Having already listed the “Top Twelve Statements” and the “Worst Six Episodes” in U.S. Foreign Policy, it is time now to describe the “Top Ten Decisions” within the same subject, as to both causes and consequences.
As before, it is imperative to mention how “subjective” these are, that they are not necessarily rated and that they are presented chronologically. Their purpose, overall, is to demonstrate the full dimensions of human decision-making and that there exists a “spectrum” of this behavior even with the best of intentions.
In the case of the top “decisions,” I am simply trying to describe the ten that, chronologically, had the greatest impact on the foreign policy of the USA (post-Revolution). All of them, as another criterion, in some ways still affect society today.
Taken together, the whole series is meant simply to relate a listing of the best- and worst-case studies of each category. The ultimate purpose is that we may come to acquire a more sophisticated appreciation of the inherent issues of decisions: how to “steer” a “ship of state” as prominent as the United States of America inside an often indifferent – if not hostile – world.
This is my list; yours may vary.
1. The Jay Treaty (1794)
It was April 19, 1794, and President Washington had just sent Mr. John Jay to London as the negotiator for a treaty that would place Great Britain as a de facto “ally” in the turbulent infighting of the early United States. Jay was at the time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, former Secretary of State, former President of the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and one of the most prominent “Founding Fathers” of the American ideal.
It was appropriate that Washington had chosen Jay as negotiator, as the country was, in its early years, on the brink of civil war due to the turbulence of the times. Britain at the time was in a long war with France (later Spain) and had as yet still not released certain forts in northern America to the U.S. and had confiscated about 300 American ships, mostly in the West Indies, and threw their crews into foul jails or impressed them into their own Navy.
The national division was between the “Federalists,” led by Washington and Hamilton,” versus the “Jeffersonian Republicans,” who favored France over Britain and forced a Congressional embargo against British shipping, which represented 90 % of total U.S. imports.
The national division, like in 1861 and even today, was also highly emotional. As Jay himself remarked, “no man could frame a treaty with Great Britain without making himself unpopular and odious.” As historian Thomas Bailey has written, “seldom has a conscientious public servant been so viciously maligned as Jay” (A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 78).
Flags were flown at half-mast, copies of the treaty were burned, and scores of villages were lit up by Jay’s image burning in effigy, prompting Jay himself to comment that he could travel from Boston to Philadelphia only by the light of his own effigies. One prominent poster summarized the national mood: “Damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his window and sit up all night damning John Jay.” Another proclaimed, “Washington To 1787, No More.” Jefferson himself privately noted on his former ally, “Curse on his virtues: they have undone the country.”
Yet the Jay Treaty passed both House and Senate and became law in August 1795. The British evacuated the forts, and trade resumed. The treaty not only began the formality of worldwide “arbitration,” but it probably saved the country from dissolution.
But its lasting legacy was the beginning of a “Special Relationship” between the English-speaking peoples, a phenomenon that survived war and differences in the Nineteenth Century but became the basis for the essential political “fact” of the Twentieth – a fact, I submit, that became critical not just for the U.S. but for all history.
2. The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
By including continental expansion (and “oceanic”) as a “foreign policy” issue, I have placed an item on the list that could just as well be labeled “domestic.” My choice here is that expansion was vital for making the country a unified whole instead of a “Balkanized” continent, like Europe, continuously on a “war footing.” As the Civil War demonstrated, even two countries would have divided American power in half; more than two would have rendered the country near-helpless against the rest of the political world.
Additional was the impact that American expansion had upon the remainder of the globe, notably France, Mexico, Spain, Britain, Japan, Russia, and Germany, all (except France) U.S. wartime enemies, some more than once.
“United we stand, divided we fall,” said Patrick Henry.
The first attempt to “Go West, young man” (Horace Greeley) came in 1803 when Spain, which had bought the territory from France in 1762, sold it back on October 15, 1802. But this was “Revolutionary” France led by Napoleon Bonaparte, already on a course that would extend the Revolution throughout the globe, including North America and the West Indies. Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, Prince de Talleyrand, noted privately that possession of the vast Louisiana Territory, including the port of New Orleans, would “be a wall of brass forever impenetrable to the combined efforts of England and America.”
U.S. President Thomas Jefferson understood full-well these implications, noting privately that “The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever in her low-water mark. … From that moment, we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”
Jefferson immediately authorized French Ambassador Robert Livingston, assisted by special envoy James Monroe, to negotiate the American purchase of the Territory. The Senate confirmed this on January 12, 1803. Prior to his departure, Jefferson told Monroe, “On the event of this mission depend the future destinies of this Republic.”
True to his revolutionary intentions, Napoleon began planning a full occupation of the Territory, instructing his Generals to occupy Louisiana with the strongest Army available and at key positions throughout. But his occupation of the West Indies island of Santo Domingo had produced disaster, with 50,000 soldiers dying of Yellow Fever and other diseases. This turned Napoleon totally against further adventures in North America.
On April 30, 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana for $15 million, or 3 cents an acre. As he told his Finance Minister, “I renounce Louisiana. It is not only New Orleans that I will cede, it is the whole colony without any reservation… To attempt obstinately to retain it would be folly.”
Thus was concluded what is still called “the greatest real estate deal in history.” The U.S. obtained 828,000 acres, the future home of fifteen states and nearly half a continent. Afterward, Ambassador Livingston solemnly declared:
“We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives. From this day the United States will take their place among the powers of the first rank … they prepare ages of happiness for innumerable generations of human creatures.”
Napoleon had legal ownership of the whole Territory for a total of 20 days.
3. The Monroe Doctrine (1823)
While early America was in no way interested nor able to conduct a “serious” foreign policy, it was now a separate (but unequal) country alone in North America but surrounded by a hostile European presence, north, south, and west. Inside the southern hemisphere, a number of countries, from Brazil to Chile to Mexico, had overthrown their Spanish and Portuguese (Brazil) imperialists and were in the process of proclaiming their own independence (1808-1826).
Alone and without a sufficient Navy to assist this movement, American leaders grew anxious about the possibility of future European efforts to renew their authority in the region. The memory of the recent 1812 war with Great Britain, especially the 1814 burning of Washington, recalled to U.S. leaders the vulnerability of the U.S. to any such future aggressions.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815), the European continental countries had established what was called the Holy Alliance, a five-nation group meant to discourage any future nationalistic uprisings. At a Cabinet meeting in 1823, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams told his colleagues that President James Monroe was “alarmed, far beyond anything that I could have conceived possible, with the possibility that the Holy Alliance are about to restore immediately all South America to Spain.” He later privately wrote that the possibility was “a fearful question.”
This “fearful question” began, ironically, from America’s west coast and from an unlikely source. Though a member of the Holy Alliance, Czarist Russia had no serious interest in South America but owned Alaska and forts in northern California. In 1821, Czar Alexander issued a “ukase” forbidding foreign vessels from 100 miles of Alaska. Fearing further Russian moves into the Oregon Territory, Secretary Adams told the Russian Ambassador in Washington that “the American continents are no longer subjects for any new European colonial establishments.”
Although unknown at the time, this memo was the beginning of what we now know as the Monroe Doctrine: a policy aimed against Spain in South America but begun against Russia in the Far West.
To protect the Western Hemisphere, Adams had no choice but to approach the British, the only power with a Navy capable of protection and willing to prevent further colonial aggressions from continental Europe. In August 1823, U.S. Ambassador Richard Rush and British Foreign Secretary George Canning proposed a joint initiative to do exactly that. Later, after President Monroe addressed Congress on December 2, Canning announced that it was actually he that had originated Monroe’s Doctrine: “I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.”
In reality, it was both countries that saw their interests converge in a decision that was to change history. Beyond the security of the Hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine cemented the basis for the “Special Relationship” between Britain and America that controlled the destinies of the world throughout both the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
It may have been the most important foreign policy “decision” in American history – certainly the longest.
In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Monroe Doctrine era “is over.” One may wonder if Kerry had confused “eras” with “interests.” Certainly, 1823 as an “era” is over. We shall wait and see if “interests” are over, especially if a country such as China announces that it may have an “interest” in what goes on in the Panama Canal region.
We shall see.
4. “Manifest Destiny”: The Mexican War (1847-48)
The “Doctrine” of Manifest Destiny was first articulated by journalist John O’Sullivan in an 1845 article in which he encouraged Americans to “The fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Such a national “notion” had been evident in early American history, but never as argued so decisively as in President James K. Polk’s Inaugural.
In principle, can a democracy plan an aggressive war? Again, somewhat suspect. The name James K. Polk is not exactly a household item today. Yet Polk’s presidency, 1845-1849, saw the U.S. expand its frontiers throughout the southwest, California, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Pacific Northwest. Unique among politicians, Polk kept his promises, and most of them meant force, war, and expansion.
This was made plain in his Inaugural Address. While praising American democracy as the “… most admirable and wisest system of well-regulated self-government among men,” he nevertheless urged a policy of limitless expansion. Under the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” Polk brought Texas into the U.S. and promised that “…our system may be safely extended to the utmost bounds of our territorial limits.”
First on the schedule was the Oregon territory that had been in dispute with Great Britain for many years. Calling the U.S. title to the “Oregon Country” (which included Washington State) as “clear and unquestionable,” Polk and the Democratic Party put the U.S. on a war footing to challenge British claims. Under the slogan “54-40 or fight” (the dividing line) Polk announced that “… the only way to treat John Bull is to look him straight in the eye.” Declaring that he would give Great Britain one year to vacate, Polk pressed the issue until both sides settled on the boundary in the treaty of 1846.
In retrospect, neither side was prepared for or wanted a war over Oregon. Polk’s “diplomacy” has subsequently been called “brinkmanship,” but, in the end, he confronted the world’s democratic superpower over territory they felt was too remote to contest.
The case with Mexico would be much different. Polk wanted to push the country to the Pacific Ocean, but, unlike the Louisiana Territory, it was not for sale. He settled on conquest.
The idea of “conquest” has been inimical throughout American history, but this notion is contradicted by the “facts” of American expansion. Within this spectrum, the war with Mexico in the mid-Nineteenth Century offers a classic refutation of “Democratic Theory” and serves, as a prime example, for decision number four in our listing.
The dividing line between Mexico and the U.S. had been disputed going back to Spain’s colonial rule. The area was sparsely populated, but Mexico resented the annexation of Texas in 1845 and sent soldiers across the Rio Grande. The two sides clashed, resulting in several losses for the American Army. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and 3,500 soldiers down to the disputed area across the Nueces River, about 150 miles north of the Rio Grande.
After the initial fighting, Polk declared war, and Congress approved it 174-14. The resultant conflict was decided in 1847 with the capture of Mexico City. The peace treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo the following year gave 55% of Mexican territory to the U.S.: the states of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming – an area the size of Western Europe.
American continental expansion essentially ended there, while the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” settled the territorial expanse for the remainder of the century.
James K. Polk was one of the most successful presidents in American history. He promised only one term and stepped down in 1849. He also kept his promise to expand U.S. sovereignty across North America. In doing so, he (unwittingly) contradicted any theory on the passive nature of democracies.
But democracy allows dissent — that is its virtue. Ulysses Grant was an officer in the war but thought it was contrary to democracy. In his Memoirs, Grant confessed that he thought the war “…unjust, an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies.” John Quincy Adams believed that it was “…a most unrighteous war,” while, years later, a Republican Platform Committee called the war “…one of the darkest scenes in our history.”
Protest, typically, also came from the intelligentsia. Henry David Thoreau wrote the pamphlet Civil Disobedience against the war, while Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that it “…will be as a man who swallowed arsenic, which brings him down in turn.”
In Congress, a Member from out West challenged Polk, demanding several times exactly what “spot” on American soil did the Mexican Army occupy? He became so insistent that he developed the nickname “spotty.”
His real name: Abraham Lincoln.
Upon reflection, the two individuals who led the Union during the Civil War began their professional careers as “war protestors,” a symbolic example of the difference between “theory” and “reality.”
5. Spanish-American War (1898)
The previous essay tried to demonstrate the Mexican-American War as a contradiction to the assumptions and assertions of the “Democratic Peace” theory. This one will extend the point to the U.S. war against Spain in 1898 (“Spanish-American War”).
From the beginning, the settlers in British North America had landed in a hostile country, where war, violence, and constant vigilance were necessary for survival. Warfare was rampant on the frontier, both against native Indian tribes and French, British, and Spanish armies, who quarreled incessantly with each other. Both the Pequot War in Connecticut (1630s) and the French and Indian War in both Canada and the colonies (1754-1763) were just two of the most vicious, but they were characteristic.
The American experience and dominant culture did not just come to an end with the triumph of political democracy. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution was dependent on pacifism, while the subsequent settlement of the continent relied on force or its threat.
A mere list of the belligerents that the U.S. has faced since the beginning will suffice to demonstrate how the people of the nation were asked to defend, or at times, to extend their influence or jurisdiction. These were all “wars” by any definition, although the formal “declaration” of war was rarely invoked. At the very least, they were all “combats.”
They include, as follows (in no particular order): Great Britain (twice), Germany (twice), each other, Indian tribes (about four centuries), Austria, Hungary, Italy, China, Korea, Vietnam, Spain, Russia (intervention, 1918-20), Mexico (three times, 1847, 1914, 1916), Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mediterranean pirates (early nineteenth century), The Philippines (1898-1902 and afterward), interventions and occupations in the Caribbean and Central America (over 25 times), plus others since forgotten.
That’s an impressive list, which could easily be shortened to, “most of the world plus ourselves.” Not exactly an affirmation of the “democratic peace” theory. Even if most of them were foisted upon a reluctant democracy, there must be some in which the democracy was neither reluctant nor passive. Perhaps none of them were reluctant, a possibility that brings up another interpretation: the dangerous and aggressive democracy.
Without going into them all, given space and time, perhaps the Spanish-American War will do. Why did the U.S. declare war on Spain in 1898, a place 3,000 miles away with no particular ax to grind and long since kicked out of the area altogether (except Cuba)?
At first glance, “no particular reason” could be asserted. Within human conduct, it is not unknown for someone to “pick” a fight. The sociological or psychological cause of such behavior is beyond our task. Only the objective reality is needed (for now). Was the American culture ready to assert itself in 1898 to pick on a country that had no real means of defense? For the moment, we can leave the answer out and let the question alone. Instead, what were the reasons given?
The immediate cause was simple: the blowing up of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, on 15 February, killing 250 sailors. This, indeed, was a “Pearl Harbor” of its time, but, unlike Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t obvious what happened.
A Court of Inquiry held in March concluded that a mine had caused the explosion but failed to indict whoever laid the mine. It didn’t have to, as the “yellow” press centered in New York concluded, arbitrarily, that it was Spain who had detonated the mine. The press, led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, controlled opinion to such an extent that they created a war-fever hysteria to rally against Spain.
Spain had controlled Cuba for centuries but was facing an insurrection that found willing sympathy in America for the rebels. Spain’s cruel and sweeping atrocities against the insurrectos aroused further condemnation in the U.S. and fed the movement to rid the area of colonialization once and for all.
Why would Spain, thousands of miles away and facing an insurrection, blow up an American warship? On its face, it is illogical. Pulitzer himself, responsible for much of the hysteria, privately noted that “nobody outside a lunatic asylum” would find Spain responsible. It was pure “theater,” many times stronger than what we today observe in the media frenzy between the two parties. Hearst once told a reporter assigned to Cuba, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
Subsequent inquiries, as late as 1974 by the Navy and 1999, by National Geographic, concluded the mostly obvious: that an internal explosion blew up the Maine. No matter, the 1898 generation acted on emotion, reinforced by the national expression, “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain.”
Congress declared war on April 25. In his war message, President McKinley never mentioned the Maine, but demanded that Spain “…relinquish its authority and government in the island of Cuba.”
The war lasted ten weeks, in Theodore Roosevelt’s expression a “splendid, little war.” At the same time that the U.S. was relieving Spain of its remaining possessions in the Caribbean, the American Navy was taking over Spain’s authority in The Philippines, a country that had been Spain’s since 1565. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt sent the Fleet on a year-long sprint around the world, making sure that the world understood that America had now “arrived” as a global power, soon to be a “superpower.”
The Spanish-American War was a watershed in U.S. history and saw the American flag begin its long trajectory into first, a two-ocean power and eventually, a world superpower. At home, democracy continued to flourish; overseas, it was a great idea, and an American mission, off and on, from the beginning.
6. World War I (1917)
The circumstances that led up to the Declaration of War against Germany (April 6, 1917) are both involved and decisive in the long (or actually “short”) American path to “superpower” status. They can be traced to the early American experiment as a “City Upon a Hill,”1630) to the Revolution itself, and to the growth of the idea that the country was uniquely “exceptional” as a sovereignty on the political globe.
Regardless, this all came to a sudden realization with Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policies during and after the “Great War” (as it was called) and still remains critical in assessing the final decision that ended the war itself and led to the first U.S. experience as a global power. Along with this assessment will be a review if, in 1917, it was all worth it.
The answer to the first question is easy: of course. The U.S. could easily have avoided the war if it chose to. That brings up a second question: why did the U.S. choose to enter the war, and did it matter? This is somewhat more complicated.
The first reaction might be, so what? That means that history is irrelevant. Well, then, what is relevant? Did World War I have any consequences for this country, for the world? The answer is just about everything: World War II, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, the Cold War, NATO, Korean, Vietnam Wars, the end of colonialism, Israel, the rise of the Middle East, Islam, and the war on terror (to mention the most prominent).
To assess the consequences of the question, history needs to be re-examined. When the war began in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson immediately declared U.S. neutrality. In 1916, he won another term with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Five months later, he declared war on Germany; Congress approved with 56 “No” votes. Were the opponents right? What happened?
The background will tell us something. How “neutral” was the U.S.? First, all the Cabinet members, except one, plus Wilson, were fervently pro-British. The exception was Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who resigned in protest in 1915. Second, the moment the war began, the American industrial and financial system, then in a depression, began pouring arms, munitions, and bank loans to the Allies (primarily Britain and France). At the same time, the British Navy began a tight blockade of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary), thus restricting any possibility of trade or aid getting through.
The blockade was so tight that trade with Germany fell to almost nothing by the middle of the war. In 1914, U.S. trade with Germany totaled 170 million dollars; by 1917, it had dropped to about one million, a 99% decline. Trade with the Allies in 1914 was about 825 million dollars; in 1917, it had risen to about three trillion, a 300% increase.
Beyond the blockade of the continent, Britain mined the North Sea, thus supervising all American cargo ships that needed sailing instructions. If the cargo was objectionable, the ship was seized and brought to a British port. The British Navy ruled the entire ocean. American merchant ships suspected of carrying contraband were seized, often boarded, and often brought to ports and held for periods of days or weeks. Official Washington sent diplomatic protest notes to the British Foreign Office, but they were either ignored or delayed for months at a time. Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane summarized the U.S. attitude:
“There isn’t a man in the Cabinet who has a drop of German blood in his veins, I guess. Two of us were born under the British flag. I have two cousins in the British army, and Mrs. Lane has three. …Yet each day that we meet we boil over somewhat, at the foolish manner in which England acts. Can it be that she is trying to take advantage of the war to hamper our trade?”
The U.S. Ambassador, Walter Hines Page, was more pro-British than American. Historian Thomas A. Bailey wrote, “Instead of faithfully representing the United States in England, as was his duty, Page represented the British cause to the government in Washington. His bias finally became so blatant that President Wilson wrote him off as ‘really an Englishman.’”
British behavior on the high seas was flagrantly illegal. In January 1917, Germany announced a resumption of “unlimited” submarine warfare, which was also illegal. In March, German subs began sinking unarmed American merchantmen, and, in April, the U.S. declared war. The world hasn’t been the same since.
In order to assess the original question, we have to change the U.S. position entirely. President Donald Trump has been accused of lying, but politicians have been known to lie. Still, of all the presidential lies in American history, none may equate with the fabrication of American “neutrality” in World War I. In criminal cases, to “aid and abet” is to be liable. U.S. aid/trade kept the Allies afloat until American soldiers won the war (in six months).
But what if the U.S. had authentically stayed neutral? How would the century have unfolded? First, some sort of “Cold War” would have occurred anyway. The Bolsheviks declared war on the capitalist world in their 1917 revolution, and the U.S. was capitalist.
Second, the most that can be stated with confidence is that World War II could/should have been avoided. By 1918, after four years, both sides were exhausted and war-weary. There was mutiny in France, impatience in England, and revolution in Germany. The end was in sight. It would have been a negotiated armistice or a German victory. The Allies alone could not possibly have defeated Germany.
Without U.S. entry, there would have been no Versailles Treaty, termed a “diktat” by Hitler, who used it to arouse Germany against the Weimar Republic and Wilson’s League of Nations. Neither the U.S. nor Germany (nor Russia) joined the League initially, and the U.S. never joined. Both Weimar and the League became two of history’s worst creations; both collapsed and made the Second World War a near certainty. Wilson’s acquiescence to French demands for an occupation, reparations, and German acceptance of war guilt made the next war absolutely certain.
The other events of the century would have mostly still occurred, with time and circumstance different: the end of colonialism, the birth of Israel, Communist China, the Cold War, and Islamic terrorism.
Should the U.S. still have stayed out? Only if you wanted to avoid World War II, the worst man-made calamity in history.
On the Versailles Treaty, French Marshall Foch stated, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.” As Prime Minister, Churchill wrote President Roosevelt that the Second World War was “The unnecessary war, there never was a war more easy to stop.”
From hindsight, neither man knew how right he was.
But Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policies, in retrospect, may have been the most enduring in American history, even though they had little effect on the immediate aftermath of the experience.
The most enduring legacy of World War I for the United States has been the emergence of a unique set of internationalist principles, which has allowed the country to elevate itself to a self-defined pedestal of righteous virtue justifying the pursuit of its foreign policies. To this day, such supposedly righteous pursuits have pervaded U.S. foreign policy regardless of party loyalty or other circumstance. These pursuits were developed early in the American experience and were deliberate guides to policy. In advancing these ideals, President Woodrow Wilson was certainly a revolutionary to the European statesmen of his time. However, he was only reiterating a sense of political virtue that underlaid the American Revolution: a tradition that came to be known as American exceptionalism and is used to justify and explain the country’s unique role in the world.
American exceptionalism was founded upon moral and individualist principles whose development was facilitated by two oceans and a vast continent that permitted the country to grow and flourish without natural enemies on its borders. In the nineteenth century, “manifest destiny” urged the United States to expand its frontiers; meanwhile, belief in exceptionalism assured Americans that their expansion was of providential design. At the same time, the isolationist tradition kept the country from intervening in European politics.
That changed in 1917 when the United States brought its system of political values to the global forefront but found that it was shared by no other country and was in fact greeted with hostility as an uninvited guest. Alone among the victors, Wilson nevertheless insisted on spreading American principles since he felt that a peaceful world was a democratic world.
Thus began the democratic peace theory of international relations, which would become even more popular in political and scholastic circles later in the twentieth century. Nations and individuals were to be held to similar ethical standards of conduct, and Wilson believed that the United States had a destiny to establish a global code of conduct. Inherent to this concept were supportive strains of democratic, representative government: open diplomacy rather than secret allies, self-determination between the government and the people, collective rather than national defense mechanisms, and the ingrained belief that the United States would lead the way toward such a new world order.
These beliefs persist to this day — through world war, cold war, and today’s War on Terror. They highlight the U.S. insistence on abstracting the aims of war: democracy, to end war, four freedoms, nation-building, collective security, a struggle against terror, kings, kaisers, and dictatorships wherever they exist. These beliefs and their pervasive terminology first surfaced in World War I, and there is no end in sight.
Wilson’s internationalist views were inscribed both within his own orthodox Christian personality, as well as in the philosophy of the American Founding. In part, they were best expressed as early as 1780, in Thomas Jefferson’s call for the United States to establish an “Empire of Liberty” for all democratic nations, “thereby converting dangerous enemies to valuable friends.” On May 27, 1916, Wilson told an audience at the Willard Hotel that the global purpose of the United States was rightfully “to become a partner in any feasible association of nations formed in order to realize these objects [a democratic peace] and make them safe against violation.” According to an account by Professor Walter McDougall, “the room erupted. Wilson beamed, and the Progressive press likened the speech to the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address.” Thus, Wilsonianism was born, having been conceived within the depths of the American Revolution.
When he addressed his message to Congress on April 2, 1917, Wilson made it clear that through his convictions — grounded in the ideals of the American founding — these virtues would triumph. The conclusion of his historic address, while somewhat lengthy, deserves full attention for its illustration of the key tenets behind his convictions and the depths of this uniquely American approach to the world. Noting that “civilization [was] in the balance,” he told Congress and the nation:
“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 should bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself fee. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”
In short, a Wilsonian vision lectured the European powers against their special vices: lasting rivalries, major conflicts of interest, compromises of principle, secrecy, balance of power, spheres of influence, monarchies, geopolitical needs, colonies, and endemic wars – all of these were to be replaced by the Wilsonian notion of collective and universal purpose. In other words, Wilson proposed a world that had never existed.
Such idealism continues into modern times. President George H.W. Bush promised a “new world order” in his 1990 speech prior to Desert Storm, echoing sentiments expressed centuries earlier: “We have a vision of a new partnership of nations that transcends the Cold War… A partnership whose goals are to increase democracy, increase prosperity, increase the peace and reduce arms.” His Democratic successor, Bill Clinton, was equally emphatic about America’s global mission: “our overriding purpose must be to expand and strengthen the world’s community of market-based democracies… that cooperate with each other and live in peace.”
Wilson’s expressions of the United States’ role in international affairs raised the American purpose in both war and diplomacy to a point where Wilsonianism, as Dr. Henry Kissinger has noted, “has survived while history has bypassed the reservations of his contemporaries… It is above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to match to this day” (Diplomacy, p. 30).
7. Pearl Harbor (1941)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to declare war after Japan’s attack on the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was certainly one of the most momentous decisions in American history – perhaps the second most important since July 4, 1776 (or April 12, 1861). Yet the President had little choice given the nature of the attack and the preceding years of Japanese-American intrigues over the future of the Pacific, going back as far as the nineteenth century. But his decision is far less important compared to this background and the consequences of the attack, which irreparably changed the nature of world politics, still felt today over 80 years later.
One of the most lasting mysteries in American history remains the Pearl Harbor case, not who did it, but who was responsible. The planes were, to be sure, Japanese, but this is not the issue. Who made it possible, or how complicit was President Roosevelt? In a larger context, how complicit was the United States itself?
If this question was raised on December 8, 1941, it would probably be cause for treason. At no other time in U.S. history – before or since – was there so much national unity – a unity that carried throughout the war (only one Member of Congress voted against the declaration of war).
After the war, Congress held hearings to uncover any possibility that Roosevelt deliberately withheld advance intelligence of Japan’s intentions. After years of testimony, the case remains controversial, but FDR is still “innocent until proven guilty.” That case, for sure, is closed.
Beyond that, the larger question remains: what, if any, responsibility does American diplomacy have in the event? During the war, the answer, at least in the public’s eye, was, none. That is perfectly understandable. The vast machinery of the American propaganda arm could not possibly raise even a scintilla of doubt as to who was guilty. National morale is hardly lifted by academic queries.
Undoubtedly, the shock of the sudden attack, seemingly out of the blue, contributed to much of the anger. That, too, is understandable. In his declaration of war, Roosevelt labeled the attack as “unprovoked and dastardly.” The word “dastardly” is uncommon but means “treacherous” or “underhanded.” Fair enough, that’s what an unwelcome surprise is meant to be. “Unprovoked” is much more difficult, i.e., Japan acted without reason. Do countries attack each other without motive?
Japan wanted to attack the United States in 1941. How is one question, why another. Both are within reason.
How? It was a “surprise.” What on earth else might it be? Has there ever been an “announced” attack? Would Admiral Yamamoto cable Hawaii, “We’ll be there on the 7th around 8 am, have a nice day”?
Did Jefferson Davis warn Lincoln that Ft. Sumter was about to be attacked on April 12, 1861? Did Hitler tell Stalin that 2 million soldiers were heading his way on June 22, 1941? Did North Korea warn the South that they were crossing the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950? Did the hijackers try to evacuate the World Trade Center before 9/11?
Surprises in war are common and deemed necessary, but never appreciated. Nor are they meant to be.
So, Japan did what others have done since time began: they kept their intentions a secret.
This brings up the “why?” Roosevelt felt that Pearl Harbor was “unprovoked.” To his listeners, the American people, that meant one side was 100% guilty, the other 100% innocent. This was good for morale, but it was more complicated than that.
Much of the hatred of Japan has roots in what is now called “racism,” a term unknown until recently. Another reason is the notorious behavior of the Japanese army before and during the war. Reports of the “rape” of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and countless Japanese atrocities throughout the Pacific theater made any appreciation of Japanese national ambitions totally irrelevant.
Yet Japan had needs and ambitions that fit in with other colonial powers, including both European and American. The U.S. declared jurisdiction over the Western Hemisphere in the Monroe Doctrine and intervened over 25 times in Latin America between 1890 and 1927. Japan announced the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” in the late 1930s, albeit with more of a “sword” in hand than a “shield.” European countries had governed most of the rest of the globe for centuries, including most of Asia and China.
The sociological/racial antagonisms between the two peoples hardly helped understanding. In the 1880s, U.S. legislation excluded all Chinese from entering the country, and bans in California extended these to Japanese. In 1907, a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the two countries governed mutual immigration, but this was ended by the 1924 Act, which prohibited all Asians from entering.
But these were backgrounds. The diplomatic differences between the two over China served as a permanent and unbridgeable wedge that prevented any accommodation and led eventually to Pearl Harbor.
This began in 1899 with the so-called “Open Door” notes to the world from U.S. Secretary of State John Hay (once Lincoln’s personal aide) asking to respect the territorial integrity of China. These notes collided directly with Japan’s ambitions to expand in Asia, beginning with her war with China in 1895. With Taiwan and Korea now Japanese protectorates, the stage was set for a deep and permanent split that finally ended in open war.
With Japan expanding almost everywhere, the U.S. took the defensive. Japan defeated Russia in 1905, and Theodore Roosevelt mediated the peace negotiations, held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Japanese Government and people considered the result an insult and began a national grievance that further separated the two societies.
Japanese incursions in China during World War I were rejected by the Allies after the war. The alliance (1902) between Britain and Japan was also ended then, mostly through U.S. pressure. In the disarmament treaties of 1922 held in Washington, Japan was forced to limit her battleship construction and was prohibited from constructing naval bases in the Pacific. Japan’s occupation of Manchuria (1931) was refused recognition, and any further Japanese expansion was condemned by the U.S. (“Stimson Doctrine”). The U.S. refused recognition when Japan occupied China (again) in 1937 and when she took over Indochina from France in 1940.
Everywhere Japan went, she met American opposition. In July 1941, Roosevelt “froze” all Japanese financial holdings in the U.S. and stopped the export of oil, thus depriving Japan of most of her foreign trade and 80% of her oil.
Japan faced financial ruin and would soon have no petroleum. So, she attacked. Yamamoto knew that he couldn’t win but hoped for a quick victory and a free hand in the western Pacific (he was shot down by an Army Air Force fighter in 1943).
Before Pearl Harbor, for decades, Japan was too aggressive, while the U.S. was too defensive. Like ships in the night, they co-existed for years until FDR pulled the plug. Shortly afterward came the “day which will live in infamy.”
America may have had the moral high ground to protect China, but Hideki Tojo was not impressed. Pearl Harbor was “dastardly,” but hardly “unprovoked.”
It takes two to fight.
8. The Truman Doctrine (1947)
By the end of the world war, with fascism erased from the globe, the United States followed its instincts and disarmed. Once war is over, peace begins, Americans thought, and there was nothing in between. With 16 million uniformed personnel by the war’s end in 1945, only 1.5 million remained by 1947. Not only did the rise of a new threat from the Soviet Union, a wartime ally, shock American belief systems, but the threat itself reversed centuries of faith in the oceans to protect them. The result was a strategic and geopolitical challenge unprecedented in U.S. history. Nor did the leadership have the slightest idea of what to do about it.
At first, there was little that the U.S. could do. With 12 million Red Army soldiers in occupation of Eastern Europe, up to and including East Germany, and with powerful communist parties in France and Italy, the skeleton American army in West Germany was left without power or purpose. Americans were not used to strategic thought in foreign arenas in peacetime and were left bankrupt against Marshall Stalin and Soviet hostility toward the outside world. The potential of a communist Western Europe was real, as it appeared that the West was about to turn the continent over to a new totalitarian, having just lost millions of lives against the original.
Into this void appeared George F. Kennan of the Moscow embassy with his “long” (8,000 words) telegram in 1946 that was about to turn American geopolitics on its head. Sent in February, Kennan identified the nature of the politico-military threat posed by the Soviet Union and outlined a broad set of policies that might counter it. Basically, this was the first comprehensive set of strategic principles to be applied, short of war, since the Farewell Address of 1796.
Acknowledging the revolutionary and totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime, Kennan distinguished between communist and fascist strategies, noting that the communist threat represented a spectrum of tactical maneuvers opposed to the largely military challenge of Hitler and the Nazis. To counter the communist threat, Kennan urged “…a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” From this point forward until the Reagan presidency, every successive U.S. political administration would adopt some variant of geopolitical “containment” against world communism, first in Europe, then everywhere.
Initially, Kennan advocated the “…adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points,” which, he predicted, would result in “either the break-up or gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Although nobody, including Kennan, could possibly have foreseen the geopolitical trajectory of the next half-century of Cold War, that is exactly what happened: they mellowed; then they broke up. Or as Reagan put it before assuming the presidency: “We win, they lose.”
This process began in theory with the Long Telegram and began in practice almost immediately. A month later came Churchill’s historic Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri. With President Truman looking on favorably, the former Prime Minister (having been defeated for re-election) introduced Americans to the reality of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and how it should be met. Advocating a permanent “settlement,” Churchill drew upon his pre-war rhetoric for a coalition “by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections…” to establish “…an overwhelming assurance of security” for the Western allies. Although the text was not received favorably by the U.S. media, which still clung to an isolationist past, the net result, along with Kennan’s cable, was to catapult the United States into a position of global leadership for the first time and, eventually, to a position of “sole remaining superpower,” which is about where we are today. The entire revolution took about fifteen weeks.
On February 21, 1947, the British government sent a cable to the State Department that it could no longer provide support for Greece or Turkey, both of which appeared about to crumble against Moscow. Led by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), the Truman Administration led an all-out bipartisan assault against worldwide communism and its home, the USSR. Acheson applied an original version of President Eisenhower’s later “domino” theory by explaining to the Senate how the loss of Greece and Turkey would lead to the loss of nearby states such as Iran and India.
The key statement was Truman’s March 12th address to Congress, the “Truman Doctrine,” for $400 million of aid “…to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The rest of the package came swiftly: The Marshall Plan for the economic restoration of Western Europe (announced at Harvard on June 5th), the reorganization of the national security apparatus of the government, the establishment of an independent Air Force and CIA in 1947, the Berlin airlift, 1948-49, and the crown jewel of the revolution, the creation of NATO in 1949.
Thus, practically overnight, America moved from a sleepy isolationist outpost of Europe to the undisputed champion of the Free World, responsible for the liberty of all “free peoples.” Originally, this meant European peoples; but just as quickly it would literally mean “all,” free or not. These were heady days, never to be seen again.
9. The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)
For a review of this decision, I will employ a chapter from my recent book, The Past as Prologue (Dorrance, 2022) for my own, individual assessment of this decision as a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania.
It was October 22, 1962, and President Kennedy would address the nation that night at 7 (EST). I was a new grad student at Penn and had class starting then. There were about 50 of us, seniors and first-year grads, and the class was “International Relations,” taught by Robert Strausz-Hupe and James E. Dougherty. Both had co-authored (with others) Protracted Conflict (1959), a penetrating analysis of Soviet foreign policies (and the reason I was at Penn).
Strausz-Hupe was born in Vienna, founder of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI, 1955), and an author of classic texts on geopolitics who would become U.S. ambassador to five posts, including NATO and Turkey (1981-89). I attended his funeral in Philadelphia (2002). Dougherty (d. 2012) was at the FPRI and taught Political Philosophy for over a half-century at nearby St. Joseph’s (where my daughter Lauren went). Dougherty, with Robert Pfaltzgraff, then a Penn Professor (later at The Fletcher School at Tufts University) co-authored Contending Theories of International Relations, a text still used by Dr. Lenczowski here at The Institute of World Politics (IWP).
During the day, there was great speculation on what Kennedy would address. Many thought that it was on U.S. Steel, where he had had some difficulties. At 7 promptly, Strausz-Hupe placed the small black and white TV on his desk, and we all sat and waited. The President began. “This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba…” Most of us nearly fell out of our chairs. What Cuba, what “promise,” what “build-up”? He then went on to describe in detail just what Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been doing since August. Unbeknownst but to a handful of Soviet and American officials, he had been slowly shipping medium and short-range ballistic missiles (1,000-4,000-mile range) into the island, that the Soviets had co-opted since Castro came to power in 1959. Cuba was, in effect, now a land-based Soviet “aircraft carrier,” 90 miles from Miami. These sites, nine plus four air bases identified by U-2 (not the band) flight photos, could hit northern South America, Chicago, New York, and, of course, Washington itself.
Rationales for the next several days were on everybody’s mind. What was Khrushchev trying to do? Destroy the U.S.? Use Cuba as a bargain to pressure NATO out of Germany? Since the Soviets were far behind in nuclear deployments, was he trying to avoid the northern defensive shields that we had in Canada and Greenland? Or was he just trying to strengthen his position at home?
Speculation was rampant. Normally we went to Smokey Joe’s to meet girls; now all beer talk was on the “crisis.” Although no one knew it, “back-channel” diplomacy, especially by JFK’s brother Robert, was working feverishly to avoid Armageddon. Cables went back and forth between Kennedy and Khrushchev, who was beginning to feel trapped and threatened by the possibility of an invasion of the island. The U.S. now had a naval blockade (called a “quarantine”) around Cuba, and all shipping was searched for missile paraphernalia.
As tension gripped the nation, the crisis mounted, day-by-day. Kennedy met regularly with his “Executive Committee” (Ex-Com), divided on either side of the table. One side was led by General Curtis LeMay, he of World War II fame for the bombings of Germany and Japan. They wanted an invasion, once and for all. On the other was UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who lost twice to IKE. They wanted negotiations, what else? At one point, CIA Deputy Director Ray Cline, a friend of Kennedy’s from Harvard, walked in. He asked, “Mr. President, where should I sit, with the hawks or the doves?” — thus defining the two sides of the Cold War from that point on. (Ray was father-in-law to IWP Professor Roger Fontaine. I attended Ray’s memorial service at Murphy’s Funeral Home, Falls Church, on 19 March 1996. When I got home, the phone was ringing. My own father had died that hour.)
The naval blockade and further U-2 flights demonstrated just how serious the crisis was. One flight alone brought back nearly 1,000 photos of various stages of deployments. Soon, the whole island would be ready for action; America was, for the first time in history, literally “under the gun.”
In his speech, Kennedy warned the Soviets that any missile attack from Cuba against “any nation in the Western Hemisphere” would be met by a “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Nuclear war was now a reality.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk later described the final stage when Soviet ships carrying missiles continued closer to Cuba. As the nation watched on TV, the ships kept moving; then they stopped en route. The U.S. blockade was just ahead — what would they do? Suddenly, they made “a U,” and headed back home. The crisis was over! As Rusk described it later, “we were eyeball to eyeball, then someone blinked” (I played rugby for several years with his son, David, who later served as Mayor of Albuquerque).
The crisis ended in late October. The U.S. promised not to invade and removed missiles from Turkey and Italy (which was overdue anyway), and Khrushchev was ousted two years later. He retired to a dacha in the suburbs while his son Sergei became a professor at Brown (quite liberal I hear).
Was this the “most dangerous moment” in history, or is this just overkill? Speaking of “overkill,” the nuclear weapons of 1962 were approximately 100 times more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan in 1945. Harvard Professor Graham Allison, who co-authored Essence of Decision on the crisis, speculated that over 200 million Soviet and American citizens would have died within minutes from any nuclear exchange. Had any exchange escalated either to Europe or Asia, figures go as high as one-third of humanity. An invasion scheduled for the third week was quickly canceled.
Relieved, we began meeting girls again at Smokey’s.
10. NSDD-75 (1983)
During most of the 1970s, the U.S. pursued a foreign policy of “détente,” guided by Henry Kissinger, that had some success, especially with China, but failed to stop the surge of Soviet strategic nuclear power and Soviet advances across the globe. The ultimate purpose of détente was to “manage” relations between the two superpowers and to prevent nuclear war, which it did.
But the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 began a new era in world politics and a new approach to the old geopolitics of containment. Before assuming office, Reagan, who had studied communism all his life, was determined to eradicate communism as a force in the world and to supervise the renewed ambitions of American power and purpose. At one point, he turned to his security advisor, Richard Allen, and said “Dick, my idea of American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union is simple and, some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.” Yet from this elementary slogan, the Reagan Administration engineered such a historic, and still unappreciated, assault on the many vulnerabilities of Soviet society, that it ceased to exist within a decade. This was a geopolitical revolution of historic and unprecedented dimensions.
At the time, the USSR was one of history’s largest and most powerful totalitarian regimes. Led by brutal leaders like Stalin and Brezhnev, it governed eleven time zones, over 300 million people, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, total control of east and central Europe, and footholds throughout the political world from Cuba to Africa and the Middle East.
Yet this all came crashing down within a few years – without direct combat between the superpowers.
Nor was this understood even as it happened. Neither the American nor the Soviet people were aware that history was being made until December 1991 when Premier Gorbachev announced the end of his country. No parades, no military heroes, no “battles,” no casualties, not even public acknowledgment. The United States, overnight, became the “sole remaining superpower.” Few Americans knew how; most still don’t.
But there were earlier signs, especially within the Republican Party, that “rollback,” rather than containment, was needed. The 1952 Republican election platform called for this, and Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 did, as well. But the 1952 pledges went unfulfilled, and Goldwater lost his election.
But Reagan won and began changing U.S. military and diplomatic policy almost immediately. The Soviet Union had ten years to go.
In his first year alone, Reagan authorized a vast array of improvements in America’s military posture: the B-1 bomber, a 600-ship navy, cruise and other new ballistic missiles including the M-X ICBM, Trident submarines, and new areas of R&D funds. Within six years of Reagan taking office, the U.S. had procured 3,000 new combat aircraft, 3,700 strategic missiles, and 10,000 tanks. A ranking member of Moscow’s Institute for the Study of the USA later complained that “You Americans are trying to destroy our economy, to interfere with our trade, to overwhelm and make us inferior in the strategic field.”
None of these weapons were ever used in anger, either directly against the Soviet Bloc or anywhere else.
Major changes in direction in U.S. foreign policy began in 1982 and continued throughout the entire first term, producing a total of 135 NSDDs (National Security Decision Directives) that targeted the Soviet Bloc and brought about its downfall. The critical document in this process was NSDD-75, January 23, 1983, and it was announced on March 8 in Toledo in Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech. Shortly thereafter, on March 23, he announced the equally famous Strategic Defense Initiative which, while never implemented, remained a symbolic threat to the Soviet economy. According to Cold War historian Derek Leebaert, SDI would “remain forever scattered between symbol, deception and real power …by and large Moscow was fooled …SDI was an inspired step in the war of attrition, whether or not Moscow tried to match it” (The Fifty-Year Wound, 2002).
NSDD-75 drew upon a spectrum of economic, military, financial, and political initiatives. The creative product of National Security Council Soviet specialists Richard Pipes and John Lenczowski, the overall strategy developed a coordinated and comprehensive global assault from all quarters against the vulnerabilities of the Soviet Empire. With an antiquated economy decades behind the U.S. in computers and other technologies, the Soviets had no chance to compete with American resources. The Western allies were (reluctantly) persuaded to deny Soviet access to advanced technology and scientific data.
The Soviets were unable to afford needed machine tools, electronics, and computers, and an ingenious campaign was begun to deny them worldwide access to these items. Pressure from Washington ended the highly anticipated Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. U.S. intelligence capabilities were greatly improved. The strategy was to challenge the Soviet Union’s prevailing culture, via geopolitical and cultural initiatives; employing deceptive technical sales to the USSR; deploying Stinger missiles to Afghanistan; enlisting cooperation from global sources like Saudi Arabia and the Vatican; broadcasting to the Iron Curtain from Radio Free Europe, USIA, and Radio Liberty; exporting musical tapes and CDs to captive nations; and even promoting rock concerts and the sales of blue jeans.
In summary, the Reagan Administration employed a complete strategic geopolitical, economic, and cultural “invasion” to undermine a regime that had simply exhausted its term on earth. One can scan world history but will find nothing comparable to this “assault.”
The Institute of World Politics is a graduate school of national security, intelligence, and international affairs, dedicated to developing leaders with a sound understanding of international realities and the ethical conduct of statecraft, based on knowledge and appreciation of the founding principles of the American political economy and the Western moral tradition.