How America shaped the early 20th century

Adam Tooze in THE DELUGE: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, which I just got finished reading, traced the impact of the emergence of the United States as the world’s dominant superpower and arbiter of world affairs.

He described in great detail the struggles in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Japan for security and economic stability, and how they all hinged on the action and inaction of the USA.

Leaders of the USA today call our country the “indispensable nation”, and assert the right and the power to be the arbiter of the world.  Tooze’s book shows how this self-appointed role began.

24926_large_The_DelugeThe early 20th century USA was a new kind of world power, Tooze wrote.  It had a greater area and greater population than any European country except Russia.  It was uniquely invulnerable to invasion.  It was the world’s leading manufacturing nation, agricultural producer and oil exporter and, as a result of the war, the world’s leading creditor nation.  No other country could even come close to matching American power.

Tooze began his history in 1916 because that was when Britain, France and their allies came to realize how much they depended on the United States, not just for supplies, but even more for financing of the war.

Woodrow Wilson’s policy was to use this leverage to dictate a “peace without victory,” a compromise peace based on liberal democracy, international law and—most importantly—a worldwide open door for U.S. commerce.

The United States was not interested in new territorial acquisitions because it didn’t need them.  All it wanted was access to other nations’ territories by American business.

Wilson’s neutrality became politically unsustainable because of German attacks on U.S. shipping, and the Zimmerman telegram to Mexico urging reconquest of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but he still tried to maintain U.S. position as an arbiter above the fray.

His Fourteen Points encouraged liberal democrats around the world.  According to Tooze, with better decisions and better luck, there might have been a compromise peace between the pro-democratic Provisional Government of Russia, which came to power in March 1917, and a German government forced to yield to pressure from liberals and socialists in the Reichstag.

But the USA and the other allies pressured Russia’s Provisional Government to go on fighting, and the German army successfully counterattacked.  The Russians ceased to hope for peace and the Germans ceased to see a need for peace.   Wilsonian liberal movements in China and Japan also received no support, partly because of Wilson’s racism.

Tooze pointed out that the Fourteen Points were all highly consistent with American national interests.   The first three points were (1) no secret treaties, (2) freedom of the seas and (3) removal of barriers to equality of trade, all policies that advanced U.S. economic interests.


At the end of the 1914-1918 war, the USA, together with the British and French empires, seemingly dominated the world.  Non-liberal political leaders as diverse as Lenin, Trotsky, Mussolini, Hitler and the Japanese warlords saw themselves as underdogs fighting this all-powerful world system.

It is absurd, Tooze wrote, to think in terms of a struggle between Wilson and Lenin.  Wilson led the world’s most powerful nation and was the most popular leader of his day; Lenin led a regime in crisis and depended on American food aid to keep his people from starving.

Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze

Nobody in that era could have foreseen an alliance of Germany and Japan conquering most of Europe and East Asia, or the emergence of the Soviet Union as one of the world’s two superpowers.  Hitler and Stalin adopted their extreme and monstrous policies in the 1930s and 1940s because they believed this was the only way to match an all-powerful USA.

The British and French empires seemed powerful, but their power was fragile.  British and French leaders understood their weakness and how much they depended on the USA.

The French wanted a permanent alliance with Britain and the USA, something like what NATO later became.  The British wanted a special relationship with the USA, and were willing to sacrifice other national interests in order to get it.

A trans-Atlantic alliance could have dominated the world and prevented the rise of the totalitarian powers in the 1930s—and also would have empowered the European overseas empires to crush anti-colonial rebels.

But American leaders chose to remain aloof.  The United States government in the 1920s made many peace and disarmament proposals, but they came to nothing because Washington refused to commit to guaranteeing the security of nations that disarmed.

In the absence of an American security guarantee, France insisted on keeping troops in Germany, taking control of Germany coal and iron industries and organizing an anti-German alliance in eastern Europe—all policies that backfired on France later.

The USA insisted on repayment of all the loans made to finance the war against Germany.  In order to make those payments, the British and French insisted on reparations payments from Germany.

Such payments required the German government to impose what we’d now call “austerity”—higher taxes, fewer government services, higher interest rates, lower wages and higher prices.

The combination of imposed economic hardship and national humiliation was bitterly resented by the German people, but successive German governments, prior to Hitler, felt they had no choice but to make a good faith effort to pay.

Germany’s creditors had little leeway because of their own debts and because of the destruction caused by the war.  They, too, were slow to recover from the war..

In Asia, the victorious leaders of Japan wanted to be accepted as peers of the white nations, but the US and British leaders refused to acknowledge them as equals, or to write any language about the equality of peoples or nations into their treaties.

Japanese militarists grew stronger and more independent of the civilian government.  They stepped up their incursions into China, and the only nation willing to defend China’s national sovereignty was Russia.

The result of American aloofness was European economic stagnation followed by the Great Depression.  Tooze’s history ends in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover proposed a moratorium on war debts that might have pulled the world back from the brink, if Congress had not rejected his plan.


Tooze showed in detail how things looked to the leaders of all the major nations as they struggled to created a stable world order during this period.  He only in passing noted how things developed after 1931.  But the comparisons, contrasts and continuities with later history are striking..

Following World War Two, American leaders learned from the mistakes of the previous post-war.  Rather than standing aloof from Europe, the USA sponsored the NATO alliance to guarantee the security of Britain and France.  Rather than try to collect money from Europe, the USA sponsored the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe.  Rather than try to punish defeated enemies, the USA helped them rebuild.

Postwar austerity was replaced by the start of 30 years of the greatest economic prosperity the world had seen.

On a worldwide basis, U.S. policy resembled that of the British Empire in the 1920s.  The USA had the equivalent of Britain’s territorial empire in its worldwide network of military bases and  dependent governments and, like the British Empire in an earlier era, sought to defend the status quo while the USSR sought to overthrow it.

When the Soviet Union came apart in 1991, the United States didn’t help rebuild as with postwar German and Japan.   The U.S. response to Russia was like France’s response to Germany after World War One.  American leaders treated Russia as a still-dangerous enemy to be kept down.

Washington seeks to maintain its financial and military power, and suppress the rise of any possible rivals, rather than lead a new world order.  But U.S. financial and military power stands alone.  The hollowed-out U.S. manufacturing base does not support American power as it did in 1918 or 1945.

As in the post World War One era, American policy seeks open access for U.S.-based banks and manufacturing companies.  But unlike in the earlier era, this does not benefit the American public.  Banks and manufacturers headquartered in the USA were global and did not have any particular loyalty to the United States or to American workers.

The continuing thread is the American sense of exceptionalism.  Our leaders still claim the right to be the world’s arbiters, and still refuse to be tied down by international law or institutions.

China, as the world’s leading manufacturing nation and creditor nation, has a position similar to the USA a century ago.  Like the USA, China claims the right to dominate its own neighborhood, and, like the USA, seeks worldwide access for its commerce.

But Chinese leaders don’t seek to dictate to the world—at least not yet.  They bide their time while their nation quietly grows stronger.


‘The result … of a political failure’: Historian Adam Tooze on why the lessons of WWI still resonate today, an interview by Elias Isquith of Salon.

Peace Without Victory: Adam Tooze on The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, a background article on Adam Tooze, including an interview, by the editors of the Toynbee Prize Foundation.

The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order by Adam Tooze – review  by Mark Mazower for The Guardian.

The Deluge review – Adam Tooze’s bold analysis of the Great War by Ben Shephard for The Guardian.

The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order by Adam Tooze: ‘a formidable achievement’, a review by Sinclair McKay in The Independent.

Reluctant Goliath: how America became a superpower, a review by John Bew of the New Statesman.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “How America shaped the early 20th century”

  1. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


  2. danallosso Says:

    Good review. I’ve been reading a lot lately about this period — I’ll add Tooze’s book to the list. Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: