Coming on the “heels” of the top twelve foreign policy statements in U.S. history, I now have the (unpleasant) task of rating the bottom six episodes. I write “unpleasant” since nobody wants to know his/her “dark” side or even to acknowledge that such things even exist. Well, they do, and, as we all know, “nobody’s perfect.”
This probably fits in well within the current political climate, as the country, or at least those in the media more often, has almost been “co-opted” by a negative press. By and large, this association is “systemic” insofar as it condemns not just mistakes by otherwise normal or innocent people trying to conduct the “American Dream,” but by those who challenge the “Dream” in the first place.
That “systemic racism” is adopted by The New York Times and many other media outlets plus hundreds of school systems qualify America as “guilty” by definition, in which a “rating” of mistaken judgment is superfluous. In this category, America is a “living sin” in the first place, and this “sin” is both original and permanent.
My rating of the worst six cases in history does not fit the “systemic” category. In assuming the best of intentions, I acknowledge mistakes, assumptions, or judgments of enormous or historic proportions that shaped the flow of U.S. history and culture and that, in most cases, remain with us to this day. I have no interest in personal condemnations or to assess the character or qualitative nature of our leadership. I am assuming the best of intentions and the worst of outcomes, whether or not these come from character flaws or circumstances “beyond control.”
Nor am I going to evaluate consequences, a task above my own (or anyone’s) judgment. Suffice it to say that the consequences were “bad,” and leave it at that. In judging President Wilson, for example, in the Versailles Treaty which we never signed, I simply say this: “no matter what one might think, it could have been much worse.”
Finally, remember that this is completely “subjective,” both personal and “arbitrary” to myself. Nor will this be a “research” paper; it is completely from memory and personal reflection; a judgment call like anything else.
For what it’s worth, the “Bottom Six.”
I’ve recently labeled Vietnam as the worst, despite supporting it from the “sidelines” as faculty at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Since my subsequent research for my book Chasing Ghosts, Unconventional War in U.S. History (2006), I am able to place the war in a much greater perspective. But, this aside, I believe that Vietnam was the only war that I was eligible for but refused to serve. That would have required me to volunteer since my age group was far beyond the draft age. This I didn’t do and have no regrets, but will always wonder what might have happened if I did.
That’s understandable and is shared by millions of other American men. But, tactics aside, my fundamental opposition was the philosophy behind the entire adventure. Personally, I blame, of all people, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Allied side in history’s greatest war. His 1954 speech in which he compared the loss of Vietnam to “a row of dominos” that will make other countries fall automatically gave official “sanction” to all that happened since.
With all due respect comparing world politics to “dominos” was absurd; a much more accurate game would have been chess, where each player behaves by their own standards and capacity. To believe that the Communist Bloc was a true “monolith,” and could act independently from other factors was to ignore reality. But IKE was not alone, and that assumption ordered policy.
If IKE had, appropriately, warned against getting involved, history would have looked fundamentally different. Completely ignored was the fundamental nature of world politics, the impact of nationalism, history, geopolitics, national interest, and other topics that I spent my time lecturing on at school. Vietnam was a classic case, and even I didn’t know it (nor did IKE).
So, he didn’t, and America continued into the quagmire with official support. Today, 58,000 American lives later, official U.S. recognition of Communist Vietnam, America as a “superpower,” the Soviet Union gone, and the southern border our greatest issue, we know now of Vietnam as a distant memory, to be forgotten as a “mistake.”
To me, the mistake was “tragic,” but little came of it historically. On April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon, few Americans stopped to take notice. The next day, May 1, came and went, as did the rest of history.
To the loved ones of the dead left behind, I offer my sincere apologies, on behalf of my country. But what else can I offer? And IKE, after all, is said and done, is truly “heroic” in the greater “game” he played.
2. World War I
One of the most glaring “lies” in American history was the one told and accepted by the entire country in the first years of World War I. The lie was that America was “neutral” between Germany and Britain and that President Woodrow Wilson himself originated and perpetrated that lie until he declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Since the war began in August 1914, that’s over two- and one-half years of the greatest single lie told to the American people (perhaps) in history. In November 1916, he campaigned on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” – true enough, but deceptive insofar that, five months later, he declared war on the same country (Germany) that he kept U.S. “out” of.
In 1914, trade between the U.S. and Britain was about the same as with Germany, in the millions. At the beginning of the war, Britain imposed a naval blockade against Germany and continental Europe that, de facto, dried up all potential foreign aid or trade with the continent. The U.S. respected this blockade, and, by 1916, all trade with Germany went down to near zero. Conversely, U.S. trade with Britain skyrocketed by the millions to the point that, by 1916, the U.S. was, de facto, a “partner” in the war, despite many difficulties against British “confiscation” of U.S. shipping and “seizures” of American ships suspected of holding “contraband” for the Kaiser.
All of Wilson’s Cabinet members were pro-British, and several were born there. Wilson went on a tirade against any and all “Teutonic” influences inside the U.S., holding German citizens in “camps” across the country, banning sauerkraut and other dishes from market, closing German and Lutheran churches, banning pro-German books, etc.
By 1917, Germany was desperate to open the sea lanes in the Atlantic, but its Navy was locked up by the British. The Kaiser then turned to his Admirals, who used the only fleet left to combat the British Navy: the submarine (“underwater” or “U” Boats). Declaring “unrestricted submarine warfare” was, in effect, Germany’s “Pearl Harbor” against the USA. By early 1917, after several sinkings by the U Boats, Wilson declared war, against about 50 opposed in the House and Senate.
Without saying who was right or wrong, the 50 in opposition must have had in mind that the whole thing was “rigged” from the start and that the American position in the war was, in fact, arbitrary and imposed by bankers and politicians who depended on the “Great Lie” as their defense in the “Great War.”
“Neutrality” in World War I was probably the greatest lie ever told to the American (and other) people. In the end, it did little, as the country went isolationist immediately afterward. By then, of course, it was too late: Hitler had already started.
3. Isolationism: The 1930’s
Post-World War I, America was dominated by “isolationism.” Not only did the Senate reject President Wilson’s League of Nations, but the aftermath of the carnage left a bitter taste in the American (and many others’) political culture. The fact that 10 million soldiers died for practically “nothing” (including over 100,000 Americans) only deepened the already-felt distaste for European power politics, but the wisdom of the past, especially Washington’s Farewell Address, drove most Americans to worship his advice to beware of “entangling alliances.”
This theme was adopted with a vengeance in the 1930s, not only a time of “Great Depression,” but a time also of a rising global “Fascism.” Beginning then, Germany, Japan, and Italy began to form a rival “Axis” block that not only threatened the future of democracy but challenged democratic states with an imperial expansion that threatened their own life as nations.
Inside this threat, America adopted both a series of laws banning contact with foreign powers (“Neutrality” Laws) plus a growing nationwide recognition to have little or nothing to do with foreign politics, friend or foe. Against this dominant political culture, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) tried to assist Britain as we did in the First war. His efforts were rejected for several years both by the Legislature, the Supreme Court, and in the “court” of public opinion.
In September 1940, FDR signed an Executive Order, without congressional approval, to trade 50 Navy destroyers to Britain in exchange for British bases in the Atlantic and Caribbean. In March 1941, he managed to pass Lend Lease, a law that provided aid and assistance to Great Britain, then at war with Nazi Germany.
But these measures were nearly too late. In December 1941 came Pearl Harbor, followed in four days by Declarations of War from both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In retrospect, had America not hopelessly embraced isolationism in the 1930s, we would have been able to address both Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia. Without knowing with any certainty what outcomes might have been in either case, this much is certain: it could not have been much worse.
On this issue, it is difficult to assess “blame.” Isolation was America’s first and only foreign policy from Washington’s time on, and it was impossible to justify the results of the First World War. We only “have ourselves to blame” might be an excuse opposed to a “reason.” But I will leave it at that.
4. Post-Cold War
The America that won history’s greatest wars and overcame the Soviet Union and world Communism in 1991 was declared as the world’s first (unofficial) “superpower.” That’s not bad for a country that embraced isolationism up until Pearl Harbor in 1941 and by 1947 had dissolved a 16 million-man military in its effort to return to the past.
For the rest of the century, America not only created a “World Order” but acted as such and by century’s end had around 800 military installations throughout the globe.
So, what happened?
Nobody put it better than Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s UN Ambassador, who wrote an article in 1990 that it was high time that the U.S. become “a normal country in a normal time.” In 1920, future President Warren G. Harding campaigned on the post-World War I slogan for a “Return to Normalcy.”
And we did. And that’s what happened.
By the time the Governor of Arkansas pledged the presidency on January 21, 1993, the country was already enrolled in what we can call “normalcy.” True to American history, this meant a foreign policy of either “relative” or “absolute” isolationism.
Given U.S. history and immediate experience, the Clinton Administration chose the “relative” stage. But it’s been “downhill” since, to a point where, in the 2016 and 2020 elections, both candidates rarely invoked “World Order” as a criterion for the country and where the Mexican border, Critical Race Theory, or the Benghazi murders replaced “superpower” as an issue for the country.
The Clinton presidency chose “Assertive Multilateralism” for its signature foreign policy but failed to define what exactly that meant. George W. Bush called for “nation building” as a priority, but after Iraq and Afghanistan, this option has lost much of its flavor. Better still was President Obama’s foreign policy to “Lead from Behind,” but there was little need to define what that meant. Today, and for most of this century, the USA has been absorbed with domestic ideologies (“isms”) that have, in effect, almost completely replaced foreign policy as a definition of “purpose.”
This needs no explanation nor background research to appreciate. But whether or not it qualifies as a “worse” category can be debated and, at the very least, is highly “subjective.” As for me, I grew up in a Cold War environment where communism and the Soviet Union were a threat to peace and where the American purpose had a Global priority, where World Order was “made in America,” and where the defense and advancement of democratic values overcame domestic demands from constituencies that rated slavery over liberty as “made in America.”
It may not be beneficial to “live in the past,” but there was a time when America led the world in most categories, from prosperity to security, and where world order came before “Me Too” as an objective. All that requires a foreign policy that can overcome George Floyd or what a Court nominee did at a booze party in high school.
This may all seem secondary to those who prioritize “equality” or “justice” as national objectives. These are necessary, but “first things first.” Defense and security will always be a priority, even if we don’t even know it. War is decisive and immediate, domestic “repair” can absorb centuries.
Until the next Pearl Harbor, when we will have to “start over”…. again.
5. League of Nations
Sometimes I have to wonder how personalities who have achieved such high positions can make such petty mistakes when the issues might be “life or death.” Take President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I in 1919.
Wilson may very well be the most “qualified” candidate ever to seek the presidency. He was a scholar of political science with publications on the Constitution that are still profound. He was President of the American Academy of Political Science, President of Princeton University, Governor of New Jersey, and twice President of the United States, 1912, 1916. He was the leader of the coalition that won history’s greatest war (at the time). Yet, when it came time to secure the greatest achievement of his life, the League of Nations, he acted like a truant child who defied his teacher just to “show” her.
The League of Nations was a part of the treaty that was rejected by the Republican-led U.S. Senate who insisted on inserting several “provisions” into the document before they could approve. These provisions were mostly long-standing American principles that required Congress to declare war, that sanctioned the Monroe Doctrine, that did not require U.S. protection of foreign territory, etc. Republicans defended their provisions as in the national interest, as acceptable to European countries, and as consistent with the Treaty otherwise.
When a group of Democratic Senators approached President Wilson to vote favorably, he refused his consent despite the certainty that this move condemned the League to failure. Calling Republicans a “little group of willful men,” Wilson toured the country by train seeking national approval to overcome the Senate. In Colorado, he suffered a severe stroke, then another in Washington. Unable to continue the fight, he surrendered the League, his cherished hope to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Wilson finished his administration a failure in the most important moment of his great life. He died in 1924 and is mostly remembered for the failed League, as opposed to his other achievements.
The League lasted until 1939 without the United States, its author. It, too, is universally known as a failure, totally unable either to make democracy “safe” or to stop the advance of fascism or World War II.
In the final analysis are two questions: 1. Why did Wilson refuse the Republican provisions that would have secured his League of Nations? 2. What would U.S. entry have made of the League?
For both questions, the answers are unknown. But, not knowing is a “question for the ages,” the best possible conclusion to keep history guessing. Also remember, there is no conclusion that can be either good or beneficial in the long run. Wilson lost, and so did the country and the world.
From the beginning, the United States has intervened and occupied other countries (for what it is worth). Without a numerical count, let us just say that these have been “endemic,” to use a “Biological” phrase. This means that foreign occupation is a by-product of neither democratic nor dictatorial countries (Political Science), that it is “systematic” (Sociology), and that it is consistent with the overall behavior of the “nation-state system” (World Politics).
To enumerate U.S. interventions would be revealing but is also “superfluous.” A Library of Congress (Congressional Research Service) study has produced a chronological list of U.S. occupations of foreign locations since 1783. The paper is 98 pages and lists over 400 separate cases in which the U.S. military entered foreign places. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades. It doesn’t matter (except for the residents).
But what does matter is the difference between “intervention” vs. “occupation.” An intervention is always temporary, for specific causes, short-term and soon-forgotten. An occupation is always long-term, for “systemic” causes (“nation building”), and always (or frequently) remembered.
Perhaps my own background would be helpful. For my M.A. thesis, I researched the U.S. intervention in Lebanon which began in July 1958 and ended in September of the same year. Three months to accomplish the goal (installation of another president). Nobody remembers this; nor should they. For my Ph.D., I researched the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, 1927 to 1933. Six years to eliminate a guerrilla army (“Sandinistas”) and to implant democracy in a country that never had it. Result: no democracy in Nicaragua and a dictatorship that lasted almost half a century (Somoza). Although this occupation was remembered by that generation, the long-term effect is also worth remembering: a second-generation “Sandinista” is today President of Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega).
Perhaps more recent examples will help. The U.S. was in Vietnam for about 25 years (1950 -1975) and lost 58,000 soldiers in that war. The memory of that time, although getting old, will always highlight that era in American history. President Reagan sent Marines into Granada in 1983. They rescued American students and were gone in four days. Which will be most remembered?
The point may be highlighted when Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who sent the Marines into Nicaragua in 1927, was asked in 1933 if he would do it again. His reply: “Not on your life.”
Conclusion. With a background in both Iraq and Afghanistan, our current generation should remember the difference between intervention and occupation: interventions are brief and almost always successful; occupations are long and almost always fail. That conclusion should guide our foreign policies, going forward!