GODWIN HAS PLOWED through presidential addresses, speeches, and White Papers from George Washington through George W. and discovered a thread of continuity he names “practical idealism.” He attaches the idea to many of our presidents’ utterances “no entangling alliances” [Washington]. . . “. pay any price, bear any burden” [Kennedy], the Monroe Doctrine [Monroe!], the self-determination of nations [Wilson], George W. Bush [preemptive war]without explaining just what the notion of practical idealism means. The author is better at giving examples of it than defining it.
His title is clearer: The “Arrow” represents American strength and our option to use it; the “Olive Branch,” America’s commitment to liberty and our desire to spread it. Hear Jack Kennedy at his inaugural: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The result was Vietnam. Now listen to George W. Bush no less idealistic: Advancing the cause of democracy in Iraq “is the calling of a new generation of Americans.” Hey, guys, too much idealism, too little pragmatism.
Godwin doesn’t mention “Manifest Destiny.” I checked the index and found no mention of the doctrine that has dominated American imperial discourse from our founding fathers era to our times. In a word, America was and is an expansionist nation: First we violated countless treaties with the Indian nations, then we bought up Louisiana and points northwest, followed up a generation later by the absorption of Alaska. A trumped up war by Polk with Mexico netted a huge swath of the southwest. Not to forget the Spanish-American War in which the Philippines Islands fell into our lap. I almost forgot Panama and what became the Canal Zone, which we stole fair and square from Colombia. For a nation unwilling to be entangled in European affairs, ours was a helluva an appetite for any territory South or West of Bethesda. After WWII, we turned our sights on the continent: Postwar Europe is now an abject protectorate of the United States.
Am I faulting Godwin for a book he didn’t write? Yeah, kinda. His credulous reading of presidential orations as the meat and potatoes of American foreign policy scants those that had at least as much to do with the making of national security and diplomatic policy as, say, Chester Arthur. For starters, the idea of Manifest Destiny was Senator Henry Clay’s idea; Senator Borah made of isolationism practically a national creed; Senator Cabot Lodge, along with Borah, kayoed the idea of the League; William Randolph Hearst may have started the Spanish-American War, and Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized the Democratic Party; his insane anti-Communist rant haunted liberals for twenty years. Not to forget the neo-conservative cabal at the Pentagon who cooked up the Iraq debacle. My point? Presidents don’t so much make foreign policy as rationalize it using the language of ideologues, advertising, think-tank intellectuals, and demagogues. De Gaulle put it well years ago:” The Americans,” he wrote, thinking particularly of Roosevelt in 1942 and his Vichy policy, “approach great affairs with elementary feelings and complicated policies.”
People everywhere, Godwin thinks, are lusting for liberty. His is a touching faith in democratic institutions. The idea of universal democracy ballots, not bullets is the answer. Well, it’s an answer, but not THE answer. He faults some of us for being “demagogues of peace,” i.e., someone who advocates peace at any price. But Putin in Russia, Chavez in Venezuela, and Mugabe in Zimbabwe make democracy demagogues, if you’ll pardon the expression, look to the middle distance and change the subject.
Godwin writes well; his book is a neat and compact survey of presidential declarations. Speechwriters, policy wonks, and campaign staff should find it useful grist for this season’s imperial rationalizations. Peace [“the olive branch] through strength [“the arrow”] or “practical idealism” is not going to cause any great quarrels this campaign year. Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy, but I wish our next president would make it safe for diversity “pragmatic realism.”
Dick Irish is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University ; he worked for thirty years in international executive search. He is the author of three books [Anchor Press] and various magazine articles on management subjects, and co-founded of TransCentury Corporation. He is currently working on a biography of Charles de Gaulle.