CFR and State Department Discussions on “World Control”

Let’s talk RealPolitik. During WWII, it was internally assumed that the U.S. would emerge from the war as the world’s dominant power. One of the primary war aims of the war was to organize a “Grand Area” to serve the needs of the American economy.

In 1939, the U.S. State Department along with members of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) set up study groups to discuss and detail “concrete proposals designed to safeguard American interests in the settlement which will be undertaken when hostilities cease.” I’d like to share some internal memos showcasing how the State Department and the CFR debate their plans for “world control” immediately following the war.

On December 15, 1941, Isaiah Bowman, CFR vice-president and President of Johns Hopkins University, wrote to Hamilton Fish Armstrong, vice-chairman of the CFR War and Peace Studies and managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine:

Dear Hamilton,

The entry of the United States into the war, and especially — under the conditions now bearing the historic label of “Pearl Harbor,” has changed somewhat the orientation of our Group studies, while at the same time intensifying the need for them on the part of the Government. This letter is for the purpose of stating a point of view with respect to these studies in the hope that all who participate in them will be encouraged to continue, and even to increase their effort.

Over the week-end I have received startling information concerning the limited production in Great Britain in certain critical categories of war equipment. It is appalling how backward they have been. The story of American tanks in use in Libya is a pale reflection of England’s need and our supply. We now know that the shipbuilding industry will have to rise to extraordinary heights to do the job ahead of us. Our construction of war vessels must be speeded up. We shall have to take off any ceiling that may have been in view with respect to our national debt.

If we do all these things in order to bring about an era of peace with justice, then the whole world will be benefitted; and by the same token the whole world should pay the cost of the war. This it can do only through trade and all that this word implies of production and consumption. What effect will this have upon the controls set up after the war in the field of shipping alone? If we are expected to build a vast Navy and operate merchant ships on an unheard-of scale, we are not going to toss these things away at the end of the war on any theory of peace. We are going to keep them and make them work in the interests of the way that we set up.

It is tempting to go on with the analysis; but I am sure that it would be a waste of time. The main thing is that any one of these concepts means a change in the orientation of our studies to correspond with an enforced change in our point of view. We have to think of world- organization in a fresh way. To the degree that the United States is the arsenal of the Democracies it will be the final arsenal at the moment of victory. It cannot throw the contents of that arsenal away. It must accept world responsibility. It is right that in the past we have been rather timorous in our approach to this to this question. We are not imperialistic in outlook. We have no desire to dominate the world. Events have now forced us to dominate the war situation. The measure of our victory will be the measure of our domination after victory. All this will be much clearer to our people before the war is much older. Our preceding memoranda should be re-studied with these things in view. Clearly the members of our five groups ought to be stimulated to fresh endeavor. Within the past ten days the importance of our studies has been doubled or trebled, in my opinion. I hope that our studies of 1942 will be on a still higher plane of effort.

Sincerely yours,

The following month, in January 16, 1942, Bowman further asserted that at minimum, an enlarged conception of American security interests would be necessary after the war in order to deal with areas “strategically necessary for world control”.

Memorandom T-A21, January 16, 1942, CFR, Studies of American Interests in the War and the Peace

Postwar Strategic Needs of the United States:

This discussion on the next peace settlement led Mr . Bowman to observe that it was important to develop within the context of specific problems a general theory of policy, which in turn might serve as a guide to practical action. For instance, as the Group undertakes studies with respect to the postwar treatment of Morocco, Indo-China, Malaysia, etc., where the forces of leadership have not emerged within the native groups, it will be necessary to try and develop in the course of these studies a general principle of policy. The simplest principle is that of outright military control, but in the long run it is not adequate. The problem is to find a way to generate forces of political self-rule within the countries themselves, and that ts not easy. Mr. Mallory suggested, however, that we had made a good start in the Philippines.

From a strategic standpoint, Mr . Miller commented, those places which are weak, partly because of inadequate native capacity and partly because of economic and technological backwardness, are the most dangerous. As Mr. Hopper observed, they constitute a vacuum inciting the rivalries of the Great Powers. Mr. Bowman then asserted that he was convinced that a new or, at least, enlarged conception will be needed after the war to deal with places strategically necessary for world control. The United States, he thought, would have to expand vastly its own notions of the requirements of defense and peace. If, for instance, we go into Dakar and West Africa, we will probably have to stay there when the war is ended, or else be certain that the area is in permanently friendly hands.

To Mr . Armstrong’s comment that this sounded like imperialism, Mr. Hopper suggested that we should regard it not as imperialism, but as “manifest defense.” Mr. Mallory raised the question of whether the peoples who would be so controlled would regard it in the same light as we did; and Mr. Maddox observed that , although he did not object to Mr . Bowman’s point, it did not square well with the Atlantic Declaration. Thereupon, Mr . Bowman replied that we had committed ourselves in the Declaration to the establishment of a real peace, and to that end it might be necessary to take over (perhaps with others) the control of key places which were essential to the prevention of attacks.

Principles of an American Policy with regard to the Peace Settlement:

Mr . Bowman proceeded to enlarge upon other theoretical aspects of the next peace settlement. There was, he said, a theory in 1918-19, that of Wilson, which was based on the extension of the principles of Jeffersonian democracy to the world. It was naive, but it was a theory. He was not certain today that the Eight Point program embodied principles sufficiently flexible to embrace the world.

It would be desirable, Mr. Bowman thought, to start with a much more general statement which would reach the very root of the developments leading up to the present war. “Our business is to restore ‘good faith’ to a seat of honor in international relationships,” he said. The three aggressor nations have over the years struck at the one central thing which holds our society together, viz., good faith. They have undermined it, and then torn it to pieces. They have done it deliberately and avowedly. We are not fighting simply for a war of victory; rather we are fighting to restore “good faith” in a world which had nearly lost it. Let us keep our eyes fixed, as Lincoln did, on the central issue. Lincoln brushed aside subsidiary considerations; the main thing — “the Union must be preserved” — he kept steadfastly before him.

Now it i s possible to get at specific things, Mr . Bowman went on to say, through the generalization. There was, for instance, the question of Anglo-American cooperation. He believed in it, but not because of racial or cultural affinities, or even because of power considerations, but for the reason that England has, on the whole and in spite of occasional aberrations (as in the case of India), kept the faith. But so has Greece, and so have a number of other countries. Mr. Maddox remarked that it was not possible to subordinate the power factor: in order to maintain the good faith, a certain international policing job had to be done, and that was why, among other reasons, it would be necessary to include Great Britain in a scheme of postwar control. He also suggested that Mr . Bowman’s emphasis on “good faith” fitted in with Secretary of State Hull’s insistence for many years on the maintenance of international order on the basis of respect for law. Mr. Bowman agreed for the most part with both observations, but felt that with respect to the latter it would be desirable to freshen up the older formulation.

As a second general -principle to underly the peace, Mr. Bowman continued, some people would endorse the establishment of democratic forms of government everywhere. He did not think such a statement would mean anything. Many parts of the world are not ready for democracy; we could not tell Yugoslavia and Greece, for instance, that they must abandon monarchy. Mr. Hopper recommended the endorsement of “the right to choose one’s own form of existence — one’s own form of government.” Mr. Bowman expressed general agreement, but felt that it needed a slight extension: “the right to choose one’s own form of government so long as such government maintains good faith in its external relations.”

Mr. Maddox thought that before you could talk about the form of government, the territorial issue had to be settled. Upon what principles, he asked, should the question of the reconstitution of independent states, or the allocation of territory and the fixing of boundaries, be established? The Atlantic Declaration had offered a formula which seemed to exclude all change except on the basis of the consent of the peoples concerned. He wondered whether that would cover the strategic places to which Mr. Bowman had referred earlier. Mr. Bowman declared that, in his opinion, it would be legitimate to hold such strategic points (e.g. Dakar) until it was fully demonstrated that “good faith” was going to be preserved in the world. Mr . Hopper asked if the same principle might justify Great Britain in the proposal (made by some Englishmen) that the Channel ports should be retained after the war. To this Mr. Bowman replied that the proposal had some merit, and that Britain might need some guarantee until the new French government had been thoroughly tested. Why isn’t it feasible, he asked, to argue as follows: that those who have the strength to win the victory must hold the places necessary to maintain that victory until the forces of political and economic revival in other countries shall entitle them to full participation in the task of maintaining the order of the world?

Before closing the discussion, Mr. Bowman said that high up in the list of immediate tasks to be done following the war must be placed that of feeding the stricken peoples of the world, and the setting in motion of international economic arrangements.

To add some context, in August of 1941, the Roosevelt administration released the famous Atlantic Charter. This charter publicly advocated the goals of the post-war period which people everywhere would agree were worth fighting for: freedom, equality, prosperity, and peace.

Unfortunately, the Atlantic Chatter was pure propaganda. The internal record shows a very different vision of the post-war period, demonstrating, once again, that the US has never been interested in democracy, freedom, equality, or human rights. It’s clearly documented for all to read.  

Any questions?

Thanks for reading,


Bowman to Armstrong, December 15, 1941, Bowman Papers, Armstrong File, John Hopkins University Library, Baltimore, Maryland

Memorandom T-A21, January 16, 1942, CFR, Studies of American Interests in the War and the Peace, Baldwin Papers, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut

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