New essays on the U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide website

Clio, the Greek Muse of History, prepares to record the next chapter of U.S. history (Udo Keppler 1899, adapted, Library of Congress)

Clio, the Greek Muse of History, prepares to record
the next chapter of U.S. history (Udo Keppler 1899, adapted)

Three new essays have been added to the U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide website:  “Introduction:  The Fifth Estate,” “The U.S. and World War II,” and “Africa and the War on Terror.”

The website, now with 13 essays, covers the nation’s wars, military interventions, and major doctrines over the course of more than two centuries.  Written for the general public and students, each entry draws on the work of experts in the area of study, summarizing major developments, analyzing causes and contexts, and providing links to additional information and resources.  This is a history about the United States’ role in the world, but it does not define “success” and “progress” in terms of the advancement of national power and interests.

The U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide is an open resource educational website, established in 2016 and sponsored by the Historians for Peace and Democracy and the Peace History Society.  It may be used by professors and teachers to enhance their course curricula.

Introduction: The Fifth Estate by Roger Peace

How is history written?  Why do historians differ in their interpretations?  What are the main differences in writing the history of U.S. foreign relations?  These are questions answered in “Introduction: The Fifth Estate.”  The title conveys the idea that the history profession has a responsibility to the public to question official rationales, search out the truth, and present an accurate and honest accounting of the past – in the interest of democratic accountability.

The argument here is not against nationalistic bias per se, but rather against the exclusion, minimalization, and whitewashing of egregious foreign policies in order to conform to, or at least not contradict, celebratory U.S. history.  Nationalistic bias descends into whitewashing when it (1) fails to cross-examine official rationales and ideological assumptions, (2) ignores the harm done to others by foreign policies, and (3) omits dissenting voices and alternative courses of action available at the time.

Historians of the progressive tradition have voiced ample criticism of U.S. foreign policies, but the diplomatic history field as a whole has been immobilized by a lack of agreement on fundamental interpretations.  What lessons, after all, should be conveyed to the public and to political leaders?  If, on the one hand, as many nationalist-minded historians have argued, Pax Americana has produced a stable, peaceful international order for the last seven decades, then, by all means, let it continue.  If, on the other hand, U.S. foreign policies have been characterized by unnecessary wars, rogue operations, propaganda, and obstruction of a more cooperative international order, then reform is in order; it is time to create something new.

The U.S. and World War II by Jeremy Kuzmarov and Roger Peace

The Second World War is popularly remembered as “the good war” in American history, an heroic struggle against fascist totalitarian states.  America’s adversaries indeed fit this characterization, with Nazi Germany committing some of the most heinous atrocities the world has ever seen.  Yet if we scrutinize the origins and conduct of this war, we see that it was not entirely a righteous one for the victorious Allies.

Typically overlooked is the U.S. policy of appeasement toward fascism during the interwar years, a policy well-documented in U.S. governmental records.  U.S. officials supported Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and were conciliatory toward German dictator Adolf Hitler until March 1939, operating under the assumption that fascism was a force for stability and a bulwark against communism.  Also overlooked is the role of U.S.-based corporations in Nazi Germany, including General Motors, Ford, Standard Oil Company, IBM, and Chase Manhattan Bank.

Another avenue explored in the essay is the U.S. response to German repression of Jews.  While American Jewish leaders organized public demonstrations and boycotts against Nazi Germany, the U.S. State Department under Cordell Hull withheld public criticism and refused to increase immigration quotas.  By June 1939, three months before WWII broke out in Europe, the waiting list of Germans and Austrians seeking entry in the U.S. had grown to 309,782.

The war itself is discussed from both a bird’s eye view of overarching strategies and a worm’s eye view of fighting in the fields, as described in numerous soldier diaries and correspondent reports.  The role of the Soviet Union is emphasized, as the Red Army turned the tide of the war in January 1943.  In the Pacific theater, as the historian John W. Dower attests, “Race hate fed atrocities, and atrocities in turn fanned the fires of race hate.”  Racial prejudice was also directed at American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry.  A presidential order forced 120,000 people living in West Coast States to live in barren internment camps for the duration of the war.

The essay also discusses the Truman administration’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Seven out of eight top U.S. military commanders believed that the use of atomic bombs was unnecessary from a strategic-military vantage point.  The main inhibition to Japanese surrender was retainment of the emperor, which was granted in the end.  The bombings were unnecessary.

Africa and the War on Terror by Elizabeth Schmidt

“To understand the war on terror in Africa, it must be placed in historical context,” writes Elizabeth Schmidt, author of Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the War on Terror (2018), and Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror (2013).  “After 9/11, the Bush administration expanded unconventional military actions in Africa, deploying U.S. Special Operations Forces and launching unmanned drones outside of established war zones.”  In 2007, the U.S. established the U.S. Africa Command, signaling the growing importance of Africa in U.S. geopolitical calculations.

Schmidt offers a cogent analysis of how U.S. leaders mislabeled disparate civil disturbances in African countries as “terrorism,” then emphasized military “solutions.”  Rather than reduce terrorism, U.S. military actions strengthened autocratic regimes, exacerbated human rights abuses, and undermined the goals they purported to promote.  Schmidt also dispels some common misconceptions about Islam, noting that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide condemn terrorism.

– Roger Peace, website initiator and coordinator