David Kaiser: Foreign Policy Traditions





[David Kaiser is a historian of international and domestic politics. He is the author of The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F Kennedy (2008).]

Yesterday's New York Times included a very interesting article about the forthcoming publication of Mark Twain's autobiography, which heretofore has been available only in very edited editions. Twain himself ordered that full publication be delayed for one hundred years, fearing that the frankness of his thoughts might hurt his iconic reputation and perhaps reduce the income to his estate. (I was reminded of the realism that Twain displayed in his conversation with the racy novelist Elinor Glyn, which I reproduced in full here on January 28th of this year.) What struck the author of the article, who probably attended college sometime after 1985, was the revelation that Twain was a violent anti-imperialist, strongly opposed to the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippines that followed, and given to acerbic remarks about the atrocities committed by the American soldiers who put down the subsequent uprising."The uncensored autobiography," the article writes,"makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers." As I read that passage, a good deal of my own life flashed before my eyes.

I too grew up in an era when the United States' world role was nearly unquestioned. The United States, I learned, stood for good against evil, and thus had defeated the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War and stood firmly against Communism now. My junior high and AP high school history textbooks, I remember, treated our rise to world power admiringly. In 1960-1, in eighth grade, I was assigned the affirmative in the debate club on the question,"Red China should be admitted to the United Nations"--a position I did not want to defend and which, in debates before audiences, didn't have a chance. In 1961 my own father was appointed to help spread the American gospel in the emerging Third World. When the Vietnam War began, almost exactly at the moment of my high school graduation, I firmly supported it, and when I arrived in college that fall, I knew only one fellow student (a roommate, actually, who I believe is a regular reader here), who did not.

During the next few years my thinking slowly evolved and in 1968 I had a real conversion experience. Not only did I conclude--correctly, as I now know--that the Vietnam War was hopeless, but I also rethought all the assumptions upon which it was based. Not only was it impossible for the United States to defend any nation threatened with Communism, but it made no sense for us to do so. Some areas of the world remained vital, but many others could pass into or out of Communist control without doing the slightest damage to U.S. interests. Moreover, I discovered, particularly during my first term in graduate school in the fall of 1971, that the United States had an anti-imperialist tradition that was still in evidence even in the latter stages of the Second World War. Doing my first professional research paper, I read most of the Congressional Record from late 1944 until early 1947. I found two groups of legislators strongly opposed to various aspects of America's new role in the world: left-wingers (including one or two Congressmen who apparently had been Communists) who protested our actions against leftists in Greece and elsewhere, and extreme right wingers who thought we should be fighting Communism at home, within the New Deal, instead of abroad. The progressive isolationist tradition, I found, extended all the way back to 1898, and indeed, anti-Vietnam Senators from the Midwest and Far West like George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and Wayne Morse, had kept it alive. The era of my childhood had been the exception, not the rule.

Even Richard Nixon, of course, abandoned some Cold War shibboleths, declaring that no one could win a nuclear war, pursuing detente, and establishing relations with Beijing. But I was shocked, I remember, in 1975, when Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford eagerly (if semi-covertly) intervened in the civil war in Angola. This conflict, between two rival Marxist revolutionary movements, struck me as exactly the kind of struggle we had no need to get into--but Vietnam had not changed their minds about it. Indeed, a CIA analyst spending a year at Harvard at the time told me they had been positively eager to show that the US could pursue its interests as vigorously as ever. That was only the beginning, and under Ronald Reagan the United States also became involved in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Already, Jimmy Carter had decided to contest the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

For one brief decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed that the United States might be on a new course. We fought the brief Gulf War in 1990-1 (about which I admit I had reservations before the fact) without becoming involved in the long run in the affairs of a Third World country. The first Bush Administration helped bring about the peaceful settlement of the civil war in El Salvador. I was not disturbed, on balance, by the west's failure to intervene in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda in the early 1990s and I still doubt that such intervention would have done much good. (I am rather astonished that the failure of more than 100,000 American troops in Iraq to prevent the ethnic cleansing of four million Iraqis between 2003 and 2008 has not cured us of the illusion that such intervention can save thousands of lives.) But then came 9/11, and the lightning-fast implementation of a new foreign policy by the Bush Administration, based on the idea that lightning quick, high-tech American military interventions could cure the ills of Muslim nations and bring them into the twentieth century and the American sphere of influence. Having at least quieted the situation in Iraq--which has already split, in effect, into two countries, and could yet split into three--we now face a continually deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Yet in the whole of our public life it is hard to find a single voice taking the kind of line Mark Twain took after 1898, and arguing that we simply have no right to kill Afghans to try to make them conform to our way of life. Indeed, Times reporter Larry Richter seems surprised to find that any prominent American ever took such a line.

Like Athens in the fifth century B.C. or Napoleonic France, the United States seems trapped by its expansionist momentum. This past week Der Spiegel lamented that no one seems to be able to argue coherently why we should continue in Afghanistan, but that no one seems to be able to stop it anyway. Our interventions and the casualties they inflict are, of course, relatively small-scale compared to those of the past. They are fought by small professional armies and contractors, yet we take them very seriously, and they create incredible distortions in the lives of certain Americans. Today's Washington Post includes a story on a three-day soccer tournament held in Virginia to crown, in effect, the Afghan-American champions of the US. The tournament is largely financed by contractors looking for speakers of Dari and Pastho, the two main Afghan languages, who might be willing to go to Afghanistan to serve as interpreters at $200,000 a year. (US soldiers make perhaps 1/5 of that.) Think about that.

For more than forty years I have believed Mark Twain was right. That is why I was appalled by the enthusiasm which so many of my contemporaries managed to summon for the Iraq war in 2003. Exactly why he and some of his distinguished contemporaries rejected imperialism will be the subject of another post, since my main source on that question is sitting in my office. Paradoxically, as the United States has risen from being one of a half-dozen great powers in the first half of the century, to one of two in the second half, and thence to unquestioned pre-eminence, it has become harder and harder, apparently, to raise questions about the imperial enterprise. I do not think any good can come from its continued pursuit, but like Athens and Napoleonic France, we may need a disaster, albeit, probably on a smaller scale, to force us to reverse course.



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