May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
My first choice would he something of a nonevent: the failure of the United States to join the League of Nations following World War II. Despite the popular mythology associated with this decision, it is unlikely that its reversal could have blocked the road to the Second World War. Joining the League would not per se have prodded America our of its traditional isolationism. Without a considerably larger army and navy, the United States could not have done much to deter the expansionism of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. There is little to indicate that joining the League would have altered the American people’s traditional sense of their historical role, and the immense problems of the Great Depression would have turned even the most worldly administration inward. And even if the United States had been ready, willing, and able to confront the Axis powers, it is doubtful that Great Britain or France would have countenanced any such American attempt to lead in Europe. In the 1930s both nations were still world powers, and the politics and technology of the timewould have made any effort to bypass them all but impossible.
As a close second for the most overrated event, I would pick the Yalta Conference. The received history of this event is mostly the product of a partisan attempt to smear the memory of Franklin Roosevelt. It is useful to remember that no territory was “surrendered” at Yalta that was not already under the occupation of the Red Army. Indeed, the agreements reached there stipulated free elections for the prostrate nations of Eastern Europe, and Stalin’s creation of the Eastern bloc was in willful disregard of what he had promised at Yalta. It is difficult to see how Roosevelt or anyone else could have prevented such an event, short of at least the threat of war—and it would have been a perilously empty threat, to push a weary nation on into more years of slaughter for the sake of liberating a group of small Eastern European states that had never known much beyond oppressive dictatorship. This is not to minimize the suffering in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states during the Cold War but merely to point out that it was all but inevitable until circumstances changed.
To remain with U.S. foreign policy, I am tempted to name either the signing of the Five-Power Naval Treaty in 1922 or the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The way in which the Five-Power Naval Treaty distributed capital-ship strength among the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and the empire of Japan went a long way toward ensuring that there would be a war in the Pacific. By limiting the United States and Britain to a capital-ship strength of 525,000 tons, France and Italy to 175,000 tons, and Japan to 315,000, the signers ensured Japan naval superiority in the East and simultaneously enflamed resentment there against a West that would keep it a second-rate power. By focusing solely on battleships, the treaty also determined how the next war would be fought, giving a new impetus to the development of submarines, cruisers, destroyers, and that brandnew species the aircraft carrier.
Scientific estimates differ greatly, but the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty may well have saved thousands—if not millions—of individuals from premature death by significantly limiting the amount of radioactive material that would have otherwise been released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
If I were to depart from the foreign policy theme, though, and choose an underrated event that is scarcely one event at all so much as a series of events and policies, I would choose the passage of the Great Society acts. No other government program in the American century has done so much for so little and been so maligned. Contrary to all the propaganda, the combined initiatives of the Great Society cost a relative pittance; the national budget was still balanced when Lyndon Johnson left office in 1969. In return the Great Society was one factor that helped cut real poverty in half in the United States, from 22 percent in 1959 to 11 percent in 1978. Medicare provided health care for the elderly, and Medicaid provided it for the poor. Head Start and other educational spending enabled thousands to get to college; the Job Corps, a higher minimum wage, and food stamps helped the working poor to get by. The first significant national environmental standards and cultural grants gave us something beyond what dollars could measure. Even Johnson’s muchcriticised community-action programs provided new employment in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods.
Overlooked today is the fact that not one of the benefits provided under the Great Society was what is generally thought of as “welfare” by the public. That is, not one was a “dole” of money handed out to ablebodied, unemployed people in lieu of earned income. All of it went for health, education, job training, or works programs. Perhaps most important, though, were the civil rights aspects of the Great Society, embodied by the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and generally forgotten Federal Fair Housing Act (1968). They set the federal government squarely against racial prejudice and discrimination for the first time and prevented untold racial animosity, rancor, and even bloodshed in the supercharged atmosphere of the late sixties and early seventies.