Realism and Idealism

That Felix Gilbert, a German-born and German-educated his¬torian of Renaissance Italy and Prussian politics should have published To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy (1961) is one of the least likely events in American historiogra¬phy. That slim volume set the terms for an extended debate not only on the original character of American diplomacy but on the general nature of America’s role in world affairs. Yet, unlikely as it may seem, Gilbert’s background prepared him uniquely for this influen¬tial foray into American history and for the challenging view it contained.
Scion of a German family prominent in cultural and financial life, Gilbert (1905-1991) had been named after his great-grandfather, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, and was closely related to the cul¬tivated bankers, industrialists, and officials in the Mendelssohn- Bartholdy-Oppenheim clan. He had been educated at Heidelberg and had served a rigorous scholar’s apprenticeship, first in Berlin under Friedrich Meinecke, who directed his doctoral dissertation on the nineteenth-century historian Johann Gustav Droysen, then, under the supervision of his uncle Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy, as assistant in the great documentary project in German foreign pol-icy, Die Grosse Politik der Europaischen Kabinette. He had turned there¬after to Renaissance studies, devoting himself to the balance of power in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy and to the historiog¬raphy of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Had the upheaval of Nazism and World War II not interrupted his promising academic career, he would have remained in Germany and Italy, refining and developing his studies of the Renaissance and nineteenth-century German poli¬tics. In later years he would resume those studies, but only after a sig¬nificant detour.
With fascist pressure bearing down on him, Gilbert migrated, first to England and then to America, where in 1939 his talents were recognized by an appointment as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There he joined a special semi¬nar on American foreign policy that had been convened within a month of the outbreak of World War II to analyze the history of isolationism in American life and the nation’s traditional fear of “entangling alliances.” Some of the finest minds in American his¬torical, political, and cultural scholarship came together in that group to probe this bitterly divisive topic, which was convulsing American politics as war swept over Europe. Everyone knew that America’s stance toward the world conflict would shape the fate of Western civilization, but in 1939-40 isolationism remained domi¬nant. Why? What was the source and character of this desire to withdraw from transatlantic affairs? How deep did it run in Ameri¬can life? What status did it, or should it, have in contemporary American life?
In the research and papers Gilbert presented to the seminar he sought to trace America’s isolationism back to its historical roots and thus to grasp its essence. Anticipations could be found, he wrote, in Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, which so greatly stimulated the movement for American independence, and in commonplace discussions in American coffeehouses and political meetings. But mainly, Gilbert concluded in his work for the seminar, the idea origi¬nated in the British mindset, the British stance toward Europe, which Paine and others brought with them to America. By July 1940 the seminar’s leader could report that Gilbert, “in several careful stud¬ies” which constituted “an original and unique contribution to American history,” had shown the importance of Britain’s fear of continental entanglements in the eighteenth century and the pecu¬liar and profound way that fear shaped American thinking. It formed the background to Washington’s Farewell Address and fed American suspicions of the process of diplomacy itself. In October 1940 Gilbert’s book on the subject was said to be ready for publication by Christmas.
In fact the book appeared only after Gilbert had had twenty more years of experience in the United States and after World War II had been fought and concluded and one could take a longer view of the course of American foreign policy in the light of the Cold War. By 1961 the initial concerns of 1939-40 still lay at the heart of Gilbert’s thinking, but the emphasis had shifted and broadened. At the core of the book now lay the complex proposition that American culture had had from the start “a strong feeling of material realism and a pervasive air of utopian idealism and, consequently, two different attitudes regarding the Old World: attraction and rejection.” What struck Gilbert most forcefully as he examined the founding of the American nation in the context of his studies of nineteenth-century Prussian politics, Machiavelli, the balance of power in and among the Renaissance states, and the failure of the Revolution of 1848 was the persistent strain of idealism in American public life— indeed, its utopian idealism, latent or manifest. The European roots of American isolationism could easily be demonstrated, but isola¬tionism in America could also and perhaps more significantly be seen as a defensive policy to protect utopian hopes that a better world, freer, less subject to the misuse of power than heretofore, could be built on this continent if the new nation kept itself free of the devastation of Europe’s power struggles. America’s basic atti¬tude to foreign policy, Gilbert wrote in the conclusion of the book, was shaped by the tension between Idealism and Realism. Settled by men who looked for gain and by men who sought freedom, born into inde¬pendence in a century of enlightened thinking and of power politics, America has wavered in her foreign policy between Idealism and Realism, and her great historical moments have occurred when both were combined.

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