The National Interest

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The National Interest

H. W. Brands

No concept in the history of American foreign policy has been more contentious than the "national interest." Both words in the phrase are troublesome. "National" implies something the entire nation can rally around; hence, the phrase often serves as a summons to patriotism. To oppose, or even question, the national interest pushes the opponent or questioner perilously close to sedition or treason. As for "interest," few terms are more elastic. The inhabitants of any country would have to be dull indeed not to be "interested" in much that goes on in the world; the inhabitants of a powerful, ambitious country like the United States can expand interests almost ad infinitum. Complicating the matter further is the fact that definitions do not necessarily the national interest make. What actually is the national interest is for history to determine. And even history does not always get it right.

For every country, national interest starts with safety of the national territory; for Americans, the arguing started just past that irreducible minimum. And it started early.


Quarrels over the national interest commenced with America's birth as an independent nation. Nearly everyone in the Continental Congress, and everyone not a Loyalist, agreed on the advisability of an alliance with France and cheered when that alliance was obtained in 1778. But no sooner had the French held up their end of the bargainby cornering Cornwallis at Yorktownthan Americans began to squabble about how far beyond victory attachment to France ought to extend. Benjamin Franklin, the senior American commissioner in Paris, counseled continued closeness, both from gratitude for services already rendered and in expectation of additional French aid. Franklin doubtless was influenced by the adulation he received in Paris (a staged meeting between Franklin and Voltaire set the philosophes swooning), but, personal popularity aside, he believed the infant United States would need French help to avoid being sucked back into Britain's orbit. Franklin's fellow commissioners, John Adams and John Jay, were more inclined to doubt French bona fides and less inclined to fear the attraction of America's late colonial master. (Adams in addition suffered from excruciating envy of Franklin, and his Puritan mores were scandalized by Franklin's liaisons with the ladies of Paris.) As it happened, the tension between the two conceptions of the infant national interest produced a peace treaty that preserved the alliance with France while extracting important concessions from Britain.

Unfortunately, the concessions proved to be more impressive on paper than on the ground particularly the ground of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes. The British refused to evacuate forts in the region and defied the Americans to do anything to oust them. (The rationale for their continued occupation was the failure of the American government to honor pledges regarding debts and Loyalists, but their reason was simply that they could, and that influential groups in Britain defined Britain's national interest as holding what Britain had.) Thomas Jefferson, who had inherited Franklin's Francophilia along with Franklin's diplomatic post in Paris, and who carried this attitude to his position as President George Washington's secretary of state, found the British intransigence insufferable. The group that grew up around Jeffersonthe nascent Republican Partyagitated to punish perfidious Albion.

Their cause was complicated by the outbreak of the French Revolution, and the onset of the wars provoked by that pregnant event. For most of a century, the American colonies had been caught in the crossfire between Britain and France; the most recent installment of this modern Hundred Years' War had sprung the colonies free from Britain's grasp. But freedom did not preserve them when the crossfire resumed in 1792. The question that then faced Americans was: With which side did the American national interest lie?

Jefferson and the Republicans answered the question one wayFrance's way. The Jeffersonians did not necessarily forgive French violations of American neutrality (centering on seizure of American ships), but they felt more threatened by Britain's infractions, which now also included seizure of ships. The more fervent among them would have repaid French help in the war of the American Revolution with American help in this war of the French Revolution; yet even those who stopped short of wanting to honor the alliance to the letter conceived a kinship with the new republic on the Atlantic's eastern shore. In this view (and in a pattern that would persist for two centuries in American politics), the national interest at home and the national interest abroad were intimately entwined. Domestic republicanism dictated support for foreign republicanism.

Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists demonstrated a similarly married definition of the national interests at home and abroad. Hamilton was no great fan of American republicanism, having argued at the Constitutional Convention for a monarchy; not surprisingly, he held no candle for French republicanism. On the contrary, he admired the energetic executive of the British government (which he did his best to imitate as Washington's Treasury secretary and most trusted adviser), and he judged that America's future lay in close ties to Britain's governing and merchandising classes.

The national interest was whipsawed between the Republican and Federalist views for two decades. The Federalists (under Washington) negotiated and ratified the easy-on-Britain Jay's Treaty and (under John Adams) fought an undeclared naval war against France. During this conflict, the Federalists succeeded in outlawingby the Sedition Acttheir opponents' definition of the national interest. The Republicans (under James Madison) fought a formal war against Britain. The Republicans' warof 1812was a fiasco for the United States, with the burning of Washington City being but the most egregious example of America's inability to defend itself.

Yet the conflict had the salutary effect of ending the first phase of the debate over the national interest. Americans had learned something from their long ordeal. The Bonapartist turn of events in France cured the Jeffersonians of their revolutionary romanticism, while the Hamiltonians (who lost their champion in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr) were disabused of their Anglophilia by British impressment of American seamen. Both sides settled on the wisdom of staying out of other countries' wars. George Washington had urged eschewing "permanent alliances"; Thomas Jefferson denounced "entangling alliances." Permanent or entangling, alliances seemed unwise, and a strong majority of Americans concurred in keeping clear of them. No definition of the national interest would persist longer or sustain more general acceptance than this idea that other people's quarrels were for other people to settle. God in his wisdom had put an ocean between Europe and America; Americans in their wisdom had crossed it. Most saw no reason to cross back.


One reason Americans did not go back east was that they were too busy going farther west. The end of Europe's wars freed Americans to concentrate on what they and their ancestors had been doing since the start of the seventeenth century: claiming new territory and dispossessing the aboriginal inhabitants. Independent America inherited from imperial England the general idea that Indians had no rights worth respecting; Indian lands might be claimed and parceled out, subject only to the ability of the claimants to drive the Indians off. This attitude was not quite universal; a few English and Americans spoke up for the Indians. But between the more common view of Indians as beneath respect, and the ravages of introduced diseases upon the aboriginal populations, Americans expanded west almost as though the Indians were not there.

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 confirmed American title to the lands lying east of the Mississippi. (Confirmed title against European claimants, that is. No Indians sat at the Paris negotiations, and none were asked to approve the treaty.) The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the American national domain again, pushing the western boundary to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. Diplomatic and extra-diplomatic machinations brought Florida into the American fold.

Nearly all Americans approved this heady expansion. Federalists poked fun at Jefferson, who had to abandon his strict constructionism lest Napoleon change his mind about Louisiana; and General Andrew Jackson incurred criticism for hanging one British trader and shooting another in Florida. But on the whole, more land was conceived to be in the obvious national interest.

There was something else behind the proexpansionist feeling. Since Puritan times, many Americans believed their country was unique: the site of the terrestrial working-out of the will of God (either the Christian God of the Puritans or the natural God of Jefferson and Madison). The expansion of America, in this view, signified the extension of providential designs, with benefits not merely for America but for humanity at large. Other nations have defined their national interests to include people beyond their borders, but none have done so more vigorously or consistently than the United States.

The identification of the American national interest with the interest of humanity reached an early apex during the 1840s, in the era of "manifest destiny." The annexation of Texas, the conquest of California and New Mexico, and the acquisition of Oregon seemed to most Americans a convenient collaboration between God and the United States. To be sure, the war with Mexico occasioned complaint among northern Whigs, but their complaint had less to do with the extension of American authority than with a fear that the territory acquired in the war would strengthen the institution of southern slavery.

In fact, slavery never sank roots in the trans-Texas southwest. Yet difficulties in organizing governments for the Mexican cession did reopen the slavery debate and led, via "bleeding Kansas" and the Dred Scott decision, to the Civil War. The bitter sectional ordeal took the smugness out of the manifest destinarians and the wind out of the sails of territorial expansion. The generation that came of age with the Compromise of 1850 and remained in power until the Compromise of 1877 had trouble enough holding together the territory America already owned; it had little energy or inclination to acquire more. Secretary of State William Seward got Congress to purchase Alaska in 1867, but only because Russia's sale price made it a bargain the legislators could not refuse (especially when the price included generous kickbacks to the legislators themselves). Ulysses Grant tried to annex Santo Domingo, but the Senate said no.


By the end of Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution in America was under full steam. And as the country redefined itselffrom rural and agricultural to urban and industrialit similarly redefined its national interest. Or tried to. Many Americans interpreted the shift from agriculture to industry as indicating that territory per se no longer mattered; America's expansionist impulseswhich none denied still existedshould look to markets rather than land. Yet others contended that land still counted. They observed the overseas empires of the other great powers and judged that American greatness would be measured by the same material yardstick. Moreover, enough of the spirit of manifest destiny survived the Civil War (the Union victory did wonders for the self-confidence of the winners) to support a sense that American institutions and values could revivify a weary and corrupted world.

After fighting broke out in Cuba in 1895 between Cuban nationalists and Spanish loyalists, Americans sided with the nationalists: first sentimentally, then politically, and finally militarily. The American war partyled by Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge and journalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearstincluded individuals who dreamed of an American empire akin to the empires of Britain, France, and Germany. But what won William McKinley his war declaration against Spain in April 1898 was a feeling that America had an obligation to prevent atrocities in its own backyard. (It was during the 1890s that the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, asserting American primacy in the Western Hemisphere, achieved the status of an enforceable national interest.) When congressional skeptics of the McKinley administration's motives, led by Henry Teller, attached to the war resolution an amendment forswearing American ownership of Cuba, the amendment sailed through the Senate without debate.

But wars have a way of altering reality, and after American forces captured Manila, the urge to empire took a different tack. McKinley negotiated a treaty with Spain granting Cuba independence but transferring the Philippines to the United States. The president claimed that Providence told him his country had an obligation to uplift and Christianize the Filipinos. (Obviously, it was a Protestant Providence, as most Filipinos were already Christiansbut Roman Catholics.)

When McKinley laid the treaty before the Senate for ratification, the country witnessed one of the most distilled debates in American history on the nature of the national interest. The imperialists asserted that annexation of the Philippines would benefit the United States economically (by providing a stepping-stone to the markets of Asia), diplomatically (by anteing America into the imperial sweepstakes that dominated international affairs), and militarily (by providing naval bases and coaling stations for the U.S. fleet). Beyond this, American control of the Philippines would advance the interests of world civilization. "It is elemental," Albert Beveridge told his Senate colleagues. "It is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth."

The anti-imperialists construed the national interest quite differently. A radical few denied that God had any special plan for America, but others simply held that American exceptionalism worked better by example than by force. Indeed, to ape the European imperialists would undermine all that made America unique and worth emulating. Carl Schurz, a refugee republican from Prussia after the failed revolution of 1848 there, and a Lincoln Republican in the American Civil War, predicted that annexation would embroil the United States in an imperial conflict like those that ate the blood and treasure of the other imperial powers. "The Filipinos fought against Spain for their freedom and independence, and unless they abandon their recently proclaimed purpose for their freedom and independence, they will fight us," Schurz said. The imperial road would lead his adopted country into dire peril. "The character and future of the Republic and the welfare of its people now living and yet to be born are in unprecedented jeopardy."

The imperialists won the battle but lost the war. Even as the Senate (narrowly) accepted McKinley's treaty, Filipino nationalists launched the war of independence Schurz predicted. The American war in the Philippines was the long, dirty antithesis of the short, clean American war in Cuba. Americans committed (and suffered) atrocities like those they had castigated Spain for committing against Cuba; the whole experience soured the American people on empire. By the time U.S. forces finally suppressed the Philippine insurgency, Americans had discovered that their national interest did not include empire. They needed another four decades to divest themselves of the Philippines (Puerto Rico, which did not want to be divested, remained American), but they were never tempted to repeat the imperial experiment.


Reinforcing Americans' reluctance to engage in entanglements abroad was the suicidal behavior of the European imperialists, who locked themselves in a death struggle starting in 1914. For the first year of the Great War, Americans once again congratulated themselves and their forebears for having left that benighted continent; by consensus the national interest indicated adhering to the advice of Washington and Jefferson about eschewing alliances.

But the twentieth century was not the eighteenth or early nineteenth. American commercial and financial interests had grown tremendously, making the United States more dependent than ever on foreign markets. American merchants demanded the right to trade with the belligerents; American bankers insisted on being able to lend in London and Paris and Berlin. Woodrow Wilson wanted to keep clear of the conflict and tried for a time to rally his compatriots to neutral thinking as well as a neutral policy. But he could not resist the calls for belligerent trade and belligerent loans, and before long the tentacles of capitalism began to draw the United States into the war. Because the British had a better fleet than the Germans, most American trade, and the financing that funded the trade, flowed to Britain and France, making the United States a de facto member of the Allied powers by 1916. Germany recognized the situation, and in early 1917 declared war on American shipping. Wilson responded with a request for a formal war declaration, which Congress granted.

At the time, few in Congress or outside it questioned that the American national interest required defending American vessels and American nationals against German attack. Some, however, did question whether U.S. participation in the war required putting U.S. troops on the ground in Europe. "Good Lord! You're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?" queried a shocked senator of a War Department spokesman. The War Department did send the troops, which helped break the back of Germany's desperate final offensive.

But what else they accomplished was open to doubt. The British and French knew what they were fighting for (although the rest of the world did not until Lenin leaked the secret treaties that spelled out the Allies' imperialistic war aims). The Americans were far less sure of their own purposes, not least because Wilson had waffled all over the landscape of politics and diplomacy. At various times he talked of being too proud to fight, then of achieving peace without victory, then of making the world safe for democracy. His Fourteen Points seemed rather many, with some too vague and others too specific. In any case, the British and French demonstrated at the postwar peace conference that they would have nothing to do with Wilson's airy abstractions. Germany had lost, and Germany would payin treasure, territory, colonies, and markets. Wilson could have his precious League of Nations, the protoworld government he hoped would prevent another such war. But he would have to make of it what he could.

Which turned out to be nothing at all. Even more than Wilson, Americans were confused as to why they entered the war. The only national interest that seemed directly threatened was the right to trade with belligerents. But the British violated America's neutral rights as consistently, if less egregiously, than the Germans (who, short on surface ships, had to resort to U-boat torpedoes to enforce a blockade). Was there an American national interest in preventing another European war? On this point, as on any other meaningful topic touching the national interest, the answer turned on the cost. Of course, it would be to America's benefit for Europe to remain at peace, but would the benefit outweigh the cost of an indefinite commitment to enforce the mandates of this new League of Nations? Did Americans wish to play policemen to the world?

The Senate said no in twice rejecting the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson summoned a simple majority for the treaty, but not the two-thirds supermajority ratification required. Under the rules specified by the Constitution, the Senate declared that membership in the League of Nations was not in the American national interest. Whether it really was not in the national interest, time would tell.


And not much time, at that. Calvin Coolidge may not have spoken for all Americans when he proclaimed that the business of America was business, but he spoke for those who counted during the Republican decade after the war. Disillusionment with the war's outcomemillions killed, including 60,000 Americans, to little positive effect observable from across the Atlanticreinforced the feeling that Washington and Jefferson had been right. Foreign entanglements were a fool's game. There was still American engagement abroad, but it was chiefly the engagement of private, corporate interests, backed at times by federal officials (including the bright new star of the Republicans, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover) yet rarely rising to the level of a widely supported national interest.

If anything, the national interest seemed to point in precisely the opposite direction. During the latter half of the 1920s, the authors Harry Elmer Barnes, C. Hartley Grattan, and others attacked American participation in the late war as the work of private interestschiefly financial and mercantileparading as the national interest. During the 1930s this attitude enveloped Capitol Hill, where an investigative committee headed by Senator Gerald Nye laid blame for America's feckless involvement in the war at the feet of the "merchants of death." The Nye committee provided ammunition to congressional isolationists, who legislated neutrality for the United States in the event of another war. Yet this was a different neutrality from that which had defined much of the national interest from the 1790s to the 1910s. Where America's historic neutrality had been actively defended, twice by war (in 1812 and 1917), the legislated neutrality of the 1930s would be preserved by abandoning American neutral rights. The Neutrality Act of 1937, for example, forbade the sale of munitions to belligerents (no more "merchants of death"), outlawed loans to belligerents (no more lopsided lending) and barred American travel on belligerent ships (no more Lusitania sor at least no more American deaths on such ships). The neutrality law also allowed the president to insist that trade in goods other than munitions be conducted on a cash-and-carry basis, with the purchasers taking responsibility for the cargoes before they left U.S. shores (no more American ships showing up in the crosshairs of belligerent periscopes).

Americans might have quibbled over the details of the neutrality laws, but by all evidence they supported the general idea. Twenty years after the fact, American involvement in World War I seemed an exercise in fatuity, the likes of which should be avoided at nearly all cost.

Yet no sooner had they reached this consensus than events began to erode it. In appallingly short order, Italy brutalized Ethiopia, Japan raped China, and Germany severed Czechoslovakia. Many Americans thought it would be impossible to retain the country's self-respect without taking action against the organized violence abroad. Others concluded that if the violence was not stopped now, it would inevitably engulf the United States, as it had in World War I. But still others came to the opposite conclusion: to them, the muggings abroad underscored the necessity of neutrality. If the world insisted on going to hell, let it do so, but do not let it take America down with it.

The outbreak of the second great European war of the twentieth century, in September 1939, polarized American opinion further. A group calling itself America First wanted to widen the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and keep American boys securely at home. Mere discussion of U.S. intervention, the America Firsters said, discouraged Britain and France from doing for themselves what needed to be done. An opposing group, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, advocated a forthright policy of supporting those countries opposing Nazi Germany. With luck, such support might stop short of American belligerence, but that ultimate step could not be ruled outnor should it be, lest Adolf Hitler take heart from American aloofness.

This latest round of the debate over the national interest continued for two years, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As even the narrowest definition demanded defending American territory, by transgressing U.S. borders the Japanese guaranteed American belligerence. Had Hitler not gratuitously declared war on the United States while the waters of Hawaii were still stained with American blood, debate doubtless would have continued regarding whether the national interest required fighting Germany. But in the event, Americans entered both warsin the Pacific and in Europeunited in defining the national interest as requiring the defeat of the Axis. Woodrow Wilson might have been wrong about some things, but he now seemed right about America's inability to insulate itself from a world at war.


Defining national interest during war is easy: to defeat the enemy. Things get harder after the war. Wilson discovered this; so did Harry Truman. In each case the trouble was with the Allies, who during war agreed on the primacy of victory but after victory had their own national interests to pursue.

The interests of the Soviet Union after World War II entailed control of its East European neighbors. This was not what the United States had been fighting for, and in denying democracy and self-determination, it constituted an affront to American principles. Whether it constituted a challenge to the American national interest was a separate question. Franklin Roosevelt gave signs of thinking it did not, at least not seriously; Harry Truman, upon succeeding Roosevelt, thought it did.

More precisely, what Truman and his Cold War cabinet considered the challenge to the national interest was the aggressive expansionism they perceived to be inherent in Soviet communist ideology, and which was currently manifested in the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. Had Truman and his advisers been convinced the Kremlin had no designs west of the Elbe River, they would have slept more soundly and planned less ambitiously for the future of Western Europe; but instead they chose to interpret trouble in Iran, Greece, and Turkey as leading indicators of trouble farther west. In the March 1947 speech that unveiled the Truman Doctrine, the president described the world as divided between "alternative ways of life," with the communist way attempting to subvert and destroy the democratic way. By Truman's reasoning, the fate of America hung on the fate of Greece and the other countries under threat; it followed that the American national interest required defending Greece and those other countries.

Congress, and apparently the American people, endorsed Truman's definition of the national interest. Truman got the $400 million he requested for Greece and Turkey. Then he got the several billions he requested for aid to Europe. He got the Senate to accept the North Atlantic Treaty, committing the United States to the defense of Western Europe. And although he did not ask for a formal declaration of war, he got the Congress to underwrite his decision to defend South Korea against North Korea when war broke out on that divided peninsula in 1950.

Never in American history had the national interest been redefined so radically and swiftly. Scarcely a decade before, Congress had forsworn the use of force even to defend American ships and citizens against direct attack. Now, the United States was pledged to defend half the world and was actively fighting in a small and intrinsically unimportant country half a world away.

Why the change? Two reasons. First, although World War I had suggested that any major European conflict would eventually embroil the United States, Americans required World War II for the lesson to stick. In the twentieth century, American peacetime connections to Europebusiness and financial connections primarily, but also cultural and social connectionswere so deep and pervasive that Europe's troubles became America's troubles, and Europe's wars became America's wars. The Cold War commitment to Europethrough the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), especiallyrepresented an effort to keep America out of war by keeping Europe out of war.

The second reason for the radical redefining of the national interest was simply that Americans could. Had the United States been Luxembourg, Americans never would have dreamed of underwriting European reconstruction or defending South Korea. But after 1945 the United States was the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world. Rich people buy insurance policies the poor decline, both because the rich have more to insure and because they can afford the premiums. The ambitious policies undertaken by the Truman administration represented a form of insurancea way of keeping Americans richer and more powerful than anyone else.


But as any savvy insurance agent discovers, there is no end to what might be insured. Buying a house? Insure the house, of course, but also ensure the mortgage payments. Taking a vacation? Insure against bad weather.

Likewise for the United States during the Cold War. America's assorted alliance systems NATO, SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), the Rio Pact, ANZUS (the Pacific Security Treaty among Australia, New Zealand, and the United States)insured not primarily against attacks on the United States but against attacks on countries related, in one way or another, to American security. Pakistan offered electronic listening posts and launchpads for spy planes. Australia pledged troops to the defense of the Middle East, whose oil then meant little to America directly (the United States still exported oil) but meant much to Western Europe. South Vietnam mattered psychologically: if that wobbling domino fell, it would unsettle the neighbors and might ultimately ruin the neighborhood.

This would be bad for American business, which had a bottom-line interest in preserving as much of the world as possible for market penetration. It would also be bad for American morale. Since Plymouth Rock and the "city on the hill" John Winthrop had promised next door at Boston, Americans had always considered themselves the wave of the future. Two communist revolutions in the twentieth centuryin Russia and in Chinacast serious doubt on this presumption. Additional advances by the communists could only unnerve Americans further.

During the Cold War, the term "national security" often supplanted "national interest" in American political parlance. And security connoted not simply physical securitythe ability to fend off foreign attackbut also psychological security. In no other way can the hysteria that gripped the United States during the McCarthy era be explained. Indeed, by most measures the United States was more secure than it had ever been. Its powermilitary, economic, politicalcompared to its closest rivals had never been greater. Americans, however, often acted as though they were in greater danger than ever. Red screenwriters and pink professors apparently lurked in every studio and on every campus, ready to deliver America to communist tyranny; accordingly, Congress and the courts mobilized to identify and silence them. Nationalism in Iran and land reform in Guatemala aimed a dagger at America's heart; the Eisenhower administration sent secret warriors to overthrow the offending regimes.

Although much of the danger existed only in American heads (and on the agendas of those elected officials, bureaucrats, arms makers, and others who had profit and career incentives to magnify the communist threat), it was not entirely fabricated. In 1949 the Soviet Union broke the U.S. nuclear monopoly; by the mid-1950s, the Soviet air force possessed hydrogen bombs and long-range bombers; and by the early 1960s, Moscow's strategic rocket forces could deliver the big bombs across oceans and over the pole. For centuries, other countries had lived with the threat of imminent physical attack, but until now the twin moats of the Atlantic and Pacific had protected the United States and allowed Americans the luxury of time in organizing armies when war did come. The nuclear revolution in military technology erased the oceans and collapsed time; with luck, Americans might now get twenty minutes' warning of Soviet attack. By definition, paranoia is unreasonable, but it is not always unexplainable. If the American definition of national security exhibited a certain paranoia during the Cold Warand it didthe country's unaccustomed vulnerability to sudden and potentially annihilating attack was as good an explanation as any.


Even for rich folks, insurance premiums can be a burden. The insurance Americans purchased for Southeast Asia eventually broke the bankor at least the willingness of Americans to continue to pay.

In one sense Vietnam was inevitable. By the 1960s the American national interest was being defined so globally that hardly a sparrow could fall anywhere on earth without the U.S. government wanting to know why, to know whether the sparrow had jumped or been pushed, and, if pushed, to know whether the pusher wore scarlet plumage. Somewhere or other, sooner or later, the United States was bound to find itself defending a regime so weak, corrupt, or unpopularespecially since the chief criterion for American support was opposition to communism, rather than the positive embrace of democracyas to be indefensible at any reasonable cost. The country where this occurred happened to be Vietnam, but it might have been Cuba (actually, it was Cuba also, but Fidel Castro worked too fast and cleverly for the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations) or Iraq (Iraq likewise, but again the revolution succeeded before the United States reacted) or the Philippines (which similarly faced a leftist insurgency but managed to hold on).

Beyond its own problems, South Vietnam revealed something fundamental about the Cold War definition of the American national interest. As the world's only full-service superpower (the Soviet Union possessed a first-rate military but its strength in other areas was vastly overrated, as time revealed), the United States was more or less free to define its national interest however it chose. But having once agreed upon a definition, Americans were constrained to defend that definition lest they lose face with friends and enemies. Credibility counted when American commitments outran American capabilities. By no stretch of anyone's imagination could the United States have defended simultaneously all the regimes it was pledged by the 1960s to defend; its resolve and success anywhere had implications for its prospects everywhere.

That was why Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon went to such lengths to prevent the communist conquest of South Vietnam, and why Americans took failure there so hard. They might reasonably have accounted Vietnam simply as someplace where local conditions could not support an incompetent regime; if the American approach to Vietnam had actually (rather than metaphorically) been an insurance policy, Vietnam would have been written off and Americans would have gone about their business.

But Vietnam was not merely businesscertainly not to the families and friends of the 60,000 service men and women who lost their lives there. Americans had indulged the illusion they could secure half the planet against revolution. In their post-Vietnam disillusionment, many Americans wondered whether they could secure any of the planet against revolution, or whether they ought to try. "For too many years," explained Jimmy Carter, the first president elected after Vietnam, "we've been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We've fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam being the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty. But through its failure we have now found our way back to our own principles and values."

Carter was certainly speaking for his own administration, but how many other Americans his "we" comprised was problematic. The reflexively anticommunist definition of the American national interestthe definition that had enjoyed consensus support since the early Cold Warhad indeed been discredited in Vietnam, but a credible replacement had yet to appear. Nixon's candidate, détente, based on the provocative notion that capitalism and communismeven Chinese communismcould coexist, had spawned an entire school of opposition, called neoconservatism. Carter's human rightsbased approach appealed to those appalled by the dirty linen that kept tumbling out of the Cold War hamper, but struck others as naively woolly-minded.

The only thing nearly all Americans could agree on was that the national interest dictated avoiding anything that looked or smelled like another Vietnam. Liberals interpreted this to mean not sending troops to prop up ugly autocracies abroad. Neoconservatives interpreted it to mean not sending troops unless the U.S. government and the American people were willing to follow through to victory. With the blades of the last helicopters from Saigon still whomp-whomping in American ears, the liberal and neoconservative conditions amounted to the same thing.


The neoconservatives helped Ronald Reagan win the White House in 1980, and they strove, shortly thereafter, to forge a new consensus around the old verities of the Cold War. Their man mouthed the right words, calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and summoning America to "stand tall" again. He dispatched troops to Grenada to loosen what he called "the tightening grip of the totalitarian left" there, and he added the Reagan Doctrine to the list that had started with Monroe, continued through Truman, and made lesser stops at Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. In its own way, the Reagan Doctrine was more ambitious than its predecessors, which were essentially negative in concept and formulation (that is, aimed to preventrespectivelyEuropean expansion in the Americas, communist subversion, destabilization of the Middle East, another Cuba, another Vietnam, and a Soviet takeover of the Persian Gulf). The Reagan Doctrine advocated something positive: the replacement by rightists of leftist Third World regimes, notably in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia. Above and beyond all this, the Reagan administration embarked on a big defense buildup, including the first steps toward what Reagan's partisans respectfully called the Strategic Defense Initiative and others derisively, or merely conveniently, called "Star Wars."

Although the American people cheered Reagan's speeches (which made all but hardened skeptics feel warm and fuzzy), supported his defense buildup (which provided welcome jobs during a nasty first-term recession), and reelected him by a large margin (over a candidate, Walter Mondale, who imprudently promised to raise taxes), they never cottoned to the neoconservative definition of the national interest. In the case of Nicaragua, the Congress explicitly cut off funding for Reagan's covert war against the Sandinista government. (Administration operatives would not take no for an answer and circumvented the congressional ban by the methods that produced the Iran-Contra scandal.)

Americans were much happier at a turn of events that started in Moscow in 1985 and gradually, then rapidly, redefined the politics of Europe. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's plan to revitalize Soviet socialism required a respite with the West and led to the first important arms reduction agreements since the start of the Cold War. More important, Gorbachev's reforms required the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe to initiate reforms of their own, which led, in rapid-fire succession during the second half of 1989, to the dismantling of East European communism. By then, the anticommunist momentum was overwhelming, and before dissipating at the end of 1991 it swept aside Gorbachev and the Soviet Union itself.

The end of the Cold War was dazzlingand disorienting. Although the definition of the American national interest had shifted during the four decades since the start of the Cold War, with a particular break at Vietnam, it had always included the Soviet Union as a fundamental reference point. Now that reference point was gone, and Americans struggled to find a new one. Defense of the American homeland remained the sine qua non of the national interest, but nothing and no one offered a credible, or even conceivable, challenge on that count. (Terrorists, the new staple of Tom Clancy and other writers of thrillers, might blow up a building here or there, but such activity fell into the category of crime rather than war.) Defense of the U.S. economy could still arouse the American people: when Saddam Hussein seized the oil of Kuwait and threatened the wells of Saudi Arabia, President George H. W. Bush was able to marshal support behind an effort to protect what his secretary of state, James Baker, summarized in a word: "jobs." But military force was a blunt instrument for economic diplomacy; more appropriate were the North American Free Trade Agreement and the accords that moved China toward membership in the World Trade Organization. Even these noncoercive measures, however, enlisted far from unanimous support. Despite the unprecedented prosperity of the decade after the Cold War, many Americans registered real skepticism of the general phenomenon of globalization.

The hardest question for Americans during the 1990s was whether the American national interest included the defense of human rights overseas. Did the national interest require, or even suggest, dispatching troops to Bosnia to stop the "ethnic cleansing" there? To Somalia to deliver food to starving children and restore order where government had vanished? To Haiti to reinstall a president democratically elected but driven from office? To Rwanda to prevent the massacre of a half million men, women, and children on the wrong side of a murderous tribal conflict? To Serbia to secure self-determination for the Kosovo Albanians?

Beyond the basics of human rights, what about the promotion of democracy? Since the French Revolution, Americans had applauded the installation of governments responsible to the governed; but was this something worth making a fuss, or a fight, over? Should economic aid to the former Soviet republics be conditioned on elections and the rule of law? Should China be pressured to allow dissent and competitive politics?

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Americans had reached no consensus on these issues. No single definition of the national interest commanded the support of any substantial majority. The concept was still invoked: the administration of George W. Bush entered office in 2001 promising a foreign policy based on the "national interest" (rather, the new Bush men and women implied, than on the squishier standards of the outgoing Clinton administration). But they offered few specifics as to what their definition of the national interest entailed. Perhaps when they did, it would rally their compatriots behind a single, stirring vision. More likely, given the experience of two centuries of American history, it would simply spark more debate.


Barnes, Harry Elmer. The Genesis of the World War: An Introduction to the Problem of War Guilt. New York, 1926, 1929, 1970.

Beard, Charles Austin, and G. H. E. Smith. The Idea of National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy. New York, 1934.

Beisner, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 18981900. New York, 1968. The debate about the Philippines and empire.

Brands, H. W. The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War. New York, 1993. What we thought, why we fought.

. What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy. New York, 1998.

. "The Idea of the National Interest." Diplomatic History 23 (1999): 239261. Reprinted in Michael J. Hogan, ed. Ambiguous Legacy: U.S. Foreign Relations in the "American Century." New York, 1999. Concentrates on the twentieth century.

Brands, H. W., ed. The Use of Force After the Cold War. College Station, Tex., 2000. For and against.

Cole, Wayne S. America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 19401941. Madison, Wis., 1953.

Dallek, Robert. The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs. New York, 1983.

Divine, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality. New York, 1962. Where the isolationists went wrong.

Ehrman, John. The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 19451994. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. What Hamilton thought and Washington said.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1964.

Grattan, C. Hartley. Why We Fought. New York, 1929.

Haass, Richard N. The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War. New York, 1997.

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 1935 1941. Ithaca, N.Y., 1966, and Chicago, 1990.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. Jefferson and France: An Essay on Politics and Political Ideas. New Haven, Conn., 1967. The roots of Republican foreign policy.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. Boston, 1997.

Merk, Frederick, and Louis Bannister Merk. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History; A Reinterpretation. New York, 1963. A response to Albert K. Weinberg's Manifest Destiny.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York, 1948, 6th ed., New York, 1985. The bible of Cold War realism.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore, 1935. A classic.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. New York, 1962. By the father of Cold War revisionism.

See also Anti-Imperialism; Continental Expansion; Doctrines; Imperialism; Neutrality; Open Door Interpretation; Public Opinion; Wilsonianism .


Charles A. Beard (18741948) was no stranger to controversy. His iconoclastic 1913 Economic Interpretation of the Constitution cast doubt on the disinterest of the Founders, and during World War I he quit Columbia University in protest over the firing of a colleague. In the 1920s, he carved a niche as a critic on the left of the policies of the Republican administrations. Franklin Roosevelt initially mollified him somewhat, but Beard was always more comfortable in opposition than in agreement, and he soon discovered grounds for criticizing the Democratic president. In The Idea of National Interest and elsewhere, Beard attacked Roosevelt for building more ships and otherwise laying the basis for intervention in Europe and Asia. To Beard, foreign intervention was something that benefited not the American people generally but only the rich and well-connectedthe same groups he criticized in Economic Interpretation.

Beard's writings abetted the isolationism of the 1930s, yet where much isolationist thinking was more emotional than rational, Beard offered a carefully reasoned theory of nonintervention, based on a challenge to received wisdom regarding foreign markets. Beard acknowledged that nonintervention would require abandoning some foreign markets, and he conceded this would have a negative direct effect on American incomes. But he countered that much, perhaps all, of this loss would be recouped in savings on weapons not required and wars not fought. And even if it were not recouped, there was more to life, and to the national interest, than money. "National interest involves stability and standard of life deliberately adjusted to each other in a long time perspective," he explained.

Beard applauded the neutrality laws but did not think they would hold. "We're blundering into war," he predicted in 1938. When war did come, Beard suspended his attacks on Roosevelt, but he rejected the administration's high rhetoric and its enthusiasm regarding America's partners. "I refuse to take the world-saving business at face value and think that Churchill and Stalin are less concerned with world saving than with saving the British empire and building a new and bigger Russian empire."

For his forthrightness, Beard fell under intellectual obloquy. Erstwhile allies criticized him for failing to condemn Hitler and the Japanese with sufficient vigor. But he did not waver. "History to come will pass judgment on them and me," he said.

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