By the standards of other Great Powers, the foreign policy of the United States has often been erratic. Its national interest has frequently been questioned, and sometimes negated, especially by conscientious groups who represent America’s allies and protégés as morally unworthy of U.S. support. This has almost never occurred in the history of other important countries (e.g., China’s courtship of Iran, North Korea, and the worst of the African despotisms), except for the famous Disraeli–Gladstone dispute over support of the Turks in the 19th century.
Woodrow Wilson’s assurance that the “wonderful and heartening” initial revolution in Russia in 1917 was an expression that “the great, generous Russian people . . . had always, in fact, been democratic at heart” made the American public and Congress happy to make common cause with it. (It need hardly be added that no such Russian thirst for democracy has revealed itself in the 93 years that have followed.) This was the first of many American celebrations of upheavals in foreign countries that soon proved to be disastrous for this country. The (well-founded) demonization of Nazism was necessary to promote aid to the British and Canadians in 1940–41, let alone assistance to the USSR when it was attacked by Germany. Prodigies of Red Scare fear-mongering were necessary to promote post-war aid to Europe and globe-girdling anti-Communist alliances. The end justified the means, but some of the antics of McCarthy and his followers were a disgrace.
Yet when the heat was turned up, even the British, French, and Israelis at Suez, Cuba’s Batista, Diem and Thieu in Saigon, Somoza in Nicaragua, and, incredibly, the shah of Iran, were “thrown out like dead mice” (as one senior policy adviser put it in the shah’s case), for Nasser, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and his followers, the Sandinistas, and Khomeini. Chile’s Allende was less fortunate, but no more undeserving than these other beneficiaries of misplaced American idealism. The New York Times and The New York Review of Books both still publish opinion pieces that claim the Khomeini Revolution had something to do with democracy. The great but ever-worldly idealist Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when he famously said of Somoza: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”
In this unpredictable way, the United States went from the straight-arming of the world and an official inability to distinguish between Nazi Germany and the British and the French, to passionate and almost universal anti-Communist activism in less than ten years, 1939 to 1949, taking on as allies even the pre-war ogres Franco, Salazar, and Chiang Kai-shek.