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 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.