The Age of Disengagement and Disarmament

Authored by: Benjamin D. Rhodes

The Routledge Handbook of American Military and Diplomatic History

Print publication date:  June  2013
Online publication date:  August  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415888479
eBook ISBN: 9781135070991
Adobe ISBN: 9781135071028


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All-wise historians are very proficient at finding fault with statesmen who, in the eyes of historians, did things they ought not to have done and who left undone things they ought to have done. The history of American foreign policy between the two world wars is a case in point. The standard interpretation of the interwar era, written after the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and before the advent of modern bombers and missiles, has been uniformly critical of American leaders, both Republican and Democratic, for their lack of vision and for their failure to see that the nation was about to face unprecedented economic, military, and diplomatic challenges. However, many policies that appeared naïve or shortsighted in retrospect seemed perfectly logical enough at the time. Prior to the Great Depression, neither the tottering Weimar Republic of Germany or the Japan that was renowned for its gift to America of cherry trees in 1912 seemed a threat. After Pearl Harbor, but not before, it seemed foolish to have refused to join the League of Nations and to have sought peace through naval limitation treaties and by signing a pact renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. Almost as naïve, it seemed, was the determined effort by Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote the cause of arbitration through membership in the World Court. In retrospect it appeared shortsighted for Congress to have poisoned relations with the nation’s World War I associates by demanding the repayment of $10.3 billion in war debts with compound interest. Perfect hindsight enabled historians to see clearly many things that eluded contemporaries. 1

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