In modern political society it is probably a fact that national leadership can heighten foreign crises to the point where war becomes almost inevitable and public approval, at least for a time, automatic. — Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. Ideas, Ideals, and American Diplomacy
War is Peace. — George Orwell, 1984
The U.S. government today is a contradiction. It presides over a nation supposedly at peace. Yet it is always preparing for war. It is a perpetual warfare state — a government under which liberty and property are less and less secure.
It is one in which the average citizen must pay higher and higher taxes for the skyrocketing costs of a leviathan state that spends $671 billion a year on “defense” so that it can police the world. The citizen, in the supposed interest of safety, must yield more and more liberties. He must endure more intrusions owing to “national security.” That’s because the U.S. government’s imperial foreign policy of the past 65 years has made myriad enemies.
But America didn’t always have a foreign policy of endless enemies, alliances, countless interventions, and endangered liberty. Indeed, there was a time when the United States shunned all military alliances. It had no huge military establishment.
To become a leviathan, the United States had to undergo a transformation. Much of that transformation happened during the presidency of Harry Truman, who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1945 and was president until the winter of 1952-53. Under Truman, American policymakers rejected the noninterventionism and trade-oriented foreign policy that had characterized early America.
“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,” George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address. As a general practice, he recommended against alliances because the nation would be bogged down in quarrels and wars. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” he wrote. He also counseled that the nation “observe good faith and justice towards all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
That pacific, no-alliance policy is today what mainstream media often scornfully call “isolationism.” Nevertheless, isolationism was the norm of American foreign policy for more than a century. It was a policy that was explained by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, in 1821.
“[The United States] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” he famously said. “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Adams also warned that if the nation ever veered from this noninterventionist standard, “she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication.… The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”
An example of the isolationist policy that once characterized the United States was the Greek war for independence in the 1820s. Adams, like most Americans, wanted the Greeks to break away from the Ottoman Empire. Still, the U.S. government — unlike many Western governments — provided no military aid to the rebels. Americans sympathized with the struggle of people who wanted freedom, but believed that the role of the U.S. government was not to remake nations. It also wasn’t its place, Americans believed in the 19th century, to join alliances and become a part in the struggle for world power. That changed in the 20th century.
Sen. Robert Taft was a conservative Republican who in the 1940s and 1950s tried to restore America’s noninterventionist tradition. He warned that the policy of alliances would “promote war instead of peace.” What should America’s foreign policy be in an era of turbulence, of war, and near wars? Taft, in his only book, A Foreign Policy for America, wrote that the United States should work on improving itself rather than going around the world trying to correct other nations: “The United States should set an example of living so well at home that all other nations will wonder, envy and decide to emulate us.”
America’s traditional foreign policy
Isolationist supporters had spurned empires like those of Britain and France, along with their countless wars. There was another part of this isolationist tradition.
The hostility to empires included a suspicion of large standing armies. That was a libertarian idea. It was based, in part, on the experience of Britain in the English Civil War — which ended in a military dictatorship presided over by Oliver Cromwell — and the later Glorious Revolution of 1688. Standing armies, many Englishmen believed after the Glorious Revolution that drove out James II, inevitably led to domestic tyranny.
That anti-militarist tradition, as transmitted to America through some of the great English philosophers, called for reduced military budgets once a war was over, in order to protect against undue military influence in society. Many of the Founding Fathers supported the anti-militarist tradition, as expressed in the 18th-century writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in The Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters.
Their writings charged that James II’s attachment to a big military had been dangerous. “King James II wanted no Army to help him to preserve the Constitution, nor to reconcile the People to their own Interest: But, as he intended to invade and destroy both, Corruption and a Standing Army could enable him to do it; and (thank God) even his Army failed him,” according to Cato’s Letters.
Trenchard’s and Gordon’s work, which appeared in colonial America, was very popular. Large standing armies, many Americans believed, were inimical to liberty and became one of the causes of the American Revolution. Anti-militarism was an important part of the heritage of liberty of the United States.
George III, American revolutionaries wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
Those policies resulted in an anti-militarist sentiment in early America that developed into a tradition dominant for a century and that took another century to extinguish. Still, in the 19th century it was strong.
“Has not the experience of the past demonstrated,” warned Rep. William Baker of Kansas late in the 19th century, “that just as you increase the army and the navy of a country you deprive a people to that extent of their liberties?”
Indeed, in his book The Civilian and the Military, Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., quotes Grant administration Interior Secretary Carl Schurz as saying Americans should be proud of not needing a large navy. “This is their distinguishing privilege and it is their true glory,” said Schurz, who had fled his native Germany in 1848 because of its militarism.
America’s often misinterpreted isolationist tradition was also alive in the 20th century, although it was growing weaker. In the 1930s, Sen. William Borah said that in matters of trade the United States “has never” been isolationist. But “in all matters political, in all commitments of any nature … we have been isolationist.”
Weakening the tradition with war
The process of destroying America’s noninterventionist tradition began around the turn of the 20th century, with the tragic Spanish-American War of 1898. Like George W. Bush’s war on Iraq in the early part of the 21st century, the Spanish-American War was justified by extremely questionable evidence — in this case the role that Spain was thought to have played in the blowing up of the American battleship Maine, which had been sent to Havana on a “goodwill tour” during a time of heightened tensions between Spain and Cuba.
Just as there was never any evidence uncovered establishing that there were WMDs in Iraq, which President Bush had used to justify war on Iraq, so too no evidence was found linking the Spanish government to the explosion of the Maine. U.S. Navy Adm. Hyman Rickover affirmed that lack of evidence in his book El Maine y La Guerra de Cuba. He noted that, when the Maine exploded, Spanish sailors rushed to save Americans. A few weeks afterwards, when America had been stampeded into war, some of those Americans would be trying to kill their rescuers.
The isolationists were the Americans who opposed the Spanish-American War. They were the ones who formed the Anti-Imperialism League. They were also the Americans who opposed American entry into World War I.
They were suspicious of secret agreements that Franklin Roosevelt made in the 1930s to bail out the British. They are also the ones we will meet in this article who objected to the militarization of American foreign policy. But, with each war and near war, the strength of isolationism declined.
Finally, in the decade after World War II, the isolationist influence on American foreign policy was shunted to the margins of American life. That’s when America turned its back on what was left of its isolationism. The United States entered its first peacetime military alliance, NATO. The U.S. National Security Council in 1950 wrote a then- secret government paper, NSC-68, that justified a significant increase in military spending. Although declassified two decades later, there has been little public discussion about its significance and even today few people have ever heard of it. Americans also passively accepted the Truman Doctrine, a policy stating that the United States would support Greece and Turkey with economic and military aid to prevent them from failing under the control of the Soviet Union.
This time, owing to the Truman Doctrine, the United States became involved in a war in Greece. It intervened with the justification of fighting communism. Without a doubt, it was a major turning point in American history.
We will explore in this series how, why, and when the transformation happened. It was roughly from the end of World War II in 1945 until about a decade later.
That’s when all of the major elements of an America as a national-security state were adopted: an imperial presidency that unilaterally made war, sometimes secretly; a huge military establishment; permanent military alliances; and a permanent spying organization, the CIA.
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.