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December 23, 2010


Joseph Fouche

When I drew up a taxonomy of American history a few years ago:


I posited that the period 1841-1861 was "The First Era of Intervention", expanding on Fred Anderson and Andrew Clayton's argument in "The Dominion of War" that the overseas expeditions conducted by the U.S. after 1917 was merely an more ambitious extension of the "interventions" McKinley, TR, Taft, and Wilson made in Latin America prior to 1917. If you roll the clock back to our first "Pacific President" John Tyler, you see Tyler laying the foundations for America's sudden transformation into a world power in 1850 instead of 1898 as most historians argue. James K. Polk would be considered the Bismarck of America, executing perhaps the most coherent national strategy in our history, except for Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D-Il.). If Douglas hadn't secured the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and upset the de facto division of the U.S. into equal numbers of free and slave states in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. might have turned more seriously to (primarily hemispheric) imperialism in the 1860s instead of the 1890s. As it was, the U.S. was no shrinking violet during this first taste of global power. Opening Japan was not the act of a monastic nation that was in the world but not of it. Other little remembered actions like the almost century long Yangtse River Patrol and our attempt to attack Paraguay also testify to the spirit of the 1850s.

The South was all for annexing large parts of the Caribbean shores but the North resisted because after Judge Douglas passed his law it was a free for all as to which section would triumph. Some Northerners, most prominently William Seward, thought the sections could be reunited by a common policy of conquering the Western Hemisphere as late as 1861. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act reignited the slavery issue, drawing disgruntled Whigs like Lincoln back into politics, and leading to the formation of the Republican Party as a specifically Northern sectional party. Since Judge Douglas ignited the Civil War, you could say the Kansas-Nebraska Act pushed back the overt emergence of American world power by forty years. After the Civil War, the Republican ascendancy was far less interested in overseas interventions than Fillmore the, Pierce, and Buchanan Administrations. However, even then, you have exceptions like America's First Inchon Landing in 1871.

I've found historian Walter McDougall's breakdown of American foreign policy traditions to be the most useful:


However, the only other semi-notable figure that has drawn on McDougall's work that I'm aware of is Angelo Codevilla and Codevilla tends to turn people off because of his rhetorical excesses and the fact that (like Colin S. Gray) he needs a strong editor to keep him on message. Anderson and Clayton's book referenced above is weaker (Anderson's "Crucible of War" on the French and Indian War is far, far stronger) but it does make the point that the U.S. has been rather confused since the Russian Revolution flanked it on the left and left the U.S., formerly a revolutionary power, a status quo power instead.

Everyone wants to play the rebel.

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