Book review: America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: US foreign policy since 1945

December 30, 2011 2:19 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Journalist and Daily Mail columnist Andrew Alexander charts the course of US foreign policy throughout the 20th century. His manuscript is packed with an incredible amount of factual detail and footnotes. This, combined with a length of over 300 pages, gives the initial impression that the book will be a demanding read, requiring the combined power of all one’s grey cells. This holds true with respect to some sections of the book, which contain such a staggering amount of chronological detail that at times I felt as if I were not only reading about laborious US-Soviet post war negotiations, but was actually an observer witnessing the more protracted aspects of international diplomacy. To some extent, however, such a meticulous attention to historical detail will always be part of any scrupulously researched piece of historical non-fiction.

Nevertheless, large sections of the narrative are easy to follow and absorb. The book is not as demanding as it first appears and the occasional bit of extra concentration required pays off if you wish to comprehend the insightful and ground-breaking historical revelations Alexander brings to light in each chapter.

Whilst the title suggests that the book only covers the development of American foreign policy since 1945, the author goes further by explaining the background to events occurring post 1945. Alexander sheds a light on the attitudes, of both the American government and the public, which existed in the early 20th century. In the process, he also gives an insight into the attitudes of the British, French and Soviet governments prior to 1939. He also describes the American government’s relationship with, and attitudes to, these nations.

Early chapters reveal America’s ‘isolationist’ attitude during the interwar years. Despite President FD Roosevelt’s insistence that his nation adopt a more internationalist approach to global politics by trying to convince Congress that America should join the League of Nations, he was unable to gain necessary support from either Congress or the American public. Alexander also sheds much light on Britain and France’s attitudes towards the USSR in the thirties and forties. Alexander shows that despite multiple warnings from Maxim Litvinov, the USSR’s representative to the League of Nations, that the increasing militarism of early 1930s Germany be tackled head on, his warnings were subsequently ignored, not least by some members of the British government who were only too happy to ‘turn Hitler Eastwards’ into a war with the ‘Bolshies’. The reasons for America’s decision to declare war on Germany only after the Pearl Harbour attack are also described.

The book’s later chapters reveal the mutual distrust between the US and Russia, post WW2, that led to the initiation of the Cold War. Alexander puts paid to the oft cited myth of the ‘Red Menace’. He shows that although the USSR was paranoid about its own security, this ‘paranoia’ can be understood by looking at the immeasurable contribution of, and extremely high price paid by, the USSR in the fight against Fascism (the Red Army killed 90% of all Germans combatants in WW2). A recognition of this fact, alongside a history of two German invasions occurring within 27 years of each other, hostility from Japan, and the knowledge that some of their WW2 allies initially hoped for its destruction by Germany, allows the reader to better understand the reasons behind the Soviets’ fear and mistrust of the West. Still, such fears, justified or not, were dwarfed on the scale of improbability by the repetitive American claims of a ‘Red’ invasion of Europe, based mostly on President Truman’s prejudiced thinking in the absence of any credible evidence. Having borne the brunt of the war, the USSR had neither the resources nor the will for another conflict. Indeed, diplomatic cables written around in the early forties showed how Soviet diplomats were actively, if not a little naively, looking forward to friendly relations with the West after the end of WW2. This is backed up by Alexander’s insights into the isolationist nature of Stalin’s thinking- the dictator was more than happy to control the nations falling within his own post-Yalta agreed borders but was unwilling to support, and even discouraged, Communist movements beyond the Iron curtain, as in Greece and Yugoslavia. As Alexander points out, whilst America remained concerned that the USSR espoused a Marxian doctrine and was plotting to destroy Capitalism, the US was evangelical in spreading a free-market doctrine throughout the world. He also shows how the US missed a major opportunity to reassess its relations with the USSR after the death of Stalin.

Alexander reveals a history of mutual suspicion between a succession of Soviet and US leaders. At times, relations thawed, such as during the Carter Presidency, but again reached a dangerous boiling point when Reagan was in power. Alexander shows how the growth of the military-industrial came into being, a behemoth which President Eisenhower, former Allied Commander in Chief during WW2 warned about in his final Presidential speech. During the cold war it was to become customary for former military commanders to take up posts as lobbyists in various arms companies. Alexander shows that many fortunes were made from promoting a fear of the Soviets and pushing for greater military expenditure.

Once the cold war had ended, the military industrial complex needed a raison d’etre and new threats had to be found.

The final chapters of the book summarise America’s involvement in the Middle East and the desire to balance securing oil with safeguarding Israel, a key part of US foreign policy since 1947. Alexander states in one of his final chapters:

‘The Cold War, all too clearly, was as unnecessary on the part of the West as it was potential fatal to mankind. It is also plain that its start was predominantly the fault of the Americans not the Soviets- though the latter remain, in most eyes, the villains of the piece.’

Almost as controversially, Alexander also suggest that although America has at times acted like a bully, its actions have been that of a well-meaning bully, firmly believing since the days of President Woodrow Wilson in its messianic duty to spread liberal democracy to nations who would be all to glad to receive it.

In contrast to almost all other Western nations, America emerged from the Second World War largely unscathed, its industry intact and operating at a greater capacity than prior to the war. This allowed it to dominate world affairs for over half a century. Nevertheless, as the book shows, its influence became too far reaching for its own good. Alexander summarises by suggesting that like all empires, America has over-expanded itself; imperial pride thwarts its recognition of this fact and the need to dismantle the hundreds of bases it has around the world. Like many empires on the wane, it will refuse to relinquish its prime position on the world stage.


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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek

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