p. 271).
This reading of the relationship between threats, perceptions, and public opinion raises questions, though. Thompson suggests that some policymakers, including Paul Nitze, recognized the mismatch between the extent of power that the United States projected during the Cold War and the scale of the security threats it faced (p. 273). Yet how many other members of the policy elite shared his perspective? If the domestic public, and seemingly many U.S. leaders, perceived a serious threat from the Soviet adversary, does the reality of the situation as assessed in hindsight matter? It seems that in downplaying the significance of national security, economic interests, and ideology as causative factors that led the United States to exercise its power, Thompson does not fully articulate the connection between perceptions about these factors at the time and the formation of policy opinion. Insightful and persuasive, A Sense of Power offers both a fresh synthesis of U.S. foreign relations as well as a convincing sub-argument that domestic opinion set the parameters within which policymakers had to operate. But the public itself remains opaque, as his account focuses on U.S. leaders. Who was this public and who shaped their views? How did those views gain traction?
Michael G. Thompson takes up some of these questions in For God and Globe, which traces the formation, development, and intellectual output of a small yet influential community of liberal Protestant internationalists active from the 1920s through the 1940s. In focusing on this coterie, the book highlights a moment when Christian internationalists explicitly rejected imperialism, nationalism, and racism in favor of promoting a global political order based on universalist Christian ethics. Examining the emergence of this new foreign policy public and the debates over moralism in international politics in which it engaged allows Thompson to reflect on the influence of opinion leaders on the domestic public as well as on the interplay between idealist and realist foreign-policy perspectives between World War I and the Cold War.
The world that For God and Globe uncovers calls into question the notion that Protestant Christianity has always served as a handmaiden to U.S. expansionism. He argues that, unlike the Christian internationalists that preceded and succeeded them, liberal Protestant internationalists in the 1920s and 1930s “rejected outright the notion that God’s universal cause could be seen as immanent within the nation’s cause” (p. 4). Kirby Page, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the other intellectual leaders of the Protestant internationalist movement expounded this viewpoint in the pages of The World Tomorrow, a Christian [End Page 154] magazine they began co-editing in 1926. The first part of For God and Globe focuses on Page and The World Tomorrow, identifying the magazine’s network of contributors as the intellectual heart of the Protestant internationalist movement. Thompson argues that disillusionment with World War I pervaded liberal Protestant circles in the 1920s, inspiring Page and others to campaign against “militarism, imperialism, and nationalism in American life” and to question “the religious sanction American Protestants typically gave to their nation’s foreign policy” (pp. 28–29). Page believed that unless American Protestants embraced their moral responsibility to reshape public opinion about the role the United States should play in the world, they “engaged in sins of complicity with their country’s racist and imperialist foreign policies” (p. 33). Through The World Tomorrow, Page sought to build an anti-imperialist, antinationalist, and antiracist foreign policy “counterpublic” that would agitate for change (pp. 49–51).
Michael Thompson focuses considerable attention on the mechanisms by which Page endeavored to accomplish this. He notes that the magazine published exposés of U.S. militarism, surveys of clerical and public foreign policy opinion, and even discussion-group questions at the end of articles to deepen reader engagement and edification. Through this granular examination of The World Tomorrow, Thompson illuminates the painstaking work involved in constructing a public aware of and favorable toward foreign policy. It is a top-down analysis, focusing on how religious opinion leaders formulated and disseminated their ideas. Yet in highlighting the scale of the intellectual network that coalesced around The World Tomorrow, as well as some of the controversies the magazine sparked in its early days, Thompson hints at the diverse reception Protestant internationalist ideas received throughout the country.
He then expands his focus, examining how Protestant internationalism changed during World War II and gained purchase among policymakers as an instrument for steering public opinion. The second part of the book surveys a series of international ecumenical gatherings that culminated with the “Oxford 1937” conference, where Protestant internationalists from across the globe sought to codify and then propagate their vision for an antinationalist, anti-imperialist order. Thompson notes that a postliberal theological consensus bearing the influence of Karl Barth’s writings and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism emerged at the conference. This new consensus reflected the looming global crises of the 1930s and the debates within the Protestant internationalist movement over foreign policy realism, neutrality, and interventionism that these crises sparked. According to Thompson, “Oxford 1937’s critiques of nationalism and racism, its emphasis on practicing supranational and supraracial solidarity within churches, and its carefully framed support of international organizations provided” Protestant internationalists with [End Page 155] the “discursive framework” necessary to argue for intervention against the Axis well before the attack on Pearl Harbor (p. 147). This reflected a split in the movement, though, as Page and other pacifists remained committed to neutrality. It also placed Protestant internationalists well ahead of broad public opinion. Reinhold Niebuhr and John Foster Dulles, who embraced the vision of Oxford 1937, thus emerged as opinion leaders who made significant contributions to public discourse. While their opinions did not drive decision making, their internationalism made them appealing boosters for the nation’s entrance into World War II and the postwar creation of the United Nations.
Through this boosterism, Dulles in particular ensured that the antinationalist emphasis of interwar Christian internationalism did not survive World War II. Thompson argues that Dulles’ involvement in “instrumentaliz[ing] churches in the service of the nation” during the war had the effect of reconfiguring and Americanizing Christian internationalism (p. 23). Andrew Preston and William Inboden have analyzed Dulles’ thought and its well-known influence on Cold War foreign relations.1 What Michael Thompson’s nuanced picture of the rise and fall of interwar Christian internationalism offers is the recovery of a lost moment when ecumenical Protestants tried to remake America’s global role by calling their brethren to reject the civil religion and Christian nationalism that Dulles later advocated. The emergence of Dulles from this milieu is in some ways a fascinating irony, though Thompson’s larger story about the cultivation of foreign policy thought reinforces the link that A Sense of Power draws between internationalist-oriented domestic opinion and U.S. power in world affairs.
This connection is also evident in Human Rights in American Foreign Policy, where Joe Renouard examines the realist-idealist conflicts that U.S. policymakers and the public confronted as human rights became an institutionalized aspect of diplomacy. In this lucid narrative, Renouard traces the twists and turns of U.S. human rights policy from My Lai to Tiananmen Square and beyond through incisive and carefully researched transnational case studies. Human rights activism expanded dramatically in the 1970s, and both liberal and conservative members of Congress seized on the opportunities the movement presented to attack their political rivals (for supporting human-rights abuses in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, respectively) and to challenge presidential power in foreign-policy–making. This aspect of the story is not new, as the burgeoning literature on human rights in this period, including Barbara Keys’ excellent recent work, Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s (2014), reveals. Perhaps Renouard’s most interesting contribution lies in his wise assessment that “inconsistency was central to human rights policymaking and enforcement” rather than evidence of U.S. hypocrisy (p. 17). [End Page 156]
This claim rests on a careful consideration of how Jimmy Carter and his successors balanced human rights policies with U.S. interests and national security, which Renouard develops by bringing the story through the 1980s and into the post–Cold War era. He provides a detailed examination of the Reagan administration’s second-term shift on human rights, noting that public criticism played a key role in this development, as Reagan swung from downplaying human rights concerns in his first term to emphasizing religious freedom in diplomacy with the U.S.S.R. and pressing democratic reforms in allied but abusive regimes throughout his second term. Here, Renouard covers some of the same historical ground that Kathryn Sikkink and Sarah Snyder have explored, though he expands the geographical focus and provides a much more sympathetic portrayal of Reagan’s approach to human rights.2 He illuminates Reagan’s conflation of human rights with democracy promotion as well as his gradual acceptance that these moral aims were the province of U.S. policy. In this way, his book reveals the marked contrast between the realist emphasis on national interests that precluded a robust emphasis on human rights before the 1970s and the broad agreement by the 1990s that “human rights protections were an integral part of modern state legitimacy” and, significantly, American foreign policy-making (p. 279).
Reading Human Rights in American Foreign Policy in concert with A Sense of Power and For God and Globe further magnifies the centrality of the questions Renouard uses to frame his narrative and analyze the domestic political and public dynamics of U.S. foreign relations. At the outset of the book, he notes that once the United States had risen to superpower status after World War II, Americans had to decide: “Should they stand up for liberal, democratic principles and human rights everywhere? Or should they follow a more pragmatic course of a narrow set of national interests?” (p. 5). Did preponderant power compel the United States to intervene abroad or should the country lead by example? Renouard focuses on the interaction between Congress and the president in working through these challenges, revealing the power that domestic politics had over foreign policy. He places significant emphasis on the important influence that ethnic interest groups exerted on policies affecting their homelands. Congress, responsive to such interest-group lobbying and public opinion favoring human rights’ promotion, proved remarkably adept at linking human rights with the nation’s internationalist objectives. Having by this point fully internalized the sense that the United States had a preeminent role to play in shaping international affairs, the public provided both the support and the political incentive to embed human rights in foreign policy.
Although efforts to disentangle or showcase the relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy are not new, these three books underscore the revival of interest this topic is currently enjoying among diplomatic and international historians. Thompson, Thompson, and Renouard each make [End Page 157] significant contributions to our understanding of U.S. influence on world affairs in the twentieth century, and the topical breadth of their work reveals the expansiveness and manifold nature of this power. Even more noteworthy, their questions about the factors that motivated and determined how, when, and why the United States exercised its power are enduring and sure to inspire compelling future research.
Lauren Turek is assistant professor of history at Trinity University. She is currently revising her book manuscript, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelicals, Human Rights, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969–1994.
1. Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (2012); William Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment (2008).
2. Kathryn Sikkink, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America (2007); Sarah Snyder, “The Defeat of Ernest Lefever’s Nomination: Keeping Human Rights on the United States Foreign Policy Agenda,” in Challenging US Foreign Policy: America and the World in the Long Twentieth Century, ed. Bevan Sewell and Scott Lucas, (2011). [End Page 158]