US Politics in the Twentieth Century: Divergence on the Issue of America’s International Role

The twentieth century in American politics was an era of new political order, social and political turmoil, eruption of new ideas, and questioning of old policies and practices. Since the late nineteenth century, the divergences of the political left — frequently categorized as those stressing social equality as a political end — and the political right — who seek to maintain traditional authorities and civil liberties — have often been the result of differing views of either group as to America’s role in the world. The political right in the United States has historically espoused interventionist, expansionist, and imperialist policies, contrasted with traditional leftist sentiments emphasizing self-determination, self-sovereignty, and social equality.

To say that these differing views on America’s international role had a significant effect on disagreements between the political left and right in the United States would certainly be accurate, especially because the nature of devoid rights of subdued peoples abroad — indicated by self-determination — so closely paralleled those of colored peoples in America — indicated by civil rights. Where rightists encouraged imperialism abroad and social inequality at home, leftists sought self-determination for peoples abroad and equality at home; clearly, the issues are all intimately intertwined.

The early decades of the twentieth century had already been characterized by an entrance of the United States to the world stage as an imperialist state in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Far East; clear divisions regarding foreign policy between the right wing — who favored developing foreign markets and trade routes — and the left wing — epitomized by writings of the Anti-Imperialist League, which condemned American conquests as a betrayal of American foundations of self-determination — already existed. With the Bolshevik triumphs in the Russian Revolution and Civil War, a surge of euphoria was broadcast across the globe, representing all types of new possibilities of new political and social orders — including the possibility of an end to the imperialism spawned by capitalism. This development led to the increasing polarization in American politics over the need to retain influence and control in foreign lands.

Indicative of this new polarization is the writing of right-wing, republican, and anti-communist writer, Henry Luce, in his 1941 work, “The American Century”:

“[Americans] have failed to play their part as a world power — a failure which has had disastrous consequences for themselves and for all mankind. And the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” 1)

The object of Luce’s work was to define American foreign policy from then forth as interventionist and expansionist. As the “most powerful and vital nation” it was natural in the eyes of right wing politicians and their supporters that America establish its influence abroad for self-interested purposes “by such means as we see fit” — historically taken to mean a politically, militarily, and economically interventionist approach to foreign policy.

This notion of “benevolent supremacy” — that American power, diplomacy, and policy is a necessary force to civilize and democratize nations in which freedom and liberty are threatened — stands in stark contrast to the narrative of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which provides a far more left-wing account of American foreign policy through the eyes of British journalist Thomas Fowler. In speaking to Pyle, whose role is meant to epitomize the American character abroad — young, naïve, boastful, and ignorant — Fowler remarks, “You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested…They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at…They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.” 2) Greene pokes holes in right-wing rhetoric, which attempts to illustrate America as a benevolent, paternalistic force. Rather, he points out that whether or not Southeast Asia “falls” to communism, the situation for its inhabitants will be negligibly different than if it remained under Western control.

In response, Pyle can think of nothing to rebut Fowler’s claims except to condemn communism and proclaim intervention in Vietnam as being in the name of democracy — indicative of American right-wing propaganda. The real issue at hand of the “loss” of regions to communism is not a threat to democracy and freedom — as right-wing politicians associated with their rhetoric in an attempt to create a dichotomy of democracy vs. communism — but of a loss of influence and interests in foreign regions. The reality for the subdued peoples of Vietnam and other numerous regions of Western imperialism was that they were denied rights to self-determination and self-sovereignty which were being called for by left-wing arguments in growing numbers.

The polarization between right and left-wing views on American foreign policy is also indicated by cultural arguments about American superiority and the inferiority of colored peoples. “Tarzan of the Apes,” a 1914 novel of a British boy raised in the African wild that was famously adapted on screen in 1932 and again in 1959, reinforced African fictions of cannibalism, barbarity, and pre-linguistic peoples there, serving to reinforce right-wing arguments that necessitated “civilizing” imperialist conquests abroad. Fictions such as this about Africans in popular culture served to project ideas of backwardness on African-Americans, reinforcing the legitimacy of racial inequality at home. Naturally, a parallel between the suppressed rights of colored peoples abroad and those of colored peoples in America began to become more apparent.

Langston Hughes, in his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, remarks at the blaring contrasts between racial inequalities in his home, the United States, and the lack thereof in Soviet Russia. “We” — twenty-two African Americans from Harlem — “were housed in a charming hotel near the sea…a de luxe Soviet resort for higher-echelon workers…I had never stayed in such hotels in my own country since, as a rule, Negroes were not permitted to do so.” 3) The favorable treatment of African-Americans abroad — ironically in Soviet Russia — is a monument to the blatant inequalities that colored peoples in America faced, as well as abroad, wherever American imperialism endured. Thus, the connection between the growing call for self-determination of colored peoples around the world and the call for equal rights for those in the US flourished. It should come as no surprise that there were strong affinities between African-American rights and improvement groups, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and communist movements, as left-wing groups were among the first to make racial equality a priority as a political end.

Still, despite growing left-wing sentiments for self-sovereignty abroad and racial equality at home, right-wing foreign policy initiatives of interventionism and benevolent supremacy continued to characterize American government action abroad in the mid-twentieth century. The Marshall Plan, as laid out by Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947, declared that “the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace,” and that conditions must be put into place “in which free institutions can exist.” 4) In the vein of benevolent supremacy, right-wing foreign policy arguments at the onset of the Cold War era insisted that political stability was dependent on the survival of capitalism and free enterprise, and that American foreign intervention was the only manner in which capitalism, and thus, democracy, would survive. Similarly, the NSC-68, a classified government document put into effect during the Truman administration, proclaimed that “the whole success of the proposed program” — the policy of containing Soviet expansion through foreign intervention in states on the Soviet periphery — “hangs ultimately on the recognition…that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.” 5) Right-wing arguments that the freedom and liberty of the world were at stake, and thus, that American foreign intervention was a necessity of the modern world, stood in stark contrast to left-wing notions that the self-determination of foreign peoples was of the utmost concern.

Heading South, Looking North, the memoirs of left-wing intellectual Ariel Dorfman, indicate the leftist desires for self-determination and peaceful revolution, which contrasted sharply with notions of American intervention in Chile: “As the end approached, many of those benefiting from American meddling and money were, instead of hiding the intervention, flaunting it…While we were subscribed to the idea of a peaceful, democratic revolution, without bloodshed…they were taking lessons in martial arts.” 6) While left-wing sentiments clearly called for peaceful, democratic revolution abroad, Dorfman indicates the economic interests, devotion to intervention, and willingness to use violence on the part of the Americans and those they support in their expansionist policies — to “save” states at risk from the communist threat.

The distinction in opinion between the political left and right clearly implicates America’s role in the world as the principal issue of divergence in American politics in the early and mid-twentieth century. The parallel between the issue of racial inequality at home and the freedom — or lack thereof — of sovereign peoples abroad served as a facilitator to civil rights and as an impediment to American influence and credibility abroad — as long as domestic racial inequality remained so blatant. It should come as no surprise that in the wake of this era of anti-interventionism and anti-imperialism in left-wing politics came the overwhelming push for social equality for African-Americans in the United States. Clearly, the movements for rights of subdued peoples in foreign lands and those for the civil rights of those in America are intricately connected; the civil rights movement in America — arguably the next era of transformation of social and political order — was not an event isolated to its national borders, but a culmination of transnational connections and of confrontations between the forces of the political left and right.


  1. Dorfman, Ariel. Heading South, Looking North. New York: Penguin, 1999. 31.
  2. Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Penguin, 2004. 86.
  3. Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. 93.
  4. Luce, Henry. “The American Century.” 1941: 63.
  5. Marshall, George C. “The Marshall Plan.” Cong. Rec. 30 June 1947.
  6. “NSC-68.” The Cold War in Europe and the Near East. 168.
Luce, Henry. “The American Century”, 63
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American, 86
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander, 93
Marshall, George C. “The Marshall Plan.”
“NSC-68.” The Cold War in Europe and the Near East, 168
Dorfman, Ariel. Heading South, Looking North, 31

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