Mark Thomas Edwards is Associate Professor of US History and Politics at Spring Arbor University, where he researches the intersection of religion, politics, and diplomacy in the United States. In his new book, Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century, Edwards examines the convergence of Protestant Christianity and secularism in the shaping of American diplomacy since the Spanish-American War.
ECM: To what, specifically, does “the American Century” refer?
MTE: Historically, the phrase “American Century” refers to an editorial written in February 1941 by Life magazine publisher Henry Luce. Luce was part of a group of East Coast elites, centered around the Council of Foreign Relations, wanting the United States to declare war on Germany. In the essay, Luce argued that the United States should give up its misguided “America First” isolationism, in large part because it was self-defeating. A realistic assessment of American interest would recognize that the United States should be building a world order or “environment” friendly to American economic and cultural expansion.
Luce believed American military endeavors would be temporary; following victory, the United States would rather invest in peace-making policies of global capitalist development, modernizing “backward” states, and humanitarian assistance. His thousands of respondents, as detailed in the introduction of my book, were divided over whether or not his vision was imperialistic. They were also split over the question of the place of Christianity in either promoting or restraining American globalism.
The phrase “American Century” was quickly forgotten but then revived after 1980 in both scholarly and popular literature. A lot of the focus has been on the question of whether the American Century is now over. My book is in part a genealogy of the American Century concept, especially as it might be considered a religious icon.
ECM: The book opens with a discussion of missionary diplomacy as a forerunner to public diplomacy. Can you explain the significance of these terms?
MTE: I challenge current definitions of public diplomacy. Most historians since 2000 have followed the foreign policy establishment in defining public diplomacy as propaganda aimed at winning foreign audiences over to American values, policies, and interests. Historically, the term was more fluid and, at first, involved elite efforts to persuade Americans themselves to support their country becoming a great world power. Public diplomacy, between the world wars especially, also meant experiments to democratize foreign policymaking—this was sometimes called “popular diplomacy.”
Public diplomacy in the American Century can also be understood as a secularization of nineteenth-century missionary diplomacy. By “missionary diplomacy,” I mean two things: missionaries were primary (if often unreliable) creators of information about the world beyond North America; and missionaries and their home front administrators were chief cheerleaders for American expansion. Missionaries often justified US economic, cultural, and even military imperialism in terms of bringing “civilization” to “savage,” “backward,” and/or “undeveloped” peoples. New post-WWI think tanks like the Foreign Policy Association and Council on Foreign Relations were fairly explicit in rejecting missionary authority in favor of public diplomacy built upon a foundation of social scientific expertise. As I show, missionary discourses of “civilization” still pervaded the work of the Council on Foreign Relations well into World War II.
ECM: Who were Francis and Helen Miller, and why are they so central to the story you tell?
MTE: This book began as a biography of the Millers, and they remain the “connective tissue” of the broader narrative I crafted. As a pastor’s kid whose brother became a missionary, Francis was steeped in the missionary diplomacy of the nineteenth century. Miller went on to serve as a college YMCA organizer at home and abroad, a private during World War I, a Rhodes scholar, and eventual chairman of the World’s Student Christian Federation, a missionary coordinating organization and forerunner of the World Council of Churches. Miller served a turn in the Virginia House of Delegates before becoming a leading coordinator of interventionist activity and entering World War II as a member of the spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and General Eisenhower’s staff in postwar Germany. Miller unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Virginia in 1949, and Senator in 1952, in an effort break up the conservative Democratic “Byrd Machine” and bring New Deal liberalism to the state. He ended his career in the State Department working on a variety of public diplomacy projects.
Helen, meanwhile, during the 1920s worked in the trade union movement and earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. With Francis, she wrote one of the first American analyses of the rapid Americanization of Western Europe after World War I. Also with Francis, she worked on behalf of the Foreign Policy Association to establish a nationwide network of local, city-based Policy Committees that would bring primarily middle-class representatives together for political deliberation. She, too, was an equal partner with Francis in coordinating interventionist activity, including meetings with British ambassador Lord Lothian, a family friend. Helen went on to become one of the most well-known and respected Washington insider journalists and reporters during the 1950s and 60s. Though she never considered herself a feminist, Helen would write the first report on the Presidential Status of Women commissioned by John F. Kennedy.
Many people helped “draft” Luce’s American Century concept in the years between 1898-1941. The Millers were often working behind the scenes to bring those people into contact with each other. So an examination of this power couple shows both how the public diplomacy of the American Century was made possible and how it remained a contested ideal.