In 1940, The United States Decided To Rule The World


Wertheim’s Tomorrow, The World examines a shift in
elite U.S. foreign-policy thinking that took place in
mid-1940. Why in that moment, a year and a half before the
Japanese attacks on the Philippines, Hawaii, and other
outposts, did it become popular in foreign-policy circles to
advocate for U.S. military domination of the globe?

school text book mythology, the United States was full of
revoltingly backward creatures called isolationists at the
time of World War I and right up through December 1941,
after which the rational adult internationalists took
command (or we’d all be speaking German and suffering
through the rigged elections of fascistic yahoos, unlike
this evening).

In fact, the term “isolationist”
wasn’t cooked up until the mid-1930s and then only as a
misleading insult to be applied to people who wished for the
U.S. government to engage with the world in any number of
ways from treaties to trade that didn’t include
militarism. Anti-isolationism was and is a means of
ridiculously pretending that “doing something” means
waging war, supporting NATO, and promoting the
“responsibility to protect,” while anything else means
“doing nothing.”

There were distinctions in the
1920s between those who favored the League of Nations and
World Court and those who didn’t. But neither group
favored coating the planet with U.S. military bases, or
extending even the most vicious conception of the Monroe
Doctrine to the other hemisphere, or replacing the League of
Nations with an institution that would falsely appear to
establish global governance while actually facilitating U.S.
domination. Pre-1940 internationalists were, in fact,
imperfect U.S. nationalists. They, as Wertheim writes,
“had the capacity to see the United States as a potential
aggressor requiring restraint.” Some, indeed, didn’t
need the word “potential” there.

What changed?
There was the rise of fascism and communism. There was the
notion that the League of Nations had failed. There was the
serious failure of disarmament efforts. There was the belief
that whatever came out of WWII would be dramatically
different. In September 1939, the Council on Foreign
Relations began making plans to shape the post-war (yet
permawar) world. The Roosevelt White House into 1940 was
planning for a post-war world that held a balance of power
with the Nazis. Ideas of disarmament, at least for others,
were still very much a part of the thinking. “Weapons
dealer to the world” was not a title that it was ever
suggested that the United States strive for.

sees a turning point in the German conquest of France.
Change came swiftly in May-June, 1940. Congress funded the
creation of the world’s biggest navy and instituted a
draft. Contrary to popular mythology, and propaganda pushed
by President Roosevelt, nobody feared a Nazi invasion of the
Americas. Nor was the United States dragged kicking and
screaming into its moral responsibility to wage global
permawar by the atrocious domestic policies of the Nazis or
any mission to rescue potential victims from Nazi genocide.
Rather, U.S. foreign policy elites feared the impact on
global trade and relations of a world containing a Nazi
power. Roosevelt began talking about a world in which the
United States dominated only one hemisphere as

The United States needed to dominate the
globe in order to exist in the sort of global order it
wanted. And the only global order it wanted was one it
dominated. Did U.S. planners become aware of this need as
they watched events in Europe? Or did they become aware of
its possibility as they watched the U.S. government build
weapons and the U.S. president acquire new imperial bases?
Probably some of each. Wertheim is right to call our
attention to the fact that U.S. officials didn’t talk
about militarily dominating the whole globe prior to 1940,
but was there ever a time they talked about dominating
anything less than what they had the weapons and troops to
handle? Certainly the voices had not all been monolithic,
and there was always an anti-imperialist tradition, but did
it ever give much back to those it had dispossessed until
after WWII when airplanes and radios developed a new sort of
empire (and some colonies were made states but others more
or less liberated)?

The U.S. government and its
advisers didn’t just discover that they could rule the
world and that they needed to rule the world, but also that
— in the words of General George V. Strong, chief of the
Army’s War Plans Division — Germany had demonstrated the
“tremendous advantage of the offense over the defense.”
The proper defensive war was an aggressive war, and an
acceptable goal of that was what Henry Luce called living
space and Hitler called Lebensraum. U.S. elites came
to believe that only through war could they engage in proper
trade and relations. One can treat this as a rational
observation based on the growth of fascism, although some of
the same people making the observation had fascistic
tendencies, the problem with Germany seems to have existed
for them only once it had invaded other nations that were
not Russia, and there is little doubt that had the United
States lived sustainably, locally, egalitarianly,
contentedly, and with respect for all humanity, it could not
have observed a need for permawar in the world around it —
much less gone on observing it for 75 years.

In early
1941, a U.S. political scientist named Harold Vinacke asked,
“When the United States has its thousands of airplanes,
its mass army, properly mechanized, and its two-ocean navy,
what are they to be used for?” Officials have been asking
the same right up through Madeline Albright and Donald
Trump, with the answer generally being found to be as
self-evident as other patriotic “truths.” By summertime
1941, Roosevelt and Churchill had announced the future
organization of the world in the Atlantic Charter.

hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, there
remained some virtue in U.S. society and its conception of
foreign policy at the time of WWII, because a major focus of
post-war planners was how to sell global domination to the
U.S. public (and incidentally the world, and perhaps most
importantly themselves) as being something other than what
it was. The answer, of course, was the United Nations (along
with the World Bank, etc.). Undersecretary of State Sumner
Welles described the design of the United Nations thus:
“what we required was a sop for the smaller states: some
organization in which they could be represented and made to
feel themselves participants.” In Roosevelt’s words
before the creation of the U.N., all nations but four, in a
future global organization, would merely “blow off

Roosevelt also proposed that the existence
of such a phony organization would allow it to declare war
instead of the U.S. Congress, meaning that a U.S. president
would be able to launch wars at will — something like what
we’ve seen for the past 75 years with NATO occasionally
having filled in for a malfunctioning United

Roosevelt believed that the United States
signed up for global policeman when it defeated Hitler.
Neither Roosevelt nor Wertheim mentions that the Soviet
Union did 80% of defeating Hitler, after having done about
0% of creating him.

But surely the job of world cop
can be resigned, no matter how one got into it. The question
now is how. The financial and bureaucratic and media and
campaign-corruption interests all work against dismantling
the permawar military, just as does the ideology of
anti-“isolationism.” But it certainly cannot hurt to be
aware of the dishonesty in the ideology and of the fact that
it was not always with us.

is an author, activist, journalist, and
radio host. He is executive director of
and campaign coordinator for
Swanson’s books include War
Is A Lie
. He blogs at
He hosts Talk
Nation Radio
. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017,
2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

Follow him on
Twitter: @davidcnswanson
and FaceBook.

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