Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
A new history explains how and why, as it prepared to enter World War II, the United States decided to lead the postwar world.
For most of its history, the United States avoided making political and military commitments that would entangle it in European-style power politics. Then, suddenly, it conceived a new role for itself as the world’s armed superpower―and never looked back. In Tomorrow, the World, Stephen Wertheim traces America’s transformation to the crucible of World War II, especially in the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the Nazis conquered France, the architects of the nation’s new foreign policy came to believe that the United States ought to achieve primacy in international affairs forevermore.
Scholars have struggled to explain the decision to pursue global supremacy. Some deny that American elites made a willing choice, casting the United States as a reluctant power that sloughed off “isolationism” only after all potential competitors lay in ruins. Others contend that the United States had always coveted global dominance and realized its ambition at the first opportunity. Both views are wrong. As late as 1940, the small coterie of officials and experts who composed the U.S. foreign policy class either wanted British preeminence in global affairs to continue or hoped that no power would dominate. The war, however, swept away their assumptions, leading them to conclude that the United States should extend its form of law and order across the globe and back it at gunpoint. Wertheim argues that no one favored “isolationism”―a term introduced by advocates of armed supremacy in order to turn their own cause into the definition of a new “internationalism.”
We now live, Wertheim warns, in the world that these men created. A sophisticated and impassioned narrative that questions the wisdom of U.S. supremacy, Tomorrow, the World reveals the intellectual path that brought us to today’s global entanglements and endless wars.
Table of contents:
Introduction The Decision for Dominance
1 Internationalism before “Isolationism,” 1776–1940
2 World War for World Order, May–December 1940
3 The Americo-British New Order of 1941
4 Instrumental Internationalism, 1941–1943
5 The Debate That Wasn’t, 1942–1945
Conclusion A Distinctly American Internationalism
About the author:
Stephen Wertheim is a historian of America in the world. He is Deputy Director of Research and Policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
Wertheim writes widely on American politics and foreign policy. His essays have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and The Washington Post. He received a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University.
Reviews about the ebook:
- Andrew J. Bacevich:
You really ought to read it…It is a tour de force…While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that ‘so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted.
- Paul Kennedy:
For almost 80 years now, historians and diplomats have sought not only to describe America’s swift advance to global primacy but also to explain it…Any writer wanting to make a novel contribution either has to have evidence for a new interpretation, or at least be making an older argument in some improved and eye-catching way. Stephen Wertheim’s Tomorrow, the World does both…[An] estimable book.
- Adam Tooze:
How did the United States acquire the will to lead the world? How did primacy come to be the natural posture of America’s policy elite? In this groundbreaking new history, Stephen Wertheim overturns our existing understanding of the emergence of American global dominance. A work of brilliantly original historical scholarship that will transform the way we think about the past, the present, and the future.
- Stephen M. Walt:
Americans now believe global leadership is their birthright; this splendid book uncovers the origins of that conviction. Wertheim’s detailed analysis of strategic planning before and during World War II shows that the pursuit of global primacy was a conscious choice, made by a foreign policy elite that equated ‘internationalism’ with the active creation of a world order based on U.S. military preponderance. Myths about the seductive dangers of ‘isolationism’ helped marginalize alternative perspectives, leaving armed dominance and military interventionism as the default settings for U.S. foreign policy. A carefully researched and beautifully written account, Tomorrow, the World sheds new light on a critical period in U.S. history and reminds us that internationalism can take many different forms.
- Charles Dunst:
Wertheim provides an important historical corrective to the notion that the United States sleepwalked into global supremacy…An important read.
- Daniel Bessner:
The only recent book to explore U.S. elites’ decision to become the world’s primary power in the early 1940s―a profoundly important choice that has affected the lives of billions of people throughout the globe…Contributes to the effort to transform U.S. foreign policy by giving pro-restraint Americans a usable past. Though Tomorrow, the World is not a polemic, its implications are invigorating…Wertheim opens space for Americans to reexamine their own history and ask themselves whether primacy has ever really met their interests.
- David Swanson:
Stephen Wertheim’s Tomorrow, The World examines a shift in elite U.S. foreign-policy thinking that took place in mid-1940. Why in that moment, a year and a half before the Japanese attacks on the Philippines, Hawaii, and other outposts, did it become popular in foreign-policy circles to advocate for U.S. military domination of the globe?
In school textbook mythology, the United States was full of revoltingly backward creatures called isolationists at the time of World War I and right up through December 1941, after which the rational adult internationalists took command (or we’d all be speaking German and suffering through the rigged elections of fascistic yahoos, unlike this evening).
In fact, the term “isolationist” wasn’t cooked up until the mid-1930s and then only as a misleading insult to be applied to people who wished for the U.S. government to engage with the world in any number of ways from treaties to trade that didn’t include militarism. Anti-isolationism was and is a means of ridiculously pretending that “doing something” means waging war, supporting NATO, and promoting the “responsibility to protect,” while anything else means “doing nothing.”
There were distinctions in the 1920s between those who favored the League of Nations and World Court and those who didn’t. But neither group favored coating the planet with U.S. military bases, or extending even the most vicious conception of the Monroe Doctrine to the other hemisphere, or replacing the League of Nations with an institution that would falsely appear to establish global governance while actually facilitating U.S. domination. Pre-1940 internationalists were, in fact, imperfect U.S. nationalists. They, as Wertheim writes, “had the capacity to see the United States as a potential aggressor requiring restraint.” Some, indeed, didn’t need the word “potential” there.
What changed? There was the rise of fascism and communism. There was the notion that the League of Nations had failed. There was a serious failure of disarmament efforts. There was the belief that whatever came out of WWII would be dramatically different. In September 1939, the Council on Foreign Relations began making plans to shape the post-war (yet permawar) world. The Roosevelt White House into 1940 was planning for a post-war world that held a balance of power with the Nazis. Ideas of disarmament, at least for others, were still very much a part of the thinking. “Weapons dealer to the world” was not a title that it was ever suggested that the United States strive for.
Wertheim sees a turning point in the German conquest of France. The change came swiftly in May-June, 1940. Congress funded the creation of the world’s biggest navy and instituted a draft. Contrary to popular mythology, and propaganda pushed by President Roosevelt, nobody feared a Nazi invasion of the Americas. Nor was the United States dragged kicking and screaming into its moral responsibility to wage global permawar by the atrocious domestic policies of the Nazis or any mission to rescue potential victims from Nazi genocide. Rather, U.S. foreign policy elites feared the impact on global trade and relations of a world containing a Nazi power. Roosevelt began talking about a world in which the United States dominated only one hemisphere as imprisonment.
The United States needed to dominate the globe in order to exist in the sort of global order it wanted. And the only global order it wanted was one it dominated. Did U.S. planners become aware of this need as they watched events in Europe? Or did they become aware of its possibility as they watched the U.S. government build weapons and the U.S. president acquire new imperial bases? Probably some of each. Wertheim is right to call our attention to the fact that U.S. officials didn’t talk about militarily dominating the whole globe prior to 1940, but was there ever a time they talked about dominating anything less than what they had the weapons and troops to handle? Certainly, the voices had not all been monolithic, and there was always an anti-imperialist tradition, but did it ever give much back to those it had dispossessed until after WWII when airplanes and radios developed a new sort of empire (and some colonies were made states but others more or less liberated)?
The U.S. government and its advisers didn’t just discover that they could rule the world and that they needed to rule the world, but also that — in the words of General George V. Strong, chief of the Army’s War Plans Division — Germany had demonstrated the “tremendous advantage of the offense over the defense.” The proper defensive war was aggressive war, and an acceptable goal of that was what Henry Luce called living space and Hitler called Lebensraum. U.S. elites came to believe that only through war could they engage in proper trade and relations. One can treat this as a rational observation based on the growth of fascism, although some of the same people making the observation had fascistic tendencies, the problem with Germany seems to have existed for them only once it had invaded other nations that were not Russia, and there is little doubt that had the United States lived sustainably, locally, egalitarian, contentedly, and with respect for all humanity, it could not have observed a need for permawar in the world around it — much less gone on observing it for 75 years.
In early 1941, a U.S. political scientist named Harold Vinacke asked, “When the United States has its thousands of airplanes, its mass army, properly mechanized, and its two-ocean navy, what are they to be used for?” Officials have been asking the same right up through Madeline Albright and Donald Trump, with the answer generally being found to be as self-evident as other patriotic “truths.” By summertime 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill had announced the future organization of the world in the Atlantic Charter.
If hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, there remained some virtue in U.S. society and its conception of foreign policy at the time of WWII, because a major focus of post-war planners was how to sell global domination to the U.S. public (and incidentally the world, and perhaps most importantly themselves) as being something other than what it was. The answer, of course, was the United Nations (along with the World Bank, etc.). Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles described the design of the United Nations thus: “what we required was a sop for the smaller states: some organization in which they could be represented and made to feel themselves, participants.” In Roosevelt’s words before the creation of the U.N., all nations but four, in a future global organization, would merely “blow off steam.”
Roosevelt also proposed that the existence of such a phony organization would allow it to declare war instead of the U.S. Congress, meaning that a U.S. president would be able to launch wars at will — something like what we’ve seen for the past 75 years with NATO occasionally having filled in for a malfunctioning United Nations.
Roosevelt believed that the United States signed up for global policeman when it defeated Hitler. Neither Roosevelt nor Wertheim mentions that the Soviet Union did 80% of defeating Hitler, after having done about 0% of creating him.
But surely the job of world cop can be resigned, no matter how one got into it. The question now is how. The financial and bureaucratic and media and campaign-corruption interests all work against dismantling the permawar military, just as does the ideology of anti-“isolationism.” But it certainly cannot hurt to be aware of the dishonesty in the ideology and of the fact that it was not always with us.
- Mary L. Dudziak:
How did the idea of American military supremacy come to be understood as essential and inevitable? In this important and beautifully crafted revisionist history, Stephen Wertheim shows the way a foreign policy consensus in favor of American predominance was forged as Hitler ransacked Europe. It became an assumed necessity after World War II, and later fueled military build-up and ongoing armed conflict. By revealing the contingent path of American global militarism, Wertheim makes an urgent and overdue reassessment possible.
- David Shulman:
Columbia University historian and co-founder of the noninterventionist Quincy Institute offers up a conspiracy theory of how a small group of intellectuals centered around the Council on Foreign Relations in the early 1940s became the vanguard of American hegemony in the years to come. The elite view was highlighted by Henry Luce’s famous “American Century” article in Life Magazine in February 1941. To me, there is some truth in what Wertheim writes, but history is far more complicated than the theory he lays out.
He argues that it was not Pearl Harbor that turned the tide against isolationism, but rather the fall of France in May 1940. Although France’s fall did not move public opinion all that much, it certainly moved elite opinion. But why did it move elite opinion? My answer is that it was an enormous geopolitical shock that would have worked its way through policy in any event, elite opinion or not. Why?
Simply put, the correlation forces drove policy far more than a few intellectuals. The fall of France meant that the balance of power in Europe was broken and Germany ruled supreme. England was up against the wall and the wily Stalin understood the geopolitical underpinnings of his pact with Hitler were rendered moot. Stalin’s hope of Western Europe bleeding white in a manner similar to World War I was shattered and instead of the Soviets being able to pick up the pieces of a shattered Europe, his country would soon become Hitler’s prey.
In America, the isolationists/noninterventionists believed that the European balance of power would be preserved obviating the need to intervene. The collapse of France shattered that illusion. Thus, the noninterventionist idea of hemispheric defense looked kind of lame in the face of a Nazi-dominated Europe. Simply put by not acting the United States would be on the strategic defensive, a hardly desirable outcome.
After the war, the United States stood astride the world like no other power ever before. But contrary to what Wertheim argues, instead of pressing its military advantage, the U.S. demobilized and remains that way until the Korean War. It was Soviet expansionism in Europe and China that forces the United States into becoming a global hegemon, albeit an enlightened one.
I wish Wertheim would have cited Walter Russell Meade’s “American Providence” which discusses the four strands of American foreign policy. In that book, Meade outlined the conflict between the Wilsonian internationalists and the Jeffersonian isolationists on the eve of World War II. That argument was settled initially by the Jacksonian’s revenge against the Pearl Harbor attack and later the Hamiltonian internationalists seized the economic prizes that were available in the postwar world.
In a word, Wertheim overstates his case, and the book could have used a better editor. It is a slog at too many points.
- Sam Lebovic:
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…The contemporary stakes of Wertheim’s work are plainly apparent…A reminder of just how strange it is that Americans have come to see military supremacy as a form of selfless altruism, as a gift to the world.
- Kevin Loveland:
A great source for those who want to explore why the United States has tried to maintain world primacy at tremendous financial and moral cost, in an attempt to project American exceptionalism throughout the world. Wertheim documents how American foreign policy elites managed to transform public opinion just prior to and during World War 2, to not only accept, but embrace, a new internationalist definition that led to the role the U.S. has undertaken in international affairs ever since.
- Peter Beinart:
Stephen Wertheim isn’t only a great historian of American foreign policy. He uses history to offer a critique of American foreign policy that Americans desperately need now.