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Trevor B. McCrisken

"American exceptionalism" is a term used to describe the belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; a nation that is not only unique but also superior. Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to use the term "exceptional" to describe the United States and the American people in his classic work Democracy in America (18351840), but the idea of America as an exceptional entity can be traced back to the earliest colonial times. Jack P. Greene's analysis of a wealth of contemporary materials has established that by "the beginning of the nineteenth century the idea of America as an exceptional entity had long been an integral component in the identification of America." Many scholars of the belief in American exceptionalism argue that it forms one of the core elements of American national identity and American nationalism. Deborah Madsen, for example, contends that exceptionalism is "one of the most important concepts underlying modern theories of American cultural identity." It is a central part of the American belief system or what Benedict Anderson calls its "imagined community."

The ways in which U.S. foreign policy is made and conducted are influenced by the underlying assumptions that Americans hold about themselves and the rest of the world. Like most nations, the United States has a distinctive pattern of policymaking that is determined by unique aspects of its national culture. Each country's historical and cultural heritage, its montage of national beliefs and experienceits national identityhas an influence, whether consciously or not, upon the way it practices politics. U.S. foreign policy is driven by a variety of causal factors including strategic, economic, political, and bureaucratic interests; international and domestic pressures; the personalities and agendas of policymakers; and the actions of other nations. However, the belief in exceptionalism, since it is a core element of American national identity, has an important underlying influence on foreign policy activity. This belief is one of the main ideas that, according to Michael Hunt, has "performed for generations of Americans that essential function of giving order to their vision of the world and defining their place in it." Although such views are not "codified in formal, systemic terms," Hunt shows that the evidence for their existence and influence can be found in the "private musings" of policymakers and, more importantly, "the public rhetoric by which they have justified their actions and communicated their opinions to one another and to the nation." The belief in American exceptionalism provides an essential element of the cultural and intellectual framework for the making and conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Two main strands of exceptionalist thought have influenced U.S. foreign policy. One is that of the United States as an exemplar nation, as reflected in ideas such as the "city upon a hill," nonentangling alliances, "anti-imperialism," "isolationism," and "Fortress America." The other, often more dominant strand is that of the missionary nation, as represented by the ideas of "manifest destiny," "imperialism," "internationalism," "leader of the free world," "modernization theory," and the "new world order." Both strands have been present throughout the history of U.S. foreign relations.


The focus here is on the belief in American exceptionalism and its influence on U.S. foreign policy rather than directly addressing the question of whether U.S. foreign policy itself can be measured as exceptional. Indeed, Joseph Lepgold and Timothy McKeown have found little empirical evidence for claims that American foreign policy behavior is exceptional. Faults and blemishes riddle American history as much as that of any other nation. In foreign policy, the United States has a far from untarnished record. The colonization and expansion of the new nation were accompanied by the displacement or destruction of the indigenous population. Times of war have been plentiful, with the United States imposing its will on peoples in countries as distant as the Philippines and Vietnam, ordering the internment of large numbers of its own citizens, and committing atrocities like any other warfaring nation. Yet despite the abundance of evidence indicating that the United States is just as fallible as any other nation, there has remained throughout American history a strong belief that the United States is an exceptional nation, not only unique but also superior among nations. As Daniel Bell (1989) has argued, in the United States "there has always been a strong belief in American exceptionalism. From the start, Americans have believed that destiny has marked their country as different from othersthat the United States is, in Lincoln's marvelous phrase, 'an almost chosen nation.'"

Lepgold and McKeown observe that American leaders make "unusual internal justifications" for their actions abroad, using "idiosyncratic symbols and metaphors based on national self-image and values." It is the belief in American exceptionalism that most commonly provides these symbols and metaphors. Throughout American history, exceptionalist belief has framed the discourse of foreign policymaking by providing the underlying assumptions and terms of reference for foreign policy debate and conduct. Scholars disagree, however, over whether exceptionalism amounts to an ideology as such. Michael Hunt argues that the belief in "national greatness" is a central element of the ideology behind U.S. foreign policy. Alternatively, Siobhan McEvoy-Levy contends that exceptionalism amounts to a "paraideology" because its influence underwrites much of U.S. foreign policy but it does not have the coherence of a traditional ideology. John Dumbrell argues that American democratic liberalism is the ideology underpinning U.S. foreign policy but a belief in American exceptionalism is a central element of that ideology. It was Richard Hofstadter who observed, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one." The idea of "America" as a bastion of democracy, liberty, equality, individualism, and constitutionalism has given meaning and identity to millions of Americans throughout U.S. history (see Huntington, chapter 2). American nationalism, according to Hans Kohn, is not built on the usual elements of nationhood such as shared language, culture, common descent, or historical territory, but on "an idea which singled out the new nation among the nations of the earth." This idea was a "universal message" that American values and principles would benefit the whole of humankind. John Fousek agrees that this belief in the exceptionalism of the United States is a "core theme of American nationalism" that has been expressed most commonly in the "long-standing tradition of thought about American chosenness, mission, and destiny." Anders Stephanson has also shown how a "destinarian discourse" accompanied nineteenth-century American expansion and how it continued to shape the way Americans understood their place in the world during the twentieth century. The belief in American exceptionalism has been central to the formation of American national identity, and thus can be seen to have provided a significant part of the cultural and intellectual framework within which foreign policy has been made.


Exceptionalism is a fluid and adaptive idea that can be interpreted in different ways. Therefore it is necessary not only to identify its major assumptions but also to consider its two main strands the exemplary and the missionaryand the outcomes these different views have for foreign policy. Three main elements of exceptionalist belief have remained relatively consistent throughout American history.

First and foremost is the belief that the United States is a special nation with a special role to play in human history. Throughout American history there have been repeated claims that the United States is the promised land and its citizens are the chosen people, divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment. This notion goes back to the very beginnings of colonization. The New World was regarded as a virgin land upon which its new inhabitants could attempt to perfect society through social, political, and religious experiment. Americans have been charged by God with the task of reforming themselves and the world they are a redeemer nation. The United States is thus guided by the invisible hand of God, and American actions are the result of divine will. At the same time, though, the chosen people are exposed to temptation and corruption, most often from abroad or from subversives within. Americans are thus being constantly tested and must undergo continual self-inspection. When they do seem to fail or commit wrongdoing, it is because the forces of evil are working against them. But even in such circumstances, Americans maintain their purity because their intentions are good and they will strive on with their national experiment.

The second main element of exceptionalist belief is the New World's separateness and difference from the Old World of Europe. In Europe, Americans believed, self-interested monarchies exploited the majority of their own people, then sought imperial expansion abroad to increase their treasures, boost their reputations, and increase their power relative to other monarchies. The political systems were invariably corrupt, and pandered to the needs and desires of the traditional elites, leaving little or no means for commoners to improve their lot in life. In contrast, the New World was committed to freedom, morality, and the betterment of humankind.

The third main element of exceptionalism is the belief that the United States, unlike other great nations, is not destined to rise and fall. Americans will escape the "laws of history" which eventually cause the decay and downfall of all great nations and empires. Americans believe their nation is the leader of progress in the world. Practically everything that the United States does as a nation is regarded as pushing forward the boundaries of human achievement, be it in politics, industry, technology, sports, the arts, even warfare. Certainly there are some mistakes made, but they are few, they are learned from, and they are improved upon at the next attempt. No matter how many setbacks they may face along the way, Americans will continue forward resolutely, striving for progress toward forming an ever more perfect union. Americans think of themselves as exceptional, then, not necessarily in what they are but in what they could be. For this reason the sense of exceptionalism can never die, no matter how unexceptional the nation may appear in reality. Exceptionalism persists because of what it promises just as much as, if not more than, what it delivers. It is tied to what it means to be an American: to have faith in the values and principles that caused the nation to be founded and to continue to exist.

Advocates of both the exemplary and the missionary strands of exceptionalist belief tend to share each of these assumptions. Where they differ is in how they believe these assumptions should translate into American actions with regard to the rest of the world. All exceptionalists believe very strongly in the basic benevolence of their actions toward other nations. National motives are not perceived as being driven solely by the desire for material gain but also by a dedication to principles of liberty and freedom for all humankind. A corollary of this belief is that it is the duty of the United States to help the rest of the world follow the example of the chosen people.

Followers of the exemplary strand of American exceptionalism have mostly advocated that the United States remain somewhat aloof from the world's troubles and lead by example. Americans should strive to perfect their own society as much as possible without interfering in the affairs of others. To intervene abroad, the exemplarists argue, not only would probably harm the other nation but also most likely would undermine the American experiment at home. Far better, then, that the United States should have peaceful trade relations abroad but concentrate on building a model society for others to copy rather than forcing the benefits of American life on others.

Adherents to the missionary strand of American exceptionalism who advocate U.S. expansion or intervention in the affairs of other nations nevertheless believe that, unlike other nations, the United States is incapable of seeking dominion over other peoples in its self-interest. The American government will project its power abroad not to subjugate other nations but to help them become like the United States, to become free and democratic. These Americans seem to believe that inside every foreigner there is the potential, even the desire, to be an American. To be an American, after all, is not a birthright but the willingness to believe in a certain set of political and social principles and values. The missionary strand of American exceptionalism suggests that all the people of the world want to be like Americans, whether they realize it or not. This assumption has led Americans to find it very difficult to understand that other peoples may place different values on things and have different perceptions from Americans of how the world should be. In fact, both forms of exceptionalism hold, rather paradoxically, that the unique American political values and principles are actually universal in their nature. The United States is regarded as the embodiment of universal values based on the rights of all humankindfreedom, equality, and justice for all. It is the exceptional champion of these rights, but they are shared by all humans, whether they are Americans or not.

Certainly not all Americans believe whole-heartedly in all these aspects of American exceptionalism. Many Americans are all too aware that major problems exist within their society, many of which they may never adequately solve. They accept that in an increasingly interdependent world the United States cannot claim dominion in international affairs and that when they do intervene abroad, Americans very often undermine the very principles they claim to be defending. Scholars also disagree over the importance of the belief in American exceptionalism. The majority of the academic works on the history of U.S. foreign relations neglect or discount the influence of exceptionalist beliefs. Nevertheless, a growing body of scholarship does recognize that the belief in American exceptionalism has been a persistent and major underlying influence on U.S. foreign policy. These works recognize that despite the inherent contradictions and frequent circularity of exceptionalist thought, the "recurring rhetoric" of the belief in American exceptionalism reveals it to be what Michael Kammen has called "a cultural reality and potent force." The belief in American exceptionalism should not be dismissed as "mere rhetoric," but acknowledged as an important and influential idea that contributes to the framework of discourse in which "policymakers deal with specific issues and in which the attentive public understands those issues." This is not to say that the belief in exceptionalism is the root cause of all foreign policy. Although the following analysis reveals the prevalence of the belief in foreign policy discourse, it should be remembered that at every turn policy was shaped and driven by more tangible determinants such as the preservation of national security, the demand for overseas markets, or, indeed, the personal ambitions of policymakers. As Anders Stephanson makes clear in his study of manifest destiny, the destinarian discourse he identifies did not "cause" policy as such. It was, however, "of signal importance in the way the United States came to understand itself in the world and still does." The same is true about the broader idea of American exceptionalismit is not "a mere rationalization" but often appears "in the guise of common sense."


The idea of America as an exceptional entity dates back to colonial times. Its roots can be found in the thought of Puritan settlers who regarded the North American continent as a promised land where a new Canaan could be built as a model for the rest of the world. The earliest expression of this belief that continues to live on in American public memory comes from John Winthrop, a Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Winthrop delivered a lay sermon aboard the Arbella, during its passage to New England in 1630, in which he declared that his fellow settlers "must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us." Winthrop's words were circulated in manuscript form and have since become one of the main formative texts of American self-identity and meaning. Inherent in this notion of the city on a hill is the belief that the American colonists, and those who have followed them, were uniquely blessed by God to pursue His work on Earth and to establish a society that would provide this beacon for the betterment of all humankind.

American exceptionalism, however, has not only religious but also secular roots. The American Revolution and the formative years of the new Republic reinforced the idea that the United States was a chosen nation which would be an experiment in human society. In his influential revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine argued that it was America's separateness and difference from the Old World that demanded its independence. Paine saw America as a special land where humankind could "begin the world over again" by establishing a political society built on new, progressive ideas. The framers of the Constitution built on this idea in 1787. Theirs was to be an ambitious political experiment. The United States would be a society based on a republican system of government ensuring the preservation of certain individual rights. Although they were relatively pessimistic about its chances, the framers' greatest hope was that the constitutional framework they had created would allow the United States to develop over time into the most perfect republican society in the world. The geographic isolation of the American continent from Europe seemed to offer hope that the United States could protect itself from falling prey to the degenerative nature of the Old World. As Thomas Jefferson observed in his First Inaugural Address (March 1801), the United States was "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of others." Jefferson and others did not suggest that Americans would be immune from temptation, but they did indicate that, with eternal vigilance, the United States could be prevented from succumbing to the same vices that had destroyed other great nations.

Providential and republican ideology thus combined to firmly entrench the idea of exceptionalism at the center of American national identity. In these early forms it was initially the exemplar strand of exceptionalism that clearly dominated. The United States would provide a model of freedom, liberty, and democracy from which the rest of the world could learn. It would be an example, a beacon of lighta city on a hill. In early U.S. foreign policy, the notion of the United States as a separate, aloof nation was also dominant, but would come to be challenged by a growing missionary spirit as the Republic became stronger and more successful.


In the earliest years of the Republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson called upon Americans to actively seek to preserve their nation's unique position of aloofness from the world's ills. In his Farewell Address of 1796, Washington warned against "permanent alliances," while Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address (March 1801), advised that Americans should avoid "entangling alliances." Such pronouncements laid the foundations for a foreign policy characterized by high levels of unilateralism and so-called isolationism. Jefferson nevertheless presided over the first major expansion of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and contributed to the notion that a republic needed to grow in order to remain healthy with his view of the United States as an "empire for liberty."

President James Monroe further emphasized the difference between American and European intentions in foreign affairs on 2 December 1823, in what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe declared the Western Hemisphere closed to European colonization, warned against European interference in the affairs of the Americas, and signaled the intention of the United States to be the region's dominant power. Although the Monroe Doctrine was based largely on strategic interest, it was couched in terms consistent with the belief in exceptionalism. Monroe stressed that the United States held nothing but goodwill toward the world's nations and emphasized that the U.S. policy of noninterference in European affairs marked it apart from the imperialistic nations of the Old World. As Monroe's Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had stated famously on 4 July 1821, the United States "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Adams was expressing another crucial element of the conviction that the United States would avoid repeating the faults of the Old World. The United States is deemed exceptional because it is believed to be incapable of seeking dominion over others in its own self-interest. It would, then, avoid the temptations that had caused all great nations to seek expansion of their power by conquering and subjugating other peoples. If the United States did intervene abroad, it would be for the good of others, in the name of higher principles. As Adams insisted, America's "glory is not dominion, but liberty."

This belief in the basic benevolence of all U.S. actions abroad was further emphasized by President James K. Polk in his reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine on 2 December 1845. He emphasized that the United States had taken upon itself the responsibility not only for its own freedom and security but also for that of all the nations in the Western Hemisphere. According to Polk, the United States did not pursue wars of conquest, but it would do whatever necessary to defend the independence of the Americas. It would not tolerate the interference of a self-interested imperial power in its region yet, paradoxically, it considered its own interference in a neighbor's affairs as being to the benefit of the neighbor. Such a policy was, of course, the declaration of an ambitious state seeking hemispheric dominance. But subsumed within the doctrine was an assumption that American intervention would not amount to self-interested foreign interference. According to the tradition of exceptionalism, the United States is incapable of doing ill to others, and therefore the nature of its interference in the Americas would be inherently more benign than that of any other foreign power. Polk stretched the credibility of such claims with the war against Mexico in 1846. In his public rhetoric, he justified his ambitions for the acquisition of new land and the provocative nature of his actions toward Mexico by couching the conflict in terms that were consistent with his pronouncements on the exceptional nature of U.S. foreign relations, and cast the United States as the innocent party. Indeed, a new phrase had entered the American vocabulary that helped explain westward expansion as an integral part of American exceptionalism.


The war with Mexico and the annexations of Mexican territory that followed were believed by most Americans to be the result of their "manifest destiny." The term is generally attributed to John L. O'Sullivan, a Democratic newspaper editor from New York. O'Sullivan's conception of manifest destiny came to national attention through an editorial in the New York Morning News on 27 December 1845, which claimed the right of the United States to Oregon territory disputed by the British: "And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of Liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."

In his classic book Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History (1935), Albert K. Weinberg defines manifest destiny as being "in essence the doctrine that one nation has a preeminent social worth, a distinctively lofty mission, and consequently, unique rights in the application of moral principles." He relates how the idea soon became "a firmly established article of the national creed." The idea of manifest destiny is one of the clearest expressions of the belief in the exceptional nature of the United States. Territorial expansion was justified by Americans because they believed theirs was a special nation chosen by Providence to spread its virtues far and wide. As Weinberg has shown, nineteenth-century Americans laid claim to new land using a variety of justifications subsumed under the idea of manifest destiny. Americans believed they had a natural right to expand, and that territorial propinquity determined that they must spread across adjacent lands in North America. American expansion was also thought to be divinely blessed because it would cause the extension of democracy and freedom. Americans argued further that they should expand because they would use the land in ways more beneficial to and desirable for the progress of humankind than could its often sparsely distributed existing inhabitants.

The Mexican War saw a further element of manifest destiny emerge that became a central aspect of the belief in the exceptional nature of American interaction with other nations. Most Americans found moral vindication for the war in what Weinberg characterizes as "the conception of a religious duty to regenerate the unfortunate people of the enemy country by bringing them into the life-giving shrine of American democracy." The Mexican War seemed to confirm the belief among Americans that if the United States did involve itself in the affairs of other peoples, it was not in order to subjugate them but to help them realize their right to the same liberties and freedoms for which Americans had fought in the War of Independence. Countless Mexicans and Native Americans may have perceived events rather differently, but that was of little concern to the exceptional vanguards of civilization and progress.

By the mid-nineteenth century, then, with westward expansion justified by manifest destiny, the missionary strand of exceptionalism was becoming the dominant form. At the end of the nineteenth century, with historian Frederick Jackson Turner having declared the frontier closed, Americans undertook an overseas intervention which is generally regarded as the event that signaled the arrival of the United States as a world power. The highly popular Spanish-American War of 1898 was supposedly fought to secure basic rights of freedom for the oppressed peoples in Cuba and other Spanish colonies. Yet the war gave way to a conflict in the Philippines that left blood on American hands and ignited a nationwide debate over whether the United States was living up to its principles as an exceptional nation or whether it would assume an empire in the tradition of the Old World powers.


The Spanish-American War was described by Secretary of State John Hay as "a splendid little war; begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave." When the war began, little thought was given, at least publicly, to the possibility of an American empire. Yet no sooner had American forces begun to win victories over the Spanish than calls for annexations became widespread. The Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war on 10 December 1898, recognized eventual Cuban independence, but provided for the cession to the United States of Spain's other colonies in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. What ensued was a protracted and bloody struggle for control of the Philippines that caused many Americans, known as the "anti-imperialists," to openly question the annexation policy.

The great debate over American overseas expansion saw the two main strands of exceptionalist belief come into direct conflict with one another. Americans on both sides of the imperialism debate utilized arguments based on their beliefs about the exceptional nature of the United States. They did so even when they recognized what they regarded as legitimate economic, strategic, political, racial, or constitutional reasons for or against the annexation of overseas territories.

The commercial and strategic advantages of annexation provided the rationale for most expansionists. Yet many expansionists also expressed their conviction that annexation was a morally acceptable policy because it was the duty of the United States, as God's emissary, to extend freedom and democracy whenever possible. It was their divine destiny that called the Americans to free Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from the grip of Old World imperialism. They believed it was the special duty of the United States to help those people overcome oppression and guide them toward the light of the principles of liberty and freedom. The expansionists frequently argued that America was not simply imposing its own brand of Old World imperialism. Rather, they argued, it was adopting these childlike nations so they could be nurtured to maturity and statehood. In time, once they were ready, these nations could choose for themselves whether to be independent or join the Union. The imperialists, drawing upon the tradition of manifest destiny, were strong believers in and advocates of the missionary strand of American exceptionalism.

The anti-imperialists, on the other hand, had a different view of the special American role in the world that reflected the exemplar strand of exceptionalism. They were more concerned that, having ousted the Spanish, the United States should leave the liberated states to determine their own destinies, in keeping with the American dedication to the idea that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. The anti-imperialists emphasized the aspects of exceptionalism that regard the United States as being above the meddling immorality of Old World imperialists. They argued that the United States is special because it does not involve itself in the affairs of others, particularly not a nation on the far side of the Pacific Ocean that could hardly be considered within the U.S. geographic sphere of influence. As Charles Eliot Norton made clear, he and his fellow anti-imperialists believed that the transformation of the United States into an imperial power "sounded the close of the America exceptionally blessed among the nations." The anti-imperialists aimed to preserve the exceptionalist nature of the U.S. by preventing Americans from seeking dominion over other peoples in the way that other world powers did. As well as moral arguments, they also gave political, economic, constitutional, diplomatic, racial, and historical reasons for their opposition to annexations. But although their individual opposition varied, the essence of their protest was that they feared the United States was acting in a manner inconsistent with the principles laid down by the Founders. Thus both imperialists and anti-imperialists believed they were arguing for conduct consistent with the idea that the United States was an exceptional nation with a special role to play in human history. They both agreed that the U.S. was different fromindeed, better thanother nations; where they disagreed was on the precise nature of that exceptionalism.


The anti-imperialists failed to raise widespread public opposition to the McKinley administration's annexation policy. They could not convince the American public that the policy was contrary to American principles, and consequently the Philippine insurrection was defeated, and Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were annexed. Despite their inability to prevent the annexations and the suppression of the Philippine insurrection, the anti-imperialists were a useful check against the annexationist fever and contributed to the return to the more usual American sentiment of anticolonialism. While the anti-imperialist movement quickly faded after the failed presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in 1900, so did the desire for American imperialism. While European powers were partitioning China, the United States called for an open door trade policy and the protection of China's territorial and political independence.

That the American desire for overseas possessions had subsided appeared to be confirmed on 6 December 1904 by one of expansion's greatest advocates. President Theodore Roosevelt reaffirmed the belief that Americans did not seek imperial dominion over other nations. In a speech adding a further corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, he proclaimed: "It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such that are for their welfare." Roosevelt made clear that he believed the United States had nothing but benign intentions with regard to foreign relations. However, he did stress that the United States felt an obligation to help protect the freedom of peoples in the Americas not only, as Monroe had declared, in the face of foreign aggression but also if their citizens faced internal threats to their freedom.

In his speech, Roosevelt effectively pulled together the two main strands of exceptionalist belief. As a rule, he argued, the United States should stay out of the affairs of other nations and concentrate on forging a more perfect union in the spirit of the Founders, thus providing an ever more appropriate example for the rest of the world to follow. However, when extreme circumstances demanded it, the United States, as the chosen nation, had the "manifest duty" to protect the rights that it promoted if their survival was threatened abroad. Roosevelt's reasoning would help define foreign policy discourse for many years to come, with the tension between these two elements of exceptionalism often at the center of debate.


In many ways, Woodrow Wilson personified the belief in American exceptionalism. As Robert E. Osgood argues: "Wilson's national altruism was an integral part of his temperament and his philosophy of life, inseparable from his personality." Wilson's idealism was firmly grounded in the belief that the United States was a nation set apart by its values and principles from the rest of the world. He believed strongly that the "force of America is the force of moral principle" and that the "idea of America is to serve humanity." Long before he became president, Wilson wrote of his conviction that the United States had a "plain destiny [to] serve [rather than] subdue the world." Later, as president, he would contend that this destiny to serve was the only possible motivation for American actions in the world. Wilson held that "morality not expediency" must be the guiding principle of all American policy. He applied this principle to the use of American military force. As Frederick Calhoun argues, Wilson "showed no aversion to fighting if the end justified the means." As Wilson stated, he believed that while other nations used force "for the oppression of mankind and their own aggrandizement," the United States would use force only "for the elevation of the spirit of the human race."

Wilson declared that "the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest." Nevertheless, he frequently used military intervention in efforts to help other peoples become, in his opinion, more democratic and orderly. Wilson sent American troops into Mexico twice, to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, as well as maintaining the military "protection" of Nicaragua. He also intervened militarily twice in the Russian civil war. Wilson best expressed his attitude toward such interventions in 1914: "They say the Mexicans are not fitted for self-government and to this I reply that, when properly directed, there is no people not fitted for self-government." Wilson was a clear advocate of the missionary strand of American exceptionalism.

When Wilson finally made the decision to enter World War I in April 1917, he justified his action in highly idealistic terms that enabled the American people to come to regard the war as a crusade. Most famously, the determination to "make the world safe for democracy" was proclaimed by President Wilson as he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. The United States, in keeping with its traditions, was joining the hostilities according to Wilson with nothing but the most benign intentions and a sense of a higher purpose. Portraying involvement in the conflict as a just cause in terms consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism was a direct and deliberate appeal to the public and a way to help silence opposition. It was also the only way that Wilson could assuage his own doubts about American involvement in the war. The rhetoric that accompanied intervention made it clear that the United States, in keeping with its strongest principles, was taking a stand against autocratic tyranny, much as it had against the British in the American Revolution and against the Spanish over Cuba. Wilson argued that a peaceful and harmonious postwar international order based on the principle of universal freedom and democracy, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, could not be established while autocratic imperialism sought dominance in Europe. Although legitimate political, economic, and strategic justifications for intervention existed, American involvement in World War I was thus justified and conducted in terms consistent with the missionary strand of the belief in American exceptionalism.


The tradition of nonentanglement with the affairs of Europe and other countries found a new name in the interwar years: isolationism. The U.S. Senate rejected President Wilson's vision of an international organization, the League of Nations, committed to maintaining world peace through arbitration of conflict and mutual respect of the independence and territorial integrity of all member states. Isolationists believed the United States should not be under obligation to any other nation. As Jefferson, Washington, and others had observed, the United States was uniquely blessed with geographic isolation from the degeneracy of the Old World. With friendly, unthreatening neighbors at its northern and southern borders and vast oceans to the east and west, the United States had little to fear from foreign attack. Why should it jeopardize this exceptional degree of peace and security by involving itself with the affairs of others? Wilson's successor, President Warren G. Harding, made clear in his Inaugural Address (March 1921) that "Confident of our ability to work out our own destiny, and jealously guarding our right to do so, we seek no part in directing the destinies of the Old World. We do not mean to be entangled."

Harding and others did not believe that the United States should have no contact whatsoever with the outside world, but that it should remain aloof from the petty squabbles and adversarial alliances common in Europe while maintaining its traditional interests within its own hemisphere. It would seek to return to the role of having nothing but peaceful relations with others and to present an exemplary nation to which the rest of the world could aspire. The isolationists used language and arguments that were consistent with the exemplar strand of the belief in American exceptionalism.

The two strands of exceptionalism, however, again came into conflict during the interwar period. A major public debate took place between the isolationists and the "internationalists" who believed the United States had a duty to intervene in world affairs. When Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as expected, declared U.S. neutrality. The isolationist impulse found enough popular approval to cause the Roosevelt administration to seek ways of assisting Britain and France short of intervening directly in the war. But this final popular attachment to isolationism was shattered by the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and other American bases in the Pacific on 7 December 1941. The reality of a devastating military strike on American territory silenced isolationist claims. The threat posed by Germany and Japan was obvious enough to enable the public to base their support for joining the war on political and strategic reasoning, at least after Pearl Harbor. Yet Roosevelt still felt the need to employ exceptionalist rhetoric to justify American intervention. In his fireside chat to the nation following the Japanese attack, he assured the American people that "When we resort to force, as now we must, we are determined that this force shall be directed toward ultimate good as well as against immediate evil. We Americans are not destroyerswe are builders."

In January 1942, Roosevelt declared that American victory in the war would be a "victory for freedom." He made clear that a central U.S. war objective was to establish and secure "freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear everywhere in the world." The "Four Freedoms" rooted the war effort in one of the central ideas of American political culture. The contrast between freedom and fascism was a central metaphor in American public discourse and official rhetoric throughout the war. Even before the United States entered the war, the Atlantic Charter (August 1941) had indicated that Roosevelt believed the United States must assume global responsibilities after Germany and Japan were defeated. To win the war would not be enough. An allied victory must lead to lasting peace and security in the world based upon universal values and principles traditionally espoused by Americans. To lead such a future was an American responsibility and duty that would not only promote U.S. interests but also those of all humankind. Roosevelt acknowledged that American power in itself brought responsibility, but he also invoked the providential idea that it was God's will. In his final inaugural address (20 January 1945), he claimed that God "has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world."

No matter how convincing the strategic or other tangible reasons for U.S. intervention in World War II, Roosevelt, like presidents before him, couched his justifications in terms consistent with the belief in the exceptional nature of the United States. That he did so when American security was so clearly threatened is substantial evidence that exceptionalism frames the discourse of U.S. foreign policymaking.


The allied victory in World War II seemed to confirm beyond doubt for Americans that the United States was an exceptional nation with a special role to play in human history. Even before the United States entered the war, Henry Luce, the influential publisher of Life magazine, wrote an essay (17 February 1941) in which he declared that the twentieth century should be considered "the American Century." Luce argued that the United States must "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence [with] a passionate devotion to great American ideals." By 1945, Luce's vision seemed correct. The United States not only stood victorious but also was the strongest nation in the world militarily and economically. But rather than retreat to the role of exemplar, it remained engaged in world affairs in the postwar years to a greater extent than ever before.

The United States pursued a foreign policy of activist internationalism after World War II as it replaced one global enemy with another. Soviet communism and its containment soon became the focus of U.S. foreign policy as more than forty years of Cold War began. Although strategic, economic and political interests were its central determinants, U.S. Cold War foreign policy and the broad public consensus that supported it were underpinned by an ideology of what John Fousek identifies as "American nationalist globalism" that was rooted in the missionary strand of the belief in American exceptionalism. Anders Stephanson agrees that the "operative framework" of Cold War policy was "the story of American exceptionalism, with its missionary implications."

President Harry S. Truman has been described as "a staunch exponent of American exceptionalism" who frequently referred to the United States as "the greatest nation that the sun ever shone upon." For Truman, the victory in World War II demonstrated American greatness, but it also placed on the United States the responsibility of ensuring peace and freedom in the postwar world. Successive presidents and other public officials and opinion leaders persistently portrayed the Cold War in stark, Manichean terms as a battle between good and evil. The United States was "the leader of the free world" that must prevail and save humanity from the "evils" of communism. Truman provided the guiding principles for American Cold War policy during an address to a joint session of the Congress on 12 March 1947 which became famous for containing the socalled Truman Doctrine. It was the duty of the United States, he contended, to do whatever was necessary to protect the rights of free, democratic nations around the world. In keeping with its traditions, the president claimed, America did not seek dominion over those nations in exchange for their freedom. Truman assured the Congress that "I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way." The task facing the United States was a critical one, he declared, if the values and principles that it held so dear were to survive the challenge of communism and truly enable the world to be led out of darkness: "The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the worldand we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own Nation."

Following World War II, President Truman believed that merely to provide an example for the rest of the world to follow would no longer be enough. He was arguing that the United States, as the chosen nation, must take up the gauntlet and defend the rights of free peoples everywhere against what Americans regarded as totalitarian aggression and subversion. The Cold War ethos was, then, firmly grounded in the missionary strand of American exceptionalism. The Truman Doctrine helped define the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union and its allies that was employed by successive U.S. administrations during the cold war. Each of Truman's successors also utilized the language and ideas of American exceptionalism to reinforce the nature of the battle with communism.

Yet it was not only in presidential public rhetoric that the Cold War was defined and discussed in terms of ideas about American destiny, duty and exceptionalism. For example, George Kennan, the original architect of the containment policy, ended his influential article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in the journal Foreign Affairs (July 1947) by arguing: "The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation." He claimed that the "thoughtful observer" would not object to the Cold War but would "rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear." Kennan, who was often critical of moralism in foreign policy, had nonetheless used the traditional language of exceptionalism to advocate his strategy for containing Soviet communism.

During the Cold War, as Michael Hunt has observed, the private communications of policymakers and even secret national security documents were frequently "couched in the stark and sweeping terms usually reserved for crusades." For example, the authors of the secret National Security Council Paper Number 68 (NSC 68), the document that defined the course of U.S. Cold War policy in 1950, made clear that "Our position as the center of power in the free world places a heavy responsibility upon the United States for leadership." They described the Cold War as "a basic conflict between the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin." It was "imperative" that the forces of "freedom" prevail, so the United States must, therefore, build up its political, economic, and military strength. This document was designed only for the eyes of other policymakers yet it was built around the idea of free world leadership that, as Fousek argues, "became the controlling metaphor in U.S. foreign policy discourse throughout the postwar period."

Many Cold War policies reflected exceptionalist assumptions about the American role in the world. The Marshall Plan (1947) for the economic reconstruction of postwar Western Europe was designed to revive European economies using not only American money but also practices and principles. The United States, in the tradition of the redeemer nation, was fulfilling its responsibility of leadership through a program that not only provided benefits for itself but also for the peoples of war-torn Europe. Similarly, modernization theory provided the rationale for much U.S. Cold War policy toward the developing world, particularly during the Kennedy administration. Modernization theorists believed that all societies pass through sequential stages of progress from "traditional" to "modern" and that the West, and in particular the United States, was the "common endpoint" to which all peoples must irresistibly move. Significantly, these influential social scientists also argued that the United States could help underdeveloped countries along the way from being stagnant, traditional societies to active, modern onesa transition which would not only bring advantages to the peoples of those societies but also to the United States. What made this theory so appealing, according to Michael Latham, was that it gave an "objective" justification for U.S. intervention in other nation's affairs; it provided a useful weapon in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union; and it also fit with American values and traditions, in particular the notion that the United States is an exceptional nation with a mission and duty to be the engine of human progress. As Latham observes "modernization reinforced the connections between strategic concerns and assumptions about America's role as a moral, benevolent world leader." Modernization theory shaped the formation, influenced the major practices, and informed the public presentations of so-called "nation building" programs such as the Alliance for Progress with Latin America, the Peace Corps, and the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam. Each program was designed to exemplify the altruistic, benevolent impulses of the United States while also being advocated as an objective, scientifically proven method for aiding developing nations. In the early 1960s, Latham contends, the strength and influence of modernization as an ideology ensured the "continuing power of the widespread belief that America was both called to and capable of remaking the rest of the world."

Not all Americans, however, accepted uncritically the tenets of the Cold War consensus. African Americans in particular focused on the apparent contradiction of the U.S. demanding freedom and democracy throughout the world when such rights were still widely denied to large numbers of its own citizens at home. The civil rights movement used claims of America's leadership of the free world to argue that racial equality must also be achieved in the United States. Such demands contributed to the many advancements made in race relations during the 1950s and 1960s. On the whole, though, raising objections to the Cold War consensus was difficult, even dangerous, particularly during the earlier years of the Cold War, not least because foreign policy dissent was frequently equated with "fundamental disloyalty to the nation and its values."

By the late 1960s, however, much of the Cold War consensus had begun to break down and large numbers of Americans were questioning the direction of U.S. foreign policy, particularly toward Vietnam. The intervention in Vietnam had been conceived in terms consistent with the belief that the United States was the leader of the free world with a duty to contain communism and protect "free peoples" from aggression. But the war's conduct and the resultant defeat of American objectives would raise serious doubts about both the Cold War consensus and the exceptional nature of the United States.


In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, the sociologist Daniel Bell declared "The End of American Exceptionalism." He argued that the "American Century foundered on the shoals of Vietnam." Bell concluded: "Today, the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation's future." The chastening experience of Vietnam had made Americans realize that "We are a nation like all other nations."

Americans invariably refer to the Vietnam War as a tragedy or a national trauma. Vietnam divided opinion in the country as no other event had since the Civil War. It contributed to the breakdown in the Cold War foreign policy consensus. It diverted resources from domestic reform programs and caused high levels of inflation and national debt. It created an atmosphere of distrust and even hostility between the public and the government. The United States had failed to achieve its objectives in Vietnam. For the first time in the nation's history, the United States had lost a war. Americans could not help but feel that all the lives and resources expended in Vietnam had been wasted. The United States was supposed to be an exceptional nation, above the corrupt immorality of the rest of the world. Yet in Vietnam its leaders had conducted a war whose legitimacy was questionable and whose objectives were often unclear and increasingly unattainable. The nation's leaders were accused of employing inhumane forms of warfare and of persistently lying to the American people about how the war was progressing and what was being done to bring about a victory. This sense that the American people could no longer trust their leaders was further compounded by the events and revelations surrounding the Watergate affair. The United States seemed to have shown itself to be just as fallible and unexceptional as any other nation in history. The experience of Vietnam raised serious doubts among Americans about the traditional belief that the United States is an exceptional nation.

Yet there was evidence to suggest that the idea of the United States as an exceptional nation would survive the defeat in Vietnam. As in previous times of domestic disagreement over foreign policy content and direction, advocates on both sides of the Vietnam issue utilized the rhetoric of exceptionalism in their arguments. President Johnson and others used the language of exceptionalism to justify American intervention. Meanwhile, the opposition of many of the war's protesters stemmed from a belief that the United States was conducting itself in ways that were inconsistent with the values and principles upon which the nation was founded. That did not necessarily mean that those opponents rejected such values. On the contrary, many believed they must oppose the war in order for those values to be reaffirmed. Like the anti-imperialists of 1898, those who opposed the Vietnam War often did so in terms that were consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism. Although the belief in exceptionalism was certainly shaken by the events surrounding Vietnam, the continued use of its rhetoric during the war indicated that the belief would survive this latest "trauma" or "time of trial" in American history.


The experience of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the other "traumas" of the 1960s and early 1970s caused many Americans to doubt or even cease to believe that their nation's actions were consistent with the values and principles upon which their society was supposed to function. Following Vietnam, Americans suffered what was labeled a "crisis of confidence" concerning the future of their nation and its purpose in the world. But the belief in American exceptionalism was not destroyed by the experiences of Vietnam and Watergate. Indeed, each post-Vietnam president consistently attempted to bolster American self-confidence and revive the perceived moral legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy, usually by rhetorically justifying actions in terms consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism.

Jimmy Carter's self-proclaimed objective was to restore the "moral compass" to the making of U.S. foreign policy. He attempted to follow a foreign policy rooted in what he perceived as the values and principles upon which the United States was founded. Carter attempted to conduct a foreign policy consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism, particularly through his human rights policy. But the record of Carter's administration shows that moral principles, even in the application of the human rights policy, were usually superseded by strategic, economic, and political interests. Despite repeated appeals to exceptionalist rhetoric, Carter failed to revive American self-confidence and, particularly during his last year in office, following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizing of American hostages in Iran, he was widely criticized for contributing to the sense that the United States was in decline.

Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, was the greatest advocate of the belief in American exceptionalism during the post-Vietnam era. Reagan imbued his public pronouncements with exceptionalist symbolism and imagery, describing the United States as "a land of hope, a light unto nations, a shining city on a hill." He was a true believer in the exceptional nature of his country. He sought to overcome the crisis of confidence in the United States by largely denying that any problems existed. Reagan insisted that the United States was the greatest nation on earth and that so long as Americans maintained that belief, they would be able to overcome any crises they faced. In foreign policy, he took a tough rhetorical stance against the Soviet Union, which in stark exceptionalist terms he condemned as the "evil empire." He also conducted a massive arms buildup, and demonstrated a willingness to employ force, all in an attempt to overcome the perception of weakness that had characterized Carter's presidency.

Reagan succeeded in bolstering American self-confidence, but his claims that the United States had renewed its strength and overcome the limits imposed by Vietnam were largely illusory. Despite standing tall rhetorically, the president was still reluctant to employ the full power of the United States to back up his strong words. For all the posturing of his foreign policy rhetoric, the Reagan administration employed U.S. military force only twice, and then in extremely low-risk, limited operations against Grenada (1983) and Libya (1986). The only other major deployment of armed forces was as part of the ill-fated peace-keeping operation in Lebanon (19821984). Otherwise the administration was prepared to use force only by proxy in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan was far from the overtly activist foreign policy president that his image would suggest. He did couch all his foreign policy in terms of the missionary strand of American exceptionalism but, despite his insistence that all his actions were taken in keeping with the values and principles on which the United States was founded, policies such as the covert war in Nicaragua and his exchange of arms for hostages with Iran indicated that the reality of Reagan's foreign policy did not live up to the claims of his exceptionalist rhetoric.

George H. W. Bush admitted to having a problem with what he called the "vision thing," but, like his predecessors, utilized the language of American exceptionalism in his foreign policy. Following the end of the Cold War (19891990), Bush advocated a "new world order" based on global cooperation and the rule of law rather than force. The new world order was Bush's answer to the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world. It was a vision of how the world's nations could strive collectively to achieve, and then maintain, international stability. Significantly, though, Bush maintained that world order was possible only with the leadership, guidance, and protection of the United Statesit would continue its tradition as a redeemer nation. For all his talk of universalism, Bush's new world order was distinctly an American idea which assumed that traditional American values and principles had universal applicability. Bush's vision also ensured freedom of action for the United States. The United States would not be subservient to the collective will of the United Nations, but would define and follow its own priorities, preferably withbut if necessary, withoutthe support of the international community. The new world order was in fact a clear expression of exceptionalist thinking.

Bill Clinton, too, couched his foreign policy in terms of American exceptionalism. He repeatedly identified the United States as "the world's only indispensable nation." Clinton made "democratic enlargement" one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy. The United States would actively support and promote the spread of democracy and free market economies throughout the world. This policy, like so many before it, was underpinned by the idea that unique American values, principles and practices had universal applications.


Throughout the post-Vietnam era, both the main strands of exceptionalist belief have been influential on the discourse and content of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the tension between these two strands has defined many of the debates over the post-Vietnam direction of foreign affairs, particularly with regard to foreign interventions and the use of force. The United States has remained highly engaged in international affairs, but with added pressure that its conduct be exemplary and consistent with its traditional values and principles. Policymakers and public alike have sought to avoid "another Vietnam" by ensuring that foreign policy actions are conducted in keeping with the perceived lessons of that conflict. The defeat of U.S. objectives by a technologically inferior enemy in Vietnam indicated that there were limits to American power. The nature and extent of these limits, however, continues to be a major source of debate, and has come to dominate discussions over foreign policy in each post-Vietnam administration. The term "Vietnam syndrome" became widely used to describe the collective lessons and legacies of the war, particularly in the political-military realm. Although there is no nationwide consensus on the lessons of the Vietnam War, a pattern has developed in policymaking that has remained relatively consistent across post-Vietnam administrations, especially in the threat and use of force. The Vietnam syndrome, in its political-military sense, amounts to a set of criteria that should be met if the United States is to commit troops to combat. These criteria must be satisfied if public support for military intervention is to be sustained. Presidents feel the need to maintain public support for their foreign policy largely because this grants it the moral legitimacy that became so lacking in Vietnam. To avoid another Vietnam, policymakers have therefore followed the central criteria of the Vietnam syndrome: that the United States should not employ force in an international conflict unless just cause can be demonstrated, the objectives are compelling and attainable, and sufficient force is employed to assure a swift victory with a minimum of casualties.

These conditions for the use of force form the content of the Vietnam syndrome and have become increasingly institutionalized with each successive administration. They have been codified in the Weinberger Doctrine, proposed by Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in November 1984, and the Powell Doctrine espoused by Colin Powell, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administration of George H. W. Bush and secretary of state under George W. Bush. Even though, as Powell himself has argued, administration officials do not formally go down a list checking off the specific conditions of the Vietnam syndrome, it is clear from public and archival accounts of the decision-making process that deliberate steps are taken to ensure these conditions are met before use of force is authorized. The planning and conduct of all major uses of force since the Vietnam War have been influenced directly by the Vietnam syndrome. Even the Gulf War, which George H. W. Bush claimed "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," demonstrates how strongly the syndrome's influence persists. The planning and conduct of the Gulf War, with its emphasis on an air war and in particular the decision not to pursue the war to Baghdad once the objective of liberating Kuwait had been achieved, was carefully designed to comply with all of the Vietnam syndrome's central tenets: use force only as a last resort in the pursuit of what can be demonstrated as a just cause with compelling objectives that can be achieved swiftly using maximum force with minimal casualties. Far from "kicking the Vietnam syndrome," the Gulf War helped to institutionalize it.

The Vietnam syndrome actually has the effect of reinforcing and perpetuating crucial elements of the belief in American exceptionalism. It is designed specifically to ensure that the United States does not commit itself to another conflict like the Vietnam War. A central purpose of the syndrome is to avoid situations in which the United States could suffer another military defeat. By following policy based on the Vietnam syndrome, U.S. policymakers can be reasonably assured of achieving victory, and thus reinforcing the exceptionalist belief that the United States is a superior nation which always succeeds in its objectives. The Vietnam syndrome also prevents the United States from undertaking military commitments involving long-term occupations of hostile foreign territory. This requirement perpetuates the exceptionalist notion that the United States does not seek the conquest and subjugation of foreign nations. Finally, and most significantly, if it follows the Vietnam syndrome, the United States will use force only in situations where Americans can perceive a just cause. Whenever a just cause is conceived by American policymakers, no matter whether its roots are economic, strategic, political, or otherwise, it will be couched in terms of American exceptionalism. By following what is perceived as a just cause, any administration will perpetuate the belief that the United States pursues only policy that is consistent with its exceptional values and principles. In this sense, the belief in exceptionalism is self-perpetuating and the Vietnam syndrome does nothing to change that situation; in fact, it reinforces it.

The Vietnam syndrome acts as a constraint on American action in world affairs. It places limits on the strength, resolve, and capabilities of a nation which Americans regard as all-powerful and superior to other nations. In this sense the power of the Vietnam syndrome in the making of American foreign policy suggests that the United States is no longer an exceptional nation but is just as limited in its actions as any other country. Yet, paradoxically, the Vietnam syndrome actually acts as a guarantor of the continued acceptance of the belief in American exceptionalism. If the Vietnam syndrome is followed, then the United States can continue to be at least perceived as an exceptional nation because it will always win its wars, it will remain committed to its tradition of not conquering foreign land for territorial expansion, and it will resort to force only in the pursuit of just causes. The nature of the Vietnam syndrome is a clear example, then, of how the belief in American exceptionalism continues to frame the discourse of U.S. foreign policy.


Americans are not unique in their belief that theirs is an exceptional nation. Many, if not all, countries have shared such national vanity at some time or another in their histories. The French mission civilisatrice, the British Empire, and the Third Reich, for example, were all accompanied by their own versions of exceptionalism. Americans are clearly not alone in holding exceptionalist beliefs. Neither are they unique in pursuing foreign policies that are informed by those cultural beliefs. In all countries policymaking is based to a certain extent on assumptions formed from unique elements of national culture.

The fact that other nations have their own forms of exceptionalism, however, does not diminish the effects that the belief in American exceptionalism has on the making of U.S. policy. As the United States remains arguably the most powerful nation in the world, it is important to recognize the consequences that the belief in American exceptionalism has on U.S. foreign policy. Political, economic, and strategic interests are the major determinants of U.S. foreign policy. But no matter what the root reasons for a foreign policy decision are, that policy is usually couched in terms consistent with American exceptionalism. Use of this rhetoric assures substantial public support for policy and has proved very effective throughout U.S. history.

This fact begs the question of whether the use of exceptionalist rhetoric is simply a manipulative tool designed to win public approval for policy. Do American policymakers formulate their desired policy, then cloak it in terms they believe will assure the greatest possible public and congressional support? Certainly officials within most U.S. administrations have acknowledged that couching policy in terms of exceptionalism would have positive effects on public opinion, but to suggest this is the only reason for such language being employed would be to ignore other evidence. Nowhere in the public or archive record, including declassified accounts of National Security Council meetings, is it even implied that once a particular course has been chosen, it will then be packaged in exceptionalist terms. In fact, exceptionalist language is not used only in public explanations of policy; it is also used by policymakers themselves in policymaking sessions behind closed doors. Presidents and their foreign policy advisers frequently use arguments couched in exceptionalist language during private meetings and in personal memoranda. They do so even when perfectly good practical arguments for policy options exist, and they often couch even strategic, economic, or political justifications in exceptionalist terms. It appears to be automatic for American public officials to conceive their policies in terms that represent some notion of the exceptional nature of the United States. They do so not simply because it will be politically advantageous but also because those terms form a natural part of the language they use to understand the world around them. American exceptionalism exists deep within the American belief system, and many of its assumptions are shared by the public and officials alike. It therefore provides the framework for much of the discussion of foreign policy, its presentation by officials, and its realization.

Throughout U.S. history the tension between the exemplary and missionary strands of American exceptionalism have been among the defining characteristics of foreign policy. They have survived challenges to their continued acceptance, such as the imperialist debate of the 1890s and the defeat in Vietnam. They form a core element of American national identity, and will continue to provide the cultural and intellectual framework for the making of U.S. foreign policy. Foreign observers in particular often regard with contempt or confusion the use of exceptionalist rhetoric by U.S. policymakers. But if we are to truly understand the ways in which U.S. foreign policy is conducted, it is essential that we take seriously the intellectual and cultural framework in which it is made.


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See also Anti-Imperialism; Colonialism and Neocolonialism; Continental Expansion; Development Doctrine and Modernization Theory; Ideology; Imperialism; Internationalism; Intervention and Nonintervention; Isolationism; Nationalism; Public Opinion; Realism and Idealism; The Vietnam War .


"Wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us."

John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity" (1630)

"It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no great distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence."

George Washington, Farewell Address, 17 September 1796

"America goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all."

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Fourth of July Address, 1821

"And that claim [to Oregon] is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of Liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."

John L. O'Sullivan, New York Morning News, 27 December 1845

"Destiny has laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world's leadership."

Dwight D. Eisenhower, First Inaugural Address, 20 January 1953

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty. [T]he energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve itand the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961

"Our [foreign] policy is designed to serve mankind."

Jimmy Carter, commencement address at University of Notre Dame, 22 May 1977

"Americans resort to force only when we must. We have never been aggressors. We have always struggled to defend freedom and democracy. We have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no territories."

Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 25 January 1984

"The fact is America remains the indispensable nation. America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear [in the world]."

Bill Clinton, address at George Washington University, 5 August 1996

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