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Mission Impossible

America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century

by Tony Smith
Princeton University Press/A Twentieth Century Fund Book, 455 pp., $24.95

America’s Mission is a book with a mission. Its aim, for most of its pages, is nothing less than to overthrow the hitherto dominant theory dealing with American foreign affairs and to put in its place a different one. The old theory is said to be “realism”; the new one, which is more “idealistic” or “moralistic,” is called “liberal democratic internationalism.”

Whatever else may be said about this effort, there can be no doubt about its lofty seriousness and high ambition. The book is sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund and was chosen for inclusion in the Princeton Studies in International History and Politics, edited by three well-known academics. In effect, it is a bid by Professor Tony Smith of Tufts University to replace some old gods and put himself in their stead. It seems sure to create a good deal of controversy, which Smith makes no effort to avoid.

By “realism,” Smith means an interpretation based primarily on balance-of-power principles. He names as its practitioners Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Henry Kissinger. By “liberal democratic internationalism,” Smith basically understands a policy of promoting free elections and constitutionalism abroad. Promoting democracy elsewhere is, however, not viewed as altogether altruistic; it is said to be wedded to the advancement of American national security. In this way, Smith can have both the idealistic sponsorship of democracy and the realistic gain of national security.

Smith is an aggressive writer who, more than once, tells the reader that he has done something that no one has ever done before. He claims to be the first who thought of truly investigating the American “ambition” to foster democracy abroad. He goes out of his way to criticize other writers, including Samuel Huntington, who he says had inspired him.

To make his case, Smith uses both history and theory. He primarily restricts himself to the twentieth century and effectively starts with the Spanish-American War of 1898. But his main interest takes hold with Woodrow Wilson, because he considers that liberal democratic internationalism is synonymous with Wilsonianism. Subsequent presidents are judged by their degree of Wilsonianism.

In the end, Smith’s book stands or falls by whether his history supports his theory. To what extent did US policy actually foster democracy abroad in the twentieth century?Are we dealing here only with an “ambition” and rhetoric or with a long-term policy carried out with determination and success?What does Smith’s own history tell us about his theory?

Smith covers so many countries and subjects that he has necessarily written potted history. Nevertheless, he tries to do justice to it, even at the expense of his theory.

The Philippines offers an early example of Smith’s historical problem. It was fortuitously conquered from Spain in the war of 1898, which had been fought over Cuba, not the Philippines. But the one-sided naval victory in Manila Bay by the US fleet under Commodore George Dewey opened the islands to US occupation. The land assault on Manila was supported by an indigenous Filipino force under General Emilio Aguinaldo. He had been fighting the Spanish before the Americans arrived and was given reason to believe that allying his force with the Americans would result in independence for the Philippines. Instead, the McKinley administration decided to take over the islands from Spain and turned on Aguinaldo and his native pro-independence army. In the campaign of subjugation, the United States employed a force of about 70,000 under General Arthur MacArthur, the father of the future World War II generalissimo. This operation lasted until mid-1902, at the cost of 4,000 American and 220,000 Filipino lives. The Philippines remained in US control for forty-eight years; it was not given independence until 1946.

Smith deals with this history in every possible way. In all the years of US control, he says, “democracy would be the moving faith.” But “faith” was not enough to set up a functioning democracy. The Philippines, he also says, became a “narrowly based and highly corrupt elitist” form of democracy, a “fragile democracy,” and a “troubled democracy.” The Americans turned over control of the country to a “class of oligarchs.” The fatal flaw in the Philippines was socioeconomic. “In an agrarian society, a highly unequal pattern of landholding is fatal for democracy,” Smith says—and the United States accepted just such a highly unequal, and fatal, pattern of landholding. In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos installed himself and his cronies as overlords for the next fifteen years. Finally, Smith says, the United States “did act as a traditional imperialist power” in the Philippines.

This pattern played itself out for most of the century. America’s mission almost always began with expectations of freedom and ended with broken hopes and promises. Cuba, which had been promised its freedom by the United States, became an American protectorate until 1934. It was so little prepared by the United States for democracy that the country suffered one dictatorship or authoritarian ruler after another. Smith says that it “constituted nothing like the laboratory for democracy that the Philippines was to be.” Since the Philippines was at best the shell of a democracy, Cuba was even worse.

Central America and the Caribbean figured largely in the early Wilson administration. It authorized the occupation of Veracruz in Mexico in 1914 and sent a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in 1916. US marines occupied Haiti in 1915 for the next nineteen years. The Dominican Republic was taken over in 1916 for the next eight years. But the results were hardly satisfactory. Mexico continued in political turmoil until one-party rule was established in 1929. The Americans established a national guard in the Dominican Republic, as a result of which the head of the guard, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, set up a dictatorship in 1930 that lasted thirty-one years. The same pattern was repeated in Nicaragua, where the head of another US-installed national guard, Anastasio Somoza, imposed a dictatorship that lasted for three generations of Somozas.

Smith gives Wilson credit for trying “to bring constitutional democracy to Latin America.” But he condemns the results with unusual vehemence. With one possible exception—the occupation of Veracruz in 1914—“there is no reason to think that Wilson contributed whatsoever to the emergence of constitutional democracy in the region.” In the end, “Wilsonianism may be a quixotic ambition, damaging not only to American interests but also to the people on whom it is practiced.” Wilson’s application of American power “offered a textbook case of what not to do.” Wilson’s political efforts “failed completely,” because they were not enough “to create the cultural, economic, and social circumstances that could reinforce a democratic political order.”

Nevertheless, Wilson’s aims, especially after World War I, endear him to Smith. They embraced “nationalism, democracy, a liberal world economic order, a system of collective security, a moral commitment to leadership.” But here again, Smith is in no doubt how far Wilson fell short. Wilson’s style of leadership, which was “too abstract and too moralistic,” brought on the subsequent spasm of isolationism in the 1920s. As in Latin America, Wilson failed in Europe “to root democratic forces in countries where they were struggling to take power.” The best that Smith can say for Wilson is that he wanted to do the right things but that his efforts were nullified by “the constraints of history.” That a leader went against the constraints of history would seem to be a dubious recommendation for following his example.

Smith passes over Wilson’s successors—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—because they do not fit into his scheme. But the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt also does not quite fit. The Good Neighbor Policy was “not a boon to democracy in the region,” because “under Roosevelt, the dictators who emerged in good measure from the forces put in motion by these earlier interventions were left to manage affairs as they saw best.” Roosevelt himself in 1933 had declared that “the maintenance of constitutional government in other nations is not a sacred obligation devolving upon the United States alone.” For whatever reasons, Roosevelt failed to prevent the East European states from falling into the status of satellites of the Soviet Union. He was a true Wilsonian in his determination to set up the United Nations, but it has not been much more successful than the League of Nations in fostering or protecting democracies. “From FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy after 1933 to events in Greece in 1947,” Smith says, “it seemed apparent that Washington might have to content itself with a secure authoritarian order able to ward off instability or communist takeovers.”

The question is not whether it was right or wrong for Roosevelt to give up on overthrowing authoritarian regimes and substituting democratic ones; the only question is whether this policy made him “the modern embodiment of traditional American liberal democratic internationalism,” as Smith characterizes him. Smith’s history does little to show that Roosevelt successfully promoted that kind of internationalism abroad, whatever Roosevelt’s other virtues may have been.

At last, in mid-century, Smith finds something to justify his major proposition. It is the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. “It was,” he says, “the most ambitious program American liberal democratic internationalism has ever undertaken.” Germany and Japan became active participants “in a liberal world order run by Washington.” Even here, he goes too far. He assumes that there is such a thing as a “liberal world order” and that Washington runs it. Much, if not most, of the world is not liberal, and Washington’s ability to run it is strictly limited, or largely nonexistent.

In the case of Germany, Smith gives the Germans themselves most credit for their democratization. Konrad Adenauer, Kurt Schumacher, and Ludwig Erhard “were the actual makers of a stable democratic order in Germany.” In any case, the US contribution was for a time indispensable. Yet the new order in Germany and Japan required a unique set of circumstances—the prior defeat of German fascism and Japanese militarism in a long and brutal war. The US role in these two countries in such rare circumstances cannot be assimilated to the usual course of US policy.

The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan of 1947 do not conform to Smith’s grand theme. The support of Greece and Turkey was not given to democracies; they were headed by authoritarian regimes and Truman sought to safeguard their independence, not their democracies. The Marshall Plan, however beneficial, was a one-time engagement, defensively intended to preserve the existing democracies in Western Europe rather than to spread the democratic faith elsewhere.

In fact, Smith sees 1947 as a turning point in US policy. He explains:

Explicitly dedicated to the defense of the “free world,” the United States nonetheless found itself defending authoritarian governments that were struggling against communism. On occasion such policies led it to oppose even democratic forces, where they appeared weak and willing to cooperate with local communists. Formerly opposed to great power spheres of influence, the United States now acknowledged its need to act in just such terms abroad. While these policies flowed from a logical evolution of American security concerns, they nevertheless amounted to a substantial change away from Wilsonianism, at least so far as the dedication to promote democracy abroad was concerned.

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