Choosing Empire: America before and after World War II

Both America First nationalism and postwar liberalism refuse to face the challenges of the globalized world that America itself inaugurated.

Last year, when Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization, it felt like a cruel bit of political theater. Threaten to cripple global public-health efforts as a pandemic stalks the planet? Why not? It was all upside for the narcissistic hall-of-mirrors feed stream that propels Trump’s demagoguery. With another dig at China and the “globalists,” he could rally his supporters on Fox News and gin up the usual outrage in the “lamestream media” to boot. As we now know all too well, nothing can be too craven if it appears to serve the ends of Trump’s long con: perpetuating the country’s rancorous divides to boost his authoritarian dreams.

Cue Joe Biden, riding in on a wave of conventional wisdom. Trumpism, the liberal standard bearer declares, has damaged America’s standing in the world and undermined the nation’s global leadership. The answer is to turn the clock back to the golden years of a sane liberal world order—led by the enlightened United States, of course, with its special dispensation for liberty.

This argument can feel just right—soft and forgiving like a familiar and well-worn shirt—a wave of relief after years of discomfort. But pause a minute, and those easy comforts might set off a suspicious itch. The story the liberal narrative offers, as we should already know, ignores far too much.

In Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others, “liberal world ordering” has foundered, broken on the rocks of imperial hubris and the white-racial-superiority complex that propped it up. Of course, it would be easy to respond with a competing litany of US benevolence in postwar Europe, Japan, or elsewhere. But tit-for-tat won’t do. The country has reached an intellectual and moral impasse.

Trump’s bluster on foreign affairs has proved to be a malevolent game of shiny keys. It’s menacing, to be sure, but also a sign of his incompetence. Meanwhile, the call to return to a liberal world order swaddles the past three-quarters of a century in reassuring bromides about American indispensability, while failing to understand that status quo as only a softer, more respectable form of nationalist self-assurance and imperial universalism. Both America First nationalism and the postwar liberal status quo are symptoms of larger dilemmas. They reveal how the nation has failed to come to grips with the true challenges of the present: inequality, climate change, global pandemic. And both compound the fact that the United States has refused to face the challenges of the globalized world it inaugurated three-quarters of a century ago, during World War II.

How did this happen? In Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home between the Wars, Nancy Cott suggests that the years leading up to World War II saw the expansion of American world-mindedness. She rediscovers a once-famous generation of foreign correspondents and argues that they inspired their “fellow Americans to tie their own fates to the rest of the world.” What happened to those internationalist passions? In Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, Stephen Wertheim reveals that during World War II an American “foreign policy class” abandoned its roots in the more cooperative internationalism of the interwar years and chose to assert US “primacy” over the rest of the world, remaking internationalism as a narrow ideology of American dominance and steering the nation toward global empire.

Taking Cott and Wertheim together, however, suggests a more unsettling story, one less anchored solely in betrayal of multilateral cooperation from on high. Instead, we might see how a gathering sense of American interdependence with the world ran headlong into a pervasive and underlying belief in America’s special propensity for freedom. This collision remade interwar internationalism as the assumption of world dominance that we have lived with ever since. The American exceptionalism that underpinned both proto-Trumpist, America First–style “isolationism” and the liberal world order split and diluted interwar internationalism, birthing the deep and abiding fable of US triumphalism that bedevils us still.

In recent years, historians have undermined the old shibboleth of “isolationism.” In fact, many studies have found that the idea that the United States closed itself off from the world in the interwar years is a myth. Instead, widespread nativism and opposition to the League of Nations disguised the way many Americans participated in an increasingly networked world. They also disguised the way the US government and businesses pursued political and commercial advantage abroad. Global connections, Cott shows, were propelled by a boom in international news: US papers, broadcasting networks, and syndication services expanded their foreign bureaus, sent writers overseas, and worked as never before to deliver global news.

Fighting Words introduces readers to four American journalists—three of them once famous, the fourth a kind of underground legend—whose interconnected lives exemplify the country’s growing attention to worldly matters between the wars. Dorothy Thompson, James Vincent Sheean, and John Gunther first went abroad in the 1920s, and they became known to millions by the 1930s and 1940s. They were celebrated for their books, their syndicated columns, and their dispatches from Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Thompson was the first American correspondent ejected from Nazi Germany. She warned Americans about the rise of fascism, reaching millions with her columns and radio speeches urging US intervention in the war.

Sheean, a peripatetic freelancer, made his name covering anticolonial revolutions in Morocco, Iran, Palestine, and China. Along the way, he created a new nonfiction genre—the foreign correspondent’s first-person account of world events—with his best-selling classic from 1935, Personal History.

Gunther became a household name in the late 1930s for the Inside series. These vivid books of middlebrow reportage—beginning with Inside Europe and Inside Asia—depict world events as driven not by the great forces of class, political movements, or cultural conflict, but by the internal dramas of “leading personalities.” To “Guntherize” something entered the American lexicon in the 1940s as shorthand for taking an authoritative view of a big subject, and doing so by way of an ersatz, sweeping pop Freudianism.

Cott’s fourth character, Rayna Raphaelson, was obscure by comparison, but an inspiration to the other three. She went to China in 1923, where she found a newspaper job with an English-language organ of the nationalist, anti-imperial Guomindang (Nationalist Party). Once there, she devoted herself to the Guomindang’s Communist-allied left wing. Raphaelson became a go-to source for Western journalists in China, particularly Sheean, who arrived in spring 1927, just as the left-right split in the Guomindang broke into open warfare.

Forced into exile in Moscow, Raphaelson would die of a sudden brain swell brought on by undetected encephalitis. Sheean was devastated. He dedicated Personal History to her, believing that she had chosen selfless commitment over convention. Raphaelson was “‘co-conscious’ with all other parts of the human race,” he wrote. She would never “lie down under the monstrous system of the world.”1

The American exceptionalism that underpinned both proto-Trumpist, America First–style “isolationism” and the liberal world order split and diluted interwar internationalism.

Thompson, Sheean, and Gunther were all close friends, with a shared cosmopolitan sensibility. But their takes on the world differed.

Thompson focused on the great theme that preoccupied them all: the rise of fascism and communism and the descent of Europe into war. She lamented the rise of the Cold War and felt that the menace of totalitarianism had not only destroyed Europe but warped the McCarthy-era United States, too.

Gunther kept his eye on the international psychodramas of the age. But he found his way back to America, too, where he made his peace with the postwar age of affluence. His Inside USA granted the persistence of racial segregation but fed the myth of national consensus nonetheless. The book found that, as Cott puts it, “the sheer bravura and colorful plethora of the nation” were “cause for delighted wonder.”

Sheean bounced from continent to continent, trying to, as he would later write, “see beyond the end of his own nose.”2 He spent his life searching for a calling equal to the revolutionary fervor that grabbed hold of him in China and Russia, and in the person of Rayna Raphaelson.

All three, however, and Sheean most of all, eagerly followed the anticolonial upsurge of the postwar years. Sheean would pursue the problem of “capital and empire” to Gandhi’s India, and eventually to Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955.3 There, he witnessed the meeting of nonaligned states that catalyzed the rising force of decolonization. This meeting, Sheean told Thompson, was “the most momentous gathering since the Congress of Vienna.”

Cott’s lively book follows these journalists’ interwoven comings and goings, their far-flung postings and many books, their marriages and affairs, their struggles with sexuality and mental health. For her, these lives suggest a revision of the hoary old Lost Generation story of the interwar years, in which the canonical Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein went to Paris only to turn inward and invent new ways of living. Her characters continued to look outward, even as they took part in the great social and personal transformations that reshaped American society between the rise of the New Woman and the descent into the Cold War.

“They were rethinking relationships between women and men,” she writes, “as much as between themselves and the world, as much as between peoples and political systems.” Their fame, and the wide influence of their generation of foreign correspondents, has largely been forgotten now. But “their reporting and commentary,” Cott rightly judges, “were essential in urging Americans to face global responsibilities in the mid-twentieth century.”

So what happened? How did responsibility become “primacy”?

For Stephen Wertheim, the shift comes down to a relative handful of months in 1941, before the United States had even entered the war. Stunned by the Nazi conquest of France, a group of foreign-policy makers clustered around Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations, and other private think tank–style organizations of the “proto-national security state” made the political choice to pursue US dominance. These figures appear in Wertheim’s book not as individuals with lives and personal dramas, but as a bloc: a political elite that sought consensus behind closed doors and then won over the American public.

Still, this elite bloc came to their goal gradually, pursuing it stepwise. Most had been Progressives, committed to eliminating war and power politics through international law and organization. The rise of fascism undermined their faith in world cooperation, but it was the Blitzkrieg that set them on a new course.

The United States would have to join the fight, the foreign-policy thinkers came to believe. But it would also have to defend the “free world,” keeping it open for trade and capitalist development. Any alternative—particularly noninterventionism—was naive. Such naiveté, they argued, was mere “isolationism.”


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Yet this idea of naive isolationism was a myth. More important, as Wertheim shows, it was a category fabricated by his bloc of internationalists, so as to make “any limitation on force seem to imply total disengagement from the world.”

Looking ahead, these thinkers considered partnership with the British, but many Americans refused to fight for empire. The United States would instead go it alone, and so, in 1942 and 1943, they reinvigorated the dream of world organization as cover.

What would become the United Nations would “gesture rather faintly at ending power politics while implementing power politics on a global scale.” As Roosevelt put it, the “Big Four”—Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States, first among equals—would make “all the important decisions.” Everyone else would meet now and then to “blow off steam.” The strategy, Wertheim says, was to “flatter the public’s sensibilities, making supremacy safe for democracy.”

From there, Wertheim’s elite had little trouble convincing Americans to accept this new vision. They faced “less a debate than a campaign of legitimation.” Why? They had cleared the field of alternatives, he argues, “demolished the intellectual resources” of the noninterventionists by labeling them isolationists, and made internationalism synonymous with US supremacy.

America First nationalism and the postwar liberal status quo are symptoms of larger dilemmas, revealing how the nation has failed to come to grips with the true challenges of the present.

Other internationalist alternatives did exist. The left-liberal tendency that formed around Vice President Henry Wallace and the unions of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) challenged the rise of American capitalism’s global sway, hoping to make social democracy at home a model for US influence abroad. The nascent African American freedom struggle campaigned for a world free of empire and domestic racism. Both flourished for a time but were outmatched by the power of US primacy, and eventually divided by the demands of Cold War–era nationalism. But their ideals overlapped with another alternative, too, which won greater public support than Wertheim acknowledges.

Call it the “one world” vision, after the best seller by Wendell Willkie (1943), FDR’s Republican rival in 1940. One worlders—who also took inspiration from Gunther, Thompson, and Sheean’s generation of foreign correspondents—walked a tricky tightrope. A motley group of government officials, journalists, broadcasters, and academics, members of civic and religious organizations, and ordinary citizens from the broad middle of American society, these idealists hoped the United States would confront racism at home and abroad and cooperate with the Soviet Union to see empire off the world stage. They backed various plans for a more democratic world body—a “common council” of all nations, Willkie called it—rather than one led by FDR’s Big Four.

One worldism, Wertheim argues, never really troubled the foreign-policy elite. This judgment appears truer now, in hindsight, than it was at the time and obscures the way the struggle unfolded. Wertheim’s account is perceptive, intricate, and detailed, tracking with great precision the minute shifts in foreign-policy opinion. But it skims lightly over the history of public debate, content to see his elite’s machinations as the only choices that mattered. They had the power, no doubt, to make their ideas stick. But this focus starves out a more complex story, one that reveals the varied ways that Cott’s generation of international sojourners—and the public they inspired—oriented themselves to emerging American dominance.

One might understand the consolidation of midcentury US power in any number of ways. Some say Americans created a liberal, multilateral world order for the good of all. Others see the rise of a bipartisan Cold War national-security state, built from suspicion of the Soviet Union and resurgent nationalism. Still others stress US interest in guiding and dominating global capitalism. Some have traced it to a longer history of settler colonialism and racialized conquest.

Decisive for each, though, was a World War II–era sea change in American opinion. In those years, American exceptionalism—the tendency to see the United States as tasked with spreading its special gift for liberty—shifted its ambit from the western hemisphere to the globe at large. But Wertheim sees US exceptionalism as ephemeral. The “real task” of his actors was “to convince Americans not that their nation was superior to others but something like the opposite: that the United States would respect others rather than domineer and exploit them as previous empires had done.” This misses the forest for the trees: many Americans were willing to take on world dominance—whether grudgingly or willingly—because they already believed in American anti-imperial benevolence as the taproot of US superiority.4

These sentiments worked behind the scenes, shaping the efforts of Wertheim’s elite and their opponents alike. Walter Lippmann, for instance, dedicated himself to a “new order” led by the United States. “It was to found this order and to develop it that our forefathers came here,” he wrote in 1940. “In this order we exist. Only in this order can we live.” He wielded this newly assertive nationalism, he later recalled, “in an open attempt to get away from the One World doctrine.”5

Lippmann was helped by the fact that the one worlders were split, with Sheeanesque anti-imperialist cosmopolitanism on the one side, and a kind of “Guntherized” faith in flawed but necessary American indispensability on the other. Many of them tended to see US power as vital to the postwar world. Even if they favored multilateral internationalism, they were less prone to question the self-confident assertion of American indispensability unleashed by the foreign-policy elite.


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A house divided, the one-world vision faded, beset by a surge of nationalist opinion that undermined support for alternative schemes for world organization. By the time Wendell Willkie died, in late 1944, American “primacy” was all but assured. And by the time Sheean went to Bandung in 1955, few white Americans could see what the one worlders had once hoped to show them: the Third World was emerging as a living alternative to the binary Cold War division between capitalist and communist worlds. For the novelist Richard Wright, also reporting from the conference, Bandung revealed that the “color curtain” would shape the world’s future even more than the Cold War’s “iron curtain.”6 Their instincts proved prescient, but Americans, who were only just beginning to awake to the corrosive power of racial segregation at home, paid little heed to Sheean’s or Wright’s warnings, preferring instead the self-regarding tales of national uniqueness and global mission that displaced one-world ideals.

Wertheim calls primacy “an axiom about America’s role in the world, closer to the status of an identity than to that of a policy or strategy.” Exactly right: the idea’s considerable hegemony arrived when subtle transformations in popular ideology dovetailed with official policy from on high. That’s how it has allowed the United States to pursue “multilateralism where possible, unilateralism if necessary” from the Cold War to the War on Terror, right up through Trump’s rebooted America First.

Now, of course, the belief in US primacy has become a familiar, shopworn story of national greatness and self-assured paternalism. To “install one’s dominance in the name of internationalism,” Wertheim writes, “turns one nation’s military supremacy into the prerequisite of a decent world” and distracts from inequity at home and abroad. How much longer can it last? Empires have fallen for less.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Vincent Sheean, Personal History (Citadel, 1969), p. 270.
  2. Ibid., p. 225.
  3. Ibid., p. 395.
  4. See John Fousek, To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
  5. Lippmann quoted in Wertheim, p. 73, and in Robert A. Divine, Second Chance: The Triumph of Internationalism in America during World War II (Atheneum, 1967), p. 178.
  6. Richard Wright, The Color Curtain, in Black Power: Three Books from Exile (Harper Perennial, 2008).
Featured image: Decorated car in the Fourth of July parade at Vale, Oregon (1941). New York Public Library / Unsplash