The tendency of Americans to think of foreign policy in universal terms goes back to the beginning of the Republic. As George Kennan has pointed out most forcefully, from "no entangling alliances" to "making the world safe for democracy" to the Truman Doctrine, the argument over what to do abroad has habitually been conducted as if it concerned the acceptance or rejection of some single touchstone principle or slogan. Temperament and geography joined to form this tendency; we were a nation set apart both physically and in the perceived roots of our national identity. And history decreed that in its terms of time we should move with breathtaking speed from a nation seemingly unaffected by the wars and struggles of others to one that has seen itself, at least since 1941, deeply affected by any substantial conflict anywhere in the world.
Today, misguided universalism is one of the principal charges brought against postwar American policy, especially in universities and among younger men and women. The Truman Doctrine, distorted well beyond its language, let alone the practical actions of its authors, is seen as the root of a worldwide American posture that became, in the 1950s, a new "imperialism."1 And in the 1960s President Kennedy's Inaugural appears as the rhetorical apogee of American activism, and the tragedy of Vietnam as its ordained culmination.
One could argue at length the substance of these views, especially the charge of "imperialism." If one insists (with the backing of history and the dictionary) that the primary meaning of empire requires an intent to control or dominate in one's own interest, then it seems to me a total distortion of anything that even John Foster Dulles, let alone John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had in mind. I incline to the recent judgment of Alastair Buchan, a discerning, and on occasion unsparing, critic of the United States:
. . . if one examines serious American thought over the past quarter-century . . . one will find a consistent thread-going back even to the wartime years-that rejects any
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