Thursday, August 29, 2013

Calvin Coolidge and Foreign Policy

The diplomatic efforts of the Coolidge presidency, taking place as they did between the two world wars and during the prosperity of the 1920’s, often receive less attention than they deserve, being overshadowed by the administration’s domestic matters. To be sure, Coolidge’s domestic policies are noteworthy: his repeated efforts to get Congress to pass anti-lynching laws, and his amazing ability to simultaneously reduce taxes, government spending, and national debt. Coolidge achieved several budget surplus years while in office.

In the realm of foreign policy, Coolidge was occupied by the world balance of power. Taking office four years and a few days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, he was concerned to stabilize international relations in the wake of World War One. This brought him into some amount tension with America’s allies, especially France, who were intent on punishing Germany and relentless in demanding war reparations. Yet Coolidge saw that the ruthless terms of the Versailles Treaty, and the cruel strictness with which its terms were being imposed, could easily lead to another world war.

While Coolidge’s style in domestic policy may be described as “hand-on”, he prefered to delegate much of the diplomatic work. For this purpose, he assembled an excellent team. Charles Evans Hughes served as Secretary of State, starting before Coolidge took office until March 1925; before Coolidge took office, he negotiated a separate peace with Germany to avoid implicating the United States in the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles and led global peace and disarmament talks resulting in the signing of several treaties; under Coolidge, he worked to ensure that the United States would not recognize the Bolshevik dictatorship which had formed the USSR. Charles Dawes, Coolidge’s vice president from March 1925 to March 1929, had served as Director of the Bureau of the Budget under President Harding; he was then appointed to deal with the looming geo-financial crisis regarding Germany’s economy and created the Dawes Plan, which kept Germany and Europe economically sound for the rest of that decade.

In seeking to avoid the scenario in which France provoked another war by its harsh treatment of Germany, Coolidge saw himself as acting in America’s interests. He feared that the United States would again be dragged into a major land war in Europe. His policies were neither internationalist nor isolationist, as David Greenberg writes:

Secretary of State Hughes secured the president’s blessing to organize a commission of delegates from Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, and the United States to craft a solution. To lead it, Coolidge named the dynamic Charles Dawes, a wealthy financier who had been Harding’s economy-minded budget director. Though the president stayed out of the negotiations, he threw his weight behind the Dawes Committee and joined its fortunes to his own. Negotiations commenced in earnest in Paris in January 1924, and by early April a compromise emerged: in return for a withdrawal from the Ruhr, the Allies would restructure the German debt and reorganize the German central bank. Providing the critical ingredient, the United States would furnish Germany with the capital to help repay its loans. Despite criticism from isolationists like Hiram Johnson, who decried the meddling European affairs, Coolidge stuck with the plan.

Foreign policy influenced domestic politics, as is always the case. Having had no vice president during his first years in office, Coolidge selected Dawes at the 1924 Republican convention as his running mate as Dawes’s fame was on the rise because of these diplomatic achievements. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury during Coolidge’s entire presidency, would see to it that Dawes continued to be influential in policy decisions. Amity Shlaes writes:

On June 7, even as the Republican Party was selecting its vice president, came the news that the German Reichstag had voted to support the Dawes Plan; it was another coup for Dawes and sealed Dawes’ candidacy. Mellon had a plan to give the vice president greater powers, including supervision of some bureaus and agencies, so that the executive need cover less. This appealed to Dawes.

Another crucial appointment made by Coolidge was Frank Kellogg as Secretary of State from March 1925 to March 1929. Coolidge initiated, and Kellogg organized, a conference at Geneva in 1927 in an attempt to limit arms. Approach by the French diplomat Briand with an idea of a bilateral treaty, Kellogg countered with the idea of a multilateral treaty which would finally involved 62 nations under the title “The Kellogg-Briand Pact.”

Coolidge saw Europe in the 1920’s as having the potential for another great war. Seeking to avoid that war, by stabilizing the global economy and by limiting the international arms race, was the impetus for much of Coolidge’s foreign policy.