Does America Need an Enemy?

October 19, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: United StatesForeign PolicyDefenseHistoryWar

Does America Need an Enemy?

Americans need something to fight for—before they find someone to fight against.

Overall, the Confederate threat bonded the Northern fighters together and produced a sharper sense of collective identity. In his First Inaugural Address in 1861, Lincoln used the word “Union” twenty times and never said “nation.” Two years later, in the Gettysburg Address, he used “nation” five times and never said “Union.” The poet and historian Carl Sandburg noted that before the Civil War, people said the United States are, but afterward, they said the United States is.

When threats dissipate, domestic divisions often resurface and widen. The post–Civil War era was a time of diminishing external danger and also fraying unity within the winning coalition. During Southern Reconstruction, U.S. troops acted as peacekeepers in the former Confederacy, setting up new governments, overseeing elections and protecting the rights of the former slaves. Within a few years, much of Northern opinion saw Reconstruction as an endless quagmire. In 1871, the New York Times said the “mere mention of [Reconstruction] is almost nauseating.” The coalition to protect black rights disintegrated, the nation-building mission in the South was abandoned and white racial hegemony reemerged.

The period of security and fractiousness continued into the late nineteenth century. Historian Richard Hofstadter described a “psychic crisis” in the 1890s, triggered by the depression of 1893, the closing of the frontier, the rise of the Populist movement and the divisive election of 1896, as well as “restless aggressiveness, a desire to be assured that the power and vitality of the nation were not waning.” This crisis encouraged Americans to fight the Spanish-American War in 1898 and reclaim the unifying spirit of ’65.

The era of safety abruptly ended when the United States entered World War I in 1917. A combination of fear, anger, idealism and a sophisticated government propaganda machine produced a profound unifying effect. The Nation described a “rebirth of American patriotism,” with flags being flown across the land. Many former pacifists were swept up in the romanticism of the campaign and endorsed the war to end all war. For the holdouts who resisted the glorious crusade, the price was severe. After Sen. Robert La Follette voted against the war, his image was hanged in effigy and critics suggested he join the Reichstag.

At first glance, the 1920s seem to be an exception, where foreign threats receded but Americans were nevertheless unified, seeking what Warren Harding called “normalcy.” But the reality was far more restive. David J. Goldberg titled his history of the 1920s Discontented America. The great crusade of 1917–18 ended in military victory but not the idealistic triumph that Woodrow Wilson had promised, and disillusionment quickly set in. Americans turned inward, and the interwar years were marked by open strife between business and labor, the Ku Klux Klan and immigrants, internationalists and isolationists, progressives and conservatives, and Wets and Drys fighting over Prohibition.

During the 1940s, the threat pendulum swung again, and the United States entered an era of severe danger during World War II and the early Cold War. American security was menaced by the great powers of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, as well as by new technologies, including long-range bombers, missiles and nuclear weapons, which directly threatened the homeland. As would be expected, the 1940s and 1950s were a time of relative social unity. Despite hundreds of thousands of casualties, public support for World War II remained strong throughout. Americans were also willing to take the gloves off to win, and showed little concern about targeting enemy civilians through mass bombing of German and Japanese cities.

The mood of unity continued during the “Cold War consensus” of the 1950s, when there was broad agreement among Republicans and Democrats that the country was engaged in a global struggle against a Communist adversary set on world conquest. The Korean War (1950–53) proved unpopular when it bogged down into a costly stalemate, but there was no large-scale antiwar movement or serious questioning of the overall strategy of containment.

As during the Civil War, an external threat can strengthen the rights of minorities—so long as they fight for the American in-group. In 1943, Washington repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited almost all Chinese immigration to the United States and stopped Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. The campaign against Nazi ideology and the alliance with China provided impetus to end an explicitly racist policy. Similarly, the Cold War was a major factor in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. The Justice Department filed an amicus brief in favor of desegregation that was focused solely on the negative foreign-policy effects of racial discrimination. The United States was competing with the USSR for the allegiance of newly decolonized countries: “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”

Groups associated with the enemy, however, fared far worse, including Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II and suspected Communists who were imprisoned or lost their jobs during the McCarthy era. In 1951, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of members of the Communist Party for planning the violent overthrow of the United States, on the basis that they had read and discussed works by Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin that advocated revolution. This decision might seem to be starkly at odds with Brown v. Board of Education, because the former case diminished people’s rights, whereas the latter case expanded people’s rights. But these decisions were two sides of the same Cold War coin: aiding Americans within the in-group boundary, and targeting un-Americans outside the boundary, in order to more effectively prosecute the global contest.

By the mid-1960s, the severity of foreign threats to the United States began diminishing. In the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the superpowers stabilized relations and effectively recognized each other’s legitimacy. In 1963, Washington and Moscow established a direct hotline for communication and signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. There was tacit agreement on the ground rules of peaceful coexistence, including nonuse of nuclear weapons except as a last resort. Americans began to question the monolithic nature of Communism and see opportunities to exploit the split between Communist China and the USSR.


THE EASING of superpower relations weakened the Cold War consensus and widened political divisions, facilitating the rise of the anti–Vietnam War movement. As Cold War certainties were questioned, the in-group/out-group boundaries were blurred, creating greater discord for those inside the fence, but also new opportunities for radical critics stuck on the outside and formerly exiled from public discourse.

In the 1980s and 1990s, foreign threats to the United States declined sharply; the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union had collapsed. This happy tale had a sting because the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were marked by heightened dissension. “We are going to do a terrible thing to you,” said the Soviet political scientist Georgy Arbatov: “We are going to take away your enemy.” The 1990s were a time of peace and prosperity—but also uncertainty and confusion about America’s place in the world. In a similar manner to the “Roaring Twenties,” the lack of an external threat meant there was no common sense of what defined the national interest. Interventions against vague or distant dangers, or in pursuit of humanitarian goals, in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, proved unpopular with the public and a Republican Congress. Trust in national institutions eroded. Politics became more sharply partisan and President Clinton was impeached by a Republican House (but acquitted by a Democratic Senate).

The United States appeared to enter an era of threats after 9/11. George W. Bush described “years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical, and then there came a day of fire.” John Ashcroft, then attorney general, said, “A calculated, malignant, devastating evil has arisen in our world.” Terrorism can have a profound psychological impact, creating more loyalty to in-groups, and greater prejudice toward people associated with the enemy, like Muslims or immigrants. Indeed, the 9/11 attacks unified the nation, propelled Bush’s approval ratings to stratospheric heights and produced overwhelming support for a long-term global campaign against terrorism. On the evening of 9/11, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America.” Conservatives described the struggle against radical Islam as World War IV, as they had branded the struggle against Communism as World War III. From the liberal side of the aisle, CBS anchor Dan Rather announced: “George Bush is the president. . . . Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

But in reality the threat pendulum only shifted modestly, and the United States remained in an era of safety. The danger of a few thousand jihadists pales in comparison to historical great powers, such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The destruction of the World Trade Center proved to be an aberration rather than a harbinger of things to come, and terrorists killed only a handful of Americans in North America during the subsequent decade. For all of its psychological resonance, the threat of terrorism is simply not strong enough to unite Americans for long. As a result, the 9/11-rally effect faded. Foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not unifying crusades but divisive adventures. Public support for the missions eroded and there has been far greater self-criticism, for example, about potential U.S. war crimes such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, compared to grand struggles like World War II. Largely safeguarded from external threats, Americans looked for enemies closer to home, as partisan and other divisions widened. A host of contractors, consultants, bureaucrats, and politicians sought to take advantage of the terrorism issue to pursue their parochial interests.