Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy
Henry Cabot Lodge has often been cast in a villainous light for thwarting President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts on behalf of world peace and order. This laudable intellectual biography of Lodge by William C. Widenor makes clear just how oversimplified and partisan such assessments have been. Widenor, a history professor at the University of Illinois, concentrates on the sphere of Lodge’s thinking which pertains to American foreign policy. He does so by relying heavily on Lodge’s own writings and papers, as well as an extensive body of relevant scholarship. Clearly, the author finds his subject to be an interesting and perceptive man, and he has no trouble convincing his readers of the same.
By anyone’s standard, Lodge was a remarkable man, an outstanding scholar, and a successful politician. He received the Ph.D. degree in history from Harvard in 1876, one of three such degrees that were granted for the very first time in the United States. It was the year of the nation’s centennial and a time of growing interest in history. The commitment to history, however, was probably a natural inclination for Lodge. He was born into an upper-class Boston family that had always taken great pride in its own past. It was an environment, notes Widenor, that would nourish the belief that ancestry determined character. The Boston Brahmin naturally exalted his own ancestry and considered New England society by far the most civilized. In the words of the author, Boston knew that it was superior and that it was right, and Henry Cabot Lodge was “Boston incarnate.”
Lodge’s perspective as a historian was greatly influenced by his activity in politics. He came to see history as a conveyor of political wisdom. The study of history had taught him the historical importance of ideals. Thus, in his writings he wished to inculcate “American ideals.” Widenor feels that he did so quite successfully, in a style that was deliberate and that arose out of his prejudices, as well as his deep-seated convictions. History was Lodge’s God, according to Widenor, and he endeavored to write it with a purpose. His mentor at Harvard was the eminent historian Henry Adams, himself living proof, along with the greatly admired Francis Parkman, that an aristocracy still had a role to play in America. Character, both individual and national, assumed a primary role in the historical process. To Lodge and his generation, the Civil War was a fateful and crucial historical event, the impact of which was still very immediate and strong. To those who experienced it, the war gave a special inflection and intensity to their patriotism. Inasmuch as it was fought to a “satisfactory” conclusion, the war also contributed to an air of optimism and faith in progress. There was an absolute certitude of being right.
Lodge and his friend Theodore Roosevelt were highly motivated to advocate their precepts and principles. They also endeavored to live their own lives in accordance with their preachings. The old Puritan virtues were held in reverence. The principles of federalism were strongly affirmed. Accordingly, Alexander Hamilton was “the greatest constructive mind,” while Thomas Jefferson was often the subject of criticism. Above all Lodge wanted to halt the passing of the old America and to preserve the standards and values of his class. For this reason, he had turned to history, and, for this reason, he entered politics. He believed that nationalism and progress went hand in hand. Moreover, the cultivation of a nationalist image was politically very advantageous. It helped bridge the social gap and earn him the support of the rank and file Republicans. He also worked hard at establishing a reputation as a loyal party man. Widenor feels, however, that it is important for understanding Lodge and his political philosophy to appreciate the genuine and idealistic quality of his nationalism and Republicanism. Imperialism as such was not central to his conception of a proper foreign policy. Isolationism was only an opportune method to assert American power. He wished that American foreign policy could be conducted with style and élan, that American power and influence could be brought into play freely and effectively whenever appropriate. He was intent on the achievement of great power status for the United States.
His aspirations were fully shared by Theodore Roosevelt, whose political career Lodge helped guide. Both men held in high esteem the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan, famous for his work The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. Mahan’s thesis was that the buildup of sea power had raised England in a little over a century from a relatively small power to the world’s most powerful state. Thus, for the United States to...
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