A survey of American diplomacy since the 1890s as reflected in the careers of the men who molded it.
Milne (Modern History/Univ. of East Anglia; America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, 2008) chooses nine significant figures whose approaches to diplomacy—either as an art, with inexact methods, or as a science, with a logical approach built from first principles—define his thesis. The tale begins at a point when the country largely avoided foreign entanglements. Alfred Thayer Mahan, in a hugely influential book on the importance of sea power, argued that the U.S. must ready to take an international role to protect its interests. A generation later, Woodrow Wilson took the position that America could only be safe in a world at peace. America’s entry into World War I and the subsequent attempt to create the League of Nations were the results. Beginning in the 1920s, and increasingly as the Depression took its toll, Charles Beard made the case for putting domestic issues above all else. But with the rise of Hitler and Stalin, Walter Lippmann and George Kennan pushed for a more active international role, leading to the Cold War, in which Paul Nitze and Henry Kissinger took very different roles. As the Soviet Union faded, Paul Wolfowitz found new threats in the Middle East, threats that have dominated much of Barack Obama’s presidency. The overall arc of the book is fascinating, showing how the play of ideas and politics has worked out over more than a century, with some of the most critical episodes in modern history as main episodes in the plot. Milne doesn’t paint his protagonists in black-or-white terms; he both praises Kissinger for his role in the rapprochement with China and criticizes him for advocating for keeping the U.S. in Vietnam after it was clear there was nothing to gain there. On the whole, however, the author appears to side with the “artists” over their more dogmatic opposites.
A well-documented, full-scale overview of some key makers of modern history.