As this confusing year wends to an end, it is hard not to wonder what has happened to the underlying, continuous, almost immutable national interest of the United States. When George Washington declined the advice of his aides and supporters to seize the government of the country, and instead handed over control of the Continental Army in 1783, he charged the Continental Congress with the task of preserving an “indissoluble Union,” of protecting the independence and territorial integrity the new country had just achieved after seven years of struggle, and of endowing it with a trustworthy currency. He had no confidence that this would be achieved, as he (quite justifiably) considered the Continental Congress a worthless talking shop of embezzlers, cowards, and schemers. He and Benjamin Franklin turned a minor inter-state boundary dispute into the Constitutional Convention, and he accepted the last real draft in American presidential history to take the headship of the nascent republic, pledging to do what he had urged upon the Continental Congress.
As in all things, he was as good as his word. He kept a standing army of at least 10,000 — which, he calculated, would be sufficient to conquer Canada and provide an adequate deterrent to Britain’s exploitation of its advantage as the world’s greatest naval power to inflict high-handed outrages on America at sea. His chosen successor, John Adams, continued this policy, but Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who followed, effectively disbanded the army, removing the deterrence and leaving Britain resistless against the temptation to seize and impress (i.e., conscript) the crews of U.S. vessels on the high seas.
Jefferson famously wrote that the conquest of Canada “is a mere matter of marching,” but disbanded the force to do the marching, and when Madison was finally goaded into the War of 1812, he had no force to take Canada with and was still working on it when the war ended after three years, just before the British freed up the Duke of Wellington’s battle-hardened army of Spain and Waterloo for a rematch of the Revolutionary War. From then until 1865, the United States was walking on eggshells over the slavery question and Britain held the balance of power in Europe and ruled the world’s oceans; those two powers accepted the Monroe Doctrine as effectively an American fig-leaf on the policy of the British Foreign Office, enforced by the Royal Navy, to keep the Europeans out of the Americas.
After the noble agony of the American Union in the Civil War, the United States was, with the British and German empires, the greatest nation in the world and was unchallenged in its own hemisphere, or by any other country across the oceans. It almost tripled its population and quadrupled its economy between the Civil War and World War I. Theodore Roosevelt assumed the vocation of a Great Power with the construction of the Panama Canal, with the expansion of the Navy and its dispatch around the world, and with the mediation of the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson, whose punitive expedition in Mexico was a fiasco, and who was essentially a pacifist, was yet a brilliant war leader. When forced by the lunacy of the German emperor’s submarine attacks on American merchant ships to enter the war, he galvanized the war-weary, blood-let Allies, and all mankind, by declaring it a war to end war and to make the world safe for democracy, making the terrible hecatomb comprehensible. He rapidly built up and sent to France a formidable army and it fought with distinction in the last phase of the European War. He was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the vision of enduring peace and with the first tentative notions of enforced international law.
Of course, it didn’t fly; he could not negotiate a reasonable peace after the millions of dead the French and British and Italians had endured, and bungled the process of gaining American adherence to the League of Nations. The United States rushed back into isolation like a cuckoo bird slamming the door on the clock behind it. With Germany and Russia revived by totalitarian dictators who made a devils’ pact with each other, and imperialist Japan colliding abrasively with the British and Americans (after the Russians gave it a good trouncing in Mongolia and Siberia, in “border incidents” involving up to ten divisions), Franklin D. Roosevelt saw that the British and French were not strong enough to prevent the Nazi and Communist dictators from taking over the Eurasian landmass and Africa, even if the British Isles were able to repel boarders.