The Origins of American Primacy in World War II

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Date / time: 25 October, 5:30 pm

War Studies meeting room K6.07, King's College London

Dr Stephen Wertheim, King’s College, University of Cambridge Dr. Stephen Wertheim is a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College and the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge. Last year he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Woodrow Wilson School and the Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He specializes in U.S. foreign relations and international ideas and institutions, emphasizing concepts of politics and law since the nineteenth century. Stephen received a Ph.D. in History with distinction from Columbia University in 2015. He is currently revising his first book, entitled Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy in World War II, which will appear with Harvard University Press. He has also published scholarly articles in Diplomatic History, Journal of Global History, Journal of Genocide Research, and Presidential Studies Quarterly, in addition to writing for The Nation and other journalistic venues.

The paper When, exactly, did U.S. officials and intellectuals decide that their country should become the world’s supreme political and military power and assume responsibility for enforcing international order? Scholars have neglected this question, assuming supremacy to be a longstanding, gradually realized goal. Yet for most of American history policymakers rejected armed supremacy as imperialistic. Committed to “internationalism,” they believed peaceful intercourse would replace power politics. Such internationalism had to die in order for U.S. world leadership to be born — as it was early in World War II, before the Pearl Harbor attack. This talk outlines the emergence of a will to lead the world within postwar-planning networks in the government, foundations, and universities, especially in the Council on Foreign Relations. When Hitler conquered France, he swept away the old order and discredited the internationalist project. Now peaceful intercourse, far from transcending armed force, seemed paradoxically to depend upon armed force to undergird it. It was thus out of the death of internationalism, as they understood it, that American officials and intellectuals first decided that the United States should become the preeminent political-military power after the war. Convinced that world organization had failed, American planners conceived of U.S. global leadership as the preferable, and mutually exclusive, alternative.

About the centre In the 1960s the distinguished historian Sir Michael Howard had a vision for a new kind of history of war. It would be studied in all its complexity and seek also to examine how war affected history in general. Michael Howard founded the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and went on to become Regius Professor of Modern History of the University of Oxford and Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University. Inspired by this ambitious agenda, the study of the history of war has flourished at King’s College London. It now has more historians studying war than any other comparable institution, not only in the Department of War Studies, but also in the Departments of History, and of Defence Studies, and indeed many others, for example the English Department. To make more visible and strengthen this remarkable concentration of effort the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War has been established under Department of War Studies and the Department of History. It aims to promote the scholarly history of war in all its dimensions, to train research students and to host research projects and conferences. It also runs a flourishing MA in the History of War. Our aim is to promote the study of the history of war from the ancient world to the recent past, dealing not just with the history of all the armed services but also of all involved in warfare. War has been a central feature of human history which requires study by historians working in many traditions and fields. We aim also to study the history of war from many historiographical vantage points, from economic history to cultural history, from international history to the history of science and technology.