Skip to main content

Lists have abounded in recent weeks. It has been the season for centennial lineups of the greatest, most noteworthy, most remarkable names or accomplishments or events in this and that category. Covered has been everything from artists to books to films to drama to music to world events or leaders, and any number of other groupings that don’t spring to mind at the moment. Numerous such compilations appeared in the American press and on the tube as we made the transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century.

I must take exception to a couple of listings I’ve seen that round up the century’s greatest athletes—lists, incidentally, restricted to no wider inclusiveness than North America. The omission of two football players who starred on the American sports scene over a half-century ago, Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, of U. S. Military Academy fame, is wrong in my view. You could look it up, as baseball’s Casey Stengel used to say: Cadets Blanchard and Davis, playing in the same backfield on national championship teams, dominated college football in the mid-1940’s like no one else in that field of sports before or since.

But I digress, and far afield at that.

The digression nevertheless leads me in to a personal selection, not of the one hundred most (or least) important diplomatic actions taken during the past century. Thank goodness, you will say. No, after mature deliberation, and taking into account that the journal’s focus is American foreign policy, I decided to highlight 1) the single most important, successful, lasting U.S. diplomatic initiative taken in the past century, and 2) the most significant, potentially vital U. S. diplomatic failure, or in the case I cite, an initiative not taken.

I’ll lead off with the negative. In1919 and 1920, the U. S. Senate voted a total of four times to reject the Treaty of Versailles, the peace settlement following the catastrophic First World War. The lengthy pact included plans for a world-wide organization to uphold the peace, the League of Nations. Crafted to a considerable extent at the Paris Peace Conference by the eader of the Democratic party, President Woodrow Wilson, the League was his creation and his special, all-encompassing passion. As the reader will recall, the Senate, however, under the control of the Republican party, refused his insistent demand that it give its Constitutional advice and consent to the Treaty. It failed of passage by a wide margin.

(I cannot resist noting here an historical curiosity. The Senate and the Republicans did not, as sometimes indicated in brief accounts of the affair, kill off the League solely because of personal political animosities or even a conviction that the United States should revert to an isolationist avoidance of entangling alliances abroad. It was more complicated than that—as so very often is the case. In 1919, Wilson refused to accept any of the dozen or so reservations, some of them relatively unimportant, desired mostly by a number of Republican party senators. The Senate in three votes on November 19 declined to accept the Treaty either in the form Wilson wanted or with reservations attached to the package. The irony enters the historical scene when we note that Senate Democrats loyal to the President, at his direction, voted with senators utterly opposed to the League against ratification, except in the one instance when the reservation-free version of the Treaty was considered. No compromise for Wilson. A final Senate vote in effect on the League held in the spring of 1920 resulted for the first time in majority approval of U.S. participation—but not the two-thirds plus one vote required under the Constitution. Looking back, an accommodation seems almost certainly possible, given good will and foresight on both sides of the controversy, but it was not to be.)

Setbacks such as the “loss” of China in 1949 and failure in Vietnam in 1973 also should be mentioned, and there are others.

But the scrapping of the Treaty of Versailles by the United States had a ruinous effect on American foreign policy. It was a lost opportunity that amounted to no less than a tragedy for the world. If the United States had been actively involved in the League from its beginning (it did participate in a low-key way in some activities), the road to a reprise of the Great War might have been very different. I like to think so anyway.

On the positive side of the ledger, the United States has had a number of successes during the century past. One of these in a sense, it can be argued, was the 1903 treaty with Panama, the accord that led to the building of the Canal, an engineering marvel of the age. (Many would argue against this treaty as a plus in U.S. diplomatic history.) The Summit meetings during the Second World War resulted in important agreements by the Allies, including the one at Yalta in 1945, as problematic as that conference proved to be. Several major tactical moves during the Cold War clearly brought success, such initiatives as the Marshall Plan in 1947, the American-British Berlin Air Lift in 1948-49, and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.

I’m tempted to cite the obverse of the old League of Nations coin as the number-one success of the century. The 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference and the San Francisco convening meeting of the United Nations the following year, both taking place in the United States, as well as the choice of New York as the site of the UN Secretariat, illustrate the nation’s central role in making up for its failure to join with its allies at the end of the First World War. This time around, in July 1945, the Senate voted eighty-nine to two for U.S. participation in the UN, after a mere six days of debate.

But my nomination for the most important, lasting, and successful American initiative in diplomacy (combined with military power and a system of alliances, to be sure) during the 1900’s has to be the strategic concept of “containment,” containment of the Soviet Union and world communism. Here I refer not exactly to George Kennan’s original articulation of containment in 1946-47; he himself frequently amended and modified his prescription for victory over the Soviet Union. And containment led in a negative sense to the bloody stalemate of the Korean War and America’s disaster in Vietnam. It brought on a spiraling arms race and the lunacy of “mutual assured destruction,” the standoff in intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads that brought the world close to disaster in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nevertheless, following containment policies of opposition to the Soviet Union short of direct military confrontation with some consistency, the United States (with its allies, of course, mainly those in NATO) did indeed achieve not only “the long peace,” in John Lewis Gaddis’s striking phrase, but victory, the downfall of Russian-style communism. No one foresaw the end, so rapidly did it come, but by 1989, proof of the collapse of Soviet power and will was there for all to see: the Berlin Wall down, the Eastern Bloc in shambles, and freedom breaking out all over.

Two years later came the climax. The USSR, after seventy long years of nationhood, disintegrated. Where there had been two superpowers for an entire generation, the United States now stood alone. How many more decisive triumphs can one locate than this in the pages of history?

Now it’s your turn. Never mind about my digression into sports history. Let us have your comments and your vote on the best and the worst of American diplomacy in the twentieth century. We look forward to hearing from you.

Comments are closed.