Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes - The traditional view




American reluctance to participate in alliances, coalitions, and ententes was traditional until World War II. According to the conventional wisdom, in 1778, out of sheer necessity, but remembering the colonial experience of being dragged into European wars, the revolutionary leaders unhappily agreed to sign a political alliance with France. Some twenty years later, when that treaty seemingly forced the young American nation to choose between the two great antagonists in the Anglo-French conflict in Europe, the United States repudiated that alliance, fought a brief and undeclared war to make that repudiation stick, and then, embittered by the brief experience with "European-style" alliances, swore off such political activity forever. In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against "permanent alliances," and in an inaugural address Thomas Jefferson provided the slogan that Americans seem always to need for a policy—"entangling alliances with none."

For a hundred and fifteen years, until World War I, the American nation refused to indulge in the kind of international alliance politics that characterized European diplomacy. Even then, once propelled into the Great War, the United States took the moral high ground and refused to accept full membership as an ally in the coalition against the Central Powers, opting instead for the label "associated power." Disillusioned and angered by the selfishness that the European powers exhibited during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the United States attempted to withdraw from the international arena during the interwar period, only to be forced by Japanese and German aggression to come again to the rescue of the civilized world. The events of World War II forced the United States into what became a long-term alliance with Great Britain and a very short-term one with the Soviet Union. Then, as Cold War tensions mounted, the U.S. government negotiated a series of defensive mutual security alliances aimed at protecting the "free" world against Russian (communist) aggression.

Reluctant participation is clearly the tone of the entire story. Perhaps the thrust of generally accepted interpretations was best summarized by Thomas A. Bailey in his extraordinarily popular text A Diplomatic History of the American People : "The United States cannot afford to leave the world alone because the world will not leave it alone." In other words, historians have treated coalition and alliance diplomacy as part and parcel of the story of America's traditional isolationism.

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