Nelson: Our forefathers favored neutrality
Nelson writes, "Now that we're meddling in the Russia-Ukraine war, having learned nothing from our blood-soaked interventions in Vietnam, the Philippines, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Panama, World War I, Libya and many, many other imperial thrusts that had nothing to do with preserving our own liberty, we should take a look at America's founders. They were for the most part profoundly neutralist. Not isolationist—America was never that."
“But today we have quietly adopted a tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations, to assume that we are a kind of demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world....” (Robert Taft)
Isolationists: People “who want no part of foreign wars.” (Gore Vidal mocking interventionists' use of the term.)
Now that we're meddling in the Russia-Ukraine war, having learned nothing from our blood-soaked interventions in Vietnam, the Philippines, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Panama, World War I, Libya and many, many other imperial thrusts that had nothing to do with preserving our own liberty, we should take a look at America's founders. They were for the most part profoundly neutralist. Not isolationist—America was never that.
Examine the Constitution: one of its purposes was to “provide for the common defense.” Whose defense--the world's? No, for America's defense. George Washington in his farewell address favored commerce with all, but permanent alliances with none. Why, he asks, would we mingle our destiny with Europe's or “entangle our peace and prosperity” with its ceasless wars and ambitions? The a la carte constitutionalist Mark Levin frankly rejects any kind of encumbrance on America's foreign policy and argues that Washington was only concerned about the divisiveness of taking sides. One couldn't ask for a more erroneous interpretation of his address.
Washington wasn't done yet. He condemned the bias that favors one nation over another which would lead to the illusion of a common interest where none exists. The result would be to entice America into entering foreign wars without defensive justification. Washington's warning is certainly more comprehensive than mere concern over Americans getting along with each other.
Thomas Jefferson echoed that prevailing policy of neutrality in his inaugural address: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” There's nothing isolationist here. What would he make of America's 50 world-wide “defensive” treaties—trip wires or “transmission belts” of war in every corner of the earth?
In 1821 then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was able to boast that America for nearly 50 years had respected other nations' independence, that she had not interfered with others, “even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings....” (My emphasis.) He went on to state that fighting “under banners not her own, were they even banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars....” Consequently America's policy would change from liberty to force, and America “might become the dictatress of the world.”
Several years later, after President James Monroe rejected the Greek plea for aid in its revolt against Turkey, Rep. Daniel Webster in Congress spoke favoring congressional recognition of and sending an ambassador of sorts to Greece. John Randolph of Roanoke shot the idea down: “If they [the Webster faction] prevail...every bulwark and barrier of the Constitution is broken down; it is become a tabula rasa...” Webster's resolution was defeated, the constitutional neutralists winning the day.
But Americans would leave all this thinking behind on their way to empire. I can think of no powerful political entity that didn't eventually turn interventionist. America is no exception.
To be continued.
Nelson lives in Casselton, N.D., and is a regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion page. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.