Can Power Alone Explain American Interventionism?

The history of U.S. action abroad entails more than excess strength.

A Sense of Power: The Roots of America’s Global Role. John A. Thompson, 2015.

The story of the United States’ ascendance to the pinnacle of global power has been told many times before, by authors ranging from foreign policy royalty such as George Kennan, to respected commentators such as Walter Lippmann and William Appleman Williams, and more recent efforts by scholars such as Walter Russell Mead, Christopher Layne and Stephen Sestanovich. Still, this familiar narrative finds new shine under the careful polishing of John A. Thompson, an emeritus reader in American history at the University of Cambridge.

The question of why the United States would choose to use its prodigious economic and military power to backstop costly foreign military interventions is clearly timely, amid growing concerns regarding instability in the Middle East and the potential threat a “rising” China might pose. And yet Thompson laudably exercises great restraint by cleverly restricting his scope to American foreign policy from the end of the Civil War through the presidential administration of Harry S. Truman. In doing so, he is able to present a balanced view of the United States’ international growth without clumsily trying to extract policy-relevant lessons for modern politicians and decisionmakers. Indeed, the lack of such a lecturing tone is what makes Thompson’s historical exercise even more important, since it allows the reader to consider the historical evidence being presented without the polluting overlay of an explicitly contemporary lens. Any conclusions about the importance of past events on current times are therefore the full responsibility of the reader, rather than the spoon-fed byproduct of the author’s ideological commitments.

For readers unacquainted with the history of American foreign policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Thompson’s work will serve as a deeply informative introduction, one that successfully walks the fine line between dry academic reportage and trivia-based “popular” history. Even those who consider themselves well-read on the subject will also find much to admire and learn from his retelling. A gifted diplomatic historian, Thompson provides concise and thought-provoking interpretations of the major way posts in the United States’ transition from a backward, localized economy of no great renown to the undisputed global leader. In doing so, he reaffirms many of the classic tropes of this transition while dispensing with others through deft, cutting criticisms of common scholarly beliefs.

Attempting to summarize in a succinct manner the tightly woven history that Thompson presents inevitably does a disservice to the care with which he assembled his narrative. Still, there are a few insights he provides, and analytic choices he makes, that are worth highlighting. For instance, instead of beginning his history with the Spanish-American War and the rise of American imperialism, as most traditional works on American power do, Thompson chooses to start at the conclusion of the Civil War. By doing so, he better captures the tremendous economic growth the country enjoyed from 1865 to 1900. While subscribing to the traditional myth that the United States at this time remained, in his words, “largely detached from great power politics,” Thompson nevertheless complicates this narrative by highlighting a series of interventions by the United States in the Caribbean and South America prior to the supposedly defining moment of the Spanish-American War. He clearly demonstrates, in line with the work of Robert Kagan, the latent interest that the United States had in foreign intervention even in a time of supposed isolation.

Thompson also shines in deftly untangling the complicated threads behind the decision to enter the First World War in 1917. He emphasizes a series of diverse causes, including a polarized public, the cultural affinity elites felt for Western Europe and moral outrage at incursions on American neutrality, instead of relying on simplistic explanations based on either the personalities at play (namely, Woodrow Wilson) or the supposed threat that Germany posed to U.S. national security. Thompson reminds us that the United States in 1914 was far from a unified country, either ethnically, economically or ideologically. As such, public opinion in favor or against American entry into the conflict was split along preexisting cleavages. For instance, the ethnic German and Scandinavian Midwest—further influenced by their insular agrarian economic interests—were generally against intervening, whereas opinions amongst the more industrialized, educated and Angophilic elite of the Eastern Seaboard trended in the opposite direction.