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How the Postwar Shift of Global Power to Washington Set the Stage for Today’s Geopolitics

A new book examines the role of maps in shaping how policymakers imagined the new Middle East

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1941 United States War Office map of the Middle East. (Library of Congress)
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Thus a receding British Empire gave way to a new U.S. role in the world guided by what Smith, Stephen Ambrose, and other historians termed a new globalism, one that echoed the manifest destiny of 19th century frontier expansion and suggested aspirations toward a worldwide Monroe Doctrine for a new era of American primacy.

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American globalism crossed a new threshold at San Francisco. Emerging from its origins in U.S. war strategy and the work of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Advisory Committee for Postwar Foreign Policy, that conception of U.S. security interests in the postwar world now came to be enshrined in the institutional structure of the principal postwar international organization through which the great powers would work to solve postwar questions like the disposition of colonial territories and the settlement of interstate disputes. Roosevelt and Truman had succeeded in imprinting a distinctly American vision of the postwar world on the UN Charter.

Importantly that vision came to bear directly on the fate of the post-colonial world. American globalism impacted the situation in Palestine profoundly in the years after the war, as the displaced Jews throughout liberated Europe faced increasingly dire circumstances. The resettlement of European Jews in Palestine seemed completely consistent with the Truman administration’s worldview. The linkage between continental Europe and Palestine drawn by American globalism was not arbitrary, as were the proposals to resettle Jews in Africa or Latin America. For in a Braudelian sense, a true geographical proximity did underlie the link between Europe and the Middle East in the minds of those who supported the Zionists. Located where the southeastern cusp of Europe met Central Asia, their ancestral homeland of Palestine across the shores of the Mediterranean was the most sensible place for these European refugees to return—as they had begun to do throughout the first half of the century. Indeed the Truman administration had even authorized the U.S. Army to fly Jewish teachers and tons of educational material on military aircraft from Palestine to makeshift camps for displaced European Jews in Germany.

Thus a searching desire for truly global postwar settlements only reinforced White House officials’ sense of Palestine’s actual proximity to Europe, thereby linking the plight of displaced European Jews on that continent to the Yishuv through these cognitive connections between liberated Europe and Palestine. The Truman administration’s concerns for European Jewry can be attributed in part to the influence of White House officials like David Niles and Clark Clifford, citing the domestic pressures to alleviate the suffering of displaced Jews seeking entry into Palestine and the Jewish vote in the prelude to the 1948 U.S. presidential election. But a balanced historical analysis of the administration’s Palestine policy must also acknowledge that the postwar globalism of the U.S. national security establishment as a whole had drawn an implicit geographical connection between the displaced European Jews and the situation in Palestine in the aftermath of a war spread across three continents. Addressing the plight of European displaced persons with assistance from relief services fit squarely within the bounds of that global vision. So did the relocation of displaced persons across the war’s various theaters—a realization that had set in even at the State Department, it is worth noting, and well before the end of the Roosevelt administration.

As the Advisory Committee for Foreign Policy’s Subcommittee on Political Problems put it, “Transfers of peoples would be carried out on a voluntary basis when possible and otherwise compulsorily. The definition of self-determination which emerged was ‘the freedom of the self to transport himself to the land where he wants to live’; and it was accepted that assistance must be given to the individual so transported. It was determined that territorial questions should be settled prior to action on the transference of populations.” That policy view, reflective of the American globalism that had evolved from wartime and postwar planning, came to bear heavily on the Truman administration’s subsequent efforts to press for increased Jewish emigration to Palestine, despite British protests.

Having developed during the war under FDR, and perhaps reached its apogee in the U.S. support of the 100,000 additional Jewish migrants to Palestine recommended by the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, the globalism projected onto the Middle East persisted after the outbreak of interstate Arab-Israeli conflict in May 1948. While the Near East experts at the State Department had vehemently opposed the specific policy of continued Jewish emigration to Palestine, the minutes of the Subcommittee on Political Problems revealed a willingness to contemplate free migration by refugees to places of their choosing in the course of postwar settlements. The Department also echoed aspects of globalism in its recognition of the worldwide consequences of the outbreak of the conflict in Palestine beyond just the Eastern Mediterranean or the Levant. At that time the State Department assessed that “continued warfare between Jewish and Arab forces would undermine the gains which have been made in Greece, Turkey and Iran, might permanently alienate the Arab world from western influences, and might impose upon the United States a basic re-examination of its own world security position.”

It was a powerful worldview also shared by U.S. planners on the military side of Palestine policy: Its geographic significance was much wider; so much so, the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee had warned, that employing U.S. troops to address it might cause the entire Middle East “to fall into anarchy and become a breeding ground for world war.” While the Arabists at the State Department and the Joint Chiefs may not have shared the White House’s proposed approach to the Arab-Jewish dispute in Palestine, the Advisory Committee saw the virtues of free resettlement to such territories. And despite internal disagreements, much of the U.S. national security establishment recognized the profound ways in which the conflict implicated populations far beyond Palestine’s verdant orchards and cobalt waters.

The views expressed in this book are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or any other U.S. government agency.

From Mapping the End of Empire: American and British Strategic Visions in the Postwar World, by Aiyaz Husain. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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How the Postwar Shift of Global Power to Washington Set the Stage for Today’s Geopolitics

A new book examines the role of maps in shaping how policymakers imagined the new Middle East

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