How America Got It Right: The U.S. March to Military and Political SupremacyClick here to purchase from Barnes & Noble. Click here to purchase from Amazon.com.
The easiest way to get a handle on the world view of Americans is to realize that we think of ourselves as inhabiting an island. We saw in our earliest days that the Western Hemisphere sat isolated in the midst of two vast oceans, and that these oceans both separated us from the rest of the world, and protected us from the rest of the world.
We have consistently sought not to share this island with competing world powers. Americans have been resolute to prevent in the Western Hemisphere a replication of the eternally warring and competing great powers of Europe.
The concept of America as an island explains virtually all of American history. It explains why we turned our back on Europe for the first century and a quarter of our independence in order to conquer and populate the most important and favored part of this island, and to eliminate any threat to it from the north or the south. It explains why---although weak, newly independent and lightly populated---we laid out the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to close off colonization or interference in the Western Hemisphere, thereby preventing any world power from challenging us on our island. It explains why, at times we were disillusioned with or distrustful of Europe, we isolated ourselves behind our oceanic moat—as we did after World War I when, in despair at Europe’s greed and bickering, we refused to join the League of Nations, and as we did briefly in 1940 when France fell and we feared Britain was going to fall to Nazi Germany. It explains why, after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, we developed overwhelming military power and, over the following years, went across our oceans and methodically destroyed the enemies threatening our island. It explains why we were willing to risk nuclear war in 1962 when the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba and jeopardized not only the United States but also the safety of the hemisphere. It also explains why, after suffering a direct attack on our island on September 11, 2001, we are today repeating the process of World War II, going wherever we have to in the world to destroy those who threaten our island.
The steadfast resolve to protect our island lies at the heart of all our dreams and aspirations as a people, and defines everything the United States has been, is, and hopes to be.
We saw early in our colonial history that—because of our isolation from Europe, and because of the immense wealth and bounty of our land—we had the opportunity to build the greatest, freest, and most prosperous nation ever to arise on earth. We spent the first century and a quarter of our independent existence in creating this great nation. But to protect this treasure, we found that we needed to establish the world’s paramount military structure , and become the world’s preeminent political power. This book is the story of America’s march to economic, military, and political supremacy, and the ideals that have guided us along the way.
As will be seen, we have made the right decisions in the vast majority of cases throughout our history, choosing democracy over plutocracy, equality over privilege, liberty over oppression, and the prosperity of the many over the greed of the few.
We have not always been consistent. For a while early in our history we listened to Alexander Hamilton, who tried to sacrifice the interests of ordinary people to the avarice of the wealthy.1 We had a huge blind spot about slavery and allowed that iniquity to continue and to throw us into a bitter fraternal conflict. We withdrew into isolationism between the two world wars and allowed dictators to attack innocent peoples. We fought against what we thought was the spread of communism in Vietnam when we were actually taking sides in a civil war. We have made other mistakes. But our lapses have been infrequent, and our intentions have almost always been good.
This inclination to do right has been virtually unique among the nations of the world, and for this reason we have been often misunderstood. How could a country so rich and successful be so unselfish and caring? We must have darker motives, critics say. We must be seeking to create an empire, to dominate everyone else, to grab the oil or the trade or whatever else for our own selfish purposes. People from more grasping, less-idealistic societies find it impossible to accept that we honestly believe that giving everyone opportunity is the recipe for abundance and happiness everywhere, not merely in the favored reaches of the United States of America. We honestly believe that securing other people’s freedom is the best guarantee that we can keep our own. We do not want to dominate the world. We want to live our lives in peace, and we hope other peoples will do the same. We go out into the world to redress errors, to stop unacceptable behavior, to challenge threats to our island and our liberty. When we have settled the problem, we want to go home, not stay and build an empire.
From the outset of our history, Americans have focused on creating a great nation in North America, not on conquering other peoples. For more than a century after the Revolution, Americans were preoccupied with establishing the economic and political foundations of this nation. During the entire period we took advantage of the fact that we were largely insulated by a great ocean from the quarreling, avaricious societies of Europe. The British Royal Navy, more to protect Canada and its trade with Latin America than to guard the United States, largely kept other navies at a distance. We saw no need to interfere with European empires, so long as they stayed away from our hemisphere. Therefore, the United States played only a minor role on the world stage, and—despite establishing splendid records in wars on land and sea—created no world-class navy , and allowed its army to atrophy after every conflict.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Americans realized that the protection we enjoyed behind the Atlantic and the Pacific could not endure. An American strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, proved in his 1890 work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, that there can be no partial control of the sea because the sea is indivisible. A superior fleet can move over the whole sea, sweeping all lesser navies from it. This was the means by which the Royal Navy had dominated the oceans for the previous two and a half centuries, and the reason why Britain had been able to accumulate the largest empire in the history of the world.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Germany began to challenge the naval power of Britain, and by implication Britain’s world domination. It was this threat, above all else, that caused World War I of 1914-18. This war brought calamity to Britain, France, Germany, and much of the rest of Europe. At war’s end a gravely weakened, almost bankrupt Britain no longer could afford the world’s largest navy. The United States saw that protection of the Western Hemisphere now rested on its own shoulders. Far more significant, we saw that we could not wait until an aggressive power had built enough strength to invade our hemisphere, but that we must go out to the aggressor, wherever he was, and smash him there. In short, we must take over the world hegemonic role that Britain had exercised since 1660.
This meant that the United States was obliged to build the largest and most powerful navy in the world---a task it took on at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922. The public saw only that Britain accepted naval parity with the United States, the first time it had done so with any country. But leaders of both nations knew the treaty actually signified that the Royal Navy would decline in the decades ahead while the United States Navy would grow.
It took the United States until 1940 to undertake fully the task of creating the world’s greatest military power. The spark came with the disastrous collapse of France and the ascendance of Nazi Germany, and in the next five years, the United States developed a military able to defeat any provocation anywhere on earth. We have never relinquished our place since. Indeed, the superiority of the U.S. military has grown exponentially since the end of World War II. Its power now exceeds that of all the rest of the world combined. Along with this power has grown American political strength.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States held back the spread of Communism, and promoted democracy, the rule of law, market economies, and free trade everywhere. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, no nation was able to match the United States. Some countries feared we would use our power to dominate the world. To prevent this from happening, they tried to tie down the United States by means of international bodies like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
Since the United States saw no insurmountable dangers on the horizon, it was more or less willing to work within an international context. Then the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. For Americans, the world changed in an instant. The terrorists had struck directly at our island, at what we hold most precious—at the very treasures we built our overwhelming military and political power to protect in the first place. The attacks transformed our nation from a benign hegemon into a ferocious avenger.
This was another right decision of the United States, and a most vital one. For terrorism and dictatorial rogue nations pose as great a danger to the peace of the world as ever Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin did. We saw this with absolute clarity on that horrible day of death and tragedy. And we resolved that this we would not allow to endure.
As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote, most other peoples have not yet comprehended that our primary intention is to preserve and keep our own land with all its liberty and all its prosperity, and that we will do anything and go anywhere to make this happen. Most people in other countries were unprepared for our resolution after 9/11 to proceed door-to-door in the very heart of the Arab-Muslim world, to make clear we were ready to kill and to die to stop our society from being undermined, and to say, gun in hand, to the people and to the governments who permit terrorists to exist, “What is it that you don’t understand about leaving our country alone?”2
Misconceptions about American motives and aspirations are not limited to lands that harbor terrorists. In the spring of 2003, France , Germany, Russia, and China refused to sanction America’s overthrow of the Iraqi dictatorship. We didn’t actually expect the vastly different and more repressive societies of Russia and China to fathom the injustice perpetrated on our people and institutions, but we did expect such sensitivity from Western Europe, fellow democratic societies that supposedly stood for the same value we hold dear.
Americans were compelled to confront a bitter truth: we were dead wrong in our conviction, held for the last half of the twentieth century, that the United States and Western Europe share a common resolve to preserve and advance freedom throughout the world. We have been forced to accept, as Robert Kagan has written, that Europe “is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation.”3 A century ago, when a rising Germany was facing insufficient challenge from other powers, Winston Churchill warned that “we live in an age of great events and little men.” Europe once more is living in an age of great events and little men. Americans believe that Western Europeans bury their heads in the sand when difficult decisions must be made, abstain on issues where they should display moral leadership, and take positions only when their own interests are directly at stake.
This has led Americans to conclude that ours is the only nation that will actually go into the world and strike down evil. We were encouraged when Britain and Australia especially, but also some Continental nations, lined up with us. But we know that they would do little without the active determination of the United States. For these reasons, we must dominate the political life of this planet, and we must keep an invincible military as an ever-present deterrence.
This book is the story of how we got it right in the past and how we intend to get it right in the future.
1 Hamilton favored a strong central government and banking system, and believed the country should be governed by a monopoly of the educated and privileged. “The people,” he once said, “is a great beast.” In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes, , “Too often, his political vision harked back to a past in which well-bred elites made decisions for less-educated citizens.” See Chernow, 234. Hamilton wanted subsidies and tariffs to protect emerging industries, and believed that America should look to England as its model embracing urbanization, modern industries, and rule by a few over the many. His party became the Federalists. Thomas Jefferson believed the opposite. He distrusted strong federal institutions and elite and wealthy leaders, and believed that the federal government should have limited powers, leaving day-to-day governance to the common people. His party, the Democratic Republicans, represented small farmers and craftsmen. See Kupchan, 168; Hicks, 218.
2 Thomas L. Friedman “Because We Could,” New York Times, June 4, 2003 .
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