American Power
Our restraint in using it is one remarkable aspect of American exceptionalism.

A U.S. Abrams tank is prepped to depart from Germany. (U.S. Army/Alex Burnett)


Jim Lacey

A while back I was interviewed about one of my books. At some point, the discussion took a bad turn when my interviewer violently objected to my stating that America had, in the final analysis, been a powerful force for good in the world. For the next few minutes I was treated to a tirade, listing all the evils America had committed over the centuries. When my interviewer paused for a breath I seized the chance to say a few good words about our great country and the sacrifices we have made to protect free peoples from tyranny. We went back and forth for a few minutes, until the interviewer abruptly called it quits.

The interview never aired, so I assume I had more than held my own. Recently, after reading that the last American tanks had left Germany, I had cause to recall that interview. Think about what our tanks’ departing Germany means. After a grueling and bloody war to destroy what was arguably history’s must malevolent regime (although Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China can make a good run at the title), the United States set out not to punish a prostrate Germany, but to rebuild it. And then, for nearly 50 years, we kept a huge part of our military power in that nation, so as to protect it from the massed armored formations of an evil Soviet Empire. When that job was done, we started bringing our troops and equipment home.

Similarly, despite the fact that Japan had launched an unprovoked attack upon our territory, and then waged a vicious and brutal war throughout the Pacific, we stayed to rebuild and protect that nation. Today, only a token force remains on Okinawa. But even that would pick up and leave if the Japanese government asked it to.

We did as much in the Philippines when we gave up the huge naval base at Subic Bay and closed down Clark Air Base, at the request of that nation’s government, playing to nationalist sympathies. Now, with a more assertive China making increasingly bellicose moves, there is a strong movement within the Philippines to invite us back. How many nations are so trusted by the rest of the world that other states will invite them to place huge military establishments within their borders? In all of history, how many nations have abandoned such bases in response to a simple request?

In historical terms, such events make America a most unusual country. When we have had the power to assert our will or dominate nations we have not used it. I know some historians will quibble. They will point, for instance, to our war with Mexico in the 1840s. True, we were then an expanding nation, as was Mexico, and we ran roughshod over it. Men as great as Abraham Lincoln considered our actions unjust. Still, there can be little doubt that if Mexico had had the power it would have seized everything up to the Mississippi and all the way to the Canadian border as its own.

Others might point to the small empire we built in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Of course, we did free Cuba from tyranny, and we dissolved the rest of that empire in what amounts to an historical twinkling of an eye. Moreover, we did it not because we were forced to, but because it seemed the right thing to do. We do, of course, still own Puerto Rico. But despite a separatist movement, that island’s association with us persists only because its residents have freely voted to maintain it. I am sure folks can point to other examples, but they stand as aberrations in what is truly a remarkable story of restraint.

Ever since Monroe’s presidency, the United States, even though it was initially only a fledgling nation, has used whatever power was at its disposal to protect our weaker southern neighbors and keep them from falling under the control of outside powers. Early on, we were assisted by the Royal Navy, but as we grew in power so did our ability to protect the hemisphere. Big brother may, from time to time, have been a bit overbearing. But, in the final analysis, freedom in Latin America was maintained only because it stood behind America’s shield.