America Under the Caesars

America Under the Caesars

Mini Teaser: Anti-interventionists allege our leaders traded a strong, austere republic for a weak and sprawling empire predicated on a military might that could not match our own ambitions. This narrative negates real threats and real victories.

by Author(s): Michael Lind

Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 304 pp., $25.00.


[amazon 0805091416 full] IN THE waning years of the Vietnam War, leftist and liberal opponents of the Cold War discovered that they shared much in common with the critics of these policies on the libertarian or traditionalist right. The result was a rebirth of a current of thinking about American foreign policy that is usually labeled isolationism but which, out of deference to members of this school who reject such a term as perhaps far too loaded, I shall instead describe as “anti-interventionism.”

This is a tradition that has long dominated American politics, and one that can find its heartland in the small-town America of the Midwest. In fact, its political eclipse lasted for a very short period of time indeed—from the selection of Dwight D. Eisenhower over Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft for president by the Republican Party in 1952 to the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1972 of George McGovern, with his slogan “Come Home, America.” Taft and McGovern were both products of the Midwest, which along with much of New England had been the center of opposition to U.S. participation in both world wars and the battle with the Soviet Union. The supporters of these conflicts were disproportionately found in the South and Southwest and among the Atlanticist financial and commercial elites of the northeastern cities. During the Cold War, the former diplomat George Kennan and the scholar William Appleman Williams argued for drastically reducing America’s military interventions and foreign commitments, as the influential historian and Indiana native Charles Beard had done in the 1930s and 1940s. Kennan and Williams, too, were products of the Midwest. Williams was an Iowan; Kennan hailed from Wisconsin and wrote elegantly about his pioneer roots. Whether they were on the left or right, all of these thinkers lamented the passing of pastoral, small-town Middle America and blamed social change in part on the effects of what they saw as American imperialism.

According to these men, the United States was once a country with a public-spirited, frugal citizenry and a limited government that abstained from aggression abroad. Then, at some point, the Republic was betrayed by elites who steered the United States on the course to perpetual empire and war. It is a narrative whose origins lie in a parallel between the United States and ancient Rome, which lost its republican government and became an autocratic empire under the Caesars.

Anti-interventionists do not agree on the exact moment when the American Republic gave way to the American empire. For some, the transition came with the rise of the Cold War “national-security state” during the administration of Harry Truman. For others, it was William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt’s “splendid little war” against Spain in 1898.

Nor is there universal agreement among anti-interventionists as to the motives of those who turned the Republic into an empire. For Williams, it was the desire of American mass-production industries to obtain foreign markets through a global Open Door economic policy. For Beard, it was the lust for power on the part of politicians like Franklin Roosevelt, whom Beard detested and accused of knowing about Pearl Harbor in advance (an accusation only slightly less deranged than the claim of “truthers” that 9/11 was staged by the U.S. government).

Yet whatever their differences, members of this school share the hope that a repudiation of most or all U.S. foreign-policy commitments and a dramatic reduction in armed forces can make possible a restoration of something like the idealized, small-town America of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Midwest.


IN RECENT years, this venerable American tradition has found its most eloquent and influential champion in Andrew Bacevich. Now a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, Bacevich served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, retiring from the army with the rank of colonel. Although he is a traditionalist conservative, or “paleoconservative,” Bacevich has found his audience chiefly on the liberal left, where he has filled the role of Kennan, another conservative and former insider whose views seemed to validate the Left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy.

In a number of books and articles, Bacevich has sought to revive the anti-interventionist approach. He has written sympathetically about Beard and wrote an introduction to a reprint of a book by Williams. He has also authored a series of polemics criticizing contemporary U.S. foreign policy, including The New American Militarism (Oxford University Press, 2006) and The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008). Washington Rules is the latest salvo in this campaign.

Bacevich claims that the foreign policy of both parties is determined by four “Washington rules.” According to him, “Every president since Harry Truman has faithfully subscribed to these four assertions and Obama is no exception.”

The rules are as follows:

First, the world must be organized (or shaped). . . . Second, only the United States possesses the capacity to prescribe and enforce such a global order. . . . Third, America’s writ includes the charge of articulating the principles that should define the international order. . . . Finally, a few rogues and recalcitrants aside, everyone understands and accepts this reality.

Bacevich declares:

Mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats are equally devoted to this catechism of American statecraft. Little empirical evidence exists to demonstrate its validity, but no matter: When it comes to matters of faith, proof is unnecessary.

The Washington rules have condemned imperial America to perpetual “semiwar.”

This new offering portrays Bacevich’s increasing alienation from the U.S. foreign-policy consensus in terms of a narrative of awakening and repentance: “In measured doses, mortification cleanses the soul. It’s the perfect antidote for excessive self-regard.” His doubts about U.S. foreign policy began, he writes, when he visited the former Communist state of East Germany and discovered it to be run-down and impoverished. He took this, not as proof that the West’s superior system had prevailed over that of the Soviets, but as evidence that the Cold War threat had been exaggerated or nonexistent.

Like others in the tradition in which he writes, Bacevich views disasters like Vietnam and Iraq as the all-but-inevitable results of the hubris of America’s postrepublican empire builders. “George W. Bush’s decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed [Bacevich] fully into opposition” to what he saw as a growing American willingness to adopt an aggressive posture across the world. Bacevich’s son Andrew, an army first lieutenant, was killed in Iraq.


IN THE same vein as Bacevich’s other recent books, Washington Rules is a polemic, not a dissertation, and should be judged by the standards of its genre. But even as such, Washington Rules will not persuade those who do not belong to the choir to whom Bacevich is preaching.

Bacevich recycles many of the references used by other anti-interventionist authors. Once again, we read that publishing magnate Henry Luce proclaimed the American Century. Once again, Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American is cited as evidence of the folly of American diplomacy in Vietnam, or elsewhere.

Bacevich also parades the familiar anti-interventionist pantheon, ranging from John Quincy Adams’s opposition to the Mexican-American War, through Dwight D. Eisenhower with his warning about the “military-industrial complex,” all the way to Vietnam War critics Martin Luther King Jr., William Fulbright and Mike Mansfield. Other than providing quotes that could be taken out of context and used as proof texts by later generations of anti-interventionist polemics, these figures have little in common—Adams, for example, may have opposed the Mexican War, but he favored the American acquisition of Cuba and the Pacific Northwest, and Fulbright was a reactionary segregationist, unlike his fellow Vietnam War critic King. Eisenhower supported the Johnson administration’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, a point never mentioned by the anti-interventionists who quote him about the military-industrial complex.

Like the isolationists of the 1930s and early 1940s who quoted George Washington’s warning against “entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address, Bacevich tries to enlist Washington as a patron saint of the anti-interventionist school:

Americans once believed—or at least purported to believe—that citizenship carried with it a responsibility to contribute to the country’s defense. In his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” written in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, George Washington offered the classic formulation of this proposition. “It may be laid down, as a primary position, and the basis of our system,” the general wrote, “that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it.” Out of this proposal came the tradition of the citizen-soldier, the warrior who filled the ranks of citizen armies raised for every major war fought by the United States until that system foundered in Vietnam.

Turning George Washington, rather than Thomas Jefferson, into the champion of citizen militias does violence to history. In reality, Washington, like his wartime aide and later political ally Alexander Hamilton, was so appalled by the performance of state militias during the War of Independence that he supported a large and well-equipped standing army. At the Constitutional Convention, George Washington allegedly inspired Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to mock a proposal that the constitution limit the regular army to several thousand men by asking whether invading foreign armies would agree to the same limitation. And Washington was far from a Middle American populist. He ruthlessly kicked squatters off the vast acreage that he owned as a speculator in the future Midwest, and when frontier farmers rose up against excise taxes in the Whiskey Rebellion, the wealthy, slave-owning president mounted the saddle and led the U.S. Army to intimidate them into submission. Indeed, late in life, William Appleman Williams, one of the predecessors whom Bacevich so admires, came to believe that the adoption of the Constitution had set the United States on the course to imperial aggrandizement. Washington was as much a power-mongering imperialist for Williams as FDR was for Beard.

Essay Types: Book Review