The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

The George Washington University

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Eleanor Roosevelt and Huston Smith

The Search for America. Ed. Huston Smith.
(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1959): 3-12.

Less than fifteen years ago the United States stood on top of the world, its reputation as unrivaled as its power. As C. L. Sulzberger has observed, we were almost in a position to dictate a pax americana.

Today our security is in jeopardy and our principles on the defensive. In the years since World War II the initiative has slipped from our grasp to the point where, as Walter Lippmann has concluded, the North Atlantic community is “no longer the political center of the world.” George Kennan is not an alarmist, but even he has reported the United States to be the object of world obloquy, disapproval, and “in some cases of outright hatred,” to a degree unprecedented in our history. A decade of anti-American demonstrations in Paris, bombs in the American library in Athens, outrages against Vice-President Nixon in South America, and a world-circling trail of broken plate glass in front of offices of the United States Information Service form a sobering backdrop to his observation.

Why this severe decline in our world stature and prestige? Many factors have contributed, of course. Some of them may have been unavoidable. American G.I.’s have belted the world, and soldiers are never a nation’s best ambassadors. Our superior wealth and power may have provoked envy regardless of how we behaved. Perhaps the world simply expected more of us than any nation can provide and we are feeling the backwash of its disenhantment.

But in the end, such explanations are excuses. The major responsibility for the decline in our world position lies with the way we have conducted our foreign affairs. And back of this lies the question of what we have wanted our foreign policy to accomplish.


During the first hundred years of our national life we wanted little more from the world than that it leave us alone. So adequate was our continent for our needs, so engrossed were we in building it up, that our prime request of the world was that it not distract us from our indigenous tasks. During the next fifty years, the years that led up to World War II, we passed from being a debtor to a creditor nation. This transition led us to want more from the world. We now wanted it to provide us with a field in which we could expand economically, for raw materials and markets, and safe foreign investments had become important to our economic life. Since World War II our basic objective has again shifted. In this period we have wanted above all else to keep the world from falling into Communist hands. Each of these periods has had its slogans: “no entangling alliances” and “isolationism” for the first; “Open Door,” “Manifest Destiny,” and “dollar diplomacy” for the second; and “Communist containment” for the third.

Each of these objectives continues to have some relevance for today. We still want a world which will permit us to work out our national life in our own way, which will be conducive to our economic development, and which will stand up to Communism. But none of these former objectives provides an adequate keystone for our present foreign policy.

We need to see this clearly. So, having noted the continuing truth in these former objectives, let us note their deficiencies.

Isolationism, which advocates an essentially “live and let live” approach to the world, may have sufficed in our past. But quite apart from the question of whether it is even logically feasible in a world as interrelated as ours, two things should be obvious: one, that for such an approach to succeed, all nations possessing any power at all must subscribe to it; and two, that the contemporary world contains at least one such nation that hasn't the slightest interest in doing so. From the beginning of the Communist epoch, the Soviet Union has geared itself for world outreach. In part this thrust roots from historic centrifugal forces that have been pressing outward for a hundred years, to the Pacific, the Balkans, and the Middle East. But this is not the whole story; we deceive ourselves if we miss the extent to which the Soviet outreach springs from a sense of mission. The Communist is convinced that the whole human race is destined to become one Communist brotherhood. Consequently there seems to be no corner of the earth’s surface he considers too insignificant for his attention. A Communist isolationist is a contradiction in terms. While Soviet missions are busy in Latin America trading machinery and oil for wool and coffee, Arab and Asian students are being trained in Moscow, Russian teachers are touring West Africa, and technical advisers are dispatched to India, Burma, and Indonesia.

Faced with such a rival who is out to remake the world in its image, it is obvious that if we want a world different from that of the Communists, we shall have to work for it. To put the matter paradoxically, even if we should want nothing more than a “live and let live” world, we would now have to exert our influence in every land to insure its continuance or evolution. And we would have to exert this influence with as much force and ingenuity as the Sovies.

It may be supposed that our commitments around the world and the regularity with which we now vote a substantial portion of our annual budget to programs of foreign aid is evidence that we have put isolationism behind us. But this is only partially correct. Certainly raw, crude, “Fortress America” isolationism is dead. Two and a half world wars and the continuing cold one have taught us that we must take the world seriously and work with it intimately. But isolationism is not completely routed by involvement. There remains the question of what engagement is for. In its subtle form isolationism admits that we have no alternative to being deeply involved with the world, but it holds that the purpose of this involvement is to preserve a world in which we can still substantially go our own way. This sophisticated variety of isolationism still characterizes our outlook. We go forth to the ends of the earth, but not to remake the world toward goals we believe are relevant to all human living. We go to hold back our antagonists.

Woodrow Wilson’s thesis of the self-determination of nations may inadvertently contribute to this subtle form of isolationism, for whereas in dealing with people it is easy to see that indifference is not the only alternative to domination, in the dealings between nations this point is less obvious. Here every contact, every influence, tends to be regarded with suspicion, as if it were a feeler or feeder for imperialism. Actually there is no reason why this should be the direction of its intent. If a mayor has goals for his city, it does not follow that he intends to undercut the autonomy of its residents. The relevant questions are not whether nations do influence one another, or even how much, but rather what the influence is for and how it is exerted.

There is, then, nothing inherently undemocratic in the concept of world objectives. Our goals should differ from those of the Communists, but they should embrace the world as wholeheartedly. They should be as clear as the Communists’ goals, and we should work as hard in their behalf, using, of course, means that are consonant with them. The ease with which such words can be written belies the wrench from our past that will be required if we take them seriously. For if we accept the fact that we not only have world goals, but that they must henceforth take precedence over national ones because we can no longer have the kind of nation we want unless we have the kind of world we want, our foreign policy ceases to be primarily defensive—a shield for our security. It becomes instead a channel through which we pour our resources and energies to remake the world. For too many years already, while the Soviet Union has pegged its goal at international proportions we have conceived our goal parochially—to build here, in this sweet land, the good society. To lift our sights to world proportions is a staggering assignment. It will take money, resolution, and a shift in our total national attitude toward the world. But there is no reason to regard the shift with dread. As a people we have always been at our best when engrossed with large problems, and there is danger that if world objectives do not arise to direct our energies outward, our local factional disputes, between management and labor, Negro and white, North and South, will begin to bore us and bog us down.

If isolationism has ceased to be an adequate guide for our foreign policy, so has economic expansion. Obviously we should continue to work for a world that will provide us with raw materials, markets, and secure investments, but we cannot permit mercantile interests to dictate or even dominate our foreign policy. The Biblical dictum to “seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added unto you” is relevant here. Insofar as we succeed in building a world that is stable and prosperous, we shall prosper too. But if we let our actions be guided by our private economic advantage, our prosperity is likely to topple by having the world’s entire industrial economy pulled out from under it. So what begins by sounding like moralism turns out to be stark realism, for it is one of the undernoticed phenomena of our times that we are at one of those unusual junctues in history where, internationally speaking, what is good for us and what is good for others very nearly coincide. Unless the world prospers, it will not be able to buy from us as we wish. And unless justice is effected, passions will erupt into a war which is likely to destroy everything.

The greatest need of our foreign policy, however, is to transcend the “Communist containment” objective that has obsessed us for the last decade.* Communism needs to be contained. But to make its containment our top and direct objective is a mistake.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is that “containment” is a negative objective, and these can never match the appeal of positive ones. People live by affirmations, not negations. The late Alfred North Whitehead put this succinctly when, in another context, he pointed out that “if man cannot live by bread alone, still less can he live by disinfectants.” Most of the world’s population wants change, and if we knew their lot we would not blame them. If, then, we put ourselves in the position of resisting change while our opponents advocate it, we proceed under a hopeless handicap. Logic, too, works against a defensive position. When a positive position wins, its position is enlarged; when a defensive position wins, it merely holds the line. And as nobody can win all the time, the best a negative position can hope for is to hang on a little longer.

The second defect of our “containment” policy really concerns the means by which we have sought to effect it. These means have been preponderantly military; the ratio of our military to our economic aid to foreign countries shows this quite clearly. But since Korea, the Communist offensive has not relied on military advances. It has switched to economic maneuvers and internal subversion against which our airstrips and missile ramps have stood starkly impotent. In some cases our preoccupation with answering Communism with might may inadvertently have encouraged its spread, for military bastions tend to increase local burdens rather than alleviate them, contributing thereby in impoverished countries to the desperation on which Communism feeds. Is not this in part the story of the Baghdad Pact and the Eisenhower Doctrine that now lie virtually in ruins amidst Communist advances in the strategic Middle East? Military power must play a part in our international dealings, but we have banked on it in recent years for more than it can deliver, at the same time underrating what can be achieved through wise diplomacy and imaginative nonmilitary use of our economic resources especially through the joint agencies of the United Nations.


The argument up to this point can be summarized in three propositions:

1. United States foreign policy should shed the remnants of its isolationism and direct itself to achieving world goals.

2. The world goals toward which our policy is directed should not be weighted to our advantage at the expense of other nations and peoples.

3. The goals must be positive rather than negative ones. We must break the present image in which we give the world the impression that whereas the Chinese and Russians have something to believe in, Communism, we have something to dis-blieve in, also Communism.

It might help us break out of this predominantly negative approach if we ask: Suppose Communism were to evaporate overnight. What would we do? What would be our policy?

It ought not to be difficult for us to formulate constructive goals. America was born dedicated to a proposition whose ingredients—equality, inalienable rights, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—brought response from the entire world. Our greatest leaders, our Jeffersons, our Lincolns, our Wilsons were great because they spoke to humanity at large and extended their vision to the entire family of man. The greatest need in our international life is to recapture the affirmative, world-relevant vision of these leaders and discern its implications for our present situation.

There seem to be no slogans today to take the place of those of yester-years—“the war to end all wars,” “the war to make the world safe for democracy,” “the four freedoms,” “the century of the common man.” But in prose if not in poetry we can specify the ends toward which our foreign policy should be directed. The aim of the United States should be to build a peaceful world of autonomous, prospering democracies. As all the peoples of the world would benefit from the realization of these goals, perhaps the phrase “world welfare” can serve to summarize them here.

Obviously we are not going to get such a world at once, and in the give and take of international negotiations, one or more of the objectives listed in the preceding paragraph must often yield for the time being to others. In such cases, it would seem wise as a rule to give priority to the objective appearing earlier in the sentence.

Peace must come first because the prospect of the world being reduced to radioactive dust is so awful that we must be patient about other objectives if pressing for them would throw the world into total war. Even peace cannot be absolutized, for if the Soviets were to demand our capitulation, we would fight. But peace comes first in the sense that our pressures for the autonomy, prosperity, and democratization of other lands must not be impetuous to the point of bringing the world to war.

Autonomy will in certain cases have to wait. This is true both for nations like Hungary or Tibet which are under Communist hegemony, and for the few remaining nations in which political consciousness has not matured to a point where independence is feasible. Somaliland is an example here, with a population of one and a half million, of which perhaps fifty are literate. In cases like these, we should make clear that we favor not only independence when political maturity has developed but also steps which will hasten such maturity.

Tibet illustrates why, even in poverty-stricken regions of the world, autonomy should generally take precedence over increased prosperity. The Chinese went to Tibet offering industrialization and a higher material standard of life. It was assumed that to people as poor and illiterate as these simple peasants who live on the roof of the world and have nothing to lose but their yaks this “argument of the stomach” would prove conclusive. But their brief, sad revolt, fought with such great courage and so little hope, has proved how limited is the doctrine of “economic man.”

Democracy in our list of objectives means the presumption of freedom for individuals within their nations. Such freedom has three components: personal, political, and economic. Personal freedom involves the individual’s right to think for himself, to express his opinions vocally and in print, to live under the authority of law rather than personal whim, to have a fair trial if he violates this law, and to be educated. Political freedom involves the individual’s right to affect his government’s actions and procedures by electing those who will rule over him and voting directly on measures of special impor. It is the application of the concept that as protection against the abuse toward which power inclines, this power should be distributed broadly among the populace. Economic freedom involves the citizen’s right to choose his field of employment, to improve his income by merit and exertion, and to initiate enterprises of his own and realize profits therefrom.

The urge for this freedom which democracy seeks to safeguard appears to be innate in the human makeup. Hold the arms and legs of an infant and he will struggle to be released. Similarly peoples, though subjugated for years or generations, will reach out for freedoms if they become possible. The young Hungarians had known nothing but tyranny. They had received the full measure of Soviet indoctrination. Yet when the restraining pressures slackened, they fought for freedom as if they had known nothing else. When post-Stalin Russia and Mao’s “let a hundred flowers bloom” China gave hints that freedom of opinion might be tolerated, political commentaries in the form of articles and wall newspapers blossomed overnight as if to prove that freedom’s flower, though dormant through a long winter, was far from dead.

By defining democracy as the presumption of freedom we guard against the notion that freedom can be absolutized. When absolutized it jams and becomes nonfreedom: political freedom founders in anarchy (France before the return of DeGaulle was almost an example of this); civil liberties slip into license, and economic freedom moves toward monopoly, exploitation, and unemployment. In this respect freedom, as Gide has remarked, is like a kite that cannot rise on the wind unless restrained. When freedom is presumed rather than absolutized it carries no implication that governments are best which govern least. On the contrary, it accepts Lincoln’s principle that government must do for the people what needs to be done but what they cannot do at all for themselves or cannot do as well. Specifically in our own case this involves accepting social security and a host of governmental policing and regulating measures as supports of freedom. In doing so, however, it remains aware on the one hand of freedom’s worth and on the other of the way in which concentrations of power, both political and economic, can choke this freedom. Consequently it prefers that things be done nongovernmentally where they can be done as well this way; it leans toward letting its citizens follow, alone or in groups, where their minds and spirits will lead them until evidence arises that their freedom is interfering with the freedom of other citizens. We have the most dramatic evidence we could desire for the validity of this “presumption of freedom” principle in the fact that even the Soviet bloc has begun to veer toward it by decentralizing industry, returning farming toward its private basis, introducing incentive measures to both, and permitting greater freedom of expression.

Even qualified as “the presumption of freedom,” democracy must take last place on our list of world objectives. There are places in the world where, if political power were distributed among citizens, they would be too inexperienced to run their nations effectively: the reversion of Indonesia, Burma, and Pakistan to dictatorships within the last year is evidence of this general point. Similarly with respect to economic freedom: where capital is nonexistent and centralized planning and government operation is needed to get the process of industrialization off the ground, to hold out for economic freedom in any sense that resembles capitalism in our own country may thwart development intolerably. Yet democracy with its three ingredient freedoms remains an important part of our creed, for though we admit that there are situations in which it is currently inapplicable, we profoundly believe that it is the noblest form of political life man has yet devised. Where conditions such as poverty and illiteracy make it inappropriate, therefore, these stand as calls to us to do what we can to alleviate such conditions.


No statement of objectives provides a simple criterion by which decisions can be made. This is especially true in international relations where ambiguities, paradoxes, and compromises must inevitably abound. The clearest present example of such ambiguity is to be found in our alliances. Our military pacts often strengthen governments that work against our democratic and humanitarian principles. Few would argue that Jeffersonian principles are furthered by buttressing Franco’s despotism, the dictatorships of Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee, or King Saud’s slaveholding absolute monarchy. Yet to say we ought therefore not to have entered into these alliances would be to forget that autonomy precedes both prosperity and democracy among our objectives. For all their odious aspects, these pacts have helped to retain the independence of nations that would otherwise have fallen before the Communist advances.

When security is threatened, our differences must usually take a back seat. But this does not mean that they need have no seat at all. Our fault lies not in allying ourselves with governments with which we ideologically differ. Our fault lies in becoming so preoccupied, even obsessed, with matters of immediate military security that we let our other objectives go by the board completely. There is a text for this point too if we want it: “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Concern for the autonomy of western Europe may require that we include Spain in our military alliances, but it does not require the we do nothing to induce General Franco to use our support to increase freedom and prosperity of his people, especially in view of their complaint that the actual effect of our dollars and tanks is just the reverse: to shore up a regime which would otherwise have to reform or be overthrown. Sometimes we give the impression that we are willing to accept any terms such countries dictate as long as they stay on our side, as though, as Mr. Kennan has remarked, “it was we, rather than they, who had the most to lose if they went too far in the relations with Moscow.”

A quick swing around the world through the eyes of notable political analysts will indicate a striking convergence of opinion, not that military alliances are unnecessary, but that we have developed them to the neglect of the direct needs of the people.

Regarding the Far East, Helen Mears writes: “The major weakness of our policy-making for the Far East is the fact that our government quite openly puts the assumed military and strategic needs of the United States ahead of the human needs of the people who live in the region.”

Regarding Asia as a whole, the Indian Christian statesman M. M. Thomas writes: “Forces of national health, self-government and self-development have been weakened [by the] present system of military alliances in Asia. . . . Although in one or two cases these alliances were made necessary by the immediate situation, there was no such compulsion in other cases, and the tragedy imposed was not the inevitable resolution of the problem.”

Regarding Africa, Hans Morganthau writes: “The United States . . . has subordinated its long-range interest in the autonomous development of the native population to short-range considerations of strategy and expediency.”

Regarding Latin America, Carlton Beals writes: “Peacetime Western Hemisphere defense as it is now constituted . . . has no significance in the balance of world power [and] has turned back the clock of democratic evolution and freedom in many countries by a generation. It is a prime cause of instability, disorder, rioting, and revolution—for the reverse side of this false coin is military dictatorship, actual or nascent.”

Where mutual security is not at stake there is even less excuse for supportig oppressive dictatorships and stagnant feudalisms. Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti are cases in point. In Haiti every leading newspaperman if not already killed is in jail, yet we continue to supply the country with military aid which has no effect on the balance of world power but serves only to bolster a vicious dictatorship. No wonder we are developing a “lover of dictators” reputation in South America. Our relations with these countries are not even dominated by “containment” considerations but rather by short-range economic advantage as seen by powerful American industries. Japan provides another example in the category of economic shortsightedness. All four of the world welfare goals we have proposed require freer trade to help her out of her truly appalling straits, but we bow to narrow sectional interests in our country and keep our barriers high.

The only conclusion possible is that our foreign policy has, in fact, as we have suggested, been dominated by objectives of communist containment, economic advantage, or indifference—a dimension of isolationism; objectives which are proving themselves increasingly inadequate to the needs of our time. The people of the United States are beginning to recognize this and throughout the nation there is a groundswell of restiveness with our present approach. What remains lacking is a leader with imagination great enough to see the convergence of our national interest with world welfare defined in terms of peace, autonomy, prosperity, and democracy, and who possesses the leadership ability to translate his vision into concrete policies that will carry the support of the people.

Never has our nation stood in greater need of such a man.