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.
The post–Civil War era was another instance of restraint. At the war’s end there was no more powerful force on the North American continent than the Union Army. Everything was within our grasp. All we had to do to make Canada the next ten states was reach out and take it. Instead we rapidly demobilized, to the point where our army by the start of World War I was an international joke. Still, before we demobilized, Lincoln told the French government to pull its troops out of Mexico or be prepared to meet General Grant with several corps of infantry at his back. The French left.
In World War I we came in our millions to prop up Allied armies that were falling prostrate under German hammer blows. When it was over, we rapidly reduced our forces — far beyond what turned out to be prudent — and tried to settle the conflict around Wilson’s 14 Points. That effort failed, but the terms on which we tried to build a lasting peace established a noble ideal that, in many ways, took root after the Second World War.
Notably, the only territorial gain America sought at the end of the World War I was enough land to bury our dead. We asked for no more after World War II.
Then in 1991 the Soviet Empire collapsed. We stood alone as the world’s only superpower. America was so strong, compared to the rest of the world, that a new word was needed. We became a “hyperpower.” So, what was our first use of such massive power? We freed Kuwait after it was invaded by a brutal dictator.
A decade later our military freed Iraq itself from Saddam’s brutal tyranny. Some insist on seeing sinister motives behind this invasion, and it probably was not a result of pure altruism. Still, a murderous regime was removed, and Iraqis, and for that matter Afghanis, were given an opportunity for freedom and prosperity. How they use it is now up to them, for, when Iraq’s government voted for us to leave, unlike any other power, we left. Similarly, we will soon depart from Afghanistan.
It is worth noting that our problems crushing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were not a result of insufficient American power to do the job. Rather, they were the consequences of that almost uniquely American trait of rarely using all the power at our disposal. First off, we fought both wars with only a fraction of our latent power. More importantly, we fought them in a manner that few armies have ever shown a willingness to do.
There is a formula for winning against insurgents. It is harsh, brutal, and often immoral. For examples, look at how civilized countries conducted earlier wars — how Britain won the Boer War, or how Belgium crushed rebels in the Congo, or what France attempted in Algeria. America eschewed those methods in favor of treating the population humanely, rebuilding nations and societies, and doing everything possible to keep our military power squarely focused on armed enemies. Were mistakes made? Yes; war is never as clean, as simple, or as antiseptic as we would like. Still, when the final histories of our involvement in the Middle East are written I am certain they will demonstrate levels of restraint and morality no other power would have troubled itself with.
In this brief interlude, while the United States remains a global hyperpower, no one in the world goes to bed fearful that America will misuse its power to dictate to other nations. More often the opposite is true. We live in a world where small pariah regimes (North Korea, Iran) feel free to continuously threaten the global peace, sure in the knowledge that our ire is slow to rise.
America has made mistakes. It will make more. But, in the totality, no nation has ever sacrificed so much for the welfare and protection of others. Further, no nation, possessed of such vast power, has ever applied it with such restraint for so long a period of time. The world does not fear American power because for two centuries we have demonstrated that America prefers the sheathed sword to bare steel.
I truly pity those Americans, such as my interviewer, who have so myopic a vision that their view of America sees only our occasional errors. America is so much more.
Almost 200 years ago, Stephen Decatur toasted: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” For 200 years America has not always been right, but if Decatur were with us today our record would make him a proud man — a remarkable record, a remarkable military, and a remarkable nation.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.