The second purpose is to examine great debates over U.S. foreign policies and wars, focusing especially on leaders and movements advocating peace and diplomacy. Controversy has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy from the War for Independence to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century.
The third purpose is to evaluate U.S. foreign policies and wars from a principled perspective, one that reflects ”just war” and international humanitarian norms today. This is a history about the United States’ role in the world, but it does not define “success” and “progress” in terms of the advancement of national power and interests, even the winning of wars.
Chronology of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1775-2015
(click on highlighted links below)
There are nine completed sections.
Historical overview and future directions
1775-1783 – War for Independence
1775-1890 – U.S. territorial expansion and Native American resistance
1941-1945 – U.S. participation in World War II
2001-present – Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “War on Terror”
The pursuit of peace & human rights
There is no shortage of books, articles, and websites addressing the history of United States foreign policy. There is nevertheless, within the United States, a dearth of understanding and often knowledge about the subject. This is due in part to popular nationalistic history, which tends to obscure, overwrite, and sometimes whitewash actual history. 
Celebratory national history is deeply rooted in American culture. As may be seen in the second sentence of the war memorial below, American armed forces are typically portrayed as fighting “the forces of tyranny” and upholding the principles of liberty, dignity, and democracy.
America’s opposition to “tyranny” has a long ideological pedigree. In the Declaration of Independence of 1776, Patriot rebels denounced the King of Great Britain for “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” In fact, the British objective was to raise revenue from the colonies and curtail their smuggling. However oppressive particular acts, the British government was nonetheless the most democratic in Europe, with an elected House of Commons and established rights for Englishmen that had evolved over a 600-year period. The new American government continued to build on this democratic tradition, as did the British themselves. The idea that America represented “freedom” as opposed to “tyranny” nonetheless became an ideological fixture in the new nation, invoking a virtuous and noble national identity.
In its second 100 years of existence, the United States became a world power, joining the ranks of Old World empires such as Great Britain. As the U.S. prepared to militarily intervene in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, President William McKinley declared, “We intervene not for conquest. We intervene for humanity’s sake” and to “earn the praises of every lover of freedom the world over.”  Most lovers of freedom, however, denounced subsequent U.S. actions. The U.S. turned Cuba into an American “protectorate,” and the Philippines into an American colony. Rather than fighting to uphold freedom, the U.S. fought to suppress Filipino independence – at a cost of some 200,000 Filipino and 4,300 American lives.
A half-century later, at the outset of the Cold War, President Harry Truman asserted that the United States must “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”  Truman highlighted the tyranny of the Soviet Union and its alleged threat to Greece and Turkey, but he utterly ignored the more widespread tyranny of European domination over most of Asia and Africa. In the case of Vietnam, the U.S. opted to side with the oppressor, aiding French efforts to re-conquer the country. Truman’s fateful decision in 1950 led to direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam fifteen years later.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  These appealing words reminded Americans of their mythic moral identity, but they hardly guided U.S. foreign policy. During the long Cold War (1946-91), the U.S. provided military and economic aid to a host of dictatorial and repressive regimes, including those in Cuba (before Fidel Castro assumed power), Nicaragua, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Zaire, Somalia, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Korea, South Vietnam, and the Philippines. The U.S. also employed covert action to help overthrow democratically elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. Despite propping up authoritarian governments and undermining democratic ones, U.S. leaders described their allies as the “free world.”
In the 21st century, the rhetoric of fighting tyranny and upholding freedom has been grafted onto the “War on Terror,” declared by President George W. Bush in the wake of terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The attacks were carried out by individuals from Saudi Arabia and other friendly Arab states, but Bush directed public fears and anger toward wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Unable to find weapons of mass destruction or ties to al Qaeda in Iraq, Bush reverted to the standard American rationale – promoting freedom. “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish,” he declared on November 7, 2003, “it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.” 
Today, the U.S. is the world’s sole “superpower,” with the largest military budget, the most sophisticated weaponry, a network of over 700 military bases worldwide, and the capability to militarily intervene in other nations at will. The latter includes the frequent use of armed drones to assassinate suspected terrorists in countries with which the U.S. is not at war. Americans on the whole do not regard this overwhelming military power as a threat to other nations or global stability. British historian Nial Ferguson has commented that the “United States is an empire in every sense but one, and that one sense is that it doesn’t recognize itself as such.” The diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams described this dominant American worldview as “imperial self-deception.” 
The arrogance of power
It is, of course, easier for citizens to celebrate their nation’s heritage rather than to criticize its shortcomings. Americans are not unique in this regard. Nationalists in every country fervently uphold their nation’s honor and reputation. In Japan, nationalists have made use of the Yushukan War Museum to counter international condemnation of Japanese aggression in World War II. The museum presents Japan as heroically defending itself against outside hostile forces and omits any mention of atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China and Southeast Asia.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington is more subtle in this regard. It pays homage to the 58,000 Americans who died in the war but fails to account for an estimated three million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who died as a result of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.
One of the early critics of the Vietnam War was Senator J. William Fulbright, who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and led investigations into the war. In seeking to understand the forces that motivated the U.S., he came to the conclusion that, beyond the usual explanations of economic and security needs and the “defense or perpetuation of great principles,” the prime motivator was a desire to be “bigger, better, and stronger than other nations.” He labeled this “the arrogance of power.” America, it seems, had succumbed to the age-old folly of hubris – the Greek word for excessive pride – taking on “an exaggerated sense of power and an imaginary sense of mission.” One manifestation of this arrogance was that U.S. leaders believed they could and should establish governments to their liking in every corner of the world, including Vietnam. 
The antidote to hubris is humility, of course. For Fulbright, this began with open dialogue and listening to dissenting voices. Critics of the Vietnam War were not to be disparaged. “Criticism is more than a right,” he wrote; “it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” The free discussion of ideas benefits the nation in two ways, he argued: “it diminishes the danger of an irretrievable mistake and it introduces ideas and opportunities that otherwise would not come to light.” 
A second part of the healing required the correction of illusory views about American history. According to Senator Fulbright:
Some of our superpatriots assume that any war the United States fights is a just war, if not indeed a holy crusade, but history does not sustain their view. No reputable historian would deny that the United States has fought some wars which were unjust, unnecessary, or both – I would suggest the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War as examples of wars that were at least unnecessary. In an historical frame of reference it seems to me logical and proper to question the wisdom of our present military involvement in Asia. 
A third part involved remaking U.S. foreign policy, and the senator offered practical advice on how to move forward, much of it still relevant today: resist the tendency to dehumanize adversaries; limit aggressive competition with other states; increase global cooperation; abide by international treaties that prohibit military intervention; and expand and internationalize foreign aid “for the limited transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor countries” so as to address the economic roots of violence. 
There has been some progress along these lines, but hardly enough to achieve international stability and security. U.S. leaders of both major political parties insist that the United States must remain the “indispensable nation” in the world, the global hegemon, even as they worry that China or some combination of rival nations will overtake the U.S. in the coming years. The better option, arguably, is to work toward a more cooperative world order, building on progress made in international institution-building and law since World War II. 
This website takes the position that U.S. foreign policy needs to be reoriented toward diplomacy, cooperation, and economic fairness. It is critical of national aggression and great power domination, past and present, while understanding the difficult international contexts and the imperfect choices that policymakers face.
The historical perspective of this website draws from a number of established academic schools of thought and fields of study, the three most important being the progressive “revisionist” school of diplomatic history, interdisciplinary peace and human rights studies, and international and global history.
Progressive “revisionist” history
Over the last half-century, scholars associated with the progressive “revisionist” school of history have built a substantial library of critical studies assessing both the broad contours of U.S. foreign policy and particular wars, interventions, doctrines, and policies. They have challenged nationalist presumptions of innocence abroad as well as realist preoccupations with the global competition for power irrespective of the moral and legitimate use of that power. According to the diplomatic historian Thomas G. Paterson, “revisionists, more than others, have spotlighted the hypocrisy and immorality – and ultimate tragedy – of American foreign policy.” Focusing on the Cold War, for example, progressive-minded scholars pointed out:
U.S. officials lectured about democracy while they and their covert operatives undercut free speech, bought foreign politicians, encouraged fixed elections, and plotted to assassinate foreign leaders . . . The United States pressed certain nations to honor human rights while turning eyes away from human-rights violations committed by allies and trading partners. . . . The United States fueled civil wars, often through covert actions, disrupting societies and economies, keeping the poor poor, and spawning a plethora of anti-Americanisms. 
The hypocrisy is seen as not merely the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies or their poor implementation, but rather, the result of an unacknowledged quest for power and dominant influence in the world, a quest that is perpetually obscured and obfuscated by the glittering generalities of American ideology and propaganda.
Nationalist interpretations are typically more upbeat about the character and influence of U.S. foreign policy and therefore more popular in the American culture and grade schools. Once the dominant framework in academia as well, nationalist interpretations came under withering criticism during the Vietnam War. The heated debates that ensued produced significant modifications in the nationalist position, such that most nationalist-minded historians today acknowledge American misdeeds, yet without yielding on the notion of American benevolence. To take one example, the diplomatic historian Melvyn Leffler wrote in 2015, “For all the horrors of Vietnam and Iraq, for all the repression that U.S. officials sponsored and condoned in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, and elsewhere, would the twentieth century have looked better without the exercise of American power? Will the twenty-first century look better if the United States retrenches?” 
Leffler thinks not in both cases. Progressive-minded historians, however, would answer the first question with a resounding “yes,” the world would have been a better place had the U.S. not sponsored and condoned repression in other lands. As to the second question, there is no doubt that the U.S. has an important role to play in the world. The essential question is how the U.S. exercises its power rather than where it stands in the international pecking order. Some would argue that the United States would do more good if it redeployed its considerable resources to programs of economic uplift and ecological sustainability both at home and abroad. Some might also advise the U.S. to conform to international law and strengthen international institutions, using its military might in the service of United Nations peacekeeping and genocide prevention efforts. Rather than “retrench” (turn inward), the U.S. could help build a new international order.
Peace and human rights studies
The interdisciplinary fields of peace, human rights, and genocide studies complement progressive critiques by rooting those critiques in a humanistic set of values, in peace and justice principles. According to the Brandeis University Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence program, the goal of peace studies is “to understand reasons for war and ways of resolving conflicts without resorting to violence.”
The traditional concept of “national security” means nations each protecting their own “interests” and safety against those of others whose projects they find incompatible and/or competitive with their own. From Peace Studies, we learn the concept of “common security,” meaning that no one is truly safe until everyone is truly safe. It is through cooperation, empathy, and compassion, rather than military might and aggressive free market practices that common security will become possible. 
From the vantage point of peace studies, war is a problem to be solved, not unlike the problems of crime and disease. Examining wars in the past from a peace perspective is still an underdeveloped area of study. The paramount question in examining a particular war is whether it was necessary, whether it could have been avoided. Answering this hypothetical question requires some knowledge of alternatives at the time and some imagination as to how the belligerent parties might have resolved their differences without recourse to violence. One study along these lines is Fredrik Logevall’s Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, which explores the diplomatic road not taken by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and concludes that the U.S.-Vietnam War was unnecessary and avoidable.  There are also times when diplomacy-over-war has succeeded, as in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such cases should also be included in an overall study of foreign policy.
According to Michael Walzer, in Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, “War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt.”  The first assessment requires that historians distinguish between aggression and defense, a task made more difficult by the fact that national leaders typically justify their nation’s wars as defensive and therefore legitimate, regardless of how vague and removed the alleged threat to national security.
Regarding the conduct of war, many historical narratives pass lightly over the suffering and trauma caused by wars. The strong preference is to sit in the president’s chair and discuss grand strategies and outcomes. While this is useful and necessary, habitual and exclusive treatment of this sort has the effect of turning war into a chess game and skewing the cost-benefit analysis. A closer inspection of the deleterious effects and aftereffects of wars provides for a more realistic accounting of the costs. Metaphorically speaking, this inspection should be conducted from the point of view of a neutral reporter rather than one embedded in the armed forces of one side or another. The casualties, destruction, and disruptions of life on all sides must be considered. 
Given the perspective of this website that humanity must find alternatives to war, special consideration is given to the advocates of peace in U.S. history. Antiwar voices were influential in the War of 1812, the Mexican War (1846-48), the U.S.-Philippines War (1899-1902), World War I (1914-18), the lead-up to World War II, the Vietnam War (1965-73), and the War in Iraq (2003-present).  Their voices also helped calm war fever directed at Mexico in the 1910s and at the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
International and global history
A third contributor to the historical perspective of this website is international history and related fields of global, world, transnational, borderlands, and “big” history. All of these fields counteract the tendency to view historical developments through the eyes of one nation. Thomas Bender, in A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006), argues that every nation “must be studied in a framework larger than itself,” and specifically that “American history cannot be adequately understood unless it is incorporated into that global context.” 
Widening the lens of history enables one to compare national histories and see larger patterns. From the vantage point of global history, it may be seen that U.S. leaders are hardly unique in claiming that their foreign policies are inherently benign. French colonial exploits were overlaid with the rhetoric of a “civilizing mission.” The British, meanwhile, glorified their imperial mission with annual Empire days, colonial exhibits, and public ceremonies. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Imperial Institute’s new headquarters in London in 1893, for example, some 10,000 citizens gathered to hear the Royal College of Music sing praise to the “Empire of a Thousand Years,” spread not “by war and rapine, but by white-winged peace.”  In fact, the British empire had experienced peace in only 27 of its last 193 years at the time. The glory of the empire required the sacrifice of much blood and treasure.
Lengthening the lens of history can help us to understand our place in evolutionary-historical time and to consider our collective moral progress. Among the most important developments since World War II in this regard is the creation of international institutions, laws, treaties, and norms regulating the conduct of nations.
This evolving moral architecture includes the outlawing of national aggression in the United Nations Charter and other international agreements; a set of human rights guidelines in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and nine subsequent, binding human rights treaties; a convention against genocide; humanitarian laws governing the treatment of civilians and prisoners during wartime via the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols; the International Criminal Court, established in 2002 to enforce international law; and environmental protection treaties.  Although enforcement of these international agreements has been inadequate, they nonetheless provide normative standards by which citizens and scholars may judge the conduct of nations. Put another way, all nations should be judged by the same standards of conduct.
Changing values and the writing of history
The historian is not obliged to render judgments about the past, but moral questions should at least be part of the historical inquiry, whether or not a definitive conclusion is reached. Many historians state that their intention is not to judge the past but to explain it. This statement reflects a false dichotomy between two essential functions – evaluation and analysis. These two functions are distinct but not antagonistic. One can and should do both when studying history. The statement also dismisses the subtle judgments that are interwoven into every historical narrative, starting with the choice of what is important, who are the main characters, and what is the main storyline. Common notions of “progress” and “success” furthermore reveal underlying value-orientations. Historians themselves have particular qualities and life experiences that influence their perspectives. Certainly it makes a difference if one grows up in America or Russia or India when considering a particular topic in history. Age, gender, race, ethnicity, and so forth may also influence perspectives.
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide. But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world.
Zinn’s own brief account of Columbus and the Conquistadors places their cruel policy toward indigenous peoples at the center of his story. Zinn’s account reflects a different selection, emphasis, and interpretation of historical information in accordance with Zinn’s values. His central theme of resistance to oppression runs through his popular history of the United States.
The writing and teaching of history is not – and cannot be – value-neutral. However respectful historians and teachers may be in allowing their audiences to grapple with varied historical evidence and multiple interpretations without imposing their own views, values guide the selection and interpretation of all historical data, beginning with what is important to know. In any given society at any given time, different value-based interpretative schemas vie for influence, reflecting competing political persuasions, ideological viewpoints, cultural sensibilities, and historical schools of thought. Dominant interpretive schemas, or consensus views, emerge from time to time, only to shift in response to new developments, changing social norms, and the outcome of scholarly debates. The past remains the same, but our thinking about it changes.
Such is the case with the historiography of Native Americans (historiography is the history of historical writing). During the 19th century, prominent U.S. historians such as George Bancroft and Francis Parkman depicted Native Americans as an inferior race and an obstacle to the progress of civilization. That view continued well into the 20th century via Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” which described the western frontier as “an area of free land” and a “meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Native Americans, of course, rejected this depiction, but their views remained outside the mainstream of the history profession for another generation, with the exception of the new field of Indian ethno-history. In the late 1960s, a “new Indian history” emerged, aided by publications such as Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970). These books inverted the Turner thesis, highlighting the savagery of Anglo American expansionists and the wisdom of Indian peoples. Most historians today at least take into account Native American experiences and perspectives, noting in particular the “Trail of Tears” (Indian Removal).
Our changing collective values influence the writing of history. This is evident not only in writings about Native Americans but also in the multicultural focus of American curricula today, which eschews racism, sexism, and religious prejudice, and seeks to cultivate an appreciation of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Perhaps less visible is a paradigm shift in values underway in the international arena. European imperialism ended in the post-World War II era and the idea of empire-building is no longer acceptable in the present world order. The advent of the Nuclear Age has created a powerful incentive for the great nations to avoid all-out war and seek peaceful resolution of political conflicts and crises. The nations of Western Europe have furthermore moved away from national rivalry and militarism – which along with imperialism led them into two fratricidal wars – in favor of building the European Community. Friendly neighbors rather than superior arms have proven to be the most effective means to national security. These changes underlie the “peace and justice” perspective of this website.
There is no getting around the fact that value orientations are embedded in historical narratives. This may not be apparent at first glance if the value orientation mirrors that of the mainstream culture, but it becomes more apparent when challenged by, or contrasted with, another narrative with a different value orientation, as in the example of Zinn and Morison. The contrast allows the student of history to compare different views and to draw his or her own conclusions. The historical perspective of this website is clearly acknowledged. It may be profitably compared to others.
Endnotes for Historical Perspectives
TO SEE ENDNOTES IN ABOVE TEXT, CLICK HERE FIRST
2. Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking, 2015), Introduction. The term, “enemies of freedom,” was used by President George W. Bush to describe the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001; “Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation,” September 20, 2001, The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html.
6. Terrence Hunt, “Bush calls for Mideast freedom,” Tallahassee Democrat, Nov. 7, 2003. Of the 19 terrorists who high-jacked four airplanes on 9/11/2001, fifteen were from Saudi Arabia; the other four were from the United Arab Republic, Egypt, and Lebanon.
7. Nial Feguson is quoted in “America: An empire to rival Rome?” BBC News, January 26, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3430199.stm. William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along With a Few Thoughts About an Alternative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), ix. The benefits of admitting empire, according to Williams, are that it “clears the mind and psyche of rationalizations about expansion extending the area of freedom and liberty; minimizes the distortions of perception and thought produced by self-righteousness; and enables people to discuss the national interest in concrete, specific terms rather than as if everything that happens in the world poses a threat to the national security” (p. 149).
8. Walter Hatch, “Bloody Memories: Affect and Effect of World War II Museums in China and Japan,” Peace and Change, Vol. 39, No. 3 (July 2014): 366-95; and John Dower, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World (New York: The New Press, 2012).
13. David Cortright, director of Policy Studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, argues that America’s problems stem not from being weak but from using its strength unwisely: “Particularly alarming to me are the false claims about American weakness and the dangerous calls for more militarism. America’s standing in the world has indeed declined in recent years. This is not because we are weak militarily, however. The United States continues to spend more on its military than any other country, three times more than China and seven times more than Russia. Rather, we are less respected because we have used military force so cavalierly and ineffectively with such harmful consequences for so many years.” David Cortright, “Foreign Policy Follies,” September 17, 2015, http://davidcortright.net/2015/09/17/foreign-policy-follies.
14. Thomas G. Paterson, “Cold War Revisionism: A Practitioner’s Perspective,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 31, No. 3 (June 2007), pp. 394-95. The progressive “revisionist” school is less a school today than a critical orientation toward U.S. foreign policy. The term “revisionist,” moreover, no longer describes a substantive position, but is often used to describe any minority view challenging the consensus view on a given topic.
15. “Forum: American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 2 (April 2015), 382. Fundamental differences over interpretations of U.S. foreign policy emerged in this roundtable discussion. Six historians were asked to critique an overview of U.S. foreign policy by Perry Anderson, published in New Left Review (September-October 2013). Anderson’s hard-hitting analysis generally found favor with three historians – Andrew Bacevich, Marilyn B. Young, and David Milne – and disfavor with three others – Melvyn Leffler, William Miscamble, and Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. Miscamble upbraided Anderson for failing to acknowledge the “accomplishments” of U.S. foreign policy.
19. One example of a study that considers casualties on all sides of a war is Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
23. The United Nations Charter outlaws national aggression but allows for national and collective defense “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” United Nations Charter, Article 51, http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml.
25. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1921). See also, Benjamin Madley, “Reexamining the American Genocide Debate: Meaning, Historiography, and New Methods,” American Historical Review, Vol. 120, No. 1 (February 2015). In December 2009, President Barack Obama made an historic gesture by signing the Native American Apology Resolution, which expresses regret “on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.” Rob Capriccioso, “A sorry saga: Obama signs Native American apology resolution; fails to draw attention to it,” Indian Country Today, January 13, 2010, http://www.indianlaw.org/node/529.