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May 2011

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Turning Points in U.S. Foreign Policy
Reviewed by Peter Beckman

Michael J. Nojeim and David P. Kilroy, Days of Decision: Turning Points in U. S. Foreign Policy, Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011;, ISBN 978-1-59797-526-1 , 322 pages, $27.96

In this book written for university-level students in introductory classes on world politics and American foreign policy, Michael Nojeim and David Kilroy take a broad look at American foreign policy over the last 120 years. They examine what they believe are twelve critical turning points--“moments at which old or existing policies are scrutinized, debated, evaluated and new initiatives are adopted or broad changes in policy take place.” (p. xviii)

Nojeim and Kilroy argue that “these events drew foreign policy in from the margins of American politics where it so often resides and elevated it to the top of the national agenda,” and that “the broad attention that these events engender placed the normally reclusive foreign policy bureaucracy into the ‘fish bowl’ of public scrutiny and broadened the scope and intensity of the debate to include participants who might otherwise remain marginal to the process, including the press, special interest groups, and an aroused public opinion.” (p. xiv) As a consequence, “there was a significant redirection in the course of U.S. foreign policy.”

Each chapter describes a specific event or series of events and makes an argument as to why this was a turning point. For instance, in the discussion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (which is often seen as an exemplar of a turning point), the authors conclude “Pearl Harbor convinced the American government and the American people of the necessity of staying engaged in world affairs in order to forestall the rise of new threats to American interests.” (p. 52)

“Ah, but not so fast,” a reader might counter. Franklin Roosevelt and his key advisors were already convinced in the late fall of 1941 that American engagement in world affairs was crucial, and they were overseeing an undeclared but quite public naval war against German submarines to protect what Roosevelt and his advisors conceived to be vital national interests. They, at least, had already rounded the turning point. On the other hand, it is the case that Pearl Harbor did help torpedo isolationism among the rest of the political elite and the general electorate.

Perhaps the problem comes when one names a specific dramatic historical point and asks it to bear the burden of the argument about a turning point. This reviewer, for instance, might be tempted to argue that the more important turning point in World War II for American foreign policy came not so much with Pearl Harbor but how America chose to wage war and how it enforced a total military victory over its opponents, leaving the United States with global postwar challenges and the mobilized power to respond to them.

While some chapters are centered on specific events, others such as “the Sputnik crisis” or “the Tet offensive” are clearly identified as encapsulating a complex set of changes taking place: the evolution of nuclear weapons and delivery-systems technologies for the first, the gradual erosion of public support for the American war effort in Vietnam for the second. While the authors’ willingness to present the history in which those specific events are imbedded is quite useful, the “turning point” argument loses some of its punch. Regarding Vietnam, for instance, the turning point becomes a relatively amorphous “retrenchment in foreign policy, especially pertaining to far flung overseas adventures.” (p. 142) And that seems to have been a very modest, short-lived turning point.

The authors acknowledge that others might offer a different list of turning points, but in the main, these twelve seem to be appropriate, particularly if one chooses to place national security concerns as the heart of any study of American foreign policy.

Each turning point is examined separately but the authors do point to several recurring themes: The swinging pendulum of engagement and withdrawal/ isolationism and interventionism in America’s relationship with the rest of the world; the political struggles between presidential advisors for influence over policy; the chorus of critics and supporters in political parties and the press, and to a much lesser extent, among the body politic.

When the case studies focus on relatively specific events (such as the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Teheran hostage crisis in Chapter 10), the authors provide details and a cogent analysis of the debate and bureaucratic infighting in the administration over what outcome the United States should seek, the options available to the United States, and the estimated chances for success.

Other chapters such as those on the Lusitania and Sputnik crises offer less compelling descriptions because they discuss multiple issues and multiple decision points across time.

In some chapters, the conclusion drawn about the turning point seems quite debatable. For instance, the authors argue that the Missile Crisis was a key turning point because it “put to rest the sense of insecurity and self doubt in the United States that followed Sputnik. The Soviet threat . . . suddenly diminished as Americans once again felt confident in the superiority of American military power to promote the their interests around the world.” (p. 114) This is asserted rather than demonstrated.

In sum, the authors’ presentation of the twelve turning points can provide the impetus for class-room discussions about turning points in general, the choices that policy-makers make in responding to the world, and the consequences that subsequent policy makers and citizens must live with. The inclusion of Nixon’s opening to China serves as a useful reminder that turning points can be initiated by actions of the United States (or politically powerful individuals) rather than some military crisis created by foreign events.

Nojeim and Kilroy provide a summary of what students should keep in mind when considering American foreign policy, such as remembering the importance of the historical context in which policy makers must make choices, understanding that that choice is often the result of a political process, and that “American officials are often caught off guard by fast paced, unexpected developments in international relations.” (p. 260)

The authors leave it to the reader ask and draw conclusions for such key questions as: Does knowledge or understanding of international politics accumulate across time and how does such accumulated knowledge affect subsequent policy making? If there are turning points, how to they become incorporated in the perspectives of elites and citizens? In the century under consideration in Days of Decision, how did the rise of the United States from a weak player in international relations to the pre-eminent world power shape the turning points in American foreign policy? As the distribution of power once again changes (with, say the rise of China), what might we expect regarding future turning points? How has the evolution of American democracy shaped the American response to the world? For example, did (and does) the inclusion of women, African-Americans, and Latinos in the political process, first as voters and increasingly as policy-makers, create new results or new turning points?

I can see a role in the classroom for a book that attempts to describe and account for turning points in American foreign policy. This reviewer is, in general, appreciative of Nojeim and Kilroy’s effort, but there are, scattered across the pages, a number of pinpricks that cumulatively lead to irritation.

There are, for example, some truly humorous misuses of words: “granting impunity to passenger liners” (p. 29), “German deprivations against merchant ships” (35), “the demonstration of long-range missile capability that Sputnik provided exasperated the missile gap crisis” (84), and “900 suspected WMD cites” (248).

There are factual gaffs: making the governor and senator from Florida Lawton Chiles into the Army Chief of Staff (rather than J. Lawton Collins) (62); claiming that “Senator [Robert] Taft’s own father, former President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft contradicted his son’s reservations about defending Europe” (70) despite the fact that William Howard had been dead for 20 years.


Peter T. Beckman is retired professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and an adjunct professor at Elon University. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. He is the co-author of two books: The Nuclear Predicament and Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear States, and Terrorism and the co-editor of two: Women, Gender, World Politics and Women in World Politics. Dr. Beckman is the author of World Politics in the Twentieth Century. He is currently writing mystery fiction: A Lecture to Die For (summer 2011) and Of Sunsets, Mountains, and Murder (fall 2011).

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