Realism vs. Idealism: How American Foreign Policy Has Changed Since World War Ii

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Realism vs. Idealism: How American Foreign Policy Has Changed Since World War II
Throughout the first 125 years of her history, the United States was, for the most part, an isolationist nation. After the onset of two world wars, however, America moved from an isolationist stance to become one of the world’s two superpowers. This stance would remain for almost 50 years, until the Soviet Union would come crashing down, leaving America standing as the lone superpower. But how did American foreign policy influence the world over those 50 years? Why did some Presidents take an idealistic approach to foreign policy, while others looked for more realistic approaches? Since World War II, American foreign policy has taken on a global mission. While the policy has sometimes had an idealistic approach, the realistic approach to foreign policy has benefited America and her allies more. To understand how America reached this position of global influence, one must look back to a time when America was an isolationist nation. During most of America’s history she was an isolationist nation. America seemed content to let the powers in Europe slug it out for global supremacy while she was left to expand her own influence across North America. But all that changed with the onset of World War I. Germany and the axis powers were marching their way across Europe, and although they posed no direct threat to the shores of America, America began to shift from her isolationist stance to provide assistance to Britain and France. With the revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram, an attempt by Germany to get Mexico to attack the United States and keep her out of Europe, America moved from isolationism to declare war on Germany and the axis powers.

After World War I, however, the United States seemed content to move back to an isolationist position. Although President Woodrow Wilson came up with a grand international group (the League of Nations) as part of his Fourteen Points plan for peace, “the U.S. Senate failed to pass the Versailles peace treaty by the necessary two-thirds vote.” (McCormick 28) This enabled the United States to stay away from the Wilsonian ideas of American involvement in global affairs. A generation later, however, this attitude of isolationism would be tested once again, this time with a much different outcome.

During the late 1920s and into the 1930s, Germany once again began to amass a large army and threaten her neighbors. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, it signaled the beginning of World War II. Once again, the United States appeared to want to stay out of the war, but sent aid to France and Britain anyway. Aid was also sent to China to help against the imperialist advance of Japan. But American involvement in world affairs was about to begin again.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, leading to President Roosevelt to declare war on Japan. This led to American entry into World War II to combat both the Japanese, and to assist American allies in Europe in defeating Germany. When World War II ended, rather than shrink from the world stage once again, America became a dominating influence to the world. There were many reasons for this. “The first important factor that contributed to America’s decision to move away from isolationism was the political and economic conditions of the international system immediately after World War II.” (37) Europe, having been leveled by warfare, was under great strain from many fronts. Many of the nations of Europe were unable to keep their economies going. Because the land had been decimated by warfare, agricultural yields lagged behind what was needed. On the other hand, the American economy was running with a full head of steam and so the United States stepped in to rebuild the nations of Western Europe, while the Soviet Union made its push for more power by controlling the nations of Eastern Europe. The...
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