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Learning from America’s Failure to Lead Between the World Wars

The story told in Robert Kagan’s ‘The Ghost at the Feast’ has echoes in the Ukraine crisis today.
March 24, 2023
Learning from America’s Failure to Lead Between the World Wars
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

As we draw closer to the next presidential election a great national debate about the Russia-Ukraine war is unfolding—and time is not on Ukraine’s side. American support of Ukraine is vital to its survival. But critics of such support are multiplying on the left and especially the right. Former president Donald Trump is openly on the side of Russia and more than hinting that he would disband NATO if re-elected president. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, currently Trump’s leading challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination, has declared that the war is merely a distant “territorial dispute” in which we have no special interest. Arrayed against them are President Joe Biden, most elected Democrats, and—at least for now—many prominent congressional Republicans. On the outcome of this debate hinges the fate of Ukraine and the future peace of Europe and the United States.

We have engaged in such consequential debates before, and not with happy results. To recall them, we now have The Ghost at the Feast by the historian Robert Kagan. It is the second volume in a projected trilogy; the first, Dangerous Nation (2006), told the story of American foreign relations from the first colonies up to the close of the nineteenth century. The new book, beginning with the 1898 war with Spain and ending just as the United States enters the Second World War, is pregnant with meaning for the conduct of American foreign policy today.

The heart of the book is the story of how, despite itself, America joined the First World War, helped to win it, and then—catastrophically—failed to keep the peace, becoming the “ghost at the feast,” the words of the British diplomat Harold Nicolson that Kagan has adapted for a title.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Americans were blithely unaware of or indifferent to the pressures roiling the European continent. Not long before the powder keg exploded, President Woodrow Wilson spoke of a “growing cordiality and sense of community of interests among nations” that was producing “an age of settled peace.” When the guns began firing in August 1914, it was to Americans a complete surprise and a total shock.

Driven in no small part by fears of sundering America’s social fabric, Wilson steered hard to neutrality. The melting pot had not yet melted America’s ethnic groups, each with their separate sympathies: The Irish hated the English oppressor. The Jews loathed the virulently antisemitic tsarist government of Russia. Germans were on the side of the kaiser. Wilson anticipated, even as he was appalled by German atrocities and aggression, that “he could never satisfy all sides in the American debate” about the war, explains Kagan. The president predicted that “he would be criticized from all directions, that the ‘various racial groups’ would try to ‘lead us now one way and then another.’”

Unrestricted German submarine warfare changed the equation. The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 with more than 1,200 passengers and a crew of 700 was a seminal event; there were fewer than 800 survivors. But the atrocity, though hardening public outrage at Germany and leading to greater preparedness for military action, was not enough to push America away from a neutral course. It took a full two years, and the resumption of unrestricted German submarine warfare, before support for involvement in the war became substantial, and the United States joined the fray. The delay, perhaps unavoidable given the reluctant tenor of public opinion, came with a cost. Kagan quotes Churchill memorably musing on how things might have been different if America had entered the war immediately following the sinking of the Lusitania:

What abridgment of the slaughter; what sparing of the agony; what ruin, what catastrophes would have been prevented; in how many million homes would an empty chair be occupied today; how different would be the shattered world in which victors and vanquished alike are condemned to live!

In November 1918, the war to end all wars was over. A ravaged Europe was again at peace. But a mere twenty years later, an even more terrible war was to erupt. The two great questions historians have asked, and Kagan asks again, are “How was the European peace squandered?” And “how much responsibility did the United States bear for the breakdown?”

Most historians have looked to the 1930s as the critical decade, and the Great Depression as the crucial factor, with the “modern consensus,” writes Kagan, being that American policies in the 1920s were “sensible and well intended, even creative.” Kagan offers a contrary view. A central proposition of his book, he declares, is that the United States “had it within its power to preserve the peace in Europe after 1919, and at a manageable cost.” Yet we failed: “It was in the 1920s that the peace was truly lost.”

Counterfactual history is inherently impossible to evaluate with any semblance of certitude. But there were some measures, argues Kagan, that the United States could plausibly have taken. For one thing, we could have agreed to a reduction of the German war debts that destabilized the economy of the Weimar Republic, ushering in an economically ruinous and politically disastrous hyperinflation. We could also have stationed several thousand troops in the Rhineland—fewer, Kagan points out, than were at that time deployed in the Philippines in our haphazard occupation of that country following the Spanish-American war. Kagan writes that contemporaneous American observers in Europe believed such measures “could have made all the difference.” Instead, in the three successive Republican presidents following Wilson, there was steady and determined abstention from European affairs. They stood by as world order collapsed and Hitler rose to power and rode to war.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, like many of his predecessors, was exquisitely attuned to public opinion. In his first term, his rhetoric pointed in an internationalist direction, but his actual foreign policy, as Kagan observes, was nearly identical to that of the previous administration. An exception, which was to prove important, was a significant naval buildup directed at the mounting threat in the Pacific posed by Japan. Roosevelt, who had been the assistant secretary of the Navy throughout the previous war, allocated hundreds of millions of New Deal dollars to the massive buildup, which he could justify by pointing to the jobs it was creating.

Kagan portrays FDR as torn “between his fears about the rising dangers in the world and his concern that the public was not ready to support any action to meet them.” Of course, after the world shipwrecked in 1939, his efforts took a different turn. He was still handcuffed by the Neutrality Acts that Congress had passed in the 1930s and he himself had felt it necessary for political reasons to sign. But while strictly observing the law, he began looking for ways to step up American preparedness for the involvement that he considered inevitable. In 1939 he pushed through the “cash and carry” policy, which lifted the ban on selling arms to belligerents. In 1940 he instituted the draft and promised America would be the “arsenal of democracy.” In 1941 he invented the ingenious Lend-Lease program and began convoying in the Atlantic.

For these measures he was roundly attacked by the “realists” of his day, who derided the notion that the United States could ameliorate the situation in Europe. In Kagan’s summary, the war, as these realists saw it, “was the product of ‘national and racial animosities’ that had existed for centuries and would continue to exist ‘for centuries to come,’” and “it had been ‘childish’ to try to impose democracy on Germany, where the ‘conditions’ for ‘self-government’ did not exist.” Americans “lacked the power and the wisdom, even if they had the will, to be Europe’s ‘savior.’”

The echoes to our present moment resound.

Among other things that make The Ghost at the Feast a masterwork is the attention it pays to the intellectual currents that formed the backdrop to American policy—not only the false realism, but also the broader crisis of liberalism, with conservatives taking “a benign view of the fascist leaders, ignoring or explaining away the harsher aspects of their regimes.” While at the same time, liberals and progressives took a “sympathetic view of Stalin’s Soviet Union . . . untroubled by the growing repression or by reports of the devastating manmade famine that killed up to 3 million people.”

Then as now, there was blatant denial about the nature of the world in which we live. It is staggering to encounter the esteemed political commentator Walter Lippmann saying in 1933 that one could hear in Hitler “the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people.” Regarding Nazi antisemitism, Lippmann—himself a Jew—continued, “To deny today that Germany can speak as a civilized power because uncivilized things are being done in Germany is in itself a deep form of intolerance.”

Then, as now, voices were being raised that saw the primary threat to the United States as coming from within. Thus, the conservative Republican senator Robert A. Taft warned that there was “a good deal more danger of the infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circle in Washington than there will ever be from any activities of the communists or the Nazi bund.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Ghost at the Feast is a monumental accomplishment. Weighing in at 450 pages of text plus another 200 pages of maps, notes, and a bibliography that reflect Kagan’s prodigious reading and research. The story it tells is unrelievedly bleak, and even as the shattering ending is known—the book closes with Pearl Harbor—it is a page-turning work of history, a riveting letter from the past full of profound instruction about the perils of American inaction on the world stage. Anyone who worries about the fate of Ukraine should read it. What is plain, as the past teaches, is that the very foundations of civilization are at stake.

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld.