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If the Civil War Had a Different Ending

July 3, 2014 Topic: History Region: United States

If the Civil War Had a Different Ending

Residents of the Confederate States might still be celebrating their Independence Day over one hundred and fifty years later...

If the CSA still existed in 2014, it seems likely that U.S. foreign policy today would be profoundly different.  Likely without the clear military successes and the resulting strong sense of self-assurance that developed during the twentieth century, America would be a much smaller place in not only territory, but in aspirations.  Perhaps ironically, it might be even more moralistic in its foreign policy rhetoric if it lived next to an oppressive and discriminatory state for well more than a century—but much less able to impose its moral vision on others.

This provokes a final thought.  The American Civil War was a profoundly destructive experience for the United States, north and south.  In 2014, many Americans regret its excesses, such as General William Tecumseh Sherman’s brutal burning of Atlanta and his self-consciously terrifying March to the Sea.  More important, however, is that no small number of Americans would likely support U.S. military intervention in someone else’s civil war to stop similar conduct today while simultaneously believing that our own civil war, however bloody, was necessary and that the united country—north and south—is the better for it.  Indeed, while no one can know what could have happened instead, it is not difficult to envision admittedly speculative outcomes that could have been much worse.  Taking all of this into account, Americans would do well to remember their own experience with civil war  and to employ a degree of moral humility in forming judgments about today’s global conflicts—particularly if they think that General Sherman turned out to be “on the right side of history.”

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of  The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005. Follow him on Twitter: @1796farewell.

Image: Wikicommons.