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We the People and Foreign Affairs

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

By Lieutenant Colonel W. F. Kernan

During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke wasted a lot of brilliant rhetoric urging a snobbish House of Commons to take cognizance of a new and amazing political development in the Western Hemisphere. The phenomenon which had attracted Burke’s attention was the birth of the American nation and what made it so amazing was that the power of this particular government had apparently sprung full-panoplied from the bosom of the community. For the first time in history sovereignty had started from scratch.

Up to that time sovereignty had always been imposed on a given area from an external source according to a sequence that seemed as immutable as the band of Orion. A group of adventurous or dissatisfied citizens might leave the mother country, build up a colony overseas, and then exchange fealty and taxes for the protection of the home government. A wholly alien race might be conquered by a stronger power and merged with it after the fashion of Saxon England. Or you might start with a defenseless agrarian population and incorporate it in a barony and a group of these baronies would form a county or a dukedom which would later become a monarchy. As the yoke became tyrannical or as protection failed to protect, there were struggles, revolutions, compromises. The power passed back and forth from baron to baron, from baron to king, from king to people in a sort of gigantic game of catch-as-catch-can or hide-the-handkerchief. But the sovereignty was always there to be seized or extended or imposed, claimed by one side, denied by the other, submitted to or rebelled against according to the mode and fashion of the time.

A certain order of events was plainly discernible in this state-building process. First the land was settled and a race or ethnological group attached itself firmly, rapaciously, to a certain portion of the earth’s surface and started to work farming or mining, manufacturing or fruit-growing or cattle-raising. When these settlements, because of the beauty of their women or their accumulation of portable property or the demonstrated richness of their soil, became valuable as spoils, a power reached out from somewhere and absorbed them. Sometimes the grab was made in the guise of protection, sometimes the extension of sovereignty was pure unvarnished conquest, sometimes the soil-attached group placed itself voluntarily within the orbit of the power-group; but whatever the excuse and whether a political “build-up” was used or not, the general line of action was in accordance with the ancient plan:

That he shall take who has the power And he shall keep who can.

All the monarchies of Europe grew to nationhood under this system and from the look of things to-day it is a long way from the discard.

Of course there were revolutions, both of the palace and the popular variety, but they succeeded or failed in accordance with the degree to which their leaders had mastered the same old technique, i.e., in accordance with their skill in winning over a power that was already established. Before the magic words “we, the people” could be spoken louder than a whisper, a pretty careful estimate had to be made of the force component at hand and the first thing your experienced revolutionist would ask was “how many regiments will declare for liberte, fraternite, egalite and how many are certain to stand firm for the ancien regime?” Even a unanimous public opinion could make little headway against a whiff of grapeshot.

The power was there for you and it was up to you to get hold of it or your revolution would be a flash in the pan. You could add it, subtract it, multiply and divide it, but if you made a miscalculation, neither the people’s voice nor the people’s vote could save you from the scaffold. National propaganda was fine, but it was better to know just where the army stood before you acted. The appeal to justice was fine too, but it was better to wait until you won your case before proving the incontrovertible rightness of your cause. When the right time came you could easily smother dissent and get your measures passed by acclamation, and the right time was after you had taken all the strong positions and your cuirassiers held all the gates. When the big battalions had had their say, the propagandists, or, as Napoleon called them contemptuously, les ideologues, would always come out of their holes to explain to the sovereign people what a wonderful man they had chosen to be Lord Protector or First Consul or Monsieur le President. That was the way revolutions were managed in Europe and by all accounts they are still being managed that way.

The American Revolution was different because there has never been another case in all history of such an abrupt and peremptory translation of the will of a people into a viable political power. The fact that what had happened was absolutely unique in the annals of government is reflected in the uncomprehending amazement of the Tory statesmen at the Declaration of Independence. The notion that in the stormy international atmosphere of the period a group of fledgling English colonies would dare to cut themselves loose from the protecting power of Britain struck Lord North and his cronies as a monstrous and unparalleled piece of foolishness bound to be followed sooner or later by annihilation. The French would absorb these impudent Americans, the Indians would scalp them, the wild beasts of their own forests would devour them, they would fall into the maw of Portugal or Spain, As a matter of fact the signers of the Declaration themselves were far from feeling the confidence which the bold language of that immortal document conveys. Their revolt is significant, not because they desired independence but because they were determined to break completely away from the European power principle. Benjamin Franklin had visited England in 1768 and had returned to report “that every Englishman talked and acted as though he carried a part of America around in his breeches pockets.” It was not so much that the Founding Fathers hated England as that the notion of “power over” was repugnant to them. What they wanted was “power for,” the state as a trusteeship. The “tremendous idea” behind the American Revolution was simply the affirmation in its entirety of the political tradition of western Christendom. The United States achieved sovereignty and became a nation on the strength of a reaction against the pagan thing that had vexed the chancelleries of Europe ever since the Renaissance.

“We shall erect,” said Washington, “a standard to which the brave and honest may repair.” The men who responded to this call did not assemble to draw up a contract or to say to an already established power “we shall exchange our fealty, obedience, and taxes for certain guarantees of order, security, and protection.” They had, so to speak, to draw from their own bosoms the sovereign power of the new state which they created and the only way this could be done was by an act of trust, a commitment made, a risk taken in good faith and in the assumption that all will make the same commitment and take the same risk. The source of their power was a bond that was valid on the sole condition that everyone had a share in it.

The Constitution was the great charter which embodied this concept of sovereignty, the sign and seal of a state that placed itself voluntarily under the eternal laws. But the Constitution itself was no guarantee that the system would work, It was the other way around. The guarantee of the Constitution as well as the power that supported it was drawn from the consent of the citizens. The ultimate sanction for the government of the United States could only be derived from the consciences of the people of the United States and that is precisely what Walter Bagehot meant when he said that “the men of Massachusetts and Virginia could make any Constitution work.”

This America was no mere “geographical expression” as Bismarck once described Austria. Such a concept of the state as justice, once it entered the realm of practical politics, could no more be confined to a given area than the mathematical validity of the symbol Pi could be confined in a given area, and for exactly the same reason. Neither was a relative, individual, or limited thing and both were general, universal, and eternal things. Pi expressed a relationship between the circumference and the diameter of a circle that would be good for any world or set of worlds that imagination could contrive, and American Democracy expressed a relationship between the individual and the state that was just as eternal as the moral order because it was based on the moral order and had been written in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount long before it was written in the Constitution. It was the notion that there are certain basic rights that no earthly power is entitled to invade. Here was a state founded on the assumption of a unique dignity and worth in the persons that compose it and the reason why the dignity of the person was regarded as inviolate was due to a theological maxim which no American, certainly no American who understands freedom, has ever denied: namely, that every human being is of infinite value in the sight of Almighty God.


The foreign policy of the United States began right here. For it is evident that a political system founded on a universal and eternal law would hardly be satisfied to remain in isolation behind a Chinese wall of non-co-operation. It would never be able to stay at home, if staying at home meant hiding its light under a bushel. It would throw its talents around with prodigal extravagance, if guarding them meant burying them in the ground. If minding its own business meant a Cain-like indifference to the plight of its fellow men, it would categorically refuse to mind its own business. Was America originally a mere congeries of small and sectional groups? Then under the impetus of its guiding political concept the section and the province would overflow and spread into the state, the state would interpenetrate and merge with the nation, and the national community would move outwards towards the family of nations and, the hope of the great community. The limits of this political concept were the limits of humanity itself.

The watchword of our forefathers was “isolation.” The advice of the founders of the Republic was non-entanglement, but nobody had said anything about non-intercourse. The ocean barriers were there. An impregnable geographical position was part of the American heritage, but there are no barriers to prevent trade and the American heritage would be a poor one indeed if it interposed any obstacle to the free exchange of ideas. Thus while we would not fight except in defense of our ideals and institutions, it is not true to say that we would not fight unless the foot of the invader was on our soil. On the contrary, we would fight just as soon as we recognized our enemy. And our enemy was not, as was the cr e in Europe, an aggressor in a physical sense. He was the enemy because he attacked the American idea, because his presence was recognized as being too close for comfort. For what America was defending was never merely a physical thing, but always a spiritual thing.

The American idea was destined to spread and to translate itself into a material, spiritual, and intellectual invasion first of unsettled portions of North America, then of the Western Hemisphere, and finally of the entire world. The stages of this ever widening movement of co-operative unity were suecessively Westward Expansion, the Monroe Doctrine, the Freedom of the Seas, and finally the Democratic challenge to Totalitarianism which, in our own times, is just beginning to make itself heard. To understand this, it is necessary to trace the difference between the European and American conceptions of international law.

In Europe, ever since the sixteenth century the central doctrine of Machiavelli, although camouflaged by diplomatic verbiage, had been the fundamental assumption of international public law. That is to say, whether a state should keep its commitments and treaty obligations depended on expediency. There was always a certain amount of lip service done to the maxims of Grotius, but there was no regulation of international relations to guarantee any adherence to a viable system of international morality and under the cover of a mask of righteousness the dominating factor was still force. Frederick the Great could partition Poland, and England (to-day trying to prevent Hitler from repeating the same performance with the British Empire) would stand by and permit it because Frederick’s army was an important factor in the war with Louis XV, Bismarck could take Alsace-Lorraine from France and sow the seeds of international discord and England would do nothing about it because Gladstone did not regard the government of Louis Napoleon with favor.

What you have is a divergence of opinion on the subject of international relations and the meaning of law and order in the civilized world that is as wide as the distance between East and West. On the one hand there is the concept which the nations of Europe have held pretty faithfully for four hundred years. On the other hand there is the American concept. And it amounted to this, that on the one side aggression might be excused on the grounds of expediency, or it might be resisted on the grounds of expediency. While in the case of America, aggression was always aggression— something to be avoided—and no attempt was ever made to excuse it. And out of this refusal to temporize with the fac et excusa of European politics, together with a sense of her geographical impregnability, grew the American doctrine of isolation, which has been so completely misunderstood by our armchair strategists.

By the same token the tendency to blow hot and cold in international affairs which is so characteristic of European foreign policy is due to a geographical situation exactly the opposite of America’s. This geographical situation produced the Balance of Power idea in Europe as naturally as a hen produces eggs. For America isolation meant security, but no European nation could depend on isolation for security and yet security was the mainspring of French and English policy. The Royalist government of France was fighting England in 1778 and the Most Christian King was doing his level best to furnish aid and assistance to the rebellious American colonists. But a little later, in 1812, the entire soi-disant government of France was arrayed on the side of Pitt and doing its best to subdue the Napoleonic upstart.

For the diplomacy and the foreign policy of Europe is based on a propinquity, a geographical situation, a lack of elbow room that possesses elements of danger in itself for the nations thus forced to live on each other’s doorstep. In the rag-tag, bob-tail hustle, bustle, and welter of national ambitions, fears, and hatreds that have formed the groundwork of European diplomacy since the sixteenth century, the only rule that could be followed was sauve qui peut or the devil take the hindmost. A nation had to look out for its own interests and the way that most nations adopted for looking out for these interests was by making and breaking alliances, blowing hot and cold, signing secret treaties, playing both ends against the middle, and in general running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Hence in looking at Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century the thing that strikes an American most forcibly is a system of alliances, treaties, and pacts that were failures from our standpoint and were not worth the paper they were written on. The statesmen of Europe never did carry a principle to its logical conclusion and this was called “realism.” The American statesmen made a point of doing exactly the opposite and this was called “idealism.” And as far as Europe was concerned the reason why this was so was simply that the nations of Europe were so jammed up. In the case of the American idea in statecraft exactly the opposite was the case. Hence, we may expect to see the foreign policy of Europe change like a kaleidoscope with the rise or with the ascendancy of every new power. To the external aspects of these policies which were based purely on expediency, Europeans gave the name “international law.”


The foreign policy of America and the American concept of international law were founded on a principle which was in diametrical opposition to the leading ideas of European statesmen. The name by which this principle has been known for the last hundred years is isolation. It is not only that we were separated from Europe and its alarms by the Atlantic ocean and from the “ways that are dark” and “tricks that are vain” of the Orient by the Pacific Ocean. The really significant thing was that our political theories and our concept of government had elbow room. Our foreign policy developed slowly, but its reach was always greater than its grasp. It could express itself freely, mean what it said, suit the deed to the word in matters of international law; and though American diplomacy spoke but rarely on international matters, when it did speak it was always to tell the truth.

Thus all the while the American nation was expanding westward, it was gradually making itself a factor which must be taken into account in all matters that concerned the Western Hemisphere. For America carried, so to speak, its political philosophy on its hip. When the American government spoke, it generally meant what it said because the people in matters of foreign policy were always right behind the government and the government never extended itself beyond its ability to perform. The American idea of a treaty was something that was binding even if the stars fell from the heavens and the American idea of international law was meant to be kept. If we advanced slowly in international affairs, it was because, like the tortoise, we carried our house on our back. The foreign policy of America was simply a distillation of the public opinion of Americans. It was the principle of the American government projected on the screen of world affairs.

This then is the second characteristic of American foreign policy which, like the first, is derived from the American concept of government. The notion that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the idea that every man has certain inalienable rights which no government may invade had a sort of universality about it and was bound to turn the gaze of Americans outward, bound to make them take sides against aggression wherever aggression occurred, bound to interpose a stumbling block to anyone who tried to put blinders on them, the net result being that there sprang up in the Western Hemisphere a robust and powerful people who were constitutionally and by nature incapable of remaining neutral whenever the principles on which their sovereignty rested were threatened in any corner of the earth. Let a scrap get under way, let an autocrat or a power group start bullyragging a minority or playing the old international three-card monte game with a weaker nation and right away the sympathies of the American people were enlisted on the side of the victim.

I say that one aspect of American foreign policy was its universality—and the other, which was like unto the first, was a permeability. Moreover, both of these qualities were products of the principles of isolation which were so thoroughly misunderstood by the proponents of neutrality. I say that because of the very fact of America’s geographical position a principle, any principle, of international morality or a policy always had time to spread, to assert itself, to be weighed and tested by the pec pie long before it was handed over to the diplomats to be put into effect. This public awareness or international alertness of the American people had some important effects.

In the first place, every proposed or suggested probable or improbable course of international action was always dragged out into ihe open and discussed with a fluency and intensity that has always been surprising and sometimes downright startling to observers from overseas. In the second place, since in the long run the government could never go a step further than public opinion permitted, there was no possibility of America being committed either by a secret treaty or otherwise to any alliance or agreement which the American people might refuse to sanction when it knew all the facts. This attitude towards the outside world has been characteristic of America since the founding of the nation. Whatever might be the disagreements and family quarrels between the citizen and his government in domestic affairs, there was no earthly chance of a disagreement between the two on foreign affairs. When the government spoke on matters of international policy, it spoke with the voice of the people or its accents were completely lacking in authority. When it took action, it was always with the overwhelming approval of the public opinion behind it.

This characteristic habit of the American people in dealing with foreign affairs—an attitude which is a product of our geographical isolation as well as of our form of government —was never more manifest than during the years immediately preceding the present World War. This attitude was not adequately expressed by the pseudo-isolationists of the Lindbergh feather who sought to make the nation believe that what it really wanted was peace at any price. To find us real expression we must turn rather to the President’s speech at Chicago in October, 1937. Here in the so-called “Quarantine Speech” we can find the exact point where the American conscience and American foreign policy coincide. Mr. Roosevelt said:

The landmarks and traditions which have marked the progress of civilization towards a condition of law, order, and justice are being wiped away . . . “perhaps we foresee a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, will rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing will be in danger . . . all will be lost or wrecked or utterly de-

If those days are not to come to pass . . . the peace-loving nations must make a concerted effort in opposition to those violations of treaties and those ignorings of humane instincts which today are creating a state of international anarchy and instability from which there is no escape through mere isolation or neutrality. . . .

It is therefore a matter of vital interest and concern to the people of the United States that the sanctity of international treaties and the maintenance of international morality be restored.

Here was a strange doctrine for a President of the United States to be teaching, to the isolationists a scandal and to the dictators a lie. The world threatened with chaos, the foundations of civilization tottering, America in danger of invasion, and the only remedy suggested by Mr. Roosevelt is the extension of the American Way in international affairs to nations and peoples beyond the seas. “If those days are not to come to pass,” the great concept of Lincoln must be stretched like a canopy not merely over the Western Hemisphere but over the entire globe. Lincoln had said: “If slavery is not wrong—then nothing is wrong.” Mr. Roosevelt’s avowal had the same meaning and emphasis, the same sense of a moral standard that is beyond all expediency because it is eternal. If this streamlined Caesarist aggression that is so “exultant in the technique of homicide” is not wrong—then nothing is wrong. If this foul thing that would stamp its image and superscription on every coin and on every mind is not evil—then nothing is evil.

It is evident that we have here two irreconcilable political ideas, that between the Axis and American Democracy no truce is possible, that no sort of world order can be arranged in which these two concepts of the state can live amicably side by side. As well might a man try to set up a domestic establishment and keep house next door to the lair of a sabre-toothed tiger. That is right where we are today, but let us note that American foreign policy has reached the sane, rational, and utterly realistic conclusion, “the world cannot permanently endure half Democratic and half Totalitarian,” through a perfectly normal process of evolution. To prove this proposition up to the hilt, we have only to consider what our mortal enemy German Nazism has been up to during the last 2000 years. Risum teneatis! The evolution of the one is just as easy to trace, once we have its animating principle, as that of the other.


Everyone knows that Germany, Italy, and Spain grew up within the same Christian polity that nurtured liberal England, republican France, and democratic America. How then did the naked power-principle reach its present elevation in the axis nations? How did the totalitarians come to adopt a political structure that by its very nature sets them at the opposite pole from the adult democracies of the West and justifies their inclusion among “the lesser breeds without the law”? To answer this question is to reveal the central idea behind the Nazist State and the irreducible cause of the duel to the death that has begun between the Axis powers and American Democracy.

What everyone does not know and what has not been sufficiently understood even by those historians who have endeavored to trace the origin of Nazism and its allied political systems, is that the state of Machiavelli, from which Nazism stems, and which made its appearance in Europe in the fifteenth century, was a pagan and not a Christian thing. All that tremendous rapacity for power manifested by the Renaissance rulers which found its vade mecum in “The Prince” (cf. “Mein Kampf” for a modern equivalent) was something inherited from the Rome of Diocletian and Hadrian which had worshipped force and had not scrupled to endow its emperors with the attribute of divinity. In this way, with the revival of ancient learning, the dead hand of ancient Caesarism was stretched forth to trouble the waters of Christian civilization.

I have no space here to dwell on the long fight that ensued between the Canonists and the Legalists, between the Nominalists and the Realists, between the Papacy and the Empire, between the state-as-conscience and the state-as-power. However, it was this fight that produced our modern world and what has been called “the rhythmic movement of modern history,” and there are certain elements of the long struggle which are important for America if she is to understand the position which she occupies and the destiny that she is now called upon to fulfill.

In the first place, we note that the Emperors and Princes who accepted and put into practice the Machiavellian Welt-politik with its dual morality and its glorification of force were outwardly Christian and would have scorned the imputation of paganism. Nevertheless, the power-principle they nurtured, from the very repugnance which it excited in the breasts of the common man, was ultimately to transform their realms into a battlefield. On the one side there was a denial of any authority except that of the dynast whose bare whim soon took on all the validity of law or, as the old Renaissance legalists put it, “quia principem placuit leges habent valorem.” On the other side there was the idea of the Christian democratic state that had remained intact from the time when Charlemagne had rejoiced in the title of “Everyman’s Minister” and the loyal Scots had even thought it necessary to inform their beloved Robert Bruce, “You shall be king as long as you are just.”

It is possible to trace this battle in England from the rise of the Tudor absolutism to the flight of the last Stuart. In France it was Gallicanism—the pride of a power-principle that concealed itself in the trappings of religion while setting itself above the Church and the law—which provoked the democratic reaction and swept the Bourbons from the throne of St. Louis. In Spain and in Italy the same fight went on for four centuries with varying success and finally ended in the utter defeat of Democracy. And in all of these countries the substitution of state authority for justice was finally accomplished. In Spain, the absolutism of Philip II has merely been exchanged for the Falangism of Franco I. In Italy, Benito Augustulus now occupies the throne of the Caesars. In France the seed sown by Louis XIV has flowered into the policy of the Old Men of Vichy.

But to all this Germany was the absolute exception. Democracy fought and triumphed and survives today in England and in the United States. Democracy fought and was finally vanquished in Spain and in Italy and France, but in Germany Democracy neither triumphed nor did it go down in defeat before the power-principle because, in Germany, Democracy never existed. In Germany there was no fight between the pagan concept of the state-as-force and the Christian concept of the state-as-justice. From first to last, the dynasts swept the board. The great movement for constitutional freedom or liberty under the law that can be traced from Homer’s Achaean Greeks right down to Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech made no real impression there.

For Nazism is simply the end-term or final phase of a political system whose, evolution can easily be traced through the last three centuries. You can see it in the militarism of the Elector Frederick William almost as plainly as in the “Blood and Iron” policy of Bismarck. It is as evident in the philosophy of Hegel and Harnack as it is in the propaganda of Goebbels and one even glimpses it in the saying of Goethe that is so often quoted by Hitler; “I prefer order to justice.”

This notion of world dominance, of state power supported by millions of bayonets, had existed long before and had never suffered any domestic reverses. In 1892 Acton had said that it was “the greatest danger yet encountered by the Anglo-Saxon race.” In 1914 it felt itself strong enough to launch its first attack against the West. Whatever may have been the secondary or precipitating causes of 1914— whether British Imperialism, or Austria’s oppression of the southern Slavs, or the Kaiser’s colonial ambitions—there can be no doubt that the final cause was the ascendancy of a theory of the state that was destined to go on spreading until it either imposed a pagan order on the civilized world or was itself crushed. It was not crushed in 1918. What actually happened was that at the bottom of the abyss where it was hurled by the Treaty of Versailles, the pagan power principle encountered socialism and the Nazist Weltanschauung was born. The union between Machiavelli and Marx had already produced similar political phenomena in Russia and Italy but it was a necessity of history that Germany should become the real homeland of the new Caesarism.

That is why the meeting of Ludendorf and Hitler which occurred in a cellar in Munich is symbolic of a form of authority that is at the opposite pole from Democracy. Prussian autocracy which, however bad it was, was still a temporal thing became Nazist statolatry which is worse because it is a spiritual thing achieved through the perversion of a man’s religious nature. The worship of the state was organized under the apostolate of Der Fuehrer and the citizen was made to feel the impact of a new form of power through every plane of his being. The school, the family, the conscience, the will itself were ruthlessly invaded and the problem of determining what things belong to Caesar and what things to God was made ridiculously easy. Caesar claimed everything and everything was rendered unto him.

This somber religio-political devotion is characteristic of the whole totalitarian movement in its various manifestations of Fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism. It is as though these governments had access to some sort of infernal revelation, as though they were guided by an inverted sacral illumination which has nothing in common with the sanity, the rationality, the standards of the Christian West. We see this in their intolerance, in their ruthless suppression of minorities, in their hatred of criticism, in their constant appeal to the emotions but we see it most clearly in the carefully cultivated atmosphere of violence which surrounds this latest religious hypertrophy. To find a parallel here we must go back to the ancient orgiastic cults of the East—to the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth whose devotees were accustomed to seek increase of fervor and patriotic unity by leaping, howling, and the plentiful sacrifice of enemies. The religion of Christianity, of the democratic community may be maintained and propagated only by peace and understanding and charity. The religion of the cave, of the grove, of the crowd can only hold its power and make its influence felt by an activity which increases rather than decreases the sum total of human tension, rancor, and violence.

It is true that one cannot bring an indictment against an entire people, but there is nothing to prevent us from bringing an indictment against a political system that is hopelessly bad, since it lacks both the will and the capacity for self-correction. The typical hopeless badness of the new Caesarism consists in this: that its sign and symbol is war. That is why Democracy, whose sign and symbol is peace, is uniquely committed to its destruction.


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