Nonintervention or Empire:

Nonintervention – the notion that the purpose of American foreign policy is the actual defense of the United States themselves – is the essential American perspective on foreign affairs. It is the foreign policy most consistent with the republican and libertarian values of the American Revolution and the ongoing peaceful “revolution” of the free market. Arguably, it is classical liberalism applied to foreign affairs.

The statesmen of our revolutionary era espoused the cause of nonintervention. In his celebrated Farewell Address in 1796 George Washington urged Americans to avoid taking sides in foreign quarrels. America should maintain liberal and impartial commercial relations with the rest of the world while having “with them as little political connection as possible.” By maneuvering to avoid war with France, despite strong pressure from within his own party, President John Adams successfully practiced nonintervention. In his first inaugural address President Thomas Jefferson called for “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Our geographical position, British traditions of insularity, and preoccupation with expansion into contiguous lands, reinforced nonintervention as a premise of U.S. foreign relations. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) perhaps signaled U.S. pretensions to hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, but did pledge that the United States would stay out of European quarrels. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was nonintervention which was the norm – in contrast with our situation today.

John Quincy Adams summed up the noninterventionist outlook in his oft-quoted Fourth of July Address in 1821: “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standards of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”1 This still seems like sound advice.

Nonintervention remained an important element of U.S. public opinion and policy up to 1898 and even 1917. After the disillusioning experience of World War I, noninterventionist ideas underwent a revival in the 1920s and ’30s, only to be buried by World War II and subsequent events.


Americans decided, very early, that absorption of contiguous land areas was desirable, convenient, even imperative, for the American Republic. As historian William Appleman Williams observed, James Madison, “father of the Constitution,” made an especially persuasive argument for landed expansion. Classical republican political theory, as understood by Antifederalist opponents of the Constitution, held that free, representative institutions were weakened by territorial growth. Madison stood the argument on its head, reasoning – in the Tenth Federalist Paper – that territorial expansion would lessen the evils of “factions” by diluting them geographically and thereby make Constitutional government safer.

The implications of Madison’s reasoning were not lost on succeeding generations of Americans bent on having the land adjoining their own. Territorial expansion as such does not, of course, involve a nation in the same problems that “salt water” or overseas empire does. Expansion overland could in principle be undertaken by peaceful means such as the (possibly unconstitutional) Louisiana Purchase. Nonetheless, the characteristic use of force to take land, as in the Mexican War and innumerable Indian Wars, early affected the institutional balance of the Republic. In maneuvering U.S. troops into an incident with Mexico, President James K. Polk set a precedent for executive war making whose results haunt us today.

The struggle between North and South to control vast western territories obtained by purchase and war set up the War for Southern Independence, a circumstance which renders Madison’s argument about the dilution of faction somewhat suspect. Northern victory, in turn, drastically shifted the American institutional balance away from that of the original Union and Constitution. Landed expansion helped bring on “civil war,” which in turn strengthened federal power (and neo-mercantilism with it) – with tariffs, excises, paper money, and conscription. All that said, 19th century American expansion into new territories, which were quickly organized into self-governing states, did leave us with republicanism – until it broke down – and did not involve us with those issues which arise when one state governs unrepresented foreign subjects across the water.


This changed when US statesmen and businessmen came to believe that American prosperity depended on unlimited access to foreign markets for “surplus” American production. They took the depressions of 1873 and 1893 as proof of that proposition. Taking into account Say’s law of markets – still intact despite the Keynesians – there was little merit in this “overproduction” hypothesis. As for the economic crises, prior federal fiddling of the monetary system is the likeliest causal suspect. Thus the case for world markets secured by imperialism rested on faulty economic analysis and the self interested claims of specific businesses.

Progressive reformers, who sought broad departures from America’s (relative) economic liberty, also wanted a more vigorous, imperial foreign policy. Very close in their ideas to English and European “social imperialists,” Progressives, who included businessmen seeking “regulation” they could manipulate, sought the strong state at home and abroad as their chosen instrument. The political labeling has thoroughly confused the picture. The Progressives’ “liberal” reforms strengthened many interests – big business, big labor, big government, the military, defense contractors, and the like, whose main worries were not republican liberty and classical liberal values.

Asserting that the US economy must expand as a system, American leaders shoved on into hemispheric interference and “world leadership.” In 1898, they sidelined the Cuban Revolution, making Cuba a virtual US colony, and won the Philippine Islands as a stepping stone to Asian markets. This first leap into formal colonial imperialism soon led to a guerrilla war the Philippine Insurrection in which US forces ultimately prevailed through massive firepower and atrocities. Overwhelming firepower became a hallmark of US “strategy” in the 20th century.

The Open Door Notes (1899, 1900) bespoke the American claim to dominate world markets, whether anyone wanted to trade on these terms or not. Aimed at problems in China, the Notes reflected US policy toward the world as a whole – hence the term Open Door Imperialism. Note that the supposed “open door” only swung one way and did not imply equal foreign access to US markets. This was before the American leadership redefined “free trade” so as to sail under that flag, too.

Firmly convinced of the rightness of securing foreign markets, by force if necessary, administrations from the late 19th century onwards subsidized exports, lobbied for overseas business, brought down “unfriendly” governments, and went to war against threats to the Open Door. This has been the inner meaning of “liberal internationalism.” The Central Powers, the Japanese and Germans, the USSR, China, as well as Third World revolutionary movements, all somehow failed to play their assigned role and had to be “contained,” smashed, and shown their errors. Thus these conflicts show a more-than-accidental continuity in spirit and method. Opposition to intervention has shown a complementary continuity whose moral and ideological substance was essentially classical liberalism – with its ideals of “peace, retrenchment, and reform” – and classical republicanism.

From 1898 to the present, Americans have debated the proper foreign policy for their country. They have asked, What are the goals of US policy and what should the United States’ role be in the larger world? At certain critical points 1898, 1916-17, 1940-41, 1947-1952 we have gone over similar ground, debated similar points, and discussed much the same alternatives.


Because of changes in ideology, terminology, and the relevant external circumstances, most Americans have lost sight of the continuity in this running debate over our very destiny. They have overlooked persistent features in the policies adopted as well as in the critiques of them. To the extent that continuity is admitted to exist, it has lived only within an arbitrary and misleading framework. When mainstream historians and political scientists seek a common thread, they invariably find it in the foregone victory of far seeing “internationalists” over narrow, insular “isolationists.”

This would be all there is to say if, in fact, the mainstream interpretation were true. It is not, and the common thread of our episodic American debate really is, and has been, empire. Some critics of American foreign policy have consciously seen the issue that way. At other times, the critics have lacked such clarity. Consciousness of empire versus republican liberty was especially sharp at the turn of the century when the United States acquired distant overseas possessions. The theme persisted, more and more muted, into the struggles over intervention in the two world wars, and even into the early Cold War. With the victory of the Cold Warriors, the notion that there was, or could be, an American empire reached its low point – airily dismissed as a delusion of a handful of home grown Marxists. Empire and its consequences found very small audience. This circumstance led the veteran revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes to complain in 1952 that “it is obvious that it will probably require a tremendous shock a veritable military and political catastrophe to bring about the degree of disillusionment and realism required to produce any such result”2 as a revival of anti interventionist history and a reassessment of US foreign policy.

Barnes’s pessimistic outburst seemed justified well into the 1960s. Then came the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. It looked as if that ill starred adventure might at least bring about a serious re evaluation of America’s world role. The question of empire seemed ready for a comeback in the public arena.


The noninterventionist moment of the 1970s passed quickly. A campaign to rehabilitate the late southeast Asian unpleasantness got under way, orchestrated by the Trilateral Commission and the Committee on the Present Danger. By the middle of the Carter Administration, interventionists were papering over the partially learned “lessons of Vietnam.” The Reagan years witnessed the triumph of renewed interventionist theory and practice.

Just when US delusions of Mission Unending reached new heights, the Soviet threat went missing – not with a whimper but a bang. The Soviets’ “Vietnam” in Afghanistan, over-extension, and stifling bureaucratic arteriosclerosis all contributed. The fundamental problem was an economic system which made rational economic calculation impossible, as Max Weber and Ludwig von Mises had predicted in the 1920s. No lessons were drawn from the Soviet collapse other than that “we won.” The old Cold Warriors took a bow and bragged – “now all the authorities, they just stand around and boast” (Bob Dylan) – about forcing the Soviets to spend beyond their means. Our means were, it seemed, utterly without limit.

The Persian Gulf War undermined the talk of reduced military spending, peace dividends, and the like. Cynics have suggested that, in this, the Gulf War’s timing was less than accidental. The new style of “humanitarian” intervention is a further complication and a potentially bottomless source for new overseas missions.

Clinton’s new line as of last week – “Oh, no, we don’t plan to intervene everywhere” – reflects the shiftiness of the present line. Is this “seriality”? Should postmodernists investigate? Probably not. I remember Lyndon Johnson’s approach to justifying his war. Every week he had a different reason why we had to stay in Vietnam – to bring TVA to Vietnam, save our personal belongings from sawed-off Communist burglars, contain China, etc. You have to know what these people are saying, but above all you must watch what they do while they are saying it. Clearly, they will intervene wherever the Inner Doctrine leads them and justify it with the Outer Doctrine. This means they will intervene all over the place; so Clinton’s disclaimer is worth about as much as much as anything else he says – assuming a stable meaning for “is,” of course.


One wonders how far the debate can be widened. There are a number of reasons why renewed debate may become possible. Despite damage control by conventional scholars, some historians have incorporated revisionist insights – mostly from New Left diplomatic history – into their work. The end of the Cold War has greatly altered the political landscape. Anti-communism was the most powerful prop of so-called “internationalism.” Without it, conservatives can turn back – and some have – to the noninterventionist posture of the Old Right. At this juncture it is crucial for Americans to have the chance to discuss intervention and empire and their antitheses, nonintervention and republican liberty.

It is our task to reopen the debate prematurely foreclosed in 1917, 1941, 1947, and more recently. It would be very bad indeed if our leaders should successfully foist on the American public new justifications for continued imperial intervention. The American people have a right to know their real options in this or any other possible world – pace those political scientists who say that it is impossible for a potential “hegemon” (as they like to say) to renounce the call of empire. Unlikely perhaps; impossible, no.

[1] Quoted in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Caldwell, Idaho, 1953), facing title page.
[2] Barnes, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, 57.

ERRATUM: Owing to a late-night typing mistake, John Paul Vann was referred to as John Paul Vance in last week’s column.