Tag Archives: Politics

Change Came Quickly

In 1918, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. World War I delayed the presentation of the award because Haber was a German scientist, one who had gained the name ‘the father of chemical warfare’. Haber was a patriotic German committed to the German cause, however, less than fifteen years after he was celebrated as a great scientist, he fled his homeland fearing for his life. Fritz Haber was a Jew. He was also an intellectual who too closely associated with a war that had been lost rather than won. Like many other German citizens, Haber discovered that under the right set of circumstances hate could replace friendship with great rapidity. Those circumstances included an economic recession, a turbulent political climate, an abundance persuasive rhetoric, and a highly effective propaganda campaign. In less than two decades, a population who once celebrated Haber’s achievements turned their backs on the evidence that their government had implemented a policy of incarceration and extermination. Race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and intellectual interests were more than enough justification for the public to look the other way, or worse join the Nazi agenda. Change came quickly while the public clung to the notion that they were justified in their actions.

U.S. Compulsory Education: Teaching Exceptionalism

During the mid-nineteenth century, states began passing compulsory education laws, and although all states had these laws in place by the time the United States entered World War I, there was still quite a disparity between levels of basic education received by the soldiers. Mobilization efforts during WWI highlighted the need for greater emphasis on education in the United States, but it also highlighted the need to emphasize a common nationality among its citizenry. The war had created a stigma on citizens and immigrants who were too closely related or associated with the enemy. It was felt that the ‘old country’ culture, still held by many, needed to be replaced by a commitment to a less definable, but more patriotic American culture. The desire to eliminate overt connections with European culture, a culture that seemed to instigate war rather than peace, led to strong measures designed to force change in the U.S. population. One measure included the effort to eliminate parochial schools which were viewed as being too closely tied to European culture. When Oregon amended its compulsory education laws in 1922 with the intent to eliminate parochial schools, they faced opposition including a Supreme Court case that ended up ruling against them. It was hoped that public education would transform the population into a more cohesive culture, and while states couldn’t force public school attendance versus private school attendance, over time many states were able to dictate curriculum requirements and achieve the underlying goals sought by legislators during the post-war period.

Many in the United States believed that the nation had a vital responsibility to encourage and spread notions of republican democracy. A growing belief in ‘American exceptionalism’ developed in the post-war years, due in part to wartime propaganda. If the United States was to be exceptional then it needed to guarantee that its public understood what made it exceptional. Accomplishing this task meant that its citizenry needed to understand history, and not just the history of the United States beginning with colonization or independence, but a citizen needed to understand the connection between the United States and ancient history where the foundations of democracy resided. Compulsory education, classes in American History and Western Civilization, and an emphasis on U.S. exceptionalism became the foundation for unifying a nation during the twentieth century.

Going to War: Power and Prosperity

The United States presents a fascinating study of the various reasons a nation chooses, or feels forced to go to war. In the early days of the nation, war with foreign powers was seen as too entangling to enter into lightly. Attempts to circumvent armed retaliation for foreign oppression resulted in embargoes which hurt the U.S. more than it did those at whom the embargoes were aimed. Military retaliations seldom achieved the sought after goals, although they did establish the clear message that the young nation would not tolerate foreign oppression. International conflict was costly regardless of the strategy, but by the late 1800s a new reality was emerging within the power brokers of the nation. War, while costly in men and machine, could also provide an economic boost to a nation struggling with recession. This reality would become even more pronounced in the 1900s as the machine began to dominate warfare and a race to beat others in the field of war technology intensified. War had become a profitable business even as the world became terrified of the horrible human destruction modern war created. By the mid-1900s, war technology began to threaten the very existence of mankind even while the development of the technology made many powerful and wealthy.

Interestingly, in the early decades of the 1900s men like Woodrow Wilson were well aware of how devastating war could be on the humanity. Having been born in Virginia in the decade prior to the Civil War, Wilson’s earliest memories would have been of war, deprivation, and human suffering. He would have spent his youth seeing war veterans and hearing their stories. He went to school where he studied history and politics, subjects that would have exposed him to the many wars fought over power and possession. He earned a doctorate and would be the first U.S. president to have a PhD. The study of history and politics would have influenced his aversion to going to war, but his belief that the United States could influence others in a positive way would justify his support of intervention and eventually international war. Like many other intellectuals and politicians, his desire to spread the ideologies of democracy and capitalism, in other words, to help others become more like his beloved nation, blinded him to the fact that others might not wish to emulate the United States. As president, he was well on the way to becoming remembered for his military interventions and suppression of revolution before World War I thrust him into the role of international mediator.

Having come to age during the years when the United States attempted to heal from the wounds of war, and having seen firsthand the difficulties created in a society when harsh, punitive treatment was dealt to the defeated, it is not surprising that Wilson would wish to avoid repeating such mistakes when negotiating peace in Europe. It is also not surprising that Wilson would want to find a way to avoid future war. In the end, war is costly and a desire to recoup one’s own expenses at the further detriment of the defeated is hard to suppress. Furthermore, notions of international cooperation can, for many, seem to weaken a nation rather than propel it to greatness. Peace is virtuous, but war promotes power and economic vitality, especially if the war never touches the homeland.

For Further Reading

Boemeke, Manfred F., Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser, eds. The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Diplomacy and Destiny

It has been said that war is politics by other means and few would disagree with the Clausewitzian sentiment, but one might also state that diplomacy is warfare by peaceful means. Often diplomacy seeks to gain without violence the same objectives that empires of old sought to gain through war. Relying upon Machiavellian precepts of being feared rather than loved, and by justifying the means by the end results, great diplomats have doggedly pursued national interests, sometimes believing destiny had already prescribed a greater future than present circumstances provided. One such diplomat was William Henry Seward (1801-1872). In 1853, seven years before becoming U.S. Secretary of State for the Lincoln administration, Senator Seward stated in a speech titled The Destiny of America, “Nevertheless it is not in man’s nature to be content with present attainment or enjoyment. You say to me, therefore, with excusable impatience, ‘Tell us not what our country is, but what she shall be. Shall her greatness increase? Is she immortal?’”[1] Steward believed the answer to these questions were the affirmative and would spend his career seeking to increase the greatness of the nation he served.

Like other expansionists, Seward would link U.S. commercial strength with the acquisition of foreign markets and territorial holdings. When Mexico and British Canada proved unfertile soil for acquisition, Seward looked elsewhere. Seward believed that the United States had a destiny to spread its notions of liberty to the new nations breaking free from European imperialism, particularly those liberating themselves from Spain. Unfortunately, he also believed, as many did, that shaking off imperial control did not necessarily mean the people of Latin America were prepared to self-govern.[2] Seward believed the southern neighbors would be better served if they became part of the United States. Seward achieved a piece of his goal by pushing for the purchase of Alaska, and while it was considered folly at the time, the discovery of gold changed how most viewed the acquisition. He had less success in his efforts to secure other territories in the Caribbean and Central America. However, he would be remembered for the tenacity with which he sought U.S. expansion; a tenacity that often diverged from diplomacy and bordered on bullying.[3] Those who were unfortunate to have sparred with Seward would have felt bombarded and under attack, and would have wondered at the fine line Seward drew between diplomacy and war. With a focus firmly on the destiny of U.S. greatness, Seward behaved more like a commanding general than a diplomat. Seward believed the destiny of the United States was not limited to contiguous land of North America, but that it reached far beyond. Eventually Steward’s tenacious diplomacy would be replaced by combat in a war that would acquire some of the territory Seward had desired. His vision of U.S. expansion, while not achieved during his time in office, did influence the direction of U.S. expansion as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Whether through diplomacy or warfare, men like Seward were determined to see the United States fulfill its destiny of greatness.

Endnotes

[1] Frederick Seward, Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from His Letters, e-book (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891), 207.

[2] William Henry Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams Sixth President of the United States with Eulogy Delivered before the Legislature of New York, e-book (Auburn, NY: Derby, Miller and Company, 1849), 122-123.

[3] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 255-257.

Cuba and the United States

I have long found the US/Cuba situation fascinating particularly in light of the fact that many nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. politicians and businessmen had the wish of annexing Cuba, or at least keeping Cuba a friendly U.S. playground. Cuba, so close to the United States, was often a hoped for prize. Many power brokers in the United States felt sure Cuba would eventually choose to join its neighbor to the north. The fact that it never did but instead rejected the United States during the Cold War makes it all the more interesting and begs the question of why it choose such a different path from the one hoped for by men like Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and many others.

In 2002, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies titled “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” The following is a short paper I wrote after reading this and other articles discussing theories as to why the United States persisted with Cold War policies towards Cuba even after the end of the Cold War.

Loathsome Rejection: Cuba and the United States

Masked behind a cloud of Cold War fear, Cuba’s rejection of the United States was the loathsome reality of a failed U.S. attempt at imperial influence and a direct blow at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Fidel Castro was “inalterably held responsible” and according to Louis A. Pérez Jr. in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba,” Castro became a problem that would blind policy makers for over forty years, even after the end of the Cold War.[1]

“Castro was transformed simultaneously in to an anathema and phantasm, unscrupulous and perhaps unbalanced, possessed by demon and given to evil doings a wicked man with whom honourable men could not treat.”[2]

Pérez stated that the “initial instrumental rationale” for U.S. policy with Cuba, particularly the policy of sanctions, may have become “lost” over time, but that it was initially created under the precepts of containment.[3] However, in the case of Cuba, the practice of utilizing economic pressure through embargoes was undermined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allowed political asylum to any Cubans who made it to U.S. shores. This act became a release valve for the pressures created by the embargoes. While poor Cubans remained poor, the middle-class Cubans, who were most affected by U.S. sanctions, could attempt to seek refuge elsewhere. “The Logic of the policy required containing Cuban discontent inside Cuba,” but this logic was lost amid the emotional reaction the United States had towards Fidel Castro and his rejection of the United States. This rejection was compounded by the challenge to “the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine,” and the United States “primacy in the western hemisphere.”[4] If rejection was not enough to engender such resentment, inviting the Soviet Union to become a military as well as an economic ally was more than U.S. policy makers could stand without seeking retribution.

Cold War fear and rhetoric does not sufficiently account for the continued and virulent animosity between the United States and Cuba, and Pérez was not the only scholar to take note. As the Soviet system crumbled and the Cold War came to an end, “the antagonism displayed by the U.S. government toward Cuba and Castro …intensified.”[5] The continued containment of Cuba in the post-Cold War era negated decades of U.S. assertions that the Cuban policy was the direct result of its status as a Soviet satellite. While others would write about the illogical continuation of Cold War policy, Pérez argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba had less to do with Cold War fear and containment, and more to do with loathing and retaliation for the rejection of the United States and the embarrassment such a rejection caused.

Certainly there was a real national threat in having Soviet missiles located so close to U.S. shores, but that threat does not account for U.S. policy before and after the missiles. Wayne S. Smith, who was stationed in Cuba as a vice-consul during the Cuban Revolution, claimed that Castro and his revolutionaries were not communist threats in 1956.

“We found no credible evidence to indicate Castro had links to the Communist party or even had much sympathy for it. Even so, he gave cause for concern, for he seemed to have gargantuan ambitions, authoritarian tendencies, and not much in the way of an ideology of his own. He was also fiercely nationalistic. Given the history of U.S. military occupations, the Platt amendment, and the outsized U.S. economic presence in Cuba, he did not hold the U.S. in high regard.”[6]

Without a doubt, the United States needed to address the threat posed by Castro, but to bypass speaking softly and instead proceeding to the wielding of a big stick was a move that would ensure crisis rather than avoiding crisis, especially when the Soviet Union was more than happy to lend Cuba a hand. The Soviet’s willing assistance, especially after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, was all the justification needed for President Kennedy to pick the moment of crisis rather than giving Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity.[7]

Pérez does not argue against the notion that there was a real threat posed by Cuba, but instead he points out that the United States was handed a “trauma” when the U.S. playground turned into a war zone, and then into a dangerous Cold War threat.[8] This trauma affected the U.S. ability to rationally create and implement a policy that would stabilize relationships and reduce threat. “Dispassionate policy discourse on Cuba … was impossible” [9] as long as Castro remained Cuba’s leader, because he was “a breathing, living reminder of the limits of U.S. power.”[10]

Endnotes

[1] Louis A. Pérez, Jr. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 227, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788 (accessed February 20, 2013).

[2] Ibid. 250.

[3] Ibid., 228.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] David Bernell, “The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 66, http://www.jstor.org/stable/166174 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[6] Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987), 15-16.

[7] Philip Zelikow, “American Policy and Cuba, 1961-1963.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 325. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/detail?sid=39889c50-22ab-48a2-b2e4-cd8946fd73a9%40sessionmgr15&vid=1&hid=18&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=2954415 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[8] Pérez, 231.

[9] Ibid., 250.

[10] Ibid., 251.

Other Readings

Dominguez, Jorge I. “U.S.-Cuban relations: From the Cold War to the colder war.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 49–75. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/200219310/13BF83A38607C999D8F/7?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Paterson, Thomas G. “U.S. intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war.” Magazine of History 12, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 5. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/213739998/13BF824CD53256D7D45/11?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 1972 New Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.

Humanity on the Battlefield

There is a popular story that goes around at Christmas time about soldiers all along the Western Front calling a truce and singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve. What is often left out of the story is the anger this show of humanity caused in the higher leadership. During war, a reminder that the enemy is not the monster which propaganda depicts can interfere with morale, and with a soldier’s determination to win at all costs. Yet on that Christmas Eve, men on opposing sides of a futile war remembered that only politics separated them. Christmas marked the fifth month of war and the third month in the trenches. World War I was still in its early days and there was still hope for victory and for the short war the generals and politicians on both sides had promised the soldiers. The peace which was hoped for on Christmas Eve 1914 would not be found until Christmas time 1918. The brutality of the war and the anger of generals would squelch attempts to repeat what had sprung up so naturally along the Western Front in 1914. However, the legend of the first Christmas of WWI would remind generations that in war humanity can survive.

No Man’s Land

A term older than World War I but popularized during that war, no man’s land refers to a stretch of land under dispute by warring parties, but it can also refer to lawless areas with little or no governing control. A buffer zone, on the other hand, is an area which provides a sense of protection from the enemy. When physical fortifications offer little protection, buffer zones can provide a perception of security. Nations great and small seek the perception of security when security is elusive. Treaties and alliances are traditional means of creating a sense of security, as is the creation of buffer zones. During the Cold War, the competing nations sought to expand their spheres of influence, thereby creating buffer zones between themselves and their enemies as their spheres grew. When the Cold War ended and the buffer zones were no longer needed, many of the buffer nations found themselves with fewer friends and with fewer resources to prevent lawlessness. These nations found it difficult to avoid the development of no man’s land within their borders.

The United States reasoned, even in the earliest days, that oceans made excellent buffer zones against the conflicts of Europe. Unsettled territories were adequate as buffers but only to a point. While unsettled territories didn’t pose a direct European threat, they were still loosely under the influence of powerful countries. Additionally they often attracted outlaws fleeing justice and smugglers seeking a base of operation near their markets. In 1818, Andrew Jackson decided to pursue a group of raiders into Florida. The problem was that Florida was owned by Spain and Spain had little ability to prevent lawlessness in the territory. When Jackson’s army crossed into Florida, he invaded a foreign nation. Without the consent of Spain, such an action created an international incident. Fortunately Secretary of State John Q. Adams was able to capitalize on Jackson’s actions, and convinced Spain that a treaty was better than a war. His reasoning for defending Jackson’s violation of Spanish sovereignty was that “it is better to err on the side of vigor.”[1] Certainly not the first time a nation chose a declaration of strength as its response to an international crisis of its own making, but possibly the first time such a response became national policy. As Secretary of State, Adams greatly influenced the foreign policy decisions of the president and authored much of what President Monroe presented to Congress. In March 1818, President Monroe declared to Congress that when a nation no longer governed in such a way as to prevent their lawlessness from spilling onto their neighbors, then the neighbors had the right to protect themselves and to seek justice even if it meant violating the sovereignty of another nation.[2] In other words, when an area became no man’s land, it was to the benefit of all nations for the lawlessness to be eliminated by whoever had the strength and will to do so.

Eliminating no man’s land in North America was a task that occupied the United States for more than a century. Eventually, the United States would reach from ocean to ocean and would gain the military might of a great nation. However even as the twentieth century dawned, the United States struggled to bring law to all of its territory. During the century of expansion, some in the United States saw potential in the acquisition of territory in the south, particularly in Central America. Others recognized the difficulty of governing such a vast nation. Faced with lawlessness due to revolt in Mexico during World War I, Wilson authorized the U.S. Army’s invasion of Mexico. However, Wilson recognized the value of having a buffer zone south of the border and eventually withdrew the army. In order to ensure that the southern nations created a friendly buffer zone, the United States supported governments that kept the peace, even though keeping the peace came at the expense of basic human rights. Like many leaders before and since, President Wilson put aside ideology and accepted peace-by-force as being better than lawlessness.

Reflecting on history, some leaders have sought security by building huge empires, some by establishing buffer zones, and others by the targeted elimination of no man’s land. Regardless of the method men and nations have chosen, it is clear that international law, notions of liberty and self-determination, and hope for world peace are always secondary to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by no man’s land.

Endnotes:

[1] Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 315-316.

[2] James Monroe, “Spain and the Seminole Indians,” American Memory, Library of Congress, (March 25, 1818),  http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsp&fileName=004/llsp004.db&Page=183.

At the End: the Cold War

Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall was opened. Unplanned and unauthorized by the powers who controlled the border between east and west, the opening of the Wall signified an end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era. While the momentous nature of act of opening a gate and letting people pass from east to west gained much attention at the time, other factors had been at play that would pave the way to peace and solidify the end of the Cold War in ways which went relatively unnoticed by the general public. Much has been written on the subject but not by authors with huge public followings. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary, we should look back. The following is a short essay* on one aspect of the end of the Cold War – just enough to pique your interest.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis has written that “the Cold War itself was a kind of theater in which distinctions between illusions and reality were not always obvious.”[1] It was fitting then that thespians took the stage for the final act. While is it common knowledge that President Ronald Reagan graced the silver screen in his younger days, it is less well known that other important actors of the final act had theatrical experience prior to their Cold War roles. Mikhail Gorbachev had been an “aspiring actor,” [2] in his youth, and the influential Pope John Paul II “had been an actor before he became a priest.”[3]The success of such actors on the Cold War stage was not due simply to their arrival upon the stage, but due in great part to the stage setting in which they inherited.

As with the origins of the Cold War, the end of the Cold War is not precise. Unlike hot wars which tend to end with the signing of peace treaties and have a clear chain of events preceding peace settlements, the end of the Cold War is ambiguous.  As historian George C. Herring pointed out, there is a myth that Reagan’s strong posturing and rhetoric are the direct cause of Soviet defeat.[4] Yet, to ascribe to such a myth negates the important role of the other actors and for those who set the stage on which the thespian preformed. Gaddis wrote, “it took visionaries – saboteurs of the status quo – to widen the range of historical possibility.”[5] More importantly, it took actors well versed in the art of improvisation, actors who could recognize the changing dynamics of the Cold War and grasp the opportunities of change. While there are numerous scenes to the last act of the Cold War, three key roles were played by each actor.

First, after the Able Archer exercises, President Reagan “drew the obvious – but for Cold War adversaries often elusive – conclusion that the Soviets feared the United States as much as American feared them.”[6] This shift led Reagan to adjust his strategy. While on one hand he ratcheted up the rhetoric, on the other he became more amiable to negotiations because he knew the United States had the upper hand.

Second, Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that public language was not really the same as diplomatic language, and that politicians like Reagan were acting to an audience. While Reagan certainly had an image to keep and a role to play, Gorbachev had an equally, if not more crucial part to play. He had to convince his people that glasnost and perestroika were positive changes, and that negotiations with the West were not signs of weakness.

The third actor, Pope John Paul II, helped “expose disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War had obliged them to live.”[7]

The Pope’s visit to Poland revealed that the USSR’s satellite enjoyed no popular legitimacy: They were Puppet regimes hated by their subject population. But Pope John Paul went further. He demystified the power of those regimes. With his words, his presence, and his injunction not to feel afraid, the Pope was for a while the real government of Poland.[8]

It would be wrong to assert that the Cold War, even in its final decade, lacked any real cause for fear, but Pope John Paul II diffused the overwhelming and consuming fear that had dominated the public since the days of Stalin.

The three actors took the world stage and improvised rather than continued the Cold War script where the bipolar status quo was viewed as “more stable than multipolar systems.”[9] The final act of the Cold War commenced once these three actors realized that President Roosevelt had been correct that the fear itself was the only thing causing the fear, and that the political divide could be cracked and then normalized once the people stopped feeling the oppression of the fear. While Cold War theatrics occasionally resurfaced, particularly when Reagan gave his famous “tear down this wall” speech in 1987, they did not deter the movement towards normalization between the United States and the Soviet Union.[10] The real success of the final act in the Cold War play is that while tough talk and grand speeches still placated the public perception of strength, changes were occurring specifically within the Soviet Union.  The stage had been set by the policies of containment, “collapse of détente,” the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet system, and mutual overspending on deadly war machines, but the final act was the result of leader desiring a change in the status quo.

* Due to unexpected issues this week, I am recycling an old essay rather than creating something new to commemorate the anniversary of The Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Endnotes:

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 195.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 894.

[3] Gaddis, 195.

[4] Herring, 894.

[5] Gaddis, 196.

[6] Herring, 896.

[7] Gaddis, 196.

[8] John O’Sullivan, “Warm Cold Warrior,” National Review 57, no. 7 (April 25, 2005): 38.

[9] Gaddis, 196.

[10] Herring, 898.

War Hawks

In the spring of 1811, a group of young men arrived in Washington, D.C. to fill congressional posts. Led by men like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, these new members of congress called for stronger measures in dealing with Europe and in dealing with the American frontier. War was viewed as the answer to problems unresolved by diplomacy or embargo. Europe, it seemed, placed little value on U.S. sovereignty. The wars of Europe threatened U.S. economic stability, and increased the British tendency to confiscate U.S. ships and impress U.S. sailors. On the western frontier, the native population was less friendly to the United States than they were to British Canada, thereby causing the increased worry in the United States that Great Britain might use the natives to further challenge the sovereignty of the United States. Additionally, Spain did little to curb the native raiding parties that caused havoc along the U.S. southern border. The War Hawks, as the new congressmen were called, believed that war was not only inevitable, but also the only practical solution.

Henry Clay stated, “…where is the motive for longer delay? … Our wrongs have been great; our cause is just; and if we are decided and firm, success is inevitable.” He continued with assurances that the United States was not only prepared but that Britain would not bother with another war in America. “The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.”[1] By the end of 1814, the British had burned Washington and U.S. leaders in the northeast were discussing succession as a solution to the economic crisis plaguing their region. However it was not battle victory that ended the war which Clay had so eagerly sought, but diplomacy that ended it; ended it before the famous victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. The United States had fought once more to establish its sovereignty but peace was not won by U.S. military prowess, rather once again the British grew weary of war with the Americans and a diplomatic solution was sought by both sides. Clay had been right to some extent when he said the British would not want to fight on American soil, not after such a long battle with Napoleon.

Europe was war weary and the United States, while not strong enough to defeat its armies and navies, was strong enough to make war an unappealing prospect. Additionally, all of Europe was ready to see an end to revolution and the international wars which had caused immeasurable strife for decades. The powers of Europe, under the new Concert of Europe, would go to great lengths to prevent war and would work to create a balance of power that would deter nations from seeking war when dealing with their neighbors. This dedication on their part would afford the United States the opportunity to grow as a nation both in size and strength without being entangled in or harmed by European war.

U.S. politicians dedicated to expansionist’s policies were well aware of the European frustrations with war. In the years following the end of the War of 1812, the United States would capitalize on Europe’s preoccupation with keeping peace at home. It would expand westward and southward. Great Britain, with its powerful navy still intact after decades of war, was the only nation which truly challenged the United States, and the British seemed content to focus on trade rather than colonization in the Americas.

While the U.S. managed to free itself from the machinations of Europe during the War of 1812, there may have been some unexpected consequences. The war may have increased the belief that a weaker nation could defeat a much greater military force simply by wearing down the enemies desire to fight. The United States would become an example that many would emulate in the future, not always to the benefit of the United States or its allies.

Additionally, the war promoted the notion that a just cause made for a successful war. Success was not inevitable as Henry Clay had stated, and in truth, success was anything but inevitable. Military theorist and Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that war was a “game in which Time and Chance shuffled the cards; but in its signification it was only diplomacy somewhat intensified, a more vigorous way of negotiating, in which battles and sieges were substituted for diplomatic notes.”[2] In the case of the War of 1812, “time and chance” favored the United States. War may, in the end, be unavoidable, but success in war is never guaranteed regardless of the rhetoric and zeal of people best labeled as War Hawks.

[1] Henry Clay, “Letter in Support of the War of 1812,” 1812, (accessed October 16, 2014), http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-in-support-of-the-war-of-1812/.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Dominique Poirier and J. J. Graham, Kindle ed., 2010.

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.