Fixing the World Not Our Responsibility

When Franklin Roosevelt prepared to fight Japan in the Pacific, he had to wait until we were attacked first. There was just too strong a sentiment of isolationism in the U.S., powerful reservations about using American power to intervene in the politics and wars of other countries.

That all changed after World War II. We emerged from the war with the conviction that we should use our unprecedented “superpower” to make the world a better place. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, American advisers, arms, and troops were sent around the globe.

Vietnam changed all that. The Vietnam War was a disaster for everyone. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers dead, 300,000 physically wounded, countless men damaged in more subtle ways by Agent Orange or by what they experienced.

The way the war had been conducted discredited our national optimism for 20 years. We could no longer be sure of success in whatever intervention we tried, especially in places where we knew little about the people and they knew little of us. Many Americans also began to question our motives and methods, not just in Vietnam, but in Guatemala, Chile and Iran. The “Vietnam Syndrome” was a national change of heart and mind about the capacity and the morality of an interventionist foreign policy.

National attitudes and political strategies don’t last forever. Although those political leaders who favored the use of American military power across the globe were much quieter for the three decades at the end of the 20th century, they did not disappear. When our country was thrown into a crisis of fear nine years ago by the attacks of a terrorist group, the idea of vigorous use of American power was brought out again by Bush and Cheney and many others, including some Democrats.

Neither the war we entered in Afghanistan to punish that state for harboring the 9/11 terrorists, which was immensely popular across the country, nor the war we entered in Iraq, which was sold to the country with lies, is going well. It’s hard to argue that the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, so many thousands of whom have been killed, wounded or made homeless, are better off. Our own losses, although much less in numbers, are still devastating to us, as the funeral of every returning dead soldier demonstrates.

The main problem has not been the lies of our politicians, but the whole policy of intervention. We can’t create a safe world, especially not by sending more arms overseas than the rest of the world combined. We are having trouble protecting ourselves from the extremely violent drug war on our southern border, where nearly 30,000 people have been killed in the past five years, far more than our losses in both wars.

It’s time to relearn the two major lessons of the 1960s: We can’t accomplish our goals with armed force, and when we try, our goals become muddied. I know those lessons were very hard to learn, because I saw my generation and the whole country struggle with them.

Accepting that your government might create a big lie to enter a war, that our self-image as historical good guys was not matched by our behavior at home and abroad, that those who ran the war with utmost confidence would hide their lack of success until the truth was finally revealed — no people wants to find that out about itself.

We can win the struggle to make the world more peaceful and secure, to create better lives for more people, and to expand democracy and equality. But we will be successful only by being more peaceful and more democratic, by becoming a better country at home, by putting forward the hand of friendship rather than the fist of power. We need to get out of the business of world policeman and arms supplier.

We’ll never be as safe again as we would like to be.

We could be smarter about being safer.

Steve Hockstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007). Republished with permission from Taking Back Our Lives.


  1. Joshua says

    “We need to get out of the business of world policeman and arms supplier.”

    You are absolutley right, BUT we can’t be the world’s social worker and/or food pantry either. WE have to accept somethings cannot be fixed , even if we broke them. That Money and/or Bullets can’t solve problems , when the people in those trouble spots won’t even attept to solve their own problems.

    “…by putting forward the hand of friendship rather than the fist of power.”

    I would hope that we would only do this to those who aspire to the same values (democracy, equality and liberty) that we aspire to and not pal around with Tyrants and Dictatorships under any circumstance.

    Though I disagree with some of your points, I do beleive they are all valid points. Nice Work!

    • Steve Hochstadt says

      Joshua, thanks for your kind words and your additions to my essay. We can’t fix most of the world’s problems, even if they seem to call out for our help. I do think we ought to send as much food, medical aid, and general humanitarian support to people who need them, but that does not mean we ought to hope that such things are more than temporary assistance.

      Perhaps with the collaboration of the rest of the rich nations of the world we could hope to alleviate hunger or disease over the long term. That would be an admirable goal worthy of some sacrifice on our part. Sometimes it is hard to know if people we are helping share our values or not, since we may only see their government’s values on display.

      I want to emphasize my distance from the self-absorbed, uncompassionate stance of American conservatives, who never talk about people in need, whether here in the US or elsewhere. I do want my country to help people anywhere we can, but I reject the belief that such help comes out of the barrel of a gun.

      Steve Hochstadt

  2. says

    Steve H. is a commendably gentle soul who means well and writes well and is usually on target; but here he over-generalizes and lets a scare-term, ‘intervention’, substitute for thought. He’s talking about different kinds of intervention as if they were the same thing, and about very different degrees of intervention as if they were the same thing.

    Unless it’s done indiscriminately or otherwise thoughtlessly, ‘intervention’ is NOT a general evil or problem. Over-intervention IS a problem, but sometimes utter NON-intervention is an even bigger disaster. Anyone for more Rwanda or Sudan genocide? ‘Intervention’ is not only what we did in WW2 but had to do. Ditto Korea.

    Selling arms to others is not the same thing as actually going to war. And indiscriminately selling arms – or getting involved in wars – is not the same thing as carefully choosing and paying attention to who you sell to and why, and what few wars you may get into and why.

    There are cases where a planned intervention is clearly a bad idean- not because intervention in general is bad but because in the particular case it is clearly bad. For instance, Obama’s proposed massive arming of Saudi Arabia – the state whose petro-plutocracy incubated Al Qaeda and continues to support it and similar efforts – is a single big bad idea all in itself.

    The proposed deal’s main would-be justification is Obama’s self-contradictory policy: his Sec. of State has found a nuclear Iran to be ‘unacceptable’ and yet by creeping defaults Iran is being allowed to get deliverable nuclear weapons. Allegedly this contradiction will be cured by super-arming Saudi Arabia.

    (And all this because Obama, ready for more useless ‘nation-building’ war in Afghanistan, is scared or unwilling to see us or anyone stand up and deliver a few well-targeted blows against selected props of the repressive regime in Iran which sponsors terror -including squads to kill our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – and which masterminds the alliance which actively opposes and will sabotage any Palestine-Israel peace.)

  3. marie says

    I totally agree.
    Too bad that most of the corporations and government don’t see it that way. For them it is the easiest way to make more money; money before ethics.
    It seems like anti-war demonstrations have moved to the background. The common-people are kept too busy to make ends meet.
    The “War-Lords” don’t see any problem. Less jobs – more recruits. If those get killed… , replace easily with new recruits.

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