Will to Lead the World: Planning the Peace before Entering the War, 1939–41

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Stephen Wertheim, Columbia University
Historians have lavished attention on the “great debate,” in the years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, over whether the United States should intervene in the European and Pacific wars. Underpinning that debate, however, was a little known one about America’s future world role. Should the United States assume responsibility for maintaining a favorable balance of power in Eurasia and embrace political and military preeminence after the war? What, Americans asked, was their country’s international living space?

This paper argues that in 1940 and 1941 U.S. foreign policy elites developed a will for the United States to lead the world — and recast the concept of “internationalism” to suit this new purpose. It traces how surprising international events, especially the fall of France and the Tripartite Pact, prompted foreign policy elites to calculate the international living space of the United States and perceive U.S. national security in global terms. The development of a globalist conception is traced diachronically on two levels: first among postwar planners working in secret within the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations, and second among elites who publicly debated anti-interventionists and articulated a new vision for American internationalism.

Using the archives of Time/Life/Fortune editor Raymond Buell, activist-historian James Shotwell, and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, this paper emphasizes how such neo-Wilsonian figures reconceived internationalism and international organization as instruments of U.S. world leadership. Self-described internationalists newly branded their opponents as “isolationists,” expelling anti-interventionists from their ranks and turning “internationalism” into a hierarchical notion privileging the United States. Moreover, these internationalists showed F.D.R. and his government how setting up a new world organization — modeled less on than against the League of Nations — could facilitate the future projection of U.S. power abroad and sell the public on America’s new world role.

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