Book Review: The United States and Europe in the Twentieth Century

By David Ryan


The United States and Europe in the Twentieth Century is part of the ‘Seminar Studies in History’ series -one of my staples at A-Level. These neat little books are designed to provide brief, up-to-date, overviews of key historical issues and to serve as an introduction to the topics under discussion.In this case, the subject of the book is somewhat ambiguously expressed by the title, since this is a book about US policy towards Europe rather than one that pays equal attention to both sides of the transatlantic relationship.

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RRP: £12:99
Publication Date: 2003
ISBN: 978-0582308640
Classification: Hob-Nob

As such Chapter 1 examines the main ‘traditions’ of US foreign policy. The dual purpose of this chapter is to provide historical background and to identify themes and patterns that can then be traced in US policies in the twentieth century.

The traditions that Ryan identifies are the Monroe Doctrine, spheres-of-influence thinking, anti-colonialism, unilateralism and an expansive conception of US interests; ‘Empire as a Way of Life’, a tradition of geographical expansionism; and ‘Open Doors’, an ideology of open markets and free trade. Conventional emphases on America’s historical ‘isolationism’ are rejected here in favour of a more radical emphasis on economic interests and expansion.
Ryan’s inclination towards revisionism is reflected elsewhere in the book as well. His discussion of the origins of the Cold War clearly prioritizes US economic interests and there are a lot of references to the writings of Lloyd Gardner and Walter LaFeber, though hardly any to the much more conservative John Lewis Gaddis. Despite this fact and the inclinations of the introduction, the book as a whole does not demonstrate a consistent bias towards revisionist interpretations. However, this is due not to any exercise of self restraint on the part of the author so much as to the relative lack of systematic interpretation of any kind.
The main body of the book is composed of six chapters, chronologically organized, which provide a narrative history of US policy towards Europe from the First World War to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Chapter 2 examines Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to make the US a European power for the first time and his outlining of a vision of world order which would come to bear his name and profoundly influence US foreign policy for the rest of the century. Chapter 3 discusses how the republican administrations of the 1920s attempted to assist in the reconstruction of Europe, only for the crash of 1929 to undermine their efforts and send the world spiralling into economic nationalism, fascism and war. Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate on the US and Europe during the heart of the Cold War from 1945 to 1972. In the former, Ryan emphasizes the centrality of Europe to US economic and security interests as he describes the policies and organizations — the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and NATO — that were put in place to secure them. In the latter, he focuses on the emergent divisions in the Atlantic alliance as the Cold War evolved — conflicts between De Gaulle and Washington over leadership of the Alliance, between the US and western Europe more generally over the latter’s inclination to move towards détente and an incipient economic rivalry between the US and the newly-born EEC. Chapter 6 traces the evolution of these tensions through the 1970s and early 1980s, as western Europe continued to grow in economic power and confidence, while the US entered a period of relative economic decline. Tensions were exacerbated further by the European refusal to support Ronald Reagan’s pursuit of the Second Cold War. Chapter 7 brings the story into the 1990s and examines how the end of the Cold War has affected US policy towards Europe. Ryan crams a lot into a small space (just 123 pages of text) and does so very well. The book provides a clear and detailed narrative description of US policy towards Europe in the twentieth century.
Along with the maps, detailed chronology, glossary, ‘who’s who’ and suggestions for further reading, this amounts to a first-class introduction to the topic at an empirical level.
Where the book is slightly disappointing is at the interpretative level (as indicated above). The interesting ideas introduced in the chapter on traditions of US foreign policy are not pursued systematically in the rest of the book. The ideas that are emphasized there do crop up again, but while similarities and apparent continuities are remarked upon, they are never really explored in a systematic fashion. Indeed, the underlying motives or causes of US foreign policy are treated throughout in a fairly cursory fashion. Ryan asserts that the US pursued its ‘national interests’ in its policy towards Europe, but that vacuous phrase is never really provided with much content. He describes it as being composed of economic, security and ideological elements, but while he does a fair job of exploring what the first of these actually means, he is much less clear about the latter two. It is difficult to see, for example, why De Gaulle’s challenge to US leadership of the Atlantic alliance was a matter of ‘security’ while European inclinations towards détente, rather than Cold War, were a question of ‘ideology’. While this is, in one sense, a rather trivial example, it is indicative of the rather superficial way in which such matters are treated in this book. It may well be that this is, at least in part, a result of the constraints of space under which the author is operating. It certainly feels that way. As brief analytical incursions are rapidly overcome by the demands of the ongoing narrative, you can almost sense the conflict between the desire to provide a much more sustained explanation of US policies and the recognition that there simply is no space. Whatever the cause, it is a significant weakness, because without a stronger interpretative framework all that narrative and all those events easily can become confusing rather than enlightening. A bit less narrative and a bit more interpretation would have been conducive to a better understanding on the part of the reader, so this gets a Hob-Nob accompaniment designation as it's not a taxing read.