On Dec. 7, 1941, when the United States entered World War II, the war had been going on for some time, formally since the fall of 1939 with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. But in many ways, including military preliminaries such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the war had been going on much earlier, as the Western world looked on aghast, at the rise of Hitler and his “National Socialism.” A political philosophy with very little socialism but a poisonous level of nationalism, it emphasized the exalted nature of the German “race” and contempt or worse for all minorities, particularly Jews. This factor in German politics became visible soon after the “War to End All Wars” (World War I) had come to an end.
This description was intended by American President Woodrow Wilson to have a meaning beyond an acknowledgment of the appalling level of death and destruction of the war. For most in the West, the phrase was a call for recognition that war, as an extension of national foreign policy, was obsolete, outmoded, outdated and disastrous for all parties. The emerging destructive power of war technologies alone made war an outmoded method of advancing national interest, negating Carl von Clausewitz’s famous phrase, “war is an extension of diplomacy by other means.”
A new system for resolving international conflict, including rules for the growth of democratic notions of governance, was essential. The growth of international industrialization, communication and trade, with its ability to stir conflict, exaggerate wealth differences and anger-based ideologies, was a part of the problem lingering after the war.
The solution, championed by America’s President Wilson but endorsed by European national governments and peoples even more broadly, was to form a league of nations, an international organization committed to negotiation and mediation, including all responsible countries of the world and providing for discipline and enforcement for all, specifically prohibiting war and warlike practices.
This League of Nations organization, a concept that had originated under American leadership, required the participation of the U.S. to be effective. But ironically, the United States, led by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was loath to allow the slightest implication of lending or limitation of its national sovereignty and blocked membership, weakening the League near to the point of destruction.
The ending of the League was poignantly witnessed by the world, when the emotional plea to the League by Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia, for help in blocking Benito Mussolini’s Italy from invading his country, had no effect. Hitler was encouraged by the lack of response also. When I was a Canadian boy in the early years of WWII, it was frequently expressed that if Sen. Lodge had not killed U.S. participation in the League, the nations of the world would have united early to clamp down on Hitler’s form of nationalism and imperial expansion.
When the U.S. entered WWII, the combined forces of many nations, including the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., were always referred to as “the Allies” while Germany and Italy were the Axis — just two and then three with the addition of Japan. “The Allies,” referred to the global organization of forces fighting a hideous form of nationalism.
After the war, a priority of the Allies was to set up a more muscular version of the League of Nations. The United Nations was ruled by a General Assembly, including all nations, and a Security Council consisting of China, Russia, France, Great Britain and the U.S., the top powers of the time, and 10 short-term members elected regionally. Each great power’s veto capability restricts the Security Council’s usefulness somewhat. The Security Council can authorize the use of force where required to bring order to the globe, cool off escalating violence and address its causes.
Creation of the U.N. acknowledged the stupidity of wars in the emerging global era, particularly the use, again, of atomic weapons with their capacity to destroy civilization. The Assembly acknowledged these concerns and responded, establishing, over time, more than 20 organizations addressing poverty, education, justice and health in particular. Independent of the U.N., the Western powers established a World Bank and an International Monetary Fund. Several hundred other international organizations have since been created, with Alaska a participant in some.
Advocacy of “America First,” the implied, exceptional supremacy of a narrowly defined American national interest and the pushing of a shameful politics following these perceptions of exclusivity and power are damaging not only to international relations but to the American future in a world that is going global anyway.
Alaska has, in its own way, been an important part of the emerging global system. Statehood was barely underway when Alaska was touted as the “Crossroads of the World.” Alaskans reached out in every direction to emphasize friendship, common interests including trade as well as accepting immigrants who contribute to the global and transnational nature of Alaska’s role in global society. These efforts echoed the acknowledgement of the internal sovereignty of the Alaska Native with its significant percentage of Alaska’s population and its brother/sisterhood with aboriginal people across the Arctic. New policy alarms including climate change have doubled down on the recognition of the globalization of concerns once thought of in national terms only.
So whether we are talking national policy or state policy, it is error not to respect and acknowledge the nature of Alaska, not as a territory-turned-state but, as the United States itself, a player in a globally defined world.
John Havelock is an Anchorage attorney and university scholar.
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