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Nonintervention: America’s Founding Foreign Policy

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On the Fourth of July, 1821, John Quincy Adams delivered one of the most remarkable speeches in U.S. history. Having gone down in history with the title “In Search of Monsters of Destroy,” Adams’s speech summarized the founding foreign policy of the United States.

Adams pointed out that there are lots of bad things that happen around the world. Brutal dictatorships. Tyranny. Civil wars. Revolutions. Wars between nations. Poverty. Famines.

Notwithstanding the death and destruction such “monsters” produced in foreign countries, however, the U.S. government would not go abroad to slay them. That was the founding foreign policy of the United States, a policy of nonintervention.

That’s not to say that the United States was unwilling to offer any assistance to people who were suffering in foreign lands. Private Americans were free to offer their support, either personally or with financial donations. Equally important, the United States had a founding immigration policy of open borders, which meant that anyone who was willing and able to escape the monstrous conditions in his homeland and emigrate to the United States was assured that he would never be forcibly repatriated to his country.

In his speech, Adams also issued a profound admonition. He said that if America were ever to abandon its founding foreign policy of nonintervention, she would inevitably acquire the characteristics of a “dictatress.”

What are the characteristics of a dictator or a dictatress? Dictatorships wield omnipotent powers, such as the powers to incarcerate, torture, and kill people with impunity or to arbitrarily seize and keep their money or property.

Nonintervention and open immigration were not the only policies that made the United States such an unusual country. There was also no income taxation or IRS. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or farm subsidies. No Federal Reserve System of paper (i.e., fiat) money. No drug laws. Hardly any economic regulations, including minimum-wage laws, price controls, or rent controls. No Pentagon or military-industrial complex. No CIA. No NSA. No FBI. No Homeland Security. No public (i.e., government) schooling systems. No sanctions or embargoes. No war on terrorism. No torture. No indefinite detention. No travel restrictions. The American people didn’t even use passports.

We know there was slavery and some lesser violations of the principles of liberty, such as tariffs. But if we set those exceptions aside and consider the overall founding principles of the United States, it is impossible to reach but one conclusion: It was the most unusual political and economic system that had ever existed in the history of mankind.

It was that unusual system that defined an American. It was that unusual system that caused Americans to believe that they were the freest people in history. It was that unusual system that the French were honoring when they gifted the Statue of Liberty to the American people.

The shift away from freedom

Things started to shift in the late 1890s. Government programs such as Social Security, government health care, public schooling, and progressive income taxation, which were originating among socialists in Germany, began percolating within American society.

At the same time, some Americans were advocating a turn towards empire. Looking to the examples set by the British Empire, the French Empire, the Spanish Empire, and others, such Americans were arguing that it was time for the United States to travel the imperialist road as well. The key to national greatness, they argued, was for the United States to acquire colonies, just like other empires in history.

The great turning point with respect to foreign policy came in 1898 in the Spanish-American War, which, insofar as the United States was concerned, involved a combination of interventionism and empire.

The war originated as a fight for independence by colonies of the Spanish Empire, including Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. That war did not involve the United States. Certainly Spain had not attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. It was purely a war between a foreign empire and its overseas colonies.

But the U.S. government decided to intervene in the conflict by coming to the assistance of the rebelling colonies. The intervention constituted an abandonment of the founding foreign policy of nonintervention that Adams had summarized a half-century before in his Fourth of July speech to Congress. The U.S. government had decided to intervene in the Spanish-American War to slay the monster of the Spanish Empire.

 While independence was the goal of the Spanish colonies, that was not the goal of the U.S. government. The goal of the U.S. government was to replace the Spanish Empire as the owner and controller of its colonies.

That’s why U.S. troops stayed in Cuba after the war was over — to ensure U.S. control over the island. In fact, that is how the United States ended up with its foreign military base at Guantanamo Bay — by forcing a compliant administration in Cuba to lease it at a nominal price to the United States in perpetuity.

 While the Cuban people deeply resented what had happened, they didn’t resort to a war for independence from the United States, as they had done against Spain. It was different with the Filipino people, however. Having prevailed against Spain in their war for independence, they weren’t about to settle for being a colony of the United States. Thus, they continued their war for independence, only this time against the United States, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives lost at the hands of U.S. forces. In the end, the U.S. government prevailed. The Philippines, along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam, remained under the control of a foreign power, albeit the United States rather than Spain.

America had turned towards both empire and intervention, which made it easier for Woodrow Wilson to convince Americans to intervene in World War I twenty years later. Wilson argued that U.S. intervention into the European conflict would have two extremely positive effects: One, U.S. intervention would bring an end to war in Europe, something that had besieged that part of the world for centuries, and, two, it would make the entire world safe for democracy.

Securing a declaration of war from Congress, the U.S. government proceeded to intervene in World War I on the side of Great Britain and others and against Germany. The intervention was a clear abandonment of the founding foreign policy of the United States. The U.S. government under Wilson was going abroad in search of monsters to destroy — precisely the opposite of what Adams had described nearly 100 years before as America’s founding foreign policy of nonintervention.

Meanwhile, America was shifting in a different direction domestically as well. The progressive income tax, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve System came into existence in the 1910s. In the 1930s, gold coins, which under the U.S. Constitution had been the official money of the American people for more than a century, were nationalized and seized, with any American caught owning them being subject to federal felony prosecution. Irredeemable federal notes and bills were made the official money of the country.

The adoption of Social Security, an idea that had originated among German socialists, heralded the advent of the welfare state in America, a way of life in which the government forcibly takes money from one group of people and gives it to another group of people. At the same time, America was moving towards a regulated, controlled, and managed economy, as reflected by Franklin Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act; minimum-wage laws; maximum-hours laws; and economic, financial, and banking regulations.

World War II

 It did not take long for Americans to realize that U.S. intervention in World War I was a total dis-aster, one that had sacrificed tens of thousands of American troops, many of whom had been forced to fight through conscription. The U.S. intervention not only failed to end all war and make the world safe for democracy, it actually laid the political and economic conditions that gave rise to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Thus, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the American people were overwhelmingly opposed to intervening in World War II. They had had enough of intervention in Europe’s unending conflicts.

But Franklin Roosevelt, like Wilson before him, had other ideas. He was bound and determined to embroil the United States in the European war, this time certain that intervention would prove to be a positive thing for the United States.

Americans, of course, are taught that World War II was a great victory for the United States because Nazi Germany was defeated. They are also taught, however, to ignore the other consequences of the war.

For example, the Poles never considered the defeat of the Nazis to be a victory. Recall that the Poles were the reason that Great Britain had entered the conflict in the first place. Having issued a guarantee to Poland, England declared war on Germany with the intent of freeing the Poles from Nazi tyranny. While victory in the war did, in fact, free the Poles from Nazi tyranny, it also left them under the control of the communist regime of the Soviet Union (which had been America’s World War II partner and ally), for the next 45 years. From the standpoint of the Poles, there was no difference between Nazi tyranny and communist tyranny, which is why they never celebrated World War II as a victory.

It was the same with the rest of Eastern Europe and, for that matter, East Germany. At the end of the war and for the next 45 years, they had to live under the iron fist of brutal communist rule.

But there is something important to understand about all this: In the midst of the war, Roosevelt actually agreed to deliver those nations into the clutches of Soviet communist leader Joseph Stalin, whom he affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe,” notwithstanding the fact that Stalin had killed many more people than Hitler.

And then here is the irony: After the Soviets insisted on maintaining postwar control over the nations that Roosevelt had delivered into their clutches, Harry Truman and other U.S. officials used that control to convince Americans that there was a worldwide communist conspiracy, based in Moscow, to conquer the United States and the rest of the world.

The national-security state

The aftermath of America’s intervention into World War II produced a monumental change in America’s governmental structure, one that entailed the destruction of a limited-government republic and the adoption of what is known as a “national-security state.”

What is a national-security state? It is a type of governmental structure that is inherent to totalitarian regimes. It is characterized by a massive, permanent, generously funded military establishment; a highly secret intelligence agency with omnipotent powers, including assassination; and a massive surveillance operation to secretly monitor and keep track of both citizens and foreigners.

North Korea is a national-security state. So is Russia. And Cuba. And Egypt. And post–World War II United States. That’s what the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA are all about.

In his Farewell Address in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower referred to this new governmental apparatus as “the military-industrial complex.” At the same time, he issued one of the most dramatic warnings in U.S. history, one that rivaled that of John Quincy Adams in 1821. Ike told Americans that this governmental apparatus that was new to the United States posed a grave threat to the liberties and democratic processes of the American people.

President Truman and other U.S. officials told Americans that it was necessary to adopt this totalitarian-like governmental structure in order to prevent America’s World War II partner and ally, the Soviet Union, from conquering the United States in what became known as the Cold War. It was never made clear how the Soviet Union was going to do that, especially since the entire nation had been devastated by the war and then had continued its socialist economic system, which inevitably makes a nation weaker, not stronger.

Nonetheless, the Soviet Union was converted into America’s post–World War II official enemy, and Americans were made to believe that the communists were coming to get them. Truman clearly understood that in order to get Americans to accept the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state, he had to “scare the hell” out of the American people.

There is something important to keep in mind here. Intervention, empire, and a national-security state are different concepts. It is possible for a nation to be a national-security state without having a foreign policy of intervention and empire. North Korea is an example.

But after World War II, the United States went in all three directions. It became a national-security state and almost immediately it began intervening in foreign countries, under the guise of fighting the communists. That’s how the U.S. intervention in the Korean War, which was always just a civil war, was justified — to prevent an eventual communist takeover of the United States. It was also how U.S, intervention in the Vietnam War, which also was just a civil war, was justified — to keep the dominoes from falling to the Reds, with the final domino being the United States.

But it wasn’t just intervention that characterized Cold War America. It was also empire, not by following the old British Empire model but rather by following the model of empire established by the Soviets in Eastern Europe, where the Soviets installed regimes ruled by locals who would follow orders from the Soviets.

That’s what the U.S. coups in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, and others were all about — the destruction of independent regimes, even democratically elected ones, and the installation of local dictatorships that would follow orders from the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, budgets were soaring throughout the Cold War for the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA.

 New enemies 

In 1991 the Cold War suddenly and unexpectedly came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany and Eastern Europe, and the normalization of relations between Russia and the West. The justification for America’s national-security state way of life had come to an end.

The Pentagon and the CIA were not ready, however, to go quietly into the night and permit the restoration of a limited-government republic to our land. Almost immediately, they initiated a series of interventions in the Middle East that were virtually certain to produce “blowback” in the form of terrorist retaliation: The Persian Gulf intervention, followed by 11 years of brutal sanctions on Iraq, which killed tens of thousands of Iraqi children every year. UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s infamous declaration that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from the sanctions was “worth it.” The stationing of UN troops near the holiest lands in the Muslim religion, knowing full well how that would be perceived by people of Muslim faith. They also continued America’s unconditional financial and military support to the Israeli government.

All that interventionism produced the inevitable terrorist retaliation, including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; the attack on the USS Cole, the U.S. warship that was passing near Yemen; the attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa; and then the 9/11 attacks.

Refusing to acknowledge that such attacks were the inevitable result of U.S. intervention in the Middle East and insisting instead that they were motivated by foreign hatred for America’s “freedom and values,” U.S. officials doubled down with post–9/11 regime-change invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two interventions produced nothing but massive death, destruction, and suffering, not to mention the rise of ISIS, which was then used as a justification for intervening in Syria’s revolution, which U.S. officials had encouraged as part of their foreign policy of intervention in the Middle East. There was also the Libya regime-change operation, which, in combination with the Syrian and Iraqi interventions, produced a massive refugee crisis for Europe.

Meanwhile, what Adams predicted in 1821 has come to pass. The federal government has become a dictatress. How else to describe a regime that wields the omnipotent power to assassinate its own people or simply take them into military custody and hold them indefinitely as “enemy combatants” and torture them for as long as officials want? How else to describe a regime that wields the omnipotent power to seize people’s money and other assets under the so-called drug war without ever charging them with a crime?

The good news is that there is a solution to all this mayhem, death, destruction, and loss of liberty, if Americans can only gather the will to embrace it. That solution is two-fold: to restore America’s founding principles of a noninterventionist foreign policy and America’s founding principle of a limited-government republic. If American people were to do that, they could lead the world out of the statist morass in which it finds itself.

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of FFF’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.