Politics Among Nations: Revisiting a Classic

| March 10, 2016
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When introducing Politics Among Nations to his readers in the fall of 1948, Hans Morgenthau was explicit about the volume’s ultimate purpose. His book was neither “disinterested” nor did it mean to offer “knowledge for its own sake.” Rather, the author meant to render both a real and practical service to his fellow countrymen. A series of factors had “completely reversed” the geopolitical status of the United States. It now held a position of predominant power in the world, and hence of foremost responsibility. Therefore, “the understanding of the forces that mold international politics and of the factors that determine its course has become more than an interesting intellectual occupation. It has become a vital necessity.”

Ever since Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Morgenthau had been looking for ways and means to “contribute something worthwhile to the solution of the problems with which this country is at present confronted.” Eager to do his share, he tried to enlist in the army but was rejected on physical grounds; he was also turned down by state and federal government agencies where he sought employment. It was not until 1943, with an appointment at the University of Chicago, that Morgenthau was able to make good on his pledge— and he proceeded to do so in his original field of expertise, as a scholar. From just 1946 to 1951 he published six books and thirty-four articles, in addition to numerous commentaries and reviews. Even with the war over, Morgenthau felt certain that he was indeed making a valuable contribution. As he saw it, the United States was ill-prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. More precisely, Americans had the wrong answers to fundamental questions. They suffered from a disease that had its origins in mistaken philosophic assumptions and thus inevitably extended to all realms of thought and life. Typical symptoms such as legalism, moralism, and perfectionism were easy to detect, and in each of these “isms” Morgenthau recognized an intellectual fallacy, which he set out to correct. Much like the earlier Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (1946) and the later In Defense of the National Interest (1951), Politics Among Nations was written specifically for an American audience: “I deem it my public duty to do what I can in influencing American political thought.” In those years, Morgenthau thought of himself not only as an analyst but also as a doctor who could cure the disease by having recourse to the full spectrum of therapeutic options. While Scientific Man had dealt with fundamental philosophical assumptions, and whereas In Defense of National Interest would focus on foreign policy and practical application, Politics Among Nations offered the core concepts and central theses of Morgenthau’s mature international relations theory. Upon publication in September 1948, the treatise was promptly adopted as a textbook for foreign policy and international relations courses at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Ninety colleges throughout the United States would follow suit within seven months. By 1955, 40,000 copies had been sold in the United States alone, and by 1968 sales would reach 160,000.

Clearly, then, Politics Among Nations did find an audience. But is it truly an American book? And if so, to what extent? The evidence is mixed.

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Category: Issue 30.1, Roundtable: Morgenthau in America

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