Will to War: The Turning Point
by Ralph Raico: Neither
the Wars Nor the Leaders Were Great
This article is excerpted from "American Foreign Policy
The Turning Point, 18981919," The Future of Freedom
end of the 20th century rapidly approaching, this is a time to
look back and gain some perspective on where we stand as a nation.
Were the Founding Fathers somehow to return, they would find it
impossible to recognize our political system. The major cause
of this transformation has been America's involvement in war and
preparation for war over the past hundred years. War has warped
our constitutional order, the course of our national development,
and the very mentality of our people.
of distortion started about a century ago, when certain fateful
steps were taken that in time altered fundamentally the character
of our republic. One idea of America was abandoned and another
took its place although no conscious, deliberate decision
was ever made. Eventually, this change affected all areas of American
life, so that today our nation is radically different from the
original ideal and, indeed, from the ideal probably still cherished
by most Americans.
point was signaled by a series of military adventures: the war
with Spain, the war for the conquest of the Philippines, and,
finally, our entry into the First World War. Together, they represented
a profound break with American traditions of government.
end of the 19th century, American foreign policy essentially followed
the guidelines laid down by George Washington in his farewell
address to the American people:
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations
is in extending our commercial relations to have
with them as little political connection as possible.
of Washington's admonition against entanglements with foreign powers
was to minimize the chance of war. James Madison, the father of
the Constitution, expressed this understanding when he wrote:
Of all enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be
dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.
War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes;
and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing
the many under the domination of the few.
that republics that engaged in frequent wars eventually lost their
character as free states. Hence, war was to be undertaken only
in defense of our nation against attack. The system of government
that the founders were bequeathing to us with its division
of powers, checks and balances, and power concentrated in the
states rather than the federal government depended on peace
as the normal condition of our society.
the position not only of Washington and Madison but of John Adams,
Thomas Jefferson, and the other men who presided over the birth
of the United States. For over a century, it was adhered to and
elaborated by our leading statesmen. It could be called neutrality,
or nonintervention, or America first, or, as its modern enemies
dubbed it, isolationism. The great revisionist historian Charles
A. Beard called it Continental Americanism. This is how Beard
defined it in A Foreign Policy for America, published in
[It is] a concentration of interest on the continental domain
and on building here a civilization in many respects peculiar
to American life and the potentials of the American heritage.
In concrete terms, the words mean non-intervention in the controversies
and wars of Europe and Asia and resistance to the intrusion of
European or Asiatic powers, systems, and imperial ambitions into
the western hemisphere [as threatening to our security].
implication of this principle was that, while we honored the struggle
for freedom of other peoples, we would not become a knight-errant,
spreading our ideals throughout the world by force of arms. John
Quincy Adams, secretary of state to James Monroe and later himself
president of the United States, declared in 1821,
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or
shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benedictions,
and her prayers. But she does not go abroad in search of monsters
to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence
of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
Adams was the real architect of what became known as the Monroe
Doctrine. In order to assure our security, we advised European
powers to refrain from interfering in the Western Hemisphere.
In return, however, we promised not to interfere in the affairs
of Europe. The implied contract was broken and the Monroe Doctrine
annulled in the early 20th century by Theodore Roosevelt and,
above all, Woodrow Wilson.
America, devoted to solving its own problems and developing its
own civilization, became the wonder of the world. The eyes and
hopes of freedom-loving peoples were turned to the Great Republic
of the West.
the leaders of peoples fighting for their independence misunderstood
the American point of view. This was the case with the Hungarians,
who had fought a losing battle against the Habsburg monarchy and
its Russian allies. Their cause was championed by many sectors
of American public opinion. When the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth
came to America, he was wildly cheered. He was presented to the
president and Congress and hailed by the secretary of state, Daniel
Webster. But they all refused to help in any concrete way. No
public money, no arms, aid, or troops were forthcoming for the
Hungarian cause. Kossuth grew bitter and disillusioned. He sought
the help of Henry Clay, by then the grand old man of American
politics. Clay explained to Kossuth why the American leaders had
acted as they did: by giving official support to the Hungarian
cause, we would have abandoned "our ancient policy of amity
and non-intervention." Clay explained,
By the policy
to which we have adhered since the days of Washington
have done more for the cause of liberty in the world than arms
could effect; we have shown to other nations the way to greatness
Far better is it for ourselves, for Hungary,
and the cause of liberty, that, adhering to our pacific system
and avoiding the distant wars of Europe, we should keep our lamp
burning brightly on this western shore, as a light to all nations,
than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen and
falling republics in Europe.
in 1863, when Russia crushed a Polish revolt with great brutality,
the French emperor invited us to join in a protest to the Tsar.
Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, replied, defending
"our policy of non-intervention straight, absolute,
and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,"
The American people must be content to recommend the cause of
human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the
powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every
way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference.
by no means entailed the "isolation" of the United States.
Throughout these decades, trade and cultural exchange flourished,
as American civilization progressed and we became an economic
powerhouse. The only thing that was prohibited was the kind of
intervention in foreign affairs that was likely to embroil us
end of the 19th century, however, a different philosophy began
to emerge. In Europe, the free-trade and noninterventionist ideas
of the classical liberals were fading; more and more, the European
states went in for imperialism. The establishment of colonies
and coaling stations around the globe and the creation
of vast armies and navies to occupy and garrison them became
the order of the day.
In the United
States, this imperialism found an echo in the political class.
In 1890, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, of the Naval War College,
published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Soon translated
into many foreign languages, it was used by imperialists in Britain,
Germany, Japan, and elsewhere to intensify the naval arms race
and the scramble for colonies. In America, a young politician
named Theodore Roosevelt made it his bible.
Democratic president Grover Cleveland strict constitutionalist
and champion of the gold standard, free trade, and laissez-faire
held out against the rising tide. But ideas of a "manifest
destiny" for America transcending the continent and stretching
out to the whole world were taking over the Republican Party.
Roosevelt, Mahan, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and others
formed a cabal imbued with the new, proudly imperialist vision.
They called their program "the large policy."
America up until then had been too small. As Roosevelt declared,
"The trouble with our nation is that we incline to fall into
mere animal sloth and ease." Americans lacked the will to
plunge into the bracing current of world politics, to court great
dangers, and to do great deeds. Instead, they were mired in their
own petty and parochial affairs their families, their work,
their communities, their churches, and their schools. In spite
of themselves, the American people would have to be dragged to
greatness by their leaders.
imperialists put their case in terms of the allegedly urgent need
to find foreign markets and capital outlets for American business.
But this was a propaganda ploy, and American business itself was
largely skeptical of this appeal. Charles Beard, no great friend
of capitalists, wrote, "Loyalty to the facts of the historical
record must ascribe the idea of imperial expansion mainly to naval
officers and politicians rather than to businessmen." For
instance, as the imperialist frenzy spread and began to converge
on hostility to Spain and Spanish policy in Cuba, a Boston stockbroker
voiced the views of many of his class when he complained to Senator
Lodge that what businessmen really wanted was "peace and
quiet." He added, with amazing prescience, "If we attempt
to regulate the affairs of the whole world we will be in hot water
from now until the end of time."
Raico [send him mail] is Professor
Emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College is a senior
fellow of the Mises Institute. He is a specialist on the history
of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship
between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The
Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville,
and Lord Acton. His latest book is Great
Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal. You can study
the history of civilization under his guidance here: MP3-CD
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