America’s role in the world again came under fire with the events leading up to the First World War. The rising tensions in Europe caused America to assert its position of neutrality towards international affairs.
The announcement of Germany’s plans for unrestricted war fare jeopardised America’s trade with Allied countries. In response to this threat, President Woodrow Wilson announced the increase of America’s military forces. On Germany’s announcement that they plan to implement a submarine offensive, a large majority of the Senate voted to go to war. During the conduct of the war, the United States avoided creating entangling alliances.
Woodrow Wilson proposed plans for peace early in 1918, demanding that his fourteen points be taken for the basis of the Armistice. Although it was America that suggested the League of Nations, the Senate was under Republican control and in favour of the isolationist policy; as a result the United States didn’t ratify the Treaty of Versailles and reverted back to its policy of isolation.
The majority of American’s supported the isolationist policy during the inter-war years; vowing never again to go into war. America’s foreign policy disassociated its self from international affairs. During this time it can be seen that a naval arms race emerged between the United States, Britain and Japan.
Efforts were concentrated on Roosevelt’s New Deal program and the economic recovery of the United States in the wake of the Great Depression.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented his Good Neighbour Policy; American influence in Latin America and the Caribbean lessened although the dependency of some Latin American countries on the United States increased. (Boyer, Enduring Vision, p. 751)
Japanese expansion into China was a concern for America; China provided a major source of trade to America. Roosevelt’s Open Door policy of free trade was threatened by Japanese aggression, America stood to lose $100 million in annual cotton sales to China. (Boyer, Enduring Vision, p. 755)Roosevelt wanted to avoid war with Japan so rather than using military might to solve the problem, America used economic tactics to try to persuade the occupiers to leave.
America continued to stay aloof from European affairs. A series of Neutrality Acts were passed inbetween 1935 and 1937, appeasing supporters of the isolationist policy. The Spanish Civil War prompted an amendment to the Neutrality Acts, stating that the legislation would also cover civil wars. (Boyer, Enduring Vision, p. 753)
Roosevelt was concerned with European affairs, although maintaining the position of neutrality; America encouraged negotiations within Europe to deal with the increasing problem of Germany and Italy. FDR recognized the emergence of Germany as a military power and sought to increase the United States military.
America’s involvement in the Second World War started in 1941 and was initially in the form of economic concessions to the Allied countries, in particular Great Britain. This involvement was next extended to supporting British naval vessels patrolling the Atlantic. Early US involvement in the European war was kept to a minimum. America occupied Greenland and Iceland in order to prevent them falling to Axis forces.
Roosevelt acknowledged the need to keep peace in the Pacific, America was in no position to fight in two oceans. Germany’s successful expansion in Europe encouraged Japan’s efforts to expand its empire; Japan took advantage of France’s defeat and quickly set about occupying the French colony of Indochina. The American response was to freeze all Japanese assets in the US and ban all trade with Japan. In turn, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.
America’s involvement in the Second World War undoubtedly changed its role in the world. America and the Soviet Union emerged from the war as world superpowers. Disagreements over who should control post-war Germany and Soviet expansion tendencies towards Eastern Europe tainted the relationship between the United States and the USSR. After the end of the war it can be seen that America’s policy was directed at the containment of communism. (Wolfson & Laver, Years Of Change, p.341)
The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were both born out of the need to contain communism; Truman believed that the economic redevelopment of Europe was essential to the new containment policy as communism thrived in areas of depravity. America also viewed Germany as a possible ally against the Soviet Union.
The Soviets attempts to force the Western Allies out of Berlin and the possible threat of a Soviet attack encouraged America to deepen it’s involvement with international affairs; the US joined the NATO alliance ending it’s history of isolation.
The Cold War became a stalemate between the USA and the USSR. America’s successful nuclear weapons programme was soon matched by that of the Soviet Union. America’s policy was still concentrated on the containment of communism; this policy was implemented to allow the USA to intervene in a number of global affairs. The Korean War is a good example of America’s changing role in the world. Korea had been split into North and South after the war, America controlling the south, the Soviet Union controlling the communist north. In 1950, Korea became a showground for the USA and the USSR when North Korea occupied large areas of the south. America was quick to condemn the invasion and Truman rallied support from Britain and the Commonwealth to expel the occupiers.
The Vietnam War escalated in a similar manner to Korea. After the war, France tried to re-establish control over her colonies. Communist Ho Chi Minh had declared The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and fighting quickly broke out between the Vietminh and the French. The United States provided massive financial assistance to the French; implementing the Domino theory, which is if one Asian country fell to communism then the rest would soon follow. France had however underestimated the determination of the Vietminh who had adopted guerrilla warfare tactics. America became entangled in Vietnam after the country was divided in 1954; a communist north under the control of Ho Chi Minh and an American controlled south, hostile to the north. America increased its military presence in South Vietnam, continuing to help the south overcome the north. After US naval ships were attacked by the North Vietnamese in 1964, President Johnson gained permission from congress to use any action necessary and US troops were officially sent into Vietnam.
The events of the last century display America’s changing role in the world. It is evident that America adopted a policy of neutrality and isolation early in the century. Events in Europe and Asia called for America to reconsider its position in the world. After the end of the Second World War changes to America’s world role can be observed; American policy changing from isolation to being concentrated on the containment of communism. America’s traditional approach of non-intervention evolved with the containment policy to that of pro-intervention. The collapse of the Soviet Union has eradicated the majority of America’s concern with communism. Recent events in the former Yugoslavia and in the Gulf have called for fresh debate on America’s role in the world. The idea of America being the policemen of the world has been put forward on many occasions; it appears that America’s new stance on the War on Terror and global peacekeeping efforts are clearly indicating that the United States has adopted an interventionist policy with regards to its role in the world.
BOYER, P., The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (4th Edition), Houghton & Mifflin, 2000.
LAVER, J., ROWE, C., & WILLIAMSON, D., Years of Division: Europe Since 1945, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999
LAVER, J., WOLFSON, R., Years of Change: European History 1890-1990, Hodder & Stoughton, 2001
WEGS, J.R., Europe Since 1945: A Concise History, St Martin’s Press, 1991
DONALDSON, G.A., , , 1996