(Editor’s note: How did America go from a republic to an empire? It was a long process that continues today in our warfare/welfare state, a state whose founders included the war lover Theodore Roosevelt. Here is part 1 of a seven part series in which we will focus on how Americans rejected or forgot their anti-militarist, limited government heritage. GB)
Lord Acton, the historian of liberty and correspondent of General Robert E. Lee, wrote that the American Civil War was unjustified. The South’s cause, he believed, constituted a second war for American Independence. “You were fighting,” Acton wrote Lee after the war, “the battles of our liberty, our progress and our civilization. And I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice what was saved at Waterloo.”
Since Acton’s letter to Lee in 1866, (ii) America has fought many unjustified wars. And even when ostensibly at peace, the nation now constantly prepares for war. It sends its some dozen carrier task forces around the world in search of problems. This is a practice called “semi-war.” (iii) That is a term coined at the outset of the Cold War. It defines a condition “in which great dangers always threaten the United States.” (iv)
So before the United States plunges into another war, (v) spends hundreds of billions more dollars and wrecks many more lives, let us examine the circumstances of our wars in the modern age. Let us review how many of them were avoidable. These wars turned America from a republic, with a relatively small military and a non-interventionist foreign policy, into an empire blundering from war to war. The embrace of empire, along with the inevitable glorification of the military, which is the byproduct of empire, would have shocked the founding fathers. That was the judgment of sociologist Robert Nisbet.
“Of all faces of the present age in America, the military face would almost certainly prove the most astounding to any Framers of the Constitution.” (vi) he wrote. Yet our superfluous, ill-moral, wars were sometimes even comical. That is if they were not so tragic.
This signal change of how America approached the world began when the nation reversed its anti-interventist, “isolationist,”foreign policy traditions. It entered into a system of endless alliances and commitments. And, in the process, presidents became Roman emperors who ignored the Senate. They took on greater and greater power in matters of war and peace. By the middle of the 20th century, presidents came to rely on the unitary executive theory of the presidency. Imperial advocates argue that that “all executive power belongs to the president alone.” (vii) As one scholar notes describing the theory, presidents not only have sole power, “but the other branches of government may not interfere with presidential actions arising from the use of executive power.” (viii)
If this theory goes unchallenged, it inevitably leads to imperial government. It means that Congress becomes virtually irrelevant. Indeed, presidential advisers, in our time, have repeatedly cited the unitary theory. And they would eventually say that the president could plunge the nation into war without the approval of Congress. Here again was a dramatic change. It was a change that went against the Anglo-American traditions of limited government, (ix) of government under law.
As this new imperial system has come to be gradually accepted to the point that few even challenge the president’s right to unilaterally wage war, there is an expectation that the United States can be drawn into the disputes of its myriad treaty allies. And even those nations without legal attachments can draw the United States into war. (Of the former, think of the U.S. marines training Japanese soldiers to take islands in anticipation of Japan’s possible war with China under the US-Japan bi-lateral defense treaty. Of the latter, consider American support for Ukraine. The latter isn’t even part of NATO or a formal ally of the United States).
This is a sea change from the original idea of limited government. But America over generations formally turned its back on what was left of its isolationist, non-interventionist traditions after World War II. However, this series of articles will show that a belligerent foreign policy began a half century before. The final triumph of an imperial America policy was the result of a series of post World War II changes. I would call this a policy of worldsaving. Supporters in the 1940s called it “globalism.” Globalism critic Senator Robert Taft termed it “globaloney.”
Nevertheless, Taft’s cutting analysis was ignored or forgotten in the 1960s. His critiques included his doubts about U.S. entry into World War II, the legality of the Korean War and his deathbed warning that the United States should not send troops to bail out the French Empire in Indo-China. (x)
Unfortunately, by the end of his life, Taft was deemed a dinosaur by mainstream media. This mass media’s disparagement of Taft as a reckless right wing radical continues to this day. (xi) This is a disparagement that is difficult to explain because Taft, in his opposition to an imperial foreign American foreign policy, had the respect and sometimes the support of a number of people on the left including socialist Norman Thomas.
Yet for over a century time and again the globalists have won these debates about America’s role in the world. Today serious discussion about fewer alliances, useless wars or excessive military spending has almost ended. I say almost because the debate occasionally flares up for a short period during an American military disaster or when there is the potential of another one. An example of the latter is the recent suggestion by President Obama that the United States should intervene in the Syrian civil war.
Yet the U.S., over a period from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, decisively and seemingly forever, opted for “world leadership” and empire. Both major parties and mainstream media for decades have agreed on the broad outlines of an imperial foreign policy. They treat dissenters as dangerous extremists of a forgotten era. Their analysis is ridiculed by the misleading term “isolationist.” (xii)
But, in fact, what most of the so-called isolationists want today is fewer or no military alliances, more trade and cultural relations with as many countries as possible. They call for “a minimum of intercourse between governments and a maximum of intercourse between people.” The latter is a quote from George Washington’s Farewell Address. Yet this tradition was finally thrown away after World War II as America entered into her first permanent military alliances.
The foreign policy debates in the 1940s and 1950s covered several areas: They included the creation of NATO, which was the first peacetime military alliance in American history and the National Security Act of 1947, which many Americans only today seem to understand gives the government the right not only to spy on allies but on Americans citizens.
Other departures from any remanent of non-interventionist foreign policy included the 1952 defeat of the last major isolationist presidential candidate, Senator Robert Taft (xiii) and, a few years before, the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine Those looking for more are invited to see my series, “The Road to the Permanent Warfare State,” which is at the Future of Freedom website).
The Truman Doctrine was an open ended idea allowing the United States to intervene anywhere (“It must be the policy of the U.S.,” Truman announced in 1947,”to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” ). (xiv) Another sea change in our view of the world was the creation of the little appreciated South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). That was used as an excuse to drag America into numerous wars.
The latter treaty passed in the Senate in 1954 with only one dissenting vote—-ironically there was also only one dissenting vote a decade later when the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution justifying the Vietnam War (xv) was passed—and became the justification for all kinds of American meddling in the Far East. This meddling led to the Vietnam War. All of these decisions represented dramatic departures from America’s traditional foreign policy of its first century.
Post WWII America formally became the policeman of the world. It was a nation ready to battle Communists everywhere and re-create nations in an American image (Even though many nations rejected our values). To prove it, some American leaders even called for military action against Communist regimes that were willing to co-exist with America. That led the United States to intervene in civil wars and wars of independence around the globe. Again, here was a policy that reversed the traditions of the first century of American history.
Before the Spanish-American war, interventions in civil wars were something the nation generally avoided. For instance, the Truman Doctrine justified the United States intervening in the Greek Civil War with advisers and hundreds of millions in military aid. By contrast, over a century before, when Greece was fighting for her independence from the Ottoman Empire, many American citizens supported the Greeks. However, the American government sent no troops.
Indeed, it was President Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, who repeated a non-interventionist policy enunciated by George Washington and restated by Thomas Jefferson as well other American leaders throughout the 19th century. Adams, confronted with calls to help the Greeks in the 1820s, announced that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” (xvi) That sentiment was shared by countless other American leaders, although today is the opposite of an always ready for war American, regardless of whether it is run by a republican or a democratic administration.
Departing from this non-interventionist foreign policy began with the Spanish-American War of 1898. That was a break from America’s traditional isolationist policy as explained by President George Washington in his Farewell Address. (xvii) Several historians have pointed to the Spanish-America War as the turning point. What mattered, writes diplomatic historian Norman Graebner, was America deserted “those principles of statecraft that had guided it through the first century of its existence.” (xviii)
America dramatically changed. The United States, under president Grover Cleveland in the early 1890s, cited the traditional ideas of American foreign policy. He resisted calls to plunge into the Cuban rebellion against Spain. A revolt in Cuba had happened several times before. But this time, under Cleveland’s successor McKinley, it began a policy of world saving. And, with few interruptions, the policy has never stopped.
(End of Part I)
Gregory Bresiger is an independent business writer who has written Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance and MoneySense. Visit his blog at GregoryBresiger.com. He has a graduate degree in history from New York University. He is the author of the Road to the Permanent Warfare State.
(i) The title of this series comes from the pamphlets of the mid-Victorian, little Englander MP, Richard Cobden. A radical and a free trader, Cobden opposed all the wars of his time and his opposition to the Crimean War led to his defeat, although he was later returned to parliament. Cobden called war “a monster.” See “The Political Writings of Richard Cobden” (New York: Garland Publishing, 1973). See Vol 2, p. 503 for “What Next and Next?). For more on Cobden and the Little Englanders, see my article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies at mises.com
(ii) From Lord Acton,” Roland Hill, p 387, (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000). This is not to justify the South “Lost Cause” thesis. But the fact is in 1861, at the outset of the Civil War, most of the North was no more ready to end slavery than most of the South. And many of the tragic Jim Crow laws that were foisted on blacks in the Post Civil War South were obtained from the North, where some of its states actually banned blacks.
(iii) See “Washington Rules. America’s Path to Permanent War,” Andrew Bacevich, (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010), pp27-28
(iv) Ibid, Bacevich says Truman administration defense secretary James Forrestal coined the term.
(v) And given that it has defense treaties with nations around the world, from Europe to Japan as well in Korea and Latin America, it is inevitable that the U.S.’s extensive alliance system will draw it into near war, if not war, situations.
(vi) See “The Present Age, Progress and Anarchy in Modern America,” p 1 (Liberty Fund, 1988, Indianapolis).
(vii) “Emergency Presidential Power. From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror,” Chris Edelson, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin) p 126,
(ix) See “The English Libertarian Heritage. From the Writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in the Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters,” David L. Jacobson Editor, (The Boobs-Merrill Company, New York, 1965) p 229, “In short there can be but two Ways in Nature to govern a Nation: One is by their own Consent; the other by Force: One gains their Hearts; the other holds their Hands. The first is always chosen by those who design to govern the People for the People’s Interest; the other by those who design to oppress them for their own: for, whoever desires to protect them, will covet no useless power Power to injure them.”
(x) Indeed, even before his last months, Taft was worried about sending American troops to what was then called Indo-China. In a February 1952 letter Taft send during the Koran War, Taft wrote that if another war was to be fought in Southeast Asia “it should be fought with Chinese troops and not American troops.” p 356 “The Papers of Robert A. Taft, Volume 4, 1949-1953,” Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. Editor, (Kent State University Press, 2006). Also see Leonard Liggio’s “Why the Futile Crusade,” Mises.org
(xi) See Bret Stephens’ Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on September 3, 2013, “The Return of the Robert Taft Republicans.
(xii) Historian Charles Beard addresses this misleading term in his “President Roosevelt and the Coming of World War I, 1941,” (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2003)
(xiii) See “Small Wars, Faraway Places, Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965,” Michael Burleigh, 2013, Penguin, Group, New York). Senator Robert Taft spoke up “to oppose the conversion of the United States into a meddlesome Mattie, interfering in every trouble spot throughout the world.” p 3 “
(xiv) See Ourdocuments.gov
(xv) SEATO is constantly referred to in “The Pentagon Papers,” especially in “The Johnson Administration 1964,” as the justification for the US fighting the Vietnam war.
(xvi) “The Costs of War, America’s Pyrrhic Victories, p 7, John V. Danson, editor (Transaction Publishers, 1999, New Brunswick, New Jersey)
(xvii) This linked him to a venerable tradition in US foreign policy going back to George Washington’s’s Farewell Address and to the reluctance of President Monroe’s Secretary of State to support Greek nationalists in the 1820s. “ (Robert) Taft was “the last serious anti-interventionist presidential candidate in US history,” Bureligh, p 246
(xviii) “An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century,” Norman Graebner, p 1, (McGraw Hill, New York, 1961).