Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews






American Business and Foreign Policy,

1920-1933. By JOAN HOFF WILSON. (Lex-

ington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971.

xvii + 339p.; notes, bibliography, and in-

dex. $12.50.)


Since 1929 the preoccupation of historians

with the role and ideology of business in

American life has been intense. Studies of

the Gilded Age, such as those by Matthew

Josephson and Charles Beard, looked upon

businessmen as "robber barons" in domestic

affairs. During the isolationist decade capi-

talists became those "merchants of death"

--munition makers and greedy bankers put-

ting profit above human life--who led the

United States into the First World War.

From 1945 to the present Edward Kirkland,

Allan Nevins, and Robert Wiebe along with

other historians have broadened the scope

of inquiry in domestic affairs to discover that

business people had "dreams and thought"

beyond profit, were entrepreneurial giants

and reformers seeking order in the economy

to increase the material well being of all.

With respect to foreign relations, New Left

historians now stress the role of businessmen

in making the Open Door Policy the decisive

one of the twentieth century and the pro-

ducer of the Cold War. Other writers such

as Joseph Brandes and Herbert Feis, in his

Diplomacy of the Dollar, have focused their

attention primarily on foreign economic ad-

venturism during the 1920's.

With her book, American Business and

Foreign Policy, 1920-1933, Joan Hoff Wil-

son must be given a respectable place among

significant scholars in the field of business

history. While her account is less witty, ur-

bane, and authoritative than the monograph

by Feis, it is broader in scope and analysis

then his. In her introduction Mrs. Wilson

indicates the purpose and scope of her study

in these words: "There has been a tendency

either to exaggerate or to underestimate the

role played by the business community in

the formation of foreign policy between

1920 and 1933. This study, therefore, ex-

amines the attitudes and actions of individ-

ual businessmen, industries, and business or

trade organizations to determine the extent

to which government officials were subjected

to pressure from the various segments of the

business community, and the degree to

which they responded" (p. xi).

Thereupon follows a clear overview of the

general business views and foreign policy

trends of 1920. Successive chapters deal

perceptively with the diversified and chang-

ing attitudes of business leaders toward dis-

armament and the peace movement, com-

mercial foreign policy, foreign loan suspen-

sion, war debts, reparations, open and closed

doors. Throughout her book the author re-

fuses to take sides in the "legend of isola-

tionism" in the 1920's debate. In perhaps

her most valuable intellectual contribution,

Professor Wilson concludes that official

American foreign policy was neither isola-

tionist nor internationalist, but was an "in-

dependent internationalism." This she de-

fines as an "unstable assortment of unilateral

and collective diplomatic actions" and "not

a foreign policy but... a pragmatic method

for coordinating foreign affairs" (p. xvi).

No monolithic businessman stereotype is

given. There were, for example, "business

isolationists" and "business internationalists"

in the public discussions of international or-

ganization, peace, and disarmament. The

author, too, sees no conspiracy on the part

of the State and Commerce Departments to

allow oil and other industrial magnates to

conduct foreign relations in the contracts

they made. Yet, the Federal Government in

its policy of hands off private business, save

for minimal rules easily circumvented or not

enforced, led essentially to this result. Also

affirmed is the existence of government of-

ficials and business leaders who believed in

the principle of the Open Door as the way

to peace among nations. In actual experi-

ence, however, the United States demanded

open doors where other nations were highly