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Another American Dilemma: Multilateral Authority Versus Unilateral Power

ISSUE:  Spring 1969


Nearly a quarter century has passed since Gunnar Myrdal produced the book, “An American Dilemma,” which to this day more than any other writing helps us to understand the revolution in race relations of our time. Of course Myrdal’s central theme was that America’s national ideals are incompatible with racial discrimination, and in the 1940’s that theme was anything but new. The moral incompatibility had been plain to Thomas Jefferson; it had been more or less alive in America’s public consciousness since the birth of the nation. What Myrdal did that was new and different was to speak with perfect timeliness and with the massive comprehensiveness of the social sciences of the twentieth century. While he was writing, World War II was making demands on Negroes equal to those on whites. The nation was fighting with such a solidarity as it had never before achieved. Franklin D. Roosevelt amplified the nation’s convictions about freedom—freedom from want and freedom from fear, besides freedom to speak and to worship. These were universal rights, the president said. Appropriate to that background, the Swedish scholar showed that America’s dilemma over race relations penetrated deeply into the common conscience of the people, pressing always to bring practice and idea together.

Meanwhile, since that dilemma has been faced up to in the book of 1944, in the desegregation decision, in the race revolution now in process—the United States has made and many times restated a commitment, morally as deep as the commitment to equality made in the post-Civil War amendments, to another ideal. It is one which like racial equality was accepted and pledged as an aim of the nation, during an ordeal of war. The ideal is peace in the world; the United Nations is at once the institutional enactment and the grand symbol of that goal. The principal means chosen to meet the commitment is a multilateral recognition of the rights of al1 nations and persons, and a systematic sharing of obligation and authority. These particulars and many others are embodied in the UN Charter and are matched and extended in many other instruments of the past quarter century. The instruments which, like the charter, have been adopted as treaties are fully and formally a part of United States law.

But of course the commitment to peace made in our time, like the commitment to equality made a century ago, has not become an all-out, exclusive commitment. Hence the subject of the present paper, a second but equal dilemma. The second horn of the second dilemma is no more and no less than our country’s practice of unilateral violence against other peoples, especially the people of Vietnam. Do not the following words, which Myrdal applied in 1944 to race relations in the United States, apply in 1969 to the contradictions we suffer over simultaneously fighting a war and wanting a peace? “Out of the strain comes a sense of uneasiness and awkwardness…. The strain is increased in democratic America by freedom left open…. The…. problem… would be simpler to handle scientifically, if the moral conflict raged  only between valuations held by different persons and groups of persons. The essence of the moral situation is, however, that the conflicting valuations are also held by the same person. The moral struggle goes on within people and not only between them.

The supposition of this paper is that, as the ordeal of World War II helped to internalize in the thought and feeling of the people the race question, the ordeal of the Vietnam war has considerably internalized the war-or-peace problem. I contend that the main current of our national ideals is on the side of our national pledges to peace and multilateralism. But not every American loyalty points in that direction. Thought and selection among loyalties are now in order. A crisis of national conscience is not an easy thing; our age has heard Reinhold Niebuhr say that nations do not have a morality comparable to individual morality. Yet national decisions on matters of morality are made, as in the matter of race. If Americans can determine to resolve the race di lemma—as they now see they must—why should it be impossible to tackle a second and no less crucial dilemma? At any rate an historical estimation of that obligation is the problem we now undertake.


Once in the course of its national history, early in the nineteenth century when the slate was clear, the United States managed to find general terms for conducting its foreign relations which proved on the whole satisfactory at home. When we consider the matter as a problem of reaching concurrence in political assumptions, the period around

1800 appears extremely difficult. The new nation had had no more than a quarter-century of experience at independent diplomacy, only a decade under the Constitution. Before 1776 America’s only direct share in foreign relations had been the relations of recurrent war with Spain, France, and the Indians. Thereafter shiftiness in relationship, and crisis in event, had become the American experience. With England the United States fought twice within forty years. With France old enmity changed to alliance in 1778; and during the 1780’s and 1790’s the relationship went through several stages of unease. In 1797 naval war flared up, but by 1800 President John Adams had damped it down; from then until 1815, Franco-American relations were pretty well governed by the Emperor Napoleon, or by what governed the emperor. Altogether logic would suggest that the lessons in making foreign policy which Americans had had time to learn could not have prepared them to deal in a stable way with Europe early in the nineteenth century. The Old World was monarchical and, though Napoleon and Metternich tried, little organized as a continent. It was subject to revolution and politically archaic in the American view.

Yet somehow, despite all the trouble from 1783 to 1815, a stable attitude toward Europe is exactly what the United States achieved. The background of relevant thought here was the American expectation that states which have their being in the same community will behave toward one another in more or less predictable ways. The philosopher statesmen had felt that way about state and interstate politics at home. As readers of the Federalist papers know, the fathers built on the belief of their age that sovereign states, like stars in their courses, move in orbits which may be calculated in accord with political distances and weights. Newtonian figures of speech occurred in the Federalist argument of Alexander Hamilton; they occurred in the reasoning of Federalists less urgent than he, among leaders whose goal was more like stability rather than centralization. Similarly, the most imaginative achievement of 1787 was the unprecedented concession that, as the United States extended westward, new states should be admitted on a basis of equality with the old. More than a dozen years ago Robert Livingston Schuyler suggested that multiple sovereignty in the republic should be understood as being descended from the multiple autonomy which England in the eighteenth century had allowed the American colonies. That old sharing of power under the crown had been extended and rationalized, according to Professor Schuyler, by Jefferson in the “Summary View” and John Adams in the “Novanglus” papers of 1774 and 1775. Finally multiple autonomy became multiple sovereignty under the Confederation, and sovereignty di­vided and shared under the Constitution of 1787. What needs stressing here is that plural sovereignty in America traces to Old World backgrounds and permissions given in the eighteenth century and that this lineage makes it cousin to the British Commonwealth of Nations and kin to all other systems wherein power is carefully balanced.

What is less recognized about the mentality in which early American statesmanship operated is that, while our national leaders certainly did conceive of affairs in Europe as being managed by dynasts in archaic ways, they nonetheless imagined those affairs to operate along the same base lines as they themselves followed. That is, when they looked west­ ward they envisaged rising states. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio were admitted as full members of the Union by the opening of the nineteenth century. Other new states were already planned in tiers, waiting for populations large enough to justify equal participation in federal institutions and processes. When Americans looked in the opposite direction, eastward across the Atlantic, they likewise envisaged plural sovereignties and changing situations. To put the matter a little differently, the statesmen of the young republic held a reasonably unified view of politics and institutions in both the Old World and the New. As republicans they had been and remained bold; but being believers in government under law did not put them in an altogether different world of ideas from believers in monarchy. As federalizers they were true innovators in world history. But they envisaged underlying relationships of equilibrium and balance, the fount and origin of federalism, to be phenomena which occur everywhere in the world.

The essential document which displays this attitude is George Washington’s Farewell Address, the fundamental paper which is both familiar and unfamiliar to twentieth­ century Americans. As is well known, the address was given in 1796, soon after Jay’s treaty had demonstrated that the administration would go far to improve and stabilize relations with England; the president had been advised both by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, well before he spoke. The familiar text has been illuminated by a philosophically minded commentary by Felix Gilbert. In that treatise, “To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy,” the author explains persuasively that the intention of the first president was not mainly to advise against alliances, but to explain to colleagues and fellow citizens that, as they now embarked on international relations, they were entering a situation which, like an ocean voyage, could be calculated with some confidence. To reread the Farewell Address today, and to examine the Gilbert commentary, is to recapture the supposition of the eighteenth century, that the peoples of Christendom, however separate and disparate they were, however antagonistic in their actions, were nonetheless peoples essentially equal in their sovereignty and rights, and similar to one another in the interests which govern policy.

So different from today, when the cutting-edge of the idea of equality is often turned inward to excise social injustices at home, in the Farewell Address the idea was leveled outward, toward Europe. Quite the same as in the Declaration of Independence itself, the ideal was invoked to assert the parity of peoples or nations: the United States was made to appear equal to England or France, or to any nation on earth. This accorded with the particular needs of American foreign policy. It helped justify Americans as possessors and occupiers of an incomparable interior domain, the very continental domain into which Spain, France, and England had all reached, but had been unable to grasp and hold. It abetted the republic’s search for new commercial relationships and treaties; it accorded with the policy of neutrality in the wars which the French Revolution precipitated. The overall supposition—that the old enemy in two wars, England, and old friends, France and Holland, and lesser states would all be treated equally—of course differed radically from what had been open to Americans before 1776. By the same token that supposition set an attitude which lasted throughout the nineteenth century, the cool and detached attitude of regarding all nations as being on a par, and of seeking favored relations with none.

One of the telling things about Gilbert’s elucidation is hisevidence that Americans often used the same kind of Newtonian figures of speech for world affairs as they did for American federal relationships. This accorded with the conception of a balance of power, then a universally accepted idea; it accorded likewise with current beliefs about international law and order, those of which Hugo Grotius was the principal author. There is a natural law for the behavior of nations, the same as among persons; war is a crime except in certain situations; when war is legally conducted, it respects human rights and property rights. So had reasoned the great Dutch jurisprudent, and so the prevailing assumptions ran among early American statesmen. The utopian factor in such ideas of world relations was sizable; and the Americans who drew model treaties, hoping that international relations could be confined to mutually beneficial arrangements for trade, shared the utopianism. On the other hand, even the Federalists, who were especially preoccupied with the collision-of-power side of international relations, accepted the principle of equilibrium as operationally correct. As Gilbert sums up the matter, “even the power struggle among [European] states was considered to have its laws…. Each state would expand until its forces were halted by counter-pressure. If the world was not in a permanent state of war, the reason was that the force found itself confronted with another force of equal strength. Whereas idealists and reformers inveighed against the idea of the balance of power, the realistic writers on the doctrine of the interest of the states were its enthusiastic advocates; it appeared to them as the one stabilizing factor in a constantly expanding world.”

Probably the person and the writings of Henry Wheaton, the country’s first international jurisprudent, represent better than any other the congruity between American hopes for equilibrium in the federal system at home, and for equilibrium in international relations. Growing up as a Rhode Islander aware of illegal seizures at sea from which Americans suffered, later given enviable experience as Supreme Court reporter at the time when it handed down the Dartmouth College decision and other decisions basic to Marshall-and-Story-style federalism, Wheaton as a young man had maximum saturation in principles concerning both the law of the federal union and the law of nations. Before he brought out his “Elements of International Law” in 1836 one of the great textbooks in America’s great epoch of producing textbooks on law—he had resided in Europe, as diplomat and scholar. There, versing himself in contemporary and eighteenth-century legal writing, he absorbed the tradition of Grotius. “The principal aim of the Author,” he explained in the preface, “has been to glean… the general principles which may fairly be considered to have received the assent of most civilized and Christian nations, if not as invariable rules of conduct, at least as rules which they cannot disregard without general obloquy and the hazard of provoking the hostility of other communities who may be injured by their violation.”

Nine years and many hundreds of pages later, near the close of the American edition of his “History of the Law of Nations in Europe and America,” shortly before the end of his life, Wheaton incorporated a lengthy discussion of Immanuel Kant’s plea of 1795 for a confederation of Europe. Kant had said that confederation should wait for the states of Europe to adopt republican forms of government. From Kant Wheaton switched to Hegel as being new and different, and finally pronounced his own conclusions. From them I select the following four: first, that the “practices of war between civilized nations have been sensibly mitigated, and a comparison of the present modes of warfare with the sys­ tem of Grotius will show the immense improvement which has taken place in the laws of war”; second, that the “sphere, within which the European law of nations operates, has been widely extended by the unqualified accession of the new American states”; third, that the “law of nations, as a science, has advanced with the improvements in the principles and language of philosophy [and] with our … deeper researches into the obscurer periods of history”; and finally, “that the law of nations, as a syste1n of positive rules regulating the mutual intercourse of nations, has improved with the general improvement of civilization, of which it is one of the most valuable products.”

It says a great deal for the scholarship of Henry Wheaton, and even more for the durability of the idea of natural law as an integral part of international law, that the “Elements of International Law” was published and re­ published well into the twentieth century, and in America was long accepted as the standard work in the field. On the whole, Wheaton’s view of international relations was the way they would look to American lawyers and political scientists down to the time of Woodrow Wilson, and including Wilson. In Wheaton’s time Europe seemed distant and seldom pressing; Asia was more an opportunity than a problem. Overall the outer world seemed not a bad place to venture as national strength increased, and the law of nations provided rules for all who would play the game.


Of course idealism was not invariably associated with international order. Often, indeed characteristically, it adhered to national self-interest in expansion, as was the case with Manifest Destiny in the mid-nineteenth century. However, at no time between the War of 1812 and World War I did there rise over the conduct of foreign relations any such tension between the exercise of power by the government and the wish of citizens to restrain power as is familiar in our times. One explanation of this happier situation is that continental expansion and overseas market expansion seldom conflicted with the vital interests of other nations. Throughout an entire century the United States participated in only two foreign wars, and these were so short that in neither case was there time for domestic tensions to become grave.

Yet the period is far from being a blank in the background of the collision of ideas which concerns us. Although the grimness of American policy toward the Indians, subjugating them and moving them from place to place, was largely taken for granted at the time, peace crusaders did sometimes resist the whole business as being incompatible with the principles either of Christianity or of government by consent and under law. But doubtless the episode from before the Civil War which is the most piquant today is the one which Charles Sellers, biographer of President James IL Polk, has commented on with effect. One who revisits the Mexican War today, taking the road of the historical record, he tells us, arrives there with a sense of dejavu.When Polk, who was a strong-willed leader from a southwestern state and a very personification of Manifest Destiny, invaded Mexico by land and by sea, a credibility gap opened at home. Two ex-presidents and one future president, among many, believed that the man in the White House overstated Mexico’s offenses, and overpleaded the reasons for fighting a war. “We have a character among the nations of earth to maintain,” objected ex-President Van Buren. “It has hitherto been our pride and our boast, that, whilst lust of power with fraud and violence in the train has led other and differently constituted nations to aggression and conquest, our movements in these respects have always been regulated by reason.” Thus spoke the senior Democrat in the country. More specifically to the point of the credibility gap, a thirty-five-year-old Whig congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, made anti-war speeches, casting doubt on President Polk’s truthfulness and judgment. (This provoked home-state charges that Representative Lincoln was a “Benedict Arnold.”) But it was John Quincy Adams, who shared anti-slavery feeling with Van Buren and Lincoln and carried it farther, who pressed hardest the ethical objection to the Mexican War. The octogenarian statesman “went so far,” according to Sellers, “as to express the hope that General Taylor’s officers would resign and his soldiers desert, rather than fight such a war.”

It is not as though such condemnations of the War with Mexico voiced merely a surge ofanger which would pass with the event, or even as though they indicated simple op­ position to a territorial expansion of slavery. More than that, people were organizing in sizable numbers, now, to reform out of existence two institutions, chattel slavery and war. Henry David Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” of 1849, illustrates the double conviction.

Much less well remembered than Thoreau’s individual protest, the massive peace movement of the nineteenth century began soon after the War of 1812 and was accelerated by the War with Mexico. It was a part ofthe manifold reform movement of that evangelical age, and the fact that many of its leaders were clergymen does not mean that it was less realistic or less informed than, say, the women’s rights movement or the anti-slavery crusade. Ministers discussed international affairs, and lawyers and statesmen talked Christian ethics, often in the same company of social reform. The Reverend Noah Worcester, of the Massachusetts Peace Society, for example, caught the significance for the cause of disarmament of the Rush-Bagot agreement concerning the United States-Canada boundary; he was one, also, who condemned the wars against the Seminoles and the Cherokees. During the 1840’s, while Manifest Destiny men talked about the future sweep around the world of American­-style institutions, American peace seekers, not altogether different in logic, told audiences at home and in Europe that the American government would be the first government and the most fitting one to forego war as an instrument of national policy. “It is in this country that the martial spirit has received its greatest check,” wrote a contributor to the Democratic Review. “It is here that the pacific principles will be first adopted.”

Today a very short story, which the expert on the American peace movement, Merle Curti, tells, suggests the inner tension of the 1840’s over the issue of rule by the assertion of power versus rule by consent. The story concerns an American Indian of the midcontinent, George Copway, who traveled and spoke in Europe in the service of world peace. Copway was a chieftain by origin and a Methodist by con­ version; he went to Frankfurt-am-Main in 1850 as a delegate to the peace congress organized there by Elihu Burritt, the peripatetic American antiwar speaker and organizer. Rising before an international meeting, which was held in the great St. Paul’s Lutheran church where the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 had met, wearing his tribal dress and speaking in broken English, Copway pleaded for self-determination as a method of justice for peoples wherever oppressed. Voicing the same doctrine of equality among peoples that occurs in the Declaration of Independence, Copway “carried the audience away,” according to a witness.

In summary, it seems fair to discern in the voices of mid­ century peace crusaders a renewal in evangelical passion of the main ideas of the Revolutionary epoch—government by the people and multiple sovereignty. Restating the principle of equilibrium among peoples, the reformers asserted in addition that political equilibria should be strengthened and structured—beyond what the princes of Europe would do—by laws and congresses on the American model.


Coming to the times of Thoreau and Burritt, that is to the midcentury, brings us not without irony to the sad epoch when American democracy suffered its worst disruption. Not the loose, old, monarchical equilibrium of Europe (though it suffered its strains at center), but the carefully institutionalized equilibrium of the now continent-wide federal system of America fell apart in terrible war. And the Reconstruction period which followed was the time when America’s self-contradictions over race relations became entirely plain. Surely the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, enacted between 1865 and 1870, are the fullest and most formal commitment the United States has ever made to the principle of equality under the law. But simultaneously the usage of those years and of the following half-century, the almost universal refusal of white Americans to treat Negroes equally with themselves, denied the principle. In that contradiction the dilemma Myrdal would later identify became a condition built into our institutions.

By contrast the incompatibility with which the present paper is concerned lost visibility for a while, beginning with the Civil War. As one of the backgrounds of that change, the old peace movement faded. About 1861 members decided that it was better to fight to destroy slavery and save the Union than to refuse to bear arms. And about twenty years later certain ismsappeared which help explain new attitudes which were less favorable to equilibrium and more favorable to violence than before. The Social Darwinism of the 1880’s confirmed people’s taste for competition, individual and national; it justified the rule of the strong. Nineteenth-century German political idealism—imported in Hegelian, Fichtean, Rankean, and other packages—added immensely to the sense of scholars and publicists that nations are governed by their collective wills. From such components the spirit of imperialism was brewed. Among American vocalizers of this attitude—who would have to include Josiah Strong and Brooks Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Albert J. Beveridge—we may pick the naval historian, Admiral A. T. Mahan, for a quotation as summary as any. “The martial spirit … alone is capable of coping finally with the destructive forces that from outside and from within threatened to submerge all the centuries have gained…. Not in universal harmony, nor in fond dreams of unbroken peace,” went on that great scholar in “The Interest of America in Sea Power,” “rest now the best hopes of the world, as involved in the fate of European civilization. Rather in the competition of interests, in that reviving sense of nationality … in the jealous determination of each people to provide first for its own … are to be heard the assurances that decay has not touched yet the majestic fabric erected by so many centuries of courageous battling.”

Of course peace men did not keep silent while the national—will men and the imperialists were building their case. Around 1900 statesmen and intellectuals, who included William Jennings Bryan and Senator Hoar, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and William Graham Sumner, took vigorous antiwar and anti-imperialist stands. The principal argument sprang from the main stem of the tradition: a democratic republic does not seize control of another nation without its consent. Then gradually the argument widened and deepened. In 1905 George Santayana, one of two conspicuous peace men who were members of that most brilliant of all departments in American university history, the Harvard Department of Philosophy, had his say. In the second volume of “The Life of Reason,” which he subtitled “Reason in Society,” saying that war had become archaic, Santayana argued that international rivalries might be sublimated into competitions like athletic contests between cities and schools. In 1907, speaking from eighteen years at Hull House and from impressions of what militarism was doing to Germany, Jane Addams published “Newer Ideals of Peace,” the strongest plea in our language, probably, that war and the fulfillment of democracy are incompatible processes. Three years later, William James, who was Santayana’s most eminent colleague, produced his little classic, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” He proposed that under a national system young men should be assigned to non-military but strenuous and risk-taking services to their country. Today it would be appropriate to honor the Harvard philosophers for peace, the one for having supplied a sporting justification for the race with Russia to place a man on the moon and the other for having supplied good reasons for a Peace Corps and a VISTA program.

Altogether the dialogue between the imperialists and anti-imperialists, those who were tolerant of war and those who were opposed, had reached an advanced stage by 1910. Overseas expansion is natural and good for America, Mahan and Roosevelt and their kind were saying; war also has its virtues, for it toughens the character of a people. Quite wrong, responded the anti-imperialist and the antiwar people. Overseas rule is foreign to our ideas and institutions, they said; and war, for all its heroic qualities, is barbarous and even more subversive of our historic beliefs.

Such articulation, however, did not put war-or-peace into politics. Before 1916 that issue had reached no further that way than the slavery issue had before 1820, when the Missouri Compromise was enacted. Jane Addams gives us a measure. In 1912, in her own city of Chicago, the “beloved lady” of a whole set of humanitarian activities had been applauded into being the number-two idol at the Progressive Party convention. She worked hard for Theodore Roosevelt; she believed in his domestic program. We know now, however, that she was embarrassed by his imperialist and navalist record and taste. To stand back from that line of possible severance within the party, Miss Addams-who was far from guessing that within five or six years she would be the most prominent pacifist in a country at war-deliberately suppressed the embarrassment. To her, that is, as to the country at large, war-or-peace had not yet arrived at being an operational issue in political affairs.


Once the Great War came in Europe, however, how rapidly matters changed. After a reading of the fifth volume of Professor Arthur Link’s “Wilson,” concerning the leadership of the United States during the years it remained neutral, the word “dilemma” seems weak. It was the president’s agony more than anyone else’s, because Wilson was Wilson: as a scholar he knew a great deal about national history, and held firmly to old doctrines of international law. As politician and statesman he felt daily the pressures which called first for military preparedness and then for entering the war. From 1914 to 1917, generally speaking, President Wilson held back. For a long time he insisted on treating the belligerents equally. He wanted not only the United States but all neutrals to have and hold their commercial and political rights, without intrusion from any nation at war. Reluctant always to lead his country at arms, believing that war was the antithesis of what the United States stood for, Wilson decided to fight only when he considered the war to be hopelessly stalemated, and considered himself free to promise that a peace truly consistent with American ideals could be attained. All these attitudes indicate how strongly Woodrow Wilson held to the view that the power of nations—of all nations, including his own—is something to be channeled and controlled.

Neither at the close of the First World War nor at the close of the Second could the United States deal in a constitutional way with the problem of war as after the Civil War it had dealt with the problem of the Negro. There was no world constitution to provide a sanction for outlawing war as there was an American constitution to outlaw slavery and racial discriminations. Yet after both wars great pledges to peace were given. With President Wilson’s role in bringing to birth the League of Nations and with the deeds of later administrations in co-operating with the League, in bringing about actual treaties and stages of naval disarmament, in sponsoring the Kellogg-Briand Treaty, and so on, the United States before 1930 took formal and substantial steps into world multilateralism, and toward the antiwar circumvention of national sovereignty. There is no need to recapitulate here how actions of the 1920’s, and soon the neutrality laws of the 1930’s, were paralleled by the most numerous antiwar movement in the United States history up to that time. The polarization of ideas, which had occurred between 1885 and

1915, now burgeoned into a polarization of public opinion. Peace pamphlets poured from the presses. Jane Addams received a Nobel Prize. In the intellectual history of war criticism, Professor Quincy Wright’s two-volume “Study of War” was the finest achievement. Brought out in 1942, after we had entered the Second World War, it was a product of the author’s teaching, indeed his founding, the academic discipline of international relations, during the 1930’s. In spirit the book was—and now freshly is, for recently it has twice been republished—a critical, peace-minded study of the prehistory, history, sociology, law, and ideology of war.

But of course, among the very forces which evoked the peace movements of the 1930’s, the Nazi terror in Europe and the Japanese expansion in the Pacific soon compelled a different kind of resolution. It was like the yielding of the peace convictions held by abolitionists when the Civil War came in 1861: excepting hard-core pacifists, mostly Christian, Americans quickly consolidated in what seemed then, as it still seems to all but a handful of deep dissenters, a war of self-defense and the defense of essential ideals and loyalties.

For all the waste and the horror, participation in the Second World War conferred on nearly all Americans an unforgettable sense of doing what had to be done. The words of Roosevelt and Churchill met the occasion. The tension which is our subject, between exercising national power at its most violent and holding back from that exercise, for the time lost public meaning. Doubtless the yielding of the American peace movement, and the abandonment of American neutrality legislation and ideas—two separate but simultaneous war phenomena of the home front—have abetted the opinion among us that peace convictions must always give way to reasons of state. In fact, the peace movement did not rise again until ten or a dozen years after the war had ended—that is, not until the late 1950’s, when the Korean War had also been fought and concluded.

But this bypasses the sizable incorporation of peace—reformist goals into national policy which occurred in San Francisco during the summer of 1945. Certainly the pledge which Roosevelt throughout the war had led the country in making, that victory by the allies would mean the foreclosing of great war out of the world, was handsomely honored in the Charter of the United Nations. The obligation the United States undertook, when it ratified the UN treaty promptly and with no reservations, was more exacting in respect of keeping world peace than membership in Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations would have been. It is hard for Americans today to recognize how American, in name, style, and philosophy, the United Nations truly is. It follows the design of our own national and state constitutions of the dozen years which began in 1776. Rights are guar­ anteed. Plural sovereignties are recognized and assigned obligations. The General Assembly acts out the principle of equality in rights and self-government of all organized peoples. The Security Council contemplates a systematized equilibrium among the great powers. Altogether the Americanism of the United Nations, and the commitment of the government to it, would seem to have no limit.

This brings us to the real birth, I believe, of the dilemma which we identified tentatively at the beginning of this paper. Again the first horn of the dilemma is, as I have just tried to state briefly, the pledge of the United States to multilateralism on a global scale. The second horn lies in our wars, in our extended militarization, most of all in our introducing a new order of armaments in the world. Only short weeks after the United Nations Charter had been drafted, atomic bombs burst over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where events in San Francisco had created a world system of multilateral authority and had placed new restraints of law on the power of nations, the explosions in Japan occurred as unilaterally as it is possible for events to occur. They represented then, as they still do, the grossest use ever made by man of his power to destroy. The event seemed at the time what the years have proved it to be, pregnant with an arms race beyond comparison with any previous hazards.

Putting together the pieces in the coincidence of 1945, one may well doubt that any pair of events, ever in history, has equaled the pair which occurred that summer in producing a crop of incongruities. Those incongruities restate the di­ lemma we are examining: multilateral authority in the world and multilateral disarmament, main goals of the United Nations, versus unlimited armaments and unlimited power to kill. Though this is a world predicament, is it not peculiarly an American one? Has even the problem of race relations been more especially ours? Could any other think­ able dilemma be more of American making, more a collision of two achievements characteristic of our national culture, than the dilemma born in 1945?


Three times in earlier centuries public thought in America has advanced to positions which would lead through politics to relocations of sovereign authority. This happened in the seventeenth century, when three colonies—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island—set themselves up as commonwealths and when all the English colonies attained a degree of self-government unmatched since the colonies of ancient Greece. It happened in the eighteenth century, between 1765 and 1789. It happened a third time during the nineteenth century, in the nationalizing events of the Civil War epoch, for which the title given by Charles and Mary Beard, “The Second American Revolution,” is still suggestive of complex truth. During at least two of those three relocations historical learning and historical-mindedness entered the making of events. It did so brilliantly in the cases of Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, James Dickinson, and others, during the final third of the eighteenth century. It did so during the latter half of the nineteenth century, in cases stretching from George Bancroft and Francis Lieber to John W. Burgess and Woodrow Wilson. 

Partly on account of the precedents, but especially be­ cause unilateralists keep coming up with a bizarre view of American history which they intend to have serve their cause, we need to consider this intellectual aspect of our problem. To illustrate, ex-Secretary MeNamara was quoted in the Atlantic Monthly of March, 1967, as having voiced his opinions with clarity. “If you read Toynbee,” said the powerful secretary, “you realize the importance of a democracy learning to cope with a limited war. The greatest contribution Vietnam is making—right or wrong beside the point—is that it is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without the necessity of arousing the public ire. In that sense, Vietnam is almost a necessity in our history, because this is the kind of war we’ll almost certainly be facing in the next fifty years.”

It is hard to see how Mr. McNamara could have pronounced three sentences more jarring to multilateralists and peace advocates than those quoted in the paragraph above. In them: (1) he made a limited-war man of Arnold Toynbee, an impossible proposition; ( 2) he said that the “right or wrong” of the war in Vietnam is beside the point of its other “contributions” to the United States; and (3) he praised fighting limited wars “without ire.” This last seems to mean fighting without the passion of believing in a just war, and without the feeling of heroism and tragedy and hope for a good peace, which in the past have given citizen­-soldiers their glory. Moreover, by calling the southeast Asia war “almost a necessity in our history,” but by being too honest to pretend that it was a war of self-defense, did not MeNamara say that unilateral decisions, of the kind we are still making in Asia, will continue to be the one way and the right way? But probably the most offensive to peace men of any of the ex-Secretary’s notions is the proposition that the Vietnam war is vouchsafed to the United States to help the people unlearn their ancient distaste for war.

These snapshot and crystal-ball views of history seem not to represent fairly the total views of the speaker about the destiny of his own people: it now appears that McNamara probably entertains other more human expectations. But whether fully representative of the man or not, these words are important. They open a rare glimpse into the tacit, workaday presuppositions of our expansionists of American power. The glimpse shows how unilateral activism can be justified by a new variant on the old doctrine of national mission. The mission this time is to cut Communism short at its outmost reaches. (Fortunately there is no call to strike Communism at the central headquarters of the movement.) Though apologists have often likened the operations of this mission to a world police-action, or (in the days of John Foster Dulles) to a fire-fighting one, those homely phrases fit neither the unilateralism nor the extralegalism of the effort. If we are to speak in terms borrowed from domestic history, “world vigilantism” would seem a more appropriate wording. Of course, the MeNamara way of thinking about American peacekeeping can claim a sizable number of precedents, namely, the Indian wars and the Mexican War of the early nineteenth century and our more recent interventions in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Although such expansions offer little analogy to our large-scale operations in Vietnam, they do supply what precedents we have for expanding unilaterally by force of arms American control and influence in new areas.

This aspect of the historical record may nourish MeNamara’s view of our present-day obligations—the obligations which he said are likely to continue another half-century. But it in no way obliterates from the same record America’s early and traditional way of conceptualizing the relations among nations, the way of a planned—possibly, an institutionalized—equilibrium of power. If we ask whether or not that view has its believers and sustainers today, nearly two centuries after the philosopher-statesmen, doubtless the most affirmative answers are to be found in the convictions of the leaders of such organizations as the United Nations Association and the United World Federalists. They, and the many scholars who have gone with them, including Quincy Wright and the recently deceased great international lawyer, Grenville Clark, belong in the lineage of peace crusaders and scholars who volunteered during the nineteenth century. In today’s unevangelical ways they are our Wheatons and Sumners, asserters that equilibrium among nations is again, maybe is always, a valid conception. Like their predecessors they would have equilibrium become other than an automatic phenomenon; they would have it built deeply into the surrounding law, institutions, and opinions of the world.

Recently, beside this reformist hope ofinternational equilibrium, we have had a hard-nosed version. This appears in and between the lines of George Kennan’s “Memoirs, 1925-1950.” Even though that eminent diplomat was a lonely in­ side critic throughout his State Department career, he accepted most of the Department’s values. Thus, though he loved Russian culture, he “never” (he says) believed the Soviet Union “to be a fit ally or associate, actual or potential, for this country.” He is famous for his plan to “contain” Communism. Even so he reasoned that the United States must act politically, must impose political restraints short of military ones on Russia. That is to say, he argued for equilibrium, from the supposition that both nations have needs which transcend reliance on unilateral power. However slow Americans have been to realize the fact, what is true of Kennan has become true of recent mainline American policy toward Russia. As Norman Cousins said in an editorial which favored acknowledging openly our actual reliance on Russia, we have had to trust Khrushchev and Kosygin as we do our own leaders not to touch the nuclear button.

Thus Americans do speak and think often on the assumptions of equilibrium. We rely on multilateral procedures at center, though we wage war along the perimeters of power. Doctrinally speaking, our belief in an essential equality among peoples is what is at stake. While we are learning to deal with the Soviets as equals in violent power we are learning also, as we sit with them in the United Nations or negotiate test-ban and anti-proliferation treaties, to act as though they were our equals in doing the business of the world. Recently that lesson has been hard to hold to. Yet one remembers the ways in which Protestants and Catholics in European and American history, and Christians and Muslims earlier, came to manage with one another in a rough equality, under an umbrella of toleration. We are far from having reached any such stage with China. Least of all in our many troubles in living up to 1776 in respect of the equality of peoples have we come to think that the citizens of the small countries where we intervene have a right to life and property as sacred as anyone’s, according to international law.

On such counts the predicament we suffer becomes a fully developed dilemma, as Mydral employed that word. The stresses divide American society into parcels of intense feeling. One is spared having to illustrate such a point in the wake of the election and other demonstrations recently. Perhaps more critical than the divisions among groups, people are divided within. For whites, and maybe some Negroes, this kind of anguish must equal the anguish even of racial discrimination. Does a young man accept the draft? Ought a great doctor defy it? Should we imprison a priest who pours blood on draft records? While people endure making such judgments, moreover, the whole institution of war takes on a new perspective. For the second time in American history, we confront a “peculiar institution.” As once slavery came to the point where the ancient apologies for its existence lost the power to convince, so now does the institution of war. As many times in the past Americans have had to bear the tensions be­ tween unilateral power and multilaterally dispersed authority, so again they do now. But the contradiction was never before so universally urgent. Never before was it so fully out in the open, in so many ways realized, as it has now become.



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