From progressive to liberal internationalism: congressional liberals and the making of a postwar consensus.

Author:Bloodworth, Jeff

Editor's Note: The author, who earned his doctorate in history at Ohio University in 2006, discusses here in some detail the development of liberalism in U.S. foreign policy in the decades following the Progressive Era. He sheds light on the changing twentieth century American scene and the outlook of national leaders in mid-century. This well-documented study provides an informative overview of the topic, including especially illuminating details on the influential roles of two leading members of Congress, Helen Gahagan Douglas and Carl Albert. --Contrib. Ed.

After five years of war in Iraq, seven years since 9/11, nearly two full terms of George W. Bush, and two decades since the Berlin Wall's collapse, American liberals are still searching for a viable foreign policy. For many Democrats, the combination of George Bush's Wilsonian rhetoric and pro-war liberal hawks that supported the war discredited liberal internationalism. (1) Cast adrift, some on the political left have gravitated toward Realism while others wait for a Democratic president to chart the way forward. (2)

Though liberals have a well-deserved reputation for internecine schisms and intra-party divides, the early post-World War II era points to another alternative. Rather than remain dependent upon charismatic presidential leadership to gloss over rifts or embrace untested ideas, congressional liberals can and should take the lead in forging "liberal internationalism 2.0," and in building a durable intra-party and bipartisan consensus for the post-Bush era. Indeed, after decades of ideological drift, liberal internationalism is in need of its veritable 50,000-mile tune-up. Presidential leadership remains crucial. However, in the recent past, Congress formulated ideas and advanced a worldview independent and in conjunction with the executive.

In the years immediately following the Second World War, congressional liberals, in conjunction with President Truman, developed a comprehensive foreign policy that not only met postwar security challenges, but also bridged liberal and intra-party divides while commanding a bipartisan consensus. Though scholars rightly point to Harry Truman as a source of this recalibrated postwar liberal internationalism, Congress played an active role in shaping the early Cold War foreign policy consensus. (3) For example, leading internationalist Republicans helped Truman frame his containment policy in terms of democracy, human rights, and self-determination. (4) While key Republicans worked directly with the "First Cold Warrior" to shape strategy, congressional Democrats actively helped remake liberal internationalism and build intra-party consensus. (5)

Two representative figures, Congressman Carl Albert and Congresswoman Helen Gahagan, reveal that congressional Democrats were active players in building and shaping the postwar foreign policy consensus. (6) Rather than merely following presidential leadership, Albert and Gahagan pursued their own highly individual paths to the new internationalism. Thus, postwar foreign policymaking was not merely a top-down, executive-led endeavor. Instead, congressional liberals from across the ideological wings of the party embraced the new internationalism for their own reasons, helping to forge an intra-party and bipartisan consensus. While the postwar foreign policy accord had its dissidents and trap-falls, its construction and melding of competing ideas offer revealing lessons for contemporary policymakers as they struggle to heal schisms and build a viable twenty-first century foreign policy.

Wilsonians vs. Bryanites

While liberals generally share a rosier view than their conservative counterparts of human nature and the transformative possibilities of U.S. foreign policy, they have always been divided over the use of force and "intervention." (7) Indeed, progressive internationalism, liberal internationalism's immediate antecedent, featured many of the same foreign policy debates pervading the ranks of today's liberals. As the progressive movement's foreign policy paradigm, progressive internationalists sought to internationalize their domestic reform agenda by exporting democracy. (8) From the start, progressive internationalists were split between (Bryanite) non-interventionists and (Wilsonian) interventionists. Though both sides invested much in the potentialities of human nature, Bryanites presupposed a cooperative and stable global environment more so than Wilsonians, who believed intervention and force were sometimes necessary to achieve reformist and democratic ends.

The 1898 Spanish-American War first revealed progressive internationalism's divide. Though many progressives endorsed the war as a moral crusade against tyranny and for democracy, the McKinley administration's empire-building and bloody occupation of the Philippines eventually caused some to permanently turn against interventionism. (9)

William Jennings Bryan mirrored progressivism's divided mind on interventionism through his Spanish-American War experience. The Democratic Party's standard-bearer in the 1896 presidential election, Bryan feared his issues and future presidential campaign would be "side-track[ed]" by the war. (10) Motivated by pragmatic political concerns and belief in exporting democracy, Bryan led the Third Nebraska Volunteer Infantry into the conflict. "Colonel" Bryan did little more than battle yellow fever during his military stint. However, by actively participating, he "dignif[ied] the war beyond its merits," and forfeited the moral (anti-imperialist) high ground. (11)

After McKinley's splendid little war gave way to protracted peace negotiations, Bryan desperately wanted economic issues, rather than diplomatic concerns, paramount in the forthcoming 1900 presidential contest. Consequently, he pushed congressional Democrats and "silver Republicans" to approve the 1898 Treaty of Paris, despite its provisions allowing the United States to annex Spain's former colonial possessions. (12) With "free silver" losing its political punch, Bryan used "anti-imperialism" to unite his fractious coalition. While Bryan's anti-imperialist foreign policy failed to secure him the presidency, the 1900 presidential campaign marked the emergence of his distinctive brand of non-interventionist progressive internationalism. (13)

As the father of this creed, Bryan honed it during his tenure as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State. Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed pacifist did not completely forsake war as an instrument of national policy. In his mind, rather, once international institutions were made responsible for arbitrating global disputes, any resulting wars and interventionism would be "just" because they were supported by a global community of nations. In this way, Bryan's "non-interventionism" was aimed at stopping unilateral or "unnecessary" wars through granting international bodies the moral and legal authority to stop or approve conflict. (14)

In many ways, the Wilson-Bryan relationship neatly parallels and encapsulates progressive internationalism's shared assumptions and divisions. Though both Wilson and Bryan "stress[ed] the primacy of peace as the fulfillment of progressive history," the two diverged once World War I began. (15) While Wilson moved toward intervention, Bryan counseled strict neutrality and resigned his position to protest the president's moves toward war. Though he failed to stop American entry into World War I, Bryan's non-interventionism became dominant during the interwar era. (16)

In the wake of Wilsonian interventionism's failure to secure a just peace following the war, non-interventionist progressive internationalists, led by Bryan, Jane Addams and Robert La Follette, Sr., sought peace, security, and prosperity via a cooperative international structure that expressly rejected interventionism, military alliances, and power politics. (17) Bryan, Addams, and La Follette passed from the scene; but a coalition of trade unionists, socialists, and pacifists maintained the non-interventionist standard during the 1930s and worked to keep America from entering Europe's developing war. (18) While Pearl Harbor doomed their efforts, Bryan's non-interventionism remained a viable, if temporarily dormant, worldview in the post-1945 era.

Noninterventionist Revival

By the mid-1960s, many liberals had revived Bryan's creed. Led by Wayne Morse (D-Oregon), Earnest Gruening (D-Alaska), George McGovern (D-South Dakota), and Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), these senators not only successfully challenged the Vietnam War, they continued to confront interventionism throughout the 1970s. (19)

Though an ideological continuity connects Bryan's non-interventionist progressive internationalism with his anti-Vietnam brethren, liberals developed a temporary foreign policy consensus bridging the Bryanite-Wilsonian divide during the early post-World War II era. This accord evolved, and then unraveled, because the progressive and (later) liberal internationalism of William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman were not static and unchanging worldviews. Though each prized collective security and democracy, Bryan, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman differed in their emphasis upon justice, order, freedom, and their willingness to hide Realist measures under the cloak of idealism. (20)

Like Bryan, Wilson believed a just and interdependent postwar world, in which democratic and free nations flourished, would inherently empower the League of Nations to maintain order and render militarism and imperialism obsolete. (21) Unlike Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt used the United Nations to merely symbolize global interdependence, leaving the Four Policemen to maintain order: the United States, USSR, Great Britain, and China. In this way, Roosevelt hid his Realism within Wilsonian rhetoric and progressive internationalist institutions.

While Truman enacted much of Roosevelt's postwar...

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