Champion of Freedom in the Modern World: The United States

By Louis B. Cardon

Louis B. Cardon, “Champion of Freedom in the Modern World: The United States,” in Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History, ed. Roy A. Prete (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 385–408.

Champion of Freedom in the Modern World: The United States

Louis B. Cardon


Most Americans feel it a blessing to live in the United States. They believe that their land has exceptional natural assets and an unusually well-protected geographical location. They also believe that the historical circumstances of its settlement, its acquisition of independence and constitutional government, and its rise to prosperity and power have added greatly to its natural endowments. In their view, these and other factors have combined to make it a land of unrivaled freedom and opportunity.

From the colonial and early national period, many Americans have also believed that the special blessings have been provided by God (or Providence). In this regard Americans are not unique. Many citizens of England, Switzerland, Germany, and France (as well as other lands) combine a love for their homeland with a belief that it has been uniquely blessed by Providence.

Fortunately, such patriotic or religious convictions are not necessarily mutually contradictory. God may indeed have provided His children in many lands with blessings specially suited to their needs and to His purposes—whether they realize it or not. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, a belief in the special heavenly endowment and the special mission of America is a basic concept of their religion. Both the prophets of the Book of Mormon and the prophets of latter days have declared that America is a choice land. It is the land designated by God for the restoration of His Church and gospel, as well as the land from which the Church and gospel would spread forth across the earth. Prophets have also declared that the Constitution of the United States was inspired of God and that under this Constitution America would provide a choice place of habitation for its own people and would disseminate freedom and other blessings to many other peoples.

Other chapters in this book deal with the special background in America for freedom and for the restoration and spread of the gospel. This chapter will focus on the United States as the great disseminator of freedom throughout much of the world. This was a role described by President Joseph F. Smith in general conference in 1903: “This great American nation the Almighty raised up. . . . His hand has been over this nation, and it is his purpose and design to enlarge it, make it glorious above all others, and to give it dominion, and power . . . to the end that those who are kept in bondage . . . may be brought to the enjoyment of the fullest freedom.”[1]

From our vantage point, we may conclude that until now America has generally fulfilled the design of the Lord. Part of this fulfillment has been its role as the cradle and base of the restored Church. But additionally, both by its example and by its actions on the world stage, America has done more than any other nation to spread and to defend freedom and democracy in the world.

One early Latter-day Saint prophet who clearly declared the unique role of the United States as exemplar of democracy and liberal constitutional government was President Brigham Young. Approximately a century after the birth of the nation, he posed the question, “Why was the establishment of this government such an important event in the history of the world?” His answer was that it was because this was the first truly successful attempt of the people to govern themselves. As such it struck a telling blow against “the ruling idea . . . that the masses were unable to govern themselves; that the attempt would result in confusion and a mobocratic despotism.” Then he eloquently elaborated, “Hewn from the proposition that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; framed by men, who received their inspiration from the Almighty, the Constitution was launched a century ago upon a voyage which . . . bids fair to continue on until the Lord shall claim his right to rule.” President Young described in some detail the special benefits that the individual American derives from citizenship in the states and nation. Ruled by statutes that we all help to frame, we also enjoy the protection of the “well recognized principles of the common law,” which principles are a potent force in the United States as in England “by reason of their antiquity and justice. . . . [We are] respected in [our] right to the free exercise of religion, [our] freedom of speech, . . . to be exempt from unreasonable searches and seizures, in [our] right of trial by a jury of [our] peers; in short, to be secure in life, liberty, and property.”[2]

Many such freedoms were also enjoyed by citizens of England, which President Young called “the freest of European nations.” Indeed, he said, “Englishmen have been struggling for ages for freedom; their constitution, though not written, is almost as perfect a guarantee of individual opinion and action as is the American Constitution.” And yet, President Young declared, England, with her aristocracy, “and the accompanying force of traditional caste . . . has yet some lessons to learn in the school of freedom.” On the other hand, Americans may “reasonably expect, with health and industry, to establish homes of convenience and comfort, . . . indulge the hope of reaching positions high in the state, if our ambition lies in that direction, or of accumulating wealth, if such be our desire, or of reaching the goal of ambition in other directions, without the danger of our way becoming blocked by the traditionary wall of aristocracy. . . . To us, as to all our fellowcitizens, the government of the United States is a priceless boon.” [3]

President Young analyzed in some depth many of the special strengths of the American system of government. But one feature he particularly emphasized was that “the success of the government in the past, the hope of its perpetuation, results more from a wise system of checks and balances instituted by the Constitution than from any other cause.”[4]

Realist that he was, President Young recognized that the government of the United States was not immune to some degree of corruption, and he observed this developing in his own time. He commented that “it is in the nature of human work to decay and pass away.” And he posed the question: “Will it be so with the Constitution of the United States? Will that instrument, the work of a patriotic and virtuous age, succumb to corruption and iniquity?” His answer was an emphatic no. “The Constitution is not the work of man; it is the work of God; it is not finite and perishable; its principles are infinite and imperishable. Such is the belief of the Latter-day Saints.”[5]

It has been more than a century since Brigham Young penned his analysis and predictions regarding the American government, and over two centuries have passed since the founding of this government. During this period the United States has dealt with many great challenges. In considering these, analysts of U.S. history are generally impressed with the exceptional adaptability, as well as the basic soundness, of the government instituted by the Founders. A nation that began as a small seaboard republic has spanned a continent and extended its influence around the world. Great internal challenges have been met, including civil war, the freeing of the slaves, the extension of the vote to virtually all adults (originally restricted mainly to property holders), and the adjustments required by industrialization and urbanization, to name a few. External challenges have included great wars and destructive terrorism. Upon consideration of the unprecedented successes of America in many realms and the unprecedented stature which the nation has achieved in the world, more than a few scholars and laymen alike concur at least partially with the Latter-day Saint belief that this nation has been favored by God, or Providence, as many would say. Many more would agree that, for whatever reasons, America has been the foremost exponent and defender of freedom and democracy in the world during these centuries.

On the other hand, Latter-day Saints should not allow their belief in the God-assigned mission of the United States to cause them to ignore the fact that America’s leaders and people have sometimes mismanaged their country’s affairs. This applies to foreign affairs as well as domestic. Before we examine more closely America’s role as the foremost champion of freedom in the modern world, we must remind ourselves that even champions have their faults. America has sometimes erred through misjudgments, pride, or other reasons. But we should also recognize that a nation, like an individual, can learn from its own mistakes and from those of other peoples if it will reflect upon them. Perhaps this is part of the reason that Latter-day Saints have been instructed “to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms,” as well as “the wars and the perplexities of the nations” (D&C 93:53; 88:79).

America was not born a full-fledged democracy. Not until the rise of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s were property-owning qualifications for voting generally dropped throughout the states. But the ownership of property in America had already become so widespread in the colonial era that from its birth the new nation was far more democratic than its mother country. For that very reason, most experienced foreign observers (including Tocqueville) expected that the United States would be less successful in foreign affairs than in domestic affairs. Success in international relations was generally thought to require stable authoritarian leadership, and democracy was expected to be a great handicap.

This expectation has proven erroneous. Whether because of its democracy or in spite of it, the United States has enjoyed more success in its foreign relations than any monarchy or aristocracy ever experienced. If the achievement of durable power and prosperity are important measures of success, then American democracy is in fact preeminent. In spite of some failures and setbacks, by the late twentieth century the United States had achieved a position of world leadership unparalleled in history. But what is perhaps even more important is that much of the world, though not all, has benefited from American influence.[6]

American example, support, or both have been instrumental in the establishment of new democracies in many parts of the world. President Ezra Taft Benson commented on the importance of the American example in the establishment of republics in South America. “I believe it was very significant,” he declared, “that when independence came to the countries of South America, governments were established on constitutional principles—some patterned after the Constitution of the United States. I believe this was a very necessary step which preceded the preaching of the gospel in South America.”[7]

Few of the peoples who established governments like that of the United States were as well prepared for constitutionalism and democracy as were the Americans. The prior experience of some, including most of the Latin American peoples, had been largely shaped by aristocracies and by authoritarian political and religious institutions. Consequently they had a long struggle to achieve governments that were stable, genuinely democratic, and conducive to individual freedoms. Others, such as Germany and Japan after World War II, were able to achieve relatively liberal democracy with just a few years of American assistance and have been more successful and stable under democratic government than under any prior government.

Of course their experience does not prove that in modern times a democratic constitution is necessarily the best form of government for any people in any stage of development. It may be argued that under certain conditions a republic or a constitutional monarchy that entrusts management of governmental affairs to a somewhat limited segment of the population might be more conducive to constitutional liberalism (with effective rights and protections for individuals) than would a system of universal suffrage. As the eminent political scientist Samuel P. Huntington writes in The Third Wave: “Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. . . . Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one.”[8]

And yet, thanks in large part to the influence and prestige of the United States and other great democracies and to the collapse of communism and other competing ideological alternatives, democracy seems to be clearly the wave of the future as the world enters the twenty-first century. Of approximately 190 countries in 2003, 119 (62 percent) had governments nominally created by elections in which all adult citizens were entitled to vote.[9] The mission of the United States to champion freedom in the world still involves the conversion of additional countries to democratic forms, but perhaps even more it involves the furtherance of regimes that truly respect the rule of law, that effectively protect basic liberties of religion, speech, property, and so forth, and that actually afford all citizens the kinds of opportunities which President Young praised in the America of his day.

Does any identifiable characteristic of U.S. foreign policy provide a general key to its success and hence a broad insight into the manner in which the Lord’s design for this country’s worldwide role has been thus far advanced? One plausible suggestion has been offered recently by Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His highly respected book, Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, was published in 2001.[10] Mead does not suggest that the American people have consistently and unitedly pursued some particular supersuccessful policy. Rather, he concludes that within the American democracy several competing schools of thought on American foreign policy have interacted time and again to pull the United States toward various policies that have proven successful. These schools are based on somewhat differing views as to America’s ideal role in regional and world affairs. He has identified four such schools of thought that collectively have controlled American foreign policy most of the time and has dubbed each with the name of an early or well-known advocate. During the major epochs of American foreign relations, these schools, which he calls the Jeffersonians, the Hamiltonians, the Jacksonians, and the Wilsonians, have competed. Each has tended to prevail in American policy in certain periods and to give way to one or more of the others in other periods. But all four schools have been durable and have repeatedly contributed their insights to bring about needed adjustments in American foreign policy. Through this democratic process, Mead suggests, a “special providence” seems to have guided the destiny of America.

The four schools are considered at length throughout the book, but in the introduction they are briefly characterized:

Hamiltonians regard a strong alliance between the national government and big business as the key both to domestic stability and to effective action abroad, and they have long focused on the nation’s need to be integrated into the global economy on favorable terms. Wilsonians believe that the United States has both a moral obligation and an important national interest in spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world, creating a peaceful international community that accepts the rule of law. Jeffersonians hold that American foreign policy should be less concerned about spreading democracy abroad than about safeguarding it at home; they have historically been skeptical about Hamiltonian and Wilsonian policies that involve the United States with unsavory allies abroad or that increase the risks of war. . . . [Jacksonians believe] that the most important goal of the U.S. government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people. . . . The United States should not seek out foreign quarrels, but when other nations start wars with the United States . . . “there is no substitute for victory.”[11]

Meade concludes that these four schools, which seem just as evident in the early twenty-first century as they were in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, will likely continue to shape American foreign policy and bring success to this country. It is primarily the successes of the United States throughout its existence, as well as the increased success of such nations as Germany and Japan once they became democratic, that suggest that functional democracy is actually more conducive to successful foreign and domestic policy than are either old-style monarchy or new-style dictatorship.[12] This is a truth observed in earlier times by the prophet Mosiah. “It is not common,” he wrote, “that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right, but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right” (Mosiah 29:26).

American citizens eager for further success need to be aware, however, that the conduct of foreign policy in a democracy can seem unwieldy and retrogressive at times. Meade recommends that Americans impatient to advance the doctrine of their choice reflect on a well-known analogy of Fisher Ames: “In this democratic republic you can pull at the tiller as hard as you like, but the raft of state responds only sluggishly and partially to your commands—and your feet will always be wet.” This is sometimes frustrating to statesmen and citizens with strong, specific views, “but after more than two centuries on often stormy seas, it is beginning to look as if the very sluggishness and unresponsiveness of the old unwieldy raft helps keep it afloat.”[13]

Another recent book which concurs with the Latter-day Saint view that America has enjoyed a special blessing of Providence in its conduct of foreign relations is Walter A. McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776.[14] McDougall, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with Meade that American foreign policy has been shaped by several key concepts—he cites eight. He believes the four that were most influential until the end of the nineteenth century were the most propitious. These concepts shaped a foreign policy that generally enhanced America’s role as the promised land. On the other hand, the four key concepts that tended to predominate at times in the twentieth century have in his view introduced a role for America as a crusader state aggressively seeking to remake parts of the world in its own image. This is a role which, in McDougall’s view, has sometimes detracted from America’s truer mission as exemplar and persuader.

As McDougall’s eight key concepts provide a particularly useful framework for the main phases of America’s foreign relations (whether or not one agrees with all of McDougall’s conclusions), they will be used in the following discussion. In the course of this discussion, it will become evident that either America’s role as promised land or crusader state (depending on circumstances) may well be seen as an appropriate fulfillment of the assignment of America as the Lord’s chief champion of freedom in the modern world.

American Exceptionalism

In 1630, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean, John Winthrop told his fellow Puritans: “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”[15] The Massachusetts colony may not have fully achieved Governor Winthrop’s ideal, but the phrase he made famous has often been applied to the American republic established a century and a half later. The concept that America was truly special among the nations of the world and was destined to be a model for others was a principle upon which the Founders concurred. Even Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson could agree that the United States was a “city upon a hill”—an example of constitutionalism, freedom, and justice worthy of emulation by other nations. And they both believed that it was only by example and persuasion, not by force, that the new republic’s influence should be spread. Thomas Paine, fiery exponent of revolution in France as well as in America, likewise concurred that America must spread its values only by example. A particularly expressive and famous portrayal of this view was a statement of John Quincy Adams in his memorable July Fourth speech of 1821: “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is champion only of her own.”[16] American exceptionalism has proven an enduring concept among citizens of the United States, though not always with such restrictions on its application.


Unilateralism was also embraced by most early American leaders. The phrase “no entangling alliances” was used first by Jefferson in his inaugural address in 1801, but the concept of avoiding dangerous commitments was stated earlier by George Washington. Perhaps the kernel of Washington’s famous Farewell Address of 1796 was the declaration, “It is our true policy to steer clear of all permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” As a realist, he then added that “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies” might be needed at times. Together with this long-to-be-remembered injunction against entangling alliances, Washington included in his valedictory a strong recommendation against the development of overwhelming likes or dislikes toward particular foreign countries: “Nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.”[17]

Many Americans of later generations, including Latter-day Saints, have revered Washington’s counsel and have considered it to have been inspired by God. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Washington went beyond counseling against certain actions (for example, making entangling alliances) to warn against permitting mental preconditions for such actions (for example, fixed preferences for certain nations over others) to develop unchecked. In so doing Washington was following a pattern used by Christ in His Sermon on the Mount. On that occasion Christ went beyond the Jewish injunction against killing to give an injunction against undue anger (see Matthew 5:21). It is doubtful that in his memorable address Washington was consciously imitating the Master Teacher, but perhaps it was through the inspiration of the Lord that he did so.

At the time Washington gave this advice it was already too late for the infant republic to avert any and all entangling alliances. In effect, America was born with such a commitment. During the revolution against Britain, America had desperately needed aid from France. To obtain this aid, the Continental Congress had concluded a treaty with France that bound the United States to forever assist France in the defense of its West Indies. Later Hamilton recommended that Washington repudiate the French alliance. Washington refused to do this on the grounds that in international relations, as in personal affairs, “honesty is the best policy.” But in 1800, a year after Washington’s death, American diplomats were able to negotiate with the French ruler Napoleon a convention that abrogated the commitment of 1778. This convention initiated a period of a century and a half during which time the United States abstained from all “entangling alliances.” It was not until 1949, in the face of what seemed a dire threat to America’s Western European friends from the Soviet Union, that the United States again concluded such an alliance. By the North Atlantic Treaty, America committed to consider any attack on one of its eleven partners as an attack on itself. Under the circumstances, most Americans would probably agree that this was a commitment that even George Washington would have approved as a practical man rather than an ideologue. It may also be observed that both unilateralism and the later engagement policy were consistent, under their respective circumstances, with America’s mission as a champion of freedom.[18]

The American System

The concept that the relatively pure Western Hemisphere should be guarded against undue contamination or influence from the Eastern Hemisphere was advanced by a number of American writers, including Jefferson, well before it was given its most concrete early application in James Monroe’s message to Congress in 1823. This doctrine of the two hemispheres seems consistent with the statements of ancient and modern prophets regarding the special status and mission the Lord has assigned to America. Therefore, those who have advocated the concept in modern times and those who have contributed to its implementation even unwittingly may be considered to have furthered the purposes of the Lord in protecting America for its special destiny.[19]

This could apply even to the British foreign minister George Canning. Of course he himself was not an advocate of the two-hemispheres doctrine. His August 1823 suggestion to President Monroe was motivated by Britain’s desire for trade with Latin America unhampered by any mercantilistic controls. What he proposed therefore was a joint Anglo-American statement opposing interference by any outside power (evidently including the United States) with the freedom of the newly independent states in this area. Canning’s proposal opened a significant opportunity for the American leaders, President Monroe and secretary of state John Quincy Adams, to engineer their momentous unilateral declaration. But even before the delivery of Monroe’s message to Congress on December 2, 1823, and without America’s knowledge, Canning had already gotten a commitment from France (the one European power besides Britain most capable of intervention) that it would not seek colonial reconquests in Latin America for itself or on behalf of Spain. Thus, Canning unwittingly served the purposes of the Lord by helping to preserve America from further European incursions before the United States developed strength of its own.[20]

On the other hand, Monroe and Adams were both believers in the two-hemispheres doctrine. The statement they wrote together for Congress referred to the “essential difference” between the political systems of European states and that of America. In declaring the American hemisphere to be henceforth excluded from the political expansion of any European power (including Britain), they may well have felt themselves to be allies of Providence in the protection of America. We now know that the statement they so carefully crafted would become the cornerstone of a policy that would serve many generations of Americans in many different circumstances. It began, however, as a fairly modest statement of America’s determination to oppose new colonization in the American hemisphere (including the Pacific coastal areas coveted by Russia), the transfer of existing colonies, and the reimposition of colonial rule in areas that had gained their independence.[21]

It did not promise American help to complete the process of Latin American independence. (Adams, in his own statements, expressed approval of this independence movement but also declared “it is our true policy and duty to take no part” in it. [AUTHOR: Please provide source.]) While vowing to defend America’s interests, particularly in this hemisphere, the declaration disclaimed any intention of intervening in European affairs which did not concern America. Thus, at its inception this cornerstone of American foreign policy was a relatively limited and prudent declaration. In later generations it would sometimes be used as a support for rather aggressive expansion of American power within this hemisphere and even to islands of the Pacific. But it has been viewed by most Americans primarily as a safeguard of America’s God-given freedoms. Walter McDougall comments, with respect to America’s relative freedom from foreign threats: “The secular historian calls this . . . an inevitable consequence of geography, economics, and demography. But many, perhaps most, Americans in the nineteenth century assumed that the freedom they enjoyed at home and their freedom from foreign entanglements were providential.”[22] [AUTHOR: provide source] The identification of the Monroe Doctrine as a specific, key element in the Lord’s protective mantle for America has been made by several Latter-day Saint prophets. Referring to the Lord’s promise “I will fortify this land against all other nations” (2 Nephi 10:12), President Joseph Fielding Smith declared that “the greatest and most powerful fortification in America is the ‘Monroe Doctrine.’ . . . It was the inspiration of the Almighty which rested upon John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other statesmen, and which finally found authoritative expression in the message of James Monroe to Congress in the year 1823.”[23]

The Monroe Doctrine, as this 1823 statement generally came to be called in the later nineteenth century, was interpreted by the United States and by other countries in various ways, resulting from changes in America’s strength and interests. The story of these variations is generally too complicated to be treated here. But certain major phases in the way the doctrine affected American relations with the Latin American states may be mentioned. At the outset, the new Latin American republics seemed to feel more protected than threatened by Monroe’s statement. Then as time went on, they generally felt themselves to be protected more by the British navy coupled with Britain’s desire for the republics’ continued independence than by the fledgling United States.

But by the early twentieth century, the United States had acquired significant naval strength, and along with this a somewhat proprietary attitude toward the Latin American republics. The basic cause for this attitude was that some of the republics, especially in the Caribbean area, had unstable governments and economies. This sometimes put European investments at risk and invited intervention by the investors’ governments. Theodore Roosevelt, elected president in 1900, felt that since the United States was determined not to allow such interventions, it should send its own military force to maintain or restore order. In 1904 Roosevelt reacted to the “insurrectionary habit” of certain “wretched republics” by proclaiming what became known as the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: “Chronic wrongdoing

. . . may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”[24]

Over the following decades, dozens of American marine interventions took place in Latin American republics, some lasting for many months. The practice came to be generally detested throughout Latin America and helped to build a negative image of the United States as a threatening “colossus of the North.” Subsequently, in 1928, Undersecretary of State J. Reuben Clark Jr. composed a 236-page analysis of the Monroe Doctrine, repudiating the interpretation that had been used to justify American interventions. “The Doctrine,” declared Clark, “states a case of the United States vs. Europe, and not of the United States vs. Latin America.” [AUTHOR: provide source] Two years later the Hoover administration published this “Clark Memorandum” and adopted its narrower interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine as the basis for its policy. Thus began the good neighbor policy later elaborated in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Inasmuch as the author of the memorandum that effectively repealed the Roosevelt corollary was the same J. Reuben Clark who later became First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it should not be difficult for Latter-day Saints to conclude that the inspiration of the Lord figured into this more palatable interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.[25]

Manifest Destiny

From the birth of the American nation in the late eighteenth century, it was a widely held American belief that the relatively small Atlantic-seaboard country was clearly designated by Providence to expand westward. By the time a name for this mission, “manifest destiny,” was coined by the journalist John O’Sullivan in 1839, it seemed evident that what he described as “the great experiment of Liberty and federated self-government” was well on its way toward absorbing all of the land westward to the Pacific.[26] In the eyes of most Americans, this westward expansion into thinly populated and largely unorganized territories was not a process of imperial conquest or colonization. Strength was added to this interpretation by the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to govern the disposition of the first major addition to the original thirteen states. It was provided by this ordinance, which became a model for later additions generally, that as new lands were populated and organized they would undergo a regular progressive elevation of their status to that of statehood, as did the original thirteen. Since the essence of imperialism was the maintenance of acquired territories indefinitely in a subordinate status, the westward movement seemed clearly to be a process of nation building, not imperial conquest.[27]

This interpretation was generally maintained by Americans even with respect to the Southwest territories acquired from Mexico by President James Polk in a war that he quite deliberately provoked (1846–48). It was the belief of President Polk himself, and of most Americans, that it was a blessing of Providence for California, Utah, and the other southwest territories only loosely held by Mexico to be transferred from a relatively unprogressive rule to membership in the United States. To be sure, there were a few dissident voices from some politicians and from writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who believed that acquisitions by war were unbecoming a republic of America’s ideals. But if we judge these acquisitions by their long-term effects on the people involved, we may indeed conclude that while the ends did not necessarily justify the means, the ends were good, in spite of the means. Senator Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia expressed a sentiment widely held at the end of the Mexican War: “I would not force the adoption of our form of Government upon any people by the sword, but if war is forced upon us, as this has been, and the increase of our territory, and consequently the extension of the area of human liberty and happiness, shall be one of the incidents of such a contest, I believe we should be recreant to our noble mission, if we refused acquiescence in the high purposes of a wise Providence.”[28] [AUTHOR: provide source]

Progressive Imperialism

A new dimension was added to American expansionism in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. Several American leaders, including Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, used opportunities to replace Spanish power with American power in parts of the Caribbean and the Pacific and to build and control a canal through Central America to provide linkage and outposts deemed essential to an emerging world power.[29]

President McKinley was genuinely reluctant to engage in war against Spain in 1898, but Spain’s weakness, combined with its oppressive rule in such areas as Cuba and the Philippines, provoked local insurrections and seemed to invite American intervention. The American public was much agitated by lurid press stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and generally favored war. It is significant to note that McKinley’s request to Congress for a declaration of war on Spain was predicated primarily on the need to put an end to intolerable human rights abuses in America’s backyard. This war concluded with easy victory and resulted in the American annexation of new territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

It was the first and only period in which the United States engaged in quite open imperialism. Several lands were brought under American imperial ownership (in other words, to be retained indefinitely in an inferior status as outposts or colonies). When insurrection was renewed in the Philippines, this time against American rule, the decision of American leaders to suppress it by force is perhaps correctly considered a blot on America’s record. Consider also, however, Professor Douglas Tobler’s discussion in another chapter of this book of the ways that God brought some good even from twentieth century wars more terrible than the Mexican War of 1846, the Spanish War of 1898, or the suppression of the Philippine insurrection.

President McKinley, though strongly justifying the Spanish War at the time, “concluded, a year before his death, that it was the greatest grief of his life.”[30] [AUTHOR: provide source] Theodore Roosevelt, a more robust practitioner of progressive imperialism, took great satisfaction in the annexations and in his own manipulations that led to American acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone in what had been Columbian territory. The canal was a strategic necessity for the United States to become a major naval power on two oceans. And as Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1910, “We ourselves are becoming, owing to our strength and geographical situation, more and more the balance of power of the whole world.”[31]

The years just following the Spanish War of 1898 are often considered by historians to have been a seminal period for forceful American world leadership. A particularly penetrating treatment of this theme was published by Warren Zimmermann in 2002. He notes that “America would never again acquire so much territory as it did during those explosive five years between 1898 and 1903.”[32] But the American leaders of that period (including Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Henry Cabot Lodge) by their blend of pragmatism, idealism, and strong leadership “set the course for American foreign policy for a century.”[33] They generally believed that America “had a mission to spread the bounties of its civilization beyond its borders and that the United States should pick up Britain’s faltering flag and show that empires can operate for the good of their subjects. For all [these] men, the manifest destiny that had led the United States to defeat Mexico and conquer the American West should now unfold on a global scale.”[34] [AUTHOR: provide source] Roosevelt confidently asserted the righteousness of America’s expanded mission, “Our chief usefulness to humanity rests on our combining power with high purpose,” he declared.[35] For Walter McDougall, on the other hand, this was the beginning of America’s dubious twentieth-century off-and-on career as “crusader state.”

From the perspective of America’s championship of freedom in the world, it is relevant to note that this American adventure into the imperialism which had long been almost the badge of a great power was relatively restrained and short lived. America did not acquire a very big empire and fairly soon began to loosen the strings of ownership or control. Despite some tragic episodes such as the Philippine insurrection, in the long run the peoples of the areas acquired by the United States generally enjoyed greater freedom than before. Even in a shorter period, as the United States set up an admirable colonial administration in the newly acquired territories, their populations received “some of the best features of the American legal system.”[36] [AUTHOR: source] It appears that the design of the Lord for the spread of freedom in the world was perhaps served by American progressive imperialism, reprehensible as it sometimes may have been.

Liberal Internationalism

In 1914, four years after Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration of America’s readiness for a broader mission, came the outbreak of World War I. There is little reason to doubt that President Woodrow Wilson, unlike President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early years of World War II, sincerely believed that it was in the interest of the United States and of the world for America to stay out of the war. He won reelection in 1916 on a platform emphasizing “He kept us out of war.” Wilson’s sincere hope and belief was that the United States, by remaining neutral, would be able to play the role of peacemaker and would be in a position at the conclusion of the war to promote a worldwide league of nations that could avert future wars.[37]

At the outset of the War in Europe, President Wilson urged Americans to be neutral in thought as well as in deed. But as they read newspaper accounts of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, of the heroic French defense of Paris, and of the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, Americans’ sympathies went out to the Western Allied Powers. With the withdrawal of the Russian empire from the war following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the remaining Allies were also seen as a group of brave democracies deserving of America’s support for democracy and freedom.

It was above all the German use of submarines to cut off essential imports of American and other goods into Britain that doomed Wilson’s dream of keeping America out of the war and brokering peace as a neutral. But even when America entered the war on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers led by Germany, Wilson respected America’s aversion to alliances by abstaining from joining the Allied treaty group. Technically, the United States fought as an associated power of the Allies.

America did, however, participate very effectively in the fighting in 1917 and 1918 and was a major factor in the complete Allied victory in November 1918. At the peace conference in Versailles, Wilson represented America personally and did his best to utilize the respect and gratitude which America had won and to achieve a peace of reconciliation and justice. As described in a widely used European history text: “The Fourteen Points must be listed among the greatest pronouncements ever made by the responsible head of a great government. Outstanding leaders had in the past put forward programs for world betterment, but the central aim of all of them had been the aggrandizement of themselves, their organizations, or their countries. Not so with President Wilson. . . . He was not asking anything for himself or for his country. His was a vision of a better world for mankind as a whole.”[38]

But the European Allies were concerned primarily with their own security and ambitions. Wilson was obliged to compromise on several of his idealistic Fourteen Points, including the one calling for self-determination for all peoples. However, he still had great hopes for the League of Nations. He had been able to integrate its charter with the general peace settlement and trusted that with the passage of time and the abatement of hatreds it would be the means of revising the peace settlement where needed. Thus, lasting peace and self-determination for all peoples might yet be secured.

Unfortunately, the world in general and the victor nations in particular were not really ripe for this vision of justice and freedom. Even in America, Wilson was faced with a populace disillusioned by the outcome of a war that had perhaps been oversold to them as a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” Americans were dismayed to learn that many wartime allies had arranged secret treaties to gain control over lands such as Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Turkey—prejudicing self-determination and other American principles by these arrangements.[39]

Perhaps Wilson could have obtained a greater part of his program had he been willing to compromise with opposition leaders in the Senate. A chief concern of Wilson’s opponents was that participation in the league and the treaty would evidently curtail America’s sovereignty and impinge upon the tradition of avoiding entangling alliances. As it was, Wilson refused to compromise, and his efforts to rally popular support for the league and the peace treaty were cut short by a physical collapse. The peace settlement, which incorporated the Covenant of the League of Nations, failed to achieve ratification in the American Senate. This set the stage for two decades of American withdrawal from liberal internationalism.

The so-called isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s did not mean withdrawal from international trade or even withdrawal from participation in some international diplomacy. It meant abstention from any engagements that might embroil the United States in major international problems or war. Unfortunately, it also involved abstention from most international solutions to the problems engendered by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which followed the stock market crash in the fall of 1929.[40]

Within the United States (uniquely blessed with abundant resources for food production and industry), high protective tariffs to preserve what was left of the U.S. market for America’s own producers, coupled with government programs to stimulate recovery, did seem to achieve at least partial recovery from the Depression by 1937. Britain (with its empire/commonwealth) was similarly able, by preferential trade arrangements with its commonwealth partners, gradually to pull itself out of the Depression. France (with a sizable empire), was able to do likewise by increasing trade with its colonies.

The major industrialized countries least able to restore economic activity by internal adjustments, and hence most vulnerable to the “beggar-my-neighbor” protectionism of the Western democracies, were Germany and Japan. Both were “factory nations” that needed to trade their industrial products abroad for food and raw materials in order to overcome huge unemployment and to feed their large populations. Certainly the extreme economic distress in these countries contributed, along with other factors, to the political collapse of moderate governments and to the rise of radical, aggressive parties such as the Nazis in Germany. America learned from the experiences of the Great Depression and World War II that prevention of great economic hardships in other countries could contribute to maintaining peace. Partly because of this lesson, after World War II the United States gave a good deal more attention to the economic recovery and stability of other countries than it had in the period following World War I. It seems unlikely that the United States will ever again abstain from an active international policy to the degree that it did in the 1920s and 1930s. If being a good neighbor to those in need is a desirable principle for nations to follow, as it is for individuals, at least some degree of internationalism seems consistent with the program of the Lord and conducive to the maintenance of freedom-loving governments in the world.[41]

America’s isolationism also involved abstention from participation in the League of Nations and from substantial military or diplomatic support for the major democracies and other peacefully inclined countries of Europe and East Asia in the decades between the two world wars. This U.S. abstention, together with the appeasement policies followed by England and France, contributed to the freedom of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and imperial Japan to pursue their military buildup and early territorial aggressions. By the late 1930s the United States did begin (and progressively increase) mild economic sanctions against Japan for its aggression toward its neighbors, particularly China. But in European affairs Americans generally applauded the democracies’ attempts to appease Hitler and Mussolini.[42]

After the war began in 1939, Americans were shocked by the rapid fall of Poland, France, and most of the rest of Europe to the totalitarian powers. Then they were particularly distressed by the spectacle of the unequal standoff between the island nation of Britain and the European continent largely under Axis control. Most Americans still wanted to stay out of the war, but even before America was brought into the war by the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, it was getting close to hostilities with Germany. In addition to their sympathy for the democratic and peaceful countries taken over or threatened by the Axis, many Americans, including President Franklin Roosevelt, feared a European continent dominated by the Axis Powers. This, together with a Britain so weakened that it could exercise little protective control over the Atlantic Ocean, would present unacceptable risks to the vital interests of America and other free nations. Under the leadership of Roosevelt, therefore, America became increasingly non-neutral in its aid to Britain and probably would in time have become a full participant in Britain’s war against Germany.[43]

In the meantime, however, America was countering the aggressive expansion of Japan in East Asia by imposing increasingly severe economic sanctions. As a condition for lifting these sanctions, the United States—as champion of the free nations in the area—was demanding that Japan get out of China and otherwise dismantle the empire (euphemistically called the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”) that Japan had been building since 1931. By late 1941 the American sanctions, supported also by Britain, produced desperate oil and rubber shortages in Japan. Rather than abandon its dream of empire and draw back to the overcrowded home islands, the Japanese government precipitated war against the United States by attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7. Within days, Hitler’s decision (seconded by Mussolini) to join with Japan in war against the United States brought America into full participation in World War II.[44]

This war was more clearly a struggle against unbridled aggression than World War I had been. In fact the Nazi and Fascist regimes had already overwhelmed most of the free nations of Europe before the United States became a participant. Fortunes of war gave America a strange ally in this great struggle—the Soviet Union, itself a totalitarian state, which was brought into the war through German invasion in June 1941. The USSR was soon fighting for its very existence—to stop and then roll back this invasion. The United States fought both in self-defense and to prevent the consolidation of hostile and seemingly insatiable dictatorships throughout much of the world.

Never before had so many free nations come under a more dire threat or had greater need of a champion. Before the American involvement, among the major democracies of Europe only Britain had been able to maintain its independence, and that was with substantial material assistance from the United States. Once they became full partners in the war, however, both the Americans and the British were motivated to unprecedented effort and sacrifice by the seriousness of the challenge. With the Soviet Union ultimately mastering the German forces in Eastern Europe, it was primarily the great economic and military strength marshaled by the United States that turned the tide and then brought complete victory over the Axis Powers in the other major theaters of the War (North Africa, Western Europe, the Pacific). Democracy and freedom had truly found a champion in their hour of need.[45]

World War II proved a great divide in the history of American foreign relations. At the end of the war, Britain was exhausted and the United States was left as one of the two great military powers in the world. The other superpower was the communist Soviet Union, which in spite of huge losses during the German invasion emerged at war’s end stronger than it had been before the war. The Soviets had absorbed and turned back the powerful German attack, and at the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, they were in control of most of eastern Europe, including the eastern third of Germany itself. The United States, backed by Britain and a partially revived France, controlled western Europe.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill had been pleased to get Stalin to commit to join the war on Japan within three months of the defeat of Germany. They did not want the Soviets to be free to work their will in eastern Europe during the additional months expected for the defeat of Japan. But when the USSR did declare war on Japan on August 8, just three months after the German surrender, the United States no longer needed or wanted Soviet participation. Two days earlier, on August 6, the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, and within days the Japanese emperor and government indicated their readiness to surrender. Thereafter the Americans moved swiftly to establish their occupation of Japan under Douglas MacArthur’s direction and without Soviet participation.[46]

As it had after World War I, America took a leading role in the peace settlement in Europe. However, there was no general peace conference or peace treaty as there had been at the end of World War I. Instead, America, seconded by Britain, had to negotiate with the Soviet Union to settle boundaries and governments for several European countries. For the most part, no permanent agreements could be reached with the Soviets on such questions. So far as the dividing lines between Soviet and Western zones were concerned, the provisional occupation lines determined mainly by the position of the armies near the end of the fighting in Europe simply became with the passing of time semipermanent boundary lines. The United States was disappointed over the situation in Europe, with the Soviets dominating the eastern half of the continent, but there was never serious consideration in America of the kind of withdrawal which had taken place after World War I.


By 1946 it was becoming apparent that postwar relations with the Soviet Union would be hostile. In the words of Winston Churchill, an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, separating the free nations of Western Europe from the Soviet-controlled area. It was increasingly clear that Stalin had no intention of giving real freedom to the people of eastern Europe “liberated” from Nazi Germany by the Soviet army in the last stages of the war. Whether motivated primarily by pure expansionism or by the need for a defensive buffer zone, Stalin was consolidating his long-term control by setting up satellite governments subservient to the Soviets. In the meantime, the United States was helping to establish free governments throughout western Europe.

President Harry S. Truman became the president of the United States with the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt just weeks prior to the war’s end. By early 1947 it appeared to him that there was no longer much to be gained by negotiations with the Soviets over boundaries and governments. Each superpower was the determined defender of its own sphere. Without risking World War III, neither could at that time displace the other. But Truman believed that the United States must face up to the likelihood that the Soviets would attempt by subversion to make further advances, probably starting with Greece, Turkey, and Iran. In a historic speech to Congress on March 12, 1947, he declared: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. . . . Our way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. . . . The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this Nation. . . . I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”[47]

Truman’s proposal received overwhelming support from the Congress and the American people and has gone down in history as the Truman Doctrine. Its implementation constituted the first phase of the policy of containment, and the beginning of the containment era. In general, this era coincides with the cold war between the United States and Soviet blocs, lasting until the dissolution of the Soviet bloc from 1989 to 1991. The theoretical basis for the policy was supplied by George Kennan, a State Department expert on Russia. According to his famous analysis, the Soviets were determined to advance their communist cause wherever feasible, but they were more realistic and less reckless than Hitler had been. Hence the safest and most effective policy for the United States and its allies would be a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” [48] Eventually Soviet cohesiveness or resolve would disintegrate, as the innate superiorities of the free world and the innate contradictions of the Soviet system had their long-term effects.

The containment era, spanning over forty years (a much longer period than Kennan had expected), encompassed a number of phases. During most of these years, American policy makers did not favor containment. They sometimes preferred the more aggressive term rollback or the more conciliatory term détente. But in the view of most historians, the prevailing policy continued to be that of containment—preventing the spread of Soviet power while avoiding the great destruction which a war with the USSR would surely entail. The first phase involved American aid to Greece, Turkey, and Iran, together with the inauguration of the Marshall Plan and NATO to stabilize and unite the countries of Western Europe. This phase had achieved substantial success by 1948.[49]

The second phase began with a reassessment of American strategy following the Berlin blockade of June 1948 and the Soviet unveiling of an atomic bomb in July 1949. Pursuant to National Security Council recommendations (mainly incorporated in NSC-68, of April 1950) the United States quickly reversed the rapid demobilization of its armed forces that had taken place just after World War II. Truman speeded development of the thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, quadrupled the American defense budget, reinstituted the draft, stationed significant American forces in Europe, and responded vigorously to the Berlin blockade of 1948–49 and to the North Korean offensive of 1950.[50]

During the third phase of the cold war (c. 1953–60), John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, talked of a rollback of Soviet power but actually continued the practice of containment. The United States did not intervene in 1953 when the Soviets suppressed riots in East Berlin or in 1956 when they put down anti-Soviet movements in Poland and Hungary. On the other hand the Eisenhower Doctrine pledged aid to Middle Eastern governments needing protection against “international Communism,” and American marines were in fact sent to Jordan and Lebanon to support shaky pro-Western governments. Communist (or leftist reform) movements in other areas, such as Latin America, were also usually viewed as attempted projections of Soviet power and were met by U.S. diplomatic resistance or limited military intervention (in Guatemala in 1954, for example). Eisenhower and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at times cultivated a spirit of conciliation between the two superpowers, but the ideal of peaceful coexistence did not prove sustainable in this period.[51]

During the U.S. presidential campaign of 1960, which inaugurated the fourth phase of containment (c. 1960–69), it was charged that the outgoing administration had allowed a missile gap to develop in favor of the Soviet Union. However, the new president, John F. Kennedy, pledged that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe in order to assure the success and survival of liberty.”[52] In 1962 came the test of Kennedy’s nerve and skill. Khrushchev, perhaps recognizing that there was indeed a missile gap (but one favoring the United States—294 American intercontinental ballistic missiles to 75 for the Soviets), attempted to improve the Soviet strategic position by placing intermediate-range missiles in communist Cuba.[53] This ill-conceived venture brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev was obliged by Kennedy’s determination and America’s strategic superiority to beat a humiliating retreat. But within two years the Brezhnev-Kosygin faction had taken over Soviet leadership and inaugurated a concerted effort to achieve strategic parity with the United States. By 1969 they had succeeded in achieving essential equivalence in ICBMs (1,050 for the Soviets to 1,054 for the United States). Both superpowers now qualified to practice M.A.D., or “mutual assured destruction.” The other salient aspect of this phase of the cold war was the increasing involvement of the United States in countering “wars of national liberation” suspected of being supported, if not originated, by the Soviet Union. Of course the prime example of this was in Vietnam. During the course of this war (particularly during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson) Americans became increasingly divided over the issue of its appropriateness as a means of containing Soviet communism, Chinese communism, or both. Critics of the war came to believe that America’s main adversary in Vietnam was actually Vietnamese nationalism and that American withdrawal would not be likely to lead to Soviet or Chinese control of the country. They also believed that it would not produce the dreaded domino effect of expansion of Soviet or Chinese control over many other states in the area.[54]

During the fifth phase of containment (c. 1969–77), Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (together with secretary of state Henry Kissinger) used diplomacy to play the rising communist state of China against the Soviet Union and eventually to achieve a measure of détente with both, as well as some arms limitations agreements with the Soviets. Nixon and Kissinger also achieved American disengagement from Vietnam from 1973 to 1975. This was followed by establishment of a Vietnamese communist regime but not the feared extension of Soviet or Chinese power.[55] President Jimmy Carter (1977–80) pursued arms limitations negotiations with the Soviets but put human rights concerns above either détente with the Soviet Union or containment of communist (or leftist) insurrections in some Third World trouble spots. Human rights, he declared, must be “the soul of our foreign policy.”[56] When the Soviet Union sent troops into neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979 to shore up a weak leftist government against internal opposition, Carter was greatly angered. He denounced the intervention as the “most serious threat to world peace since 1945” and declared that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.”[57]

Then in 1981 Reagan opened a sixth and final phase of containment with a military buildup in America coupled with increased support to freedom fighters in such areas as Afghanistan and Nicaragua. As the Soviet Union experienced increasing military, economic, and political strains produced in part by the effort to keep up with the United States militarily and in part by innate weaknesses within the Soviet system, an unusual new leader came to the fore in 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to sincerely favor greater freedom for both Soviet citizens and the citizens of the Soviet satellite nations of eastern Europe. He also hoped to solve the Soviet Union’s severe economic problems by encouraging more individual initiative without fully renouncing collectivism. His halfway measures, unprecedented as they were, served only to whet the appetite of the people of the Soviet Union and its satellites. When demands for further reforms gave way to demands for full freedom, Gorbachev made weak attempts to hold back the tide. But he was not willing to use the Soviet military or police force to coerce either the satellites or the Soviet people. Hence the tide became an all-powerful flood. To the amazement of all observers, most of the satellite states achieved freedom from Soviet communist domination in 1989 and the Soviet people in their turn by 1991. During the following decade, most of the eastern European countries were then able to achieve substantial progress toward functional democracy, with considerable assistance from the United States and the established democracies of western Europe.[58]

In the meantime, from Gorbachev’s ascension to Soviet leadership in 1985, the cold war had begun to wind down. Both the new Soviet leader and the American president Ronald Reagan were ready to negotiate serious arms reductions and to seek means of terminating the long-standing adversarial relationship of the two blocs in many areas. As the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from both eastern Europe and Afghanistan, and over the next couple of years terminated practically all political and economic support for Soviet clients in Asia and Africa. The United States, now less concerned about a spread of world communism, terminated its aid to the Contras of Nicaragua in their campaign against the left-leaning Sandinista government, and in 1990 a free election in that country brought a peaceful reshuffling of power. In the Middle East, Moscow pressured the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria to seek a negotiated settlement with Israel, while the United States also urged negotiations upon both Palestinians and Israelis. Moscow even gave diplomatic support in 1991 to the American-led coalition in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, a former Soviet client.[59]

Most historians and many free peoples have mainly credited the four decades of persistent American pursuit of the policy of containment with the achievement of ultimate victory over the Soviet threat to the free world. The costs of the cold war had been tremendous for Americans (as well as for others). The Korean and Vietnamese wars had taken many American lives. The defense budget throughout the forty years had consumed a fortune and had often forced reductions of desirable domestic programs (such as some of President Johnson’s “Great Society” projects). The tremendous loss of life and property in other countries such as Korea and Vietnam were also cold war consequences that grieved many Americans. But most Americans considered the sacrifices for liberty to have been necessary and worth the costs. And considering the greater losses that a nuclear holocaust would have entailed, many Americans were grateful to a kindly Providence for the outcome.

An appropriate postmortem upon the American use of containment to curtail communism was rendered by Walter McDougall: “That our cause was moral went without saying: one needed only compare life in France or Canada with that in East Germany or North Korea. That Containment was practical, despite its tensions and risks, was proven by the correctness of its architects’ judgment that so long as the West remained strong and united, the Soviet empire would sooner or later collapse under its own contradictions.”[60] With this collapse America and its NATO allies gradually extended their protective umbrella over the eastern European nations that were formerly satellites of the Soviet Union.

During the containment era, Latter-day Saint prophets often spoke out on the threat that communism posed to the United States, to the free world, and to the Lord’s Church and gospel. And there is no doubt that America’s prosecution of policies opposing the spread of communism and aiming at its eventual defeat were viewed by Latter-day Saint leaders as supportive of the program of the Lord. As President David O. McKay stated in 1957: “Men will be free. I have hoped for twenty years that the Russian system would break up. There is no freedom under it, and sooner or later the people will rise against it. They cannot oppose those fundamentals of civilization and of God. They can’t crush their people always. Men will be free.”[61]

The collapse of the Soviet empire from 1989 to 1991 ended the cold war, properly speaking. But it was not the total end of the American policy of containment. Containment by means of coalition diplomacy, economic sanctions, and military measures short of all-out war continued to be the preferred American method of opposing expansion of threatening regimes.[62]

Global Meliorism

This term is used to denote the doing of good works abroad—works that ameliorate or improve the lives of disadvantaged or oppressed peoples and generally make the world a better place for free people to inhabit. It would seem, at first glance, that such a policy is unexceptionable. How could furthering freedom and other good works be anything but supportive of the interests of the United States and the program of the Lord? But as soon as one begins to consider the detailed application of such a policy, doubts may arise. Should foreign aid generally be on a nation-to-nation basis, or is this usually best left to churches and other private charities? Are attempts to improve the governments of other countries—to bring about the establishment of freedom and democracy to replace an oppressive despotism, for example—generally successful in the long term? In complicated situations involving long-standing hatreds or oppression of one religious or ethnic group by another, might U.S. intervention create more enemies than friends? On the other hand, if the United States does not intervene to advance freedom or otherwise serve some worthy cause, might suffering and criticism of our government result?[63]

Obviously, much is expected and much is possible for a country that produces about one-fourth of the world’s domestic product and that spends as much on its military as the next twenty countries combined.[64] (Projected increases in U.S. military spending after 2003 may in fact raise these military expenditures within a few years to a level exceeding the military expenditures of all the other countries of the world combined.) But by the same token, such a country needs to act with considerable wisdom and forbearance if it is not to arouse great envy and hatred.

The United States had sometimes carried out successful economic aid programs in behalf of free people even before World War II. Examples would be Belgian relief and other aid programs directed by Herbert Hoover during and after World War I. But it was after World War II that such aid programs proliferated, primarily for the purpose of strengthening free nations. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were championed and supported primarily by the United States to help pay for postwar reconstruction. The Marshall Plan provided billions of dollars to spur further European economic growth and ward off the communist threat to European democracies. Almost universally judged a remarkable success, this program was perhaps the highlight of post–World War II American meliorism.

Until the end of the cold war, some American efforts sought to combine communist containment with building democracy. The largest of these, the Vietnam experiment, proved unsuccessful on both counts. Though this failure brought a temporary questioning of the wisdom of American melioristic intervention, more successful outcomes in the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo convinced most Americans that there is still sometimes a major role for the United States when oppression or disasters threaten.

Historians and political scientists who have analyzed American foreign policy in the post–cold war era have generally emphasized both the unusual opportunities and the special challenges that stem from America’s status as the world’s only remaining superpower. Some of these writers have felt that this superior status at times has led the United States to follow policies that have seemed self-centered and inconsiderate of the interests and views of other countries, even U.S. allies. Walter Russell Mead, in his conclusion to Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World first reiterates that a “special providence” seems to have produced America’s successes: “The endless, unplanned struggle among the schools and lobbies to shape American foreign policy ended up producing over the long run a foreign policy that more closely approximated the true needs and interests of American society than could any conscious design.”[65] But then he injects a cautionary note:

In looking at the tasks we now face, it seems to me that the voice of the Jeffersonian school is the one that currently most needs to be heard.

Jeffersonians believe that the greatest danger facing the United States is the consequences of international overreaching. We can press our hegemony too far; we can insist that our principles . . . be universalized into the practice of other countries. Our power can grow so great, and our use of it seem so unpredictable to others, that in self-defense the rest of the world can unite to limit our power and perhaps to undermine our security. Jeffersonians would rather that our power remain within limits that we Americans choose for ourselves than to find it one day confined within limits that others choose for us.[66]

Since the terrorist strike against the United States on September 11, 2001, it has seemed to some observers that a consistent U.S. policy designed to bring democracy and the rule of law to troubled areas has become more urgent than ever before. Professor Niall Ferguson of Oxford University in England, writing during the American invasion of Afghanistan, posed the question, “What lessons can the United States today learn from British experience of empire?” The most obvious one, he answered, “is that the most successful economy in the world—as Britain was for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—can do a very great deal to impose its preferred values on less technologically advanced societies. . . . Great Britain was able to govern around a quarter of the world’s population and land surface—and nearly all of its oceans—without running up an especially large defense bill.” The United States, with about one-quarter of the total world economic output (compared with 8.3 percent for Britain in 1913) and with no rival comparable to Britain’s rival Germany after 1900, could do even more than Britain did to establish economic openness and political democracy in backward and dangerous regions of the world.

In view of the new vulnerability of the United States to terrorist attacks demonstrated by the September 11 disaster, Ferguson maintained that America could not afford not to play a more assertive global role. “The idea of invading a country, deposing its dictators and imposing the rule of law at gunpoint is usually dismissed as incompatible with American values,” he continued. “Yet it is often forgotten that this was precisely what was done in Germany and in Japan at the end of the Second World War, and with great and lasting success.” With many weapons now being made available to terrorists, “the U.S. needs to do more to impose order on rogue states.” Inasmuch as democracy requires “strong institutional foundations of law and order, . . . the proper role of . . . America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking; if necessary—as in Germany and Japan in 1945—by military force.” Neither the United Nations nor any other international body is capable of accomplishing this, Ferguson concluded. The blunt question is, “Do the leaders of the one state with the economic resources to make the world a better [and safer] place have the guts to do it?”[67]

Writing in the same post–September 11 period, John Lewis Gaddis, a highly respected American historian, concurred with Niall Ferguson as to the need for an active American policy of selective interventionism. But he also emphasized the need for the United States to understand the roots of terrorism and to maintain a coalition of peace-loving states to successfully oppose it. September 11 demonstrated “that the geographical position and the military power of the U.S. are no longer sufficient to ensure its security.”[68] But it also “brought home the fact that terrorism challenges the authority of all states.”[69] Thus, it restored the basis for a coalition such as the one the United States had led in the cold war. During that period American allies had willingly followed U.S. leadership and had even “tolerated a certain amount of arrogance” on the part of the United States “because there was always ‘something worse’ out there.” But with victory in the cold war, the “something worse” disappeared, and “American policies began to come across as overbearing . . . and insensitive to the interests of others.”[70] September 11 restored the basis for an effective U.S.-led coalition, provided the United States would “give up the unilateralism [termed by Gaddis as ‘an occupational hazard of sole-surviving superpowers’] it had indulged in during the post–cold war era.” Active and wise American leadership is again vital to the world, he concluded, for “the conditions that breed terrorists in so many parts of what we used to call the ‘third world’” place some of these areas “at least as much at risk now as Europe and Japan were half a century ago.”[71]

In the future as in the past, it may be the strength of America’s special brand of democracy (involving the interplay of various competing views of America’s proper course of action), supplemented by inspiration from the Lord that will protect America and advance freedom and justice in the world. In coping with the near-overwhelming challenges which America has faced and overcome since abandoning the isolationism of the 1930s, American leaders and the public have displayed a diversity of tactics but a great persistence in upholding basic American principles. During the years of World War II, the generation of the cold war, and the decades since, Americans have shown an amazing steadiness in facing up to daunting threats to peace and freedom. During this era various American groups and leaders have exhibited most all of the traditional schools of thought on American foreign policy. Among the guiding concepts have been (1) American exceptionalism (the belief that America must be a shining example to others), (2) unilateralism (the preference for unfettered, separate American actions), (3) the “American system” (special emphasis on American leadership and protection in the Western Hemisphere), (4) manifest destiny (belief in the “natural” American predominance in neighboring areas), (5) progressive imperialism (the extension of American influence into new and broader areas, where this serves the interests of Americans and other peoples), (6) liberal internationalism (American participation and leadership in international action for peace and other worthy goals), (7) containment (American leadership in various actions to prevent the expansion of dangerous regimes), and (8) global meliorism (the concept that America can and must help disadvantaged and oppressed peoples to achieve freedom, democracy, and economic betterment).

Perhaps with inspiration from the Lord, the American leaders and people can correctly judge which policies will best serve the needs of America and the world when challenges and opportunities emerge in future years. In Latter-day Saint belief, God has used His choice land numerous times in the past to further His programs in the world—particularly to champion the cause of freedom. It is also Latter-day Saint belief that God will continue to use America as His foremost champion of freedom and justice in the future, although His favor will not provide, in every circumstance, a guarantee against poorly conceived actions. Other nations have been associated with America (though not always in complete harmony) in the championing of freedom. Among these are the great democracies of Britain and France. Both the statements of the prophets and America’s past record inspire confidence that God will continue to guide America in its appointed mission so long as its citizens seek that guidance and are worthy of it. Other nations will probably also be used by God to advance freedom and will continue, like America, to be blessed for heeding His guidance. Latter-day Saints, in whatever land they inhabit, are expected to support freedom. In the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley at the April 2003 general conference of the Church, “We are a freedom-loving people, committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy.”[72]


[1] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1919 [reprinted in 1989]), 409.

[2] Brigham Young, Contributor, July 1889, 340–42.

[3] Young, Contributor, July 1889, 340–41.

[4] Young, Contributor, July 1889, 342.

[5] Young, Contributor, July 1889, 344.

[6] See Eric Alterman, Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998). This book supports the thesis that greater popular participation in the formation of American foreign policy would be beneficial to America.

[7] Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 695.

[8] Samuel P. Huntington, in Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 18–19.

[9] See Zakaria, Future of Freedom, 13.

[10] See Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001). The introduction provides a synopsis of his thesis.

[11] Mead, Special Providence, introduction.

[12] See Mead, Special Providence, introduction.

[13] Fisher Ames in Mead, Special Providence, 309.

[14] See Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

[15] John Winthrop, The American Heritage Development Team, American Heritage, A Syllabus for Social Science 100 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1977), 27–29.

[16] John Quincy Adams in Walter LaFeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 5–17; Jay Tolson, “The New American Empire?” U.S. News & World Report, January 13, 2003.

[17] Quoted in Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, 5th ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955), 81. [AUTHOR: please provide source]

[18] See LaFeber, The American Age, 18–37; Bailey, Diplomatic History, 71–72, 87–89, 891–93.

[19] See LaFeber, The American Age, 39–68.

[20] See Lafeber, The American Age, 69–90.

[21] See Bailey, Diplomatic History, 182–93; Wesley M. Gewehr and others, eds., The United States: A History of a Democracy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), 170–72.

[22] Henry Adams, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (New York: Peter Smith, 1919), 28–31, in McDougall, Promised Land, 55–56. [AUTHOR: please provide source]

[23] Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 466–67.

[24] Quoted in Bailey, Diplomatic History, 558. [AUTHOR: provide source]

[25] Bailey, Diplomatic History, 730. [AUTHOR: provide source]

[26] Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 37.

[27] See LaFeber, The American Age, 91–121, 148–79.

[28] McDougal, Promised Land, 90–98; Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 37. [AUTHOR: provide source]

[29] See LaFeber, The American Age, 181–251.

[30] Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 35. [AUTHOR: provide source]

[31] Theodore Roosevelt, in Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 36–37.

[32] Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 8–14.

[33] Zimmermann, First Great Triumph, 11.

[34] Zimmermann, First Great Triumph, [AUTHOR: provide source]

[35] Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 37.

[36] LaFeber, The American Age, 253–83; Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 11–13.

[37] Tolson, “The New American Empire,” 37–38.

[38] Robert Ergang, Europe in Our Time: 1914 to the Present, 3rd ed. (United States: D. C. Heath, 1958), 83.

[39] See LaFeber, The American Age, 284–314.

[40] See LaFeber, The American Age, 316–24.

[41] See LaFeber, The American Age, 325–45.

[42] See LaFeber, The American Age, 350–69.

[43] See R. R. Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 845–46; H. G. Nicholas, The United States and Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 90–98.

[44] See LaFeber, The American Age, 369–86.

[45] See LaFeber, The American Age, 392–405.

[46] See LaFeber, The American Age, 406–29.

[47] Harry S. Truman, in McDougall, Promised Land, 143; see also William R. Keylor, The Twentieth Century World: An International History, 2nd ed. (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 261–72; LaFeber, The American Age, 434–52.

[48] McDougall, Promised Land, 164; see also Keylor, The Twentieth Century World, 272–73.

[49] See LaFeber, The American Age, 452–70.

[50] See LaFeber, The American Age, 477–504.

[51] See Keylor, The Twentieth Century World, 296–323; Palmer, A History of the Modern World, 969–73; 509–45.

[52] John F. Kennedy, in Palmer, A History of the Modern World, 973.

[53] See Keylor, The Twentieth Century World, 338.

[54] See LaFeber, The American Age, 551–92.

[55] See LaFeber, The American Age, 599–639.

[56] Jimmy Carter, in Palmer, A History of the Modern World, 992.

[57] Jimmy Carter, in Palmer, A History of the Modern World, 992; see also LaFeber, The American Age, 666–700.

[58] See David Mosler and Bob Catley, Global America: Imposing Liberalism on a Recalcitrant World (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000), 100–1055.

[59] See Keylor, The Twentieth Century World, 474–91; Jolyon P. Girard, America and the World (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001), 255–77.

[60] McDougall, Promised Land, 211.

[61] “President McKay Receives Senator Kennedy at Church Offices,” Church News, November 6, 1957.

[62] See James M. Scott, ed., After the End: Making U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post–Cold War World (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998). A number of the essays and case studies in this collection relate to America’s influence on democracy in the world. See especially Rick Travis, essay no. 10:The Promotion of Democracy at the End of the Twentieth Century: A New Polestar for American Foreign Policy?” Travis concludes that in the decade following the cold war, the American government’s objective of advancing democracy throughout the world did not achieve the level of popular support which the policy of containment had enjoyed during the cold war era.

[63] See Francis V. Harbour, Thinking about International Ethics: Moral Theory and Cases from American Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999). See especially chapter 1: Realism Versus Idealism in the Twentieth Century, and chapter 12: Moral Theory as a Tool for Analyzing and Evaluating Foreign Policy. See also Cecil V. Crabb Jr. and others, Charting a New Diplomatic Course: Alternative Approaches to America’s Post–Cold War Foreign Policy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001). Both conservative and liberal neo-isolationism are discussed, as well as conservative and liberal interventionism. Another collection of thoughtful essays on America’s post–cold war policies is Global Focus: U.S. Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Millennium, ed. Martha Honey and Tom Barry (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000). chapter 4 (“America’s Fading Commitment to the World,” ed. Charles William Maynes), includes essays on U.S. policy regarding human rights, the United Nations, humanitarian intervention, and international terrorism. A major conclusion is that “until roughly the mid-1970s, there was no greater champion of [international] institutions than the United States. . . . [but] in recent years, [many Americans] began to sour on international institutions (and now) for the first time since the end of World War II, one can imagine an American repudiation of the Roosevelt–Truman–Eisenhower legacy of liberal internationalism” (85–86).

[64] See Tolson, The New American Empire, 40.

[65] Mead, Special Providence, 310.

[66] Mead, Special Providence, 331.

[67] Niall Ferguson, “Clashing Civilizations,” in The Age of Terror: America and the World after September 11, ed. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda (New York: Basic Books and Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, 2001), 139–41.

[68] John Lewis Gaddis, “And Now This: Lessons from the Old Era for the New One,” in Talbott and Chanda, The Age of Terror, 6.

[69] Gaddis, “And Now This,” 19.

[70] Ibid., 12–13.

[71] Ibid., 19–20.

[72] Gordon B. Hinckley, “War and Peace,” Ensign, May 2003, 80.