The Roots of America’s Disastrous Overseas Failures: Hubris as Foreign Policy Goes Back More Than a Century

Seventy-five years ago Japan was preparing to officially surrender. On August 23, 1945 Lt. John K. Bremyer was working at the Office Messenger Mail Center in the navy complex on the Mall in Washington, D.C., when he received orders from Adm. William "Bull" Halsey to bring a precious item to the battleship Missouri for the surrender ceremony on September 2.

He barely made the 9,000-mile trip on time – there were no nonstop jet flights from Washington to Asia in those days. More important, to him, at least, he had to stand up his date to leave immediately. He couldn’t get ahold of her, since no one had cellphones then. He embarked upon a multi-flight journey that left him tired and unwashed, before getting to the ship shortly before the surrender was signed on deck. He witnessed history and then made his way back home. It was a great story. And, perhaps most important of all, his rude departure did not prevent his disappointed date from becoming his wife three months later.

His cargo? The U.S. flag raised by Commodore Matthew Perry outside Yokohama in 1853. Halsey had planned on flying the standard, but historians at the US Naval Academy warned that the flag was too fragile to use. So it was framed for all to see. In those days, a commander’s word was law and no expense was spared to comply with Halsey’s wish.

Yet the display of the Perry flag reflected something very ugly. Not the marginal increase in Japan’s humiliation: the nation already had been ravaged, its rulers discredited, cities ruined, population impoverished, warships sunk, commercial fleet destroyed, and reputation destroyed. Rather, America was flaunting its coercive foreign policy which had helped create the Japan that visited so much death and destruction on others. The Perry mission had been no social visit.

Japan was a feudal system. The Dutch, a great naval and trading nation, made first contact with Japan in 1543. A century later rebellion broke out, which the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate blamed on Christians converted by Western missionaries. The regime persecuted Christianity at home and limited influences – commercial as well as spiritual – from abroad. The period earned the name Sakako, or "locked country." Throughout the first half of the 19th century more than a score of foreign ships visited Japan in an attempt to make contact with the authorities, but their entreaties were rejected.

This was an age of mercantilism, when even democratic governments sought to control investment and trade for national advantage. American merchants, like their foreign counterparts, imagined the enormous profit to be made by flooding foreign markets with US goods. Local cultures, opinions, traditions, and decisions should not be allowed to stand in the way. If resistance occurred, it had to be crushed.

Although Japan was not primitive – the social structure and governing institutions were extraordinarily complex – its isolation and resistance to change meant that it had not availed itself to the benefits of industrialization. Such as creating and arming a modern military. Thus, a few American sailing posed a serious threat to Japan in that day.

Perry was ordered by President Millard Fillmore to travel to Japan to force it to open up, that is, engage and, most important, trade with the US Perry was sent with "full and discretionary powers," including authority to use force, as in bombard the unsuspecting and unthreatening Japanese. Along the way he used threats and deception to force a treaty granting coaling and trading rights, and other privileges, on the Ryukyus, present day Okinawa. On July 8, 1853 his four ships arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) Bay and pointed their guns toward the capital. He dismissed Japanese officials who ordered him to leave, insisting that he would only talk with the top leadership. This was military intimidation at its most shameless.

He left his letter of demands with the Japanese and sailed off, promising to return the following year. A bitter debate erupted within the shogunate, weakened by the death of the shogun and ascension of his sickly son. Officials finally decided to accept the US demands. Perry returned in February the following year with a larger fleet and demanded an answer. He even threatened military action over the location of negotiations.

When the village of Yokohama was agreed to, he landed accompanied by hundreds of marines and sailors, backed by military bands playing The Star-Spangled Banner. The Convention of Kanagawa was signed, opening two ports to US vessels and creating a consulate. He sent one vessel back to America with the concluded treaty while the others visited the ports and prospective consulate site. He arrived home in 1855 and was feted for his "accomplishment." The navy promoted him and Congress voted an award of $20,000, the equivalent of almost $600,000 today.

The more dramatic impact was on Japan. A ferocious debate ensued within Japanese society, leading to the collapse of the shogunate and restoration of imperial rule. Unable to resist the power of the West, Japanese decided to learn from those who threatened them. The result was the Meiji Restoration, which ultimately turned the once isolated state into an industrial and military power. By the end of the century Tokyo had defeated China. A few years into the 20th century Japan dispatched Russia, one of Europe’s leading states. In time the military took over the Japanese political system and the government turned even more aggressive, first against China again, and then against its neighbors, America, and the European colonial powers. Absent Perry’s infamous Black Ships Asian history would have been very different.

But Japan was not the only example of American gunboat diplomacy. Equally destructive was the so-called Open Door Policy toward Imperial China. Once a great power, the latter fell into terminal decline in the 19th century. Western imperial powers took advantage of their opportunity to seize territory (usually known as "concessions") and force trade (the Opium Wars erupted when the Chinese government sought to halt British sales of the drug to Chinese). London later took Hong Kong as a colony. Japan grabbed the island of Formosa, or Taiwan, and transformed Korea from a Chinese into a Japanese protectorate and later a colony.

Washington’s response to such depredations was outrage … that America was not getting its fair share of the booty. In 1899 Secretary of State John Hay issued the famous Open Door Note insisting that all Western countries had an equal right to carve up China and share in the spoils, otherwise known as trade. Washington most decidedly was not interested in the rights and liberties of non-white foreigners. After all, the year before the US had seized the Philippines from the Spanish – and the Filipinos, who already were fighting for their independence. Some 200,000 died as Washington brutally subjugated the population.

The US behaved better in China only because the country was far too large to conquer. America joined European nations in demanding "concessions," in which Westerners lived separate from Chinese officials, practices, people, and rule. The US also took part in a multinational military expedition that suppressed the so-called Boxer Rebellion, which sought to expel foreigners and punish Chinese who fallen under foreign influence, such as Christians. The Western army defeated the Boxers and imperial government’s military. The result was a treaty which imposed a financial indemnity on China, allowed the stationing of foreign troops in Beijing, and mandated the execution of court officials who backed the rebellion.

Not that many years later Japan’s invasion ended the influence of Western powers in China. Then came the Chinese Revolution, fueled in part by anger over the "Century of Humiliation," during which the ancient civilization had lost land, lives, influence, and respect. Although the US was merely an add-on to the European powers despoiling China, the Black Ships had come back to haunt America when Japan turned episodic brutality into full-scale war. Without that conflict the Nationalists likely would have defeated, or at least contained, the Communist insurgency, which in 1949 resulted in formation of the People’s Republic of China headed by the Red Emperor Mao Zedong.

It would have been so much better if Matthew Perry had stayed home.

No doubt Bull Halsey thought little of Perry’s actual mission or its consequences when he ordered that Perry’s flag be transported half-way around the world to celebrate what was America’s second victory over Japan. Yet the very war that was concluding would not have occurred had Perry’s expedition never be sent. The flag represented the unmitigated, counterproductive, even disastrous hubris that dominates American foreign policy today.

US policymakers believe themselves to be entitled to run the world. And competent to do so. Hence decades of violent meddling in the Middle East, hundreds of military installations and tens of thousands of troops stationed around the world, more than a score industrial states reduced to dependent status, and routine support for vile, oppressive foreign regimes. This also is the age of endless war, when Washington seldom sees a problem that it believes cannot be solved with military force. Policies implemented in the name of preserving peace have turned peace into the unknown ideal.

Today the saga of the "Perry flag" offers an entertaining human-interest footnote to a horrendous war. Bremyer’s arduous journey even turned him into a minor celebrity, after which he gave presentations on his quest. Late in life he wrote a book on the Perry flag. He passed in 2008, by all counts loved by his family and valued by his community.

The foreign policy represented by the Perry flag should pass as well. Americans continue to pay the price of Washington’s misguided, arrogant, and militarized approach to the rest of the world.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.