Dickinson College Fall 2023

Paris 1783

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James Buchanan, Secretary of State 1845-49

James Buchanan was born on April 23rd, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania to a well-off family[1]. Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College in 1809, though he claimed little attachment to the school as “his life [there] had not been happy.”[2] James Buchanan was expelled in 1808 for poor behavior, but re-enrolled after a plea to his school minister.[3] Despite his performance as an undergraduate student, Buchanan continued on to study law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.[4] As his law career grew and he gained recognition, Buchanan was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.[5] Buchanan took on a plethora of different roles throughout his life, including Minister to Russia, US senator, Minister to Great Britain, and the 15th President of the United States from 1857-61. Additionally, Buchanan served as the Secretary of the United States Department of State.

James Buchanan was appointed Secretary of State under President James K. Polk in 1845.[6] Polk

Picture of letter

Letter to the U.S. Department of State announcing Buchanan as Secretary of State.

appointed Buchanan as Secretary of State, in part, because of his constant interest and talent in connection to the foreign relations of the United States.[7]  With this appointment to office, Buchanan was able to act upon his expansionist viewpoints. Under Polk and Buchanan, the territory of the United States significantly increased as a result of the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This post will focus on the Oregon Treaty and Buchanan’s success in expanding US territory into the northwest.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 was the result of one of the most important diplomatic disputes in the first half of the 19th century.[8] The disputed territory of Oregon was the focus of those who believed in was the United States’ duty and right to spread its control, laws, and liberties across North America. This rationale for expansion stemmed from the idea of Manifest Destiny, as well as the thought that US morals and way of life brought civilization to the territories it controlled. Originally, Spain, Great Britain, Russia and the United States claimed control of the Oregon territory. However, due to the decline in power and strength which characterized the Spanish empire at this time, the Spanish ceded control to the United States in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819.[9] Following this, Russia attempted to secure ownership of the territory, but faced pushback in 1823 when President Monroe notified Russia that the US did not accept their claim.[10] The border dispute grew throughout the years as American westward expansion further pushed into the territory. James Buchanan decided that American border expansion westward and into Oregon was the best option as not many people had explored that area of what was, at the time, Canada. Initially Buchanan wanted to settle an agreement with the British at the 49th parallel, however President Polk insisted on America’s right to controlling even more land.[11] Democrats, supporting further expansion to spread American territory to cover westward settlers, started to coin the slogan “54°40’ or fight”.[12] These boundaries aimed to include the land north of Fort Simpson in British-controlled Canadian territory.[13] With the support of his constituents, Buchanan agreed to negotiate for further control stating, “war before dishonor is a maxim deeply engraved upon the hearts of the American people.”[14] This quote illustrates Buchanan’s idea to go to war with the British, had they disagreed with American terms and boundaries. However, President Polk changed his mind and once again decided it was in America’s best interest to settle with the British at the 49th parallel.[15]

Click to view the original Oregon Treaty

The final settlement came with the signing of the Oregon Treaty on June 15th, 1846 in Washington, DC. The first article states: “from the point of the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude… the line of boundary between the territories of the United States and those of her Britannic Majesty shall be continued westward along the said forty-ninth parallel of north latitude.”[16] Additionally, the treaty guarantees free passage of the channel and Fuca’s straits to both the United States and Great Britain.

James Buchanan was a controversial president of the United States, but his time as Secretary of State showed multiple successes. He was a successful diplomat as he had experience working as ministers abroad in Russia and Great Britain. This time abroad taught him the functions of British colonialism and gave him an informed perspective into the possibility of future British involvement in areas of disputed boundaries. Specifically, Buchanan was able to use his experience abroad to identify the possible threat that British control could pose in relation to American dealings in Oregon, Texas, and Mexico.[17] Positive and effective diplomacy greatly depends on experience and communication abroad, which is what contributed to the success of James Buchanan’s tenure as Secretary of State.

[1] “James Buchanan.” National Archives and Records Administration. [web]

[2] George Leakin Sioussat, “James Buchanan,” in The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, ed. Samuel Flagg Bemis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), vol. 5, 241.

[3] “James Buchanan (1791-1868).” Dickinson College Archives, 2005. [web]

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] George Leakin Sioussat, “James Buchanan,” in The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, ed. Samuel Flagg Bemis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), vol. 5, 241.

[7] ibid.

[8] “The Oregon Territory, 1846.” U.S. Department of State. [web]

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan, (New York: Times Books, 2004), 40.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan, (New York: Times Books, 2004), 41.

[15] ibid.

[16] Oregon Treaty, 5 August 1846, ARC 299808, National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives at Washington, DC, United States. [web]

[17] Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan, (New York: Times Books, 2004), 37.

Nelson Rockefeller and the Good Neighbor Policy

“With a strong dose of idealism and more than a smattering of genuine goodwill, the Good Neighbor policy in its initial stage terminated existing military occupations and disavowed the US right of military intervention without relinquishing its preeminent positions in the hemisphere and dominant role in Central America and the Caribbean.” Herring, From Colony, [529]. 

Nelson A. Rockefeller, head of the Office for the Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics. Image Courtesy of the Office for Emergency Management; Royden Dixon, photographer – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b06388.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work.

     In the 1930s following the first World War, the United States began a phase of isolationist diplomacy. Tied into this drive for isolation was a new attitude of non-intervention in Latin America. The “Good Neighbor” policy as it came to be known, was intended to curb German influence in the region. In August of 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) appointed Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller as the head of the Office for the Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics.[1] Rockefeller’s experiences in the region due to his business interests caused him to see the need for improved economic and political relations between the U.S. and Latin America. This drive for better business coupled with the fear of German influence in the region drove Rockefeller under his new-found title with the U.S. government to take on the task of creating a new, enticing image for the U.S. in the region. What the State Department would later describe as “the greatest outpouring of propagandistic material by a state ever”, was one of the most successful ventures in public diplomacy.[2]

        Nelson Rockefeller, the second son to Rockefeller Jr., began his fascination with Latin America in early 1930s when he became the director of Creole Petroleum Company (a Standard Oil affiliate) which extracted the majority of its foreign oil from the Lake Maracaibo region of Venezuela. Through his work he made several extended trips to Venezuela in 1937 and 1939. During these he experienced local contempt towards his presence in reaction to what the population felt was a symbol of American imperialism.[3] Rockefeller also would travel to Mexico in 1939 following the nationalization of U.S. oil companies in the country where he would see, again firsthand, the need for improved public relations between the U.S. and its southern counterparts.[4] These experiences as a business man, coupled with the influence of his peer group at the time (Beardsley Ruml, Wallace Harrison, Jay Crane, William Benton), came to the conclusion that something must be done to strengthen relations with Latin America.

        In the Spring of 1940 Rockefeller, with the help of Ruml, sent a memorandum to Roosevelt detailing what he and his colleagues saw as a decline in the U.S.’s economic and political prowess in the hemisphere. It detailed the need for protection against the potential influence of Axis powers in Latin America.[5] They pointed out the shortcomings of the State Department and presented the idea of an independent government agency that could more rapidly take action.[6] Come August, Nelson would be appointed into his position as head of the Office for the Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics, which changed names several times when it became the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), then again when it was shortened to the Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA). Despite these changes, throughout its operations it consistently held the nickname as the Rockefeller Office.

        The official job of the Rockefeller Office, as outlined by FDR, would be to “coordinate the activities of the government with respect to hemispheric defense” by pressuring the “Latin American countries into cutting off their trade with Axis powers”.[7] Concealed within its main purpose of propagandizing for the U.S., the office created the first government information program in the region which fed intelligence on the political and economic events to the U.S..[8] A key underlying assumption was made in the creation of this new execution of foreign relations that, “mass communication research could and should serve domestic and foreign policy purposes” and that therefore the “gathering of information about Axis activities, attitudes towards the United States, and communication habits in Latin America” must be conducted.[9] Rockefeller undertook these missions and executed the propaganda campaign with skill and tact.

     At its conception, the Rockefeller Office was appropriated $140 million to be spent over a five-year term.[10] Rockefeller quickly put his influence and economic brains to work. To help his cause, he acquired a ruling from the U.S. Department of Treasury allowing American corporations that were willing to work with the Rockefeller Office in generating pro-American content to be exempt from the cost of advertisements they published in Latin America.[11] To stunt news from anti-American or pro-German sources the Rockefeller Office only supplied the precious commodity of newsprint to local newspapers that published articles and advertisements in line with the U.S. new friendly image.[12] The highly successful En guardia magazine which was produced by the Rockefeller Office was distributed throughout Latin America.[13] Similarly his office sponsored cultural demonstrations of Americana such as the NBC Symphony in 1940.[14] This included speakers who advocated for the Allied side such as the tour by anti-fascist Arturo Toscanini in the East Coast of Latin America.[15]

Good Neighbor Policy propaganda posters appealing to the idea of the American Republics developing closer bonds. Image courtesy of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_the_Coordinator_of_Inter-American_Affairs#/media/File:OCIAA-Como-Un-Solo-Hombre-Poster.jpg

A significant tool that was developed through Rockefeller’s propaganda campaign was the development of finding ways to measure the success of this new public diplomacy through polling public opinion. To do this, Rockefeller contracted Dr. George Gallup to “conduct public opinion surveys in the countries below the Rio Grande”.[16] Brazil was selected to be the first country surveyed. The research was pitched to Rockefeller as a “Public Opinion Study” that would analyze “totalitarian propaganda techniques in South America”.[17]  On August 24th 1940 FDR allocated $2,000,000 dollars to the U.S. Cultural Relations program, the official research then took place February through May of 1941.[18] Though at the time the State Department was reticent to accept the findings of these polls, the Brazilian study provided the first template on getting a measure of public diplomacy campaign’s success in a region.

In conjunction with his successful aid for pro-American sentiment, Rockefeller also played a role in helping to stifle Italian- and German-owned airlines operating in Latin America.[19] He also advocated for remedying the problems of disease, illiteracy, and under-production of food, things he saw as elements undercutting the potential for supporting democracy. In response to a memo Rockefeller sent to FDR on the matter, the Institute of Inter-American Affairs was set up as a joint project between the United States and Latin American governments.[20]

    Rockefeller, under his appointed duties from FDR, executed an incredibly successful venture in public diplomacy that was seen as crucial to the assurance of Latin America siding with the Allied powers. Through the four pillars of public diplomacy; advocacy, Americana, mutual understanding, and advising Washington policymakers on the significance and implications of events in Latin America, Rockefeller was able to cultivate stronger relationships between the U.S. and Latin American countries. This priority and policy of non-intervention ended with the start of the Cold War. The U.S. would go on to fight Soviet influence through intervention (via hard power through covert action) rather than the previously employed campaign of successful public diplomacy. The legacy that the Rockefeller Office leaves behind is one that shows that persuasion can successfully be effected by investing in a public diplomacy campaign.  


[1] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), [529].

[2] Herring, From Colony, [529].

[3] “Nelson A. Rockefeller,” The North American Congress on Latin America, [1], https://nacla.org/article/nelson-rockefeller.

[4] “Nelson A. Rockefeller,” [1].

[5] Helen Fuller, “Young Nelson Rockefeller.” New Republic [9]

[6] Fuller, “Young Nelson Rockefeller” [9]

[7] “Nelson A. Rockefeller,” [1].

[8] “Nelson A. Rockefeller,” [1].

[9] Ortiz-Garza, Jose Luis. “The First Scientific Mass Communications Research in Latin America: The Brazilian Survey, February-May 1941.” Conference Papers — International Communication Association

[10] “Nelson A. Rockefeller,” [1].

[11] Edward Jay Epstein, “Rockefellers,” accessed April 9, 2017, http://edwardjayepstein.com/rockefellers/chap5.htm.

[12] Epstein, “Rockefellers”

[13]Herring, From Colony, [529].

[14]Herring, From Colony, [529].

[15]Herring, From Colony, [529].

[16] Ortiz-Garza, Jose Luis. “The First Scientific Mass Communications Research in Latin America: The Brazilian Survey, February-May 1941.” [4]

[17] Ortiz-Garza, “The First Scientific Mass Communications Research in Latin America: The Brazilian Survey, February-May 1941.” [5]

[18] Ortiz-Garza, “The First Scientific Mass Communications Research in Latin America: The Brazilian Survey, February-May 1941.” [5]

[19]“Nelson A. Rockefeller,” [1].

[20]“Nelson A. Rockefeller,” [1].


Epstein, Edward Jay. “Rockefellers.” Accessed April 9, 2017. http://edwardjayepstein.com/rockefellers/chap5.htm.

Fuller, Helen. “Young Nelson Rockefeller.” New Republic 113, no. 1 (July 2, 1945): 9. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

“Nelson A. Rockefeller.” The North American Congress on Latin America. https://nacla.org/article/nelson-rockefeller.

Ortiz-Garza, Jose Luis. “The First Scientific Mass Communications Research in Latin America: The Brazilian Survey, February-May 1941.” Conference Papers — International Communication Association (2009 Annual Meeting 2009): 1-12. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017).

The Tripolitan War

As the United States became independent from British rule in 1776, so did their protection of commercial vessels on the high seas from the Royal Navy. Such protection was necessary in the Mediterranean Sea from Northern African states consisting of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, known at the time as the Barbary pirate states. For years, these North African States “earned a lucrative take by plundering European ships, ransoming or enslaving captive sailors, and extorting from seafaring nations handsome annual fees for safe passage through the Mediterranean.”[1] For those who did not comply with the rules of honoring such fees imposed from the Barbary states, consequences ensued, especially for the newly founded American shipping industry. Without protection from the Royal Navy after 1776, American merchant ships fell victim to Barbary piracy, and with the dissolution of the Continental Navy after the Revolutionary War, the United States only options to manage the conflict were through diplomacy or through the payment of tributes to respective Barbary states.[2]

Going along the status quo of other European nations, John Adams, at the time current ambassador to Britain under George Washington’s administration, believed that it was cheaper to pay the tribute than to retaliate against the North African pirates.[3] It was the only economically feasible option for the Washington administration. If retaliation was the course of action, a bolstering of the navy was required, and at the time wasn’t a necessary priority for the young nation. The cost of going to war against the Barbary states far surpassed the cost of paying tributes. Although this course of action seemed to be a consensus from members and ambassadors under Washington’s administration, Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France sought a different course of action. “Jefferson became ‘obsessed’ with the pirates, preferring to cut ‘to pieces piecemeal’ this ‘pettifogging nest of robbers.’”[4]

Although the Washington administration encountered minimal aggression from the Barbary pirates during the first decade of their newly founded independence, conflict soon was met after a multitude of treaties between costal European nations and the North African states. In 1785, Spain and the state of Algiers signed a truce keeping Spanish ships at bay in the Strait of Gibraltar. Before the truce, these Spanish ships patrolled the Strait of Gibraltar to keep Barbary confined to the Mediterranean Sea.[5] With the absence of Spanish naval ships, these Algerian barbary pirates extended their influence on the Atlantic, affecting American merchant ships heading towards Europe. On the 25th of July in 1785, “Algerian pirates captured the Maria off the coast of Portugal, taking its crew as hostages. On July 30th in nearby waters other pirates overtook the Dauphin, captained by Richard O’Bryen. Each American ship had a crew of twenty-one.”[6] Without the protection from the Spanish, the United States shipping suffered from these acts of piracy, setting a theme for their reliance on European intervention with these North African states, because the course of action by America was to not intervene, but appeal the Barbary pirates. Five years later, even before the United States handled and authorized ransom payments to release the 42 sailors held captive, Portugal became involved in a war against Algiers. American trade in the Mediterranean began to return to a sense of normalcy with the help of Portuguese naval squadrons occupying the Algerian coast, keeping the Barbary pirates at bay.[7] Although the aggression from the Barbary pirates seemed to be alleviated while the Portuguese conflict was ongoing, when the war came to an end, a peace treaty between Portugal and Algiers resulted in October 1793.[8] As a result, Portuguese naval pressure off the coast of Algiers came to an end, allowing for the pirates to continue to enforce their tribute laws of the Mediterranean. With the absence of European naval pressure and enforcement acting as a protectorate for American shipping vessels, Barbary “cruisers captured eleven more American merchant vessels and enslaved the 119 members of their crews.”[9]

To resolve the conflict, George Washington, although agitated by the events of merchant piracy and the taking of American hostages, sought towards treaty making with Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. Appointing at the time current minister to Portugal, David Humphreys, he formulated a treaty with the Dey of Algiers calling for $642,000 in cash and an annual tribute of naval stores along with the assistance for negotiations with Tripoli and Tunis in September 1795.[10] After a year of negotiations, treaties were reached with the Barbary pirates resulting in the payment of tributes. In 1797, under John Adams’ administration, American diplomacy in Northern Africa emulated that of his predecessor. For two years, these treaties were respected by the United States, but with the emergence of the Quasi War in 1798, money that would have gone to these North African States instead went towards efforts to establish a standing navy to compete with French naval forces.[11]

In 1801, with the end of the Quasi War, efforts to restore diplomatic commitments from the previous treaties of the late 1790s with Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunisia continued. With these efforts to restore tribute payments brought forth more complications. “In 1801, the Bashaw of the second largest state, Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, discovered that Algiers received more tribute from the United States than himself. The United States refused his demands for increased payments citing the 1796 treaty. On 14 May 1801, Yusuf’s forces entered the U.S. consulate and cut down the national flag declaring war on the United States.”[12] The declared war on the United States brought forth increased acts of piracy resulting in the capture of American commercial vessels and the imprisonment of their respective crews. In 1801, recently elected president Thomas Jefferson, saw a different means of action rather than responding to these events like his predecessors. As a strong believer in civil liberties, he believed that free trade was essential towards United States success as a new member in the globalized system, and these pirates contradicted his views of civilized free trade. Jefferson “was determined to respond to these attacks with military force rather than continuing to pay tributes, which to this point had been ineffective and, in his opinion, wasteful.”[13] Unlike previous Federalist policies under the presidencies of Adams and Washington, Jefferson believed it was the United States “‘interest to punish the first insult,’ he insisted, ‘because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others.’”[14]

With the recently bolstered naval fleet because of the 1798 Quasi War, Commander in Chief Thomas Jefferson had adequate tools to his disposal to ‘punish’ the insults of the Tripolitan pirates. In 1801, Jefferson sent a naval fleet to the Mediterranean off the shores of Tripoli with orders to create a blockade preventing Tripolitan ships from leaving nor entering their costal ports.[15] The strategy of blockading the Tripolitan coast lasted for two years with minimal success, resulting in a change of strategy that focused on bombarding the coast and respective cities of Tripoli in 1803. Under a new naval commander, Edward Preble, “He ordered frequent bombardments of the Tripolitan capital, tasked ships to hunt down and destroy the Tripolitan navy and launched amphibious raids.”[16] As well following the bombardments of the Tripolitan coast came with the capture of the Tripolitan city of Derne. On April 27th, 1804, United States Marines, with the help of European mercenaries and an army of local tribesman took over, and defended a counterattack of Derne.[17] The capture of Derne ultimately led the end of the Tripolitan War, with a treaty between Tripoli and the United States coming a little over a year later on June 10th, 1805. The treaty called for the release of American captives and granted the United States with the status of most favorable nation, thus ending any future annual tribute payments.[18] The 1805 treaty thus reestablished Jefferson’s vision of civilized free trade in the Mediterranean through his reversal of federalist policies under the past administrations of his predecessors, and as well setting the template for future uses of naval force to protect trade interests, especially under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, which was later known as Gunboat Diplomacy.


[1] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 39.

[2] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” Small Wars Journal 9, no. 5 (2013): 2.

[3] Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 40.

[4] Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 40.

[5] William M. Ferraro. “George Washington and the Barbary Coast Pirates.” The Washington Papers. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/history/topics/gw-and-the-barbary-coast-pirates/. (Accessed April 8th, 2017).

[6] William M. Ferraro. “George Washington and the Barbary Coast Pirates.”

[7] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 4 (1996): 603.

[8] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” 603.

[9] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” 604.

[10] Michael Kitzen. “Money Bags or Cannon Balls: The Origins of the Tripolitan War, 1795-1801.” 604.

[11] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 4.

[12] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 2.

[13] Alex J. Whitman. “From the Shores of Tripoli to the Deserts of Iraq: Congress and the President in Offensive and Defensive Wars.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 13, no. 5 (2011): 1374.

[14] Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 99.

[15] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 4.

[16] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 4.

[17]Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.”  5.

[18] Sean D. Lovett, “The Tripolitan War: A Case for Evolving War Strategies.” 5.

Good Neighbor Policy

The Good Neighbor Policy, 1933-1941

Latin America has been a key part of the United States’ (U.S.) foreign policy since the Monroe Doctrine, and American presidents and secretaries of state tried wildly different techniques in the roughly 110 years between James Monroe’s bold doctrine and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) Good Neighbor Policy.  In 1823, President Monroe advocated for a separate hemisphere approach.  Monroe and John Quincy Adams, the author of the Monroe doctrine, wanted European powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere and not to intervene in the affairs of newly formed Latin American republics or try to recolonize them, and in exchange, the United States would stay out of European conflicts.

This was intended to protect the sovereignty of all independent nations in the Western Hemisphere but this changed with victory over Spain in the War of 1898 and the Roosevelt Corollary.  The United States gained Cuba as a result of the war and gave them their independence shortly thereafter, but not without including the Platt Amendment in their constitution, which compromised Cuba’s sovereignty by allowing “the United States to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs” if they acquired too much debt or if they agreed to treaties that would “impair on its independence,” an ironic notion.[1]  The Roosevelt Corollary adopted similar thinking in all Latin American affairs, adopting a more interventionist policy than the original Monroe Doctrine and asserting that the U.S. had police powers in the region.  This was largely a reaction to the instability of Central American and Caribbean nations and their rising debts to European powers.

After decades of military intervention and the Great Depression sapped the ability and will of the U.S. to continue with the Roosevelt Corollary’s policies, FDR stated that “In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor” in his inaugural address.[2]  In time, this would come to mean a policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs, the renegotiation of treaties with Cuba and Panama, an increase in trade, and overall, drastic improvement in U.S. – Latin American relations.

A series of leadership changes through revolution and military coups started in Cuba in 1933, but as a testament to Good Neighbor diplomacy, the U.S. did not militarily intervene.  It began with Cuban disapproval of General Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship and the island’s economic misfortunes during the Great Depression.[3]  When tensions started to rise, FDR sent Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who helped to unseat Machado, and after two more leadership changes, Ramon Grau San Martin was made president.  The island remained somewhat unstable, and Welles maintained that Grau was not an appropriate choice and did not represent the majority.  In this time, Welles often asked FDR and Secretary of State Cordell Hull for marines or naval ships to be sent to the island to impose stability.  Several ships and marines were sent to the island, but unlike incidents in the Roosevelt Corollary era, the marines never landed, and military force was never used on the island; it was merely for intimidation and would only be used in an emergency to protect Americans.[4]  Furthermore, the U.S. refused to recognize Grau’s Cuba as legitimate.  This became a problem for Cuba, so in January, 1934, Colonel Fulgencio “Batista decided to depose the President in favor of Colonel Carlos Mendieta,” finally producing stability.[5]

Several months later the U.S. signed a new treaty with Cuba which repealed the Platt Amendment, a huge step forward for Cuban sovereignty and Good Neighbor diplomacy.[6]  Another victory for the Good Neighbor policy came during the Montevideo Conference, which occurred in the fall of 1933 and coincided with the Cuban dilemma.  The conference helped to shape Roosevelt’s decisions in Cuba, as he wanted to make sure intervention would not mar the conference.  He and Hull also sought to use the gathering of American nations to show their dedication to being Good Neighbors, and at one point, Hull told the Latin American delegates “no government need fear any intervention on the part of the United States under the Roosevelt administration.”  The ensuing December 1934 treaty reflected this policy of non-intervention.[7]

The Good Neighbor policy was not simply designed to prevent more intervention but also to end current intervention, in the form of military occupation.  Haiti’s president was assassinated in 1915, and to prevent anarchy and German influence, President Woodrow Wilson sent marines.  After this initial stabilization, the U.S. exerted enormous influence on the Haitian government, and a marine force remained on the island for nearly 20 years until they “officially withdrew in 1934 from Haiti.”[8]

As part of the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty that allowed for the construction of the Panama Canal, Panama was sovereign, but in some ways, they were a protectorate of the U.S., who retained the right of intervention in order to defend the isthmian canal.[9]  This was source of resentment among the Panamanians, and this combining with Roosevelt and Hull’s amicable Latin American policy led to the Hull-Alfaro Treaty, which meant “Intervention in Panama was now legally void” and abolished its protectorate status.  Importantly for the U.S., Article X of the treaty still allowed them to defend the canal.[10]

Good Neighbor diplomacy had an economic aspect to it as well, and although the initial response to the Great Depression was to turn inward and raise tariffs, believing that the answer to economic crisis was domestic trade, eventually “most New Dealers were persuaded that economic recovery depended upon recapturing foreign markets.”[11]  With this in mind, FDR signed the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act in 1934, which gave him the authority to lower tariffs without congress.  This policy applied to Latin American trade worked wonders, as between 1931 and 1941, U.S. and Latin American trade tripled.[12]

It should be noted that FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, originally coined the term “good neighbor,” and FDR followed in his footsteps by engaging in personal diplomacy in Latin America.[13]  In Latin America, Roosevelt became synonymous with the Good Neighbor policy, and Latin Americans developed an affection for him that made him the most beloved president in history in Central and South America.  The U.S.’s fellow hemispheric nations appreciated the increase in trade and newfound respect they felt by non-intervention in their domestic affairs.  They loved that he personally travelled to Latin American countries and met with their leaders.  Roosevelt’s appearance in Buenos Aires for the 1936 Inter-American Conference was “triumphal” and served as a “capstone” for the Good Neighbor policy, as the Latin American crowds and observers celebrated him like no president, save for Wilson in Europe, had ever experienced in a foreign nation.[14]

FDR’s Good Neighbor diplomacy in Latin America represented a radical break from his distant cousin’s interventionist Roosevelt Corollary.  The sole line in his inaugural address about foreign policy shaped interactions with Latin America for most of his presidency, an area in which his administration had great success.  It inspired non-intervention in Cuba, the removal of interventionist clauses in Cuban and Panamanian treaties, and the recall of marines in Haiti.  Additionally, trade with Latin American countries increased dramatically along with the drastic shift in their view of the United States.  Though the United States’ focus would switch to defense with the coming of World War II, the legacy of the Good Neighbor policy should perhaps best be remembered by FDR’s unprecedented reception at the Inter-American Conference at Buenos Aires and the improvement of U.S. – Latin American relations.



[1] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 325.

[2]  Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1933. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

[3] David E. Cronon, “Interpreting the New Good Neighbor Policy: The Cuban Crisis of 1933,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 39, no. 4 (1959): 538.

[4] Herring, 498-499.

[5] Cronon, 563.

[6] Herring, 500.

[7] Herring, 499.

[8] “U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-34,” Office of the Historian.

[9] Herring, 368-369.

[10] Lester D Langley, “The World Crisis and the Good Neighbor Policy in Panama, 1936-41,” The Americas 24, no. 2 (1967): 140.

[11] Paul A. Varg, “The Economic Side of the Good Neighbor Policy: The Reciprocal Trade Program and South America,” Pacific Historical Review 45, no. 1 (1976): 49.

[12] Herring, 500-501.

[13] Herring, 497.

[14] Herring, 501.

The First Amendment: Trump’s most powerful weapon

It’s evident President Donald Trump is up to something big, just look at his twitter account, or turn on television to any news station. His image and dialogue are everywhere. He has aggressively typed sentiments less than 140 characters on the credibility of the media and how it has been “too aggressive” or “FAKE NEWS,” but what is his motive for proliferating these sentiments? It is first perceived through the lens of President Trump that media outlets consisting of The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN are manipulating the beliefs of the American public, and are a weapon against Trumps administration through the power of the first amendment. Simply, these outlets have been critical on his aggressive stances which in turn has seemed to infuriate the President, but it appears that there is a strategy to this madness, almost as if this madness is being orchestrated by Trump himself. Although this theatrical attack on the media may appear to be uncharted waters in political history, this isn’t the first presidential confrontation with the media resulting in a drastic change for the United States. A little over 200 years ago, a similar instance was experienced through the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.

During the presidential election of 1796, electoral tensions were high amidst the United States through the influence and propaganda from the French in retaliation regarding British involvement with Jay Treaty. As a result, the Federalist dominated congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams, allowing President Adams to imprison and deport citizens who appeared to be dangerous against the government, but more notably it criminalized false statements made by citizens that criticized the government.

Opposed to these acts were the champions of civil liberties, Thomas Jefferson being one of them. He saw it in direct violation of one of his notable accomplishments during the foundation of the Union, the first amendment. Jefferson believed that “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right.”[1] Being said, once Jefferson obtained presidency in 1801, he repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts as an advocate for civil liberties believing in the freedom of speech and the press and their importance for the recently formed United States.

Although President Jefferson believed in the right to free speech, his sentiments regarding the role of free speech especially regarding the press and newspapers experienced a different tone during his presidency. He saw newspapers as a vehicle spitting misinformation to the public, bringing forth a hypocritical stance in an opinion post from The Washington Post, Memo to Donald Trump: Thomas Jefferson invented hating the media.[2] Contrary to the sentiments of this post, Jefferson was much more complicated to be considered a hypocrite.

Rather than viewing Jefferson as a hypocrite, historian George C. Herring labels Jefferson as a “practical idealist (often more practical than idealistic), and in this too he set an enduring tone for his nation’s foreign policy.”[3] Being a practical idealist involves a sense of pragmatism, being able to be flexible with ideals and intentions to achieve bigger picture goals. Such an enduring tone included the controversial purchase of the Louisiana territory, and believed that the success of the nation depended on territorial expansion through agricultural economic expansion to gain international power and prestige. The nature of this purchase was not entirely of the lofty idealistic nature, which resulted in Federalist criticism and propaganda in news publications, but was to as well secure a base for future international leverage in the balance of power system, which Jefferson firmly believed in. His sentiments then regarding the role of the press were not out of personal disgust, but for the well-being of the nation. Although his views regarding free speech were unclear at times, “What is clear is his willingness to put aside his scruples to achieve his goals.”[4] Jefferson was keen to see the bigger picture, in this case he was willing adapt his views to achieve diplomatic success, making him more of a complicated, and sophisticated strategist rather than a hypocrite of civil liberties. More importantly, he saw the power that the first amendment had, especially when it went against his view for American progress. When it mattered the most, Jefferson was flexible and let his ideals aside to obtain success, sounds a little similar right? After all our current republican president once assimilated with the democratic party.

All being said, what is to say about our President Donald Trump? Is it possible that Trump himself is more complicated than the public perceives him to be like Jefferson? Earlier last year in February, Donald Trump tweeted “@FoxNews is so biased it is disgusting. They do not want Trump to win. All negative!”[5] But as of recent times, President Trump has begun to embrace the sentiments of Fox News, while disregarding other notable news sources in result of accusations of Russian meddling during the 2016 election: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!”[6] This flip flopping of claims is not an indication of hypocrisy though. Like Jefferson, it is a revelation of Trumps view on the importance of the first amendment, and how it can be used as a weapon, but in differing from Jefferson, Trump behind the trigger of this weapon of free speech.

As observed through the political career of Jefferson, there’s a method to this madness. His changing of tone with the role of Fox News, and his continued rejection of other media outlets highlights that bigger stakes are at play other than providing “fake news.” The power of the press alone amplifies Trump’s vision regardless of their approval, and his twitter account adds yet another element of strategic unpredictability. Nonetheless, he has had more presidential attention to that of his predecessor Barack Obama regarding policy initiatives. Viewing himself as a master strategist, Trump has made unpredictable diplomatic policy claims with Mexican border security, immigration reform, and China policy just to name a few. But embodying an extreme is what Trump does best, and as well, his unpredictability uncovers an element of his complexity. He realizes that his claims are extreme, but he doesn’t expect his extreme demands or claims to come to fruition because eventually, he knows that he will meet in the middle obtaining what he originally wanted through concession.

Jefferson viewed the power of the press as something essential to the wellbeing of the United States, but also as a threat to his agenda. Trump realizes the power of the first amendment just like Jefferson, but he realizes that it can be used to further push agenda regardless of the views of media outlets. Whether viewers believe any stations coverage of the president at all, Trump is winning because he is constantly the center news headline. Through his provocative statements, he has created a world in which every conversation revolves around some aspect of his claims. He has found a way to win through his criticism. As a practical idealist, he has a view on what the world should be, and he’s willing to use the status of the world to get there, and that is through the flexibly of embodying the extreme which is amplified through the power of free speech. Trump’s strategy of creating a continuous battle with the media has only brought more attention to his parties platform and issues than ever before, making him the champion of utilizing civil liberties.

[1] http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1289

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/17/trumps-war-with-the-media-isnt-new-thomas-jefferson-railed-about-newspaper-lies-too/?utm_term=.532b35cb733c

[3] Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. foreign relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 97.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/699968804311470080

[6] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/831830548565852160


Progression of Nixon and Kissinger Opening the Door to China (1970-1973)

Richard Nixon served as United States President from January 1969 through August 1974. The diplomatic work of Nixon and close counterpart Henry Kissinger on Sino-American affairs during this period caused a dramatic shift in relations between the two nations, altered the landscape of the Cold War theatre, and cemented the rise of the fledgling Chinese state. This map, displaying ten pivotal moments in Sino-American relations between 1970 and 1973, attempts to document this rapidly changing relationship.

Following the close of World War II and the emergence of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party culminating in 1950 at the close of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the United States cut ties with the mainland, refusing to recognize the sovereignty of the new political order. The United States had feared the ascension of communism within China for decades, standing by Kuomintang Party (Chinese Nationalist Party) leader Chiang Kai-shek even after Chiang was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan. Throughout the 1950’s, the United States introduction to the new communist government hit major roadblocks as the two nations fought on opposing sides of both the Korean (1950-1953) and the Vietnam Wars (1955-1975).

Despite the atmosphere of the early post-WWII era generally pitting the two states against one an other, a moment of opportunity presented itself in the late 1960’s as tensions rose between China and the Soviet Union. Tensions boiled over into hot military conflict in March of 1969 along the Ussuri River as both countries vied for control over islands. In one CIA weekly review, the agency noted that “neither Moscow nor Peking appears ready to back down on the issue of the disputed island in the Ussuri River. An engagement on 15 March may have involved more men than the initial clash but was not as bloody.”(1) President Nixon hoped to use this conflict to create diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China, at the cost of the Soviet Union.

One of the first attempts to establish negotiations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occurred on January 20th, 1970. American Ambassador to Poland Walter Stoessel commenced talks with Chinese Charge d’Affaires Lei Yang at the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw. According to Herring, “the two sides began to outline positions on such difficult issues as Taiwan and Vietnam.” (2) In Walter Stoessel’s words outlining the American perspective, the ambassador said “it is my Government’s hope that today will mark a new beginning in our relationship. It is our hope that together we can take a fresh and constructive look at the whole range of possibilities for the improvement of relations between our two countries.”(3) Although this initial dialogue appeared to be successful, tensions heightened by the Vietnam War stalled the talks indefinitely as the United States invaded Cambodia in April of 1970.

In an attempt to re-open negotiations with the Chinese, President Nixon sent a secret message to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai through close political friend and President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, on October 25th, 1970. (4) Similarly to the Warsaw dialogue, Nixon achieved moderate initial success, construing his interest in sending officials to Beijing to engage in talks and stressing anti-Soviet sentiments, however the correspondence broke down as the United States began a bombing campaign in Laos in early 1971.

The Nixon administration needed a breakthrough in the Sino-American dialogue. This came in a form no politician could have expected. In a series of surprising events, the United States national ping pong team traveled to Beijing on April 10th, 1971 to conduct a binational tournament. Prior to the trip, the team had been competing in a global ping pong tournament in Japan. At the tournament, the team was invited by members of the Chinese national team to play a tournament in Beijing. According to Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, the U.S. team had “opened the door to friendly contacts.” (5)

In the wake of this easing of tensions between the two nations, on June 10th, 1971, Nixon engaged in economic diplomacy ending the United States trade embargo on China.(6) One month later in July, Henry Kissinger became the first official American diplomat to meet the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. As the two nations had not yet established official ties nor had the U.S. officially recognized the Chinese government, Kissinger secretly flew to Beijing from Islamabad, Pakistan.(7) After meeting with Zhou, Kissinger concluded that the “Conversations were most intense, important, and far reaching of my white house experience.” (8)

Later that year in October, the United Nations General Assembly voted to replace the Republic of China (Taiwan) with the People’s Republic of China (China) as an active member of United Nations and within the Security Council’s Permanent Five. This signified a monumental change in the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and realized the country’s goal of gaining recognition from nations around the globe. (9) Several months later in February of 1972, President Nixon realized a dream of his own in traveling to China with with his wife Pat. The Chinese toured Nixon around famous cultural sites including the Great Wall at Badaling. Nixon also engaged in talks with Zhou En-lai crafting the Shanghai Communique. In the document Nixon concedes that Taiwan is indeed a part of China, despite having signed a mutual defense treaty with the island in 1955.(10)

Despite the rapid de-escalation of tensions, the Vietnam War raged on south of the Middle Kingdom continuously throwing curve balls at negotiation attempts. This issue came to a symbolic end in January, 1973 as the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords ending the war and vowing to pull troops out of the country. (11) Although the ceasefire eventually failed, the event signified the beginning of the end for American intervention in Vietnam. Finally, in early May, 1973, the two nations opened opened Liaison offices in Beijing and Washington D.C. allowing for a direct path to future formal relations.(12) Although relations were not officially established until 1979, the heavy diplomatic lifting throughout these four years was essential in the Sino-American relationship both nations enjoy today.

(1) United States. Central Intelligence Agency. Weekly Review. Top Secret Umbra. May 16, 1969. Accessed April 23, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB49/sino.sov.2.pdf.

(2) Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pg. 776

(3) United States. Department of State. AmEmbassy Warsaw. Stoessel-Lei Talks: Report of 135th Meeting , January 20, 197. By Walter Stoessel. January 20, 1970. http://2001-2009.state.gov/documents/organization/72575.pdf.

(4) United States. National Security Council. By Harold H. Saunders. August 28, 1969. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB145/02.pdf.

(5) Herring, Pg. 777

(6) GRZYBOWSKI, KAZIMIERZ. “CONTROL OF U.S. TRADE WITH CHINA: AN OVERVIEW.” Duke Law Scholarship Repository, 1973. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3402&context=lcp.

(7) United States. National Security Association. Memcon, “Meeting Between the President and Pakistan President Yahya,” 25 October 1970, Top Secret/Sensitive. June 22, 1971. Accessed April 15, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/ch-31.pdf.

(8) United States. National Security Council. Kissinger on Zhou Talks.By Henry Kissinger. July 11, 1971. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/ch-39.pdf.

(9) Tieh, Susan. “China in the UN: United with Other Nations?” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 4, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 19. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://web.stanford.edu/group/sjeaa/journal41/china1.pdf.

(10) United States. Department of State. FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES 1969–1976 VOLUME XVII, CHINA, 1969–1972, DOCUMENT 203. February 27, 1972. Accessed April 19, 2016. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203.

(11) “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam (Paris, 27 January 1973).” March 07, 2015. http://www.cvce.eu/obj/agreement_on_ending_the_war_and_restoring_peace_in_vietnam_paris_27_january_1973-en- 656ccc0d-31ef-42a6-a3e9-ce5ee7d4fc80.html.

(12) United States. Department of State. Office of the Historian. A GUIDE TO THE UNITED STATES’ HISTORY OF RECOGNITION, DIPLOMATIC, AND CONSULAR RELATIONS, BY COUNTRY, SINCE 1776: CHINA. Accessed April 20, 2016. https://history.state.gov/countries/china.

Wild Attempts at Espionage: Wild Bill Donovan and the O.S.S.

Which diplomatic leaders have been the most significant in US history?  I think it is incredibly difficult to judge the significance of a diplomat.  Diplomatic leaders are called upon in times of crisis and so one must take into account the seriousness of the situation a diplomat is dealing with and the effectiveness of his or her diplomacy in diffusing that situation.  Creating a top ten list of the most successful American diplomatic leaders (1 being the most significant to 10 being the tenth least significant) is challenging due to the nearly three and a half centuries of US diplomacy and the changing historical contexts over the years.  My objective in this post is actually to discuss a very insignificant US diplomatic leader, which I will get to in a short while.  In the meantime, I’ll provide a short list of a few significant diplomats who found success in their diplomacy.

  1.  Benjamin Franklin.  How could I not include Ben Franklin, father of electricity? During the American Revolution Franklin served as a US ambassador to France.  During these years he balanced diplomatic relations with Britain and France, convincing the French to fight alongside the Americans while negotiating peace treaties with Britain.
  2. William Seward.  The American Civil War represented an incredibly significant threat to the existence of the United States.  Seward’s ability to keep Britain and France from recognizing the Confederacy as an autonomous state helped ensure Union victory and the existence of the United States as we know it.
  3. Ronald Reagan.  Diplomacy with any government representing a different ideology is always difficult.  US diplomacy with the Soviet Union is as difficult as it came.  Reagan found success in being flexible and being willing to compromise during his relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

One of the least significant US diplomatic leaders in US history is William Donovan.

On July 11th, 1941 before the US entered the war, FDR appointed William Donovan as head of the newly created post Coordinator of Information.  The purpose of the C.O.I. was incredibly vague, giving Donovan the freedom to organize and run his intelligence agency as he pleased.  Donovan was a successful lawyer from Buffalo whose outlandish and unpredictable fighting style during the First World War earned him the nickname “Wild Bill” and a Medal of Honor.  He ran against FDR for lieutenant governor of New York on the Republican ticket and lost.  But FDR recognized Donovan’s ingenuity and fighting spirit and thought he would be a valuable member of his cabinet.

The Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 marked a very real and significant threat to the United States.  The attacks shifted the American mood from isolationism to interventionism. And so in 1942, FDR transformed the C.O.I. into the Office of Strategic Services placing it under the jurisdiction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  With Donovan at the helm, nothing was off limits, from assassinating foreign leaders and engaging in ridiculous kinds of propaganda to conducting absurd covert operations like injecting Hitler’s food with female hormones so that Hitler would lose his mustache and masculine voice.  Donovan tried to win the war in a Hollywood style – single-handedly – and that was the kind of diplomacy that suited his style but the efforts of the O.S.S. with a few exceptions, amounted to little in the grand scheme of things.

There are a number of reasons for Donovan and the O.S.S.’s insignificance during World War II.  Donovan’s personality is one reason.  His fearlessness and recklessness were not traits best suited for a leader of an intelligence gathering agency.  Before the creation of the O.S.S. American intelligence agencies were scattered throughout branches of the army and federal government.  The US’s inexperience at having a centralized intelligence agency and FDR’s willingness to let Donovan run his own show is another reason.  On that same point, Donovan and the Allies’ enemies, the Nazis, Fascists, and Russians had been conducting espionage and cover warfare for decades.  They were able to handle the bulk of what the O.S.S. threw at them.  Wild Bill Donovan faced a significant task in being put in charge of the O.S.S. but unlike Ben Franklin, William Seward, and Ronald Reagan, he was unsuccessful in his duties as a diplomat.

Donovan never fulfilled his dream of heading a domestic centralized intelligence agency after the war.  Maybe it’s best he never did.

Toward an Imperial Presidency

White House foreign policy decision-making during the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon era took a decided turn toward centralization.  There had always been occasional tensions between presidents and their diplomats, but George Herring’s survey From Colony to Superpower demonstrates clearly that something intensified during that latter stages of the Cold War.  Students in History 282 who are interested in the executive decision-making process should read chapters 16-17 carefully and try listening to the audio recordings of the various administrations to discern for themselves what was occurring in the 1960s and 1970s.


Cuban Missile Crisis (ExComm)  (October 1962)

LBJ and Robert McNamara on Vietnam (March 1964)

LBJ and Sen. Richard Russell (May 1964)

Nixon and Kissinger 

Idealism in the Rosenberg Spy Case

In times of international crisis, the United States government often suspends domestic liberties in the name of national security. Practical sacrifices are made in response to foreign pressures. After World War II, the prevailing world system was turned upside down. The delicate balance of power in Europe collapsed leaving two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. George Herring explains that “[The Cold War] resembled traditional power struggles between nation-states, but it was also a fierce ideological contest between two nations with diametrically opposed world views” (Herring 2008, 651). Those caught between these powers suffered.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the young New York couple accused of Soviet espionage, are renowned for the controversy surrounding their execution. Like the Cold War period itself, the Rosenberg case was laden with ideological rhetoric and exaggeration. In his sentencing statement, the presiding Judge Kaufman explained that “[the Rosenbergs’] conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of [their] treason. Indeed, by [their] betrayal [they] undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.” The steep claim made by Judge Kaufman at the end of the Rosenberg trial reveals a desire to establish a clear narrative of history complete with villains and victims. Idealism and rhetoric dominated the Rosenberg debate on both sides.


Image of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg courtesy of faqs.org

For decades after their 1953 executions, thousands advocated that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were innocent. Building off the reality of McCarthyism, many came to the conclusion that the death of the Rosenbergs was part of a vast F.B.I plot. Others like Judge Kaufman contested that the couple was part of a large mission to peddle atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The prosecutor in the Rosenberg case, Irving Saypol, depicted Julius Rosenberg as part of a complex conspiracy: “Imagine a wheel. In the center of the wheel, Rosenberg, reaching out like the tentacles of an octopus.” Like the Cold War, the rhetoric and exaggerations of the Rosenberg case do little to provide any clarity.


Image of Cold War propaganda courtesy of gabriel-chetcuti.wordpress.com

Unlike earlier periods in American history, idealism had real and observable consequences during the Cold War. Herring explains that even “for Eisenhower, his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and other U.S. leaders, the Cold War was the equivalent of a holy war” (Herring 2008, 655). The Public Burning by Robert Coover satirizes the Cold War as a conflict between the demonic “Phantom” of Communism and Uncle Sam. Although a work of fiction, Coover’s novel describes the idealism that consumed and corrupted the Rosenberg case.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg can be seen as martyrs willing to give their own lives for the sake of a cause. In The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton explain that “the Rosenbergs were thoroughgoing ideologues…for Julius and Ethel everything was grist for the dialectical struggle” (Radosh, Milton 1997, 339). In her 2004 film, Heir to an Execution, the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, Ivy Meeropol, attempts to distance her ancestors from the narrative of the Cold War. She broadens the idealism of her grandparents, arguing that: “If they were ‘spying’ I believe they were doing it out of great love for humanity. There was nothing cynical, nothing motivated by self-interest…I wish I had some of their idealism.”(Meeropol 2004). Meeropol’s revisionist perspective exaggerates the Rosenbergs deeds in the other direction, elevating them to the level of saints.

Recent developments in the Rosenberg case have complicated the conflicting ideologies surrounding the execution. Although he did deliver information to the Soviet Union, Julius Rosenberg did not dramatically “[alter] the course of history to the disadvantage of our country” as Judge Kaufman put it. In the midst of ideological uproar, the claims against the Rosenbergs had been exaggerated. Molly Hite explains that: “The electrocution of the Rosenbergs was a stunning overreaction to a purported crime–passing the ‘secret’ of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union…could have had little effect in any case, according to such nuclear physicists as Albert Einstein and Harold Urey, who maintained that there was no secret to the atom bomb and thus nothing of importance that a spy ring, even if one existed, could have passed on to the USSR” (Hite 1993, 85). Ethel Rosenberg’s execution remains controversial as ever. She was urged to put on the image of a traditional housewife, further ammunition in an ideological case.

Like the time in which it was set, the Rosenberg case was an ideological battleground.The Cold War was a time when idealism was a reality. The truth of the case became clouded as various causes adopted the Rosenberg executions to prove one conspiracy or another. Ivy Meeropol explained that she didn’t “think they died for communism, even necessarily to make some kind of statement. It was a simple equation: they couldn’t do anything else.’’ Meeropol’s description of Julius’ and Ethel’s decision-making characterizes the Cold War era: a conflict escalated because of contrasting ideologies.



Edwards, Thomas R. 1977. “Real People, Mythic History”. The New York Times: Books. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/27/specials/coover-burning.html

Herring, George. 2008. From Colony to Superpower. Oxford University Press.

Hite, Molly. 1993. “‘A Parody of Martyrdom’: The Rosenbergs, Cold War Theology, and Robert Coover’s ‘The Public Burning’.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction.  271 (1): 85-101. Web.

Meeropol, Ivy. 2004. Heir to an Execution. Blowback Productions. DVD.

Parrish, Michael E. 1977. “Cold War Justice: The Supreme Court and the Rosenbergs.” The American Historical Review. 82 (4): 805-842. Web.

Pessen, Edward. 1984. “The Rosenberg Case Revisited: A Critical Essay on a Recent Scholarly Examination.” New York History. 65 (January): 82-102. Web.

Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. 1994.  The Rosenberg File: The Search for the Truth. Delran, NJ: Gryphon Editions

Roberts, Sam. 2004. “Capturing the Rosenbergs.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/13/movies/television-capturing-the-rosenbergs.html?src=pm&pagewanted=1





Google Hangout With Terrorism Experts

New_america_logo14The New America Foundation in Washington DC is hosting a Google Hangout on the ISIS threat with terrorism experts, Douglas Olivant and Brian Fishman.  The discussion will be live online on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 from 2:30pm to 3pm and then archived at YouTube.  Students in History 282 are invited both participate and / or to submit questions in advance of the session.  Here is a message from the NAF social media coordinator, Justin Lynch:

“Hey everyone, my name is Justin Lynch. I work as the Social Media Coordinator at New America, a think tank in DC. On Wednesday, we will be hosting a Google Hangout on where the war against ISIS could go with two experts, Douglas Ollivant and Brian Fishman. Part of why we are doing this is to give students a chance to ask experts questions. We will focus on questions of civil liberties during the debate, and I reach out and ask if you had any questions you’d like to ask during our event. We will try and get all of the questions in, and even if you can’t make it, the event will be saved on YouTube and we will bookmark where questions are asked.If you have a question for Doug or Brian on ISIS as it relates to civil liberties, or just ISIS in general, email me at lynch@newamerica.org, and I will ask it. Thanks!”

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