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FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Was United States' foreign policy as bad before WWII as it has been since?

Asked by FireMadeFlesh (16538points) April 29th, 2011

Since WWII, the United States has a poor record in foreign relations. From imposing an unwanted ruler on Iran to arming bin Laden and financing the Tunisian military, they have made a number of serious mistakes.

However prior to WWII, the United States did not possess the position of nearly unrivalled power that it has since. I am not personally aware of their foreign policy and its effects at the time. Did WWII lead to a change in US foreign policy? Has it always been so ill-judged?

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19 Answers

BarnacleBill's avatar

Define what you mean by “poor.” Generally, the United States, prior to WWI, had a policy of isolationism. We stayed out of other people’s business. If countries were invaded, overrun, had revolutions, we stayed out of their business. This was possible because there was not really much in the way of American economic interests abroad. While imports enhanced the quality of life, generally the majority of the products that were purchased in the US were made in the US. Imports were luxury goods.

The primary reason we butt into the business of other countries is to protect the rights of multinational American businesses to do business abroad, and to protect the ability to import raw materials or cheap goods.

josie's avatar

The question presumes something arguable, which is that US policy has been uniformly bad. I think in general the policies have promoted and protected our inerests fairly well .
The real problem is in the one of preserving Empire, which is difficult, costly, and sometimes done ad hoc.
Americans do not speak of Empire, but that is what it is when one nation exerts it’s power and wealth to influence others. And lest there be misunderstanding, I have served in “Imperial” armed forces, and have no regrets.
No Empire has ever held together for ever. And most countries who developed Empire wound up better off when it collapsed, and they did not have to spend so much holding it together

Tuesdays_Child's avatar

American pre-WWII foreign policies were relatively simple, we minded our own interests. After WWII the imported goods from other countries increased to the point that they were no longer luxuries, they replaced goods that had formerly been made exclusively in the US for the US and the export market. To combat the loss of revenue, US businesses began to become international. Consequently, the US interest in foreign policy and action in foreign countries increased dramatically. Now we are spread way too thin and have “foreign policied” ourselves into the poorhouse.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

As previously stated, we pretty much kept to ourselves prior to WWII and actually did not want to get involved with that initially until Pearl Harbor. I agree that business interests in foreign nations has played a large role in US foreign policy since then. However, I find it a little ironic that when the US acts in situations we are accused of empirical tendencies and when we refrain or hesitate to act, we are vilified as being uncaring. I am fine with an isolationist policy so we can take our time, energy and resources to fix our internal problems rather than taking on the problems of the world in general.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Thanks everyone for your answers.

@BarnacleBill By ‘poor’, I mean not in the interest of the common good. Imposing an unwanted ruler on Iran was not good for the Iranian people, and it indirectly led to 52 US citizens being held hostage and mistreated by the Iranians. Arming bin Laden caused the deaths of Soviet soldiers, heightened cold war tensions, and gave bin Laden the formidable reputation he took into the September 11 attacks.

@josie Yes, my assumption is arguable, but I think the protection of US interests has only been short term. As Wikileaks recently revealed, 57% of civilians in the Middle East believe that regional stability would improve if Iran gained nuclear weapons. I don’t think that’s really achieving the ‘hearts and minds’ objective.

@Tuesdays_Child Other countries have had their businesses grow to the multinational level without having governments that act so aggressively on the international stage.

@optimisticpessimist I don’t think it is fair to say that the US is vilified for both acting and refraining from action. The criticism more accurately regards when they choose to act. They are playing it much smarter in Libya, and I believe it is the right thing to do, but I don’t know how those enforcing the UN resolution can act there but ignore similar massacres throughout Africa. African leaders have been killing their own people for decades – why now? Criticism of US action in foreign countries is about when and how they act.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh Actually that story exemplifies my point, we did not act ‘enough’ and face criticism for it; however, when we did act even a little, we faced criticism for it.

From your link… “Washington was the first capital to label Darfur’s conflict genocide, infuriating Khartoum, which blames Western media for exaggerating a conflict it describes as tribal… The U.S. embassy in Sudan said Washington remained engaged in Darfur, giving aid and supporting the peacekeeping mission.”

What little I could find on UN action in Darfur…“the UN security council voted to deploy a 26,000-strong international force to Darfur, with a mandate to stop the massacres of civilians which have driven 2 million people from their homes.”

UN policy in Darfur “But the UN has yet to call the crisis in Darfur genocide, stating so far that it does not clearly meet the criteria laid out by the Genocide Convention of 1948. Instead, the UN strategy has been threefold: to put pressure on Khartoum through sanctions and arms embargoes; to treat the perpetrators as war criminals and refer them to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution; and to organize an international peacekeeping force to intervene under its Chapter VII mandates (see UN and UNAMID sections and Key Foundation Documents for more information) In these endeavors, the UN has, more or less, received US support. The US has taken the lead with the UK and France in the Security Council to impose the sanctions and arms embargoes and to organize a peacekeeping force that would act in consort with the African Union.”

UN policy in Lybia… “U.N. Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone and more against Libya has brought the United States and its allies into another Middle Eastern war.”

Outside of US request for no-fly zone in Lybia ”...the Arab League has approved the “no-fly zone policy” by asking the United Nations Security Council to impose it on Libya.”

Ron_C's avatar

I have a theory about this subject. I think everything started with Lincoln, he believed that we had to have a Federal union even if a half a million Americans had to die.

If Lincoln had lost, slavery would have disappeared anyway. However, we got rid of slavery and gained a federal bureaucracy. We now had a country where a few people could wield tremendous power.

Teddy Roosevelt would have stayed out of the Spanish America war.
That power allowed us to enter WW1 which was just a war between dying empires.

If there was no WW1, Germany wouldn’t have been so punished and humiliated so there would have been no Hitler seeking revenge and domination.

If there was no WW2, we would have probably avoided Vietnam and Korea and probably the cold war.

American would have been a confederacy much like Canada and less an empire seeking resources that fed giant corporations that are now sucking the life out of the country.

There still would have been corruption, stupidity, and greed but it could have kept to the State level rather than feed an ungovernable international market of greed, stupidity, and maliciousness.

In effect, Lincoln was our greatest traitor and war criminal. Both Bush’s are responsible for less than a quarter of the deaths as Lincoln.

We have had too many warlords for president, Lincoln, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, both Bush’s, and it seem Obama is itching to get into the business. And it all started with one little rebellion.

Jaxk's avatar

As many have stated above, prior to WWII we followed a fairly strict isolationist policy. We have more natural resources than virtually any other country and we used them. The war allowed us to build our manufacturing capability which we used to rebuild the world after WWII.

After WWII we were left with a strong military and an incredible growing economy. We used that to help fend off the advancing communist threat from the Soviet Union during the cold war. Most other countries did not need the military but relied on the US for their defense through treaties such as NATO.

Since that time we have systematically forced our manufacturing overseas through tax policy and regulation. We also limited our use of our own national resources to drive our economy. This has left us reliant on other countries for our own survival. Things like oil could cripple us. we are dependant on foreign corporations for cars and even the steel industry has left. Even our technology depends on ‘Rare Earth’ from China. We can no longer pursue an isolationist policy simply because we’ve thrown our very livelihood onto the backs of other countries.

Most of this ‘Blame America First’ attitude is very selective in accounting for the decisions we’ve made. The Korean war didn’t turn out so badly but we don’t want to use that example. Our support for Afghanistan was not really for Bin Laden so much as Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was the rebel leader that actually pushed the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. Our major mistake was in not supporting Massoud afterwards. Unfortunately our lack of support for Massoud after 9/11 resulted in his assassination which left Afghanistan without a strong leader and the disarray we’ve seen since.

It’s very easy to look back and blame America for things we did or didn’t do based on events after the fact. Especially when there is no time limit. Hell the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979. And he was a dictator. Now we look back at the outcome and we don’t like it so who do we blame? The US, of course. If in a few years it turns out that Libya is dominated by another dictator, will we say “see the US screwed up again and is responsible for XX million deaths. Of course we will because we love to denigrate and demonize the US.

The truth is we have assisted many countries when asked. We have never taken over the country nor stolen thier resources. A point most like to ignore. I always love the argument that we went into Iraq to steal thier oil when the truth is we not only didn’t steal their oil but actually made it difficult for US companies to even compete for that oil.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@optimisticpessimist As I said above, I believe the current action in Libya is the right thing to do. It shows that the US has learned from previous mistakes – they are not staging an invasion as in the case of Iraq, but they are not standing on the sidelines like Zimbabwe for example. My point regarding Darfur is that the action has been disproportionate. If the US had not engaged in foreign action for apparently humanitarian reasons in the past, no one would criticise them for staying out of yet another conflict. No one ever criticises Russia for not helping out.

@Ron_C I honestly don’t know enough about US history prior to WWII or WWI history to be able to comment on that idea, but it is an interesting way to look at it. Thanks!

@phaedryx To be honest, I don’t know enough of the surrounding circumstances to comment. However it does strike me as strange that a country that had fought its own War
of Independence 125ish years earlier would deny the same to another country.

@Jaxk Recent Wikileaks cables suggest that the current conflict in southern Afghanistan and tribal northern Pakistan has the potential to destabilise Pakistan and potentially cause nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists. I don’t accept that US intelligence services had no idea that the Iranians would retaliate to their interference. Surely they had the foresight to know that it would make enemies of the general public – why else would they have reduced the number of embassy workers so dramatically?
I do not believe the conspiracy theories about the US trying to plunder the Middle East of its oil etc. I have seen no evidence of US corporations drilling for Iraqi oil, and oil would be much cheaper right now if they had let Gaddafi massacre the Libyan rebels. And yes, the US will continue to be demonised for ignorant reasons. Prominence always brings criticism. My criticism however is that US foreign intervention has been misguided. They have managed to make enemies of pretty much the whole Middle East, while maintaining a friendship with Saudi Arabia, the place where Sharia Law is still enforced alongside state law. I cannot identify a pattern as to why they intervene here and not there, and it seems that US interests have only been protected for a few decades until the ruthless dictator they backed is deposed in favour of a ruthless dictator of the extreme opposite ideology. But then I suppose that is to be expected when Presidents make such idiotic statements as “I will never apologize for the United States of America ? I don’t care what the facts are.”

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh…and my point was the US was following the UN policy in Darfur which the US has been criticized for not following before. So, how much blame is on the US and how much on the UN for the (in)action in that instance?

Jaxk's avatar


Reasonable comments but I keep trying to figure out what facts would make me apologize for the US. I certainly wouldn’t apologize for WWII or Korea. I wouldn’t apologize for Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan. I wouldn’t apologize for helping the Iranians to depose the Shah. There are things that haven’t worked as well as we’d like but I’m not sure I’d want to apologize for them.

When you’re looking at third world countries, it is likely that a dictator will eventually assume control. If we help to depose a dictator and years later another dictator arises out of the rumble, is that a result of our help or is it just the natural order of things in third world countries. It seems that if we have had any involvement in a country and at some later date a dictator emerges, instantly we blame America for that happening. Even though we know that in third world countries where we didn’t get involved, a dictator still emerges.

And frankly the dislike for us in the Middle East is more a result of our support for Israel than anything else. The rest is merely an excuse for escalating the dislike.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@optimisticpessimist Actually that is fair enough. Maybe the UN is in the better position to do something about it. But then why would Barack Obama have made it a part of his election platform?

@Jaxk How about apologising for the event that comment was made about, the shooting of Iran Air 655? Simply saying “we/the ship’s crew made a serious mistake, for which we are sorry”? Surely that would be a good start, and the rest could come later. Maybe the deposing of Mosaddeq’s democratically elected government would be another candidate.

I also wouldn’t blame the US when a dictator rises from the rubble, because a country cannot be to blame for one man’s opportunism. However I do blame the US when the finance the armed forces controlled by those dictators. The military forces of both Tunisia and Egypt received huge amounts of US funding. I wonder if the new governments formed by the people will receive the same? Yemen’s Saleh also received large amounts of money from the US for his counter-terrorism efforts, yet he kept the people in poverty and cowed obedience. The US isn’t to blame when a dictator takes advantage of circumstances they create, but they are when the help those dictators stay on top of their people.

Jaxk's avatar


I can’t say I totally agree with your stand but I will say you make some good arguments. What I appreciate the most is that you made me go back and review events that I had long since forgotten. It is surprising that whether we manipulated events or merely merely gave moral support to one side or the other, inevitably things did not work work out they way we thought.

Sorry but in my review I went through a lot more than just Iran. Thus the delay in my response.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Jaxk Fair enough. I don’t expect people to suddenly agree with me just because I raise a point. I’m going to have to read about the Korean War some time – I must admit I’m not familiar with it. A large part of what I referred to happened before my birth, so I like to hear the opinions of those old enough to remember it.

Jaxk's avatar


It was interesting times. When you look back at the fifties try to look at it with the mindset of the times. Communism was not just an alternate ideology. It was a real threat. We saw what happened in eastern Europe. The soviet Union was trying to expand into the rest of the world. Much of our activity was to counter the propaganda and push from the Soviets and communist China. Korea, Veit Nam, Egypt, Iran, all part of the battle against communism.

We ran Nuclear drills, just like fire drills. As a kid, the threat of nuclear war was real. People did built fallout bunkers in thier back yard. If you look at that era through the paradigm of today, you will miss much of what happened and why.

Jaxk's avatar


If you want an interesting story that shows the other side of our policy, take a look at Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Norther Alliance in Afghanistan. He hated the Taliban and Bin Laden. He is the guy that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan even Bin Laden has tried to make it look like he did it. Bin Laden was actually a bit player in all that. We were afraid to support Ahmad Shah Massoud because we didn’t know if we could really trust him. He made trips to Washington begging for our support but didn’t get it. He was assassinated just before the invasion of Afghanistan (by Al Qeada) and that crippled the resistance.

It is a story where we should have helped but didn’t. Unfortunate to say the least. Afghanistan would be a much different place if he had gained our support. IMHO And he is still revered by the Afghani’s. Opportunities lost.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Jaxk Thanks, I’ll look into that. My stack of books to read is going to be taller than me soon!

WestRiverrat's avatar

Our isolationism prior to WWI was illusionary. We were heavily involved in Central and South America, primarily to keep the European powers from setting up colonies in the new countries created from the collapsing Spanish empire. We also had a significant presence in China and Japan.

Panama is the result of US meddling in Central America, Columbia would not let us build the canal, Teddy Rooevelt went in and created a country that would let him build it.

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