If we are to achieve the kind of world we all hope to see—with peace, freedom, and economic progress—democracy has to continue to expand. Democracy is a vital, even revolutionary force.
—Secretary of State George Shultz, Congressional testimony in favor of establishment of a National Endowment for Democracy, 1983.
The terms liberty, equality, right and justice, used in a political sense, are merely terms of convention, and of comparative excellence, there being no such thing, in practice, as either of these qualities being carried out purely, according to the abstract notions of theories.
—James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat, 1838.
When we leave our door and go out among our fellows, we carry with us a certain self-image of what we are or ought to be. This image may or may not correspond to our real character or to the way others perceive us. The same is true of nations when they go among their fellows. Of course, relations between nations are chiefly relations between governments, and given the vast apparatus of the modern state, whether in the free or the unfree world, this is bound to become a complicated encounter—as if we went onto the street accompanied by a bodyguard and a publicity agent.
For Americans, how we rationalize our relations with other nations has always involved a certain amount of abstractness. While we were long secure behind our oceans, there was more choice than necessity in the face we presented to the world, compared to less favored peoples. Unlike most European states, we had no frontiers bristling with fortifications and barriers of language or religion and competing dynasties or forms of government. And we were not, to the same degree, compelled to go abroad in search of markets, raw materials, and colonies for surplus or discontented populations.
Having made several preliminary forays into an active role in the world, Americans found themselves at the end of World War II, unwittingly and somewhat unwillingly, cast in the role of an imperial people with worldwide powers and responsibilities. There are examples in history of other peoples who achieved this status without deliberate design. What was unique about the American situation was the ease and suddenness with which world dominance was acquired. For the average American World War II was an experience of economic gain, not sacrifice. By world standards, casualties were minor. In contrast, Roman territory was devastated several times before Cato’s imperative was achieved. And the graves of British soldiers, seamen, merchants, missionaries, and officials, who expended their lives over two centuries or more in building an Empire, circle the hot zones of the globe.
We are concerned here with the history and present condition of the image which Americans have of their role among the nations, with the implicit assumptions which are a starting place for their actions. We are not concerned directly with the facts and events of the world, a subject on which there are vast libraries of contending data and theory. In the next block we may meet a mugger, a con man, a panhandler, or a street-corner evangelist. These will not make any fundamental alteration in our self-image. However, how we handle ourselves in these encounters will be determined by our character and our idea of how we ought to behave.
The twentieth century has been marked by cataclysmic events. It has also been marked by a continuing struggle of articulate Americans to understand and to define satisfactorily their role in the world. We need only remember the intensity of the debate over the League of Nations after World War I, the strife between isolationists and internationalists before World War II, or the heat of the struggle between policies of containment and liberation during the long course of the Cold War.
Yet, since World War II, the predominant rationale of American involvement with other peoples, the character we have aspired to, has been some version of that given by Secretary Shultz in the passage quoted at the head of this essay. It is the goal of America in the world to expand the self-evident benefits of democracy. Sometimes this has been presented as a military mission, as in Korea and Vietnam. At other times it has been seen as a process of peaceful involvement through such ventures as the Peace Corps, Alliance for Progress, the Fulbright program, or the Reagan administration’s “Project Democracy,” for which Shultz was seeking support.
The only principled opposition to this view has been the postwar conservative movement, a movement that gathered strength steadily in the 1960s and 1970s, and, so it was thought, achieved power and validity during the Reagan reign of the 1980s. (Many leftward movements objected to particular aspects of American intervention in the world, but not to the vision of a democratic mission.) It was a truism that the postwar conservative movement rested upon allegiance to tradition, to the free market, and most of all to a principled anticommunism. One of the tenets of this anticommunism was that the Cold War was a life-and-death struggle between Western civilization and a godless totalitarianism. The history of the Cold War seemed to prove that the mild democratic platitudes and benevolent social-worker approach of the liberals were inadequate to the occasion and certain to lead to defeat. Something of the spirit of conservative anticommunism was summed up in the title of a book by James Burnham, Containment or Liberation?, and by Russell Kirk’s remark that peoples did not fight and die for a standard of living.
How did a conservative President, who was thought to have been the heir and spokesman for Cold War hardliners, come to rest the foreign policy motives of his administration upon a philosophical base of “revolutionary” global democracy? Is the idea of a democratic mission a workable concept for guiding American actions in the world? To what extent is the self-image of America as the active exporter of democracy in keeping with the best of American traditions?
I wish to provide speculative explorations of these three questions as a contribution to the ongoing effort of Americans to visualize adequately their role and goal in the world. The last question is explored in this essay. A succeeding essay, “Global Democracy and Conservatism,” will take up the first two. The historical scheme presented is suggestive of a possible line of interpretation. To “prove” it, in a strict scholarly sense, would take several lifetimes of research.
Preserving Domestic Happiness: The Founders’ Vision
The tradition of debate on the American role in the world began at least as early as the end of the Revolution. In the Philadelphia Convention, during a discussion of the treaty making powers of the Senate, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina remarked:
Our true situation appears to me to be this—a new extensive Country, containing within itself the materials for forming a Government capable of extending to its citizens all the blessings of civil and religious liberty—capable of making them happy at home. This is the great end of Republican Establishments. We mistake the object of our Government, if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquest or superiority among other powers is not or ought not ever to be the object of republican systems. If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt and preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them—it is more than almost any other Government ensures to its citizens.1
Alexander Hamilton, who fancied himself a realist of power, but who was out of step with most of his fellow members and adopted countrymen, replied that Pinckney’s distinction between domestic tranquility and prestige abroad “was an ideal distinction. No Government could give us tranquility and happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.”2 Hamilton was really more concerned here with getting in a plug for “energetic government” than in defining a stance for foreign policy, but he took the opportunity to suggest the need for greater realism in regard to the world and activism in national defense than Pinckney had called for.
Both advocates and critics of later “idealistic” American intervention in world affairs have seen a precedent or portent in Pinckney’s attitude toward later events which they approved of or deplored. Pinckney did, obviously, endorse a species of “American exceptionalism.” But his view of the world can by no means be called utopian. He wanted the United States to be strong and secure from “contempt,” and did not have a high opinion of what governments in general could aspire to, even “republican systems.”
American commentators, especially conservatives, have often resorted to a theory that the debates of the early republic on foreign policy were carried on between Jeffersonian “idealists” (such as Pinckney, who was an incipient Jeffersonian Republican) and Hamiltonian “realists.”3 Somewhat under the domination of Henry Adams, whose spell has never been broken by American students of this period, we have thought that the Jeffersonians expressed a failed and misguided softness, and the Hamiltonians a hard-headed toughness in dealing with the dangers of the world. By this calculation, anticommunist conservatives and advocates of strong national defense should look to the Federalists as their forebears and to Jefferson and his friends as having spawned the over-trusting liberalism of a later day.
However, statements of American exceptionalism and “idealism” can be found in abundance among all the Founders, Federalists as well as Republicans. If anything, the Federalists were not only more activist but a good deal more missionary and utopian in their view of the American role than were the Jeffersonians. For instance, Hamilton himself had remarked on an earlier occasion that the cause of America was “the cause of virtue and mankind.”4 And John Adams had described the settlement of America “as the opening of a grand scheme and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emanicipation of the slavish part of mankind over the earth.”5
The view expressed by Pinckney may or may not have been “realistic,” but it offers a good deal more comfort to an isolationist than to a global-democratic and missionary image of the American place in the world. Even so, there is very little precedent for any notion of active democratic expansionism on either side of the division between the Founders. There is a vast qualitative difference between envisioning America as an example to the world and feeling a mission to implement and enforce that example across the sea.
These early statesmen all had a quite natural belief in the superiority and value of their own hard-won republican institutions. They hoped these would set a precedent for mankind, suffering under the weight of arbitrary governments. This did not suggest (as all of American history up to at least the late nineteenth century proves) a proselytizing mission for the quotidian American republic. And while the rhetoric was often high-flying, it was mostly conscious self-assertion in response to the official wisdom of the Old World, which professed to scorn the viability and durability of republican institutions. Nothing in American actions for the next century indicated a belief that those institutions were intrinsically applicable to every people, place, and time, much less that there was a duty to impose them.
Such an attitude did reflect a belief in American exceptionalism, which from the point of view of jaded and cynical thinkers of the Old World (except for German metaphysicians) represented a delusionary claim to immunity from the realities of sin and sorrow. But such exceptionalism was, at that time, historically based and laced with realism and practicality. Exceptionalism rested on an apprehension that the English-speaking New World was free of certain built-in defects of the Old—rival nationalisms, hardened class interests, scarce resources. American society had enjoyed widespread ownership of property, vast unoccupied lands, the unmixed heritage of the best parts of British law and liberty, a fortuitous experience of colonial self-government, a successful war of independence, and a nearly unprecedented opportunity of constitution-making.
When Jefferson quoted with approval the wish of Silas Deane, who had preceded him as a representative in Europe, for “an ocean of fire between us and the Old World,”6 he dreamed not of utopia but of the preservation of a real historical opportunity. He realized that what Americans had achieved rested upon fortuitous circumstances and was not necessarily repeatable. The New World could serve as an inspiration and example for the better spirits of the Old, but had no mission to impose its pattern beyond North America. The “policy” side of this belief was expressed in Washington’s farewell address and Jefferson’s first inaugural, in the warnings against entangling alliances which were taken to heart by generation after generation of Americans.
This general view was shared by all sensible Federalists and Republicans, despite the abortive forays of Hamilton into power politics. By its very nature republicanism called for non-intervention, not proselytization. Rather than free institutions being a license to reform the world, they were, on the contrary, a command for the maximum non-involvement. By republican theory, the involvements of free governments in the world were likely to be fewer and more honorable than those of other states, not because of any particular virtue on the part of Americans, but because such governments were restrained by the necessity that their wars and treaties be undertaken by open deliberation and supported by the sense of the community. This was still an important idea some decades later when James Fenimore Cooper, a conservative and Democrat, commented that “democracies pay more respect to abstract justice, in the management of their foreign concerns, than either aristocracies or monarchies.”7 This was a purely descriptive statement, not a moralistic assertion, and would not have been disputed by Cooper’s contemporary conservative, Tocqueville.
Those of the Founders who hoped to preserve America immune from the ills of the Old World were realistic enough to know that their desires would be imperfectly realized. Said Jefferson in 1785:
The justest dispositions possible in ourselves, will not secure us against it [war]. It would be necessary that all other nations were also just. Justice, indeed, on our part, will save us from those wars which would have been produced by a contrary disposition. But how can we prevent those produced by the wrongs of other nations? 8
“We must make the interest of every nation stand surety for their justice, and their own loss to follow injury to us, as effect follows its cause,” he wrote some years later.9
We were, after all, still a relatively weak power with hostile colonies on our borders and a partly mercantile economy that was vulnerable to European tumults. Yet republican non-involvement remained a sound point of departure for conceiving the American role in the world. It might be argued that that role long reflected a healthy synthesis of Pinckney’s optimism and isolationism and Hamilton’s realism and concern for national prestige. Possibly this still constitutes the basic, instinctual view of most of the American people, if not of their leaders.
Non-interventionist Realism: The Nineteenth Century
We cannot really find the principles of Reaganite global democratic revolution in Washington or Jefferson or anywhere else before this century. We will have to look for more exotic sources and a different and curious family tree. Nothing in the mainstream course of American history in the nineteenth century provides any precedent for a missionary role in the world, although certain lesser intellectual currents were portentous.
The advance westward, including the War of 1812 and the Mexican War and territorial acquisitions, were by no stretch of the imagination foreign interventionism or the pursuit of global democracy. The movement of an exuberant agricultural people into nearly empty and undeveloped lands on their own frontiers is different in kind from ventures overseas for profit, ideology, glory, or power. “Manifest Destiny” meant the conquest of new spaces for Americans and their democratic institutions, not the imposition of these institutions on other peoples.
An optimistic, non-interventionist realism is clearly seen in the attitude of Americans toward the Latin American revolutions of the early nineteenth century, as symbolized by the Monroe Doctrine. Americans, in general, were delighted that other peoples of the New World sought to throw off the oppressive system of the Old World and copy their republican institutions. But Americans also had realistic doubts, strengthened by the passage of time, about the possibility of success among other peoples. Except for a few volunteer military adventurers, there was no thought of American involvement. Americans were in fact quite content to acquiesce in the de facto maintenance of Latin American independence by British maritime power. They continued to observe a realistic detachment in their dealings with these countries, insisting on strict enforcement of the rights of American citizens. They looked upon Latin American republics, in other words, with friendly but skeptical detachment.
Anyone who will read the primary documents of Americans’ experiences in and reflections on Latin America in the nineteenth century will see that they were pleased whenever evidences were shown of successful republican self-government, but understood that democratic ideals were not fully applicable to the situation. They did not think that democratic process in itself was intrinsically the magic cure for all the ills of those societies. They realized, in fact, that authoritarian features, uncongenial to American taste, were often the lesser evil in those circumstances. Nor did they feel, unlike their twentieth century successors, any need to undermine the more reactionary features of life, such as the army, Church, or great landowners, or assume foolishly that an American-style democracy would appear if they could be overthrown.10
Of course, this non-interventionism can be partly attributed to an awareness of America’s relative weakness, that would not allow too much intermeddling in the world. But nowhere can we find any evidence that the future achievement of unassailable American strength, which all anticipated, would be a grant of power to alter the world. It would merely make more secure the republican example.
The French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon required realism from American statesmen, as Hamilton had anticipated. While we were relatively secure beyond the Atlantic, some involvement was inevitable because of the colonial powers still on our borders and because a substantial portion of the American economy—that of New England—was mercantile—which inevitably brought national interests and honor into conflict with Europe.
Undoubtedly, also, the French Revolution had an impact, positive and negative, on American thought. Some Americans, notably in New England, recoiled in horror and professed to see the dangers of the same in America. Other Americans delighted in the possibility of republican principles gaining a lodgement in the heart of Europe. Relations with Britain and France, ideological, diplomatic, and economic, were a source of sharp controversy in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet these were basically domestic disputes. Almost no responsible native American sympathized with the Revolution after its excesses became apparent. While competing parties labeled each other as Jacobins and monarchists, in the final analysis Americans realized that both the reactionaries and the revolutionaries of Europe were operating in a different context. This conclusion, that American republicanism was as distinct from the revolutionary movements of Europe as it was from the monarchical establishments, was a standard convention of American discourse in regard to Europe throughout the nineteenth century.
Jefferson, often thought to be the most optimistically universalist of American democrats among the early statesmen, always took a hopeful but cautious attitude toward French developments, at which he was present as an observer during the early stages. He advocated sensible reforms appropriate to the European situation, not revolution, and was quick to apprehend that no American or European interest would be served by radicalism.11
The Federalist election propaganda which imagined Jefferson, who was living peacefully among his books, farms, and 200 slaves, as plotting to guillotine the clergy, was a product of hysteria which had much to do with religious and economic dislocations in domestic New England society and nothing to do with Jefferson’s beliefs or actions. Jefferson wanted the New World to be an example to the Old, not vice versa. European revolutionaries no more provided a guide for America than did European reactionaries. He knew that the long-range cause of liberty was not served by the form which the Revolution took. “I was a sincere well-wisher to the success of the French Revolution, and still wish it may end in the establishment of a free and well-ordered republic,” he wrote at the time he was being pilloried in the northern press as a Jacobin, “but I have not been insensible under the atrocious depredations they have committed on our commerce. The first object of my heart is my own country.”12
Shortly before his ascension to the Presidency he remarked on the rise of Napoleon: “On what grounds a revolution has been made, we are not informed, and are still more at a loss to divine what will be its issue; whether we are to have over again the history of Robespierre, of Caesar, or the new phenomenon of an usurpation of the government for the purpose of making it free.13
Much the same can be said for the general American reaction to the European revolutions of 1848. There was satisfaction that our example was being honored and sympathy with national independence movements, but no felt mission to promote the event and a certain amount of skepticism as to the possibilities of success. Americans understood that movements of social revolution were different in kind from their own revolution in favor of republican institutions. If for no other reason than the strength of the establishments that they had to overcome, European revolutionaries were bound to run to excesses of radicalism or militarism rather than follow the American example of a stable government of the people.
Yet seeds were planted for a later day. An influx of German refugees with universalist ideas swelled the ranks of the new Republican party in the 18’’50s. In New England, the reaction to the French Revolution had a course similar to that of Germany—an adoption and transformation of the revolutionary impulse into a native form. One could see in John Adams something of the Puritan idealism that many have found to be a historical source of the peculiar abstractness and self-righteousness which they have found in American foreign policy. But when Transcendentalism had been added to the secularized remnants of this “City upon a Hill” ideology that had figured in the founding of Massachusetts, the ground was being cleared to erect a new temple of universalized aggressive Americanism.
For Emerson, the American was not simply something to be celebrated as an example in which we could take national pride—he was a model for the future of the world. The world was to be seized—by a new type who was a universal model for the future (and at the same time remarkably Bostonian). By filtering American “exceptionalism” and the Declaration of Independence back and forth through Transcendentalism, a subtle but lasting transformation was made in concepts of the American role in the world. This was projected not only forward, but backward in American history, so that later historians thought they saw precedents in the American Revolution for a global democratic revolution in the twentieth. From Emerson’s new man it was but a short step to Whitman and the conversion of democracy from the stern and manly republican principles of the Founders into an amorphous, universalistic egalitarianism.
These tendencies gained their first high-level political expression in John Quincy Adams, who wrote, in an official document: “The general history of mankind, for the last three thousand years, demonstrates beyond all contradiction the progressive improvement in the condition of man, by means of the establishment of the principles of International Law, tending to social benevolence and humanity.” He also predicted a future world free of colonialism, “unfair” trade restrictions, and monarchy.14 But Adams was not a typical American figure of his time, nor did these mystical aspirations interfere with his hard-headed nationalistic diplomacy.
Certain tendencies were thus evident to the discerning, but these remained, politically and in public morale, a lesser key throughout the nineteenth century. The American democracy of the nineteenth century was a rooted optimism about American conditions and the American common man, essentially isolationist and telluric, if not, indeed, xenophobic. There is nothing in the substantial history of the (largely Southern and Western) movements of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy—their leaders, their rank and file, their policies, their social impulses—to provide a precedent for participation in a universal global democratic revolution. The same can be said for Lincoln, whose domestic revolution brought absolutely no change in the American role in the world. As Tocqueville remarked of the American democracy: “The foreign policy of the United States . . . consists more in abstaining than in acting.”15
The Rise of Internationalism
One does not have to be a foolish economic determinist—a believer in the supremacy of abstract economic laws, whether the free market or Marxism—to note the impact of economic factors on the relationships of nations. Two developments took Americans, or rather a portion of their leadership class, out of their traditional benevolent isolationism at the end of the nineteenth century. First, a growing awareness of a substantial though still somewhat marginal economic interest in Latin America, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific—trade and investment which brought contact with native peoples and potential rivalry with European powers. This was not an over-riding necessity for America, as it was for Britain, which depended upon overseas markets and raw materials. Nor did imperialism ever become a widespread popular program of national self-assertion as it did among the German and French publics.
But by the end of the nineteenth century there were signs among the leadership class of an internationalist philosophy. This had two sides, whose unrecognized incompatibility has confused American foreign policy and the American self-image ever since, right down to late twentieth century Reaganism and its critics. On the one hand was a kind of realistic assessment, anticipated by Hamilton and typified in part by Theodore Roosevelt, that we were, whether we will or no, a power in the earth, and as such we had no choice but to take a vigorous and well-thought-out role. One could see this, possibly, as no more than traditional prudent national interest extended to new circumstances.
The other face, analytically distinguishable thought often mingled in the same minds, was a proselytizing version of American exceptionalism. It drew not from traditional impulses and understandings but from new ones—Progressivism and the degenerate form of Protestantism known as the Social Gospel. It sought a militant American role in reforming the world—in exactly the same spirit as the reformation of American slums, corrupt city governments and renegade corporations. It was an enthusiastic adoption, with an American twist, of the late imperialistic philosophy of the “white man’s burden.”
These combined tendencies were to have their culmination in Wilson’s program to make the world safe for democracy, a formula from which Americans, or at least American intellectuals, have never escaped, and which provides our basic way of looking at the world, right down to the Reaganite obsession with the export of “vital,” “revolutionary” democracy.
This new imperialism had in its origins a basically Anglo-Saxon cast. Not all imperialists were sympathetic to the new immigration, but in fact, the vast immigration of new peoples into the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and imperialism reinforced each other by making America seem more international than ever before. The idea of the “melting pot,” which appeared at this time, was the domestic face of the international mission.
Even so, the new American imperialism was in neither respect really universalistic or egalitarian. It involved bringing the law to the natives, who were not, or at least not yet, ready for Americanization—it was paternal, not brotherly, just as the melting pot was really more conformist than pluralistic. In regard to European powers one could still see something of the old detachment and suspicion. Henry Cabot Lodge, though an early imperialist, would have agreed with Cooper’s comment a half century earlier: “An opinion is seldom given in Europe of anything American, unless from impure motives.”16 But there was also a considerable movement toward coalescence with the other Western democracies, particularly Britain.
It would be too easy, though a great temptation to conservatives, to make a distinction between “realistic” internationalists like Roosevelt and “utopian” ones like Wilson. But, in earlier periods, the two aspects were inextricably confused everywhere. Roosevelt viewed World War I a good deal more enthusiastically and in some respects more blindly than did Wilson. It is misleading to blame on a particular political party or figure tendencies that are in fact widespread and deeply reflective of our national character as it has evolved.
Opposition to the new internationalism of the turn of the century took two forms. One, which has been less emphasized, but which has continued to run inarticulate and unrecognized through the American consciousness, was reflected by Bryan. It was traditional and Jeffersonian: exceptionalism with non-entanglement. It continued to believe in a benevolent but largely non-exportable American democracy. It felt that to imitate European powers in foreign ventures would lead to imitating them in domestic oppressions as well. Traces of this can be found, along with other elements, among the America Firsters of the 1930s, in figures as diverse as Charles A. Beard and Charles A. Lindbergh. Such a feeling was neither utopian nor pacifist, but it was non-interventionist. Possibly this strain of native belief and tendency has been more important than has generally been recognized. We have tended to characterize American opinion that was hesitant in such situations as the Korean and Vietnamese wars in terms provided by liberal historians, as rooted in the other, leftist form of opposition that was developing to American imperialism in the early twentieth century rather than in traditional non-interventionism.
Less important before the thirties but portentous for the future was the socialist critique of imperialism, which was curiously both isolationist and internationalist. It believed in the desirability, often the inevitability, of “world democratic revolution.” Its view of the world drew from European socialism, not traditional republicanism. It opposed American internationalism because it was contaminated by big business and Christianity—it was insufficiently universalist and utopian.
As always, the actual political situation was more ambiguous than this analysis suggests. Most people do not see all the time all of the implications of their positions, and all parties and movements resort at times to convenient vagueness in order to broaden their appeal. Further, unexpected historical events tend to override formulations of foreign policy and upset ideal patterns of conflict—events like TR’s sending of the fleet to the Philippines in anticipation of a war with Spain over Cuba, like nationalist unrest in the Balkan portion of the Austrian empire in 1914, like Hitler’s invasion of Russia, or the overthrow of the Iranian emperor by militant Muslims.
After World War I, Americans, in the traditional phrase, “retreated into isolationism.” That is, they exhibited a certain regret that they had defied all the teachings of the fathers and abandoned their splendid isolation for entangling alliances. Yet a transformation had been made in the American self-image, the Rubicon had been crossed.
America then settled into a kind of grudging and limited activity in the world. Republican administrations in the twenties busied themselves with international economic and naval agreements, and intervened in Latin America when necessary—all very Anglo-Saxon and Protestant enterprises and moderate and realistic versions of Wilson’s failed fantasies. It was not so much a repudiation as a dilution of Wilsonism. Such internationalism was not universalist, however. The Third World, except for Latin America, China, and Japan, hardly entered into American consciousness. The European empires were the de facto keepers of world order. And Europe had been able to contain the new and frightening element of Bolshevism. Unlike the Kaiser, this posed no immediate threat to Western life.
Project World Democracy: The Post-War Era
From the fall of the League of Nations to the rise of fascism in American consciousness there were no serious conflicts over foreign policy, but there was also little real consensus or clarity in regard to the American role in the world. Roosevelt accomplished recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 with only muted criticism. The old self-image having been abandoned in 1917, and the new Wilsonian one having been found to be disillusioning, nothing had yet replaced it. Americans were without a concept of their place in the world, and, except for the diehard Wilsonians, hardly felt the lack.
When war was renewed in Europe, Americans divided into three groups. The isolationists, centered in the Midwest and fuelled somewhat by Anglophobia and anti-New Deal discontents, could see no reason for American involvement in the troubles of the Old World and could discern no difference between fascist and Communist totalitarianism.
Another large segment of opinion was not eager for involvement but watched with increasing uneasiness the threats posed by aggressive and indecent regimes to the Pacific, to Western Europe, and to a tolerable world. They came slowly to face the necessity that rearmament was in order and that some involvement might be inevitable.
The third segment of opinion, developed on the Left during the 1930s and brought to full fruition during and after the war by massive official and unofficial propaganda, assumed the global democratic mission of America. (Remember, we are concerned less with events and real conditions than with how Americans were molded to conceive of their role in the world.)
The prewar period saw the first appearance in America of the Popular Front. Large segments of the Left, of various hues of red and pink, promoted an internationalist philosophy disembodied from the American national interest and the traditional guiding principles. We were the arsenal of democracy, which was threatened with extinction by aggressive fascist regimes (though apparently not by Stalinism). Already well-established in the 1930s, this philosophy had no principled opposition, and very little intelligent criticism, after the German attack on Russia, which silenced its critics to the Left, and Pearl Harbor, which ended isolationism.
In the view of the global democrats, an alliance with Soviet Russia was not a distasteful necessity—it was a glorious opportunity to be enthusiastically embraced, a mingling of the two major constituents of the future world order. Anyone who looks through the official statements, the news media, and the film entertainment of the time cannot escape this impression. Global democrats largely controlled the interpretation of the war from the news media and Washington bureaus, all of which teemed with plans for the postwar construction of world democracy. The fighting and dying in the air, the seas, and the lands was a sideshow being carried on by expendables. Indeed, for Eleanor Roosevelt, American fighting men should not return as heroes but should be quarantined for fear they had developed fascist tendencies while serving their country.
While Wilson had visualized a postwar order of nations, bound by legal agreements and deliberative institutions, global democracy was something new for Americans. It looked to a merging of peoples and an international order in which power would be as real but as amorphous and “democratic” as in the Soviet Union. The “right-wing extremism” which began to rise in the early 1950s, and was so decried by the intellectual class, rested to a considerable extent upon the inarticulate fear of many Americans that there were plans afoot to deprive them of their traditional self-government in favor of an anonymous world government. There is little doubt among scholars that FDR felt that a new world order would be constructed by himself and Stalin, with Churchill, representing the old order, curtailed as much as possible.
This line was less a mobilization of morale for the war, though it took on that aspect occasionally, than it was a plan for the postwar world. The war became a step in the global democratic revolution. The defeat of the fascist powers was only the first goal in an ongoing transformation of the world. While many or most Americans thought in terms of defeating their enemies, reestablishing a degree of order and decency in the world, and going back to peaceful pursuits, by this view the end of the war would be but a beginning.
For the first time America had become not an end but a means, expendable material for construction of a new world order (although the new order often curiously resembled America writ large). Lip service was given to American values and ideals, but these were portrayed as nearly interchangeable with the Soviet variety. Curiously, not only were the defeated powers to be reconstructed, but also the victorious powers! While the guns still roared, the reform of the Western Allies was already projected—as a war goal—welfare state expansion in Britain, civil rights in the U.S. For the first time this was put not upon grounds of domestic justice but grounds of world opinion—the necessity to conform to an egalitarian world order. All of this was determined and proclaimed by the New Deal elite as war goals. Victorious American society must alter itself to please world opinion. The European empires would be liberated and form themselves into democratic constituents of the new world. The men who were fighting the war and the people who sustained them were expendable not only for the defense of their country but for the vision of their internationalist elite, which had pre-empted the meaning of the victory. Nor were they consulted. World peace was to be imposed by the elite through the regimentation of wartime.
Without the intensity of psychological stress and the pervasiveness of regimentation brought on by the war, so radical a break with American traditions could never have played in Peoria. As it was, this program would have gotten nowhere if it had not met a certain receptivity, if it could not have been given a plausible coincidence with the more modest and sensible goals of the masses of citizens and made to seem a fulfillment of traditional democratic ideals. But there was a rather tenuous connection between these schemes and the real aspirations and needs of the peoples of the world. The firm, serious role that Americans would be called upon to play when the fantasy of Soviet cooperation collapsed was nowhere anticipated, with the result of vast confusion, suspicion, and resentment when the Cold War impinged upon the victory and peace.
Those who grew up in the fifties can remember the unqualified and uncritical promotion of the United Nations in the schools and media in those days. The dying of Americans in the snows of Korea to stem Communist barbarism was portrayed as a United Nations police action, as if it were some disembodied exercise of world brotherhood. The pro-UN propaganda reached every hamlet in America with an intensity that was not even matched by the world wars. Its disappearance in recent years is an unexpected phenomenon which has hardly been noticed. The glorification of the United Nations continued until it became evident that the UN was intransigently anti-Zionist, which the American public could not accept. (The American public did not realize and the American intelligentsia did not care that the UN was almost as intransigently anti-Western.) Having failed of the vision, the UN was increasingly abandoned for unilateral American initiatives for the world democratic revolution, of which the Reagan “Project Democracy” is only the latest of quite a long line.
The application of the global democratic vision to relations with the Communist World was a disaster mitigated only by belated realistic actions of the early Cold War, which still stand as models of American generosity and good sense. But the American elite were reluctant to abandon their global democratic ideology, which no longer fit the circumstances.
In terms of intellectual rationalizations, there were two significant responses to the Cold War. One was the evolution of an American conservative anticommunism which insisted on strong military andmoral mobilization against a threat to civilization and religion. Its criticisms of American policy during the 1960s and 1970s mainly concentrated on the need to view the world realistically as an arena of conflict rather than as a ground for the building of democratic utopia. Democratic societies, desirable as a long-term goal insofar as they were feasible, were not the measure of the emergency.
The second response was Cold War liberalism, summed up, as has so often been the case, most cogently and persuasively by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Vital Center. The gist of this philosophy was to steer a course between the hateful extremes of communism and anticommunism, both of which were threats to the evolution of the world toward universal democratic norms. This view has clearly remained supreme in good times and bad. It has dominated public expression and controlled both parties, and even the conservative wing of the Republicans when in power, both in regard to the Soviet world and the Third World.
The application of the concept of world democratic revolution to the Third World was also a disaster, which American policy makers and opinion molders have clung to till this day. The American stumbling in Indochina and Central America stemmed directly from the concept of a democratic mission, which caused continual misconceptions of the needs and possibilities of the societies being defended and crippling disillusionment when the concept proved fantastic and inapplicable.
Possibly the American people at large did not share fully in either the philosophy of conservative anticommunism or that of Cold War liberalism. Perhaps they shouldered the burdens of World War II and the Cold War in a reluctant and defensive effort to restrain aggressive and indecent dictatorships, not to reduce the world to the American model or any other model. Perhaps all they wanted was a government, in the words of Charles Pinckney, “sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt and preserve our domestic happiness and security. . . .” For this they did not need any philosophy. All they needed was a normal and traditional faith in their country and its institutions.
- Gaillard Hunt and James B. Scott, eds., The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 . . . (New York: Oxford, 1920), 159–60, (Madison’s notes).
- This was one of the arguments developed in two otherwise excellent and stimulating articles by James E. Dornan in the Intercollegiate Review: “The Founding Fathers, Conservatism, and American Foreign Policy” (Vol. VII, nos. 1–2, Fall, 1970, 31–43) and “The Search for Purpose in American Foreign Policy” (Vol. VII, no. 3, Winter 1970–71, 97–110).
- Quoted with source in Dornan’s first article cited above, 39.
- Quoted with source in Ibid., 38.
- To Elbridge Gerry, May 13, 1797, in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Modern Library, 1944), 543.
- Cooper, The American Democrat (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), 123.
- To John Jay, August 23, 1785, in Koch and Peden, 378. In The Federalist Nos. 3 and 4, Jay pursued Jefferson’s distinction between unjust and just wars, affirming that the Union would be efficacious in avoiding the former.
- To Edward Rutledge, June 24, 1797, Koch and Peden, 544.
- For purposes unrelated to this essay, I have read hundreds of despatches from American ministers and consuls in Latin America in the mid-nineteenth century, including Democrats and Whigs, Northerners and Southerners. I have above summarized a nearly unanimous attitude.
- It is necessary to read over all of Jefferson’s correspondence with American and French friends as he followed the course of events. A small but good selection appears in Koch and Peden’s collection, 414–556 passim.
- To Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799, in Koch and Peden, 546.
- To Dr. William Bache, February 2, 1800, Ibid., 556.
- George Lipsky, John Quincy Adams: His Theory and Ideas (New York: Crowell, 1950), 279; W.C. Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams (New York: Macmillan, 1913–17), vol. 6, 396.
- Alexis Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), 228.
- Cooper, American Democrat, 209.