Skip to main content

Morality, Foreign Policy, Life

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003
A Twentieth-Century Odyssey: Memoir of a Life in Academe. By Norman A. Graebner. Regina Books. $36.95.

Few autobiographies of serious academics feature memories of dancing the night away to “the popular sounds of Guy Lombardo, Hal Kemp, Wayne King, and Eddy Duchin.” The probability is even greater that no academic who is the descendant of generations of Lutheran ministers has dwelt in a memoir on Milwaukee’s “Mamie’s Grotto, located in an Italian neighborhood,” which “featured what was, for me, the finest dance band in the city.” But then, the first 30 or so years of Norman Graebner’s life were not the background of the usual university professor. That background, moreover, actually seems—at first glance—little related to the large body of scholarly work he produced over the next 50 years.

Raised in a highly religious extended family, he has devoted his career to outspokenly attacking moralism and idealism in American foreign policy. Admitting that at college “I was too shy to venture into public speaking,” Graebner became one of the most successful lecturers in the profession. Although subtitling his autobiography Memoirs of a Life in Academe, the volume rewardingly devotes at least one-third of its pages to growing up in Kansas and Oklahoma, quite outside any academic environment; coming of age in Milwaukee; serving with the U. S. occupation forces in Japan during 1945—1946; and, in the early years, barely eking out a living with his new bride, the former Margaret Baum. She joined him during 1941 to teach high school at Beggs, Oklahoma, where the couple learned during these waning depression years to live on a “diet of apples.”

That Graebner descended from a long line of Lutheran clerics, grew up in the once-Populist wilds of Coffeville, Kansas, then went to college in Socialist-tinged Milwaukee did not at all mean that he had to overcome radical political tendencies when he began to write and teach. Experiences in the military, the satisfaction gained by being in the postwar occupation forces, and graduate education at the University of Chicago—all these pushed him towards a more moderate, if critical, position on U. S. foreign policy that was buttressed by the initial topics he chose for his research and writing.

Graebner’s first major published work, based on his dissertation, was Empire on the Pacific (1955). In analyzing the sudden, incredible U. S. expansionism in the 1840s that increased the size of the United States by 50 percent, he discarded the conventional wisdom that the move was powered by the usual American search for land (in this instance, Texas, California, and Oregon territory). He instead piled up impressive evidence to demonstrate that President James K. Polk and his advisers were driven by their quest for west coast ports, especially San Diego, San Francisco, and Puget Sound. U. S. policy, Graebner insisted, was motivated not by some frontier fantasy, but by hard, realistic, narrow national interests: a few ports that would give the United States a new, powerful geopolitical and commercial hold on the Pacific rim so it could better militarily contain, and economically compete with, the hated British.

In this volume and at least a half-dozen others, Graebner has spelled out what became known as the “realist” approach to interpreting how U. S. foreign policy had evolved, and how—especially during the Vietnam War years—it should proceed. The best known realists of this time were such political scientists as Hans Morgenthau or government officials led by George Kennan and Dean Acheson. Angered and not a little frightened by Woodrow Wilson’s idealism, which they saw as irrelevant to a world in seemingly perpetual war (and which they feared promised naive, parochial Americans too much while it miseducated them about the brutal nature of the international arena), these men determined to base carefully calculated, limited policies on actual military and commercial power, not on the imagined attractiveness of America’s supposed morality. They also were intent on narrowly focusing those policies on areas they considered most important to U. S. interests (mainly Western Europe and Japan), instead of chasing, as they saw it, some pie-in-the-sky, open-ended Wilsonian internationalism that featured supposed self-determination and unworkable international organizations, as Americans seemed overly tempted to do.

Graebner writes he never worked with Morgenthau at the University of Chicago, but he certainly picked up the fundamentals of realist thought, then discovered how to apply them to the supposedly God-directed, American Manifest Destiny movement of the 1840s to provide a different, highly revealing framework for understanding that pivotal decade. He also developed a visceral reaction to what he saw as the moralism and ill-defined “liberation” policies that characterized the foreign policies of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the 1950s. Since the 1970s, a revisionist view has slowly developed that makes Eisenhower, and at times even Dulles, appear to be more moderate, restrained, and, in all, realistic than their words indicated. Nearly a half-century later, Graebner is having none of this. “At the end” of the Eisenhower presidency, he emphasizes, “the United States failed to liberate one square foot of Eastern Europe,” but it made disastrous mistakes there and elsewhere, not least in Southeast Asia.

His view of Eisenhower was the conventional wisdom of the 1960s, and his realist condemnation during that decade of the tragedy in Vietnam (a view eloquently shared by Morgenthau and Kennan), gave critics of the war a respectable platform from which to launch their own attacks. Graebner had now formulated a perspective from which he could judge two centuries of that extraordinary American evolution from being mere colonies to holding dominant world power. The Founders, led by Washington, Hamilton, and later John Quincy Adams, set the example for success by understanding not only the potential but, more importantly, the limits of power (or, as Graebner calls this, being “soft realists,” as he claims to be), and by focusing on limited goals rather than large, idealistic ends. These early policymakers thus laid the foundations for a viable continental empire. Their realism, however, was corrupted by Woodrow Wilson’s idealism once Americans had to act on the world stage, Graebner has argued. Officials such as Kennan and Acheson shook off the Wilsonian tar-baby. Their limited containment policies after 1945 successfully penned in the Soviet Union. But beginning with Eisenhower and continuing with Lyndon Johnson, the proper understanding of how to relate limited means to needed ends was again lost. Among the tragic results were war in Vietnam and U. S. commitments to anti-Chinese and antirevolutionary policies that, as Graebner interprets them, inevitably led to the degradation of American foreign policy in the 1960s and after.

That Graebner has spent a lifetime warning how idealism and moralism corrupt that policy seems strange given his religious background. His great-grandfather left missionary school in Germany to bring Lutheranism to the Michigan frontier in 1847. Of his maternal grandfather’s six sons, five, including Graebner’s father, joined the clergy. He indicates he never considered continuing the long family tradition (although the many who have heard him lecture so effectively know that in this respect, at least, this particular branch did not separate from the tree). He clearly learned from this Lutheran upbringing a view of human nature that would have been congenial to Hamilton and Adams, as well as developing a profound mistrust of such phenomena as post-Cold War American triumphalism. With good reason and perfect consistency, Graebner blasts the “American Century” credo of Henry Luce (the founder of Life, Fortune, and Time magazines), and especially the recent highly popular books and films depicting World War II which make it appear the United States singlehandedly won that conflict. Americans now forget, Graebner stresses, that “the decisive action of the war did not lay in Normandy, but at Stalingrad.” Widespread talk in 2001—2002, especially from the Weekly Standard crowd in Washington, about the glories of the present and future American Empire is mere ignorance, Graebner concludes. He urges “self-containment,” as a good Lutheran realist would.

In his comprehensive American Diplomatic History: Two Centuries of Changing Interpretations, Jerald A. Combs concluded that by the 1960s “the inspiration of the realists permeated almost every survey of the Cold War and every general textbook on diplomatic history.” Graebner’s work was a primary reason for this powerful realist influence. Through his teaching at Iowa State, at the University of Illinois, and then, after his 1967 arrival, during a 19-year career as Stettinius Professor at the University of Virginia, he turned out several dozen doctoral students as well as a number of now well-known former undergraduates (named proudly in this volume), who came to see their teacher’s soft realism as the proper way to deal with the world.

On reflection, Graebner did not travel very far from the intellectual milieu of that Lutheran parsonage after all. Even those late-night dances in Milwaukee appear to be little more than a slight, but delightful, detour from a half-century commitment to explaining how U. S. foreign policy has been, and will continue to be, most successful when its power is restrained, its goals are limited, its motives are untinged by an idealism and a moralism that too easily corrupt a highly susceptible human nature, and its policymakers are soft realists.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading