The Urgent Lessons Of The Interwar Years


Robert Kagan’s The Ghost at the Feast is an uncommon book. The second volume of a planned four-part series on the history of U.S. foreign policy, it has the rare distinction of being written so engagingly that it is as much a literary accomplishment as a scholarly one. The previous volume, Dangerous Nation, chronicled the history of U.S. foreign policy from the pre-Founding era to 1898. The sequel picks up there and takes the reader to Pearl Harbor.

Kagan, who laments historical revisionism as often flawed, ironically begins his book with a revisionist thesis: American involvement in Latin America and the Philippines at the dawn of the 20th century was accidental, reluctant, and anti-imperial. In making his case, he notes that even the great anti-imperialist Mark Twain supported intervention in Latin America. And he observes that, once they had intervened in both places, Americans were desperate to leave yet reluctant to do so for fear of the chaos that could ensue in a power vacuum. (Eventually, the U.S. military would leave, and those fears would prove to be right.)

In Kagan’s history, America’s entry into both world wars occurred for the same fundamental reasons that have led to all wars. Millennia ago, Thucydides observed that the reasons states go to war are rational fear (or what we today call security), honor, and profit. American exceptionalism did not exempt the nation from this rule. Americans saw their security and moral and commercial interests under threat from Spain, the Central Powers, and the Axis, or already injured. And in each instance, the trio of U.S. interests ran in both directions: Americans stayed out of military conflicts for as long as they could because they viewed war as expensive and often immoral. They eventually entered hostilities out of fear that war would come to them if they did not go to it (or, in the case of Pearl Harbor, because it had already come to them), because of the moral atrocities of enemies, from the Spanish treatment of Cubans to the sinking of the Lusitania to Kristallnacht; and because disorder abroad threatened U.S. prosperity at home.

The explosion of American wealth, commerce, and power in the early 20th century necessitated greater attention to the rest of the world. In his first volume, Kagan observed that the invention of steam power forced American foreign policy to adapt in two ways. First, it reduced the protection that the oceans provided the republic, by making the Americas more accessible to adversarial navies from other continents. Second, it enabled trade across the oceans. In the first two decades surveyed in The Ghost at the Feast, both trends accelerated, and American foreign policy kept adjusting accordingly.

Today’s anti-interventionists, like those of the past, often argue that America is a commercial republic and should therefore engage with the rest of the world only in trade. Yet, like their predecessors, they fail to understand that the size of the U.S. economy means that disorder in the rest of the world negatively affects American prosperity. And while moral atrocities abroad are not enough on their own to send the country to war, as a creedal nation America has a difficult time ignoring tyrants.

Wilhelmine Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare did not sit well with Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania — killing 1,198 civilians, women and children among them, including 124 Americans — brought that moral offense too close to home. “The German government made no secret of the fact that the Lusitania was a target,” Kagan writes, adding that the “day before it sailed from New York, the German ambassador posted an advertisement in the Times, right next to the announcement of the ship’s sailing, reminding passengers of the risks of traveling in war zones.” Public anger toward Germany began to build quickly. Political leaders and intellectuals followed the public sentiment.

And yet Americans were not convinced that war was the right choice. As a Missouri senator wondered: Should the United States go to war over the sinking of a British ship carrying a British flag? For a time, the answer remained no, especially given the German announcement that it would suspend submarine warfare. The pattern was the same before the Pearl Harbor attack. In both instances, presidents prepared the anxious nation for war while promising not to join it, a more sincere pledge in the case of Woodrow Wilson. Eventually, in both wars, enemies forced America’s hand.

Kagan on different occasions makes two key observations. First, that the events of a given decade have much to do with the decisions made in the previous one. Second, that it is “a recurring fact of history that the seeds of future turmoil and destruction are often sown in placid and prosperous times.” Both points lead the reader to the same conclusion: The seeds of World War II were planted in the 1920s. Here is where Kagan’s achievement as a scholar and writer stands out. While most authors have either neglected the connections among military, commercial, diplomatic, and domestic political forces during the interwar period or failed to articulate them, he succeeds in examining them all in remarkably clear prose.

The League of Nations is often mistakenly thought of as a failed precursor to the United Nations, but its design more closely resembled what became NATO. The winners and losers of World War I all agreed on one key point: The presence of the U.S. military was necessary to preserve the peace and the Anglo-American order created at Versailles. Teddy Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge worked to prevent America’s entry into the League. Their opposition was not principled: Roosevelt had been the first person to conceive of the idea, and Lodge had endorsed it. But with the 1920 presidential race looming, and with Roosevelt gearing up for another run for the White House, it was imperative not to give Wilson a victory. With the president stuck in Europe for months and with Lodge, a brilliant operative, running the show in the Senate, ratification failed — and so did the internationalism that the two men had elevated in the Republican Party. They were among the victims of their own ploy, as the GOP would soon become the party of Senator William Borah, a leading opponent of American internationalism.

Often, once cynics boost a populist idea they don’t believe in, sincere populists overtake them. Roosevelt and Lodge had dug the grave of their own principles. After Lodge died in office, it was Borah who replaced him on the Foreign Relations Committee. Americans tend to view past statesmen as high-minded public servants who put the national interest above partisan politics; we wish our leaders today were more like them. The Ghost at the Feast is a good reality check.

The sidelining of internationalist Republicans was terribly consequential. With twelve years of uninterrupted control of the White House, the GOP began to undermine the liberal Anglo-American order that was ruling Europe and had reached Asia. Most notably, the turn toward tariffs and protectionism undermined global trade, and pulling American troops out of Europe caused Europeans to remilitarize.

One of the most interesting observations Kagan makes is about the way one nation’s foreign policy influences another nation’s domestic policies, and vice versa. He has a fascinating chapter dedicated to examining the effect of Kristallnacht on U.S. politics. Kristallnacht, he writes, was “thoroughly covered in the American press [and] sparked widespread outrage.” But also, “as always, American views on foreign questions were closely related to domestic political battles,” with different ideological factions using the episode to further their domestic arguments. For a contemporary observer of American politics, this dynamic is familiar. Kristallnacht caused many Americans to become more sympathetic to the Jewish struggle and more anti-German, while at the same time anti-Jewish attacks in America began to rise.

On the other hand, American conduct shaped Japanese domestic politics. America’s turn away from internationalism weakened Japan’s liberals, who had bet on America, and elevated their fascist rivals. “The much-vaunted cooperation with the United States and the West had proven to be a mirage, and now Japan’s economic dependence on the Anglo-American global economy had produced decline and widespread suffering,” writes Kagan. The Japanese military, exploiting the country’s fragile democracy, circumvented civilian leadership and used the emperor’s “supreme” authority to elevate itself against discredited liberals. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and was met with words of condemnation and little else from across the Pacific (or the United Kingdom). Six years later, heartened by a lack of foreign resistance, Japan escalated the war to the rest of China. (Readers will be excused for thinking of the free world’s indulgence of Russia in the Donbas and Crimea prior to Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine eight years later.) The Asian order had broken down, yet there was still time to prevent the Asian war from turning into a world war.

Citing military historian Williamson Murray, Kagan argues that in 1938 the Wehrmacht was not yet strong enough to ensure a victory against Czechoslovakia. With foreign support, Czechs could have defeated the Germans and discredited Adolf Hitler and Nazism. But Europeans had at last been enjoying peace and prosperity, and Americans had washed their hands of European matters. So in September 1938, the last chance to prevent World War II was wasted when Hitler’s aggression was rewarded with a green light for invasion.

The rise of ideological governance — liberalism, fascism, communism, and theocracy — has changed the character of politics without changing the nature of man. In contrast with the Holy Roman Empire or Napoleonic France, empires of the 20th century, German, Japanese, and Soviet alike, were ideological. Today’s empires, China, Russia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, are also creedal — as is the mighty American empire (an “empire for liberty,” in Jefferson’s words). While all historical studies have something to tell us about the present, the early 20th century has many more similarities to today’s turmoil than do earlier eras. But despite the free world’s uncannily similar treatment of Nazi Germany and Putinist Russia, there is an important difference. Where free nations told the Czechs to surrender, they have armed Ukraine. That decision might turn out to be the point at which the free world stopped — or at least postponed — the next great war.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, then–secretary of state John Kerry foolishly remarked, “The fact is, this is the 21st century, and we should not see nations step backwards to behave in 19th- or 20th-century fashion.” To his great shock, as well as that of many others, the forces of enlightenment and trade had not changed man’s nature. The notion that they could was a dream from which Americans rudely woke up a century ago, and they must wake up again now.

Kagan’s book makes clear that Americans are now staring at an all too familiar challenge. It remains an open question whether they will defend the American world order now as in the Cold War or, distracted by partisan politics, take it for granted only to watch it crumble as in the interwar years.