Andrew Johnstone. Against Immediate Evil: American Internationalists and the Four Freedoms on the Eve of World War II. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. 240 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5325-0.
Reviewed by Grant Harward (Texas A&M University)
Published on H-War (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Andrew Johnstone’s book is a concise and readable chronological narrative of the development of the American internationalist movement before the entrance of the United States in the Second World War. Through his examination of the three major American internationalist institutions, the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression (ACNPJA), the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA), and Fight for Freedom (FFF), Johnstone not only demonstrates the transition of US foreign policy from nonintervention towards intervention before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but also illuminates the origins of Cold War ideology that already in the 1930s divided the world between the “two worlds” of democracy and totalitarianism (p. 155). Johnstone seeks to demonstrate that FDR has been given too much credit for pushing the Unites States towards a war posture and that these nongovernmental organizations played an important role in shifting the political debate and pushing interventionist policies in the United States before war broke out.
In Against Immediate Evil Johnstone charts the course of the development of American internationalist ideas that would have a long-lasting impact on American diplomacy through the war and postwar years. In his examination of the ideology of American internationalists Johnstone enters the muddy waters of the politics of American public opinion. He sets out to examine the three-way interaction between government institutions, special interest groups, and public opinion, and how they influenced each other in the run-up to American hostilities in 1941. The main emphasis of his narrative is showing the development of internationalist organizations from small groups of elites to larger and more complex institutions with the goal of becoming mass political movements. The ACNPJA was the earliest, smallest, and least influential of the internationalist groups. Johnstone shows that subsequently the CDAAA and the FFF attempted to marshal public opinion by organizing local chapters across the geographic breadth of the United States and specific branches for labor, women, and youth. The FFF even focused on recruiting African Americans into its ranks (p. 142). Johnstone argues that these actions had two purposes: to show the widespread and broad-based support for American intervention abroad to the members of Congress that the internationalists were trying to sway, and to demonstrate to the public that they were truly American institutions, not fronts for Chinese or British interests. The narrative of the book also charts a progressive radicalization of American internationalist organizations as they took more and more aggressive stances in their fight against nonintervention. Johnstone shows that the earliest groups, like ACNPJA, supported more passive intervention abroad, such as a boycott of Japanese goods or an embargo against exports to the Japanese economy that were required to continue the war in China. Later the CDAAA and the FFF, as their names clearly demonstrate, advocated much more aggressive policies abroad, with the FFF becoming an “out-and-out interventionist organization” (p. 131). Johnstone argues that these groups expressed positions more extreme than what the cautious Roosevelt administration could take in public, but these groups were then used by the Roosevelt administration as a means to justify future presidential actions as responding to “public opinion.” According to his perspective, Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech summarized already pre-existing internationalist sentiments rather than introducing them. Thus, Johnstone problematizes the traditional narrative that focuses almost exclusively on the Roosevelt administration while ignoring these important nongovernmental organizations.
In a nod to cultural history, the theme of Anglo-American Christian civilization is an important subtheme in Johnstone’s narrative. He argues that religion played an important role in the development of American internationalist rhetoric and ideology, which saw the United States as the “zenith” of Western civilization (p. 10). This influential religious element in American internationalism created problems in dealing with communism (especially after the entrance of the Soviet Union into the Allied camp after June 1941), fostered a biased chauvinistic attitude towards Latin America, and focused attention on Nazi anti-Christianity, rather than its antisemitism, as a threat to the United States. This exploration of the religious aspect of American internationalism is a very intriguing part of the book.
Against Immediate Evil is a work focused on high politics. Johnstone focuses on the interesting co-dependent relationship between the Roosevelt administration and the American internationalist organizations. He also explores the complex relationships of the leaders of the internationalist groups, many of whom were close acquaintances with each other and friends of the administration as well as even leading members in some of the other main internationalist organizations. However, this focus on the upper echelons of the American interventionist movements relegates the rank and file of these organizations to obscurity in his narrative, despite the increasingly mass political character that the groups took on as the war approached. Johnstone mentions in passing a few of the means of mass politics used by these organizations: brochures, journals, press, and radio. Nevertheless, he does not really explore the effect of these efforts on the American public, aside from citing the results of periodic opinion polls taken before the outbreak of war. Johnstone also admits that the majority of Americans remained reluctant to get involved in any significant way in the deepening crisis in Europe and Asia, that the anti-interventionist America First Committee continued to exert powerful political influence, even after the openly antisemitic comments of its most famous advocate, Charles Lindbergh, and, possibly most tellingly, limited funding remained a consistent problem for these groups. Therefore, the efficacy of these American internationalist groups in mobilizing Americans to support an interventionist foreign policy through mass politics remains ambiguous at best. Their influence in Washington and at the highest levels of politics were, however, clearly significant and merit recognition.
Nevertheless, Against Immediate Evil is an important contribution to the historiography of the formation of the foundations of American foreign policy as the United States asserted its role in the mid-twentieth century as not just a great power, but as an emerging global superpower. The American internationalists, deftly examined by Johnstone, were the first to envision and promote a global role for the United States in defense of freedom around the globe. The Four Freedoms--freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear--remained the cornerstone of US foreign policy through the Second World War, the Cold War, and beyond.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Grant Harward. Review of Johnstone, Andrew, Against Immediate Evil: American Internationalists and the Four Freedoms on the Eve of World War II.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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