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The Top Twelve Statements on U.S. Foreign Policy

Below are the “top twelve” statements on foreign policy that I consider “critical” to an understanding of how America went from an isolated set of Atlantic-coast colonies to a global “superpower” in approximately two centuries.

It is important to remember that these are “arbitrary” (“subjective”) and that they represent only tiny segments of the full story. Yet it remains one of the truly great stories in all history, and to remind readers of the comments that made it possible is sufficient in itself to appreciate the complete transition.

I have deliberately used only tiny portions of the full statements, both in the interests of space and of importance, as the portions used remain those most remembered and, in turn, are sufficient for the complete narrative. Most of the comments are from Presidents, four are from private citizens.

We begin at the beginning.

1. Farewell Address (George Washington)

In 1796, George Washington was about to conclude his second (and last) term. His Farewell was on the “state” of the nation but contained this paragraph on foreign policy, which essentially guided the country for the next 150 years:

Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, humor, or caprice?

2. The Monroe Doctrine (James Monroe)

Written by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and supported by the British Navy, in 1823, James Monroe submitted this statement to Congress on how the U.S. might view potential European intrusions into the Western Hemisphere. It guided the country until 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry told a meeting of the OAS (Organization of American States) that it was “over” (unofficial). Monroe’s words:

The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.

3. Manifest Destiny (John O’Sullivan)

O’Sullivan was a New York-based journalist and future diplomat who originally declared in 1845 that America had a God-given duty to advance westward to the Pacific Ocean and claim the remainder of the continent as its own. This call for expansion was termed by him as “Manifest Destiny,” and, under that slogan, millions of settlers moved west and declared America as “from sea to shining sea.” The term was never adopted officially and remained as perhaps America’s most lasting expression for its natural destiny. In an article entitled “Annexation,” he urged

the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.

4. Security (Abraham Lincoln)

In 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Illinois outlining how he considered the future of America against any possible foreign intrusions. The speech gave further credence to the “safety net” of the new Republic and encouraged further confidence and expansion without fear from overseas:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.

5. Open Door Notes (John Hay)

In 1899, John Hay, once Lincoln’s private secretary, was Secretary of State under President McKinley while mainland China was invaded by a host of nations from Europe and Japan. Against these intrusions, Hay announced America’s refusal to join in and urged that all others pursue an “Open Door” that would preserve China’s integrity and safety. These “Notes” were sent to all the invaders but were largely ignored. They did, however, begin a series of diplomatic measures to protect China against further invasions, mostly from Japan. The net result was Pearl Harbor and World War II plus a time in history when, of all the world, only America stood up for the Chinese people.

Sample from note to Germany:

The Government of the United States would be pleased to see His German Majesty’s Government give formal assurances, and lend its cooperation in securing like assurances from the other interested powers, that each, within its respective sphere of whatever influence–

First. Will in no way interfere with any treaty port or any vested interest within any so-called ‘sphere of interest’ or leased territory it may have in China.

Second. That the Chinese treaty tariff of the time being shall apply to all merchandise landed or shipped to all such ports as are within said “sphere of interest.”

Third. That it will levy no higher harbor dues on vessels of another nationality frequenting any port in such “sphere” than shall be levied on vessels of its own nationality, and no higher railroad charges over lines built, controlled, or operated within its “sphere.”

6. U.S. Hegemony (Theodore Roosevelt)

In his December 1904 message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt announced his “Corollary” to the original Monroe Doctrine, in which he declared that the U.S. had a responsibility to apply “police power” in cases of “wrongdoing” or “impotence” by others. In so doing, Roosevelt paved the way for a set of more than 25 U.S. interventions around the world, from the Philippines to the Caribbean and Central America. In 1907, he sent the “Great White Fleet” around the world on a year-long trip to remind other countries that America meant business and had naval strength. Thus, this country entered its “imperialist” phase to include occupations of such as Nicaragua (25 years), Haiti (19), The Dominican Republic (8), and The Philippines (47). The key passage:

Chronic wrongdoing…may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

7. Democracy (Wilson)

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, mostly due to the German declaration of unrestricted submarine war against U.S. shipping. Still, the Wilson government had from the beginning supported Great Britain in World War I with millions of dollars in aid, restricted aid to Germany to near zero (due to the British naval blockade), and opposed German “atrocities” during the war (mostly in Belgium). But the essence of Wilson’s call was a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” a call that would soon define the American “purpose” in all of its foreign policies, under a variety of events, circumstances, and expressions. The key part is:

But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts – for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.

8. The Atlantic Charter (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill)

On August 14, 1941, President Roosevelt met for the first time with Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland to plan for the war that Britain was in but which the U.S. had yet to join. The principles established in their final statement not only represented the best both countries could use as “war aims” for humanity but, equally, represented the “special relationship” that not only won the war but dominated the full course of the Twentieth Century as well.

The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.

First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;

Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measure which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Winston S. Churchill

9. Containment (George F. Kennan)

Kennan was a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) who had been attached to Moscow during the early years of the Cold War. On February 22, 1946, he submitted what has become known as the “Long Telegram” (8,000 words) back to Washington outlining how the U.S. should respond to the aggressive initiatives taken against the Western countries by Stalin’s Soviet Union. The result was the U.S. adoption of his strategy of “containment” that first entered America into a peacetime defense of the “Free World,” ended a century of isolationism, formed the Marshall Plan and NATO, and created, for the first (and only) time a World Order based upon freedom. The key section read:

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward “toughness.” While the Kremlin is basically flexible in its reaction to political realities, it is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige. Like almost any other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism. The Russian leaders are keen judges of human psychology, and as such they are highly conscious that loss of temper and of self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs. They are quick to exploit such evidences of weakness. For these reasons, it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.

10. NSC 68 (Paul H. Nitze)

NSC 68 was the product of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff ad hoc committee to investigate how and why to respond to the demands of containment and Soviet maneuvers in the fast-developing and new Cold War of April 1950. As such, it contained a statement on the human and physical resources of America and how they could be applied in a new World Order. NSC 68 remains to this day a summary of what America “stood for” in the world and how it could use its intellectual and geopolitical resources in a hostile and unstable globe. The Chairman of the NSC 68 Committee was Paul H. Nitze.

The Conclusion of NSC 68 follows:


The foregoing analysis indicates that the probable fission bomb capability and possible thermonuclear bomb capability of the Soviet Union have greatly intensified the Soviet threat to the security of the United States. This threat is of the same character as that described in NSC 20/4 (approved by the President on November 24, 1948) but is more immediate than had previously been estimated. In particular, the United States now faces the contingency that within the next four or five years the Soviet Union will possess the military capability of delivering a surprise atomic attack of such weight that the United States must have substantially increased general air, ground, and sea strength, atomic capabilities, and air and civilian defenses to deter war and to provide reasonable assurance, in the event of war, that it could survive the initial blow and go on to the eventual attainment of its objectives. In return, this contingency requires the intensification of our efforts in the fields of intelligence and research and development.

Allowing for the immediacy of the danger, the following statement of Soviet threats, contained in NSC 20/4, remains valid:

The gravest threat to the security of the United States within the foreseeable future stems from the hostile designs and formidable power of the USSR, and from the nature of the Soviet system.

The political, economic, and psychological warfare which the USSR is now waging has dangerous potentialities for weakening the relative world position of the United States and disrupting its traditional institutions by means short of war, unless sufficient resistance is encountered in the policies of this and other non-communist countries.

The risk of war with the USSR is sufficient to warrant, in common prudence, timely and adequate preparation by the United States.

Soviet domination of the potential power of Eurasia, whether achieved by armed aggression or by political and subversive means, would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.


In the light of present and prospective Soviet atomic capabilities, the action which can be taken under present programs and plans, however, becomes dangerously inadequate, in both timing and scope, to accomplish the rapid progress toward the attainment of the United States political, economic, and military objectives which is now imperative.

A continuation of present trends would result in a serious decline in the strength of the free world relative to the Soviet Union and its satellites. This unfavorable trend arises from the inadequacy of current programs and plans rather than from any error in our objectives and aims. These trends lead in the direction of isolation, not by deliberate decision but by lack of the necessary basis for a vigorous initiative in the conflict with the Soviet Union.

Our position as the center of power in the free world places a heavy responsibility upon the United States for leadership. We must organize and enlist the energies and resources of the free world in a positive program for peace which will frustrate the Kremlin design for world domination by creating a situation in the free world to which the Kremlin will be compelled to adjust. Without such a cooperative effort, led by the United States, we will have to make gradual withdrawals under pressure until we discover one day that we have sacrificed positions of vital interest.

It is imperative that this trend be reversed by a much more rapid and concerted build-up of the actual strength of both the United States and the other nations of the free world. The analysis shows that this will be costly and will involve significant domestic financial and economic adjustments.


In summary, we must, by means of a rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world, and by means of an affirmative program intended to wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union, confront it with convincing evidence of the determination and ability of the free world to frustrate the Kremlin design of a world dominated by its will. Such evidence is the only means short of war which eventually may force the Kremlin to abandon its present course of action and to negotiate acceptable agreements on issues of major importance.”

11. Inaugural (Kennedy)

Of all the forty-five presidential Inaugural Addresses, none can come close to that of John F. Kennedy in terms of devotion to foreign policy. His speech, January 21, 1961, had not a single word on anything remotely concerned with domestic issues but in its entirety was totally foreign, what to do but, more importantly, why. It was, upon reflection, a “clarion call” of national and patriotic duty and privilege and was meant for all to hear … and heed. The critical parts are below:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need – not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

12. The End of Soviet Communism (Reagan)

A former Hollywood actor and television personality, Ronald Reagan entered politics in 1964 to support the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. In 1968, he won the first of two terms as California Governor; in 1980, he did the same as U.S. President. As one of the most diverse and human Americans in all history, Reagan, a former Democrat, was all of his life a devoted anti-Communist and privately pledged himself to ending the Soviet Union even before his first Inaugural. With the Soviets in control of over 300 million citizens, an international network, and over 40,000 nuclear weapons, Reagan did exactly that in a few short years. By 1984, the damage to the Soviets was already done, and they collapsed in 1991. This was one of the most remarkable strategic/political events in world history. The full story of how he would do this was revealed by Reagan in full, June 9, 1982, when he addressed the British Parliament, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. His conclusion follows:

I do not wish to sound overly optimistic, yet the Soviet Union is not immune from the reality of what is going on in the world. It has happened in the past: a small ruling elite either mistakenly attempts to ease domestic unrest through greater repression and foreign adventure or it chooses a wiser course – it begins to allow its people a voice in their own destiny.

Even if this latter process is not realized soon, I believe the renewed strength of the democratic movement, complemented by a global campaign for freedom, will strengthen the prospects for arms control and a world at peace.

I have discussed on other occasions, including my address on May 9, the elements of Western policies toward the Soviet Union to safeguard our interests and protect the peace. What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term – the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.