The Origins of American Primacy in World War II
Dr Stephen Wertheim, King’s College, University of Cambridge
Dr. Stephen Wertheim is a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College and the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge. Last year he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Woodrow Wilson School and the Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He specializes in U.S. foreign relations and international ideas and institutions, emphasizing concepts of politics and law since the nineteenth century. Stephen received a Ph.D. in History with distinction from Columbia University in 2015. He is currently revising his first book, entitled Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy in World War II, which will appear with Harvard University Press. He has also published scholarly articles in Diplomatic History, Journal of Global History, Journal of Genocide Research, and Presidential Studies Quarterly, in addition to writing for The Nation and other journalistic venues.
When, exactly, did U.S. officials and intellectuals decide that their country should become the world’s supreme political and military power and assume responsibility for enforcing international order? Scholars have neglected this question, assuming supremacy to be a longstanding, gradually realized goal. Yet for most of American history policymakers rejected armed supremacy as imperialistic. Committed to “internationalism,” they believed peaceful intercourse would replace power politics. Such internationalism had to die in order for U.S. world leadership to be born — as it was early in World War II, before the Pearl Harbor attack. This talk outlines the emergence of a will to lead the world within postwar-planning networks in the government, foundations, and universities, especially in the Council on Foreign Relations. When Hitler conquered France, he swept away the old order and discredited the internationalist project. Now peaceful intercourse, far from transcending armed force, seemed paradoxically to depend upon armed force to undergird it. It was thus out of the death of internationalism, as they understood it, that American officials and intellectuals first decided that the United States should become the preeminent political-military power after the war. Convinced that world organization had failed, American planners conceived of U.S. global leadership as the preferable, and mutually exclusive, alternative.