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We Have Met the Enemy and He Is …. Us

I often open my class on U.S. foreign policy by asking the following (trick) question: In history, what is the Capital city that has come closest to an existential defeat of the United States? Hands go up: Moscow, Berlin, Tokyo, even London. After discussion I reveal the answer: it’s Richmond. I emphasize that Richmond is only 90 miles away from where we are all sitting in Washington, D.C. And although these graduate students are well versed in the Civil War, the fact that our once-mortal enemy was so close is always a revelation.

This, I announce, is meant to emphasize a theme of the class, that is, the most likely scenario for the end of America as we know it is more than likely to come from within, rather than without. That, at least, is historically accurate. I then show the 1943 Frank Capra propaganda film, Why We Fight, which shows fictitious Japanese soldiers marching up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, bringing on raucous laughter from the class. But, historically, it is funny.

Indeed, the political divide between “blue” and “red” states, the campus unrest infecting the country, the riots in the cities and the ongoing, seemingly endless racial, ethnic and geographic disturbances reminds me of the notion, often cited, that a nation “divided against itself cannot stand.” But is Lincoln’s 1858 warning still valid? I think so.

It is instructive to know that many of our most important political leaders insisted that a stable home society was critical to American security, more critical even than foreign policies. This began with Washington’s Farewell Address, which emphasized this point at the very beginning: “The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”

This same theme was repeated by Walter Lippmann the chief spokesman for U.S. foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century. Fearing a post-war domestic split, Lippmann wrote in 1943 in The Shield of the Republic, that “The spectacle of this great nation which does not know its own mind is as humiliating as it is dangerous. It casts doubt on the capacity of the people to govern themselves. It will be a profound humiliation […], if once again we fail to form a national policy, and the acids of this failure will be with us for ages to come.” 

At the beginning of the Cold War, George Kennan, the author of containment, reiterated this point. To succeed against the Soviet Union, he wrote that it would be “… a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the people of the world […] the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power.” In addition, he continued, “exhibitions of indecision, disunity and internal disintegration within this country have an exhilarating effect on the whole Communist movement.”

The renowned theologian, John Courtney Murray, once put the self-identification of Americans as a moral and spiritual issue: “Self-understanding is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence. […] The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms, it is insanity. And it would not be well for the American giant to go lumbering about the world today, lost and mad.”

But is that not about where we are now? Nobody will argue that it is 1861 all over again. But the divides and acrimonies among the people has approached crisis, with “Balkanization” a real possibility, either formally or, as now, informally but real enough.

Unity shows in our wartime efficiency. A united “Union” beat the Confederacy in four years, US combat in World War I lasted six months, in World War II less than four years. It’s been downhill since then and the divisions have grown wide open. 

The social divides that occurred during the Vietnam War, including closing over 250 universities, lasted about fifteen years and resulted in abject defeat. The US has been involved in the Middle East since 1983 when 240 Marines were killed by a suicide bomber. American forces have intervened in 19 Islamic countries since then, including long occupations of several. The area is now worse than ever and ISIS has hit Paris. Washington and New York are now on alert.

Is America committing suicide or being murdered? Either way, it’s an inside job.