N 1902, the Boston Brahmin and historian Brooks Adams published an influential book called The New Empire. It arrived at a moment when America was becoming a great power as imperial aspirations supplanted the restraint of the old republic. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, America annexed Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and much of the Caribbean. The Panama Canal was about to be completed and Washington was making inroads into China. Adams concluded,
Supposing the movement of the next 50 years only to equal that of the last, instead of undergoing a prodigious acceleration, the United States will outweigh any single empire, if not all empires combined. The whole world will pay her tribute. Commerce will flow to her from both east and west, and the order which has existed from the dawn of time will be reversed.
Adams’ remarkably accurate prophecy, as the sociologist Daniel Bell once noted, offers a useful reminder that the conviction that America should seek to achieve global supremacy predated both World War I and World War II. The original mandarins who envisioned a Pax Americana included Elihu Root, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge Hay, and John Hay. Their apostolic disciples, such as Henry Stimson, saw themselves as the Platonic guardians of America. In his recent book Tomorrow, the World, Stephen Wertheim argues that this foreign policy elite made the conscious choice to champion internationalism in the form of armed supremacy after 1945. Still, during the Cold War, America’s ambitions were constrained by its rivalry with the Soviet Union, when spheres of influence, along the lines of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg’s famous phrase cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, whose religion), obtained.
THE APPARENT stability of the Cold War meant that as the conflict ground on, some on the liberal Left came to reject the notion that it was ever necessary to confront the Kremlin as so much hooey. Starting in the 1960s, a minor academic industry developed around the idea that it was all a big mistake, the fault of merchants of death or red-baiting politicians. In his 1982 novel The Dean’s December, which was set in Bucharest and Chicago, Saul Bellow captured this illusion: