Samuel Flagg Bemis
President of the Association, 1961
This presidential address was delivered at the American Historical Association annual dinner, Shoreham Hotel, Washington, D.C., December 29, 1961. American Historical Review 67, no. 2 (January 1962): 291-305.
American Foreign Policy and the Blessings of Liberty
As historians debate about the philosophy of history, and philosophers reason about the meaning of history, and even the meaning of meaning, cannot most of us agree that history, among its other great attributes, has a certain usefulness? A principal service of history is that, by extending our experience, individually and universally, back beyond the touch of our own lifetime, it fortifies our judgment in dealing with problems of the present and measuring our hopes for the future--I will not say in shaping the future. Of course our historical experience must be validated by critical scholarship. The experience must also be appraised and reappraised in relation to the ever-changing present as we move along toward the future. Like all social processes, the evolution and practice of foreign policy takes place in space and time. In the case of the United States it would seem to be in widening space and shortening time. It takes place in space and time, but it must also be measured in terms of human values.
Can the diplomatic history of the United States strengthen our judgment in facing the problems of today which include nothing less than the survival of our nation and the principles we have stood for in the world? Only if we relate our historical experience to the successive stages of world politics and power in which American diplomacy has operated for better or worse for nearly two centuries. And only if we measure the history of American foreign policy in terms of the fundamental purposes and values of our life as a nation and our determination as a people to preserve them.
We have been hearing much these days about the necessity of a national purpose and the formulation of national goals for the good life. As if the national purpose had not long since been stated in the principles of our Declaration of Independence--"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and in the preamble to our Constitution: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. . . ."
This basic statement describes the original raison d'être of our nation. "In every period," to quote Leonard Krieger on Karl Marx, "the kind of activity with which men are most concerned--which they consider the most important--gives tone and color to the rest. . . ."1 It was liberty which set the tone and gave color to the activities of our countrymen at the beginning of our nation. The Blessings of Liberty were the fundamental "rights of Englishmen" stemming from colonial charters and evolving through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by American constitutional custom which appropriated for itself the British parliamentary Bill of Rights of 1688. These freedoms of the individual are the values for which the United States has stood throughout its history in the shifting configurations of power and politics in the world of nations. They are the values which we invoke today, now, for all our citizens. They are also in varying degree the values of the remaining free peoples of the world. "With us, and throughout all history," wrote Albert Camus shortly before his death, "they deny servitude, falsehood and terror."2 These values are our birthright of liberty, "laws, freedom, faith in God," as sounds the old hymn, "out of ages richly poured."
We have not lacked a clear purpose as a nation. What we seem to have been lacking is a continued consciousness of that purpose, of these congenital Blessings of Liberty. What we seem to have been losing is the hardened will to make them prevail at all costs in the historically shifted strategy of American defense and diplomacy. As far as goals for the good life are envisioned, they depend on the survival of liberty.
As through the long ages of geology, movements of the earth's land masses have wrought compelling changes in the number and configuration of the continents, in their identity, in their climate, and in the creatures living on them, so throughout the history of international relations, changes in the balance of power have affected the configuration, number, identity, and policy of nations and their peoples in the shorter period of human history. Governments have had to adapt themselves to such geopolitical alterations or sink amid the strife of nations. These shifts, sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden and revolutionary as in the history of geology, have hitherto served the diplomatic historian as landmarks, helping him, as the strata of the earth's crust assist the geologist, to tell where we as a nation came from, where we have been, where we are now, and perhaps, but only perhaps, the direction in which we may be moving from here.
May I suggest that in the history of American foreign policy there are five major stages or shifts presenting themselves slowly, or suddenly, that can engage our attention here: the three long centuries that produced the European state system before the American Revolution; the quick era of revolution and emancipation, 1776-1823; the century after 1815 of isolation and security; the new picture of power and politics that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century as a prelude to the world wars of the twentieth century; and the present cold war at the beginning of our swiftly moving atomic age.
The first great geopolitical shift with which the historian of American foreign policy need concern himself, but which merely requires mention here, was from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. It led to the discovery and colonization of the New World coincidentally with the appearance of the national states of Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and England on the Atlantic fringe of the new European system. We may bracket with the years 1492-1776 the age of European dynastic and colonial wars, toward the end of which emerged the independence of the United States in revolt against British sovereignty with the aid of the French alliance.
Our national independence introduced a second major alteration in the configuration of power. The era of emancipation embraced three violent political revolutions in the Western world and their sequela of wars: the North American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Latin American revolutions.
Thanks to the necessities of Great Britain and Spain in the wars of the French Revolution, President Washington, that wise, patriotic leader with far-seeing vision and sound judgment, slow thinking, perhaps, but by no means a "bewildered" or senile statesman as some would picture him, was able to preserve American neutrality and to liberate American territory in the Old Northwest from British occupation by his treaty of 1794 with Great Britain, and to open the Mississippi to the sea and free the Old Southwest from Spanish occupation by his treaty of 1795 with Spain. These were the first two treaties negotiated by the new national government--that was George Washington's constant word for it, "national."
There were other large windfalls for the United States coming out of the European cyclone. Thanks to immediate concerns in Europe during Jefferson's presidency, Napoleon Bonaparte had to abandon his plans for re-establishment of a French colonial empire in the Mississippi Valley. The resulting Louisiana Procurement--to use Edward Channing's fitting phrase--doubled the territory of the United States overnight within little more than a quarter century after the Declaration of Independence.
Napoleon's usurpation in Spain furnished the pretext for the Latin American revolutions. To preserve the neutrality of the United States in Spain's colonial war and in the vain hope of keeping the republic of the north from recognizing the independence of the new states of the south, Ferdinand VII's restored monarchy signed the so-called Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, placing Florida under the American flag and explicitly recognizing, for the first time by a foreign power, the sovereign position of the United States on the Pacific Coast. Soon thereafter, out of Anglo-American concerns over the possibility of European intervention in Latin America, came the independent pronouncement of President Monroe--behind the wooden wall of the British navy to be sure, but with what Dexter Perkins calls a "bold republican tone."
These great and happy successes did not come to pass within the neutrality desired by the fathers of American foreign policy. Neutrality in the general wars of Europe we have never been able perfectly to enjoy. Somehow when these wars extended to the oceans, they ceased to be "ordinary" wars confined strictly to their own continent such as George Washington envisioned in his Farewell Address. The neutrality of the United States broke down twice in the first half century of its independence, as it has collapsed twice again during the last half century.
Even during the two wars that signalized the first two collapses of American neutrality, the United States did not seek to make an alliance with its enemy's enemy: with Great Britain against France during the "quasi war" of 1798-1800, or with Napoleon in the second war with Great Britain of 1812-1815. Experience of the fathers with the entanglements of the life-saving French alliance of the Revolution confirmed their aversion, and the distrust of their sons, to any more entangling alliances. This distrust dominated American foreign policy in the next hundred years of world politics.
On the whole the newly established policy had responded tolerably well, under the leadership of natural statesmen, to the international politics of the era of emancipation.
The peace settlements at Ghent and at Vienna presaged another shift in our geopolitical center of gravity: across the continent, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi Valley and on to the Pacific Ocean. During the century of isolation that followed, the security of an expanding nation was maintained with the smallest of standing armies, little more than a force for pacification and domination of the Indian tribes, and with a correspondingly small navy, armed forces less than those of even the smallest European powers. Of course, I do not speak of the improvisations of armies and navies during the war with Mexico or during the sectional War for Southern Independence, forces promptly demobilized after the conflicts were over.
Granted the preservation of the Union, the greatest achievement of American nationality during the nineteenth century was expansion of the nation across the empty continent to the shore of the "other ocean." It established the territorial basis of the United States as a world power and a bastion of freedom today. Thanks to the European wars and their aftermath in the Old World and the New, and the continued collisions of European friendships and enmities, the United States was able to redouble its national territory within scarcely a half century after the treaties of Ghent and Vienna. This continental consummation occurred during a period of what Professor C. Vann Woodward so nicely calls "free security." It was during the long period of comparative peace on the great oceans that the high objectives of American foreign policy were carried forward and largely achieved.
One international war did feature the rounding out of the Transcontinental Republic, otherwise expansively perfected by peaceful diplomacy between 1783 and 1867. It would be generally agreed, I suppose, on both sides of the Rio Grande, that the War of 1846-1848 between the United States and Mexico--not the only war between two American countries fought during this period--might have been avoided if the two nations had been pledged to the Mexican-American, inter-American, and United Nations peace machinery of the twentieth century. Historians and statesmen in the United States from John Quincy Adams, William Jay, and Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson, Justin Smith, and Eugene Barker have debated the justice of the war with Mexico, none with perfect objectivity. But I have not been able to find any American today who would wish to repudiate President Polk's foreign policy and the Civil War that followed by handing back to Mexico the territory purchased by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the succeeding Gadsden Purchase. What an excitement such a suggestion stirred up in 1917 when the Zimmerman telegram proposed officially that Germany, Japan, and Mexico unite to take back the "lost provinces"!
The reasons for the easy successes of the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were: our "detached and distant position," to use the familiar words of Washington's Farewell Address; Europe's distresses America's advantage, certainly sensed by our early statesmen, more dearly realized by the historian today; and the position of Canada, at first in effect a hostage--if such were needed--for Anglo-American peace during the British century, in our later times a friendly accouplement of Anglo-American solidarity and alliance in the turbulent twentieth century. There were other, more irenic factors that benignly colored the geopolitical position of Canada. Cultural sympathies, demographical affinities, and economic relationships bonded the peoples of the United States and Canada increasingly to peace. And there was the ever-peaceful disposition of the Canadian people and their own unpreparedness for war. Certainly no war with the United States would ever have arisen from them, or from any significant segment of them.
So American foreign policy adapted itself with easy instinct to the immensely favorable configuration of world politics during the last three quarters of the nineteenth century. We were so safe and foolproof that we did not need much of a policy. Some wiseacres thought we did not even need diplomatic representation abroad. Oh, wondrous century, so fortuitously fortunate for our nation! Oh, happy, golden, bygone years of safety, in lucky innocence, apart from the world around us!
During the nineteenth century, that is, after 1815, the danger to our nation was from within. Is it not a demonstration of the foolproof position of the United States that we were able uniquely to indulge in a great civil war without any permanent lesion to our foreign policy? But does the diplomatic experience of that century fortify our judgment in dealing with the problems of this century and measuring our hopes for the future?
The happy age of isolation and continental contentment approached its end over the historical "watershed" of the 1890's. The fourth great geopolitical shift in the axis of American foreign policy and diplomacy was from east-west to north-south: to the isthmus of Central America and its outlying island citadels in both oceans.
An unprecedented phenomenon in world politics set the shift in motion toward the end of the century: the sudden appearance of three new world powers--Germany, the United States, and Japan. The advent of two of these powers, each with a first-class army and building toward a first-class navy, was of great portent for the third power, the United States, as well as for the British Empire at its apogee.
Neither Germany nor Japan had a friendly hostage, like Canada, for peaceful relations with the United States; on the contrary, the United States had presented Japan with a future hostage when it acquired Alaska in 1867 and with an immediate one when it took over the Philippine Islands in 1898. Japan could threaten Alaska and the Philippines; Germany conceivably could threaten our Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. Against these possibilities the United States depended on its new one-ocean navy to meet Germany in the Atlantic (in case of British neutrality), or Japan in the Pacific. An American canal under American control against all comers became more imperative than ever as a waterway through which to pass the navy from one ocean to the other as circumstances might require. No one at the turn of the century, not even Alfred Thayer Mahan, dreamed of a simultaneous two-ocean war.
One may feel that it was the isthmian question that animated the Expansionists of 1898. They found the popular hysteria over Cuba convenient to their "large policy" of securing control of the strategic radius of the future canal. Strategic designs, public opinion, and the pressure of party politics combined to push the reluctant President McKinley into the Cuban-Spanish-American War which resulted in the liberation of Cuba and the ejection of Spain from the New World. It also led to the utterly unanticipated acquisition of the Philippine Islands and all the then uncharted complications for the United States that followed in the Far East. In various essays published during the first decade of the present century Captain Mahan laid down his famous dicta for the policy of the United States as a world power, which one is tempted to put into capsule form: in America, predominance; in Asia, cooperation; in Europe and Africa, abstention. So great was the weight of tradition that Mahan did not, nor did any other student of strategy that I know of, venture to combine these three separate concepts into a global strategy. So heavy were the precepts of an age of successful isolation that only a handful of political thinkers on this side of the water, such as Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, the young diplomat Lewis Einstein, and perhaps Colonel E. M. House, could take in the implications for the United States of an upset in the world balance of power from a German victory in any war with Great Britain. Even Theodore Roosevelt turned his attention altogether to domestic reform by 1912. In the presidential campaign of that year neither Roosevelt's New Nationalism nor Wilson's New Freedom said much about foreign policy or military preparedness. When war unexpectedly broke out in the Old World only two years later, it did not alarm our people very much at first; it seemed so remote, like a fiery collision between two distant stars of another system. Woodrow Wilson enjoined his countrymen to be neutral in thought as well as deed.
One thing might have been obvious as this war developed: if Germany won, the United States had much to lose from the altered balance of power, as weighed in terms of the future security of the Republic and the values it stood for in the world; if Great Britain and its allies won, there was nothing to fear, at least in the Atlantic world--this indeed was proven by the event.
One would like to believe that Wilson perceived this geopolitical problem dearly--as did Theodore Roosevelt begin to see it when in 1915 he turned again to foreign policy as a better issue in domestic politics than internal reform. One would like to conclude that Wilson weighed alternatives and determined to throw in the weight of the United States on the side of national security and basic Anglo-American freedoms. Instead, Wilson, with the support of a majority of his countrymen, clung during three years to the old formulas of previous decades. All within the realm of neutrality he adopted a choice of neutral policy which insisted on holding Germany to "strict accountability"--rather than later adjudication--for damage to neutral American lives and property caused by illegal attacks by German submarines on belligerent merchant ships, whether unarmed or armed, and finally on neutral American unarmed merchant ships. That choice is what eventually precipitated a combination of other well-known factors--economic, psychological, and political--into the third breakdown of American neutrality when Wilson proved unable to bring about a negotiated peace between the opposing belligerents.
German unrestricted submarine warfare finally torpedoed Wilson's policy of neutrality. The captured German archives have clarified the now waning controversy raised by the disillusioned revisionists of 1929-1938. The recent studies from those archives by Karl E. Birnbaum and by Ernest R. May have reinforced the conclusions presented by Charles Seymour a generation ago based on the findings of the committee of the German Reichstag investigating the causes of the first war and the first defeat, which investigation used the same documents. In the last analysis international law, and the reaction of the United States, played no role in the decision of the German high command to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare against belligerent and neutral shipping alike; the only way--so they were fatally persuaded--to bring Britain to her knees within three months was to cut off her overseas carriage, no matter how.
For the United States the real and surpassing value of the victory over Germany in 1918 was temporary preservation of the Blessings of Liberty behind a safe balance of power in the Atlantic world, followed by a diplomatic adjustment with Japan that at least promised to preserve a balance in the Pacific.
After Versailles and after the Washington treaties of 1922, when the New World again seemed secure from danger overseas, east or west, the United States during the Republican Restoration reverted to the traditional Washingtonian, Adamsonian, and Monrovian foreign policy that had worked so successfully in a bygone geopolitical age. The thoughts and plans of our military strategists came to regard the intervention of 1917-1918 in Europe as an accident--this conclusion notwithstanding realization by the same thinkers that the balance of power and America's security had hinged on events across the Atlantic.3
Thus the United States, out of traditions going back to another age only temporarily interrupted by the First World War, of its own free will helped to jettison the victory of 1918. It demobilized its army; it limited its naval forces by treaty, and by example. This reversion to isolation was an instinctive adaptation to a deceptive picture of peace soon to disappear as foreign dictators rose to challenge the balance of power in a new and even more terrible war. Our teachers and our preachers, our statesmen and our legislators, even our military planners, and some of our own historians, had taken a mistaken measure of American foreign policy. The resulting neutrality legislation only served, so to speak, to keep us out of the First World War. American neutrality broke down again--the fourth breakdown in our history, within two or three years after the neutrality legislation of 1935-1937.
Scarcely had the Second World War been fought and won in a desperate trial of heroism and arms by the victorious Allies when a new historical revisionism in the United States raised its head over the disaster of Pearl Harbor to gainsay the foreign policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, even as revisionist in the previous generation had repudiated Wilson's policy.
Since 1945 historical writers have pursued the subject of the United States and the Second World War, pursued it not without polemics, oppugnation, prejudice, passion, and personal pain. In surveying these historiographical battles, we must remember that again, in 1939, there was much to lose, perhaps everything to lose, in case of a victory of the Axis Powers. It is difficult to see how there can be any doubt but that the United States and the whole Western Hemisphere would have been in great peril, whether immediate or proximate, had President Roosevelt stood by with arms folded around the new neutrality laws and permitted Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan to have overturned the balance of power by a defeat of Great Britain and the Commonwealth whether in the Atlantic or the Pacific, Southeast Asia, India, or Australia.
The new revisionists, notably Charles A. Beard, did not fail to point out that after waging the Second World War at a terrible cost we now face a greater danger than ever. Who would deny this fearsome fact? But the presence of new danger, as Professor Eugene C. Murdock has reminded us--along with the Germans4--is no argument against the liquidation of the old. Could we have lived on as a free nation preserving the Blessings of Liberty, with allies to join our effort, if Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (not to mention Mussolini's Italy) had won the Second World War?
Our great miscalculation, if one may so presume to say, in the diplomacy of the Second World War came not from Roosevelt's courageous--however disingenuous to the voters--departure from neutrality to preserve the birthright of our forefathers at the risk of a global war, but from his misjudgment of the nature and forces of Soviet policy, from his naïve assumption that he could cooperate with Russian revolutionary power once the Soviet Union no longer had need for such cooperation, once it stood victoriously on the World Island of Eurasia. The hunchful and hopeful President relied on the policy of Teheran and Cairo, already antiquated by the rush of events in Europe and Asia. After Yalta, traditional American foreign policy toward China collapsed on the continent of Asia. Where is the Open Door now?
Once again, after the complete defeat and surrender of the Axis Powers in 1945, the New World seemed safe, as it had seemed so safe after the First World War, and there was again a disposition to withdraw our forces from Europe and Asia and this time to trust our destiny to a new league of nations. The United States pinned its hopes to the flag of the United Nations--to quote President Truman. This illusion of safety was short lived. To use the words of James B. Conant: "The coup d'état in Prague, the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War demonstrated the kind of world in which we lived, a divided world; and the division was broad and deep. The issue was freedom."5
The Soviet Harvest--apt phrase of Langer and Gleason--at the end of the Second World War introduced the latest and most sudden new configuration of power. Accompanying this latest geopolitical shift, the most revolutionary change for the strategy of American defense and diplomacy, is the following complex of phenomena completely altering the position of the United States in the world:
- The scientific and technological revolution of our times which mushroomed into the atomic age at Alamagordo at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945.
- Disintegration of the old empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--German, Japanese, Italian, British, French, Dutch, and Belgian--and replacement of their colonies by many new nations with Western ideas and desires but also weak enough to produce a widening vacuum of power.
- Substitution of a new Red imperialism controlling and oppressing adjacent satellites even more imperiously than the Western empires ever ruled their overseas colonies in Asia and Africa. It is a new and bitter system of colonization, now spreading to the Western Hemisphere in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine.
- The risen tide of color.
- Regrouping of the former world powers subsidiary to two opposing superpowers that face each other and each other's allies on three fronts: at the hither rim of the two great oceans at each end of a new geopolitical axis bending over the North Pole.
- Potential military supremacy of Soviet Russia, allied with Communist China, on the World Island.
- The end of the freedom of the seas, and the threatened naval supremacy of Russia sallying forth from her land mass to the great oceans with a powerful fleet of submarines and all the implications of offshore nuclear bombardment of our cities on both coasts as well as destruction of surface vessels, whether obsolete navies or helpless merchant marine.
- A balance of terror in the air and in space beyond the atmosphere which still preserves a precarious balance between freedom and slavery in the world.
Beyond these revolutionary factors in the shifting international configuration of our times is another even more dynamic factor of incalculable implications: the great population explosion of the pullulating peoples of this globe.
To meet the rapidly developing picture of the atomic age, the United States after the Second World War embarked on a diplomatic revolution. It repledged itself, within the newly chartered Organization of American States, against intervention by any one state, directly or indirectly, within the internal or external affairs of another American state, or by any group of states except in accordance with existing treaties, one of which was the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947. At astronomical expense it lavished upon friend and foe, for their rehabilitation beyond the standards of 1939 and for their armament or rearmament, a sum of billions of dollars greater than the total ever extracted in all former wars from the vanquished by the victors--and the stream flows on and on toward over a hundred billion dollars. It developed disparate and subtly qualified regional, and bilateral, defensive alliances with at least forty-four nations within the United Nations, based on the putative historical lessons of past world wars.
History taught, so the argument ran, that if the Imperial German government had realized that the United States would become identified with Great Britain and her allies, there would have been no war in 1914; that if the United States had been a member of the first League of Nations there would not have been any Second World War. However all that may or may not have been, history also argued, so it was urged, that Hitler certainly would not have ventured war in 1939 if he had known that Germany would have to fight the United States and Great Britain firmly leagued with the Western nations in a revived system of collective security. Therefore Stalin and his successors--men did not yet think of Mao Tse-tung and his successors--would know better, from the lessons of the German and Japanese catastrophes, than to start a third world war.
This conclusion based on might-have-beens from the two world wars proves by no means to be a conclusive lesson of history. It is not at all certain that what might--or might not--have stayed Imperial Germany in 1914, or given pause to Hitler's Germany in 1939, will now stay Khrushchev and/or Red China from setting off another world war, or from winning the global fruits of victory undamaged by another war, simply by softening up the Western nations and peacefully overbuilding them in armed power until the victims, frightened and nerveless, accept the coils of tyranny in order to avoid a nuclear war.
How has our foreign policy and diplomacy adapted itself to this last and most momentous shift of all? It is too early to measure the success of our diplomacy in the cold war, much as one might be tempted to do so. Certainly there are steps that we would not take if we had the opportunity to do things over again. Certainly we have neglected to take some steps that manifestly we should have taken. But so far as one can gauge the present, it would seem that the American diplomatic revolution--most striking in all the history of diplomacy--was at least a nonpartisan response to the new requirements of the "prolonged and complex struggle" which President Eisenhower in his farewell telecast so soberly and poignantly bequeathed to his successor.
Whether our new alliances marshal united power at home and abroad and morale sufficient to stop the new aggressors is indeed a vital question. Whether by these commitments we have overextended our military power beyond the capacity of our allies and ourselves to deploy on exterior lines to all the danger spots is for our military authorities to answer. But would not history since ancient times lead its votaries to question whether money, however massively, helpfully, and generously bestowed, can be substituted for foresight, for work, pride, sacrifice, courage, or valor, either in the giver or the taker? And does not a policy of containment by its very nature yield the initiative to the revolutionary aggressor? Really it has not contained all around the World Island of Eurasia. Meanwhile, time has been on the side of the Communists. They have crushed Hungary, with impunity. They have pushed into Laos, despite SEATO. They have jumped the Near East over NATO and CENTO and reached into Africa to compound chaos in the Congo. They have leaped the Atlantic over OAS to establish another Communist front in Cuba, a fourth front for the United States to defend at our very doorstep. In Eastern Asia the Open Door has closed. In the Western Hemisphere, is the Monroe Doctrine dead, as Khrushchev said?
Surely the history of our foreign policy in relation to the successive postures of power in the world shows that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the United States profited adventitiously from the highly favorable circumstances of a secure and prosperous isolation. Surely this fortunate age cannot recur. America no longer enjoys a detached and distant position--on the contrary. Europe's distresses and those of Asia and Africa are no longer America's advantage; they are now America's distresses, too. Canada no longer is the hostage but rather the indispensable linchpin of Anglo-American solidarity.
Nor do the great wars of the first half of the twentieth century afford a wholly reliable experience for the global compass of our foreign policy during the second half of the century in which we are now so unpropitiously projected. "We fail to see the world in perspective," Dean Acheson has suggested, "because we regard it through eyes which we have inherited from our grandparents and great grandparents."6 From our parents, too, he might have said, and from our own yesterdays.
For the world has changed much since Mr. Acheson wrote these words only a couple of years ago--witness Cuba. "The world into which we were born is gone," declared President Julius A. Stratton as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reached its centenary last spring; "we have little or no idea of the world into which our children may grow to maturity. It is this rate of change, even more than change itself that is the dominant fact of our time." Things are changing so rapidly--just look at the moon!--that I have been worried lest they should change to stultify these remarks since they were submitted to the American Historical Review, in September, for publication in the January 1962 issue.
In this rapidly changing world does liberty, does freedom still set the tone and give color to our major activities as it did in the days of our nation's founders when they bequeathed its blessings to us? Take the tone of the academic world. Have not our social studies been tending overmuch to self-study--to what is the matter with us rather than to perils and strengths that test our liberty? Too much self-study, too much self-criticism is weakening to a people as it is to an individual. There is such a thing as a national neurosis. A great people's culture, Alfred North Whitehead reminded us, begins to decay when it commences to examine itself.
A great and virile people, Theodore Roosevelt's characterization of the American people, can also waste itself away when it turns to massive self-indulgence. In self-study and self-indulgence we have been losing sight of our national purpose rather than failing to have one. During the letdown of the last fifteen years we have been experiencing the world crisis from soft seats of comfort, debauched by mass media of sight and sound, pandering for selfish profit to the lowest level of our easy appetites, fed full of toys and gew-gaws, our military preparedness held back by insidious strikes for less work and more pay, our manpower softened in will and body in a climate of amusement. Massive self-indulgence and massive responsibility do not go together. A great nation cannot work less and get more, with fun for all, in today's stern posture of power.
How can our lazy social dalliance and crooning softness compete with the stern discipline and tyrannical compulsion of subject peoples that strengthen the aggressive sinews of our malignant antagonist? Only if we can freely sacrifice for the Blessings of Liberty what they are forced to sacrifice for the compulsions of tyranny.
If the measurement of American foreign policy in space and time throughout our history offers little precedent for meeting the challenge of revolutionary changes in today's global picture, there is one thing sure in this crisis of our national life: the unchanging value of our inheritance of freedom, as we confront the dilemma of our times.
The dilemma of our times, in this latest and fateful Gestalt of world power, is whether to stand firmly in defense of the Blessings of Liberty at the risk of a third world war that may destroy civilization and with it all human freedom and dignity, or to accept Communist revolution and slavery that would also destroy those same precious freedoms and leave the world materially intact under new masters. We still pray that there may be a middle way for freedom. But in the face of the two extremes of this dilemma Bertrand Russell advocates, and too many with him on both sides of the Atlantic, even after the lessons of Hungary, Tibet, and Cuba, accepting Soviet mastery rather than standing fast for the Rights of Englishmen and the Rights of Man, that is, for the Blessings of Liberty. This is a counsel of defeatism for all we hold dear.
For if we stand, to quote a book review of September last year, "committed in every fiber of our being not merely to protect our nation but also to struggle for the cause of freedom on the world scene,"7 we may win, and win without a final Armageddon of the globe. To quote an utterance of the same author four months later: ". . . proud of our ancient heritage--we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."
The historian of the future, if there is to be such, will have to decide, in taking the historical measure of American foreign policy, whether the people in this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and also the peoples of other allied governments, had, as well as the power and unity, the social discipline, the spirit of sacrifice, the nerve and the courage to guard for themselves and their posterity the Blessings of Liberty.
At the time of his presidency Samuel Flagg Bemis was the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Diplomatic History and Inter-American Relations at Yale University.
1. Leonard Krieger, "The Use of Marx for History," Political Science Quarterly, LXXV (Sept. 1960), 360.
2. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York. 1959), 283.
3. Fred Greene, "The Military View of American National Policy, 1904-1940," American Historical Review, LXVI (Jan. 1961), 354-77.
4. Eugene C. Murdock, "Zum Eintritt der Vereinigten Staaten in der Zweiten Weltkrieg," Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, IV (Jan. 1956), 100.
5. The Defense Freedom (Stamford, Conn., 1960).
6. Dean Acheson, "The Premises of American Policy," Orbis, III (Fall 1959), 268.
7. John F. Kennedy, in review of B. H. Liddell Hart's book, Deterrent or Defense, in Saturday Review, Sept. 3, 1960, 17-18.