Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



As we near the end of what some refer to as "the American century," it is useful to review how the United States has responded to the many international challenges it has faced over the past hundred years.

Those like myself who grew up in the 1930s and experienced the Great Depression and the Second World War have a different perspective than does that age group that came of age in the 1960s. Their generation was heavily influenced by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of a president, John F. Kennedy, and a civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King.

A third perspective is held by those few elderly Americans who grew up early in the century and recall such events as the building of the Panama Canal, Americas participation in the First World War, and "Roaring Twenties" which ended with the 1929 stock market crash.

One representative of this latter group was my father who died a year ago at the age of 100. His view of America's role in the world changed somewhat after 1941, but he never did understand why the United States needed to be involved militarily all over the world. Dad was not a traditional isolationist because he did not favor high tariffs. But neither was he an internationalist because he was opposed concluding military alliances with countries outside Europe and North America.

At a time when many Americans are asking what should be this countrys international role in the 21st century, there is a growing public concern regarding Washington's failure to achieve some of the lofty objectives of recent U.S. military interventions abroad. In Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, and East Timor, humanitarian goals that were proclaimed by the president and secretary of state have not been achieved and much violence continues.

I recall the mood of isolationism that prevailed in my state of Michigan in the late 1930s when it seemed likely that war would break out in Europe. In 1939 public opinion was heavily influenced by the isolationist editorial policy of papers like the Chicago Tribune and Detroit Times. This view asserted that the United States had no national interest in becoming involved in Europe's "power struggles." And there was an anti-British edge to some of the sentiment.

My father, like many Americans, became frustrated following World War I because American troops had been sent to Europe in 1917 to "save Britain and France," but then President Wilson was rebuffed at the peace conference because of British and French leaders determination to punish Germany for the war.

My generation was heavily influenced by the legacy of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the enormous national effort that went into crushing the German and Japanese military machines. At war's end in 1945, we agreed that America should take the lead in building the United Nations Organization. "Remember Pearl Harbor" was our slogan, and we were determined that the country's defenses should remain strong.

The Vietnam generation, in which two of our children grew up, had a different watchword: "Never Again Vietnam." Unlike World War II, the Vietnam conflict was not seen as a noble cause requiring the expenditure of American lives and treasure, even though presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tried to persuade the public that it was in the U.S. interest to stop communism from engulfing Southeast Asia.

The American failure in Vietnam produced another type of isolationism, a virulent antigovernment sentiment that spawned the "counter culture." This was the post-World War II generation rebelling against the values and standards of my age group which had fought that war to a successful conclusion..

Not until the 1980s and the success of Ronald Reagan's tough policies toward the Soviet Union did this defeatist mood dissipate and make way for another period of optimism. The success of President Bush in mobilizing a coalition of nations to defeat Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War resulted in a resurgence of Americas self-confidence.

Most Americans showed great satisfaction over the realization that the United States had emerged as the only superpower.

As we near the year , 2000 and another presidential election campaign, many Americans question how far this country should go in attempting to "manage the world," as some see it Ross Perot and his neoisolationist Reform Party raised the public consciousness on this issue in 1992 and 1996 elections, and Pat Buchanan is doing so again in advance of the , 2000 elections.

Perot and Buchanan are true isolationists because they believe the United States will be secure and prosperous without being heavily involved in the world.

If one believes, as I do, that different generations of Americans during this century were influenced by different views about America's role in the world, we might speculate on how the youngsters that are currently in high school will view the world in the next decade.

My hunch is that most of them will simply assume that internationalism is a given, not an option, for the United States. Having been brought up on computers, the internet, and cell phones, and having been immune from involvement in serious conflicts abroad, this generation will assume, naively, that the current state of peace and prosperity will continue indefinitely.

Those of use who experienced World War II and the Vietnam debacle are not so confident. Our inability to resolve the conflicts in Haiti, Kosovo and Timor causes us to be skeptical of international humanitarian entanglements and to ask whether it is not time to step back and ask what price we are willing to pay for the globalism that so many Americans currently take for granted.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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