american diplomacy: 1900-1959

Review of ‘American Diplomacy: 1900-1950’

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Two years ago, I did a series of lectures at a local university on ‘the History of American Diplomacy.’ Over two semesters, I consistently infuriated about half of each class with my thesis that, despite some significant successes over the centuries, American diplomacy is, for a host of historical reasons, rather dysfunctional. My students, from a conservative region, were offended that I would criticize ‘their’ country—ignoring the fact that I’d served for over 30 years as an American diplomat, was an avid student of history, and sort of knew what I was talking about.

The late George F. Kennan, architect of America’s Soviet Containment Policy, and a veteran American diplomat himself, in his book American Diplomacy: 1900-1950, which reproduces a series of lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, agrees with me. While he is less blunt about it (in my lectures I described American diplomats as sometimes being ‘sheep in wolves clothing,’ a blunt terminology the staid Kennan would never use), he does not hesitate to describe the hubris of the US Government as it pursues its foreign policy around the globe, excoriating other countries for behavior that we ourselves are often guilty of, and demanding countries take actions that we refuse to take.

Kennan focuses on the period 1900 to 1950, from the Spanish American War, and America’s brief flirtation with colonization, to the outbreak of the Korean War, and describes in detail the forces that shape the country’s foreign policy, and often significantly impact the methods we employ to pursue that policy. While he is circumspect in his criticism, he leaves no doubt that American diplomacy is a product of a domestic system that focuses on short-term goals, does not make actions conform to ideals, and often takes no lessons from the past.

As we prepare to witness what might be the most historic political transition in American history, one that will have a far-ranging impact (whether negative or positive, it’s too early to say) on our international relations. It behooves us as citizens, then, to understand the factors that, though distant, can impact our lives significantly.

American Diplomacy is a good starting point for understanding how the world really works.

I received this book as a gift. I give it five stars.