Category Archives: Economics

National Defense: U.S. Shores or Foreign Lands

Foreign wars are difficult to avoid particularly if they interrupt the flow of commerce or pose a threat to national defense. In the nineteenth century, the goal was to avoid foreign wars if at all possible. Thomas Jefferson, recognizing the need to address national defense, particularly the defense of U.S. harbors, instigated a policy of using a fleet of gunboats as a means of protecting the coast. While Jefferson argued that the defense of the U.S. homeland was enough, others argued that the U.S. needed to be prepared to protect the seas and U.S. trade interests. While the War of 1812 proved that Jefferson’s gunboat defense was not enough to keep the U.S. out of danger, the public was still of the belief that the United States should focus on the defense of its borders rather than the preparation for future foreign wars.

The desire to protect U.S. borders while avoiding the entanglements of foreign wars was a desire difficult to achieve. Often international conflict disrupted commerce long before the U.S. coastline was threatened. Defensive policies designed to protect the homeland did not always factor in the need to export war in order to protect economic interests from being threatened. By the end of the twentieth century, the protection of strategic national interests was intrinsically entwined with the protection of economic wellbeing – domestic and international. National defense often meant transporting U.S. personnel and equipment to foreign lands rather than keeping them on U.S. shores. However, in 1916 the United States, as during Jefferson’s day, still hoped to protect its national interests by protecting its borders and remaining a neutral trading partner with Germany and with Germany’s enemies. Germany, on the other hand, did not view the U.S. policy to be in the best interest of Germany and acted accordingly.

In the years before the United States entered the war, German U-boats became a clear danger to U.S. trade and the sinking of the Lusitania made it clear that civilian travel was also risky while Europe was at war. The Zimmerman Telegram exposed Germany’s decision to view the United States as a threat, but even before the Zimmerman Telegram and the official entry of the United States into the war, Germany threatened U.S. national defense and economic security. On July 30, 1916 German saboteurs carried out a plot to destroy munitions on an island in New York Harbor. The Black Tom Explosion, as the event became known, was a clear act of war designed to disrupt U.S. military aid to Great Britain. Seven people were killed and the economic costs were valued in the millions. Yet, the United States did not immediately go to war. It would take another war and the dawn of the nuclear age to convince the public that preparing to fight on foreign lands was as vital to U.S. defense as was protecting U.S. shores.

Empires and Keeping the Peace

It is clear that as the European empires struggled to maintain control over their colonial possessions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States searched for footholds in the regions formally under European control. In the nineteenth century, the United States expanded westward and southward absorbing territory which had been held, often loosely, by Spain. In some cases, the United States annexed regions which became part of the union. In other cases U.S. businessmen, or filibusters, simply moved in and dominated the local economies. Due to the Napoleonic Wars and political shifts in Europe, little by little, European interests, or the ability to capitalize on the interests, in the Americas dwindled. Even Great Britain, the great empire of the 1800s, intensified its focus on developing colonial markets in Africa, India, and China rather than the Americas. Certainly the United States was not left alone in the Americas, but it was able to expand its sphere of influence, especially economic influence with greater ease during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

While the War of 1812 did not gain the United States territorial holdings in Canada as some had hoped it would, it did establish that the United States was willing to use war as a means to expand, even war with European powers.[1] During the decades following the war, the United States made it very clear to Europe that it intended to be the regional power in the Americas, and that it would not tolerate European interference. Great Britain was actively expanding and defending its worldwide empire, but U.S. Secretary of State John Q. Adams was determined to prevent Great Britain from taking advantage of Spain’s weakened control of territories in the Americas. In a debate with British Minister Stratford Canning in 1821, Adams pointed out that Britain was seeking to gobble up the world markets, even quipping that Britain might have designs on “a piece of the moon.” When the debate circled around to the question of whether the United States still had designs on Canada, Adams replied, “Keep what is yours and leave the rest of the continent to us.”[2]

Shortly after this debate on the expansion of spheres of influence and territorial acquisition, Adams drafted what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He encouraged President Monroe to take a bold stand on the issue of European interference in the Western Hemisphere. It did not matter whether it was Great Britain, France, or Russia who had their sights set on a piece of the Americas. The United States declared that it would act to prevent the further exploitation of the Americas by Europe, but that did not mean it would not exploit the Americas for its own benefit. Nor did it mean that it would not seek to spread U.S. political and economic influence beyond the Americas.

During the decades preceding the War of 1812, revolution and independence movements disrupted imperial control, but in the years preceding World War I, a rise in nationalist revolutions set the stage for the demise of the great empires of the previous centuries. Colonialism would be challenged and eventually, after a second world war, eliminated in its previous form. Yet, even as the sun was setting on the colonial system which had helped create the empires of the past, a new colonial structure began to emerge. While the world focused on the war raging in Europe, President Wilson was flexing U.S. muscle in the Americas.[3] Neocolonialism became the policy of a new and emerging empire – the United States. Maybe not an empire in the traditional sense, but an empire in how it used its influence to set economic and political policy favorable to its own national interests rather than the interests of the neighbors it policed. As the great empires of Europe warred and their colonial control declined over the resource rich regions which had once made them powerful, the United States (and later the Soviet Union) expanded a growing economic and political sphere of influence that would rival any traditional empire.  In some cases, the sphere would include a military presence or intervention to keep the peace. This was not necessarily a peace that benefited the citizens in the new nations emerging in the wake of decolonization, as much as it benefited U.S. economic interests; but as the United States would remind itself from time to time, peace even a forced peace, was better than war. When the forced peace protected U.S. economic growth and stability, forced peace would certainly, at least to the United States, be the lesser evil, even if it made the United States seem very much a twentieth century empire.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Walter T. K. Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 73-74.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 134.

[3] Herring, 386.