False Realism

DANIEL BERTGER

October 09, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

"Anew moroseness of outlook in foreign affairs possessed many Americans. . . . Since the Old World was ridden by devils, they would have done with it.

''This pessimistic belief in withdrawal was rooted partly in the despair of the economic depression, partly in pacifism, partly in the contrast between the bright aspirations . . . and the dark political realities . . . and partly in a guilt complex arising from the consciousness of duties unperformed.

''It had three main effects. First it brought about a reinterpretation of history to justify American abstentions, 'proving' that other nations had always been bad beyond redemption.

''Second, it led many . . . to attempt to destroy all distinctions between nations democratic and totalitarian, peace-loving and aggressive, painting them in nearly the same hues.

''Finally, it prescribed a future policy of narrow self-regard. Innumerable Americans felt that internationalism, defined as half foreign machinations, half credulous idealism, had brought about America's participation in . . . war, and this had in turn given birth to the depression.

''Secession from Europe, political, industrial, cultural, was an old American tradition; the time had come for new and final secessions.''

The passage above sounds like a description of contemporary debate about U.S. policy in Somalia and Bosnia. It is not.

It is an excerpt from ''The New Deal and World Affairs,'' by historian Allan Nevins, published in 1950, from a chapter called ''The Years of False Realism 1933-37.'' It is about the isolationism, fomented by revulsion against World War I, that crippled American foreign policy as Japanese and German and Italian aggression brought on World War II.

There has been a lot of argument lately about whether Serbia's aggression against Bosnia and Croatia is akin to Italy's or Germany's or Japan's aggression in the 1930s, and whether appeasement of the Serbian regime's appetite for land and ethnic cleansing now equals the appeasement of Hitler's appetite for Czechoslovakia.

There are profound differences. But what seems uncannily similar is the other side of this debate. The isolationist arguments then and the withdrawal arguments now are identical in language and tone.

The congressional attempts to hamstring foreign policy throughout the '30s are eerily similar to various resolutions proposed today. Both were tailored to past events, with unexpected effects.

The Neutrality Acts of 1935 through 1937 actually made help to Ethiopia against Italy possible by requiring equal treatment of them in any trade embargo. The embargo kept war goods from Italy, which craved them, and from Abyssinia, which didn't think of them.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt wished to tilt toward China, invaded by Japan in 1937, he decided not to invoke the Neutrality Act. American firms could sell munitions equally to both belligerents, the catch being that China wished to buy and Japan did not.

In the Spanish Civil War, 1936, the Neutrality Act was irrelevant. It applied to international and not civil wars, even though Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were internationalizing that one.

Legislation in the 1930s that was intended to keep the U.S. out of another World War I (1914-18) inhibited the Roosevelt administration from taking measures that might have helped to prevent World War II (1939-45), had it been so inclined.

Pacifist arguments that Germany and England had been morally equivalent in World War I implied that they were morally equivalent on the eve of World War II.

Similarly, the U.S. Congress is determined to keep the U.S. out of its Vietnam War involvement of the 1960s and '70s. That's why so many congressmen and ideologues keep referring to African desert as ''quagmire.'' But whatever the real danger in Bosnia or Somalia today, it is not another Vietnam but something quite unforeseeable.

As for moral equivalence: ''I see two thugs about to start an assault on my honest neighbor next door. As he may expect me to hand him a stick to help beat them off, I am signaling the thugs to go ahead and I'll keep clear. I am neutral.''

That is columnist Walter Lippmann in the 1930s critiquing the neutrality legislation. But it could be about the current U.N. weapons embargo, which targets Bosnia and Serbia equally.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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