Charles Beard, Properly Understood

Charles Beard, Properly Understood

Mini Teaser: It is time to readmit Charles Beard's critique into the canon of permissible opinion.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

The story of how the United States emerged--reluctantly and
belatedly--to lead the world has long since acquired the weight of a
well-known parable. Like any good parable, this one aims chiefly to
admonish, to warn against the recurrence of error, to suppress
wayward and irresponsible urgings to which Americans are thought

It is a melodrama in two acts turning on the pivot of the Second
World War. In Act I, encompassing the period from the founding of the
republic until the onset of World War II, internal and hemispheric
matters preoccupied the United States. American diplomacy was
"immature." Although the United States early on acquired immense
wealth and possessed the potential to be a great power, it played a
role in world affairs that was fitful, if not capricious. From time
to time, rising out of the vagaries of politics, a prophet --most
famously Woodrow Wilson--might rouse his countrymen, stirring up
their yearnings to save the world and exhorting them to assume
responsibilities commensurate with their power and moral pretensions.
Yet, although not above flirting with such notions, Americans
rejected both prophet and summons and--apart from a pronounced
tendency to issue unsolicited moralizing advice--turned their backs
on the wider world.

Events of the 1930s changed all that. Faced with the rise of Nazism
and Japanese militarism, the American people struggled throughout
much of that decade first to ignore and then to insulate themselves
from the dual threat. But the enormity of the danger posed by Germany
and Japan defeated that effort. Swept into war, Americans were
likewise swept to the forefront of world leadership and the curtain
dropped on Act I.

Well before that war ended, Americans had internalized an important
lesson: never again would the United States hesitate to resist
aggression; never again would the United States stand idly by,
allowing other nations to drift, quibble, and appease. Yet from the
very outset, Act II involved more than the negative aim of resisting
aggression. At stake were the prospects for World Peace and the
well-being of all humanity, both tied directly to the willingness of
the United States to lead. Act II, in short, marked the triumphant
rebirth of the ideals that Woodrow Wilson had espoused. In predicting
that his Four Freedoms would prevail "everywhere in the world,"
Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 anticipated and dismissed out of hand the
criticism that he was conjuring up a utopian dream. "That is no
vision of a distant millennium," he assured his listeners. "It is a
definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and

Similarly, the Cold War policies of Roosevelt's successors did not
aim merely to overcome an adversary. America's true aim was Peace,
which in this context meant far more than the absence of war. Peace
implied the alleviation of evils that had beset humanity throughout
ages past. Moreover Peace was indivisible, a blessing that none truly
possessed unless all enjoyed its fruits. Although far from unique in
its sentiments, President Harry S Truman's State of the Union Address
of January 1947 made the point well. "Our goal is collective security
for all mankind," said Truman. "The spirit of the American people can
set the course of world history. If we maintain and strengthen our
cherished ideals..., then the faith of our citizens in freedom and
democracy will be spread over the whole world...." But it was not
only a case of political rhetoric. Even nsc 68, the highly classified
1950 blueprint for building up American military power, emphasized
that "it was not an adequate objective" for American policy "merely
to seek to check the Kremlin design...." Rather, the United States
needed "an affirmative program," one that would "light the path of
peace and order among nations," leading to the creation of "a system
based on freedom and justice."

The Good War

The elites who shaped opinion and crafted national policy were none
too confident as to the steadfastness of popular support for
internationalism. Persuading the American people to don the mantle of
World Leadership would require something of a hard sell. Among the
resources exploited to make that sell was the record of the past. In
particular, the history of World War II and the events preceding it
became a weapon. Sustaining popular support for a struggle of
indeterminate duration required popular acceptance of World War
II--the event that propelled the United States onto the center of the
world stage--as very much the "Good War."

Proponents of internationalism were well aware of the fact that
Americans had considered their one previous foray to the battlefields
of Europe to be a worthy undertaking, but only so long as it remained
in progress. Hardly had the Armistice of 1918 taken effect than the
so-called Great War became the target of fierce historical
revisionism. The result had been to sour a generation of Americans on
Wilsonianism. Preventing a recurrence of that catastrophe required
that later generations not have comparable second-thougts about the
Second World War.

Facts that did not fit well with the image of the Good War were
invariably discounted as irrelevant or insignificant, if not ignored
altogether. That Britain was not a frail island democracy but an
empire created by conquest and maintained by force; that the Allies
had turned a blind eye to the plight of European Jewry until the
horror became impossible to ignore; that in aligning themselves with
Stalin the Allies made common cause with a tyrant every bit as vile
as Hitler and his henchmen; that the "strategic bombing"
campaign--culminating in the incineration of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki--entailed the wanton slaughter of noncombatants; that the
involuntary repatriation after V-E Day of as many as two million
Russian pows back to the Soviet Union consigned them to death or the
Gulag: these and other uncomfortable facts--not hidden away in secret
archives but known to all who cared to contemplate them--never dented
the integrity of the story-line that portrayed the war of 1939-1945
as a Manichean struggle fought for the sake of democracy, decency,
and respect for human rights. Now, if the revival of internationalism
which entry into World War II ignited was right, then opposition to
internationalism was wrong. Thus, one adjunct of efforts to draw the
proper "lessons" from World War II was a campaign to discredit those
who in the years leading up to the war not only questioned the wisdom
of American involvement in Asian and European quarrels but, more
fundamentally, presumed to question the very premises of
internationalism itself.

During the 1930s, such skeptics had been reviled as "isolationists."
According to their detractors, isolationists came in two variants.
They were either un-American radicals or ignorant provincials. In the
words used by Roosevelt in one of his radio fireside chats, they were
"the enemies of democracy in our midst--the Bundists and Fascists and
Communists and every other group devoted to bigotry and racial and
religious intolerance." Or they were rubes and crackpots, clinging to
an outmoded belief that the United States could cut itself off from
the rest of the world. By extension, and quite quickly, isolationism
became a codeword summarizing the central theme and fundamental
defect of all American foreign policy prior to 1941. To the heirs of
Woodrow Wilson, those who had been oblivious to the spread of evil
and indifferent to moral and humanitarian calamity in the 1930s
represented everything that was deficient about traditional American

Only by the loosest conceivable definition of the term, however,
could "isolation" be said to represent the reality of United States
policy during the first century-and-a-half of American independence.
A nation that by 1900 had quadrupled its land mass at the expense of
other claimants, engaged in multiple wars of conquest, vigorously
pursued access to markets in every quarter of the globe, and acquired
by force an overseas empire could hardly be said to have been
"isolated" in any meaningful sense. As the historian Albert K.
Weinberg observed as early as 1940, isolationism "was the coinage,
not of advocates of reserve, but of opponents seeking to discredit
them by exaggeration."

During and after World War II, the historiography of American
diplomacy became a literature of justification, offered on behalf of
internationalism. Thus, even after the controversy over American
entry into the war was resolved, accounts of the 1930s continued to
depict opposition to internationalism as a vestige of the crabbed
parochialism and mean-spiritedness that America had now outgrown.
While scholars did eventually modify the imagery of oafs and bigots
to produce a more nuanced portrait of the isolationists themselves,
they left untouched the view that isolationists were people who
refused to see the modern world for what it was. If the isolationists
of the 1930s came to appear misguided rather than malevolent, the
fact that they had been wrong on Hitler sufficed to consign them to
continuing disrepute. Even today, the term isolationism retains its
unambiguously negative connotation, as the ready resort to the term
"neo-isolationism" to discredit those who favor the limiting of
commitments in the post-Cold War era testifies. In the hierarchy of
American knaves, isolationists still rank on a par with robber barons
and segregationists.

Essay Types: Essay