Clio, the Greek Muse of History, prepares to record the next chapter of United States history (Library of Congress, Udo Keppler 1899, adapted)
- Interpretive frameworks: A house divided
- The nationalist orientation in textbooks and scholarly studies
- The Fifth Estate
- A progressive framework for analysis
- Peace & justice values
- Covert action
- Selling war and intervention
- Managing the news media
- The ideological dimension
“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain . . . until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” – Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
“Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. . . . On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently thinking and acting individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.” – Albert Einstein, “On Education,” address at the New York State College for Teachers, Albany, October 15, 1931
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.” – John Lewis, House of Representatives debate on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, December 18, 2019
I. Writing the history of U.S. foreign policy
The writing of history is not value free. Perspectives and biases come with the territory. Writing involves a three-part process of selection, interpretation, and evaluation. No two histories on a given topic are alike, first, because historians select different experiences and information out of an ocean of possibilities; second, because they utilize different interpretive frameworks that guide their selection and set forth main themes and plot lines; and third, because they assess historical developments according to different value-based perspectives.
Value-based perspectives may not be explicitly stated in a narrative, but they nevertheless are woven into the historian’s selection and description of developments. Consider, for example, the following two divergent descriptions of early U.S. foreign policy:
As early as 1776, American diplomats were busily attempting to woo European governments to support U.S. objectives. Over the following decades, moreover, the survival of the young republic depended on managing complex economic and military threats from abroad. Growing confidence encouraged increasingly ambitious uses of power. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, U.S. presidents had sent forces into action in territories stretching from Cuba and Peru to the Marquesas Islands, Tripoli, and China.
From the Ohio Country westward, the American nation-state was built on the conquest of peoples – Native American, Hispanic, French, and others – incorporated without their consent, who were compelled to give up their traditional ways of life, who often faced removal to new lands further west, and who, in some cases, were threatened with annihilation by acts of violence perpetrated either by frontiersmen or by the U.S. military. . . . What is often forgotten is the fundamentally imperial nature of the U.S. conquest of a large portion of the North American continent.
The first description paints a far more benign picture of the United States than the second, making no reference to U.S. conquests and depicting the nation as responding to “threats from abroad.” The value-perspective of the second will not be lost on readers, as aggression is commonly understood to be both morally wrong and illegal (under domestic and international laws). The value-perspective of the first description is less obvious. It is rendered by the omission of any mention of conquest or aggression, even as U.S. forces are sent “into action.” Juxtaposition of the two statements makes it clear that each is rendering a particular view of history.
Interpretive frameworks: A house divided
The writing of United States foreign policy history, in particular, is not value free because historians are not the first to write this history. On any major topic, the first drafts are written by Washington officials seeking to explain and justify their actions, and by the news media adding chronicles and commentary. Historians arrive on the scene late to examine the evidence and rewrite the script. They must take into consideration existing accounts, especially if the public accepts official storylines as accurate and true. The scholarly studies they produce, moreover, will be judged in part on how closely they align with official accounts, validating or contradicting them by varying degrees.
The relationship between scholarly studies and official accounts of U.S. foreign policy can range from near-total collusion to radical dissension.
The most contentious debates among historians of U.S. foreign relations hinge on this relationship between their studies and official accounts, which can range from near-total collusion to radical dissension. Much depends, of course, on the specific policies and wars under discussion, but over the course of many decades two divergent orientations have developed: a nationalist, traditionalist, or conservative orientation that generally aligns with official accounts, viewing U.S. leaders as well-intentioned and U.S. global power as a force for good; and a critical, “revisionist,” or progressive orientation that is deeply skeptical of U.S. global ambitions and frequently reproving of U.S. wars and interventions.
The nationalist orientation may be further distinguished by its ideological and “realist” threads. The former hails the expansion of U.S. power as synonymous with the advance of freedom and democracy, conflating power and principles, while the latter focuses on the realpolitick of statecraft – international competition, national security, hegemonic aspirations, and grand strategies. The ideological thread is embedded in celebratory histories and cultural rituals that are popular with many U.S. citizens, while the realist thread is popular among international relations scholars.
Divisions can also be found within the progressive orientation between historical critiques that focus on underlying systems and structures, often linked to empire-building, and those more concerned with eclectic policy choices.
There are many variations of all these views.
Individual historians do not necessarily belong to any school.
As independent scholars, they can approach each issue on its own merits, and they can change their minds based on new information and understandings; hence the utility of debating perspectives. Historians also utilize and benefit from each other’s original research regardless of different interpretations. Still, like the Supreme Court, a conservative-progressive divide is often evident on topics. Unlike the Supreme Court, however, there are no final judgments in the historical profession; hence, debates can continue indefinitely without resolution, ebbing and flowing as historians find new angles, twists, and evidence to bring to bear (historiography is the record of these continuing debates).
The nationalist orientation in textbooks and scholarly studies
Critical, progressive studies of U.S. foreign policies and wars are more abundant at higher levels of education than at lower levels. Grade school history is designed in large part to cultivate national identity, loyalty, pride, and good citizenship. As students advance to higher grades, critical thinking is gradually introduced, presumably stimulating independent analysis and judgment. In recent decades, a multicultural value orientation has become part of established curricula, edging out certain parts of traditional celebratory history.
Dana Goldstein, an education reporter for the New York Times
, obtained 43 middle and high school U.S. history textbooks and read “about 4,800 pages of mostly sterile, written-by-committee prose to figure out what American teenagers are learning about our nation’s history.” She noted that high school textbooks in both liberal California and conservative Texas “emphasized the brutal displacement of Native Americans as the United States fulfilled its ‘Manifest Destiny,’” thus testifying to the influence of progressive critiques in this particular area.
Most high school U.S. textbooks have few explicit criticisms of U.S. foreign policy.
Beyond the frontier experience, however, the broad swath of U.S. foreign policies and wars has largely escaped moral scrutiny. In a study of 102 high school U.S. history textbooks published between 1970 and 2009, sociologists Richard Lachmann and Lacy Mitchel concluded that “textbooks still have few explicit criticisms of U.S. foreign policy.” Although the textbooks exhibit increased “concern for the experiences and suffering of individual U.S. soldiers,” especially during the Vietnam War, this concern “does not extend to the soldiers or civilians of America’s enemies or allies.” Moreover, “Americans are shown almost exclusively as victims rather than perpetrators of the horrors of war.”
The idea that U.S. soldiers were the victims of the Vietnam War fits well with the official storyline that developed after the war. At a news conference on March 24, 1977, President Jimmy Carter was asked if he felt “any moral obligation to help rebuild that country.” Carter replied, “Well, the destruction was mutual. You know, we went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people. We went there to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese. And I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.”
U.S. Air Force UC-123 planes spraying Agent Orange in South Vietnam in 1966 (AP Photo)
In reality, the destruction was nothing near mutual. U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3.8 million Vietnamese, 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians, and about one million Laotians, as compared to 58,220 U.S. soldiers. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 6,162,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, which is 2.74 times the amount dropped in all of World War II. The U.S. sprayed some nineteen million gallons of environmental poisons on South Vietnam, resulting in miscarriages and birth defects long after the war ended. Vietnamese soldiers, of course, did not invade, occupy, bomb, burn, poison, kill, and wreak havoc in the United States.
U.S. history textbooks used in U.S. high school and college survey courses typically embrace a nationalistic orientation when addressing international affairs, highlighting “the rise of American power” and omitting serious evaluation of the use of that power for good or ill (the ill is largely omitted).
The world is viewed through the eyes of Washington policymakers – hence the rise of any other world power is regarded as a threat – and U.S. foreign policies are often explained in the very terms used by U.S. political leaders. The parameters of discussion are wide enough to allow for criticism, but such criticism rarely rises to the level of generalizations that would challenge nationalistic presumptions regarding American benevolence.
A case in point may be seen in the popular college textbook, America: A Narrative History
(2013), by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi. In describing the U.S.-directed coup in Guatemala in 1954, the authors briefly note that the U.S. “installed a new ruler in Guatemala who created a police state,” thus acknowledging a serious contradiction to stated U.S. principles. Yet they draw no lesson from this experience in assessing the Eisenhower presidency just a few pages later. Instead, the authors write that President Dwight Eisenhower “maintained the peace in the face of combustible global tensions. . . . For the most part, he acted with poise, restraint, and intelligence in managing an increasingly complex cold war that he predicted would last for decades.” The authors fail to point out that the “police state” in Guatemala lasted for decades, sparking a civil war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and that the U.S. aided many other police states during the long Cold War, effectively undermining its moral claim to be leading the “free world.”
Wall mural in Guatemala City painted in 2004, depicting the democratic spring in Guatemala (left ) buried by the U.S.-directed violent overthrow of the Árbenz government in 1954, signalling to the world that the U.S. would pursue its power interests irrespective or democratic principles and international law
More detailed scholarly studies do not necessarily produce more enlightened interpretations. Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, in Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (1998), describe U.S. covert operations in Iran and Guatemala as “tests” for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Allen Dulles. Regarding Iran, they write, “he succeeded fully. By August 1953 the CIA had routed the Tudeh party, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne.” The success of the Iranian operation is said to have “reinforced the administration’s confidence” in the CIA’s next mission to oust Guatemala’s democratic leader Jacobo Árbenz the following spring. The authors go on to quote, without irony, the Eisenhower administration’s National Security Directive 162/2 which declares that the U.S. should “assist in achieving stability” in the Third World. The authors, as such, have not only adopted the view of Washington officials but also their coded language. In reality, U.S. leaders sought “stability” only for U.S. allies and client states while plotting to undermine and overthrow governments perceived to be unfriendly, the overall effect being global instability.
Recognition of such contradictions lies at the heart of progressive “revisionist” narratives. According to the historian Thomas G. Paterson, writing in 2007, “Historians have documented beneficent American assistance to appreciative people, but revisionists, more than others, have spotlighted the hypocrisy and immorality – and ultimate tragedy – of American foreign policy.”
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. American policymakers championed the principle of self-determination while they clung to decaying colonial regimes and snubbed the nonaligned movement. Washington lobbied for open trade doors abroad while practicing the closed door at home. The United States raced toward nuclear supremacy while it demanded nuclear nonproliferation for others. If the double standard did not undercut American assertions of moral superiority, other behavior did. U.S. bombing campaigns and sabotages left millions jobless, homeless, and dead. The unsavory embrace and arming of dictatorial strongmen such as [Cuba’s Fulgencio] Batista, the Shah [of Iran], and [the Philippines’ Ferdinand] Marcos facilitated their schemes to spy on, jail, and murder their domestic critics. 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 nationalist orientation in academia today is less nationalistic than it once was. Successive progressive challenges over the decades have opened the door to mainstream acknowledgement of egregious foreign policies in certain areas. Indeed, there are now subfields of history in which critical appraisals have become the norm. The study of U.S.-Native American relations has become a kind of Truth Commission in revealing the cruelties visited upon indigenous peoples in Anglo-American “settler colonialism” and its racist underpinnings. Scholars of U.S.-Latin American relations have dug deeply into the contradictions of U.S. support for repressive governments and rightist coups d’états. Stephen Rabe, in The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (2012), argues that “historians can go too far in denying the realities of the global distribution of power or the active U.S. role in fomenting chaos in the region during the Cold War. . . . Historical inquiry mandates that both the causes and consequences of decisions be analyzed.”
The Fifth Estate
To be clear, the argument here is not against nationalistic bias per se. Having a favorite team in the international arena does not preclude writing good history. Rather, the argument is against the exclusion, minimalization, and whitewashing of egregious foreign policies in order to conform to, or at least not contradict, celebratory U.S. history. Nationalistic bias slips into whitewashing when it (1) fails to cross-examine official rationales and ideological assumptions, (2) ignores the harm done to others by U.S. policies, and (3) omits dissenting voices and alternative courses of action available at the time. This is not to suggest that all criticism of U.S. foreign policy is valid, as such criticism may go beyond the evidence at hand. Well-established protocols for factual accuracy, citation of sources, and reasoned and nuanced conclusions should be observed.
The Fifth Estate is obliged to set the historical record straight and hold leaders accountable.
The argument is essentially this: If the history profession is to serve a useful public purpose, it should be devoted to telling the truth about the past, insofar as the truth may be known. Government disinformation and propaganda should not be validated and perpetuated in history textbooks and classrooms. Ideological presumptions underlying U.S. foreign policies should not be left unexamined and unexplained. It would be well if historians considered their profession the “Fifth Estate,” obliged, like the Fourth Estate (the news media), to set the record straight and hold leaders accountable. This means, invariably, responding to the first drafts of history written in Washington. If scholarly studies fail to identify official misinformation, ignore deleterious results of foreign policies, and omit alternative courses of action, then official storylines will likely reign and U.S. leaders will retain their historical immunity.
A progressive framework for analysis
The essays on this website draw from many sources, including military, CIA, and governmental documents and narratives, participant memoirs and biographies, journalistic reports and editorials, and expert scholarship in the areas of study. While recognizing the importance of other lenses and approaches, interpretations generally align with, and build on, the progressive, critical tradition in cross-examining official rationales and challenging celebratory histories. If a single interpretive framework can be constructed out of the various essays, it would contain the following six characteristics, or streams of inquiry and analysis:
1. Motivations and perceptions. Investigation into the driving forces of U.S. foreign policies, including geopolitical ambitions, economic interests, and perceptions of foreign threats; also, views of the U.S. from abroad.
2. Policy choices. Analysis of policy choices (the road taken) and alternatives (the roads not taken), decision-making structures, and domestic and international influences on policymakers.
3. Actions and results.
Examination of U.S. military actions and results, especially the casualties and destruction in other lands wrought by U.S. wars, military interventions, and covert actions; also “blowback” for the United States.
4. Official rationales. Cross-examination of administration rationales (official storylines), ideological assumptions and terms, and administration influence on the media and public opinion.
5. Peace advocacy. Discussion of peace advocacy and peace movement strategies and political influence.
6. Lessons. Reflections on lessons of importance to the public.
These six streams of inquiry and analysis provide a useful checklist when reading (or writing) about U.S. foreign policy. For example, in assessing Washington decision-making (#2), one can gain perspective by examining alternative courses of action available to U.S. leaders at the time. Fredrik Logevall, in Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam
(1999), documents missed opportunities by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to avoid all-out war in Vietnam, including the rejection of French and UN offers to mediate a peace agreement similar to one that ended the Laotian civil war in 1962.
Regarding military actions and results (#3), it is necessary to step out of the confines of Washington and survey foreign lands. One of the most memorable lines from the Vietnam War was a comment made by a U.S. Army Major to correspondent Peter Arnett in February 1968: “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Many lessons can be drawn from the study of U.S. foreign policy history and those drawn by the authors and co-authors of these essays are not the last word on the subjects. Readers are encouraged to explore more sources, ask questions, debate perspectives, and develop independent conclusions.
Peace & justice values
Albert Einstein, advocate for peace in the Nuclear Age, called for a paradigm shift in thinking
The single most important lesson drawn by many people after the Second World War was to avoid a third one, a lesson aptly described in the United Nations Charter as “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” In May 1946, nine months after U.S. aircraft dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein wrote an appeal to several hundred prominent Americans, warning, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” He called for new military and foreign policies that would replace international competition and war preparations with cooperation and peaceful resolution of conflicts, freeing up vast amounts of resources and talents for constructive purposes. Since then, halting steps have been taken toward these goals. International agreements have been forged proscribing aggression, genocide, and “crimes against humanity.” Universal human rights principles have been set forth encompassing economic, social, and political rights. Ecological sustainability goals have been established in response to global warming, environmental pollution, and overpopulation.
“Non-Violence,” a sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations building, New York
This evolving international moral architecture is relevant to the study of history in two ways. First, it establishes ethical standards by which scholars and citizens alike may judge the conduct of nations – and all nations should be judged by the same standards. Second, it cautions historians against “normalizing” war, against treating war as a permanent condition of international relations rather than as a problem to be solved. In effect, this means defining progress as moving toward a more cooperative world order and nonviolent conflict resolution at all levels. Our understanding of history greatly influences our collective goals for the future.
In December 1963, some fifty historians met at the Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia to establish a new organization, the Conference on Peace Research in History. The meeting was chaired by Merle Curti, past president of the American Historical Association and the preeminent scholar of U.S. peace movements. Following the meeting, a call went out inviting historians to join in “the kind of research on the history of war, peace, violence and conflict that can clarify the causes of international peace and difficulties in creating it.”
Peace historians since then have produced a prestigious library of studies on antiwar and nonviolent social change movements. The Conference was renamed the Peace History Society in 1994.
According to Charles F. Howlett, “Peace history, as part of peace studies, seeks to inform publics concerning the causes of war while highlighting the efforts of those whose efforts have been directed at peaceful coexistence in an interdependent global setting.”
Lawrence S. Wittner justifies the value-based perspective of peace history by asking rhetorically, “If it is appropriate for a biologist to research a cure for cancer, is it not appropriate for an historian to research a cure for war?” And just as peace historians sympathize with peace movements, so “labor historians empathize with workers, women’s historians identify with the struggles of women, business historians seem captivated by business leaders, and so on.” Such sympathies do not rule out critical assessments.
Many of the essays on this website begin with the question, “Was this war necessary and just?” Asking this question opens the door to moral and ethical inquiry and reasoning. More specifically, it encourages readers to analyze administration rationales for war, explore related developments, imaginatively engage in the political debates of the time, assess alternative courses of action, and apply international norms in rendering any judgments. Questions of right and wrong are not taboo but serve as catalysts for investigation and debate. Justifications for war should be subjected to the most penetrating cross-examinations, no less than justifications for killing in a domestic court of law. Historians have a responsibility to provide context and multiple perspectives in the interest of increasing critical evaluation skills, these being essential to an informed citizenry and a democratic society.
II. Democratic accountability and U.S. foreign policy
“War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it lead not to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
New York Times, Dec. 22, 1974, reporting on government abuse of citizen rights and freedoms
In keeping with the idea of the history profession as the Fifth Estate, it is useful to identify major challenges to democratic accountability in relation to U.S. foreign policymaking. In 1973, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Imperial Presidency, warning of a trend toward unaccountable executive authority. Investigations by Senate and House committees around that time confirmed the trend, revealing secret air strikes in Southeast Asia, covert aid to insurgent groups in Africa, CIA assassination plots in Latin America, and FBI surveillance of U.S. citizens as well as secret operations “designed to disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order.” The FBI’s targets included Martin Luther King, Jr. and local, state, and federal elected officials. Congress undertook efforts to restore its eroded Constitutional powers by passing the War Powers Act of 1973, restricting the president’s ability to unilaterally wage war, the Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974, requiring the president to report all CIA covert actions to select Congressional committees, and the Clark Amendment of 1975, terminating covert U.S. assistance to guerrilla forces in Angola (which had been kept secret from Congress).
Conducting foreign policy in secret has been a regular feature of U.S. policymaking since the creation of the CIA in 1947. Lindsey O’Rourke, in Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War
(2018), identifies seventy “regime change” U.S. interventions during the 45-year Cold War, of which sixty-four were conducted covertly through the CIA. Of the latter, she writes, “The United States supported authoritarian forces in forty-four out of sixty-four covert regime changes, including at least six operations that sought to replace liberal democratic governments with illiberal authoritarian regimes.”
In those six cases – Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), and Chile (1973) – the U.S. not only undermined democracy but also aided and abetted repression, torture, and the execution of political opponents carried out by U.S.-backed autocratic governments. That U.S. leaders hailed the United States as protecting and promoting freedom and democracy around the world makes these actions all the more reprehensible.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a direct result of the CIA-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961
Some U.S. covert actions have had grave consequences for the American people. A CIA-directed covert invasion of Cuba by Cuban expatriates in April 1961 led Cuban leader Fidel Castro to seek protection from the Soviet Union in its aftermath. Soviet leaders were hesitant at first to grant Castro’s plea to station Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, but as the U.S. was planning a second invasion (under the code name “ORTSAC,” or Castro spelled backwards) and had recently placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders decided to do so in secret. When the Kennedy administration discovered the missile sites, still under construction in October 1962, the result was an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation that nearly led to nuclear war – but was fortunately resolved through discrete negotiations.
CIA covert operations against North Vietnam led to the Vietnam War. On January 19, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed off on Operational Plan 34-A.
The plan called for graduated pressure on North Vietnam, proceeding in stages from surveillance and small hit-and-run raids by South Vietnamese commandos to “airborne and seaborne raids on important military and civilian installations,” and more. In early August, North Vietnamese gunboats responded to U.S.-run commando raids by firing on a U.S. warship in the Gulf of Tonkin, which did no damage. President Johnson used the incident to gain quick Congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which empowered him to launch a full-scale war in Vietnam. He lied outright to Congress and the American people in claiming that the North Vietnamese attack was “unprovoked.”
Selling war and intervention
Apart from directing covert operations, the president wields great power in persuading the public to support overt military actions. Shared ideological assumptions regarding America’s presumed protective role in the world combined with sketchy public knowledge of international affairs allow presidents great leeway in defining foreign threats and framing the narrative. “Control of the presidency,” writes the historian Jon Western, “often affords huge advantages in presenting and packaging the message to the public. Since the president ostensibly is endowed with the public trust, public opinion is often very responsive, at least initially, to issues presented by the president.”
The public trust has often been abused. There is considerable evidence that U.S. leaders misinformed and manipulated the U.S. public in taking the nation into war on numerous occasions: the Mexican War (1846), Spanish American War (1898), World War I (1917), Cold War intervention in Greece (1947), Vietnam War (1964), Persian Gulf War (1991), and Iraqi War (2003). According to the international relations scholar John Schuessler, Constitutional limits on executive power have been inadequate to constrain determined presidents:
The democratic process may act as a constraint on leaders’ ability to go to war, but deception provides a way around that constraint. Indeed, we can go further. Exactly because “democratic decisions for war are determined and constrained by public consent,” as the liberal institutional logic says, democratic leaders have powerful incentives to manufacture that consent through whatever means necessary…. Most important, they can exploit information and propaganda advantages to frame issues in misleading ways, cherry-pick supporting evidence, suppress damaging revelations, and otherwise skew the public debate in advantageous directions…. In practice, leaders resort to varying degrees and types of deception to sell wars.
Young Salvadorans point to names on the Monument to Memory and Truth wall in San Salvador commemorating 75,000 people who died in the civil war between 1980 and 1992
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan created a new agency in the State Department, the Office of Public Diplomacy (S/LPD), for the purpose of selling the public and Congress on his Central America policies. The agency’s task was basically to whitewash the sordid reputations of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military and the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan insurgents, known as “Contras,” both of which were responsible for heinous human rights abuses. President Reagan, known as the Great Communicator, lionized the Contras as “freedom fighters” and “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” even as former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner testified before Congress in April 1985 that “the Contras’ actions have to be characterized as terrorism, as State-supported terrorism.” The Office of Public Diplomacy continued for five years before the General Accounting Office ordered it shut after an investigation concluded that the agency had engaged “in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public to support the Administration’s Latin American policies.” A later report by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, dated September 7, 1988, revealed that the agency had employed “groups of private citizens outside the government” which had “raised money for Contra weapons, lobbied the Congress, ran sophisticated media campaigns in targeted Congressional districts, and worked with S/LPD to influence American public opinion through manipulation of the American press.”
Managing the news media
The news media are often considered the first line of defense against government disinformation. Colloquially known as the Fourth Estate (complementing the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government), the media’s unofficial mandate is to provide the public with accurate and relevant information, thus fostering an informed citizenry which in turn enables citizens to hold leaders accountable. To be sure, this ideal is more easily achieved with respect to domestic issues, where contrary elite views are the norm, than foreign policy issues, where Republicans and Democrats often unite in bipartisan agreement. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, for example, was approved unanimously in the House of Representatives and by a vote of 88-2 in the Senate.
Administration officials have long recognized the news media’s potential for validating or undermining their policies.
Upon U.S. entry into the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson and his Congressional allies silenced all antiwar dissent by enacting the Espionage and Sedition acts. The Sedition Act made it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” Over 2,100 U.S. citizens were prosecuted under these laws, some sentenced to prison for ten years, even as Wilson proclaimed that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
The Wilson administration also created the Committee on Public Information, a propaganda agency that branded the war with Wilson’s glittering idealism in the minds of U.S. citizens, a legacy with which we still live.
During the Second World War, according to the historian Susan Brewer, war reporters were “expected to contribute to the war effort” and war photographers were obliged to work with government censors who “did not want the public to see photographs of U.S. soldiers maimed in combat, crying or losing control, killed in accidents or by ‘friendly fire,’ or suffering from self-inflicted wounds or psychological trauma.” General Dwight Eisenhower bluntly declared, “Correspondents have a job in war as essential as the military personnel. Fundamentally, public opinion wins wars.” One legacy of this government-media collusion was a lasting image of World War II as the “good war.”
Grandmother and her dying grandchild burned by napalm bombs dropped on their village of Trang Bang, June 1972 (AP photo by Nick Ut). Such photos were censored in World War II and the Korean War.
The collusion continued through the Korean War and early stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which began in 1950. However, over the course of the Vietnam War (1965-73), the media gradually weaned itself from government-fed information and accommodating viewpoints. News reporting became more skeptical and war photos, more graphic; for example, showing Vietnamese children burned by U.S. napalm bombs. The media also took stock of continuing protests at home and a growing division among elites. One elite critic, Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chastised the administration for its “outright misleading statements” and for pushing Pentagon-funded films designed “to sell the American people on the Vietnam War policy.” Such denunciations made it easier for the media to challenge administration claims, if only by giving voice to antiwar critics (Martin Luther King was a foremost critic during the year before his assassination on April 4, 1968).
The publication of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times
in June 1971 stands out as a courageous act of press defiance against official whitewashing, though it was the Pentagon’s own historians who produced the incriminating evidence. The papers exposed the lies and deceptions of five successive U.S. administrations regarding U.S. policy in Vietnam.
The media was less courageous with respect to investigating and reporting U.S. atrocities in Vietnam. The My Lai massacre, in which U.S. troops killed over 500 unarmed men, women, children, and infants on March 16, 1968, went unreported for twenty months.
The main lesson drawn by Pentagon officials from the Vietnam War was that the media should be kept on a short leash in any future war. Hence, during the surprise U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989, army commanders prevented correspondents from entering hospitals and devastated areas while Pentagon officials fed news anchors and outlets stories to report – such as the pursuit and capture of the “drug-dealing dictator,” Manuel Noriega – while eliding other concerns such the extent of human casualties and the illegitimacy of the invasion under international law. General Colin Powell emphasized to senior ofﬁcers at the National Defense University in Washington the importance of controlling the public narrative, saying, “turn your attention to television because you can win the battle [and] lose the war if you don’t handle the story right.”
News coverage of the Persian Gulf War in early 1991 was so laudatory that Michael Deaver, a former Reagan administration media consultant, commented, “If you were going to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event, it couldn’t be done any better than this is being done.”
Notwithstanding these deficiencies in practice, the Fourth Estate retains its potential for holding U.S. leaders accountable and exposing falsehoods. In December 2019, the Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers which, like the Pentagon Papers, revealed that U.S. officials had been keeping U.S. citizens in the dark for many years. According to the Post:
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. . . . “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.
There were, of course, reasons for the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation, and scholars are obliged to ferret out the motives and strategies and make sense of it all.
The ideological dimension
The ideological dimension of democratic accountability involves the public as well as leaders and the press. Many U.S. citizens view their nation’s foreign policy through an “exceptionalist” lens that allows U.S. leaders great leeway in determining foreign policies. This lens, or ideological framework, consists of two interwoven threads, an us-versus-them complex rooted in national identity (in-group vs. out-group) and a good-versus-evil moralistic overlay that purifies the national character while turning America’s adversaries into villains.
This self-serving world-view manifested in the 19th century in the form of “manifest destiny,” an informal ideology that combined religious, political, and racial ideas into a righteous justification for U.S. territorial expansion in the 1840s, then overseas expansion in the 1890s. It surfaced in President Woodrow Wilson’s appeal to make the world “safe for democracy” as a justification for entering the Great War in 1917, subsequently used to advance U.S. economic interests and geopolitical power across the world. Exceptionalist beliefs powered Cold War ideology which framed the U.S. as the “redeemer nation,” intent on assuring “the success of liberty” everywhere, even as the U.S. often did the opposite in practice. U.S. leaders have continued to maintain that the U.S. – and only the U.S. – can be entrusted with world leadership and superior military power as such power will always be used in benevolent and protective ways.
Following the onset of the “War on Terror,” the journalist Robert F. Worth wrote, “America’s discovery of an enemy who is not merely an enemy, but ‘evil,’ has impeccable historical credentials. In the long history of responding to real and perceived threats, it seems clear that this large heterogeneous country defines itself in part through its nemesis. . . . And to the extent that those enemies are seen as evil, America can regard itself as good, a desire rooted in the Puritan vision of establishing a new Eden in a fallen world.”
The idea that the United States is a force for good in the world is beguilingly simple and appealing to many Americans. According to William Blum, in America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy (2013):
It needs to be repeated: the leading myth of US foreign policy, the one which entraps more Americans than any other, is the belief that the United States, in its foreign policy, means well. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may lie, they may even on the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are honorable, if not divinely inspired. Of that most Americans are certain. And as long as a person clings to that belief, it’s rather unlikely that s/he will become seriously doubtful and critical of the official stories.
The “realist” camp is said to eschew this moralistic framing, but in fact such framing has proven strategically useful, not the least for garnering public support for U.S. foreign policies and wars. The good-versus-evil ideological overlay allows policymakers to treat potential threats as existential ones based on assumed intentions (e.g., they might attack at any time), which in turn can be used to justify the projection of U.S. power – establishing foreign bases, deploying U.S. forces, engaging in regime-change interventions and wars, aiding pro-U.S. governments or insurgent forces, and building up arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The terms used to describe this power projection, such as “containment,” “forward defense,” and “preemptive war,” invariably convey the idea that the U.S. is defending its interests, allies, “core values,” and so forth.
The “evil” enemy image has other uses as well. It allows U.S. leaders to justify U.S. aid to pro-U.S. autocratic and repressive regimes as the lesser of two evils; to write off excessive violence, especially against civilians, as regrettable collateral damage in an overall righteous war; to bypass the United Nations and international law as undue constraints upon U.S. missions to check evil powers; and to reject negotiations out of hand, as the adversary is deemed untrustworthy and likely to take advantage of any attempt at compromise. The failure of the 1938 Munich conference to rein in Adolf Hitler’s ambitions serves as the defining lesson for all time, ignoring examples of successful negotiations such as the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. According to the political scientist Christopher Fettweis, “The enemy image reduces rivals to unidimensional caricatures who respond only to demonstrations of brute power.” He continues:
“If at First…” (Jeff Hook cartoon, Aug. 1990)
As it turns out, every enemy or rival of the United States in the last half-century, from the North Vietnamese to the [Nicaraguan] Sandinistas to [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein, has “only understood” force. In 1986, President [Ronald] Reagan announced a “victory in the global battle against terrorism” after sending a message “in the only language [Libyan leader Muammar] Khadafy seems to understand,” which was in that case an air strike that killed the Libyan leader’s fifteen-month-old daughter. Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, and other U.S. officials consistently argued throughout the 1990s that the various Balkan leaders, especially Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevik, only understood the language of force. . . . In the Pentagon during the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld understood the Ba’ath part in Iraq to be essentially a reincarnation of the Nazis.
In addition to making international cooperation, negotiations, and conflict resolution all but impossible, the “exceptionalist” ideological framework fosters a climate of intolerance at home. The super-patriots who hold dear the idea of American goodness and benevolence have historically been hostile to their fellow citizens who criticize U.S. wars and interventions. This has had a corrosive effect on democratic debate, to say the least, as critics of militant policies are branded as unpatriotic and anti-American, as if supporting war and militarism were synonymous with patriotism and Americanism. Senator Fulbright, in The Arrogance of Power
(1966), defended the right of criticism during the Vietnam War, pointing out that the free discussion of ideas benefits the nation in two ways: “it diminishes the danger of an irretrievable mistake and it introduces ideas and opportunities that otherwise would not come to light.”
The “othering” of rival nations and empires has long been used by leaders to solidify popular unity under their leadership, resulting in eager support for wars abroad and suppression of dissidents at home. Indeed, nationalist ideologies are the successors to religious ideologies, imbued with the same potential for conquests, crusades, and inquisitions in the name of cherished beliefs. “In every national soul,” wrote William James in 1903, “there lie potentialities of the most barefaced piracy, and our own American soul is no exception to the rule. Angelic impulses and predatory lusts divide our heart exactly as they divide the hearts of other countries. It is good to rid ourselves of cant and humbug, and to know the truth about ourselves.”
III. An overview of U.S. foreign policy historiography
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” – Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided” speech, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858
The nationalist perspective has a long pedigree in the writing of U.S. foreign policy history. During the 19th century, the spirit of “manifest destiny” was palpable in the works of George Bancroft, Frances Parkman, John Fiske, Theodore Roosevelt, and Frederick Jackson Turner. Fiske, a popular lecturer, confidently predicted that the English race would dominate the 20th century, bringing to the world a higher level of civilization. According to Roosevelt, in his four-volume Winning of the West
(1889-1896), the most striking feature of recent world history was “the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces,” which included Indian-inhabited North America. Turner, in his frontier thesis presented at the American Historical Association (AHA) conference in 1893, described the frontier as “an area of free land” and a “meeting point between savagery and civilization” in which American life (meaning Anglo Americans) underwent “perennial rebirth.”
In hailing U.S. western expansionism, Turner and other Anglo historians of his day simply ignored the voices and experiences of Native Americans. They also failed to acknowledge a critical study by Helen Hunt Jackson titled A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes
Jackson, a non-historian, documented broken treaties, massacres, and persistent Anglo attempts to destroy Native American cultures, urging readers to recognize these injustices and to accord Native Americans the same dignity and rights as U.S. citizens. AHA president James B. Angell ended his address at the 1893 conference with a reminder that the profession of history “lifts us above the narrow prejudices and conceits of provincialism and helps us to understand man in his essential characteristics.”
Yet Angell’s own writings, according historiographer Jerald A. Combs, embraced a stridently nationalist view in which “American diplomatic history was just one glorious event after another,” with the single exception of the U.S.-Mexican War.
Much forgotten today is the fact that the U.S.-Mexican War
(1846-1848) was strongly denounced in its own time by such notable Americans as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry David Thoreau. These critics decried “Mr. Polk’s war” as unnecessary, aggressive, and initiated by Southern slaveholders (Clay excluded). The debate continued after the war ended. In 1849, Nathan Brooks took up President James K. Polk’s cause, arguing that the war was “defensive” and had the “most beneficial consequences,” especially in the U.S. acquisition of a vast amount of territory. That same year, American Peace Society president William Jay published a book documenting U.S. atrocities and brutality during the war, quoting dozens of newspaper stories and official U.S. reports. Later studies by historians Hermann Eduard Von Holst, Herbert Howe Bancroft, James Schouler, and James Ford Rhodes leaned toward a critical view of the war, perhaps influenced by President Ulysses S. Grant, who described the war in his Personal Memoirs
(1885) “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
Bancroft, in his six-volume study of Mexican history (1883-1888), branded the war “a deliberately calculated scheme of robbery” on the part of the United States.
This was also the view of Mexican historians.
U.S. imperialism in Asia and Latin America
With the acquisition of the Philippines, the U.S. joined other imperial powers carving up Asia into colonies and spheres of influence
The U.S. embarked on a new “manifest destiny” of empire-building beginning in the late 19th century. The U.S. took possession of Eastern Samoa and the Hawaiian Islands, gained control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines through a war against Spain in 1898, and joined other imperial powers in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. Encouraged by the British imperial poet Rudyard Kipling to take up the “White Man’s Burden,” the U.S. replaced Spain as colonial master of the Philippines, denying Filipinos the independence for which they had fought.
Within the U.S., a heated political debate over U.S. imperialism engaged historians. Charles Francis Adams, in Imperialism and “The Tracks of Our Forefathers” (1899), argued that imperial quests contradicted democratic principles, George Washington’s doctrine of neutrality, and the Monroe Doctrine, and would ultimately undermine democracy in the United States. His brother, Brooks Adams, in America’s Economic Supremacy (1900) and The New Empire (1902), contrarily asserted that overseas expansion would enhance America’s position in the world and that America was destined to replace Europe as the center of empire in the 20th century. As is was, the American public soured on formal empire-building during the brutal four-year war to suppress Filipino independence (1899-1902), though the U.S. kept the Philippines until 1946.
“The Big Stick in the Caribbean Sea,” 1904 Cartoon by William Allen Rogers (Granger Collection)
Not to be deterred, President Theodore Roosevelt rekindled neo-imperial ambitions in the Central America-Caribbean region by stealthily acquiring the Panama Canal Zone in 1903. There followed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the right of the U.S. to militarily intervene in any nation in the Western Hemisphere deemed guilty of “chronic wrongdoing,” though in fact there was no international law to enforce, only U.S. dictates. Decried by Latin Americans as “Yankee imperialism,” the U.S. made involuntary “protectorates” of Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti, periodically sending in troops to secure compliant governments and protect North American economic interests.
Leading U.S. historians of the time, including James Morton Callahan, Albert Bushnell Hart, John Holliday Latané, and Frederick Ogg, had no objection to the new U.S. role as hemispheric “policeman.” Callahan described U.S. military and economic expansion into the Caribbean and Pacific as “America’s greatest feat” and a “beneficent influence to distant lands and people.” Harvard historian Hart endorsed the expansion of U.S. power as “inevitable.” According to Combs, “Not a single major historical work written in this period [1900-1920] about contemporary diplomatic affairs took an outright anti-imperialist line.”
In the aftermath of the Great War (World War I), the public mood in the U.S. shifted toward antiwar, anti-imperialist, and isolationist sentiments. Many citizens viewed imperialism as a major cause of the war and a growing number suspected “imperialistic motives” behind U.S. interventionism in Latin America. Buttressing this view, Scott Nearing and Joseph Freeman argued in Dollar Diplomacy: A Study in American Imperialism
(1925) that the U.S. government was acting as an agent of big business in extending its sovereignty “over populations that had expressed no desire for its presence.”
The historian J. Fred Rippy, in Latin America in World Politics
(1928, 1931), highlighted the deep resentment in Latin America generated by U.S. military interventionism. Intrusions into Mexico and Nicaragua had “called forth almost universal condemnation” among the people of the region, he wrote. “We have wounded their sensibilities, violated their soil, attempted to dictate their domestic policies and spilled their blood.” Writing before the U.S. adopted the noninterventionist Good Neighbor Policy in late 1933, Rippy advocated for the “abandonment of the exercise of police power in the Caribbean under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.”
“At the same time, however,” notes Warren Keuhl, “many of the emerging specialists studying foreign relations in the interwar years became ‘defenders of official policies,’ with a related sense of patriotism continuing even today in the field of diplomatic history.”
Among them was Samuel Flagg Bemis. In The Latin American Policy of the United States, An Historical Analysis
(1943), Bemis took exception to disparaging views of U.S. foreign policy. He welcomed the correction of the Good Neighbor Policy but also minimized the negative effects of U.S. interventionism, in keeping with his overall nationalist perspective. U.S. interventionism in Latin America, he wrote, was “comparatively mild imperialism,” as it “did not last that long and it was not really bad.” Bemis regarded U.S. colonization of the Philippines as more repugnant but minimized the damage to America’s reputation by describing it as a “great aberration” from America’s true anti-imperialist character. As for U.S. continental expansion in the 19th century, Bemis had only praise. “The Continental Republic took shape in the empty spaces of North America without willful aggression against any civilized nation or people, and this is said with due cognizance of the circumstances of the War with Mexico.”
Lessons of two world wars
Merged photos of a munitions train transporting shells to the front and the Douaumont National Cemetery at Verdun, France (design by Erin Meisenzahl-Peace)
The First World War (1914-1918) took the lives of ten million people worldwide, including 116,000 U.S. soldiers. Widespread disillusionment with the outcome of the war provided fertile soil for critical assessments in its aftermath. Historians C. Hartley Grattan, Henry Elmer Barnes, Sidney B. Fay, Walter Millis, H. C. Peterson, Charles C. Tansill, and Charles A. Beard all eschewed the demonizing stereotypes of Germany that had proliferated during the war and sought to illuminate its deeper, complex causes. Grattan, in Why We Fought (1929), argued that the Wilson administration had taken the U.S. into war in large part to preserve the profits of bankers and merchants dependent upon Allied trade. Barnes, in the Forward to Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry (1934), wrote that, notwithstanding “the evils of the armament industry,” there are “broader forces, such as patriotism, imperialism, nationalistic education, and capitalistic competition, [that] play a larger part than the armament industry in keeping alive the war system.” Millis, in Road to War (1935), blamed the sensationalist press along with the munitions industry and business elites for convincing “innumerable sensible Americans” that “Germans were a peculiarly fiendish and brutal race.”
Peterson, in Propaganda for War: The Campaign Against American Neutrality, 1914-1917
(1939), wrote, “People under the influence of the propaganda came to look upon the struggle of 1914-18 as a simple conflict between the forces of good and evil. In the minds of American leaders there was developed a blind hatred of everything German. After this hatred had distorted American neutrality, it created a willingness to sacrifice American youth in an attempt to punish the hated nation.”
There were, of course, books written that backed official accounts. Former Secretary of War Newton Baker, in Why We Went to War
(1936), wrote, “I am convinced that our entrance into the war was caused directly and solely by the German use of the submarine.”
Beard had supported U.S. participation in the war, even writing propaganda articles for the Committee on Public Information. Like many Americans, he later came to view U.S. involvement as a mistake.
During the 1930s, Beard became increasingly concerned that America’s foreign entanglements would draw the nation into another war, most likely with Japan.
He became an ardent “isolationist,” arguing that the nation must return to its tradition of neutrality. The U.S. did so, to some degree, passing a series of neutrality acts between 1935 and 1939 as war clouds loomed over Asia and Europe.
The sizable U.S. peace movement during the interwar years supported neutrality laws, multilateral naval arms reductions, and collective security through the League of Nations and World Court international systems (the U.S. did not join). Some two million citizens signed petitions urging President Calvin Coolidge to approve the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international agreement outlawing offensive war. The pact was signed in 1928 by the U.S. and France, followed by sixty other nations. Although the pact could not prevent the Second World War, the principle of nonaggression was incorporated into the United Nations Charter.
Peace literature of the period included C. H. Hamlin’s The War Myth in United States History
(1927), Devere Allen’s The Fight for Peace
(1930), and Merle Curti’s Peace or War: The American Struggle, 1636-1936
(1936), the latter being the first comprehensive scholarly study of U.S. peace movements.
The U.S. remained neutral when the Second World War broke out in Europe in September 1939. Beard and Barnes, the two leading progressive historians of the day, strongly opposed U.S. entry into another European war based on lessons they had drawn from the First World War. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, moreover, they accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt of knowingly allowing the attack in order to take the nation into war. Subsequent Congressional investigations proved incompetence but not conspiracy on the part of the administration. Beard and Barnes were tarnished by their accusations; and when the next surge of progressive revisionism arose in the 1960s, the conspiracy theory was absent. Millis, a military historian, placed the onus of blame for the Pearl Harbor attack on U.S. officers in command and otherwise argued that the cause of the Allies was just.
Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington (Iwo Jima flag raising)
America’s experience in World War II invigorated nationalist narratives. The war was commonly recognized as a necessary fight, a defensive war in which Americans rallied to the cause. Critics focused on particular issues, such as the internment of U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese origins, the treatment of conscientious objectors, Allied saturation bombing of European and Japanese cities, and the alleged necessity of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The popular nationalist narrative posited the U.S. as the “arsenal of democracy” that saved the world from Nazi and Japanese domination. This was not a myth, as the efforts and sacrifices of Americans were great, but neither did it acknowledge the greater role played by the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazi war machine; nor did it recognize the Soviet interpretation of the war as a victory for socialism over fascism. The heroic U.S. narrative also eclipsed earlier progressive inquiries into the underlying causes of war.
Western Europe and the U.S. diverged on the main lessons drawn from the war. Having directly experienced the devastation of two world wars within a thirty-year time span, Western Europeans took steps to ameliorate militarism and incessant national rivalries by forming the European Economic Community (1957) and European Union (1993), building toward a common European identity. In the U.S., the lesson of “peace through strength” reigned, positing the idea that global stability and peace would be secured through predominant U.S. military power, notwithstanding the existence of the newly formed United Nations.
This then became cornerstone for the nation’s postwar foreign policies as well as for a new empire identity in the body politic, merging patriotism with a belief in U.S. global hegemony and “the American century.”
The early Cold War
It was not World War II itself, but the application of the heroic World War II narrative to the emerging Cold War
that set the stage for the next great interpretive battle among historians. The two most prominent U.S. diplomatic historians in the early Cold War period, Samuel Flagg Bemis and Thomas A. Bailey, mirrored the Truman Doctrine in placing the Soviet Union in a pre-set enemy image previously occupied by Nazi Germany.
Bemis, in his popular Diplomatic History of the United States
(1965, fifth printing), wrote that the U.S. goal was to secure “individual liberty and political democracy” across the world, while the Soviet Union’s goal was to extend its “totalitarian power.”
To sustain this clear-cut division between good and evil, Bemis excluded certain inconvenient facts. According to Mark T. Gilderhus, “Bemis made no mention of the clandestine operation against Guatemala in 1954 and missed completely its destructive effects, which amounted to a deathblow to the Good Neighbor policy. Instead, Bemis focused attention on the Cuban Revolution in a fashion bordering on hysteria.”
Bailey, in A Diplomatic History of the American People
(1980, tenth printing), presented a whitewashed account of the Guatemalan overthrow, in keeping with the official storyline. “The Guatemalan revolution was a clear-cut victory for the United States and for hemispheric solidarity,” he wrote. “For the first time since the outbreak of the Cold War a Communist government had been overthrown by its own people, albeit with foreign aid.”
William A. WIlliams
Such one-sided critiques opened the way for progressive-minded scholars to challenge nationalist interpretations and rewrite the Cold War story. A “New Left” revisionist school arose in the 1960s, also known as the Wisconsin school, led by William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, Lloyd Gardner, Marilyn Young, Thomas Paterson and others. If the conservative narrative connected the Cold War to America’s role in World War II, the progressive narrative connected it to a longer history of U.S. expansionism and interventionism.
Williams was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and had served as an officer in the Pacific during World War II, receiving a Purple Heart at war’s end. His first major work, American Russian Relations
(1952), won him few friends among U.S. historians. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in a letter to the executive secretary of the American Historical Association in 1954, labeled Williams a “pro-Communist scholar.”
Williams’s classic study, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy
(1959), “made a rather modest splash,” noted Bradford Perkins. “Most reviewers praised the author’s originality, then savaged his emphasis on economic factors.” Nevertheless, “within only a few years Tragedy
was definitely in the mainstream.”
Williams argued in his study that the dynamic of U.S. foreign policy since 1898 centered on the “Open Door Policy,” a joint project of the U.S. government and corporate leaders to make the world safe for capitalism. “The Open Door Policy,” he wrote, “has failed because, while it has built an American empire, it has not initiated and sustained the balanced and equitable development of the areas into which America expanded. . . . To many throughout the world, therefore, the Open Door Policy appeared to confront them with a door closed to their progress.”
Though criticized for proffering Marxian “economic determinism,” New Left scholars examined multiple aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Marilyn Young, in “American Expansion, 1870-1900: The Far East” (1968), placed power motives ahead of economic motives, arguing that U.S. leaders sought greater influence in Asia because this “was a categorical imperative for a world power.” Moreover, “economic rhetoric” was but one part of the rhetoric of the age, which also included “religious, political, national, and racist rhetoric.”
“Massacre in Korea” by Pablo Picasso, 1951 (click to enlarge)
Gabriel Kolko, in The Politics of War (1968), depicted the Soviet Union as defensively responding to Western attempts to encircle it. He reviewed the origins of the Korean War (1950-1953) and, while not justifying the North Korean attack on South Korea, cited South Korea’s military buildup and periodic armed forays into the north prior to the attack, thus balancing attributions of blame. Kolko furthermore argued that the U.S. had become a counter-revolutionary power, engaged in a global war against the left.
Paterson, in Soviet-American Confrontation: Postwar Reconstruction and the Origins of the Cold War
(1973), held that the U.S. was most responsible for initiating the Cold War. “Washington’s disdain for diplomacy,” wrote Paterson, led to “a division of the world into hostile spheres and the emasculation of the goal of peace and prosperity that postwar Americans so eagerly hoped to fulfill.” For Paterson, the underlying problem had less to do with economic interests than with self-righteous attitudes and the “will to dominate.” U.S. leaders, he argued, were “convinced that their interpretations of international agreements were alone the correct ones.” Thus they “attempted to fulfill their goals through the unilateral application of the power they knew they possessed.” Paterson also countered the idea that the U.S. had somehow acquired its global power and influence accidentally. “American diplomacy was not accidental or aimless,” he wrote, “rather, it was self-consciously expansionist.”
The Vietnam War era
Ho Chi Minh hoped to continue friendly relations with the US after World War II, writing six letters to President Harry Truman in 1945-46, all of which went unanswered [Vietnam Communist Party photo]
For many U.S. citizens, the tragedy of American foreign policy became apparent in the Vietnam War
, whose murky origins belied the clear moral division of America’s Cold War ideology. The popularity of the “New Left” revisionist school grew in tandem with the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. “As the war dragged on,” wrote Lloyd Gardner, “the number of critics grew larger, and charges that Cold War rhetoric masked an ugly imperial reality grew louder.”
The war revealed fundamental weaknesses in the nationalist narrative, as the lessons drawn from World War II were unsuitable for Vietnam. Cold War stereotypes did not allow for a realistic understanding of the Vietnamese struggle for independence nor for Ho Chi Minh’s communist philosophy, which he believed could be mixed with democracy and good relations with the West. “If containment had been a tragic and misguided policy in Vietnam,” wrote Jerald Combs, “was it not possible that it had been wrong from the beginning when it was applied to the Soviet Union? Had the whole Cold War been as unnecessary as the Vietnam fiasco?”
The war in Vietnam sparked great interest in U.S. foreign relations at colleges and universities, resulting in new courses and the founding of a new professional association in 1967, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). As George Herring reflected on SHAFR’s origins, “In the 1960s, heated debates on the origins of the Cold War were intimately connected to public discussion of the nation’s overseas commitments, especially the war in Vietnam. Sessions at professional meetings attracted large crowds, provoked spirited discussions, and even drew coverage from the national media.”
Notwithstanding acrimonious debates, the fact that the public, students, scholars, media, and policymakers all shared a common, even urgent, interest in the history of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign relations in general had a galvanizing effect on the field. The study of history was seen to be relevant to current policy choices and, for young men, to their personal choices when facing conscription into the military.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads an antiwar march in New York, April 15, 1967 (Agence France Presse)
Along with U.S. foreign policy courses, interdisciplinary peace studies programs surged during the Vietnam War era, indirectly aided by the sizable and vocal antiwar movement. In the subfield of peace history, new studies of older peace movements were undertaken, including a half-dozen on the nearly forgotten Anti-Imperialist League at the turn of the 20th century. Such studies validated antiwar dissent as part of a long American tradition and furthermore recognized citizens – and students – as agents of change. Foreign policy could not be left to establishment experts.
Revisionist critiques blossomed in other areas of study during the 1960s and 1970s. The founding of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) was catalyzed by the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, when hundreds of U.S. scholars signed a petition, published in the New York Times
, condemning the U.S. intervention. LASA study groups subsequently organized academic research trips to Cuba and Nicaragua, and undertook cooperative research projects, one of which produced in 1973 “a blistering account of the repression in Guatemala.”
LASA members also supported Congressional efforts to restrict U.S. military aid to repressive governments during the mid-1970s.
Scholarship in the area of U.S-Native American relations had already begun to turn before the Vietnam War era. With the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Native Americans became U.S. citizens and their histories, part of United States history. During the 1930s, ethnohistorians Grant Foreman and Angie Debo described the forced removal of Southeastern tribes from their ancestral lands through the eyes of the Choctaw and other tribes. In 1954, the American Indian Ethnohistoric Conference and its journal, Ethnohistory, were initiated. Ten years later, Native American historians established the Native American Historical Society and began publishing The Indian Historian. This organization examined textbooks, sponsored conferences, encouraged new university courses, and challenged Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis.
Many critical studies of U.S.-Native American relations emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, amid a rising Native American rights movement. Among the scholars providing more balanced and inclusive accounts were James Axtell, Reginald Horsman, Francis Jennings, D’Arcy McNickle, Ronald Satz, and Anthony Wallace. Their works were complemented by popularly written books such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
(1970) and Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins
(1969). Brown’s book sold over five million copies, a measure of how times had changed since Helen Hunt Jackson’s lonely crusade. Other scholars, notably Francis Paul Prucha, Robert Remini, and Bernard Sheehan, were reluctant to criticize the Indian removal policy, arguing that forced relocation was either necessary or, as Remini described it, “inevitable.”
Inevitable or not, school textbooks were rewritten to reflect the tragic nature of Indian removal, particularly the story of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears.”
Veterans for Peace march in Washington, 2017
As for the Vietnam War, in 2005, SHAFR president David L. Anderson declared that the “prevailing scholarly interpretation maintains that American military intervention in Vietnam was a mistake in its origins and its conduct,” in contrast to “a minority view that accepts uncritically the assumption that the deployment of American armed forces in Vietnam . . . was justifiable.” That said, views differed as to what kind of “mistake” had been made. Progressive critiques challenged U.S. imperial motives at the core, indicting the whole U.S. venture in Vietnam that began in 1950 as being morally and legally wrong. As stated by the journalist Robert Scheer, “The war was a lie from the first. It never had anything to do with the freedom of the Vietnamese (we installed one tyrant after another in power), but instead had to do with our irrational Cold War obsession with ‘international communism.’”
More narrowly focused critiques, in contrast, reduced the “mistake” to a misreading of the Vietnamese situation, or even narrower, to policy failures that led to a “quagmire,” neither of which acknowledged U.S. hegemonic ambitions. According to White House historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1967, “We have achieved our present entanglement, not after due and deliberate consideration, but through a series of small decisions.”
To the contrary, wrote Christian Appy in 1993, “The United States did not inadvertently slip into the morass of war; it produced the war quite deliberately.”
In the public arena, meanwhile, the political right advanced a “stab-in-the-back” narrative that placed the blame for America’s loss in Vietnam on the antiwar movement, the news media, Congress, and leftist intellectuals. Rightist politicians such as Ronald Reagan popularized this view, declaring that the war was, “in truth, a noble cause.”
With the onset of the “Reagan revolution” in the early 1980s, the political zeitgeist shifted to the conservative side. President Reagan promoted a hard-edged Cold War ideology reminiscent of the 1950s, pursued aggressive “rollback” policies in Central America
and elsewhere, began building a new generation of “counterforce” nuclear weapons, and doubled the military budget.
In counterpoint to the rise of the New Right, a massive, grassroots-based Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was initiated along with movements for peace and justice in Central America and South Africa. The freeze campaign was sparked in part by loose administration talk of “demonstration” nuclear bombs and surviving a nuclear war. This middle class campaign arguably influenced Reagan to rekindle détente and sign an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in December 1987.
The 1980s also saw a “huge growth” in peace studies programs, with a popular trio of courses on East-West relations, North-South relations, and conflict resolution.
The conservative reaction to the progressive surge of the 1960s and 1970s was to refashion the tragic, immoral, and self-defeating qualities of U.S. foreign policy into a praiseworthy “empire without tears,” ignoring its debilitating effects on others.
In the field of American foreign relations, John Lewis Gaddis proposed a “synthesis” of nationalist and progressive views in 1983. He called on his colleagues to recognize the reality of an “American empire” but also to accept that this “empire operated, at least initially, along defensive lines, and with some sense of restraint.”
Warren I. Cohen, in Empire Without Tears: American Foreign Relations, 1921-1933
(1987), appeared to take up the idea. Reviewing America’s informal empire in the Central America-Caribbean region during the heyday of “Yankee imperialism,” Cohen concluded that “Washington’s policymakers were increasingly willing to meet with their Latin American counterparts to negotiate the terms under which the United States might be both hegemon and Good Neighbor.”
Cohen’s framing of the U.S. as the good hegemon reflected a Washington-centered view that dismissed the resentment (and tears) of those under the thumb of the United States. In fact, Latin Americans had struggled for years to put an end to U.S. interventionism before the U.S. announced the Good Neighbor Policy in 1933. Cohen’s framing, as such, aimed to remake William A. Williams’s “tragedy of American foreign policy” into an American empire without tragedy, without tears, and thus, no cause for remorse on the part of U.S. leaders and citizens. Indeed, one might ask, has any empire ever shed tears over those it dominates?
It soon became apparent that Gaddis’s proposed “synthesis” was an attempt to restore the nationalist tradition, if not to its former place of glory, then at least to an esteemed place within the field. Gaddis presented his views on the Cold War in four major books and numerous articles during the 1980s and 1990s. In his post-Cold War study, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History
(1997), he acknowledged that U.S. leaders had attempted “to overthrow entire governments” but nonetheless argued that they were motivated by “the best of intentions.”
Regarding the Reagan era, Gaddis was exuberant with praise: “By 1989, there was a closer correspondence between traditional American ideals and the actual conduct of American diplomacy than at any point since the Marshall Plan. The country did once again have a foreign policy it could be proud of, but it had achieved it under Ronald Reagan’s watch.” Gaddis reached this conclusion, however, without assessing the actual U.S. conduct in Central America, an odd omission given the importance assigned to the region by the Reagan administration. Gaddis’s only substantive comment regarding the administration’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras was that there was “inadequate accountability.”
Ben Linder, a young engineer from Oregon working on a hydro-electric project in Nicaragua was killed by the Contras in April 1987. His funeral was attended by pall-bearers Daniel Ortega and Andrew Young, and a procession of 10,000 people. Casa Ben Linder was built by Americans in Nicaragua in his honor. Linder is depicted in the mural riding a unicycle in a clown outfit. (click to enlarge)
Indeed, there was inadequate accountability, and intentionally so by the Reagan administration. In June 1986, the World Court ruled that the U.S., by supporting the Nicaraguan insurgents, was in breach of international law and must pay reparations to the Nicaraguan government in the amount of $370 million “for all the injury caused to Nicaragua.” The Reagan administration predictably ignored the ruling. In contrast to Gaddis’s rosy account, Latin Americanist scholar Thomas W. Walker described Reagan’s undeclared war against Nicaragua as “one of the greatest human tragedies of the second half of the twentieth century.” Noam Chomsky, linguist scholar and popular leftist critic, argued in The Culture of Terrorism (1988) that what impelled the U.S. to attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government was not the threat of totalitarian communism, but “the threat of a good example,” that is, a good socialist example. U.S. leaders, according to Chomsky, were intent on destroying governments that instituted socialist-type policies of benefit to the masses, as such governments would likely inspire imitation in other impoverished countries. One reviewer described Chomsky’s views of international relations as “left realism.”
In 1986, Warren Keuhl characterized the ongoing interpretative debate among diplomatic historians as a contest between “traditionalists representing a nationalist position and revisionists a more international one.” He sided with the latter, calling on historians “to rise above self-imposed and limiting national perspectives.” He nonetheless surmised that many of his colleagues would “reject such advice as too value-laden,” an argument he judged invalid since “the civic virtues of nationalism so deeply instilled in us are also value-related.” Keuhl argued for “new standards of measurement in which policies are weighed, not from the perspective of national interest but from that of the world. This, in turn . . . demands a wrestling with ethical questions and passing judgment on governments that place national interests over those of international ones and even over humanity itself.”
Post-Cold War triumphalism and its critics
A US Army M113 tank finds a parking spot in a laundry shop in Panama City during the surprise U.S. invasion of Panama, Dec. 21, 1989 (J. Elliot, US Dept. of Defense). The invasion, which marked the beginning of the post-Cold War era, was condemned by the UN General Assembly as “a flagrant violation of international law.”
The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was celebrated by political conservatives across the United States as an out-and-out U.S. victory. Among historians of American foreign relations, however, this “victory” was problematic. Official Soviet documents in newly opened Russian archives produced no evidence of a grand plan for world conquest; instead, Soviet leaders appeared cautious, worried about German rearmament and U.S. encirclement, and hesitant to support Cuba’s revolutionary activism. They used their communist ideology “to legitimize or justify policy rather than determine it,” according to Melvin Leffler. Based on his research in “enemy archives,” Leffler encouraged humble reflections on U.S. policies, writing in 1996, “Americans’ sense of rectitude, stoked by victory in the Cold War, encourages them to overlook the extent to which they have tolerated and even aligned themselves with evil regimes when their own interests were not endangered or when it served their interests to do so, thus making life worse for peoples elsewhere.” Leffler described his own views as a blend of “revisionism and realism.”
The declassification of documents in U.S. archives provided further evidence for challenging nationalist narratives. Gregory Mitrovich, in Undermining the Kremlin: America’s Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956 (2000), detailed U.S. covert actions against the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations in the early Cold War. This missing element in official accounts gave lie to the official policy of “containment,” as the U.S. covertly pursued an aggressive policy of roll-back, employing the CIA to subvert and destabilize the Soviet Union and its client states. The effort was initially led by State Department policy planner George Kennan, an avowed “realist.”
The idea that America’s triumph in the Cold War constituted a victory for the principles of freedom and democracy was laid to rest by David E. Schmitz in Thank God They’re On Our Side: The United States & Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965
(1999). The U.S., in fact, did not support freedom and democracy in many countries. Instead, it supplied military and economic aid to a host of authoritarian and repressive regimes and covertly overthrew a handful of democratic governments that tilted to the left. The U.S., moreover, had been operating in this mode since well before the Cold War. During the 1920s, the U.S. aided the fascist government of Benito Mussolini in Italy, the model for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
Joan Hoff, in “How the United States sold its soul to win the cold war” (2001), argued that, rather than triumph in the Cold War, the United States “lost as a nation and as a people any sense of ethics and ethical behavior.” The U.S. was also a laggard in the global movement for human rights. As of mid-2001, she noted, the U.S. had not ratified various “United Nations human rights conventions, including the latest one affecting women and children . . . the landmines treaty . . . the comprehensive nuclear non-proliferation treaty . . . the treaty that created an International Criminal Court . . . the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. . . . the Small-Arms Control Pact and the Biological Weapons Protocol.”
Notwithstanding the popular revival of celebratory American history in the post-Cold War era, SHAFR president Mark T. Gilderhus declared in his 1997 presidential address that the field of U.S. diplomatic history had moved well beyond the “orthodox” nationalist views of Samuel F. Bemis. “For scholars in the present day, happily, the nationalist approach has become anachronistic, and historians overall have moved well beyond it.” Today, he continued, “many historians working in this field are capable of arriving at balanced, nuanced, and accurate forms of understanding.”
It was a truism, of course, that scholars were capable
of balanced and nuanced interpretations, but was the nationalist approach really a thing of the past? Had the center of the field shifted to the left? Robert Buzzanco, a progressive-minded scholar, thought not. In “What Happened to the New Left? Toward a Radical Reading of American Foreign Relations” (1999), he lamented, “The New Left, so widespread and popular just over a generation ago, has virtually disappeared from the landscape of diplomatic history.” Yet he seems to have overstated his case, as thirty pages later he wrote, “The New Left, though not as influential as it was in the 1960s, is still with us.”
So, too, were nationalist views “still with us.” John Lewis Gaddis served as president of SHAFR in 1992. The debate would go on.
The first Indigenous Peoples’ Day was made official in South Dakota in October 1990 (AP photo)
In the public arena, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the “New World” (October 1492) sparked a major historical debate, resulting in the downsizing of many planned celebrations to commemorations. In July 1990, the National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission began planning for a grand celebration under the banner “500 Years of Pride.” Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas and their allies, meanwhile, promoted “Indigenous Day” and planned a convocation in Ecuador to celebrate “500 years of resistance.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the critics of Columbus Day viewed celebrations as “an Orwellian attempt to deny the genocide, the theft of land, the destruction of civilizations and the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.” The defenders of Columbus countered more or less by playing down actual history and playing up European cultural heritage in the Americas.
An emotional reticence to acknowledge the history of conquest and exploitation in the Americas could also be seen in a review of Anders Stephanson’s Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right
(1995), which focused on the ideological and religious roots of North American “settler colonialism.” David M. Fitzsimons found Stephanson’s study “cynical” in tone, a “tale of racism, slaughter, hypocrisy, and genocide,” with law, ethics, and democracy portrayed as “nothing more than a sham.” Fitzsimons asked rhetorically, “Is our past nothing but evil; is our future really so bleak?” He recommended that the book be assigned to students “in tandem with excerpts from works with a more balanced tone.”
Fitzsimons did not contest Stephanson’s historical evidence, but rather fretted over its potentially negative effect on U.S. patriotic-cultural identity.
The “War on Terror” and American hegemony
As historians debated the lessons of the Cold War, a cabal of political “neo-cons,” or neo-conservatives, led by former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, prepared for a new surge of messianic U.S. empire-building. The 2000 election of George W. Bush as president, and of Cheney as vice-president, set the stage. A devastating terrorist attack on U.S. territory on September 11, 2001, afforded the opportunity. Only nine days later, the president announced a new “War on Terror,” a mission with no limits of time, geography, or targets. In a televised address to a joint session of Congress, Bush declared, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
And so it has not ended.
Protesters in London march against the war in Iraq, Feb. 15, 2003, one of many worldwide demonstrations
Public criticism of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001, was relatively muted, as the mastermind of the terrorist attack, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was holed up in the country. The war in Iraq, however, launched on March 20, 2003, sparked large protests beforehand and outrage afterward as it became known that the Bush administration had initiated the war on false premises – Iraq had no ties to terrorists and no hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction. With his security rationales having fallen through the rabbit hole, President Bush turned to familiar Wilsonian idealism to justify continued U.S. occupation. He proclaimed in his 2005 Inaugural Address, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” The word “support,” of course, hardly describes the violent, regime-changing invasions that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn Young’s aptly named their critique, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past
(2007), as cautionary lessons from the Vietnam War were forgotten or ignored, at least by members of Congress who approved the war. Religious scholar James Carroll, in Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War
(2004), “pointed to the reckless manner in which the Bush administration presented the War on Terror as a righteous crusade against the supposed enemies of civilization,” according to reviewer Jeremy Kuzmarov. “He shows how blind nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and the reflexive resort to military force combined to produce the epic disasters of the Afghan and Iraq wars.”
Other accounts by journalists and scholars highlighted bungled occupations, arbitrary detentions and torture, abusive and culturally insensitive U.S. military actions, civilian casualties, financial costs, widespread corruption, stresses on U.S. troops, abuse of presidential power, lack of international support, increased anti-Americanism around the world, and underlying hegemonic U.S. motives.
Over the next two decades, as U.S. military power and economic largess proved incapable of establishing global stability, as China rose to become an economic powerhouse, and as the transnational corporate economy increasingly lost touch with the American people’s economic needs, eroding the American Dream, a number of scholars and pundits expressed concern that the U.S. was losing its commanding influence in the world. “Realist” scholar Stephen M. Walt, writing in 2018, judged that U.S. “hegemony failed because U.S. leaders exaggerated what American power – especially its military power – could accomplish.”
He postulated that a more benign and circumscribed U.S. hegemony could be refashioned if officials were willing to correct past errors of judgment and policy and set more realistic goals. Andrew J. Bacevich, in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
(2008), similarly recognized that the U.S. had overextended its power in attempting “to incorporate Central Asia into the Pax Americana,” but rather than reassert U.S. hegemony, he argued that “the imperative of the moment is to examine the possibility of devising a nonimperial foreign policy.”
For scholars of the progressive tradition, the imposition of U.S. hegemony had long been viewed as an impediment to a stable and prosperous world order. Walter Hixson, in The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy
(2008), reviewed the contours of U.S. history and concluded that “U.S. foreign policy is a lethal, pathological force emanating from a self-serving national mythology, and we ought to seek to change it in ways that would serve to make the world a safer and more human place.” Greg Grandin, in Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism
(2006), pointed to U.S. hegemony in Latin America as the model for U.S. global hegemony. Moreover, he wrote, “whatever degree of democracy and human rights the [Central America] region today enjoys is due not to the actions of the U.S. empire but to the struggle against that empire.” Joan Hoff, in A Faustian Foreign Policy, From Woodrow Wilson to George Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility
(2008), linked recent U.S. foreign policies to a history of threat exaggerations, misleading rhetoric, destructive policies, and hubris on the part of U.S. leaders. “American leaders,” she wrote, “hid the crasser aspects of U.S. diplomacy from the public with self-serving legitimating claims about the moral superiority and defensive nature of the country’s diplomacy.”
Nationalist interpretations have been decidedly more upbeat about the character and results of U.S. foreign policies. John Lewis Gaddis, in an interview with the New York Times Book Review
in July 2004, expressed the view that, “on balance, American imperial power in the 20th century has been a remarkable force for good, for democracy, for prosperity.”
Sixteen years later, Mark Atwood Lawrence remarked in the same publication, “The American-led world order delivered broad prosperity, geopolitical stability and democratization for more than half a century. Perhaps the United States can reclaim something of its accustomed role, to the benefit of all.”
Daniel J. Sargent, speaking at the AHA annual meeting in January 2018 on “Pax Americana: Sketches for an Undiplomatic History,” offered his reflections on the American empire:
We should not celebrate the Pax Americana’s passing. We diplomatic historians are well-practiced at exposing the failures and hypocrisies of American foreign policy. To grasp the stakes of the present moment, we must also contemplate the Pax American’s successes. For seventy years, the United States upheld a stable, peaceful international order while facilitating the diffusion, in an uneven fashion, of modernity. The results, on balance, have been more positive than negative.
Such views were more subdued but not dissimilar in essence from those of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the primary architect of the Iraq War, and his daughter, Liz Cheney. In their book, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America (2015), they wrote, “We have guaranteed freedom, security, and peace for a larger share of humanity than has any other nation in all of history. There is no other like us. . . . We are, as a matter of empirical fact and undeniable history, the greatest force for good the world has ever known.
To be clear, the last sentence is a generalization, not an “empirical fact,” and it is hardly “undeniable.” One must ask if such generalizations fit the evidence, or perhaps, what evidence is selected that allows for such generalizations. Can Professor Sargent’s statement that for “seventy years, the United States upheld a stable, peaceful international order” be reconciled with abundant evidence to the contrary?
Paul Chamberlin, in The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace
(2018), highlights the missing evidence in Sargent’s myopic view of the Cold War:
Between the end of World War II and 1990, more than 20 million people died in violent conflicts. . . . Most of them were civilians. In raw numerical terms, this death toll equals more than three My Lai massacres every day for forty-five years. Nearly all of them have been forgotten. This book argues that this violence was not simply an accidental consequence of local wars or superpower meddling. Rather, massacres such as My Lai were integral components of the Cold War world.
1898 cartoon of Britannia (Great Britain) welcoming its estranged daughter, Columbia (U.S.), as imperialist partner
For British historian Eric Hobsbawm, in On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (2008), the current era of U.S. global dominance marks the last stage of Western imperialism. “In these circumstances,” he wrote, “there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, let alone the prospect of a lasting global imperial hegemony, unprecedented in history, by a single state, such as America, however great its military force. The age of empires is dead. We shall find another way of organizing the globalized world of the twenty-first century.”
Although the British empire has collapsed, the debate over its character and effects has continued. Sneh Mahajan, an expert on British imperial policy in India, wrote in 2012, “British policy makers as well as historians like to assume that British history was the story of progressive spread of justice and liberty, that their role in the world was essentially a peaceful one, that their government protected the existing empire, that their trade and culture prevailed because of intrinsic merit alone where free competition was allowed by others, and that their country resorted to force only in self-defence.” Mahajan took issue with this British nationalist view and historians such as Niall Ferguson who have promoted it:
The European view of imperialism: civilization versus savagery (Udo Keppler, Puck magazine, Dec. 10, 1902)
In the academic discourse as well as public consciousness of the twenty-first century in the West, a sort of collective amnesia has been created around the unsavoury aspects of empire and imperialism relating to horrendous loss of life, the feeling of racial superiority and extraction of resources that accompanied the construction and maintenance of empires. In fact, alongside the resurgence of imperial history, there has been an attempt at ‘legitimation’ and ‘normalisation’ of imperialism by placing the will to empire beyond the reach of critical examination in public and academic discourses in the US and other Western countries. There has been complete indifference to the very visible acts of brutality in the democratic society of the West, what to say of any sense of outrage. This has happened despite the intervention of postcolonial and postmodern theories and a formidable body of work on colonialism and empire in all social science disciplines.
On critical evaluation
Mahajan points to an important conservative strategy in the ongoing debate over interpretations of history – “placing the will to empire beyond the reach of critical examination in public and academic discourses.” This neutering of critical evaluation clearly favors the foreign policy establishment and its official narratives. It is the academic equivalent of patriotic cultural rituals that “honor our troops” without questioning the necessity of wars. From the point of view of the foreign policy establishment, if academic scholars cannot be corralled into supporting official policies and validating ideological presumptions and rationales, as took place in the 1950s, then it is best to quarantine them in the Ivory Tower where they might be subjected to criticism for judgmental tones, moralizing lessons, and engagement in political controversies.
An informal norm of neutrality still lingers in academia, in part a product of earlier times when “objectivity” was deemed the hallmark of scholarly studies, and in part a product of ongoing efforts to maintain professional unity and decorum in the face of antagonistic value-perspectives.
Although peace and justice studies, Holocaust and genocide studies, and multicultural courses have all established the legitimacy of overt value-perspectives in their particular areas of study, there is resistance to opening the door wider. Better to focus on that which historians hold in common, the thinking goes, such as rigorous documentation of studies using primary sources, than to emphasize controversial normative lessons of history, of which historians can claim no special expertise.
There are exceptions, of course. In September 2020, the American Historical Association came out swinging against President Donald Trump claims of voter fraud. “The president has threatened to call off an election and refused to promise that he will accept its results,” wrote James Grossman, AHA executive director. “So, yes, the AHA is ‘taking sides’ on voter suppression and the integrity of American elections. . . . Under such circumstances, the AHA has a responsibility to participate beyond its normal conventions.” Grossman elaborated on the history of the issue and the past role of historians:
The invocation of fraud has a long history, dating to the overthrow of Reconstruction and then to the late 19th century, when southern states systematically stripped African Americans men of the right to vote (women, already disenfranchised). The mechanisms varied, and sometimes creative, but they shared a rhetoric that emphasized fraudulent elections as the justification for eliminating Black Americans from the polity. . . . There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud then, and there is no evidence today. But for more than a half century, historians were complicit tin the propagation of this insidious myth: that Reconstruction was an era drenched in political corruption and ‘redeemed’ by white southerners, who recognized Black disfranchisement as the key to ensuring the ‘integrity’ of their democracy.
The fact that historians had been complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes in the past made it all the more imperative for historians to speak out in the present.
What lessons, after all, should be conveyed to the public and to political leaders?
Judgments and normative conclusions are important because they encapsulate lessons from the past of potential value to present and future generations. Historians of the progressive tradition have voiced ample criticism of U.S. foreign policy, but the field as a whole has been immobilized by a lack of agreement on fundamental interpretations. What lessons, after all, should be conveyed to the public and to political leaders? If, on the one hand, the U.S. empire operates without tears and has produced a stable, peaceful international order for the last seven decades, then, by all means, let it continue. If, on the other hand, U.S. foreign policies have been characterized by unnecessary wars, rogue operations, propaganda, and obstruction of a more cooperative international order, then reform is in order; it is time to create something new.
Notwithstanding this lack of consensus, historians of foreign relations are obliged to act with some measure of social concern. They are responsible for transmitting information and “historical thinking” from one generation to the next, and, like it or not, they must reckon with popular and political views of history. Moreover, with or without the input of historians, the public and policymakers will draw their own lessons from the past. Alexander Deconde, a founder of SHAFR and former president, offered his seasoned reflections along these lines:
I have long noted from personal observation and from polls that feel-good, patriotic histories and biographies, particularly of presidents, that sell well appear to have a greater impact on the public and apparently on politicians and policymakers than do documented academic studies that challenge conventional wisdom of foreign and war policies. . . . What, however, has given me concern is that our elected officials empowered to make policy and those who aid them, especially in the executive branch, have tended to manipulate history by selecting flawed precedents from it to suit their own purposes. Too often, it seems, they have garbed their decisions in issues affecting the lives and deaths of millions as benevolent, patriotic, or necessary for protecting national security when they were not. . . . I am persuaded, though that we have the tools that can enhance awareness of government’s mishandling of the military might entrusted to it. Because most historians in our field concentrate on the recent past, we can draw on our expertise to add balance to the chorus that sings in praise of mindless flag waving, or wars, or warrior presidents who have acted beyond their constitutional powers, and of their policies though blemished and costly in blood and dollars.
Walter LaFeber has argued that scholars of American foreign relations have a special responsibility to counter “triumphalist history” and related “illusions” that have led the United States into tragic wars in Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere. As he wrote in 2007: “Scholars and journalists helped pave the way for these tragedies by assuming the beneficence of all kinds of American power, misunderstanding the Asian and Latin American nationalisms and perspectives on that power, and believing that presidential authority (especially during the cold war) was too weak and needed systematic uplifting.” These tragedies were perpetuated not only by “political and policy figures who misunderstood their nation’s history and, consequently, historical choices,” but also by “the writers who did nothing to counter such illusions. The illusions included the nature of American power and the natures of human beings.”
The peace historian Sandi Cooper presented a similar challenge to historians, writing, “Peace history aggravates our academic colleagues because it challenges their faith that the underpinnings of scholarship lie in neutrality.” Historians, she advised, should “question the work of people who insist that what they are doing is merely describing or analyzing their realities of international power and not, by virtue of their writings, reifying its most amoral consequences.”
Implied in these historical reflections is the idea of the Fifth Estate, of writing (and reading) history in the interest of truth and accountability. Our understanding of the past affects the future we create.
Whither we are tending
The field of American foreign relations has broadened in recent decades to include a broad range of issues and perspectives, including race and gender issues (the cultural turn) and transnational and global perspectives. Research has expanded to include more multi-national, multi-archival, and multi-lingual sources.
At the same time, the field has become less popular with students as compared to the 1960s and 1970s, which in turn has led to fewer courses and fewer university positions.
Reflecting on the field in March 2013, Marc Trachtenberg wrote, “There’s a certain sense that the field is not what it should be – that the field, perhaps, does not have a clear sense for what it’s about, for what it should be trying to accomplish. The work that’s being produced, especially in recent years, is all over the map: the field seems fractured, Balkanized – there doesn’t seem to be any overarching sense of purpose.” Yet “the field should have a purpose – and in large part I mean that the field should have a social purpose.”
The field of U.S. foreign policy history should have a social purpose. It should have a moral-ethical center and be relevant to the public.
Indeed, it should have a social purpose. The study of U.S. foreign policy history should have a moral-ethical center and be relevant and accessible to the public. It should expose official misinformation and misdeeds, as needed, and probe ideological assumptions and beliefs that underpin U.S. foreign policies. In educational settings, it should eschew nationalistic framing that whitewashes history, and it should cultivate critical thinking and evaluation, encouraging questions, discussion, and debate. Beyond these essentials, the study of history can help us gain perspective and open our imaginations to a wider set of possibilities for the future – a better future.
Jeffrey A. Engel, Mark Atwood Lawrence, and Andrew Preston, America in the World: A History in Documents from the War with Spain to the War on Terror
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 7.
William Earl Weeks, The New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations
, Volume 1: Dimensions of the Early American Empire, 1754-1865
, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), xix. Weeks adds that his description is a corrective to nationalistic accounts: “Writing the history of American continental expansion requires an excavation of these sorts of basic facts to prevent their being lost to a latter-day version of Manifest Destiny that posits U.S. expansion across an ‘empty’ continent accomplished in a relatively simple fashion.”
For successive historiographies of American foreign relations, see Jerald A. Combs, American Diplomatic History: Two Centuries of Changing Interpretations
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983); Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Thomas W. Zeiler, “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field,” The Journal of American History
, Vol. 95, No. 4 (March 2009): 1053-73; Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan, eds., America in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations since 1941
, Second Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); and H-Diplo Roundtable Review XXI-42, May 25, 2020: Daniel Bessner and Fredrik Logevall, “Recentering the United States in the Historiography of American Foreign Relations.” Texas National Security Review
3:2 (Spring 2020), https://hdiplo.org/to/RT21-42.
Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, in the introduction to Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations
, describe “realist historians” as being “concerned primarily with the state, with state policymaking elites, and with the use of state power to advance the national interest” (2). The focus on state policymaking does not require
that scholars adopt a nationalist perspective, but this is often the case, thus aligning “realist” critiques with the conservative tradition. The conservative “realist” assumes a never-ending struggle for dominance in the international arena; and among American conservative “realists” at least, regards U.S. hegemony as an achievement rather than an obstacle to international cooperation, as progressives tend to believe. The popularity of the “realist” label among scholars of international relations and American foreign relations has led to a welter of differentiating adjectives, making it a slippery term to use in defining perspectives. Among the variants put forth by scholars are “structural realism” (Kenneth Waltz), “offensive realism” (John Mearsheimer), “defensive realism” (Michael Green), “Christian realism” (Reinhold Niehbur), “principled realism” (Morris Blachman, William LeoGrande, and Kenneth Sharpe), “ethical realism” (Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman), “prophetic realism” (Ronald Stone), “soft realism” (Jerald Combs), “new realism” (Michael Novak and James Kurth, separately), “neo-realism” (Richard E. Feinberg and Tom Farer, separately), “neoclassical realism” (Christopher Layne), “critical realism” (Amy Schrager Lang and Cecelia Tichi), “crackpot realism” (C. Wright Mills), “liberal realism” (David L. Anderson), and “left realism” (Ronald Osborn, referring to Noam Chomsky). Because the “realist” focus on international power politics (second level of interpretation) is not essentially tied to a conservative, nationalistic perspective (third level of interpretation), the label can be appropriated by others who maintain a similar focus on power politics but have a different value-based perspective.
Early critiques of empire-building include John A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study
(1902), which connected imperialism to capitalism, and Mark Twain’s lampooning article, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901), which connected imperialism to the debasement of democracy. Progressive-oriented, structural or system-oriented critiques have also focused on militarism (arms races), racism, sexism, power-elitism, extreme nationalism, and ideologies of national self-righteousness.
Historians both resist being stereotyped and seek to define their perspectives more precisely by creating new labels. The proliferation of new labels in the field of American foreign relations led Michael H. Hunt to declare in 1992 an “historiographical morass.” The defining labels included “traditionalist, nationalist, isolationist and neo-isolationist, court historian, internationalist, orthodox, realist, New Left, the Wisconsin school, the open-door school, corporatist, post-revisionist, conservative, neo-conservative, and so forth, each carrying almost as many meanings as there are historians.” Adding to the confusion, what had formerly been described as a contest between “orthodox” (conservative) and “revisionist” (progressive) perspectives was turned on its head by David L. Anderson in his presidential address at the Society for Historians of Foreign Relations (SHAFR) conference in 2006. Anderson assigned the “revisionist” label to the nationalist school while placing virtually everyone else in a mainstream school of “liberal realists.” This shift in meaning – from essential content to the relative popularity of views among historians – has unfortunately made it difficult for people inside and outside the diplomatic history field to follow the debate. Michael H. Hunt, “The Long Crisis in U.S. Diplomatic History: Coming to Closure,” Diplomatic History
16 (Winter 1992), 124, 136; and David L. Anderson, “SHAFR Presidential Address: One Vietnam War Should Be Enough and Other Reflections on Diplomatic History and the Making of Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 30, No. 1 (January 2006), 1-21. A reversal of the original meanings of “orthodox” and “revisionist” can be seen in Gary R. Hess, Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War
(Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).
One example of an unending arguments in history is the controversy over the Madison administration’s “just war” claims in the War of 1812; see Thomas Sheppard, “Dubious Victories: Refighting the War of 1812,” The Annual Journal of the Corcoran Department of History
, University of Virginia, Fall 2013, http://www.essaysinhistory.com/content/dubious-victories-refighting-war-1812. Another example concerns the reputation of President James K. Polk, the architect of the U.S. Mexican War. See Carmen Notaro, “Biography and James K. Polk: Observations on an Historiography Spanning Two Centuries.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly
75, no. 4 (2016): 260-75. Notaro concludes with the words, “opinions remain divided” about President James K. Polk’s reputation. “In the final analysis,” Polk “remains as elusive as … a century ago…. The quest to understand Polk must continue” (273).
In 1995, the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to reject multicultural curriculum guides proposed by the National History Standards Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. The Senate resolution stated that any educational institution or program receiving money from the federal government “should have a decent respect for United States history’s roots in Western civilization.” “Multicultural History Standards Rejected by Senate in 99-1 Vote,” Los Angeles Times
, January 19, 1995.
Dana Goldstein, “I Read 4,800 Pages of American History Textbooks,” New York Times
, January 13, 2020; and Dana Goldstein, “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories,” New York Times
, January 12, 2020.
Richard Lachmann and Lacy Mitchell, “The Changing Face of War in Textbooks: Depictions of World War II and Vietnam, 1970-2009, Sociology of Education
, Vol. 87, No. 3 (July 2014), 189, 201. See also, Maria Repoussi and Nicole Tutiaux-Guillon, “New Trends in History Textbook Research: Issues and Methodologies toward a School Historiography,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society
2, no. 1 (2010): 154-70.
Jimmy Carter, “The President’s News Conference,” March 24, 1977, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=7229.
Michael Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 1772-1991
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1995), 225; Spencer C. Tucker, ed., “Casualties,” The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History
, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 175; U. S. National Archives, “Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics,” https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics#category; and Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990
(New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), 302. On competing interpretations of the Vietnam War in textbooks, see William L. Griffen and John Marciano, Teaching the Vietnam War: A Critical Examination of School Texts and an Interpretive Comparative History Utilizing the Pentagon Papers and Other Documents
(Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1979). The authors write, “Textbooks offer an obvious means of realizing hegemony in education…. Within history texts, for example, the omission of crucial facts and viewpoints limits profoundly the ways in which students come to view historical events” (163). See also, Roger Peace, John Marciano, and Jeremy Kuzmarov, “The Vietnam War,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2017, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/vietnam-war.
For critiques of textbook framing, see J. Samuel Walker, “The Origins of the Cold War in United States History Textbooks,” The Journal of American History
, Vol. 81, No. 4 (March 1995): 1652-61; James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
(New York: The New Press, 1995); and Peter Conolly-Smith, “Teaching The American Promise: The Academic Textbook Industry and the Thinning of American History,” The History Teacher
, Vol. 52, No. 4 (August 2019): 615-36. Conolly-Smith, a history professor at Queens College, New York, offers an interesting description of the snail-like process of changing interpretations in his favorite history textbook, The American Promise
, with regard to the Bush administration’s false claims for going to war in Iraq in 2003 (pp. 620-21, 630). Although the false claims were revealed in the press immediately after the brief war, the 2005 edition of the textbook repeated Bush’s claims without questioning or qualifying them. Subsequent editions noted that the claims had been “disputed,” then in another edition, “refuted,” before finally stating in the 2017 edition that the claims “proved false.’” Still, there was no probing or speculation as to what motivated the administration to go to war.
The dilemma of misleading official accounts in history textbooks is the focus of Loewen’s study, Lies My Teacher Told Me
, and a sequel, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History
(New York: Teacher’s College Press, 2010). Loewen’s point is not that teachers intentionally lie to students, but that this is the apparent effect when teachers present misleading official accounts without cross-examination. Of course, every teacher worth his or her salt can do this cross-examination in a classroom. For alternative, critical views of U.S. history, see Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States
(New York: Gallery Books, 2019); Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
(New York: HarperCollins, 2015); and the Zinn Education Project, https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/peoples-history-of-the-united-states.
George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America: A Narrative History
, Volume Two (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2013), 1285-1286, 1297. In Tindall and Shi’s 2010 volume, the Guatemala story is omitted completely. For readers who are unfamiliar with the Guatemala story, I will note here my own experience in encountering it as a 23-year-old college senior in 1975. When, as part of an assignment, I read about the U.S.-backed covert overthrow of the Guatemalan government, I could not wrap my mind around the idea that the U.S. would intentionally oust a democratic government and replace it with a repressive military regime. Reading the uplifting speeches of President Jacobo Árbenz only deepened my consternation. As I continued my studies, however, I discovered many more profound contradictions to stated U.S. principles and so became familiar with the terrain. Later, as a community college instructor specializing in “U.S. in the World” courses, I was responsible for broaching this subject. I introduced primary sources, including CIA documents, and asked students if the generalizations proffered by Tindall and Shi (and other textbooks) fit the evidence at hand, encouraging discussion and debate. I kept my own views aside in order to allow students to formulate their own questions and conclusions.
Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 220. Immerman’s earlier book, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), provided much detail on the Guatemalan overthrow but mainly from the vantage point of the coup plotters in Washington; he brought no charges of illegality, aggression, or wrongdoing. On the scholarly debate over Eisenhower’s reputation, see Stephen G. Rabe, “Eisenhower Revisionism: A Decade of Scholarship,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 97-115.
Thomas G. Paterson, “Cold War Revisionism: A Practitioner’s Perspective,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 31, No. 3 (June 2007), 394-95.
See, for example, Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019); and Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016). Beyond academic scholarship, in 2008 the Canadian government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the purpose of documenting abuses of the Indian residential school system and suggesting steps to rectify and atone for the past.
Stephen G. Rabe, The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), xxxiii and xxxv. Truth Commissions were also established in Latin American countries and elsewhere in order to expose the brutal policies of authoritarian governments and, in some cases, hold political and military leaders responsible. See Kathryn Sikkink, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); and Onur Bakiner, Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
The first essay on this website (after the Introduction), which focuses on the deep origins of war, is an exception to this interpretive framework, having a wider scope beyond U.S. foreign policy.
“Blowback refers to the unintended negative consequences of foreign policies on the powerful. See Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of Empire
(New York: Henry Holt, 2000).
Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
“Major Describes Move,” New York Times
, February 8, 1968.
Robert R. Holt, “Meeting Einstein’s challenge: New thinking about nuclear weapons,” Bulleting of Atomic Scientists, April 3, 2015, https://thebulletin.org/2015/04/meeting-einsteins-challenge-new-thinking-about-nuclear-weapons.
More specifically, the evolving international norms include the following: (1) prohibitions against national aggression and military interventionism written into the charters of the United Nations (1945) and the Organization of American States (1948); (2) the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948; (3) human rights guidelines set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, and nine subsequent binding human rights treaties; (4) humanitarian laws governing the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, via the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols; (5) the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, entered into force in 2002, whose mandate is to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes; (6) the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change (1992) and other environmental protection treaties; and (7) arms control treaties that ban the production and use of chemical and biological weapons, limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and establish nuclear-free zones in space and certain regions of the earth.
Virginia S. Williams, “The Peace History Society: An Affiliate of the AHA since 1963,” Perspectives on History
, November 1, 2009, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2009/the-peace-history-society. The historians’ meeting at the Friends Meeting House was an offshoot of the annual conference of the American Historical Association.
Charles F. Howlett, “American Peace History since the Vietnam War,” Perspectives on History
(newsmagazine of the American Historical Association), December 1, 2010, p. 298, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2010/american-peace-history-since-the-vietnam-war. One notable project of peace historians was the production of The Garland Library of War and Peace
(1972-77), edited by Blanche Wiesen Cook, Sandi E. Cooper, and Charles Chatfield. Notwithstanding the accomplishments of peace historians and educators, the historian Carl Mirra argues that the field of peace education lacks a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the war system. He writes that the “focus on conflict resolution has generally overshadowed any systematic evaluation of U.S. foreign affairs.” As a result, “there is still no single full-length manuscript in the field devoted to systematically analyzing U.S. foreign policy alongside a constructive proposal for peace educators to address such policies. A full-length inquiry into U.S. foreign policy seems long overdue.” Carl Mirra, United States Foreign Policy and the Prospects for Peace Education
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008), 27, 30, 31.
Lawrence S. Wittner, “Peace Movements and Foreign Policy: The Challenge to Diplomatic Historians,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Fall 1987), 360, 367. Robert L. Beisner, in Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), writes, “The historian has a duty to judge as well as analyze and describe” the movements under study, “and weigh both their errors and their achievements.”
On critical evaluation, see Roger Peace, “Choosing Values: Toward an Ethical Framework in the Study of History,” The History Teacher
, Vol. 50, No. 2 (February 2017), http://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/F17Preview.html.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
(1835), Specially Edited and Abridged for the Modern Reader by Richard D. Heffner (New York: New American Library, 1956), 278.
The term “imperial presidency” has often been used to describe undue executive power vis-à-vis Congress and the U.S. public since the publication of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1973, 1989, 2004).
“A History of Notable Senate Investigations prepared by the United States Senate Historical Office,” https://www.senate.gov/about/resources/pdf/church-committee-full-citations.pdf. See also, Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975); John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story
(Toronto: George J. McLeod Limited, 1978); and Ralph McGehee, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA
(New York: Open Road Media, 1983, republished in 2015).
Lindsey O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018), 5. See also, Roger Peace, “Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2019, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/cold-war, especially Section IV.
MACVSOG OPLAN 34A (declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), https://www.scribd.com/collections/2747731/MACVSOG-OPLAN-34A-FOIA.
President Johnson’s lie was caught on White House tapes. On August 4, 1964, the president blurted out in a phone conversation: “This boy, our friend Hubert [Humphrey], is just destroying himself with his big mouth. He just can’t stop it…. Yesterday morning he went on the TV and just blabbed everything he heard in a briefing, just like it was his personal knowledge, and almost wanted to claim credit for it. They [the reporters] said, for instance, how would you account for these PT boat attacks on our destroyers when we are innocently out there in the Gulf sixty miles from shore. Humphrey said, well, we have been carrying on some operations in that area, and we’ve been having some covert operations where we have been going in and knocking out roads and petroleum things, and so forth. And that’s exactly what we have been doing. But the damned fool just ought to keep his … big mouth shut on foreign affairs, at least until the elections are over. See Michael R. Beschloss, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 493-96.
Jon Western, Selling Intervention & War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 17-18.
John Schuessler, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2015), 2-3. See also, Eric Alterman, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences
(New York: Viking 2004); John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
(New York: Pantheon, 1988).
The Salvadoran Truth Commission, created by the United Nations in 1992, determined that U.S.-backed state security forces and associated rightist paramilitary groups were responsible for 85% of assassinations and murders in El Salvador, while leftist rebels were responsible for 5%. “Truth Commission: El Salvador,” United States Institute for Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/1992/07/truth-commission-el-salvador.
Gerald M. Boyd, “Reagan Terms Nicaraguan Rebels ‘Moral Equal of Founding Fathers,’” New York Times
, March 2, 1985; and “Statement of Adm. Stansfield Turner, Former Director of Central Intelligence” (April 16, 1985), U.S. Support for the Contras, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-Ninth Congress, First Session
, April 16, 17 and 18, 1985 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985), 4.
Harry Van Cleve, Comptroller General of the U.S. General Accounting Office, non-classified letter to Rep. Jack Brooks and Rep. Dante B. Fascell, Sept. 30, 1987, National Security Archive, Iran-Contra collection, IC04287.
Committee on Foreign Affairs Staff Report, U.S. House of Representatives, State Department and Intelligence Community Involvement in Domestic Activities Related to the Iran/Contra Affair
, Sept. 7, 1988, 24, National Security Archive, Nicaragua collection, NI02137. For background, see Virginia S. Williams, Roger Peace, and Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Central America wars, 1980s,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2018, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/central-america-wars.
Teresa Joseph, “Mediating War and Peace: Mass Media and International Conflict,” India Quarterly
, Vol. 70, No. 3 (September 2014), 226.
“The Espionage and Sedition Acts,” Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3479. For background, see Charles F. Howlett, Jeremy Kuzmarov, and Roger Peace, “United States Participation in World War One,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2018, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/ww1.
Susan Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 125. See also, John McCallum, “U.S. Censorship, Violence, and Moral Judgement in a Wartime Democracy, 1941-1945,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 41, No. 3 (2017): 543-66. The Office of War Information, notes McCallum, censored all statements that revealed the killing of German prisoners by U.S. troops as well as the effects of napalm in bombing Berlin, Hamburg, and other cities. The image of the “good war” also elides U.S. business ties with the Nazi government before the war and secret U.S. partnerships with former Nazi officials after the war (conducting covert operations against the Soviet bloc). See Jacques Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: American in the Second World War
(Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 2015; and O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change
See Horst Faas and Marianne Fulton, “The Survivor: Phan Thi Kim Phuc and the photographer Nick Ut,” http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0008/ng_intro.htm
Senator J. William Fulbright, The Pentagon Propaganda Machine
(New York: Liveright, 1970), 22, 107. On divisions in elite opinion, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky write in Manufacturing Consent
(p. xii): “The mass media are not a solid monolith on all issues. Where the powerful are in disagreement, there will be a certain diversity of tactical judgments on how to attain generally shared aims, reflected in media debate. But views that challenge fundamental premises or suggest that the observed modes of exercise of state power are based on systemic factors will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.” For critiques of the anti-Vietnam War movement, see Roger Peace, John Marciano, and Jeremy Kuzmarov, “The Vietnam War,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2017, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/vietnam-war, especially section IV.
The New York Times
began publishing excerpts of The Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. The papers offer a detailed history of the decision-making behind the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia. They were commissioned in 1967 by Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary at the time, and were written by multiple authors, including Daniel Ellsberg who later secretly copied and gave them to the New York Times
. On media and the Vietnam War, see Danial Hallin, The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); and Melvin Small, Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).
On the same day as the My Lai massacre, a different U.S. army unit, Bravo company, murdered some 90 civilians in the village of My Khe, two kilometers east of My Lai. Both atrocities were covered up by the Army task force commander overseeing operations, who wrote in his after-action report that the day’s maneuvers were “well planned, well-executed, and successful.” The My Lai massacre came to light largely because of the unflagging efforts of Ron Ridenhour, a GI who served in the 11th Infantry Brigade. After failing to convince Congressional committees and mainline newspapers to investigate, he found a willing ear in journalist Seymour Hersh who reported the massacre on November 12, 1969. The New York Times
picked up the story and published an article on November 17 entitled, “Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town.” Three days later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer
published graphic photos provided by Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. Time
magazines published articles during the next two weeks. Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam
(Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993), 275; Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam
(Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), 389; and Henry Kamm, “Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town,” New York Times
, November 17, 1969.
Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, ‘Behind Colin Powell’s Legend: Panama War’, Consortium News
, 19 Dec. 2013.
Norman Solomon, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death
(Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 119.
Craig Whitlock, “The Afghanistan Papers, A secret history of the war,” Washington Post
, December 9, 2019.
Regarding “the United States as a ‘redeemer nation,’” William Earl Weeks, writes in the Introduction of The New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations
, “Redeemer nation ideology proved critical in creating a durable American nationalism and in legitimizing American expansionism. It functioned as a lens through which Americans viewed the world, lending a messianic aspect to American foreign relations, an aspect whose importance is often underestimated. It is no exaggeration to say that the redeemer nation ideology is the philosophical foundation of American foreign relations.” The “redeemer nation” concept is also referred to Wilsonianism, or Wilsonian idealism. Whatever the name, the essential construct is a conflation of U.S. power projection with noble ideals such as freedom and democracy. The idea has taken root in the American political lexicon by habitual use of terms such as “the promotion of democracy” when referring to U.S. foreign policy goals and actions, and terms such as the “Wilsonian liberal international order” when referring to the U.S.-led world order. The reality belying these terms is that the U.S. has supported a host of authoritarian regimes with military and economic aid, and destabilized the international order by engaging in “regime change” covert and overt operations, and by undermining efforts to empower the United Nations in matters of collective security.
Robert F. Worth, “A Nation Defines Itself By Its Evil Enemies,” New York Times
, February 24, 2002.
William Blum, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy: The Truth About US Foreign Policy and Everything Else
(New York: Zed Books, 2013), 31-32.
The “realist” perspective is associated with realpolitick policies that place national “interests” above all else. Some “realist” theoreticians such as Reinhold Niebuhr sought to include “idealistic” ethical principles in national interest calculations, but policymakers have generally been satisfied with the appearance of morality, employing principles as propaganda to advance chosen policies. In the late 1940s, “realists” such Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Walter Lippmann cautioned against the crusading mentality of the Truman Doctrine, warning of “imperial overreach,” or ideologically soaked geopolitical ambitions extending beyond national capabilities. They nonetheless agreed with President Harry Truman (who, like Woodrow Wilson, framed geopolitical ambitions in idealistic terms) on the overall goal of establishing a U.S.-led world order, or hegemony. Kennan, moreover, was a Cold War hawk in coordinating covert operations in the Soviet bloc and advocating harsh measures to subdue leftist Latin American movements. Contrary to the cautious “realists” of the late 1940s, Henry Kissinger, the voice of “realism” in the 1970s, argued that it was more important to establish the “credibility” of American power through the robust exercise of force – instilling fear in adversaries and confidence in allies – than to restrain such force in fear of failure. In other words, the U.S. might lose the war in Vietnam, but the world would see that those who defy the U.S. are brutally punished. The same was true for Chile, whose citizens had the audacity to elect a socialist leader. “Realism” as a policy guide is amorphous, or more accurately, opportunistic. Kissinger instituted detente with the USSR and China in the waning days of the Vietnam War, but Zbigniew Brzezinski, the next reigning “realist,” adamantly opposed detente and actively worked to undermine it. On Kissinger, see Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long March of America’s Most Controversial Statesman
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015).
Christopher J. Fettweis, Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy
(New York: Columbia University, 2018), 109, 119. See also, Roger Peace, “Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2019, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/cold-war, especially section II.
Senator J. William Fulbright (Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States Senate), The Arrogance of Power
(New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 25, 31.
William James on “The Philippine Question” (from the Report of the New England Anti-Imperialist League, November 30, 1903), https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/19-american-empire/william-james-on-the-philippine-question-1903.
Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West
(New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906), 17; Combs, American Diplomatic History
, 54-55; and Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” quoted in George Rogers Taylor, ed., The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History
(Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1972, 3rd ed.), 3-4. Taylor notes that Turner’s essay “became the most widely known essay in American history and literally revolutionized the teaching of American history in the colleges of the United States.”
For a modern critical view, see Susan Sleeper-Smith, et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
James B. Angell, “AHA Presidential Addresses: The Inadequate Recognition of Diplomatists by Historians” (July 11, 1893, Chicago), AHA website: http://www.historians.org/info/AHA_History/jbangell.htm.
Combs, American Diplomatic History
Ulysses Simpson Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
(New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995; orig. pub. 1885), 16.
Gene M. Brack, Mexico views manifest destiny, 1821-1846: An essay on the origins of the Mexican War
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975), 8; and Glenn W. Price, Origins of the War with Mexico: The Polk-Stockton Intrigue
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967), 96-97. For a review of the historiography of the U.S.-Mexican War, see Roger Peace, “The United States-Mexican War, 1846-1848,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2016, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/US-Mexican War, Section VI.
The first substantive history of the war was written by fifteen Mexican writers and intellectuals while U.S. troops were still occupying Mexico City. Their book, Apuntes para la historia de la guerra entre México y los Estados Unidos
(Notes for the history of the war between Mexico and the United States), published in 1848, captures the essence of the war for the Mexican people in the first sentence: “To contemplate the state of degradation and ruin to which the mournful war with the United States has reduced the Republic, is painful.” What caused the war? “The insatiable ambition of the United States, favored by our weakness, caused the war,” say the writers. Ramon Alcaraz, et. al., Apuntes para la historia de la guerra entre México y los Estados Unidos
(Mexico City, 1848), 1, 4, English translation, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/apuntesparalahis00alca.
Rudyard Kipling’s enigmatic poem, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” was published in the February 1899 issue of McClure’s magazine
, the very month war broke out in the Philippines and the U.S. formally annexed the islands.
James Morton Callahan, An Introduction to American Expansion Policy
(Morgantown, W. Va., 1908), quoted in Combs, American Diplomatic History
, 88; and Combs, 84.
Scott Nearing and Joseph Freeman, Dollar Diplomacy: A Study in American Imperialism
(New York: B. W. Huebsch and the Viking Press, 1925), 195. See also, Alan McPherson, The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
J. Fred Rippy, Latin America in World Politics
(New York: F.S. Crofts & Co., 1928, 1931), 283, 287-89. Rippy’s historical reading had political overtones in the 1930s. In the Far East, Japanese leaders were justifying their imperial endeavors (the colonization of Korea, takeover of Manchuria, and creation of an exclusive sphere of influence in East Asia) in the very terms used by U.S. leaders to justify U.S. interventions in Latin America, proclaiming a “Monroe Doctrine of the Orient” in which the Japanese would establish peace and order. How could U.S. leaders condemn Japanese aggression in Asia while justifying U.S. aggression in Latin America?
Warren F. Kuehl, “Webs of Common Interests Revisited: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Historians of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History
10, no. 2 (1986), 117. Keuhl also notes, as background: “Diplomatic history appeared as a course in colleges late in the nineteenth century, but as a field of study it traces its origin to the First World War and the interwar years. Carl Russell Fish produced a textbook in 1915, followed by those of John H. Latané and Louis M. Sears in 1927 and by Samuel F. Bemis in 1936 and Thomas A. Bailey in 1940. The study of American foreign relations provided a convenient way to learn about other countries and peoples.”
Mark T. Gilderhus, “Founding Father: Samuel Flagg Bemis and the Study of U.S.-Latin American Relations” (SHAFR Presidential Address 1997), Diplomatic History
, Vol., 21, No. 1 (Winter 1997), 7, 3; and J. Fred Rippy, “Review: The Latin American Policy of the United States by Samuel Flagg Bemis,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences
, Vol. 228 (July 1943), 134.
Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). Philosopher John Dewey and journalist Walter Lippmann reflected on the trials and tribulations of democracy, which had been battered during the war by the Wilson administration’s propaganda agency (Committee on Public information), repressive laws (Espionage and Sedition acts), and alliance with reactionary groups such as the American Patriotic League. Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems
(1927), argued for greater efforts to foster public social understanding, knowledge of policies, and democratic habits, while Lippmann, in The Phantom Public
(1925), suggested that government leaders should draw on experts who would presumably speak for the public.
C. Hartley Grattan, Why We Fought
(1929). The theme of economic interests propelling the U.S. into war was also highlighted in Scott Nearing’s The Great Madness
(1917), John Kenneth Turner’s Shall It Be Again
(1922), and Charles A. Beard’s The Open Door at home: A Trial Philosophy of National Interest
H. C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry
, with Foreword by Harry Elmer Barnes (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1934).
Walter Millis, “Road to War,” Reader’s Digest, 26:161 (September 1935), 18- 124.
H. C. Peterson, Propaganda for War: The Campaign Against American Neutrality, 1914-1917
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), 326. The British had their own spate of revisionist critiques, including C. Raymond Beazley, The Road to Ruin in Europe, 1890-1914
Newton D. Baker, Why We Went to War
(New York: Harper, 1936), 157.
According to a Gallup poll in 1937, 70% of Americans believed that U.S. participation in the Great War was “a mistake.” John Milton Cooper, “The Great War and American Memory,” The Virginia Quarterly Review
79, no. 1 (2003), 81.
Thomas C. Kennedy, Charles A. Beard and American Foreign Policy
(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1975). Beard’s claim to fame as a leading progressive was secured with the publication of his 1913 study, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States
, which documented the personal financial interests of the framers of the Constitution.
On the Kellogg-Briand Pact, see Ooona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).
Walter Millis, This Is Pearl! The United States and Japan – 1941
(New York: William Morrow and Co., 1947); and Russell F. Weigley, “Walter Millis and the Conscience of the Military Historian,” Reviews in American History
16, no. 3 (1988): 500-05.
See, for example, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb
(New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
Robert Kagan, in Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), writes allegorically that “on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” (p. 3), referring to divergent tendencies toward war and peace, respectively.
The idea of U.S. global predominance was promoted by Henry Luce, publisher of Time
magazines, in an editorial titled “The American Century” published ten months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (February 17, 1941). Henry R. Luce, “The American Century,” Life
, February 17, 1941; reprinted in Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 159-171; also online: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mlassite/discussions261/luce.pdf. The “peace through strength” response did not gain ascendancy until the onset of the Cold War. Other responses in the immediate post-World War II era included the advocacy of collective security through world law (World Federalist Association), proposals for a global economic New Deal and continued friendly relations with the Soviet Union (Henry A. Wallace and the Progressive Party), calls to end nuclear weapons development and war preparations in general (Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein, and the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists), and the adoption of Gandhian methods of nonviolent social change (Bayard Rustin, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation). Pacifists, progressives, and others called for the building of stronger democratic institutions within nations and for the cultivation of critical, conscientious, and independent thinking among the citizenry as bulwarks against the rise (and worship) of authoritarian leaders.
Les K. Adler and Thomas G. Paterson, “Red Fascism: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s-1950s,” American Historical Review
, 75, No. 4 (April 1970).
Quoted in Gilderhus, “Founding Father: Samuel Flagg Bemis and the Study of U.S.-Latin American Relations,” 8-9.
Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 10th printing, 1980; first published in 1940), 829-30. For more accurate accounts of the Guatemalan overthrow, see Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala
(Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1983); and Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States 1944-1954
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).
Quoted in Bruce Cummings, “’Revising Postrevisionism,’ or, The Poverty of Theory in Diplomatic History,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 17, No. 4 (October 1993), 542.
Bradford Perkins, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy: Twenty-Five Years After,” Reviews in American History
, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Mar. 1984), 1.
William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy
(New York: Dell Publishing, 1972, second ed.), 291, 193.
Marilyn Blatt Young, “American Expansion, 1870-1900: The Far East,” in Barton J. Bernstein, ed. Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History
(New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 196, 176.
According to David S. Patterson, Kolko provided substantial evidence that American policymakers “opposed the Left everywhere and aggressively formulated policies designed simultaneously to undercut social revolutions and establish capitalist, even reactionary regimes,” first in former Axis-occupied areas, then in the Third World. David S. Patterson, “Recent Literature on Cold War Origins: An Essay Review,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History
, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Summer 1972), 321.
Thomas G. Paterson, Soviet-American Confrontation: Postwar Reconstruction and the Origins of the Cold War
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), 267, 263-64.
Lloyd C. Gardner, Imperial America: American Foreign Policy Since 1898
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1976), 2.
Combs, American Diplomatic History
George C. Herring, “A SHAFR Retrospective,” in SHAFR’s 40th Anniversary Issue, Diplomatic History
, Vol. 31, No. 3 (June 2007), 397.
See, for example, Beisner, Twelve Against Empire
; E. Berkeley Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890-1920
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970); and Daniel Schirmer, Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War
(Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing, 1972). For a comprehensive account of the anti-Vietnam War movement, see Charles DeBenedetti, assisted by Charles Chatfield, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of Vietnam Era
(Syracuse University Press, 1990).
Ronald H. Chilcote, “The Legacy of the Sixties and its Impact on Academics,” LASA Forum, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Spring 2006), 24; and Paul Doughty, “Words from the Eighth President of LASA,” in ibid., 17. A counterpoint conservative view advanced by Hal Brands in Latin America’s Cold War
(2010) places the lion’s share of the blame for oppressive policies on Latin American governments and militaries, downplaying the role of the U.S. government in supporting these entities. See William Michael Schmidli, “Tracking the Cold War in Latin America,” Reviews in American History
40, no. 2 (2012): 332-38.
Robert V. Rimini, Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars
(New York: Viking, 2001), 228. See also, F. P. Prucha, “Andrew Jackson’s Indian Policy: A Reassessment,” The Journal of American History
56, no. 3 (1969): 527-39. For an in-depth, critical examination of Indian Removal, see Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2020).
“Thoughts from SHAFR President David L. Anderson,” Passport, The Newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations
, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Dec. 2005), 4. For a short bibliography of critical scholarship on the Vietnam War, see John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
Robert Scheer, “McNamara’s Evil Lives On,” Huffington Post
, July 8, 2009, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mcnamaras-evil-lives-on_b_227522.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, January 1967), quoted in David Halberstam, “The War That Grew,” New York Times Review of Books
, April 9, 1967, http://movies2.nytimes.com/books/00/11/26/specials/schlesinger-us.html.
Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 253.
Ronald Reagan, president candidate, speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Chicago, Illinois, “Peace: Restoring the Margin of Safety,” August 18, 1980, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/sspeeches/8-18-80.
President Reagan deplored the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in a speech at the National Association of Evangelicals meeting in Orlando on March 8, 1983.
Regarding statements by U.S. officials on surviving a nuclear war, see Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush & Nuclear War
(New York: Random House, January 1982). On the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, see Lawrence S. Wittner, Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003): 130–168. For an overview of peace and justice campaigns in the 1980s, see Roger C. Peace, A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm
(Chicago: Noble Press, 1991). The number of local, state, and national groups grew from 1,300 in 1983 to 5,700 in 1985, to over 7,000 in 1986. Carl Conetta, ed., Peace Resource Book, 1988/89: A Comprehensive Guide to Issues, Groups, and Literature
(Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1988), vii.
Ian M. Harris, Larry J. Fisk, and Carol Rank, “A Portrait of University Peace Studies in North America and Western Europe at the End of the Millennium,” The International Journal of Peace Studies
, Vol, 3, No. 1 (January 1998), https://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol3_1/Harris.htm.
John Lewis Gaddis, “The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War,” Diplomatic History
7 (Summer 1983), 182.
Warren I. Cohen, Empire Without Tears: American Foreign Relations, 1921-1933
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987), 75.
John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History
(New York: Oxford, 1997), 56.
“Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America),” http://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/70. See also, Abram Chayes, “Nicaragua, the United States, and the World Court,” Columbia Law Review
, Vol. 85, No. 7 (Nov. 1985): 1445-1482.
Thomas W. Walker, ed., Reagan Versus the Sandinistas: The Undeclared War on Nicaragua
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987), xiii. Walker served as the director of the Latin American Studies program at Ohio University and led LASA delegations to Nicaragua during the 1980s. U.S. historians of Latin America, or Latin Americanists, were actively engaged in writing about the trauma of Central America in the 1980s. Critical appraisals of the Reagan administration’s policies were written by (in alphabetical order) Morris J. Blachman, John A. Booth, E. Bradford Burns, Thomas Carothers, John H. Coatsworth, Kenneth M. Coleman, Michael E. Conroy, George C. Herring, Eldon Kenworthy, Peter Kornbluh, Walter LaFeber, William M. LeoGrande, Kent Norsworthy, Gary Prevost, Stephen Rabe, William I. Robinson, Lars Schoultz, Kenneth E. Sharpe, Jack Spence, Peter H. Smith, Wayne Smith, Harry E. Vanden, Mary B. Vanderlaan, and Walker.
Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism
(Boston: South End Press, 1988), 132; and Ronald Osborn, “Noam Chomsky and the Realist Tradition,” Review of International Studies
(2009), No. 35: 351-370.
Keuhl, “Webs of Common Interests Revisited,” 118-19. One flaw in the comparison Keuhl makes is that “international” interests are not defined, leaving open the question of what value-perspective is to be taken in contrast to nationalism.
Melvyn Leffler, “Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened,” Foreign Affairs
, Vol. 75, No. 4 (July-Aug. 1996), http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/leffler.htm.
Zeiler, “The Diplomatic History Bandwagon,” 1058. See also, “A Roundtable on Melvyn P. Leffler, Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-1915
, April 2018, especially the review by Campbell Craig, https://shafr.org/sites/default/files/passport-04-2018-leffler-roundtable.pdf.
David E. Schmitz, Thank God They’re On Our Side: The United States & Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
Joan Hoff, “How the United States Sold Its Soul to Win the Cold War (And Now Cannot Develop a Coherent Post-Cold War Foreign Policy),” International Journal
56, no. 3 (2001), 378-79. See also, Edward Pessen, Losing Our Souls: The American Experience in the Cold War
(Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993).
Gilderhus, “Founding Father, Samuel Flagg Bemis and the Study of U.S.-Latin American Relations,” 12-13.
Robert Buzzanco, “Bernath Lecture: What Happened to the New Left? Toward a Radical Reading of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History
, Vol., 23, No. 4 (Fall 1999), 576, 606.
Robert Rodriguez, “Perspective on the Quincentennial: 1492 Brought Genocide; Why Celebrate?: Columbus’ ‘discovery’ launched a terrible chapter in human history, and millions still suffer the effects,” Los Angeles Times
, July 23, 1990.
David M. Fitzsimons, “Review of Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right
(New York: Hill & Wang, 1995),” H-Net Reviews, published on H-Diplo, March 1997.
“President Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress and the nation,” Washington Post
, September 20, 2001.
President George W. Bush, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/inaugural-address-13.
Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Review of James Carroll, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004),” Peace & Change
, Vol. 34, No. 3 (July 2009), 290-91.
The above Peace & Change
volume carried reviews of over 30 recent books that highlighted these various themes.
Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy
(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2018), 74.
Andrew J. Bacevich, in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), 143, 48.
Walter Hixson, The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy
(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2008), 307; Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism
(New York: Owl Books, Henry Holt, 2006), 2; Grandin, “Iraq Is Not Arabic for Nicaragua: Central America and the Rise of the New Right,“ in Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn Young, eds., The New American Empire: A 21st Century Teach-In on U.S. Foreign Policy
(New York: The New Press, 2008), 148; and Joan Hoff, A Faustian Foreign Policy: From Woodrow Wilson to George Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 10.
“Kill the Empire? (Or Not)” (interview of John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy), The New York Times Book Review
, July 25, 2004, p. 23.
Mark Atwood Lawrence, “Intelligence Matters: Why Americans should educate themselves about international affairs,” The New York Times Book Review
, June 14, 2020, p. 14. Lawrence’s rosy depiction of the U.S.-led world order was challenged two weeks earlier in a New York Times
op-ed article by the journalist Vincent Bevins, author of The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World
(2020). “Part of the reason the current order is so fragile is because so many people around the world know, indeed can physically feel in their bodies, that Washington used brutality to construct it,” wrote Bevins. “As Americans reckon with – and fret about – their country’s diminished position in the world, we need to understand that the United States is not, in fact, beloved as a beacon of freedom, democracy and human rights.”
Daniel J. Sargent, “Pax Americana: Sketches for an Undiplomatic History,” Diplomatic History
, Vol. 42, No. 3 (June 2018), 374-75.
Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America
(New York: Threshold Editions, 2015), 1, 5.
Daniel Sargent’s idea of a peaceful world order under Pax Americana follows from John Lewis Gaddis’s idea of “the long peace” following World War II in which there were no direct great power wars. In a critique of this idea, Eqbal Ahmad writes, “Those who accept the notions of peace as synonymous with international stability, of international stability as the absence of ‘great power conflict,’ and this latter alone as constituting ‘major war’ will find Professor Gaddis’s essay erudite, persuasive, and, above all, reassuring. But no one who recognizes the existence and structures of modern imperialism as a defining force in world history can be persuaded of the usefulness of these and ancillary concepts in comprehending the realities of international relations in the past four or, for that matter, forty decades.” Eqbal Ahmad, “The Cold War from the Standpoints of Its Victims” (1991), https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/eqbalahmadcoldwar.html.
Paul Thomas Chamberlin, The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace
(New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 19.
Eric Hobsbawm, On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 13.
Sneh Mahajan, “Sectional President’s Address: Imperialist Historiography: The Twenty-First Century Twist,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress
, Vol. 73 (2012), 1027, 1031, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44156303.
The idea of neutrality in history has never been fully accepted by scholars. See E. W. Strong, “On Judging History.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association
26 (1952): 43-59. Strong quotes H. C. S. Lambert: “It is a mistake to imagine that the historian must not take sides, for if it is his deliberate and carefully considered judgment that one side was right, it is his duty to say so” (47). Strong himself writes that “historians exhibit changing standpoints and perspectives from which selections are made and interpretations are cast up. This being so, relativity of normative judging is simply a concomitant of historical pluralism” (48).
Frank Ninkovitch, in The United States and Imperialism
(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), discusses with readers his uneasiness in drawing normative conclusions on the weighty issue of imperialism (pp. 6-7): “I agree with the position that imperialism was immoral because it forcefully, and oftentimes cruelly, imposed alien rule upon peoples without their consent. But I am not convinced that a tone of moral reprobation is appropriate as the dominant theme in one’s historical view of imperialism. . . . I am aware of nothing in my professional training that certifies me to pronounce with any authority on the issue of whether imperialism was, in the long run, good or evil – indeed, I am uncertain whether it even makes sense to put the issue in this way. The point is that imperialism is a many-sided phenomenon . . . In some cases, imperialism can clearly be a good thing, at least on the face of it. . . . In the case of American imperialism, my sense is that a verdict on its consequences cannot help but be less than clear cut.” There are many historians who would disagree with Ninkovich’s assertion that imperialism “can clearly be a good thing,” but the point is, many historians are reticent to render ethically-informed judgments after weighing the relevant evidence, arguing that this goes beyond their expertise. Notwithstanding conscious efforts to the contrary, historians do render judgments in various ways; in this case, by the omission of criticism of imperialism (and what of racism underlying imperialism?). Value judgments by omission are typically accomplished by viewing developments through the eyes of the powerful rather than the dominated. Far better to argue over judgments than to maintain a pretense of neutrality.
James Grossman, “History, Front and Center,” Perspectives on History
, Vol. 68, No. 6 (September 2020), 11-12.
Alexander Deconde, “SHAFR’s Birth: A Reflection,” in SHAFR’s 40th Anniversary Issue, Diplomatic History
, Vol. 31, No. 3 (June 2007), 368.
Walter LaFeber, “Some Perspectives in U.S. Foreign Relations,” in SHAFR’s 40th Anniversary Issue, Diplomatic History
Sandi E. Cooper, “The Subversive Power of Peace History,” Peace & Change
20, no. 1 (January 1995), 60-62.
Some historians of American foreign relations have argued that the “cultural turn” and transnational and “bottom-up” social history have diverted attention from the central focus on Washington decision-making and America’s role in the world. See H-Diplo Roundtable XXI-42 (May 25, 2020), Daniel Bessner and Fredrik Logevall, “Recentering the United States in the Historiography of American Foreign Relations.” Texas National Security Review
3:2 (Spring 2020), https://hdiplo.org/to/RT21-42.
Marc Trachtenberg, “The State of International History,” March 9, 2013, E-International Relations, https://www.e-ir.info/2013/03/09/the-state-of-international-history.
Roger Peace is the initiator and coordinator of this website, a diplomatic historian by training, and a former community college instructor who specialized in “U.S. in the World” courses. He is the author of “Choosing Values: Toward an Ethical Framework in the Study of History,” The History Teacher, Vol. 50, No. 2 (February 2017), A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), and A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm (Noble Press, 1991).
The author is grateful to Tom Clark, Brian D’Haeseleer, Charles Howlett, Jeremy Kuzmarov, John Marciano, Anne Meisenzahl, Elizabeth Schmidt, and Virginia Williams for their contributions as authors, co-authors, and contributors to this website, and for their advice and encouragement in the writing of this Introduction.
Cite this article:
Bibliography: Peace, Roger. “Introduction: The Fifth Estate.” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/intro.
Footnotes or endnotes: Roger Peace, “Introduction: The Fifth Estate,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/intro.