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Why Is America the World’s Police? (Review)

Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
Stephen Wertheim
Harvard University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Most Americans never encounter the simple, brute fact of U.S. military supremacy. Bases are far away; wars in remote places are waged remotely; amid the general fragmentation of social life, those who serve in the military are lumped into particular demographic niches. But on the rare occasions when Americans do think about their military, they are remarkably supportive. The military routinely ranks as the most-trusted institution in polls; even after decades of cuts to all manner of other services, the ever-expanding defense budget remains sacrosanct. Amid general rancor and paranoia about their politics, Americans are overwhelmingly content not only that their military is the world’s most powerful, but also its most expensive: it costs more than the armed forces of the next ten countries combined.

In his new book, historian Stephen Wertheim seeks to explain the origins of this attitude. He zooms in on the pivotal years of World War II, focusing our attention on the frenzied and consequential planning for the postwar world order. Observing a tight network of policy-makers and intellectuals as they drafted the blueprints for what they increasingly thought of as an “American Century,” Wertheim shows that they decided to “attain armed primacy.” This was a significant shift: when the Nazis invaded France, the U.S. army was only the nineteenth largest in the world, ranking behind even the Dutch. In writing the history of the country’s decision to embrace a militarist vision of world order—and to do so, counterintuitively, through the creation of the United Nations—Wertheim provides an importantly revisionist account of U.S. foreign policy in the 1940s, one that helps us think anew about internationalism today.

Tomorrow, the World traces shifting ideas about world order by examining the internal deliberations of geopolitical planners, and thus pinpoints exactly how and when U.S. ideas about foreign policy began to evolve. The details are often surprising, running counter to conventional wisdom about how U.S. foreign policy developed in the postwar period.

A major focus of the book is the period immediately following the fall of France (June 1940), when the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank tried to map out the prospects for the United States if the Nazis dominated Europe. Well before Pearl Harbor, and at a time when the State Department had disbanded its postwar planning committee, CFR sought to define the geopolitical interests of the United States. At first, its members thought that the country might retreat to what they called the “quarter-sphere”—an easily defensible area extending from Canada to the northern portion of Latin America. But they soon worried that the U.S. economy might be locked into the quarter-sphere. If foreign geopolitical blocs dominated the rest of the globe, the United States would be cut off from trade. The quarter-sphere, they feared, would prove “too small an area for a satisfactory American standard of life.”

For a time, therefore, the planners expanded the quarter-sphere to the hemisphere, but this too seemed unsustainably small. It was not self-sufficient, because it needed to export both agricultural goods (from Latin America and the U.S. South) and commercial goods (from the U.S. North). It therefore couldn’t provide a truly independent economic base for competition with Nazi-dominated Europe. Including the Pacific would soak up manufactured exports, and provide valuable sources of jute, rubber, and tin—but it would only exacerbate the need to find export markets for agricultural products. And so the only solution was to bring Britain, a major importer of agricultural goods, into the fold as well. “After months of study,” Wertheim concludes, “the planners had discovered that if German domination of Europe endured, the United States had to dominate almost everywhere else.” Like an overgrown Goldilocks, the United States had tried various economies on for size, and found itself comfortable only in the world system that imperialism had built in the early twentieth century.

Read entire article at Boston Review