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Defense through conquest: the ideological driver in American foreign policy

Defense through conquest: the ideological driver in American foreign policy

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Audrye Wong. Originally submitted for HIS 380: The United States and World Affairs at Princeton University, with lecturer Bradley Simpson in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Audrye Wong. Originally submitted for HIS 380: The United States and World Affairs at Princeton University, with lecturer Bradley Simpson in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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03/09/2014

 
George Bush commented in his 2001 inaugural address that America had gone out into the world to protect, not to possess; and to defend, not to conquer. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Protect and defend what? Were ideals or external factors (politics,economics, national security, etc.) more important in determining US actions, and how dothey relate to each other? Give specific examples from the 1890s through the 1950s to support your position. Make sure to address the entire period.Keywords
Ideology; foreign policy; United States; conquest; national security.
 Abstract
 Although external political, economic and security threats have affected U.S. behavior,ideological exceptionalism has consistently been the backbone of U.S. foreign policy – that Americais a benign power helping to ensure that the ideals of democracy, capitalism, and freedom are upheldin less able nations. The need to defend such universalist ideals has been a common refrain used tojustify U.S. intervention overseas. Yet, the lines between defense and active conquest have becomeblurred. U.S. action is often couched in terms of a protective response against threats such astotalitarianism or communism.From the late 1890s, possession of overseas territories in Latin America and elsewhere wasnot seen as conquest but a righteous deed. It formed part of America’s noble, civilizing mission.Certainly, the United States had been reluctant to get involved into the two world wars. It abandonedits neutral posture in WWII only when German and Japanese aggression threatened U.S. economicand security interests. However, an ideological rationale was also always present – the desire to shapethe post-war world order, both economically and politically. America viewed itself as a force forgood, helping to mediate and resolve Old World conflicts. At the same time, this ideology was a carefully constructed framework, meant less to defendthese universal ideals than to advance the United States’ own national interests. From the MarshallPlan to the multilateral Bretton Woods institutions post-WWII, President Roosevelt sought topreserve and consolidate the United States’ position at the apex of the hierarchy. Thus, a moreinsidious form of conquest emerges – the entrenchment of an American empire not in territorial butin economic and political terms. Europe, Latin America, and Asia were viewed as markets to beopened and “conquered” by the American capitalist system, through the Open Door policy and thepromotion of mass consumerism.Moreover, fervent belief in universalist ideals has led to active ideological conquest andimposition rather than passive defense. When nobler objectives of protecting international interestsand peace were at stake, force became acceptable, blurring the lines between conquest and defense.During the Cold War, pervasive ideological zeal blinkered U.S. officials into a dichotomous, black- versus-white worldview, leading to over-reactive policies towards the Soviet Union. The self-amplification of the Cold War illustrates how domestic ideology and politics in the U.S. often shapeand even construct foreign policy and world events, rather than external events dictating Americanresponse. Although security and economic threats may have sparked U.S. action, such as its entry intothe two world wars, America’s fundamental worldview of itself as the superior force of good,necessary for world progress, has ultimately steered the wheel, whether consciously or not.Upholding and spreading these universal ideals has become part of America’s national interests. Theopacity of what exactly the U.S. is trying to protect or defend reveals the ideological abstractions thathave underpinned its foreign policy and used to justify a conscious assertion of benevolent Americanpower on the global stage.
 
Defense through conquest: the ideological driver in American foreign policy
 To protect but not to possess; to defend but not to conquer. Once again, American foreignpolicy is couched in grand, vague terms, giving ample room to expound the ideals of democracy,capitalism and freedom that America has historically professed to stand for. Although externalpolitical, economic and security threats have affected U.S. behavior, ideological exceptionalism hasconsistently been the backbone of U.S. foreign policy – that America is a benign power helping toensure these universalist ideals are upheld in less able nations. Yet often, in its fervor to do so, thelines between defense and active conquest become blurred. The United States has consistently perceived itself as the bulwark and guardian of universalist ideals. The need to defend these ideals is a common refrain historically used to justify U.S. intervention overseas. Rather than an aggressive posture, U.S. action is couched in terms of aprotective response against threats such as totalitarianism or communism. Yet, claiming that America had never had any intention of conquest would be blatantly false. As the United States was first emerging on the global stage in the late 19
th
century, propelled by strong economic growth and technological innovation, an expansionist agenda under PresidentMcKinley was certainly on the table. Under his leadership, the U.S. intervened in Cuba (againstSpain), the Philippines, and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Accompanying this was a moralistic and religious undertone. America believed in itsManifest Destiny as having a God-given duty to bring progress to the non-Anglo-Saxon Protestantand hence backward peoples. An American empire was hence seen as a noble, civilizing mission,captured in the many political cartoons of the day portraying the U.S. as a fatherly benefactortowards “savages” such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines
1
. John Gast’s painting 
 American 
1
In “Hurrah for the Fourth of July! We’re coming in on independence day celebrations too”,
 Minneapolis Journal 
 (1898). The three countries are portrayed as uncivilized children eagerly waving flags to welcome U.S. rule.http://www.princeton.edu/~bsimpson/2010%20Hist%20380/2010history380week2.htmlRetrieved on 27Oct 2010.
 
Progress 
embodied the notion of America as the ultimate source of light and path towardsmodernization
2
.In other words, possession of overseas territories in Latin America and elsewhere was notseen as conquest but rather a righteous deed, morally above the childish European colonialsquabbles. Even if not always explicitly articulated, this sense of superiority persisted in subsequentU.S. attitudes towards Europe. America imbued itself with divine qualities. Talking aboutnegotiations with Europe on the Versailles Treaty, President Woodrow Wilson said, “If I didn’t feel I was the personal instrument of God, I couldn’t have carried on.”
3
Announcing the “Shoot on Sight”policy and later during his war message to Congress, Franklin Roosevelt described Americans as “afree people conscious of their duty” who would “stand their ground against this latest assault upontheir democracy, their sovereignty, and their freedom”, while also invoking divine guidance - “so helpus God.”
4
  Yet, the United States had been reluctant to get dragged into both wars, attempting toremain neutral for as long as possible. Experience from WWI led to an explicit Neutrality Act of 1935 during the Second World War, stopping exports to all belligerents. America only entered the wars when it seemed that force was the only means of halting German aggression as well as, during  WWII, Japan’s militaristic vision of a “new order in Asia”
5
that threatened ideas of nationalsovereignty, the Open Door policy and ultimately American security with its unprecedented attack onPearl Harbor.It might seem that U.S. action was more a response to external economic and security threats. But an ideological rationale was always present – the desire to shape the post-war worldorder, both economically and politically. America viewed itself as a force for good, helping to
2
The U.S. is personified as Lady Columbia, wearing the “Star of Empire” on her forehead and ushering bothsavage natives and settlers from darkness into light. She carries with her a schoolbook (symbol of civilizationand enlightenment) and a telegraph pole, representing America’s technological advancements.
3
Quoted from Professor Bradley Simpson, HIS 380 lecture, Princeton University, 30 Sept 2010.
4
Merrill, Dennis and Thomas G. Paterson, “Chapter 4 U.S. Entry into World War II”,
 Major Problems in  American Foreign Relations, Volume II: Since 1914, Seventh Edition 
, Wadsworth Cengage Learning (Boston, MA:2010).
5
Ibid.

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