Yet Another Vital Task for Obama Is Deciding When We Should Go to War





Mr. Saunders has a PH.D. in History from the University of Virginia, is Emeritus Professor of History from Christopher Newport University, a Fulbright scholar, and has written books entitled: The Search for Woodrow Wilson and Power, the Presidency and the Preamble.

The poignancy of watching President Obama lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a symbol of respect for those who have died in our wars certainly resonates with Americans. While recognizing the ultimate sacrifice of hundreds of thousands, their deaths cry out, in fact demand, that we examine the justifications and necessity of being involved in major wars outside the United States since 1898.

The overriding justification for American wars has been the attack of another country on our forces and facilities. The sinking of the Maine in 1898 served as the flashpoint for the Spanish-American War along with Spanish oppression of the Cuban people. Accordingly, the contention that America sought to liberate and democratize Cuba and other countries has been a recurrent theme of America’s wars since 1898.

The goal of democracy needs to have some historical context to evaluate its meaning. The rapid industrialization of America in the late nineteenth century led a number of high powered American leaders to conclude that in the future America would have to trade abroad to remain viable. Alfred Mahan provided the strategic framework for projecting American power beyond its borders. He argued that to trade abroad America needed trading posts to maintain and protect its shipping.

As a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired numerous bases in the Caribbean, the Philippines in the Far East and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. In every case, American policy after the war stressed economic interests and security over the commitment to democracy.

In World War I, a similar, but more complex, pattern emerged. President Woodrow Wilson brilliantly articulated the case for democracy and the German submarine campaign after February 1, 1917 for justifying American entrance into the war.

To this day, many understand Wilson only in terms of making the world safe for democracy. Wilson was certainly not against democracy, but his major underlying goal was to ensure that America after the war had a seat at the table of the victorious powers in order to open up economic opportunities for American trade abroad. As a viable framework for American interests, Wilson recognized that as a rule representative governments would be open to American trade while being beacons of stability.

The major country that blocked the fulfillment of Wilson’s goal, along with the United States Senate, was Great Britain. The British sought to maintain their empire in Africa, India and elsewhere. The British were not advocates of democracy or open trade in the world. If the Germans had won WWI, which they almost assuredly would have done without the intervention of the United States, the world would have been no less democratic. The Germans would have continued their efforts to build the Berlin to Baghdad railroad as the backbone for a closed economic system similar to Great Britain. On the other hand, following the logic of war, the Germans opened the door to bolshevism in Russia by transporting Lenin to Russia knowing he would pull Russia out of the war and by imposing a harsh peace on Russia.

As the war came to a close, Wilson and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George contemplated a large scale intervention in Russia to crush the Bolsheviks, but realized that the cost would be staggering and public support would be minimal at best. Thus the central and eastern European countries—mainly, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia—were created to serve as a buffer against bolshevism. According to the principle of self determination, these countries were democratic since they were defined by the people and not royal families.

This fragile system, which the United States made no effort to maintain, collapsed with the devastation of the Great Depression and the 1939 alliance between Hitler and Stalin leading to the crushing of democracies in these countries and making the people serfs or worst.

The Great Depression turned the United States towards mercantilistic polices designed to create a self sufficient home economy. President Franklin Roosevelt clung to the mercantilistic policies through the 1930s, despite the emergence of multi-national corporations in oil and automobiles.

Unlike many Americans, FDR continued to support Wilsonian policies as best he could. He perceived that unlike WWI, Germany under Hitler constituted an ultimate threat of major proportions for the first time in United States history.

Ironically, the roots of FDR’s policies after Pearl Harbor reached back to the justifications and consequences of the Spanish-American War. FDR used the bases acquired in the Spanish-American War as the foundation to develop the major thrust of his vision for the post-WWII world. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor convinced him and Truman that the ultimate security of the United States should rest upon establishing military bases in all strategic areas of the world. Consequently, any future wars would be fought abroad and not on, or even near, the United States.

World War II also brought the United States out of the Great Depression which could have been done earlier had FDR and other Americans understood Keynesian economics. Unlike in WWI when Wilson and Herbert Hoover sought to remove the United States from, Europe as soon as possible, FDR/Truman developed numerous policies to ensure the dominance of United States economic power in the world.

Security concerns for the United States after WWII soon morphed into containment of communism which became an extension of the Spanish-American policy of acquiring bases to project the economic and security concerns onto the world as a whole. The development of the A-bomb and intercontinental missiles resulted in the Soviets and the United States adopting mutual assured destruction or MAD. As such, it was unlikely either country would resort to atomic war unless the threat became a question of national survival. Nevertheless, the United States got locked into defending strategically minor places like Vietnam.

The major alternative to the vital domestic economic concerns received only spasmodic attention in the twentieth century. One lost opportunity occurred as Wilson boarded the ship to go to the peace conference in late 1918. Raymond Fosdick urged Wilson to include in the peace treaty a “a bill of industrial rights” that would establish worldwide standards in industrial countries for hours of work, minimum wages, unemployment insurance and other government guarantees. Wilson expressed support for an international labor conference, but considered it impractical to include labor-economic issues during the peace conference. As he had done all his life, Wilson placed prime emphasis upon political change and assumed that economic and social change would follow in the wake of political stability and enlightened leadership.

Only FDR, HST and LBJ have made much head way in addressing the proposed economic and social changes that Fosdick made to Wilson in 1918. The fact that the political system runs on a two year cycle hindered much attention to the deeply ingrained racial, class and gender divisions in the twentieth century.

The Obama administration has interest in such reforms, but greater involvement in Afghanistan could well stall any progress concerning domestic reform. To put off social and economic reform increases greatly the chance that they will be half measures at best.

To really honor Americans who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, America needs to address head on the questions of how to create a more just and equitable world. The United States in cooperation with other countries needs to devise programs to close the gap between the rich and poor that will in time lead to genuine democratic roots. National self interest is also a concern since for the last thirty plus years the wages of American workers have stagnated at best. A continuation of this pattern risks social unrest of an unknown magnitude.

In our current wars, paying war lords and others with political power will bring little or no reform. The United States needs to go beyond the policy of putting thousands of former insurgents on the payroll of the United States. Nor will elections create democracies without a viable middle class committed to the well being of the nation. Current policies will lead to a pyrrhic victory with consequences that certainly will not justify the sacrifices of the Americans who indeed have made the ultimate sacrifice.


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Randll Reese Besch - 7/6/2009

That is what is being promoted contrary to what Robert M. Saunders speaks of. They want a country if not the world to be like it was, at least for their populations, pre New Deal. They don't want a Middle Class of any kind and not labor relations or anything else that smacks of powers to the people.

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