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Studies in American Diplomacy

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

History of American Foreign Relations. By Louis M. Sears. New York: Crowell Company. $3.50.

The Recent Foreign Policy of the United States. By George H. Blakeslee. New York: The Abingdon Press. $2.00.

Pinck-ncy’s Treaty, 1783-1800. By Samuel Flagg Bemis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. $3.00.

The Monroe Doctrine, 1823-1826. By Dexter Perkins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.50.

There has been a marked revival of interest in American foreign policy. Diplomacy, is shaped even more than other phases of policy by tradition and historical forces. When, therefore, diplomacy occupies the center of the stage, the history and background of current problems will have attention. It may be that official policy turns for the time in the direction of isolation, or that unsettled issues are declared closed. Nevertheless, public interest will be reflected in historical discussion.

Ten years ago there were only a few manuals of the history of American diplomacy. The number of special studies was relatively small. Few other subjects of vital interest in American history had been given as little attention. Since the close of the War, however, the volume of historical writing on the general subject of American foreign relations has mounted steadily higher. History serves in this respect as prophecy, because when trends are noted the historian seeks their origins, studies the direction in which policy is heading, measures the momentum which drives statesmen toward some inevitable conclusion. The very quantity of writing is, therefore, a fair index not only of mounting interest, but of the growing importance of our diplomacy.

The latest general survey is by Louis Martin Sears of Purdue University. It starts under some handicap because the publishers have seen fit to give its jacket a “blurb,” reminiscent of current fiction. They inform us that “Professor Sears has in a sense taken the lid off of history” and revealed “the secret springs.” That is a good deal to promise, and, unfortunately, the promise can not be said to have been genuinely fulfilled. The book is written, for the most part, from secondary materials. It does not give one the sense of having grown out of long reflection, and consequently often lacks perspective and wisdom. Where the secondary sources are good, as in the period covered by the writings of Henry Adams, this volume impresses one favorably. When, on the other hand, the material available in secondary form is not carefully done, the value of the text is proportionately reduced.

Nor is the form of the book all that might be desired. After asserting the continuity of American foreign relations even during so profound a revolution as Jefferson’s accession to the presidency, the author tells the story administration by administration, following that order almost slavishly. It is, therefore, not a fresh and vigorous interpretation of currents and phases, nor yet a study of situations and solutions, but a narrative of the traditional type.

This is not to say that there are not valuable elements in the book. Dr. Sears has been a student in this field, and has published a number of articles on special topics, and in the periods dealt with in his special studies, there are qualities of originality. He shows real capacity, moreover, in sketching the accumulations of issues that arise and ultimately press for settlement; and he shows skill in outlining the changes and trends in international affairs that make it possible to loosen tangles and determine the patterns into which policy shall fall.

Professor George H. Blakeslee, long recognized as a student and authority in the field of international affairs, has written of “The Recent Foreign Policy of the United States,” covering the period of the administration of Secretary of State Hughes. The author is no propagandist with a point of view to develop, and no exploiter of the information which he was privileged to get as a member of the technical staff in the Department of State at the time of the Washington conference; nor is he a journalist who with facile generalizations or with plausible speculations keeps the reader awake. Rather, he reveals himself a mature and conscientious scholar, whose knowledge has made him useful to the Department of State and persona grata everywhere in the university world, both in this country and abroad.

This little volume is not a work of formal scholarship with footnotes and references; it consists of lectures delivered to a student audience, and then revised for publication. Its method is to take the significant policies of the United States ut the present time and discuss them in their historical perspective, glancing at their present applicability and their probable future development. “The foreign policy of the United States is like a road which, from some hilltop, we may watch as it comes winding up from the horizon to our immediate foreground. Looking ahead, we can not see exactly where it goes, but we can see the hills which inclose the broad valley, and we know that the road must proceed somewhere within this valley, and in a certain general direction. American foreign policy, with many local turnings, has developed for over a hundred years toward the present degree of participation with other nations of the world in matters of common interest. We cannot be positive of the exact path which American policy will take in the future, but there are certain outstanding factors which so control the situation that we can see clearly the general direction in which it must proceed.”

The thesis of the author is that the United States does not have a set of policies which apply uniformly in all parts of the world. “It has a separate policy for Europe, another for the Americas, and still a third for the Pacific and the Far East.” He discusses first the policy toward Europe; namely, the attempt to keep out of European politics. In so doing, he sketches the philosophy and history of the idea of isolation, contrasts it with the policy of political co-operation which developed after the Spanish War, and discusses the clash between those policies which was precipitated by events in the Great War. In this connection he surveys the unofficial diplomacy of co-operation that has come to stand beside the official diplomacy, of isolation—the indirect but often strong impact of the United States upon situations with which it was not ready to deal officially. In pointing out this conflict, there is no effort to conceal the complexity of American public opinion. At the same time, it is made equally clear that the United States “will be compelled in the future to follow a course of much closer cooperation, economic and political, with the other nations of the world than it is following today; and it will be forced to do this, no matter what our political platforms state, or our political parties desire, or the majority of the American people really wish at the present time.”

The Monroe Doctrine, the related policy in the Caribbean, and the policy of Pan-Americanism are discussed and contrasted with the competing policies of Latin-Americanism and Pan-Hispanic union. His analysis of the essential elements of the Monroe Doctrine and of the Latin attitude toward it is peculiarly valuable. He has made a first hand study of Latin-American sentiment, and brings to his volume much more than the casual impressions of the hasty traveler. In discussing the Caribbean policy he emphasizes the fact that “public sentiment in the United States will not permit the Caribbean area, or any considerable part of it, to lapse into political, economic, or financial anarchy. The policies of the United States for maintaining a reasonable degree of stability will doubtless, in the main, be continued for some years to come. But the means of executing these policies can well be improved. As few interventions as possible, and terminated as soon as possible; more civil and less military government during an intervention; and administrators who are more sympathetic with the peoples of these republics, would render these policies not less effective, yet far more acceptable to Latin America.”

He does not attempt to excuse the means that have sometimes been used in carrying out the Caribbean policy, but defends the policy itself as wise, emphasizing the fact that no shot fired in a Caribbean republic will bring war among the great powers, as the assassination of the Austrian archduke in the Balkans precipitated European strife. American policy throughout this hemisphere is credited by the author with being at least partly responsible for the contrast with Europe, where the many states are burdened with armaments, whereas in the Americas, the nations, despite their difficulties one with another, are relatively unarmed and free from political and racial feuds.

In some respects the most interesting section of the book deals with the United States policy in the Far East. The “open door” and the “integrity of China,” the growth of friction with Japan, the Washington conference and the dramatic reversal of Japanese policy, the era of good feeling, and the heedless action of Congress with reference to Japanese exclusion—these are carried in swift panorama before the reader, each with admirable restraint, but with the definiteness of a cameo. If one would familiarize himself with the major problems in recent foreign policy, there is no better place to turn than to this little book.

Samuel Flagg Bemis’s “Pinckney’s Treaty” is still a different kind of volume. It is a work of scholarship in the technical sense of the term, but it is no narrow subject which occupies the writer. He has devoted many years to the study of the foreign policy of Washington’s administration, to the examination of documents here and abroad, as they bear upon the diplomacy of the period. He has already, in his volume on the Jay treaty, made the most distinguished contribution to an understanding of the formative years of American diplomacy that has been made in several decades. As the Jay treaty opened the general subject of American relations with England in those critical years, so this volume is much more than a discussion of Pinckney’s treaty of 1795. Indeed, less than a third of the volume is devoted to the treaty itself. Rather, it is a discussion of the whole background and history of American relations with Spain from the beginning through 1795.

The book is thoroughly documented. It takes account of everything of significance which has been written on the subject before, and proceeds to blaze new paths in consequence of original study. It contains much of the extraordinary record of trafficking and buffeting which ground into the consciousness of the United States the fundamental hostility of Europe, which is one basis of the traditional policy of isolation.

Intrigues in the West, and the impotence of the United States to deal with successive diplomatic crises, are marshaled in dramatic fashion. Thomas Jefferson furnished the key to the solution. The quarrels of Europe, he held, would solve the predicaments of American diplomacy. It was no easy path the United States had to follow. In fact, one is sometimes given the impression that we were stumbling blindfold through a trackless waste—blindfold, because the news came so slowly from Europe that it was out of date before it was received; a trackless waste, because the complexities of European diplomacy were so involved and changed with such kaleidoscopic rapidity that no clear path revealed itself. Nor had the United States the strength to hew out a path. The major care of the administration must be for domestic matters, for holding together a union which seemed in danger of being torn apart by the tensions which developed within its own structure.

Jefferson was for “patience and persuasion” always, in the faith that sooner or later American abstention from war would be of so much value to one party or other that the desires of the United States would be met as the price of neutrality, Jefferson’s policy was not different, therefore, as Secretary of State from his policy as President, but so far as the treaty of 1795 is concerned, it was infinitely more successful. True, he had retired from office before Pinckney’s treaty was made, but the fact is that the Pinckney treaty came precisely as Jefferson had predicted. Spain was in process of changing alliances. Peace had been made with France, and Spain now stood in fear of its former ally, England. Learning that Jay’s treaty had been negotiated, but not aware of its text, the upstart Godoy, in charge of Spanish affairs, feared that the Jay treaty involved or presaged a union of the United States and Britain. Such a union would seal the doom of Spanish possessions in America, and in eager haste to save that situation, Godoy hurriedly, agreed to Pinckney’s treaty.

The fruits were astonishing. “From it flowed almost immeasurable consequences for the future territorial expansion of the United States. Issues arising over this document led to the negotiations which brought, at the profit of European imbroglios imperfectly understood across the Atlantic, the extension of American territory to the Gulf of Mexico and to the Pacific Ocean. If it had not been for the right of deposit and the necessity of protecting it, it is extremely unlikely that President Jefferson’s diplomatists in 1803 would have been suing at the Court of Napoleon for the purchase of the island of New Orleans at the very time when larger issues, unbeknownst to Jefferson, constrained that despot to sell all of Louisiana. What then would have been the destiny of that great region? A second Canada?”

This is an admirable book. The portraits of the characters are fair and penetrating. The tangled scheme is not simplified to the point of unreality, but its knots are loosened so that we may examine the convolutions for ourselves. There is nothing of preachment, but there is sure perception of significances. If one wishes to understand the Mississippi question, the feelings of the frontiersmen, the nature and methods of Spanish intrigue, the characters of American diplomacy, the forces which shaped policy, and the circumstances which brought triumph, this book can not be neglected.

Even more extraordinary is the volume by Dexter Perkins. A really distinguished contribution to the literature of American diplomatic history is made by his study, of “The Monroe Doctrine, 1823-1826.” It is an unhurried piece of reflective writing, based upon wide research and accurate scholarship.

For over fifteen years the author has been gathering material in the archives at Washington, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg (1912), Madrid, and Seville. Not only did he gather material, but he read enormous quantities of manuscripts to find out what they did not say! Only by reading the dispatches that passed between the several foreign offices and their representatives in the various capitals was it possible to discover how much attention the message of President Monroe attracted, and how far it may be said to have shaped, or to have deflected, policy. The argument from silence is always a difficult instrument of reasoning; it is disastrous unless employed with great skill and with precise care to explore every spot where the silence might have been broken. In historical writing one will go far to discover a book where the argument is used more soundly or more effectively.

What may be called the principal contribution of the book is the demonstration that the historical importance of the Monroe Doctrine in American thought has led to the habit of reading back its later importance into its origin. The way, was open for this error because most writers took the statement of dangers then existent, as found in the message, at their face value, and, working from American sources, corroborated them. Then, using the post hoc, propter hoc method, they urged that since the things Monroe sought to avert did not happen, it must have been the message which prevented their occurrence. The principal variant to this theme has been that the origin of the doctrine was English, and that its effectiveness was the result of British policy and action.

Mr. Perkins approaches the matter from the viewpoint of a person informed upon the whole range of European and American diplomatic discussion of the day. There is back of the book a refreshing knowledge of the facts. He knows them so well that they do not obtrude themselves like awkward soldiers on dress parade; he marshals them easily and without the obvious marks of effort. That alone is of first importance, because it throws the doctrine into its proper local perspective, and because it gives us real insight not only into what Monroe, Adams, and the Americans thought was European policy, but what those policies actually were.

The power of the Monroe Doctrine “lies in the fact that it expressed what many men, great and humble, had thought, were thinking then, and were to think in the future. The ideas which it set forth were in the air. True or false, they were views to which the common thought of America might respond . . . they expressed a viewpoint which was, and in no small degree is today, the viewpoint of the people of the United States themselves.” Such a sane and sensible standpoint makes the question of authorship, between partisans of Adams and Monroe, “essentially a barren one.” “Monroe played a worthy and not inconspicuous role in the grave debates and momentous decisions of the autumn of 1823.” “He had an effective counsellor and co-worker in his Secretary of State.”

To have taken an old subject and made it new; to have dealt with controversial material with clarity, and vigor, yet with dispassionate impartiality; to have altered old notions without displaying anything of the zeal or joy of the iconoclast; to have painted a picture of great complexity in perfect proportion and perspective, is to have done a noteworthy bit of writing. Dexter Perkins has done all this.


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