When the US Chose Power


Review of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, by Stephen Wertheim

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020


Studies of America’s rise to global preeminence after World War II are numerous. Many of these works affirm a hesitancy or unwillingness on the part of the United States to lead in world affairs. Indeed, most history textbooks tell us that prior to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. remained staunchly isolationist. America, as it went, only reluctantly accepted an international role that required its power and influence to maintain global order, advocate for the powerless, and hold aggressors accountable. U.S. armed supremacy in the decades since is justified, then, by the exceptional role Americans were chosen to play in the world.[1]

Stephen Wertheim believes this interpretation of U.S. global ascendency to be deeply flawed. In Tomorrow, the World, he not only argues that U.S. global leadership was a choice, but also identifies when and why America decided to make itself an armed world superpower. The critical turning point? The Nazi invasion of France during the summer of 1940. Eighteen months prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Wertheim contends, American foreign policy officials and elites reconceptualized America’s role in international politics. Gone were the days of anti-interventionism and keeping to the western hemisphere. As Adolf Hitler achieved countless victories across Europe, officials decided “now and forever” that the U.S. had to “impose order by force or else suffer in another power’s world” (3).

Wertheim is part of a pro-restraint cohort of U.S. diplomatic historians undoubtedly influenced by American overreach in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. For him and others, U.S. global supremacy has achieved the status as obvious—even incontestable—in our political culture, but we do not know when armed primacy prevailed in U.S. decision making. This is the puzzle Tomorrow, the World aims to solve. Despite its failures in the first decade of the twenty-first century, primacy continues to guide American foreign policy. President Joe Biden has stated that he will strengthen America’s role as a leader across the world. After the more antagonistic, “America First” approach taken by Donald Trump, which often resulted in the U.S. being at odds with its allies, especially in Europe, Biden has proclaimed on a number of occasions after his win that “America is back.” But back to what?

The answer to this question is at the heart of Tomorrow, the World. While Wertheim’s trenchant and well-written analysis of the endless layers of militarized enforcement, superficial notions of multilateralism, and overstretched resources that comprise the American-led global order are noteworthy, his conclusion that these circumstances were not thrust upon America but chosen by some of the nation’s preeminent foreign policy elites is perhaps most provocative. According to Wertheim, the external threats that confronted the U.S. in the years following the Second World War have only reinforced primacy. The implied counterfactual of Tomorrow, the World is that without the threat of an ascendant Germany in 1940, the U.S. might well have a limited or restrained role in world affairs.

In fleshing out his argument, Wertheim redefines the terms “isolationism” and “internationalism” in a manner that deserves some explanation. Before the 1930s, American internationalists did not want to project American political and military power. In America’s earliest days, internationalism meant an expression of harmony among the world’s nations and mankind, a harmony that did not require intervening in another country’s affairs. Pre-World War II internationalism contrasted with the heavy-handed power politics and nationalist sentiments portrayed by European powers of the nineteenth century, exactly the types of entanglements U.S. leaders wanted to avoid (17). Pre-World War II internationalists, in sum, believed Americans could contribute to the wider world without dominating it by force.

By the 1940s, however, U.S. policy elites began associating internationalism with military supremacy. They did so, according to Wertheim, by devising the pejorative term “isolationism”—which meant total disengagement from the world—and pitting it against their new conception of internationalism. In other words, one was either in the camp of total disengagement from the world or engagement with the world that required armed U.S. dominance. There was no in between. Wertheim argues that the concept of isolationism performed a specific function: “It made any limitation on force seem to imply total disengagement from the world” (5). Policy elites’ new conception of internationalism also set a clear imperative for sustained, armed primacy in the years that followed: the U.S. had to dominate in world leadership, resisting isolationism and spurring internationalism (9).

Wertheim develops his argument across five chapters. The first half of the book examines how armed global supremacy became conceivable and a desired goal of foreign policy elites. The second half of the book explores how officials actively redefined and generated support for armed supremacy. The first chapter illustrates that as late as September 1939 and April 1940, U.S. planners hoped to stay neutral in the war in Europe. They hoped to derive a mediated settlement similar to the one negotiated after World War I. The chapter supports Wertheim’s claim that policy elites only began to imagine an enlarged role for the U.S. in the world after May 1940, when the Germans conquered France. This critical turning point is explored in the book’s second chapter. While few in America believed the Nazis could mount a transoceanic attack on the American homeland, it was only after 1940 that U.S. officials considered the degree to which a Nazi victory could fundamentally threaten vital U.S. interests worldwide. Planners believed that the U.S. could thrive only in a peaceful world that it alone controlled, though actualizing this notion took time.

The third chapter uncovers America’s initial plans for global political and military supremacy. At the outset, U.S. elites were averse to the creation of a universal political body to replace the League of Nations and instead preferred to form a partnership with Great Britain bound by race. The Atlantic Charter emblematized joint Anglo-American efforts to keep order in the postwar world. The fourth chapter focuses on how the U.S. decided to commit to a general organization of nations in order to gain buy-in from both the American people and other nations.

Finally, the fifth chapter focuses on the massive public persuasion campaign to generate support for the U.S. to join the United Nations. During the 1940s, unlike today, the notion that the U.S. should be perpetually involved in world politics was almost antithetical to American principles. The multilateralism of the postwar era legitimized America’s enlarged footprint in global affairs, even if it was only an illusion. While the post-World War II period is often celebrated as a multilateralist moment, for Wertheim, it was only “superficially multilateralist” (13). Multilateralism was only a tool to legitimize U.S. armed supremacy.

Wertheim’s account is a refreshing contribution to a well-trodden historiography on U.S. foreign relations during World War II. For me, Tomorrow, the World is most useful as an intellectual history of the roots of American interventionism. Wertheim’s reframing of internationalism and isolationism is also noteworthy, and specialists will no doubt appreciate the nuance in Wertheim’s argument. Yet the notion that one can trace our modern conception of internationalism to a single, historical moment in the summer of 1940 may seem a bit suspect to audiences outside of the academy.

Wertheim’s exclusive focus on policy elites may be of interest to some readers, but it undoubtedly narrows the scope of his findings. The first four chapters of Tomorrow, the World are focused on the ideas of WASP figures and their visions for a postwar order with a fifth chapter that promises to detail the levels of “international and cultural” work required to make “global supremacy seem natural” (148). As such, I hoped the last chapter would veer outside of the confines of the upper class and show us how the political project of global domination was sold to the public and countries other than Great Britain. All the book does in its final chapter, however, is reaffirm how elites sold their grandiose program to each other, not the American public or anyone else.

Implied in Wertheim’s argument is the idea that the U.S. forced its global agenda onto its allies. But the U.S. was not always a hegemon and depicting it as such overlooks the positive aspects of a more involved, though not necessarily dictatorial, America. That America led a post-World War II order—made up of international rules and institutions, free trade, and democracy—which generated enormous benefits both inside and outside of U.S. borders is all but missing. In other words, those looking for a well-rounded analysis of global involvement that transcends upper class voices will need to look further than Tomorrow, the World.

In fact, the study reads rather simplistically when contrasted with works such as Geir Lundesdad’s “Empire by Invitation,” which argues that the U.S. was “generally encouraged to take a more active interest in the outside world.” Under American empire, writes Lundestad, “many of the countries that welcomed American influence were also able to do considerably better, at least in long-term material terms, than was the United States itself.”[2] This is not to say that U.S. diplomatic history in the last 75 years has been void of imperial overreach, but to acknowledge that U.S. efforts abroad have been fluid and changing, as well as beneficial to a number of partner nations.

Moreover, Wertheim’s conclusions seem firmly grounded in the author’s present dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign affairs. On the one hand, this lends a certain sharpness to his prose; but on the other hand, the conclusions sometimes read as an inevitable march toward the present. I do not disagree that conceptions of internationalism and isolationism require scrutiny, nor do I disagree with the notion that the U.S. needs to practice restraint. But the idea that the origins of vast armed supremacy can be explained by a single chain of events in the summer of 1940 ignores a multiplicity of factors shaping the role of the U.S. in the world that go beyond the ideas of a coterie of policy elites. Future policy-making requires using history to scrutinize the past, to be sure, but in a way that sidesteps teleology.

These critiques notwithstanding, as a historian teaching in a policy school, the most exciting aspect of Tomorrow, the World was the assertion that the U.S.-led world order was not a coincidental circumstance but itself a political project. While interesting intellectually, I wondered what implications this conclusion has for policy now and in the future. Is it clear that U.S. allies do not want to follow America’s lead anymore? As an historian by training and now co-founder of the Quincy Institute, a think tank dedicated to military restraint, I was hoping, especially in the conclusion, for Wertheim to present some policy insights readers could sink their teeth into.

Despite these criticisms (or perhaps because of them), historians of U.S. foreign relations looking for alternative frameworks to a well-developed literature on World War II policymaking will read Tomorrow, the World with great interest. Wertheim’s study would be a thought-provoking read in a graduate seminar, paired perhaps with Lundesdad’s “Empire by Invitation” for fruitful discussion.

Unearthing fresh interpretations in a familiar historiography, Tomorrow, the World puts the U.S. at the forefront of the decision to become an armed superpower. For me, this was the most exciting contribution of Wertheim’s study. That Tomorrow, the World poses such far-reaching questions is a testament to its achievement.



[1]  See, for example: Andrew Johnstone, Against Immediate Evil: American Internationalists and the Four Freedoms on the Eve of World War II (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); David Plesch, America, Hitler and the UN: How the Allies Won World War II and Forged a Peace (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011); Stephen Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003); David Schmitz, The Triumph of Internationalism: Frandlin D. Roosevelt and a World Crisis, 1933–1941 (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007).

[2] Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952” Journal of Peace Research 23, no. 3 (1986): 263-264.



Posted on 23 April 2021

AILEEN TEAGUE is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. She is currently drafting a book manuscript, which examines the effects of United States drug policies and policing efforts on 1970s and 1980s Mexican politics and society.