Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 15 – America Re-enters the Arena

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the fifteenth chapter of his book, called “America Re-enters the Arena: Franklin Delano Roosevelt”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrated exceptional leadership in shifting the United States from isolationism to an active role in World War II, showcasing the significant impact a leader can have in a democracy. His ability to see beyond the present and mobilize a nation resistant to foreign entanglements into a pivotal force in the war underlines the unique foresight and courage required of great leaders. Roosevelt’s persuasive efforts gradually shifted public and congressional opinion, culminating in the decisive entry of the U.S. into the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. His vision extended beyond the war, laying the groundwork for America’s long-term international engagement and influencing the creation of institutions that support global cooperation to this day.

Roosevelt’s presidency was marked by his adept handling of both domestic and international crises, notably the Great Depression and World War II, showcasing his profound impact on American history. His leadership style combined political savvy with visionary foresight, often governing by instinct and evoking strong reactions from both supporters and critics. Despite his personal challenges, including overcoming polio, Roosevelt maintained a dignified public image, concealing the severity of his disability with remarkable resilience and determination. His ability to connect with the American people and his international counterparts was instrumental in navigating the complexities of his era.

The historical context of America’s isolationist stance during the 1920s and 1930s highlights the enormity of Roosevelt’s achievement in reorienting U.S. foreign policy towards engagement. The period was characterized by a deep reluctance to involve in global affairs, a sentiment rooted in disillusionment with World War I outcomes and a steadfast belief in the principles of American exceptionalism and isolationism. Despite this, Roosevelt navigated the delicate balance between isolationist and internationalist sentiments, steering the nation towards a more active global role without fully embracing the League of Nations. His leadership during this transformative era not only reshaped U.S. foreign policy but also set the stage for America’s enduring influence on the international stage.

The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 marked a pivotal moment in American diplomacy, establishing naval armament limits for major powers and promoting peaceful dispute resolution in the Pacific through the Four-Power Treaty. This treaty aimed to foster cooperation among Japan, the United States, Great Britain, and France, yet it explicitly avoided any commitment to enforce its terms with military action. This approach, underscored by President Harding and Secretary of State Hughes, reflected a broader American reluctance to bind itself to international enforcement actions, suggesting a preference for principles over practical engagement in global security matters.

The Senate’s reservations on the Four-Power Treaty, emphasizing non-commitment to armed intervention, highlighted a significant gap between American diplomatic agreements and their enforcement, casting doubt on the reliability of U.S. commitments. This skepticism towards enforceable agreements persisted, as seen in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which, while renouncing war among signatory nations, lacked any mechanism for enforcement. The pact, celebrated for its idealistic vision of peace, faced criticism for its practical inefficacy in deterring aggression, as it did not provide for sanctions or define aggression, relying instead on the moral force of global public opinion.

The Senate’s reaction to both the Four-Power Treaty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact illustrates a consistent American stance during this era: endorsing lofty principles without committing to their enforcement. This approach led to questions about the effectiveness of such treaties in protecting interests like the Philippines or preventing aggression by powers like Mussolini’s Italy. Despite the optimistic views of leaders like Secretary of State Kellogg and his successor Henry Stimson on the power of public opinion to uphold international peace, their reliance on moral sanctions over tangible enforcement actions underscored the limitations of American diplomacy in ensuring global stability during the interwar period.

The United States’ geographical distance from Europe and Asia fostered a perception of European disputes as complex and often irrelevant, leading to a stance of isolationism similar to Great Britain’s earlier “splendid isolation.” However, unlike Great Britain, which was willing to engage in traditional European diplomacy to maintain the balance of power, the United States remained detached, favoring a diplomacy that was more public, juridical, and ideological. This divergence in diplomatic styles between the U.S. and European nations during the interwar period resulted in a blend of approaches that lacked effectiveness, particularly as European reliance on American support grew in the face of potential conflicts with Germany.

The reluctance of the U.S. to commit to enforcing the Versailles system in the 1920s set a precedent of non-engagement, which was evident in America’s response to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. While condemning Japan’s actions, the U.S. refused to join collective enforcement efforts, instead adopting a policy of non-recognition of territorial changes achieved by force. This stance was indicative of a broader policy of avoiding direct involvement in conflicts, a position that persisted until the significant events leading up to World War II, including Hitler’s rise to power and Japan’s military aggression in China.

During Roosevelt’s first term, his administration continued to espouse isolationist themes, including proposals to extend disarmament accords and rely on public opinion to censure nations violating peace agreements. This period also saw a rise in revisionist thinking that blamed America’s entry into World War I on armament manufacturers, leading to the passage of Neutrality Acts that aimed to keep the U.S. out of foreign conflicts by imposing strict limitations on interactions with belligerents.

However, Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 marked a shift towards a more proactive stance against the threats posed by dictatorships. Initiating with the Quarantine Speech in 1937, Roosevelt began to signal the possibility of American involvement in global efforts to maintain peace and security. Despite the controversy and isolationist backlash this speech generated, Roosevelt maintained an ambiguous stance on specific actions the U.S. might take, hinting at a new approach to foreign policy that remained undefined publicly. This period reflected a growing awareness of the limitations of isolationism and the potential need for the U.S. to assume a more assertive role in international affairs.

Roosevelt, adept at navigating the complex currents of American opinion, aimed to maintain flexibility while steering the nation’s foreign policy. Despite varying degrees of support for aiding “peace-loving” nations, Roosevelt skillfully balanced these views, particularly in the aftermath of his Quarantine Speech. His references to past experiences and commitments to peace were designed to appeal to a broad audience, hinting at a pragmatic approach to international affairs rooted in realism rather than isolationism.

Roosevelt’s cautious approach became evident as he faced rising isolationist sentiment and legislative challenges that threatened to constrain his ability to respond to international crises. Efforts to maintain neutrality, even as global tensions escalated with events like the Anschluss and the Munich Conference, showcased Roosevelt’s delicate balancing act. His disavowals of any suggestion that the U.S. would join a collective front against aggressors were strategic, aimed at managing both domestic opinion and international expectations.

However, the Munich Agreement marked a pivotal shift in Roosevelt’s stance, gradually moving the U.S. closer to supporting the European democracies both politically and materially. This evolution reflected Roosevelt’s belief in the necessity of guiding American society toward understanding and confronting the threats posed by the dictators. His leadership style, characterized by a mix of education and strategic ambiguity, sought to align America’s reality with the imperatives of global security and moral responsibility.

In the wake of Munich, Roosevelt intensified his warnings about the dangers of aggression, advocating for preparedness while still upholding the ideal of disarmament. Behind the scenes, he explored innovative ways to support Britain and France, including a proposal to bypass the Neutrality Acts through indirect assistance. Although this plan ultimately proved unfeasible, it underscored Roosevelt’s commitment to aiding the democracies against the Axis powers, constrained only by the limits of public and congressional support.

Roosevelt’s navigation through this period demonstrated his exceptional ability to blend realism with idealism, guiding the U.S. towards a more engaged stance on the world stage. His efforts to prepare the nation for the challenges ahead, while respecting the constraints of domestic opinion and legislation, highlighted the nuanced and forward-looking nature of his leadership in the face of mounting global threats.

In 1939, Roosevelt began to more openly challenge the aggressive actions of Italy, Germany, and Japan, marking a shift in the U.S. stance towards these nations. He emphasized the importance of taking actions beyond mere words to counter aggression, a theme he had introduced in his earlier Quarantine Speech. By April of the same year, the occupation of Prague by the Nazis prompted Roosevelt to explicitly link aggression against smaller nations to a direct threat to American security. He argued that the independence of small nations was crucial for U.S. safety and prosperity, signaling a departure from the Monroe Doctrine’s hemispheric focus to a broader concern for global stability. This was underscored by his prediction that advancements in air travel would soon erase the protective barrier of the oceans, further linking American security to global economic and political stability.

Roosevelt’s direct appeal to Hitler and Mussolini for assurances not to attack various nations, though ridiculed by the Axis leaders, was a strategic move to delineate them as aggressors in the eyes of the American public. Despite the mockery it received, this maneuver helped Roosevelt frame the conflict as a moral struggle between democratic values and fascist aggression, thus garnering domestic support for the democracies.

The strategic military cooperation between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1939, which saw the American fleet move to the Pacific to allow the Royal Navy to focus on the Atlantic, indicated a subtle but significant shift towards supporting the Allies. This cooperation was met with concern by isolationists within the U.S., who were wary of any steps that might draw the country closer to war.

The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 forced Roosevelt to navigate the constraints of the Neutrality Acts, even as he sought ways to support Britain and France. The eventual revision of these acts to allow “cash and carry” purchases of arms by belligerents marked a critical step in providing material support to the Allies without directly involving the U.S. in the conflict.

By 1940, as France fell and Britain faced imminent threat, Roosevelt unequivocally sided with the Allies, committing to extensive material aid and a ramp-up in U.S. defense capabilities. This commitment was articulated in a speech that combined condemnation of Axis aggression with a pledge of American support for nations resisting German expansionism. Roosevelt’s leadership during this period demonstrated a careful balance between adhering to the principle of neutrality and preparing the American public for a more active role in countering the Axis threat, eventually leading to significant support for Britain and setting the stage for closer U.S. involvement in World War II.

Roosevelt navigated the complexities of a world inching closer to a full-scale war with a strategy that was both nuanced and, at times, controversial. He recognized early on that the rise of the Axis Powers posed a direct threat to American security and values. His tactics, though sometimes bordering on the edges of constitutionality, were driven by a conviction that American intervention was crucial to preventing an Axis victory. The fall of France in 1940 underscored the urgency of this threat, leading Roosevelt to articulate more clearly the imminent dangers to American security and to take steps to ensure the survival of the Royal Navy, which he saw as vital to preventing a direct threat to the United States.

Roosevelt’s actions, including the destroyer-for-bases deal with Great Britain and the introduction of peacetime conscription, demonstrated his willingness to bolster the allies and prepare the U.S. for potential involvement in the war. The Lend-Lease Act of 1941 further solidified this position, allowing the U.S. to supply military aid to any country deemed vital to its defense. This move, along with increased defense spending and military cooperation with Britain, signaled a clear shift away from neutrality towards active support for the Allies.

The opposition from isolationists, who saw these actions as a betrayal of American non-interventionist principles, was strong. Yet, Roosevelt’s adept leadership and persuasive communication gradually shifted public opinion towards recognizing the necessity of confronting Axis aggression. His vision for a post-war world, as outlined in the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter, sought not only to ensure security but to promote a global order based on democratic values and economic cooperation.

The events of 1941, from the patrol and escort missions in the Atlantic to the imposition of economic sanctions against Japan, further blurred the lines between neutrality and engagement. The attacks by German submarines on U.S. naval vessels and the eventual attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, followed by Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S., effectively made American entry into the war a reality.

Roosevelt’s journey from advocating for preparedness to leading the nation into war was marked by strategic foresight, moral conviction, and a complex interplay of domestic and international pressures. His ability to navigate these challenges and to prepare the American public for the realities of global conflict reflected his deep commitment to defending democratic values and securing a peaceful, prosperous future. In doing so, Roosevelt transformed American foreign policy and laid the groundwork for the United States’ role as a leader in the international order that emerged after World War II.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.





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