Theses Doctoral

Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy in World War II

Wertheim, Stephen

This dissertation contends that in 1940 and 1941 the makers and shapers of American foreign relations decided that the United States should become the world's supreme political and military power, responsible for underwriting international order on a global scale. Reacting to the events of World War II, particularly the Nazi conquest of France, American officials and intellectuals concluded that henceforth armed force was essential to the maintenance of liberal intercourse in international society and that the United States must possess and control a preponderance of such force. This new axiom constituted a rupture from what came before and a condition of possibility of the subsequent Cold War with the Soviet Union and of U.S. world leadership after the Soviet collapse.

Thus this dissertation argues against the teleological interpretations of two opposing sets of scholarship. The first set, an orthodox literature in history and political science, posits a longstanding polarity in American thinking between "internationalism" and "isolationism." So conceived, internationalism favored global political-military supremacy from the first, needing only to vanquish isolationism in the arena of elite and popular opinion. The second, revisionist camp suggests the United States sought supremacy all along, driven by the dynamics of capitalism and the ideology of exceptionalism. By contrast, this dissertation uses methods of intellectual history in order to show that policy elites scarcely envisioned U.S. supremacy prior to 1940. Instead they widely identified with "internationalism," understood then as the antithesis of power politics, not of isolationism. Prewar internationalists, in short, sought to replace armed force with peaceful intercourse in world affairs.

The narrative begins, in Part I, with the decline of traditional ideas of internationalism, at first gradually in the 1930s and then decisively eight months into World War II in Europe. When the Nazis steamrolled France in May 1940, stunning the world, they swept away the old order and with it the assumptions of American internationalism. Now peaceful intercourse, far from replacing armed force, seemed paradoxically to depend upon armed force to undergird it. In official and especially semiofficial circles, American postwar planners scrambled to map the international area required to safeguard U.S. geopolitical and economic interests. They swapped continents in and out before concluding, by the autumn, that America's living space spanned the globe. Simultaneously, the Axis powers shattered the fundaments of British imperial power, presenting the opportunity for the United States to take the lead. Out of the death of nineteenth-century internationalism and British world leadership, U.S. global supremacy was born.

In 1941 policy elites conceived how to achieve world leadership, the subject of Part II. At first they hardly wished to set up a new world organization to replace the failed League of Nations. They preferred a permanent partnership with Great Britain and its white Dominions, a vision that President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed. Projecting a postwar cold war between the Anglosphere and a Nazi-dominated Europe, planners thought the "English-speaking peoples," America chief among them, would police most of the world. Soon, however, planners perceived a problem. U.S. supremacy, especially in partnership with Britain, sounded imperialistic. If asked to play power politics, the American people might refuse to lead.

Preoccupied with domestic public opinion, policy elites launched a campaign to legitimate U.S. political-military preeminence. From 1942 to 1945, as Part III recounts, they achieved what they conceived. They popularized a narrative that turned armed supremacy into the epitome of "internationalism," redefined in opposition to their newly coined pejorative "isolationism." Then they revived world organization after all, less to eliminate war or promote law than to cleanse U.S. power in the eyes of the American public as well as foreign states. Harnessing the resonance of prior efforts to end power politics in the name of internationalism, the United Nations Organization became an instrument to implement power politics.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Connelly, Matthew J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 4, 2015