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Defining Ideas in 19th Century US Foreign Policy – Freddy Heegan

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The United States in the 20th century, through a series of policy decisions, involvement with international organization, various foreign interests and progressive policy, transformed from a largely free and unregulated collection of immigrants and farmers, ruled by like-minded politicians, to a more scientific centralized machine, a governmental leviathan controlled by individuals of vast visions for America and the world. This world clearly wasn’t envisioned in the age of Washington and Jefferson. Due to conservative principle, the government as Washington saw it, wouldn’t concern itself with “Her” (Europe or foreign countries), because “she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign in our concerns. Hence, therefore it must be unwise for us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.” While the American Founding was concerned primarily with domestic affairs and well-being of its citizenry, the political influencers of the early 20th century, namely presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, were enamored with the idea of an American utopia, which they hoped to enact on a domestic and international scale. They wanted the world’s populace to enjoy American liberty, even if it meant forcing liberty on them behind the barrel of a gun. Becoming the world’s ideological policeman wasn’t out of the question for progressive presidents, and though thoroughly out of sync with the ideas of Founding Fathers, molded the invasive approach to foreign policy America holds to this day.

The progressive policies and outlook of Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Lyndon Johnson helped shape American international position in the 20th century. From Wilson’s attempt at world peace, to FDR’s attempted renovation of the economy, to Johnson’s attempted containment of communism. These presidents hoped to move America toward global prominence and power. It is clear, in hindsight, that their progressive policies lead America down a path of aggressive international policing and war. However, at the time, they truly believed their efforts would encourage brotherhood and solidarity among all nations. Following the victory of World War 1, Wilson delivered the fourteen points address to Congress. Instead of advocating for a return to stability for the sovereign actors, Wilson specificified he wanted “the world to be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace; loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression.” Wilson didn’t respect the varying forms of government, and thought instead that the US system needed universal implementation. This impossible ideal set forth by Wilson would subject various nationalities to our system of government “or else”; a form of modern day imperialism. Instead of thinking primarily about the needs of our post-war nation, Wilson wanted international acquiescence to his ideology. In this same stripe, FDR wanted classic American thought dating back to the Founding to conform to his new-age philosophy of re-distribution and fairness. However, his benevolent giving came with a steep price; in giving resources to the needy, FDR expected previously enjoyed rights and liberties in return. In his first inaugural address, FDR promised to revitalize America. The only requirement being that “I shall ask congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis-broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” FDR’s New Deal truly helped cement his extreme personal power, under the guise of economic stimulus. It established a precedent of giving aid to those in need, followed up with increased scrutiny on those people. This plan has followed in the 21st century, when America gives aid to third world countries in exchange for influence in their politics. It was no different on home soil. Lyndon Johnson furthered the utopian world outlook of Wilson, and the Machiavellian pragmatism of FDR during the Depression. Johnson said, in response to the question of why we were in Vietnam, that “We are there to strengthen world order. Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked.” At this point, it’s clear. America IS the world’s policeman. The conservative principle of self-determination went by the wayside, in favor of multinational dominance. In Biblical fashion, the US could see the splinter in the world’s eye, but not the plank in its own, defining truly what “global dominance” looks like.

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