As the twenty-first century approaches, many American policymakers and scholars believe they have learned the lessons of nineteenth and twentieth-century history for U.S. foreign policy. Three such "lessons" dominate discussion: the Lesson of American Development; the Lesson of the Pax Britannica; and the Lesson of Smoot-Hawley.
The Lesson of American Development is that the United States became the leading economic power in the world by following laissez-faire economic theories, and that American economic policy only became "statist" with F.D.R. and the New Deal. The Lesson of the Pax Britannica teaches that world peace and world economic development requires a benign hegemon like nineteenth-century Britain that is willing to police the world and promote global free trade. The Lesson of Smoot-Hawley holds that misguided American politicians in the 1920s and 1930s, by raising tariffs, caused, or significantly aggravated, the Great Depression, and thus were indirectly responsible for fascism and World War II, both of which, ultimately, had economic causes.
These three lessons are routinely invoked by American government officials, media commentators, and even academics (who ought to know better). They are staples of what might be called Op-Ed History. Each one, however, is a myth. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, each is historical fiction. As in costume drama, each of these narratives contains enough historical detail to give a sense of authenticity to what is, in essence, an anachronistic contemporary tale.