Akira Iriye, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume III: The Globalizing of America, 1913 – 1945’

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September 9, 2006 Julie Cohn
Akira Iriye, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume III: The Globalizing of America, 1913 – 1945’ (Cambride, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
In The Globalizing of America, 1913-1945, Akira Iriye offers a synthesis of scholarly study of the United States’ role in world affairs in the early twentieth century. Iriye argues that the United States emerged as a global power during this time, replacing Europe as the dominant force in security, economic, and cultural affairs. As American financial, ideological, and military influence developed, every region from Latin America to Europe to Asia was transformed. While the world became Americanized, the United States became globalized.

Iriye traces several facets of American policy and decision-making throughout this period to illustrate the country’s evolving foreign policy. For example, the United States grew to dominate international trade, becoming the world’s primary lender and exporter by the 1930’s. At the same time, while American presidents articulated ideologies of international cooperation and peaceful interaction, they expanded the U.S. Navy and increased shipment of arms and munitions to trading partners. Most significantly, for Iriye, issues of national security and economic stability were joined with major ideological movements throughout the period to both justify and necessitate United States involvement in two world wars.

Opening with a brief discussion of the pre-twentieth-century dominance of Europe, Iriye quickly turns his attention to the unified United States that emerged after the Civil War. He organizes his story into several chronological periods that are defined by major military events abroad, economic and ideological trends at home, and stated U.S. policy with respect to international entities. For example, designating the Great War as a distinct period of study, he describes the unfolding European conflict in the 1910s and President Wilson’s response. He notes not only the effects of United States neutrality on the balance of power in Europe, but also the extent to which American economic and financial relations ultimately dictated military alliances. Further, Iriye interweaves concurrent U.S. activities in Latin America and Asia as they came to influence events unfolding across the Atlantic. Finally, he outlines Wilson’s internationalist philosophy as a determining factor both in the way the United States joined the war and the role the country played in negotiating the peace. Likewise, for the succeeding periods of relative economic stability in the 1920s, Depression and isolationism at home and the emergence of fascist and totalitarian states abroad in the 1930s, the run-up to the second World War in the late 1930s, and the military actions and resolution of World War II in the early 1940s, Iriye maintains focus on the three strands of economic activity, military policy, and ideology. The result is a cohesive outline of how and why the United States became a dominant geopolitical power in the first half of the twentieth century.

According to Iriye, “the emergence of the United States as an international player at the beginning of the twentieth century was significant not simply because the nation became the leading military and economic power, but also because it introduced cultural factors into world affairs.” (p.72) For example, Iriye cites the 1920s rise of cultural exchange initiatives such as the League of Nations’ committee on intellectual cooperation as evidence of the Americanization of international thought. By contrast, the rise of fascism and totalitarian governments and the free fall of the U.S. economy in the 1930’s brought into question the idea of a world community of economic interdependence and cooperation. Iriye persuasively argues that despite a resulting isolationist sentiment in the United States, the country took baby steps toward reasserting its international role throughout the decade. While threats to security and economic stability were significant, Iriye argues that ideological issues were at stake as well. He notes that by the late 1930’s, ideas about preservation of democracy and the global responsibilities of powerful economic actors moved from the intellectual elite to the mainstream. Iriye claims that “the emergence of geopolitical-mindedness was a major phenomenon of American intellectual and diplomatic history.” (p.169)

Iriye points out that the United States was the only country involved in every theater of World War II. This was emblematic of the extent to which the emergence of America as a world leader also resulted in the transformative influence of America on every corner of the globe. By 1945, Iriye argues, the world was reshaped militarily, economically, culturally, and ideologically through American initiative. Iriye’s argument is hard to dispute. Whether for economic reasons – because America was the world’s major lender and exporter, for military reasons – because America supplied arms and armaments and ultimately fighters, for geopolitical reasons – through both neutrality and participation America tipped the scale in both conflagrations, or for ideological reasons – both the League of Nations and the United Nations reflected ideas formulated in America, United States involvement clearly played a determining role in international affairs. Iriye expertly delineates relationships between popular opinion, international trends, and regional involvements that ultimately determined the fate of globe.

Iriye is the Charles Warren Research Professor of American History, Emeritus at Harvard University. Educated in both Japan and the United States, and with research background in both American diplomatic history and Japanese-American relations, Iriye is well situated to produce this synthesis. This book reflects Iriye’s orientation toward a multi-cultural perspective as well as his interest in articulating major ideological trends – in this case from U.S. internationalism to isolationism to geo-political domination. While the book does not contain extensive references, Iriye offers a short bibliographic essay covering the major topics addressed from World War I and Woodrow Wilson to American relations with Asia, Latin America, and Europe, to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt, and finally many facets of World War II. The Globalizing of America is part of the four-volume series, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, edited by Warren I. Cohen. As he states in his General Editor’s preface, Cohen’s goal was to bring the “finest scholarship and the best writing in the historical profession available to the general reader.” (p. vii). His selection of Akira Iriye to address the emergence of the United States as a global force during the early mid-twentieth century achieved that goal.

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