John Taft’s book is a history of American foreign policy from World War I through the Vietnam War, as exemplified by the careers of prominent “liberal internationalists” who dominated the policymaking process: William Bullit, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Chester Bowles, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Dean Acheson, David Bruce, John Foster Dulles, Herbert Hoover, Ellsworth Bunker, Henry Stimson, and Gyms Vance. These men represent a bipartisan group of public servants who shared an international view. Unfortunately, these views were ideologically at odds with the traditional practice of realpolitik required to protect and advance the interests of a Great Power; and thus a nation whose economic, technological, and military strength relative to the rest of the world dwarfed that of the Roman and British Empires at their zenith, found itself constantly on the defensive, unable finally to turn aside even the challenge of a minor state like North Vietnam. America’s “best and brightest” were not only unable effectively to use the enormous power available to them, but they were philosophically unable even to think reasonably about its proper deployment. A more accurate title for this book would be “The Negation of American Power.”

John Taft has written an interesting work, but not one that breaks any new ground. Two circumstances, however, give his interpretation greater significance than it would otherwise merit. First, the project was commissioned by Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, the journal Taft properly identifies as the home base of the internationalist liberals since the days of Woodrow Wilson; and second, Taft himself is the originator and producer of the PBS series America’s Century, which covers this same ground.

Taft defines “internationalist liberalism” as “a fairly consistent adherence to free trade and investment, anti-imperialism, the advancement of democracy, foreign aid, arms control and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.” This doctrine, of course, did not originate with the protagonists of Taft’s chronicle: it amounts, in fact, to nothing other than classical liberalism, and is prefigured (with the exception of the reference to foreign aid) in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, written in 1795.

The two most important liberal dogmas are free trade and anti-imperialism. The first of these is part of a general belief in economic determinism: unlike exponents of realpolitik and mercantilism, who regard economic and political power as symbiotic, liberals wish to replace politics with economics (J.B. Say went so far as to conclude that free trade would make even ambassadors—”one of the ancient stupidities”—obsolete). While the Marshall Plan is often cited as a successful liberal policy, it was only the age-old practice of subsidizing allies against a common enemy. (Liberal failures have been of a different sort.)

In Vietnam, this kind of thinking led to the fatally flawed concept of limited war. The US would provide a shield behind which economic development and social reform would create a viable democratic society immune to subversion. The problem with this strategy is that it takes longer to create such a society than it does to lose a war. Chester Bowles thought Hanoi could be dissuaded from seeking dominion over the region if a Southeast Asian Common Market were established under a neutral development agency and with a commitment to free trade. President Johnson did offer postwar aid to Hanoi, but to no avail. The Communists simply turned the concept into a demand for reparations.

The inhibitions placed on military operations during Vietnam reflect the general liberal reluctance to employ force. Yet the nature of war and politics is, as Clausewitz observed, to compel others to do our will. Compulsion by its nature creates a situation where one group gives orders to another, who must obey or suffer the consequences. Liberals find such a relationship abhorrent and can justify it only when the highest moral principles are being served. That means that for them the dominant party can legitimately exercise its power only for the good of others, never for its own gain: a precept which effectively rules out the national interest as an acceptable motive for action.

Imperialism is one form of an international hierarchy based on power, and thus liberals are vehemently anti-imperialistic, an attitude that is closely related to what Taft identifies as their “moralistic hatred of Western racism—of white people lording it over brown people.” To liberals, military intervention and gunboat diplomacy are simply further instances of compulsion based on international inequality, all of which they reject unless these are perpetuated purely for altruistic reasons (e.g., “the democratic redemption of mankind”). Yet, Vietnam is the turning point for Taft. “I began this book with some enthusiasm for what these people accomplished, or set out to accomplish, in the world arena. A closer examination of the record left me far more skeptical. . . . [I]n their zeal to promote their program against Communist challenges, they may have ended up running a US empire of a different kind.”

Taft attempts to draw a distinction between internationalist liberals and what he calls “ultraliberals.” Both groups, he argues, share the same goals, but the ultras, having been mugged by reality, are now ready to lock themselves in at night. “They preferred the United States to retreat into a noisy geographic isolation rather than compromise any important point on their agenda.” Indeed, ultraliberals believe that “America should withdraw from the world not because of its superior virtue but because of its unique wickedness.” Henry Wallace and George McGovern are obvious ultras, but many of Taft’s internationalists move back and forth to blur the distinction, and of these, Averell Harriman is a prime example.

Taft’s criticism of the ultraliberals may sound sweet to conservatives, but he is no friend of the right. He admits that “an administration like Reagan’s became almost a necessity—and his policies towards Russia have to be seen on the whole as a success.” Yet, he assails Republicans in general for having “rejected the legal and moral internationalism implied by human rights criteria, the United Nations, the International Court and the Law of the Sea,” and President Reagan in particular for “Star Wars,” his air raid on Libya, and intervention in Central America.

Though Taft includes a final chapter on the Reagan years, the period holds little interest for him. He makes no reference, for example, to the substantial impact made on the Reagan administration by a new wave of internationalist liberals; nor to the libertarians, who, proudly claiming the mantle of classical liberalism, won control of economic policy and entrenched free trade in the White House, despite the massive trade deficits and the expansion of foreign industrial and financial power; nor, finally, to the neoconservatives, direct descendants of those liberals who sought refuge in the GOP after losing to the ultraliberals in the Democratic Party and who are at present the major spokesmen for the foreign policy of a Republican administration. Today, globalism is in high fashion: so dominant is this sophistry that very little dissenting opinion is allowed in print or on the airwaves.

In the end, John Taft remains a disillusioned liberal. Like his ultraliberals, he sees the years of America’s peak strength as “not a halcyon era of economic growth and the preservation of liberty—on the contrary they are a bizarre period of harsh, warmongering rigidity engendered by World War II, Korea and Vietnam.”


[American Power: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Globalism, by John Taft (New York: Harper & Row) 320 pp., $22.50]