A new CNN poll says that a majority of Americans support the idea of sending in ground troops to fight against the so-called Islamic State, or as I prefer to call them, Daeshbags. While it was by a slim majority (53% with a plus/minus margin of error of 3 points), this indicates an increasing desire by the American people to see a military solution to the humanitarian and political disaster that is Iraq and Syria. Many also fear the spread of Daesh-inspired or supported attacks within the United States and Europe, and feel that a ground campaign would break the terrorist group. This desire to see U.S. military power used to solve issues outside the Continental United States is not new; in fact, it can be tied to a rise in a societal shift towards openness, empathy, and additional freedoms for all people.
Once upon a time, the United States was a closed-off nation, with a foreign policy that promoted free trade for all, but especially for the U.S. George Washington set the precedent when he cautioned the U.S. to “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world” in his Farewell Address. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson emphasized that America would focus on free trade, stating in his inaugural address, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none.” James Monroe added the next building block on this policy of isolationism, with his Monroe Doctrine, warning European powers in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was the purview of the United States. Adding to the Monroe Doctrine was James Polk, in 1845, asserting American dominion from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and going to war with Mexico to acquire what would become Texas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. The American Civil War barely slowed American expansion on the continent of North America, and the limits of the Pacific were soon reached by the 1880’s.
The U.S. nearly went to war with Great Britain several times in the 19th century to enforce what was viewed as their God-given boundaries in Maine and Oregon, but did not take part in any overseas military expeditions until the Spanish-American War in 1898. This small war nabbed up several possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and was, for all intents and purposes, a land grab. While the U.S. was intensely militaristic about its interests in North America, it rarely stirred to move outside of its regional boundaries in any big way. In fact, intervention in World War I in 1917 was the first time that major bodies of American troops were shifted by the hundreds of thousands to another continent. This intervention itself was highly controversial for the American people, and isolationism continued to persist through the 1920’s and 1930’s. Only the attack by Japanese aircraft against the U.S. Naval facility at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 brought a reluctant U.S. public to support the entrance of the U.S. into World War II.
So, what changed?
By 1945, the U.S. had emerged from World War II as a superpower. The American people had seen the might of the U.S. military and knew that it had the capability of waging and winning a large-scale war on two fronts. They had also been shocked and horrified by the revelation of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust. Many were haunted by the thought that U.S. intervention at an earlier point may have saved some of the millions of lives lost to genocide. The true cost of isolationism was shown in stark detail as pictures and video reels of Dachau and Auschwitz began to flood back to the U.S.
Growth of Social Justice Movements
Social justice was not a new idea in the U.S. It first began as movements against slavery (Abolitionists) and perceived societal vices such as alcohol (Temperance Movement) in the 19th century. When the scourge of slavery was ended after the Civil War, social justice movements shifted to combat racism and promote women’s rights.
Isolationist America was a far less accepting society than that we see today. Jim Crow laws in the south institutionalized racism after slavery had been abolished. The American Party (Know Nothings) had widespread support in the 1840’s and 1850’s, vilifying European immigrants. A similar organization was prominent in the 1890’s, the American Protective Association. Ethnic minorities, women, labor movements, African Americans, and non-Protestant religious groups were consistently the target of narrow-minded paranoia through the 19th century and early 20th. Xenophobia and racism were far more institutionalized and prevalent in isolationist America.
With the advent of modern communications systems, radio, and television, the world began to shrink in the 20th century. Television especially served to bring images of atrocities and human rights outrages directly into American homes. The world was an open and scary place that no longer existed in the ether. American society began to evolve to become more open and liberal. And as it did so, the American conscience demanded that if the U.S. had the military power to stop genocides, it should do so.
Post-World War II
Military intervention outside the United States skyrocketed in the post-World War II era, as the U.S. aligned itself with organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN). The size of the military expanded, as it became embroiled in wars and police actions in Asia, Latin and Central America, the Middle East, and Europe.
Many have decried the large size of the U.S. military and its extensive budget, as well as the many military actions of the later 20th and early 21st century. However, these interventions came as a result of a society that demands justice, peace, and equality around the world. An ethical and liberal-minded American people justifiably do not want to see atrocities around the world and believe that if something can be done, it should. As in the current case of Iraq and Syria, the American people see the horror that is Daesh and want to see it crushed.
World War II popped the lid off Pandora’s Box, revealing American military power and the dangers of not intervening. As American culture became more open and accepting, so too did its desire to aid others around the world. The military expanded rapidly to meet the evolving foreign policy of the leaders that this culture had elected. The growth of American empathy caused what some call the “militarization” of America.
This shift has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we want an open, free, and critically thinking society that is accepting of humans, despite differences in race, nationality, or religion. However, it is this culture that promotes expanded U.S. involvement in the rest of the world, which comes with greater military involvement. At some point, we will have to decide as a nation how to balance our cultural ethics with a reasonable policy of military intervention.
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