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The American Identity of Foreign Policy

The American Identity of Foreign Policy

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Published by NathanielWhittemore
An essay arguing that post WWII foreign policy was, in many ways, a battleground for domestic identity in the US, and a portend for the coming battle over civil rights.
An essay arguing that post WWII foreign policy was, in many ways, a battleground for domestic identity in the US, and a portend for the coming battle over civil rights.

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Published by: NathanielWhittemore on Jun 17, 2011
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07/24/2015

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Nathaniel Whittemore American Foreign Policy Paper 1 1/25/05
In a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, a young black man, who wasdreading service in a Jim Crow army, asked whether “the kind of America Iknow” is even “worth defending” and whether he should risk life and limb just to “live half-American.” 
1
Carol Anderson,
Eyes off the Prize
In the wake of WWII, the idea of America was largely up for grabs.Emerging as the only superpower to have its economic, military, and politicalinfrastructure almost wholly in tact, the country was in a position to assumesupreme global leadership. The vision for this leadership was hotly contested,and interestingly had often more to do with fundamental questions of domestic identity than difference of opinion on international engagement. Anarticulated foreign policy called for a unity of internal purpose, and it was thecomposition of this purpose, more than any specific action, that was the truebattleground for those parties competing for post-1945 American worldvision. Indeed, the irony of the early cold war was that it’s most viciousbattles were not against conniving Stalinist hordes, but rather betweendiametrically opposed and incompatible lifestyles in a pitched battle for justwhat it meant to be “American” and who exactly qualified for the rights of that association.The brilliance of NSC-68 was that in creating an absolute other of theSoviet Union and defining America in Manichean opposition
to
that other, itnot only affirmed the domestic status quo but made acceptance of thatreality a prerequisite for participation in foreign policy discussion. Theproblem for African-Americans was, of course, that their interest ininternational engagement was largely due to the potential they saw in anarticulation of principles and policies to change that status quo and improvetheir lot. The potential panacea that the NAACP saw in the forced delineationof un-hypocritical self-identity through foreign policy was almost totallyundercut by the rhetoric and institutionalized “red” fear. This paper attemptsto demonstrate that the immediate post-war competition for internationalvision was largely a proxy battle for American identity; a battle that pitted
1
Anderson, 15
 
Nathaniel Whittemore American Foreign Policy Paper 1 1/25/05
Black leadership at one end of the spectrum against the Jim Crow South atthe other.
Background
Before the 20
th
century, America was largely defined simply as itseemed. For the citizens of other countries, “America” was an idea broughtback to them by observers and reporters who were, themselves, visitors tothat land. Internally, Americans most often viewed themselves as part of regional or contextual polities; some understood their “Americanness” asembedded in seven generations of New England upbringing; others saw it asthe self-reliance and danger embodied in the frontier lifestyle. Still otherswondered what it really meant to be American. The proud tradition of slaveryhad required a dehumanization so complete that it is little wonder that blackcitizens would have questioned, even after their legal emancipation, justwhat this “America” Lincoln kept talking about meant.What was beyond a shadow of a doubt was that in no way did thepeoples of different groups have a single idea of “America,” or a singlefoundational “American” identity which they could readily articulate. Even theflowing and vague description of base principles contained in the Constitutioncould not bind all parties, in either a moral or legal sense.At the turn of the 20
th
century, with the crescendo of colonialism andthe rise of the American capitalist industrial juggernaut, the country wasincreasingly drawn into the world beyond its borders. This would require anew self-imagining. For the first time, administrations were forced toarticulate an overarching identity that could be promulgated into policy.Indeed, the strange reality of foreign policy is that to an extent much greaterthan its domestic equivalent, it implicitly forces a compression and unificationof the ideology of a state. When it intervened in the Philippines, for example,the United States ceased to be a federation of differences, and insteadbecame, at least to the outside world, a single, unified and powerful actor.What’s more, the perception of “America” was no longer up for grabsat the whim of foreign observers, but was instead embodied and projected bythe soldiers and missions directly to those perceiving it. This represented atotal upheaval from the old mode. It forced a nation that had been fighting
 
Nathaniel Whittemore American Foreign Policy Paper 1 1/25/05
itself for more than 150 years about its identity to suddenly behave asthough all that had been resolved.While this upheaval had begun with US involvement in the Philippinesand Latin America in the 1890s, the conditions surrounding WWII created acontext which made the issue more prescient than ever. Foreign policyarticulation meant now not only creation of the American self, but indeed, anarticulation of an entire world system. With superpower and hegemonicstatus came not only a need for self-definition, but a consensus on how toproject that identity. To a large degree, the virulence and struggle for American foreignvision was inflected by that struggle for self-imagination and identity.Inherent in the battles over policy was an articulation more direct than everbefore of what it mean to be American and to whom this status could beaccorded. Both the Southern states-rightists and the national African-American assemblies understood this truism. The battle was one which pittedtwo incompatible modes of existence against each other. Moreover, theferocity with which it played out was exacerbated by the last 90 years whichhad seen a steady (at least legal) erosion of the privileged “good old boy”lifestyle and the continuous, if often painfully symbolic increase in therecognition of black citizens as both human beings and Americans. The Southattacked with a viciousness born of the very real insecurity it felt for itsinstitutional survival, while the tenor of the African-American struggle wascrafted not only as a response to hundreds of years of that viciousness, butwith the momentum of a movement that had, for all its pains, still witnessedgreat upheavals in the existing order. The monumentality of Cold War identity politics was predicated on thecreation of the looming specter of the Soviet Union. Even as rival groupscompeted for an articulation of American identity that would be embodied inforeign policy and international engagement, the creation of USSR as thegreat other, that which was
fundamentally and incontrovertibly opposed to America
, threatened to destroy the efficacy of those discussions.
African Americans
 The African American vision of post-war American engagementembodied the belief that an articulation of principle abroad could be a

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