The Great Interwar Crisis; America, Hitler and the UN
These two books achieve the unexpected: saying something genuinely new about the great world crisis that began with the Depression in the late 1920s and continued until Allied victory in 1945. Both challenge received wisdom: not only the narratives embedded in hundreds of popular books and TV histories, but also prevailing assumptions among scholars. Read separately, they are intriguing and persuasive; together they combine to create a coherent new synthesis that highlights the importance of international cooperation and economic regulation in sustaining and reconstructing world peace.
The subject of Robert Boyce’s thoughtful, deeply researched book is the failure of the victor powers in the First World War to create effective mechanisms to ensure global stability. The standard interpretation of the interwar years sees Britain and the US as well-intentioned but ineffectual guardians of a liberal world besieged by aggressive powers and undermined by an economic crisis not of their own making. Boyce argues that Britain and the United States cannot escape responsibility (France he treats more sympathetically). The Anglo-Saxon powers succeeded in restoring, for the most part, the open markets of the pre- 1914 world, yet, he argues, they failed utterly to implement an effective framework of agreed rules and institutions that could manage this interconnected global system. This, Boyce emphasises, was a real, not just a perceived, failure of liberalism. Key to Boyce’s argument is the interplay of economics and politics. The political failure of international cooperation exacerbated the economic downturn that started at the end of the 1920s and the slump, in turn, reinforced the protectionism and nationalism that further undermined the liberalised economic system. It was this ‘dual crisis’ of economics and politics that enabled the aggressor powers to make war by the mid-1930s and not, as the standard account has it, the intrinsic weakness of the 1919 settlement.
Dan Plesch reveals that by 1942 British and American leaders recognised precisely what Boyce suggests they had forgotten in the 1930s – that economics and politics are fundamentally interconnected and that systemic crises in the world order need to be anticipated and managed by collective effort. Right at the beginning of US involvement in the Second World War Churchill and Roosevelt issued a ‘Declaration by United Nations’ with 24 other states including China and the Soviet Union, which was to be the rhetorical and to some extent organisational basis of the military alliance that won the war. In an engaging and vigorously argued book Plesch contends that FDR used the ‘brand’ of the UN not only to help maintain a wartime alliance but also to prepare domestic opinion for American involvement in the postwar world. The wartime vision for the UN, Plesch shows, was an ambitious one. It included not only the political functions of managing the world system but, crucially, incorporated international economic institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose origins as part of the UN project are often now forgotten. It was under the banner of the United Nations that the United States organised the Bretton Woods conference which wrote the rules that regulated the postwar international economic order during the great 30-year boom that began in the late 1940s.
The implications for our understanding of how the war was won are in one sense quite subtle: Plesch’s principal insight is about how the alliance was imagined and presented rather than how it functioned. Yet the impact of his argument is significant. Together these two books offer a new periodisation for the first half of the 20th century in which the years from about 1928 to 1942 form a distinctive, dark era in which cataclysmic world war was caused by a total breakdown of serious efforts to establish international economic and political cooperation. There are echoes of the interwar era in our current crisis. As pressure mounts in many countries for greater unilateralism, these two books are as timely as they are stimulating.
Adam I.P. Smith is Senior Lecturer in History at UCL