American thinking about the relationship of elites to foreign policy began to develop around the year 1900 during the debate over imperialism. Most elite theorists, or commentators applying elite theory, have viewed policy from the Left, although not all have done so. There is also a conservative, or Rightist, elitism, sometimes politically ideological but more often having a traditional religious or cultural perspective on matters of public life. Such conservative elitists have been somewhat less inclined to address issues of foreign policy.
Most American critics having a view of society as headed, if not actually led, by elites have stressed the influence of business groups. These were seen to have had a role in causing the U.S. war with Spain and the subsequent effort to dominate the Philippines. A few denunciators of such overseas ventures, including socialists such as Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs and populist reformers like William Jennings Bryan, openly blamed imperial expansion on the greed of the commercial and moneymaking classes and on trusts and syndicates looking for new fields to exploit. Most opponents of imperialism at the time did not fully develop such a radical view, but an English writer, John A. Hobson, supplied a theoretically coherent version of it in Imperialism (1902). He interpreted the imperialist dynamic as being the result of a capitalist drive for greater profits than were available at home and also for security for investments made in overseas territories. In studying the American reaction to not only U.S. but also British imperial engagements such as that against the Boers in southern Africa, the historian Ernest R. May, in American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay (1991), surmises that Americans, "already disillusioned by the Philippine war and concerned about the growing power of trusts, probably found Hobson's arguments especially attractive."
Putting the whole subject in a broad comparative frame from a transnational perspective, the Norwegian political sociologist Johan Galtung, in the essay "A Structural Theory of Imperialism" (1971), interprets imperialism not so much as the result of the drives or motives behind it as the product of a structured, collaborative relationship between elites. He abstractly outlines one elite "center" inside the imperial power and another, smaller center inside the colonial country. He then theorizes that imperialism succeeds when the relationship between the two elites is "harmonious," or smoothly functioning and mutually profitable, but that it is bound to fail if it is not. Galtung's theory helps to account for the breakdown of British control over southern Africa. It also helps to explain the failure of the United States to achieve "harmony" with the Philippines, whose native leadership in large part refused to collaborate with American authorities and henceforth were subdued by military force. What is pertinent here is that a significant part of the American "center" also refused to enter into such a collaborative relationship, one of imperialism.
It has been shown that in the United States those who most prominently opposed U.S. territorial expansion in Asia following the Spanish-American War were themselves in many cases members of the American elite, if not mainly from the ruling political class or dominant economic group. Many were of an older type, for whom the early American Republic rather than the current and purportedly liberal British Empire was an appropriate model for the country. In Twelve Against Empire (1968), Robert L. Beisner observes that the leading anti-imperialist figures he studied generally "all shared the same biases and for the most part cherished the same conservative vision of an ideal American society." They were "elitists," he emphasized, and as such "they were not so much interested in conserving a system of economic privilege for themselves as in defending a style of life and a social tone against the leveling influences of arriviste businessmen and the democratic masses." Most of these, being themselves white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (later to be called the WASP type), had long been concerned that increased immigration, from sources other than certain countries in western Europe, might alter the racial and religious character of American society. Taking over the Catholic Philippines wold only add to this perceived risk.
Previously, Ernest May notes, the American elite as a whole had been "overwhelmingly anticolonialist." In the late 1890s, however, the nation's ruling classes began to divide, with some, mostly of a younger generation, identifying with England's liberal imperialists and becoming enthusiasts for a similar high-minded American imperial expansion. The split between imperialists and anti-imperialists cost the American elite some of its influence and also its control over public opinion. May writes: "In 1898–1899, this not only made for an intra-elite debate about whether the United States should or should not acquire colonies; it legitimated a much wider public debate. Less educated and less cosmopolitan Americans could speak with greater freedom because they could take sides with one set of opinion leaders against another." Arguably the elite division had a permissive effect, allowing persons who previously had been merely "talkers" to become, if not real authorities, then frequently quoted "advisers."
In that era there were few American scholars who systematically employed elitist theory, or at least an awareness of the role of leadership groups, in attempting to comprehend the structure of American society. One who did was the pioneering sociologist Edward A. Ross. "Every editor, politician, banker, capitalist, railroad president, employer, clergyman, or judge has a following with whom his opinion has weight. He, in turn, is likely to have his authorities," Ross observed in Social Psychology (1908). "The anatomy of collective opinion shows it to be organized from centers and subcenters, forming a kind of intellectual feudal system."
Much more broadly, a Progressive outlook, shared by Charles A. Beard and other historians as well as by leftist and reform-minded politicians, disposed Americans to detect "hidden" influences responsible for the country's social direction and political decisions—for example, in permitting monopolies to operate. With the beginning of World War I in July 1914, explicit arguments about the class or group domination of American public life gained greater prominence. When the war started, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to be "impartial in thought as well as in action." Congress's declaration of war in April 1917—at the president's own request and following repeated protestations of U.S. neutrality—was something that required an explanation.
Critics on the Left, many of them strongly opposed to the war decision on grounds that it was inimical to the interests of the workingman or out of an ideological pacifism, supplied an explanation that stressed the malign influence of an economic elite. The centers of it were seen to be located on the East Coast, in the financial and industrial elites of New York and other Europeoriented cities. Particular individuals such as J. P. Morgan, the Rockefellers, and the Du Ponts were named. Somewhat more generically defined groups, notably international bankers and the munitions makers—or, simply, "Wall Street" and war-profiteering "merchants of death"—were identified as being responsible for causing the country to join in the European carnage. They were thought to favor the overly ambitious peacemaking efforts led by President Wilson and his friend Colonel Edward M. House, along with his group of experts called the Inquiry, that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations Covenant, which many feared would be an "entangling alliance."
This interpretation of history, with its emphasis on economic factors, resembled Marx more than Mosca, Pareto, or Michels. Also unlike those European theorists who accepted the idea of a permanent ruling class, the American accusers of the "interests" did not regard elite domination of society and determination of national policy as inevitable. The "people"—who, in the view of critics, had been, or at least should have been, opposed to intervention in the war because it meant suffering and loss rather than profit for them—could and should be put in control.
A number of writers during the 1920s were participants in a "revisionist" historiography that challenged official explanations of the war and the claim that U.S. intervention was caused by Germany's assault on America's maritime rights. Further, these writers augmented what was essentially an economic conspiracy theory by finding other, noneconomic forces at work: British propaganda, pro-British official bias, and Wilsonian idealism. Harry Elmer Barnes, C. Hartley Grattan, and others whose work is assessed by Warren I. Cohen in The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I (1967) accorded considerable weight to the activities of political leaders, above all President Wilson himself and even certain diplomats, such as his ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Walter Hines Page, who was known for his Anglophile tendencies.
World War I revisionism became politically relevant during the 1930s as many Americans grew alarmed about the fateful course that American foreign policy might take. The 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression reinforced doubts about America's private economic leadership. Barnes, Grattan, and Beard, who turned his attention from domestic history to current foreign policy, stressed the inability of banking and commercial elites to redefine the American "national interest" to suit themselves and their international connections. A Senate investigating committee, headed by North Dakota Republican Gerald P. Nye and consisting mainly of isolationists, publicized this general historical interpretation—the "devil theory" of war, as Manfred Jonas called it in Isolationism in America, 1935–1941 (1966). The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937, the major policy expressions of the isolationism of the time, were designed to keep the United States out of future wars by placing restrictions on three dangerous parts of the American elite that had gotten the country into the last war: international bankers, armaments manufacturers, and presidents of the nation.
The other side of anti-elitism is populism, a belief not just in the political rightness of majority rule but also in the people's inherent goodness and wisdom. In 1937, Representative Louis Ludlow, Democrat of Indiana, proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would require a popular referendum before Congress could declare war. The premise of Ludlow's scheme, one of many of the same type made during the interwar period, was that only small groups would seek American intervention in foreign wars. The people, if asked to decide, would guard against this. The Ludlow amendment gained considerable support, which increased after an American gun-boat, the USS Panay, was sunk by Japanese bombers on the Yangtze River in December 1937. But it never came to a final vote in the House of Representatives.
As elitist theories began almost to make policy, two revisionists grew unhappy with them. Walter Millis argued that the American people, rather than their leaders, had made war possible in 1917–1918. Charles Beard recognized that the people as a whole had become dependent on wartime purchases by the Allied powers. He continued to fear the influence of bankers and politicians, but he also feared that of farmers and other large groups having a stake in foreign trade. Logically but unrealistically, Beard called for a sharp reduction in U.S. dependence on such trade and for a more concentrated economic development of America, a doctrine called "continentalism." He imagined that this could be done through a more equitable division of wealth and thus a more widely exercised purchasing power. Determined to stay out of war, he would, if necessary, use state power to scrap the capitalist system.
This emphasis on the people, and their economic needs, became background discussion as the events leading to U.S. involvement in war commanded immediate attention. As Nazi Germany overran France and as the United Kingdom and the United States began to coordinate their naval operations, Beard, for one, became convinced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was masterfully engineering the entry of the United States into another world war by dramatizing incidents in the Atlantic. In Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933–1941 (1952) another revisionist, Charles Callan Tansill, saw the biggest "incident" of all, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, as the culmination of Roosevelt's strategy. In Tansill's view, the president provoked a war in the Pacific that he could not obtain in the Atlantic in order to cloak his domestic political failures and come to the aid of the British Empire.
During the period of America's involvement in World War II, the influence of economic interpretations of U.S. government policy and action fell off considerably, as military imperatives dominated official thinking and conduct. To be sure, there were those who suspected the motives, short-term and especially long-term, of the corporate "dollar a year" men who went to Washington to manage war production. The accomplishments of American industry during the war, under relatively little state supervision, did restore much of the reputation that American business had lost. Major decisions, however, were made by the president and his closest advisers, notably the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, and the senior military leadership, including General George C. Marshall. New government entities such as the Office of Scientific Research and Development, headed by Dr. Vannevar Bush of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, significantly contributed to the war effort by managing the contracts for the secret production of new weapons including the atomic bomb. Diplomacy during the war was conducted mostly by President Roosevelt himself at leaders' conferences with his British and Soviet counterparts, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. The State Department under Cordell Hull was somewhat eclipsed, though it did concentrate on postwar planning.
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