Can You Trust Robert Kagan?

The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941
By Robert Kagan
(Knopf, 2023)

The historian and political commentator Robert Kagan has picked a clever title for his book, but it turns out to be an ironic one as well. Kagan means by “the ghost at the feast,” a phrase he adapts from a remark by Harold Nicolson (and in turn from Shakespeare), the failure of the United States to honor her security commitments to the Allied Powers after World War I, a failure Kagan deeply deplores. But his book contains its own ghosts—the arguments and evidence against his interpretation of events, advanced by historians he fails to cite.

To understand the book, one must grasp Kagan’s key concept, “hegemony,” meaning dominance over a large region and possibly the entire world. Nations characteristically strive for as much power as they can grasp, but the United States, owing to its fortunate position, saw no need to do so through much of her history:

America did stand apart, even in 1900, a virtual distant island in geopolitical terms, on a huge continent surrounded on two sides by vast oceans, thousands of miles from all the other great powers of the world. Americans’ physical location had long given them unique advantages and a unique perspective. First and foremost, it had given them both wealth and a remarkable degree of economic independence. . . . The other powers had no choice but to spend large portions of their national incomes arming themselves for the constant possibility of war.

For much of the nineteenth century, Britain exercised hegemony over Europe, owing to the Royal Navy’s command of the oceans. But arrogant and militaristic Germany, whose Kaiser cast aside the wisdom and moderation of the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, sought world power at least equal to Britain’s: “Unlike Bismarck, for whom the achievement of a unified Germany in 1871 had been the culmination of long-held dreams and ambitions and satisfied the nation’s requirements, Wilhelm and the men around him saw German unification as but the starting point to further expansion.” In an effort to gain European hegemony and in order to counter the rising military strength of Russia, Germany knowingly escalated the local crisis that resulted from the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand into a European war.

Woodrow Wilson wished to keep America out of the war, and in this he was in line with the overwhelming majority of the population. But heavy trade and investment in the Allied nations inevitably brought the country closer to them, a trend intensified by the British blockade of Germany and the other Central Powers, making economic relations with them difficult. Wilson personally favored the British cause, but he did not allow this preference to overturn his policy of neutrality. Wilson’s eventual decision for war was in large part a reaction to the refusal of the Germans to abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. Once the vast economic might of America was arrayed against it, Germany was destined for defeat.

And, Kagan holds, a good thing that it was: 

It is worth asking . . . what might have happened had the United States not intervened in April 1917. At that point in the war, the Allies had no prospect of defeating Germany and Austria-Hungary by themselves. In the most optimistic scenario, the war would have remained a stalemate. Eventually, Britain and France would have been forced to sue for peace under terms that left Germany the dominant economic and military power on the European continent.

Such domination, Kagan thinks, would have been brutal. 

Self-interest did not demand that America intervene: the country was practically invulnerable to attack, and there is little to indicate that a Europe controlled by Germany would have treated the United States with hostility. But honor and morality outweighed self-interest, and America intervened. 

Unfortunately, Kagan holds, at the end of the war America retreated to its selfish policy of non-intervention. The Treaty of Versailles was not perfect, and neither was Wilson’s League of Nations. But by their intransigent opposition to both, coupled with the insistence that the Allies pay in full their wartime debt to the United States, the “irreconcilable” non-interventionists in Congress prevented the European Powers from establishing secure and lasting conditions for peaceful development. (Senator William Borah is a particular target of Kagan’s disdain.)

To the non-interventionists, America’s participation in the world war had been a mistake, not to be repeated; and not even the rise of Hitler to power in 1933 could move them from their course of inaction. Hitler’s ambitious program of European expansion, accompanied by horrible brutality, led these callous men to point to America’s impregnable position and, faced with the pogroms of Kristallnacht, to ask, “What is that to us?” In like fashion, they opposed an active policy to contain Japanese aggression against China. Nor did this change when Japan joined Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in an alliance. 

Franklin Roosevelt was well aware of the threat that these irredentist powers posed to peace and democracy and did what he could to amend the ironclad Neutrality Acts enacted by the non-interventionists, but he met with little success. When war broke out in Europe following the German invasion of Poland, Roosevelt’s efforts to aid the Allies and to contain Japanese expansion again encountered isolationist opposition at every step, and not until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on America was the period of isolation brought to an end. 

The non-interventionists stressed “realism,” but would not an endeavor to interdict Hitler earlier have avoided the horrors of World War II, with all its appalling massacres, and left America safer as well? Kagan’s general lesson is clear. America must act as a benevolent hegemon rather than seek refuge in isolation.

Such is Kagan’s thesis. What are we to think of it? First, his account of the origins of World War I and of American entry into the war is one-sided and in my view wrong. But more important for our present purpose, Kagan gives his readers no indication that what he says is controversial. In his discussion of the origins of World War I, he uncritically adopts Fritz Fischer’s thesis that the war came about as the result of a deliberate attempt by Germany to gain European hegemony. He mentions that a revisionist group of historians after the war challenged the Versailles verdict of unique German guilt, but he doesn’t tell us what their arguments were. He notes that Harry Elmer Barnes had churned out propaganda against the Kaiser during the war and changed his mind afterwards, disillusioned by what he regarded as Wilson’s betrayal of his idealistic principles, but Kagan does not tell us what Barnes said in his major revisionist study, The Genesis of the World War (1926), namely that Russia and France used the crisis after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to bring about a general war in order to secure territorial gains to both countries. 

Sean McMeekin’s outstanding book The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011) lends strong support to the view that Russia wanted a general war in order to secure territorial gains, but it too goes unmentioned by Kagan. (Stefan Possony and Herbert Butterfield argued to the same effect.) Kagan does note that after the war, France wanted the return of Alsace-Lorraine, but if the thought ever crossed his mind that this desire could have influenced the policy of the ardently nationalistic French President Raymond Poincaré, he never discloses it. 

There is no mention of the once standard work of Sidney Bradshaw Fay, The Origins of the World War (1928), which held that none of the major powers sought a world war, though all made mistakes. Kagan also omits mention of Christopher Clark’s more recent outstanding study, The Sleepwalkers (2013), which also challenges the idea of Germany’s having sole responsibility for the war. 

I fear I have gone on at tedious length, so I shall stop at one more item. Kagan does not mention Marc Trachtenberg’s exposure of Fritz Fischer’s distortion of documents in order to argue that Germany wanted a general war, not a punitive local war by Austria against Serbia after the assassination, though he does refer to “minor, meaningless gestures for peace” at the last minute by Kaiser Wilhelm. To reiterate, though, my main complaint against Kagan is not that he adopts the “wrong” interpretation but that he writes as if his own account is not controversial.

The same pattern of distortion by omission continues in his account of America’s entry into the war, and here I must say I am inclined to think the distortion is deliberate. One of the most important American diplomatic historians of the first half of the twentieth century was Charles Callan Tansill, who wrote what to my mind is far and away the best study of American policy in this period, America Goes to War (1938). Kagan knows who Tansill is; he cites Tansill’s The Foreign Policy of Thomas F. Bayard. But he does not cite Tansill’s World War I book. 

Tansill documents to the hilt Wilson’s biased enforcement of America’s neutral rights in favor of Britain and against Germany. Though Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare was a war crime, Britain’s hunger blockade of the Central Powers cost many more lives and also violated international law. But while Wilson at times protested the British policy, he never came close to threatening war over the blockade, as he did with Germany’s actions. Tansill also covers the not-neutral activities of American ambassador to London Walter Hines Page, who actively intrigued to get America involved in the war.

As one might by now expect, Kagan does not cite Tansill’s Back Door to War (1952) either. Tansill in that book shows that the Japanese were far more eager to come to terms with America than Kagan lets on and also stresses a point that Kagan barely mentions, the fact that Japan’s policy of expansion into China was in part motivated by the desire to contain the expansion of Soviet communism into the area.

Although Kagan is appropriately harsh about Stalin, he turns a blind eye to a principal concern of the American non-interventionists of the 1930s, whom he excoriates for their supposed “realism” that ignored the immorality of Nazi and Japanese policies. Many of the non-interventionists feared that American armed action against Germany would advance the interests of Stalin, and they saw little to choose between the German and Russian dictators. Kagan discusses this but treats their comments with incredulity, viewing them as an extreme expression of anti–New Deal sentiment. But they were quite insightful, as a recent study by McMeekin, Stalin’s War (2021), has shown. 

Kagan disagrees, viewing many of the non-interventionists as anti-Semitic bigots. He has a particular animus toward the Catholic Church, among whose partisans he somehow contrives to include T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, though of course neither was a Catholic.

Though The Ghost at the Feast contains much of interest, readers should approach it with caution. It is a partisan plea for American hegemony, as one would expect from its neoconservative author, and it ignores much of the scholarly literature that counters its case.

This originally appeared on Intercollegiate Studies Institute and was reprinted with the author’s permission.

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