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The  article below is from 2004

Comment: The Genesis of American Foreign Policy

May 17,2004-

. . . when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going.  

-John Winthrop, Governor and leader of the Massachusetts Bay Company from his address A Modell of Christian Charity written on board the Arbella on its voyage to Boston Harbor, 1630  

The spirit of John Winthrop has cast a long shadow on American foreign policy to the present day. In modern times, President Ronald Reagan often used the allusion of building a shining white city on a hill and President George W. Bush’s zeal to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, has its roots in Winthrop’s sermon. In fact, the mix of missionary zeal and realpolitik has always been a hallmark of American foreign policy. The image of a chosen people has been a strong element in the America created by European immigrants.

The camel seldom sees his own hump and foreigners may well scoff at the missionary undertones. Every country is an organised hypocrisy to some degree or other and it’s easy to find inconsistencies. Since America became a world power more than a century ago, its idealism has had a mixed record. It has been both consumed in far-flung foreign fields of quicksand and provided the essential will to destroy the barbarism of Nazi tyranny and later to contain Soviet dictatorship. America’s ascent as a world power provided the first lesson in the gulf that can develop between idealism and reality.

In a letter dated September 12, 1821, the third President of the modern world’s first democracy Thomas Jefferson wrote to the second President John Adams:

I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance…And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them…

In 1823 President Monroe declared what became known as the Monroe Doctrine which in effect formally established the Americas as a sphere of influence of the United States: ‘In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted. We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgement of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.’

By the 1890’s the dreadful conditions in the Cuban camps that were set up to concentrate and control rural dwellers became an issue in the competitive press war between the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers in America. The country was divided on the question of overseas possessions and while the lameduck Harrison Administration had supported the overthrow by American settlers of the monarchy in the Hawaiian Islands, the Cleveland Administration opposed annexation. In 1897, President McKinley who had experienced the horrors of war first-hand during the Civil War, was opposed to intervention in Spanish controlled Cuba and had no ambitions to lead an American empire. However, events forced a change of course.

Budget surpluses in the 1880’s had prompted Congress to support a programme of building iron warships while the US Army which had less than 30,000 enlisted men spread across the vast landscape in dusty frontier posts, was grossly underfunded. While McKinley advocated peace with Spain, a group of young policymakers led by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt saw that a war with Spain would help to project America on the world stage.  Lord Salisbury the British Prime Minister also saw value in a more assertive America as an Anglo-Saxon counterweight against Queen Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. The Germans had already squeezed a foothold in the Far East from the crumbling Chinese empire and Germany at last matched Britain’s industrial output.

The winds of war were fanned when an American warship blew up in Havana Harbor with the loss of 260 lives in February 1898. The build up of coal gas was the likely cause of the explosion but the advocates of war had found a casus belli. By April 30th, America was at war and the United States Navy was on the brink of its first significant engagement with a foreign foe for almost three generations.  In the South China Sea it was approaching May Day 1898, and clouds blacked out the moon as streaks of lightning twinkled silently on the distant horizon.  In the darkness, the ships of the Asiatic Squadron broke the stillness of the night as they steered into single column formation in readiness for hostile action.  The stakes were high and the tense crews were faced with only two possible outcomes; a national humiliation or a victory that would mark the emergence of America as a world power.

America had returned to the Far East nearly a half-century after Commodore Matthew Perry had forced Shogun Japan in 1854, to open its ports to foreign trade.  The interval had witnessed the remarkable transformation of the United States into a first league economic power and it was not surprising that there was political pressure for it to project its power overseas.  With dawn breaking as bells tolled for Sunday mass within the Spanish Medieval walled city in Manila, cannon fired towards the six American ships which were moving in single column towards the decrepit Spanish fleet which was moored at the south side of Manila Bay.  By noon the Spanish ships were burning wrecks.

Commodore George Dewey facilitated the return of Emilio Aguinaldo the exiled leader of the Philippine revolutionary movement and distributed captured Spanish arms to the Filipinos who declared a republic a month later. However, the opportunity that the Island presented for a foothold in Asia and the interest of the Kaiser in purchasing them from Spain prompted the US to ignore the native revolutionary movement. The Treaty of Paris which ceded the Philippine Islands to the US, confirmed the country’s new role in the world.  The ensuing war with the Filipinos involved atrocities and mistreatment of the natives which was inconsistent with the idealism in President McKinley’s Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation. In late 1901, on the day of a memorial mass that had been organised on the island of Samar by Irish American Captain Thomas Connell for the assassinated President, local Filipinos massacred more than fifty American soldiers including Connell. The reaction in the US to General Jakob Smith’s campaign to turn Samar into a ‘howling wilderness,’ brought home to Americans the difficulty of aligning idealism with the reality in strange lands. This was an Asian quagmire which had provided a lesson for General Douglas MacArthur who was more familiar with Asia than any American politician. In the early 1960’s prior to leaving on a final trip to the Philippines, MacArthur had warned President Kennedy about the pitfalls of expanding America’s role in Vietnam. MacArthur, whose father was the first US Military Governor, was greeted by more than 1 million people in Manila in 1962. He had been sensitive to local feelings during his long association with the Philippines.

In his 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote: ‘In asserting the Monroe Doctrine, in taking such steps as we have taken in regard to Cuba, Venezuela, and Panama, and in endeavoring to circumscribe the theater of war in the Far East, and to secure the open door in China, we have acted in our own interest as well as in the interest of humanity at large. There are, however, cases in which, while our own interests are not greatly involved, strong appeal is made to our sympathies. Ordinarily it is very much wiser and more useful for us to concern ourselves with striving for our own moral and material betterment here at home than to concern ourselves with trying to better the condition of things in other nations. We have plenty of sins of our own to war against, and under ordinary circumstances we can do more for the general uplifting of humanity by striving with heart and soul to put a stop to civic corruption, to brutal lawlessness and violent race prejudices here at home than by passing resolutions and wrongdoing elsewhere. Nevertheless there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror as to make us doubt whether it is not our manifest duty to endeavor at least to show our disapproval of the deed and our sympathy with those who have suffered by it. The cases must be extreme in which such a course is justifiable. There must be no effort made to remove the mote from our brother’s eye if we refuse to remove the beam from our own. But in extreme cases action may be justifiable and proper. What form the action shall take must depend upon the circumstances of the case; that is, upon the degree of the atrocity and upon our power to remedy it. The cases in which we could interfere by force of arms as we interfered to put a stop to intolerable conditions in Cuba are necessarily very few. Yet it is not to be expected that a people like ours, which in spite of certain very obvious shortcomings, nevertheless as a whole shows by its consistent practice its belief in the principles of civil and religious liberty and of orderly freedom, a people among whom even the worst crime, like the crime of lynching, is never more than sporadic, so that individuals and not classes are molested in their fundamental rights--it is inevitable that such a nation should desire eagerly to give expression to its horror on an occasion like that of the massacre of the Jews in Kishenef, or when it witnesses such systematic and long-extended cruelty and oppression as the cruelty and oppression of which the Armenians have been the victims, and which have won for them the indignant pity of the civilized world.

Within weeks of assuming office, President Roosevelt became the first President to invite an African American as an official guest to the White House. A firestorm of protest ensued in both North and South and it took 28 years for the next such event. Roosevelt set a new course for the presidency and American foreign policy. In the aftermath of the First World War, Herbert Hoover led the American food programme in Europe that prevented mass starvation (it’s ironic of course that a decade later, his name became synonymous with misery and starvation at home) and as previously mentioned there was the debt owed for America’s action during the Second World War and its aftermath. There have also been blindspots and failures- some from the Cold War that can seem odd with the benefit of hindsight. As America now grapples with Iraq, the collision between idealism and reality continues.

- Michael Hennigan

Our Comment feature has been incorporated in the:

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