In a welcome relief from too many works on foreign policy, Anne Pierce's Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman rejects the sort of reductionist view of political interpretation that sees foreign policy solely in terms of a single variable or a single dichotomy—economics, ideology, consensus versus change, liberal versus conservative, or idealism versus realism. "If we must use such categories," she says, "we must admit the following: At the end of his term, Truman was an idealist engaged in pragmatic geopolitics, a pragmatist determined to uphold and perpetuate Wilsonian ideals and a political liberal bent on conserving the best in American political traditions and American political thought." Her analysis of the formative periods of 20th-century American foreign policy, the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman, is actually a bit broader than the subtitle of her work, Mission and Power in American Foreign Policy, would suggest. By "mission" she means the principles that have animated American politics since the founding: by "power" she means the policies pursued by presidents Wilson and Truman in pursuit of those principles in the context of their time. How these two ideas are intertwined is the heart of her well-reasoned and tightly argued work. Americans are essentially idealists she maintains, but there are what might be called "soft" idealists and "hard" idealists.
Pierce identifies the two basic principles of 20th-century American foreign policy that run throughout the administrations of Wilson and Truman: (1) that men everywhere have a right to self-government and that legitimate government rests on the consent of the governed, and (2) that we stand opposed to militarism and colonialism and against "entangling alliances" with militaristic colonial powers. As a practical matter, however, Americans have been prepared to associate with other powers when necessary for the preservation of our own regime. Three recurring themes, however, have kept us from unnecessary involvement. One was the fear that foreign entanglements would somehow corrupt our own principles and form of government. Another, that we would be more powerful through avoidance of European power struggles. And, finally, that we had no right to impose any form of government on others.
Insofar as America may be said to have had a "mission," it was the often ill-defined notion that we were to be a "city upon a hill," an example to others. America was to be the one country where right was included in both domestic and foreign policies. In this way, Pierce argues, early American foreign policy was not "isolationist," if by that one means disengagement from the rest of the world, but it was passive until the 20th century. The First World War changed all of that. The ideals did not go away, but the new form of American engagement spawned by the war meant that merely "standing" for certain principles was insufficient; now we had to work to implement those principles in the generally hostile environment of the world outside of our own sovereignty. It was in this context that President Wilson brought America onto the world stage in the language of a soft idealism.
When fundamental principles that worked reasonably well in domestic affairs were transferred to foreign affairs, a friction developed that was probably inevitable. How they would be dealt with in foreign policy was very much a matter of prudential statesmanship, as Pierce reminds us. Promotion of democracy, often meaning simple majority rule, did not combine easily with inviolate natural rights. Likewise, state sovereignty, as the right of a people to be left alone by the outside world, did not always combine with either democracy or rights. When American foreign policy was forced to confront these inevitable conflicts in practice, it typically meant choosing one principle or the other. And whichever principle was preferred over the other in a specific case, it was easy for the outside world to attribute hypocrisy, inconsistency, or simply cynicism to the policy.
The author' s discussion of Wilson's policy during the neutrality phase of World War I illustrates her argument. Pierce builds perhaps the most sympathetic case for Wilsonian idealism that can be made and the effect of her argument ought to make even his most skeptical critics take notice. That Wilson sought to educate and enlighten both foreign and domestic opinion is not a new interpretation. But Pierce reminds her readers that American neutrality was both principled and practical. It was safe to stay out of the war so long as German victory was not certain, and just in that neutrality allowed the United States to play the role of arbiter. Wilson was not merely an idealist confronting hard-headed European realists. He interpreted the war as a practical demonstration of the need for new ideas; "self-interest" and "political realism" were self-evidently bankrupt in the mechanized slaughter of modern trench warfare. When Wilson appealed to Americans to consider higher things, it was reflective of the sort of practical idealism that has traditionally characterized American political thought. What Pierce astutely points out is that such an appeal had an effect on the nature of American neutrality: it simultaneously appealed to Americans and was at least defensible to Europeans. It was this combination of appeal to both Americans and Europeans that gave Wilson such influence on both sides of the Atlantic during and immediately after the war. Further, she is right to reconsider Wilson's policies themselves and avoid the endless speculation on Wilson's personality that has fueled so much of the scholarship on his failures. Many of his mistakes may be better understood as the sort of compromises that any power negotiating with other powers will necessarily accept. And compromise, under these circumstances, may be more of a virtue than a vice.
But Wilson's idealistic appeals carried their own dilemmas. His ambiguous use of self-determination and related terms created justifiable confusion among both allies and adversaries regarding just what these terms mean in practice. Did self-determination pertain to the individual, the nation, or the ethnic group, or all three? The short answer was "all of the above." But "all of the above" creates policies that cannot help but be contradictory, confusing both to others and ourselves and is sometimes self-defeating. How to balance the principle of self-determination with democracy became one of the overriding dilemmas of American foreign policy not only for Wilson after World War I but for Truman after World War II as well. It is never easy to translate principles that work reasonably well in domestic politics to objectives of foreign policy because there is a sense in which principles often turn back upon themselves. Pierce notes that "It is an irony of contemporary American foreign policy that the more we advocate freedom for foreign peoples, the more we are faced with the decision of just how much control we should exert over the process of liberation." She could have written these same words in about the Iraq war.
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The irony of balancing self-determination with American control was at least partly resolved during the Truman Administration, not because Truman abandoned Wilsonian internationalism, but because of the way he embraced the contradictions inherent in it. Truman embodied the hard idealism in the American tradition. He understood better than Wilson the necessity of bringing power and policy into some reasonable accommodation. Truman accepted the idea of an American mission as a fact rooted in regime principles and sought to define it in policy terms that were at once flexible and innovative. Pierce is careful to note that Truman's foreign policy did not emerge immediately upon his taking office. There was much initial hesitation and unwillingness to confront the emerging rivalry with the Soviet Union that was a challenge to both mission and power. He fully understood the realities of the postwar world in terms of power relationships and in this way differed from Wilson. The Soviet Union was a force to be reckoned with, and the United States was militarily unprepared to accept the challenge in the years immediately after the end of World War II. We supported self-determination, but the reality of Soviet power limited our control over the process within the Soviet sphere. Whereas Wilson may have separated spiritual from material resources more than was prudent, Truman did not: Without military security, the spiritual, material, and political benefits of freedom were in constant jeopardy.
A case in point was the challenge Truman faced in the 1948 election, particularly from Henry Wallace, who claimed to be the legitimate heir to the Wilson-Roosevelt tradition of morality in the conduct of foreign policy. Pierce points out that Truman's firing of Wallace, who was then serving as a holdover Secretary of Commerce, reveals the evolution of Truman's thinking about the Soviet Union, power, and America's role in world affairs. Truman rejected Wallace both because of his inability to understand the exigencies of power and his willingness to forsake principles for the sake of the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union in Europe. Wallace tended to view aggressive Soviet behavior as largely a response to U.S. behavior. In his Madison Square Garden Address, Wallace warned, "The tougher we get, the tougher the Russians will get." Wallace was neither the first nor the last peace activist to attribute international conflict to policy differences rather than regime analysis. At the heart of Truman's perception of foreign policy was the realization that conflict was not simply a matter of power but was also rooted in the internal principles of the regimes themselves. We could not predict Soviet behavior without also understanding Soviet style ideology: Marxism permeated Soviet ideological life. It was this reality that linked American mission and power in Truman's foreign policy. Policy had to confront an alien and hostile political philosophy that was linked to all of the military power the Soviet state could muster.
Containment for Truman meant, as Pierce puts it, "power politics and the democratic mission rendered compatible." The policy worked in Europe where self-determination, human rights, and democracy were not mutually hostile principles. The American sphere of influence meshed with a political culture that was compatible with basic principles of Truman's foreign policy. Pierce points out that the containment period was characterized by the enunciation of universal principles and an unwillingness to view the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as legitimate. The tendency of some scholars to concentrate on the universal enunciation of principles has led them to exaggerate the scope of postwar foreign policy and a consequent failure to recognize its prudential moderation. Conversely, a concentration on the geopolitical aspects of Truman's containment policy has led to an exaggerated sense of how much Truman departed from traditional moral concerns of American foreign policy. Containment proved to be less successful in Vietnam, for example, where the basic principles were not compatible. Although Pierce does not have very much to say about the post-Truman years, her few comments are pithy and well-reasoned.
While Pierce's work is an analysis of the Wilson and Truman approaches to foreign policy, it is also a running commentary on alternative interpretations. Reading this book not only gives the reader an insightful overview of American foreign policy during these critical turning points, it also gives the reader a good working knowledge of much of the interpretive literature on these contrasting periods. Her insights come primarily by focusing greater scrutiny on the public speeches of Wilson and Truman than most other scholars have done. The approach works well with Wilson's administration, and Pierce has written one of a handful of serious revisionist accounts of Wilson's foreign policy. It also offers an insightful and serious rethinking of Truman's foreign policy that has much to recommend it. It would, however, be a stronger rethinking of the Truman foreign policy if she had included in it some discussion of what we now know about the Venona project. (It should be supplemented by reading John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr's Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and perhaps Jerrold and Leona Schechter's Shared Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History).
Perhaps what makes her work most welcome it that her investigations into Wilson and Truman invite the reader to wonder about how and where President Bush fits into this tradition of American foreign policy. His speeches on foreign policy in the post-9/11 world have invited comparison with Wilson (often derisively), and with Kennedy (admiringly or grudgingly, depending on the pundit). How we will judge this in the future remains to be seen. But if Pierce is at all correct in her judgments, and I believe she is, the final assessments will turn not on idealism alone, but how American Exceptionalism connects power with policy: soft idealism or hard idealism? Pierce clearly prefers Truman, but she gives Wilson his due.