I had someone comment to me on Twitter to the effect of “Why don’t you stick to foreign policy?” It came from someone who disagreed with my piece on the Oregon stand off, a reader of this site who is apparently sympathetic to my anti-interventionist views but doesn’t get it when I apply the same principles to the American scene. There were also more than a few remarks in the comments section of that piece reflecting the same cluelessness: what does any of this have to do with Antiwar.com’s mission of abolishing the Empire?
Let’s start with the basics. In a normal country, it is entirely possible to separate domestic policy from foreign policy – because the latter is strictly limited to the goal of protecting its citizens from foreign invasion, which means, in large part, protecting the territorial integrity of the nation, i.e. its borders. But the United States isn’t a normal country. We haven’t been a normal country since World War II.
One could even go back farther and date our descent into abnormality to the end of the nineteenth century, when William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt first succumbed to the temptations of empire. The conquest of the Philippines, the subjugation of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and American incursions into Central and South America were driven by domestic factors: the investment bankers who successfully utilized the US military as their enforcers, the economic and political interests that fueled the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s doctrine of naval supremacy, and the millenarian spirit of the post-millennial pietism that energized the progressive movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although there was a brief respite in the interval between the two world wars, these domestic factors fueled the drive to establish the US as a global power, a world empire that would take the place of Britain as the alleged guarantor of “world order.” As a corollary to and in tandem with this we saw the rise on the home front of the American corporate state, the advent of crony capitalism, and the concomitant centralization of political authority and economic power. Imperialism and statism interacted symbiotically: the triumph of bigness at home created a dynamic that reinforced and celebrated gigantism abroad, especially the gigantism of ambition that imbued our leaders with a messianic certainty that they could solve the world’s problems. Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” led us into the bloody slaughter of the Great War, which destroyed European civilization at the apex of its cultural flowering – and set the stage for an even greater slaughter to come.
Emerging from the Great War economically drained and spiritually disillusioned, the nation turned to Warren G. Harding, a Republican, for respite. Harding had campaigned for President promising a “return to normalcy,” and while the pundits criticized him for his supposed grammatical illiteracy, his rhetoric had a powerful effect on a citizenry exhausted by the war cries of the crisis-mongers:
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Although derided by modern historians, who favor more dramatic figures such as the warmonger FDR, the crusading Wilson, and the authoritarian Lincoln, Harding presided over a period of peace and prosperity. He repaired our relations with Latin America, where Wilson’s promiscuous interventions had alienated the natives, cut military spending, beat back the naval lobby, and energetically pursued disarmament initiatives. He rejected the meddlesome ambitions of the League of Nations, and kept the US focused on solving its problems on the home front rather than trying to export “democracy” to the farthest darkest corners of the globe.
His successor, Calvin Coolidge – another chief executive hated by liberal-left historians – pursued a similar policy of avoiding entanglements in overseas conflicts while cutting the power and scope of the federal government. It was under Herbert Hoover, however, that this post-Wilsonian interregnum began to unravel.