National security policies reflect the culture of the society creating them. Each society’s forms of war and politics express its unique culture. The United States has taken this truth as its own. From the beginning this nation imposed upon itself a self-conscious identity distinct from the European world. It was a New World torn from the Old. Americans continue to seek to strengthen our self-described uniqueness, and our national security policy has always been asked to reinforce our identity.

More than other modern societies, America relies, even depends, on myth to cement its confidence in current policies. Americans are profoundly ahistorical; we do not share a coherent sense of our own history in formal, academic terms. Popular culture, not an educational system, shapes our common sense of identity.

Our national myths are not tall tales, nor are they untruths, but they are both representations of identity and the actual instrument of acculturation. Myths give each of us our sense of belonging, our actual membership as Americans. This process of acculturation through myth, moreover, is achieved through what many believe is simply entertainment: television and movies. Even the way in which we choose to represent ourselves is uniquely American, however chaotic and random in appearance.

It is nonetheless extremely effective. The American ethos is no less entrenched for its lack of a formalized historical-literary tradition sternly taught in state schools. The imagery of American myth, one might argue, is actually more passionate and more powerful given its screen presentation. The problem for Americans is the translation of inchoate images of self into a coherent mental concert for the development of foreign and national security policies. The culture of a society—its ethos—defines distinctive patterns of individual and group behavior. Culture shapes the way we look at the world. Whatever our immediate group membership, our final sense of identity is shaped by larger cultural patterns.

If we define ourselves according to myth, what kind of worldview has it given us?

First, at the core, Americans share an essentially religious value system. The primal myth of our origin is that of the "Pilgrim’s Progress," with the Plymouth Colony completely overshadowing Virginia and its lineal transplanting of British class and caste. We believe that the source and inspiration of America is bound up in religion: religious freedom, but also the moral vantage of Calvin. The impact of Protestant thought is felt in the ways we talk about mission, service, sacrifice, restraint. It underlies the sense that Americans share of serving a higher calling. This underpinning remains dominant today even though it is highly secularized, and transmuted into legal, constitutional language.

Second, Americans still hew, if unconsciously, to the symbolism of a New World. This symbolism has given rise to a set of specific myths about the United States. One of these is that America is the source of human progress and can achieve perfection as a society. The sense that we strive to create "a more perfect union" is embedded in our policymaking.

Americans believe that there has never been a society quite like our own. This American "exceptionalism" suggests that we are a people graced with unusual natural endowments. We think of ourselves literally as a "people of plenty." But our mythology also reminds us that this land was a great "untamed wilderness," a "land of savagery." It was the exceptional will, unity and vision of the American people and their beliefs that transformed the landscape. The twin icons of national bounty and national achievement have inspired two senses of an American national purpose: a conviction that the United States should serve as an example to the world, that America and its people are the model for all human development; and an impulse to change the world for good, to become the active agency of human progress. Tyranny and resistance to change are so entrenched in the world that only direct American intercession can shift the direction of history. America’s gifts demand that it assume a missionary role.

But there are two tendencies. Does this nation exist as a model to a corrupted world, where existence is contingent on separation? Or does our existence demand engagement, so that a corrupted world ultimately may be reformed? Engagement risks mirroring that from which we fled. The hazard is that in reforming evil we will inevitably, naturally incline toward its forms of subjugation—war and tyranny—even if pursued for good. But aloofness implies its own corruption, encouraging evil by celebrating detachment from the very fledgling movements America’s existence hopes to inspire.

Our national irony is that both strands must coexist and even be woven together politically for this nation to remain uncorrupted. There is an American mission, and it is composed of two apparently contradictory parts. It must preserve itself from the world at the same time it proselytizes to that world. Even the earliest American immigrants knew that there was no escape, that by leaving Europe they must eventually return, that there could be no reconciliation between good and evil belief systems. After two world wars, Americans remain united around this recognition.

In functional terms there are only two identifiable American political groups. One seeks to preserve the purity of the American ethos, to keep our society unsullied, a more perfect model. At the other extreme is a broad group committed to the progress of world reform. Between the two is the political center, always shifting in emphasis, attempting to balance both interpretations of national purpose as they are translated into policy.

The most important thing to understand is that this basic split in American politics is not linked to party affiliation. Both major parties historically have had to balance "purifiers" and "progressives."


Purifiers and progressives, however, share a set of assumptions about the outside world that binds them together as Americans. These assumptions—a set of cultural theses—emerged from core national myths and were shaped at the beginning, as America struggled to free itself from Europe. Even today, many of the images we paste onto the wider world were cut in the eighteenth century.

A basic thesis was the rejection of the European concept of "grand strategy." Grand strategy was the agenda of monarchs, serving their needs at the expense of their people.

The very execution of a grand strategy implied an exaltation of the power of the state: it required centralized if not absolute state control over society in order to mobilize national energy. The monarch was thus the arbiter of an entire people’s energy; he personally calibrated the limits of their capacity for sacrifice. Grand strategy required domestic political servitude.

If the monarch’s personal goal was simply the pursuit of power, then it was the merest cynicism to say, for example, that "France aspired to greatness," if such greatness was simply the whim of a single man, and purchased with the blood, treasure and freedom of twenty million Frenchmen. It is understandable that Americans today mistrust the word "realism" in the conduct of foreign policy, where realism is seen as no more than the cynicism of equating state interests to national interests.

The objective of grand strategy itself was also intrinsically corrupting: at home through the enslavement of popular will to the state, and abroad through the enslavement of others in imperial wars. Even if called forth by the collective will of an entire people, the quest for great power status as a norm, an acceptable end in itself, was wrong. It must be remembered that throughout the eighteenth century North America was the imperial battleground par excellence for endless wars in which Indian nations served as the "Third World surrogates" of European kings.

If imperial wars were the rituals of grand strategy, then the professional military castes of Europe were its instruments. This led to an American rejection of the European norm of "professional" or state-controlled military institutions. Professional armies were at best an unaccountable mechanism of royal power over society, encouraging legal absolutism. At worst, they could create the eighteenth-century equivalent of the totalitarian state. The European officer corps was seen as a pylon of an unjust class system. War was also a king’s domestic political safety valve, used to channel the energies of the aristocracy while encouraging patriotic allegiance to the commander-in-chief: the state.

Completing the American antipathy to standing armies was the nineteenth-century emergence of the iconography of the Prussian General Staff. A general staff existed to prepare for war, to present the state with the most encouraging and attractive motivation for initiating war.

Taken together, these cultural theses mean that any American engagement must be a "just war" with moral aims. In our history, the Civil War serves as the grand prototype of the "good war." Our twentieth-century world wars were deliberately given the mythic trappings of 1861-65. Each became a just war the moment each became explicitly a war for human freedom. The power of this moral aim was redoubled in the Civil War by the need for full national mobilization in the North to defeat the Confederacy. The aim was elevated and enshrined by the sense that all citizens were fully committed to its attainment.

The totality of war also made the enormous sacrifices required easier to bear. In fact, sacrifice became a positive force after war, the "honored dead" giving inspiration and moral force to those who would shape America’s future course. Finally, war was made to remake a world. "Reconstruction" was a necessary part of the process.

War demands cathartic action to justify it. War must celebrate American values and materially advance the American mission. Limited wars do not easily satisfy these needs, especially limited wars on foreign soil. Where America has intervened abroad, such actions have been politically satisfying only to the extent that they perpetuated national myth. In the postwar era, Korea just barely passed popular muster, and Vietnam failed altogether. Our failure in the latter conflict was in many ways a judgment on a leadership that ignored the centrality of the Civil War in national myth.

Both progressives and purifiers accept the legitimacy of the just war, and both interpretive strands have been intertwined through American enlistment in the war-as-moral-crusade, in 1861, 1917 and 1941. Since 1945, however, nuclear arms have negated the only kind of war that could be considered positive in our national ethos: one that is capable of unifying our national identity. Limited war is almost always unacceptable to purifiers, and an uncomfortable choice for progressives.

If military force is to be used it demands a unanimous definition of the national interest. But what are our vital interests? An attack on American citizens abroad has always been one of the few provocations for which military intervention was considered necessary. But purifiers at times have taken exception even to this: the Barbary outrages and today’s terrorist assaults are two examples. But when American interests are linked to economic investments or geopolitical "stakes," support for the use of force in their defense is readily likened by critics to the European imperial prototype: American boys are dying to protect a depraved potentate or a banker’s profits.

Finally, the whole issue of force and interest returns to the primal question of national purpose. If we must be committed to the world for our own values to survive, then its defense is a necessary risk. If commitment to an imperfect world, however, ends only in the defense of the morally indefensible, then the use of force must sap those values. We do not reform the world; the world succeeds in corrupting us.

Today, the stress between the two visions of American national purpose is greater than at any time since 1939. From the unity forged by world war, we have come to doubt ourselves. A national mission accepted as orthodoxy for a generation—from the late 1940s to the late 1960s—is now in shards. The world has changed, but so have we. It is important to show, in contrast to national myth and historical tradition, how Americans came to construct an essentially progressive mission, how purifiers came to be excluded from that mission, and how, ultimately, the mission foundered. Only then can we discern the state of the American ethos today.


The breathtaking experience of global war, where war with unconditional aims seemed to succeed completely, gave us enormous national self-confidence. Not only had the war justified our sacrifice, the completeness of the success made an ambitious national vision seem within reach: true world reform. It was the ultimate progressive mandate, and yet purifiers could embrace it. The Old World was so prostrate that, without the scheming Clemenceaus and Lloyd Georges of 1919, it could pose no threat of corruption. The world was ours, to remake in our image.

Several historical recognitions only reinforced this new tableau of American mission. One was a revision of historical myth. Pearl Harbor seemed a judgment on the isolationist legislation of Congress during the 1930s. After 1945, this assessment was extended. America was not attacked simply because it failed to respond to a threatening world; the very progress of evil, going from strength to strength, was a function of American withdrawal from the world. The United States actually encouraged the path of the dictators by its willful abstention.

America as a model to the world during the 1930s, moreover, now appeared vain, self-serving and farcical. Shackled by Congress, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his gestures and pleas for peace, looked absurd in retrospect. From the vantage of 1945 our behavior appeared doubly pernicious: it did nothing to preserve world peace, and it made American foreign policy seem a posturing, useful only to stroke our national sense of self-righteousness.

In contrast to the lamentable moral aversion of the 1930s, World War II created a satisfying symbiosis: American moral imperative was indissolubly linked to absolute evil (i.e., Nazi tyranny). In this sense, American involvement was necessary to evil’s abolition.

The depth of national emotional commitment was presented as equivalent in moral content to the fight against slavery. And just as the Emancipation Proclamation transformed a war of rebellion into a revolutionary struggle, so the Atlantic Charter, the "Four Freedoms" and the United Nations created for global war the same constitutional imperative. They elevated our passion to one of national crusade.

Our national sacrifice made sense only within the moral embrace of a natural extension of war into peace. World War II existed not merely to end a threat, but to remove the very source of threat. Before America’s entry into the war, the pieces had already been put into place: a transformation of the world system was made the ultimate goal. Going into battle, Americans understood that the peace settlement would not hew to Old World tradition. This time, unlike the squabbling at Versailles in 1919, there was to be no balance-of-power solution. The world was not to be remade in favor of great power aggrandizement among the victors. The model of 1815 was to be forever left behind.

This charge ensured that the primary task of the postwar era would be to create a true liberal world order, to do what had been left undone in 1919. In American expectations, this new order was to be evenhanded: the Soviet Union must accept international standards and restraints on its behavior, while the colonial powers, especially Britain and France, must accept decolonization as their post-imperial fate.


Between 1945 and 1950 Americans yielded to the charge of global mission. It began with a gathering sense of failure in transforming victory into peace. The Yalta agreement began to seem a little like appeasement, certainly an arrangement more at ease in the world of 1815 than the new world of 1945. How could the Soviet Union be coopted into a universe of liberal values if we began by bartering for its good behavior with the freedom of whole peoples? The vision of future world stability anchored in U.S.-Soviet cooperation vanished in the confrontation over Germany. The American effort to resolve the new German question was blocked by a Soviet cement-brick wall. Beyond this "diplo-deadlock," the rapacity with which Stalin seized his war spoils shocked even the practitioners of accommodation. His ruthless subversion of Eastern Europe at once evoked the imagery of the late 1930s. Appeasement again had led to aggression and enslavement, but this time the United States was acquiescing to evil directly. How easy it was for us to recreate the masque of the prewar world. Stalin became Hitler: threatening, fomenting, saber-rattling.

It is only understandable that the Munich metaphor returned to those who had held junior positions in 1938. It is also understandable that their response should be "never again." All of the new myths of recent war informed Americans: the fruits of appeasement were war; it was better to stand up for our values earlier than later; evil understood only force; with a broken Europe before us nothing could stop the march of evil but the United States.

The myths were already there, and Stalin was foolish to give them renewed life. He unwittingly forced a fusion of "truths" from the recent past to expectations of the future. History would repeat itself—unless America intervened.

The shock of the Soviet atomic bomb, however, twisted the context of national mission. America’s commitment to a liberal world order was unchanged, but the form of mission-as-crusade changed subtly. Nuclear weapons forced an abandonment of the just war as an instrument of reform. If the Soviet Union became the focus of contemporary evil, then it could not be tackled directly. Communist Eurasia could at best be "contained" while the rest of the world, the "free world," together held the line until a true and complete liberal world order could be reestablished. The free world rubric reflected a return to the language of 1942, when F.D.R. used the term "United Nations" to identify not merely the allied coalition, but the legitimacy of a universal world order to come.

Nuclear weapons also changed the style of American strategy and diplomacy, as well as its objectives. Partly in response to nuclear ambiguity, Americans tentatively accepted a partly European approach to great power diplomacy. The early 1950s marked the emergence of a guiding guild of pragmatists who tried to manage America’s global commitment in a classical manner, while publicly genuflecting to the rhetoric of a progressive mission. They tended to see the United States as a mature great power, inheriting the mantle of Britain. America indeed took responsibility for the stability of the world system, but it could do so only by tempering its impulse toward moral absolutism.

At first the pragmatists believed that Americans might also be forced to live under a permanent war-mobilization. The West would have to mirror evil’s power to contain it successfully. The world of containment and NSC-68 was a dark one, almost Orwellian, where we would live on the edge of apocalypse for a generation, waiting out the Soviets. In this sense the neo-British metaphor hearkened to the 1930s, not the sunny climes of Victoria’s stewardship.

Eisenhower tried to leash the trend toward an American mission that would abridge ultimately the very values it sought to defend. Ike sought a "middle way": moderating defense expenditure while promoting a strategic doctrine that would skirt the tar pits of limited war. He recognized the danger that active containment would come to be seen as corrupting our national ethos. But his instrument of cultural moderation appeared immoderate. The "New Look" (NSC-162/2) quickly became "massive retaliation," an apparent prescription for atomic war. It was in any event evanescent, for it could survive politically only as long as it was not tested. As Americans became aware of their vulnerability to atomic attack, their acceptance of the threat of nuclear first use in support of crisis diplomacy became a political taboo.


The great postwar consensus was always more fragile than it appeared. It was finally riven over Vietnam. And Vietnam was the centerpiece of the Kennedy Administration, a buoyant reenactment of NSC-68 after eight years of Republican timidity. What Eisenhower had feared, Kennedy embraced. Everything seemed in place in 1961 for a testing of American mission: a resurgent economy, dominance in the nuclear balance and a fine-tuned, conscripted army. In contrast to 1950, the vantage of the new decade was infused with traditional American optimism. A permanent war-economy was unnecessary to contain communism. Americans could have both "guns and butter," and social reform at home would mirror our missionary energies abroad. An unsullied, supremely confident American ethos could go on a progressive offensive.

Vietnam can be seen as a flamboyant failure by the postwar pragmatists to apply their own historical vision. As an elite, they envisaged themselves as latter-day Foreign Office archons, guiding America’s way in the world. They were like Palmerston or Grey, modulating world affairs for good, but with realism and restraint. When they came into office they found an emotional allegiance among Americans to a progressive interpretation of national mission. It was this popular support that could be exploited in the pursuit of their strategic theories. The majority of Americans appeared to believe in a rigorous, "symmetrical" application of containment. So be it.

But their war went awry.

Intended as a kind of Yankee affirmation of the British imperial model, Vietnam soon was leashed by deeper native values. At first, the foreign and defense elite prosecuted a "brushfire war" as would Garnet Wolseley or Kitchener, but they did so with a draft army of civilians. The war could not, as in British experience, continue as long as was necessary. There was no tough, professional, all-but-impressed clutch of battle-hardened veteran regiments to battle the Ashanti or Zulu. Americans do not go to war unless it is a revolutionary, liberating, all-embracing struggle for reform. A coldly calculated exercise in great power diplomacy, playing with the lives of American boys, had always been taboo.

Worse, the war trampled upon the old myths of America itself. In Vietnam we were fighting like a corrupted European monarchy, insensitive to the squandered blood of our young men, pursuing objectives defined by a pseudoaristocratic elite. That this war was prosecuted by the party of reform and revolution (in recent mythic terms) and that its members developed the callous theories of "graduated response" and "signaling" only heightened the perception of corruption. The military was fighting the war, but a sinister band of academic and political sorcerers was pulling the strings.

It was the beginning of the end of the postwar world. In the process of defending the free world, the very values cherished by Americans (in contrast to their subjugation elsewhere) were diminished. It was inevitable tragedy to watch Lyndon Johnson (painted as an archetypal American) destroyed by the vanity that he could remain untarnished while aping empire; it was inevitable that we should also await the transmission of that corruption to us. Having essayed an imperial mission, what we did abroad had to come home.

Watergate only seemed to complete the prefigured denouement. It became an equally emotive symbol of America’s fall from grace, straight from the vision of our own ancestors. The patterns of an evil foreign policy had in fact clearly permeated the very fabric of American life, and the soul of our political institutions.

Although it was the Democratic pragmatists among the Washington elite who created Vietnam (and their indistinguishable Republican counterparts who extended the metaphor to domestic corruption), it was the progressive mission that suffered. Its calling was crippled. It had failed because Vietnam was presented as an authentic American vision—hardly as an imperial venture—and that vision had gone terribly wrong.

The mission-standard Americans had followed after 1950 was discredited. There was a resurgence of a traditional, even nativist American worldview, for the most part strongly puritanical. Its shamans sought to purge us of our sins, to bring those who had led America astray back to grace. The tide crested in 1972, when the "corrupt" within the Democratic Party were purged. Purifier values had suddenly, strongly reasserted themselves in the definition of American foreign policy.

Ultimately, nativisms of the left and right margins captured the center, and the center ceased to dominate. In foreign policy, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—both outsiders "running against Washington"—defined an authentic, even parochial sense of American mission, much to the horror of the foreign policy "community."

The pragmatic practitioners of the cold war foundered because they did not recognize the pervasive power of American myths, because they did not understand their own national ethos. They sought to emulate models that American people have characteristically found uncomfortable; worse, they practiced their arts without reference to the will of the people. Current pragmatic practitioners would do well to remember this.


Ironically, Vietnam brought us back more intently to the myth of World War II, to the restatement of the just war, or as Studs Terkel cunningly sensed, The Good War, that it represents. By the end of the 1970s Americans could imagine such a war fought only in the strict image of France under Nazi jackboot or Britain under Nazi blitz. But a rerun was conceptually impossible: a Soviet assault implied almost certain nuclear escalation. We would destroy ourselves to save ourselves. Deterrence might work, but there could be no just nuclear war.

The severe restriction of our conception of the just war and of the national interest during the 1970s was reinforced from without by a popular sense of major change in world conditions. This American perception of a changing world was used, however unconsciously, to underscore the traditional revision of national mythos.

First, the image of the enemy was gradually reduced to adversary, then to mere competitor. This process was in part a natural product of the selling of détente. It promised "a generation of peace," in itself a pernicious pledge. Far worse was its implicit revision of the Soviet-American confrontation. If, after an epoch standoff at the brink, old cold warriors could suddenly link arms over champagne, then why the years of nuclear strain?

Through the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, détente also revived the American purifier tradition of "peace reform." The old equation of peace through arms control and disarmament could be reestablished. The postwar truth of peace through strength then could be dismantled.

Second, world conditions as a whole seemed to have changed. The world system had been transformed again. What in 1945 had been beleaguered democracies were now healthy, powerful economies. Former enemies were now buttresses of the Western alliance. The vast colonial world was now the "developing world," calling itself the "Third World" between East and West.

America was reexamining its commitments to Western Europe and Japan. The dependence of their fat economies upon our defense began to look like usury to many Americans. Why, asked the most inflammatory, should we be saddled by perpetual strategic dependents who seemed intent on making us their economic dependents? Moreover, a young "Euro-generation" vocally equated the U.S. and Soviet states as morally equivalent. Why did the United States "pick up the bill" for defending Europe, and even go so far as to accept nuclear destruction in its defense, when its thronging demonstrators screamed that this was the last thing on their minds?

The Third World had once been the focus of our postwar proselytizing: we saw in the newly independent states of Africa and Asia the hope of the future. Americans were confident that they would trust us, for had we ever intentionally sought overseas colonies? Had we not been the instrument of postwar decolonization? We lavished foreign aid upon them and waited for them to become, in Jefferson’s phrase, little "eaglets" of the United States.

Instead, in the 1970s they turned on the United States. In the United Nations, in the form of the Group of 77, they took over the General Assembly and many U.N. agencies, and used the liberal forum of F.D.R. to attack America. The unfinished architecture of that dream of world order became the leasehold of squatters. The stature of the United Nations gave them an opportunity to promote their own local agendas and enhance their international standing—at America’s expense.

Many Americans accepted the public lashing. It was even embraced as a kind of deserved public punishment for recent crimes, a cleansing at the hands of world opinion. It did not matter that many of the regimes excoriating the United States were themselves tyrannies of the most loathsome sort. In Vietnam, America had lost the right to judge others. Indeed, taken to its extreme, liberal values ended by declaring that all value systems were equal, and that for the United States to force its beliefs on other cultures was the worst form of imperialism.

The American breast-beating of the late 1970s was less a rejection of fundamental national myths than a celebration of them in their original form. American exceptionalism, American perfection, America as a model for others—these were myths stained by a long episode of national intervention. Only by returning to traditional values could America be cleansed, and rediscover itself. Both national parties made this quest their theme in 1976 and 1980; although the Democrats couched this process in terms of universal human rights and the Republicans in terms of particular domestic values, the goal of national purification was, and is, shared.


Where does the American approach to the world stand in the 1980s? The dominant sense of American foreign policy behavior in this decade has been one of limitation. These limits can be described as a set of precepts, a rough chart of the ways domestic values are shaping foreign policy and national security:

—Traditional (pre-1939) attitudes about the nature of America’s relationship to the world coexist uneasily with postwar norms. Officially the United States is still committed to the defense of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. The ANZUS and Rio treaties are still on the books, barely. The United States still swears to defend its commitments with nuclear force if necessary. Both Democrats and Republicans still pay lip service to a grand strategic concept of containing Soviet power. But the visible superstructure of the postwar world is gone. No one today could certify the strength of American commitment to others, as they could not measure others’ ultimate fidelity to us.

—Major nativist lobbies in both the right and left wings of the major parties reinforce the sense that domestic political support of the postwar global mission continues to erode. There is a generalized belief that alliances remain stable only in the absence of crisis; but there is an equal apprehension that the continued absence of crisis also accelerates the process of dissolution.

—A pattern of American use of force has emerged during the last decade that implies very clear domestic limits on military action. The duration and scale of the response, and the political capital expended in doing anything military at all are advertisements to our adversaries. By choosing the time and place well, and by exploiting American public opinion, a skillful adversary can almost ensure American military abstention from regional crises.

—This emerging conviction on the part of friend and foe alike that American words are seldom backed by deeds creates a special pressure on U.S. diplomacy. Forceful diplomacy must be confined to the initial period after an election (which historically is the time when an American president is least capable of foreign policy assertion), when domestic political support should be greatest. Foreign perception of an American president’s strength is seen today as a function only of his electoral charisma.

—The collective "truths" that emerged from American wars are unchanged. In this sense the received truths of Vietnam do not in themselves constitute a rejection of World War II, and ultimately of the Civil War model. To the contrary, Vietnam has been incorporated into the larger body of American myth. Both purifiers and progressives join ranks in longing for the just war. But as World War II becomes even more mythic as its veterans pass on, its iconography seems ever more rigid and unbending. It is harder than ever for younger American generations to relate contemporary conditions to the world of the 1930s, and yet that world, threatened by Hitler and fascism, is the only setting in the picture of national myth legitimizing the just war.

Any effective use of American military force must forge a bond with World War II and its transcendental heroic imagery; but perceived world conditions today evoke no resonance. The gap between myth and its reassertion was vividly evoked in the 1984 film Red Dawn. The only way in which director John Milius could bridge the distance between mythic American wars and his vision of a contemporary just war was to force a situation so absurd as to negate the idea itself: a Soviet invasion of the United States from Mexico and Alaska! His artistic desperation mirrors a profound American dilemma.


These precepts describe only limits. How did these limits operate during the Reagan era?

To some, Ronald Reagan appeared an atavism, an unregenerate cold warrior (or musing hoplite) seeking to recapture a halcyon age of American dominance. Given that he was born at around the same time, one might suggest that he be painted as an aged Jack Kennedy. Certainly his campaign rhetoric in 1980 echoed J.F.K. on the stump in 1960.

But for all his talk, Reagan’s policies and programs reflect an emerging American nativism. At the end of his watch, Reagan has come to the arms control altar as eager as a Nixon or a Carter. Military force has been used, as it has been without exception since Vietnam, only when there has been no danger of escalation, only when such action could be limited in advance, and only where a sure escape route existed if things went sour. Reagan’s trumpeted nuclear buildup has yielded a minor cache compared to Kennedy’s majestic atomic arsenal. And his Strategic Defense Initiative frames an almost frantic appeal to a changing American worldview. The vision of strategic defense hearkens to an older, cherished picture of national security.

Weapons trumpeted for a cold war arsenal in 1981 have since been pitched in tones richly appealing to the old image of the "Shield of the Republic." Reagan has abetted an erosion of the postwar paradigm of containment at its foundation: extended deterrence. Serious strategic defenses deny the legitimacy of nuclear use, and readiness for nuclear use is extended deterrence. Although Reagan was yielding to a yearning among Americans to "escape the nuclear trap," the snare was laid less by the weapons themselves than by the ironclad resolve that they be used.

Ultimately, Reagan’s desire to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" is less important than his intent to do so. SDI reflects more than a generalized antinuclear yearning. It signals a renewed American urge, however latent, to revise the cold war commitments symbolized by nuclear use. Revision came with the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, but the terms had been couched years earlier. Remember, the "zero option" was Reagan’s; the call for weapons, Europe’s. Reagan’s initial zest as a progressive shows in the early bidding on strategic nuclear forces. The zest was gone by 1984.

It is quite clear that Reagan did not succeed in reasserting the postwar progressive mission. The United States undertook no offensives against tyranny; in contrast, the progressive image of America as champion of freedom was reduced to furtive arms smuggling to the mental rimlands of civilization, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan. In the places where we actually used military force, our late twentieth-century behavior began to mirror nineteenth-century antecedents: our Libyan raid evoking the Barbary Coast in 1804 and our Iranian combats the quasi war with France in 1799. In practical and popular terms, America’s armed forces had come again to protect Americans abroad. Their use might even be justified as necessary to uphold ancient liberal notions like the right of free passage at sea. But there has been no hint since 1980—not even in Reagan’s most expansive speeches—of another crusade.

If anything, Reagan’s exertions served to exhume the mythology of the American postwar progressive mission for examination, only to have the people reject it. If a single postulate could be found, a kind of core reality underpinning American attitudes about how we should approach the world, it is that the postwar world is over. This means three things.

First, Americans see a world different from the one to which we pledged our lives and fortunes in 1950. We fought and remained ready to fight through three generations to build a world out of our beliefs: a democratic free world. It paid off. The states of the West are rich and free, and appear to be in no danger. The so-called Third World has gone its own way. It is not necessarily a bad world, but it is not necessarily worth dying for.

Second, although many Americans would be willing to fight for values at the core of our national myth—the "American way of life"—we question whether these values are really threatened the way they were in 1941. The Soviet Union seems in serious decline. The threat has receded each year since 1981. In contrast, our allies promise to challenge the American way more than any rogue Leninist. So the need for sacrifice, too, is gone.

Third, if national values are no longer threatened at the center, as they were during the postwar era, then the danger is at the margins, in the Third World. Here in the galaxy of the American belief system are both good and bad states, people some want to help and societies some long to reform. Reagan sought to help rebels in Angola and Afghanistan and Nicaragua. His loyal opposition would do the same for dissident groups in South Africa. The impulse to intervene is the same. So are its limits. In contrast to the postwar era, the reasons for intervention now emerge from a domestic debate over the American identity and our national purpose. No longer do our allies rally to consensus calls for the defense of the free world.

What was left of the good-war-as-crusade died in Vietnam. Today, as in earlier times, the United States has its interests and the lives of its citizens to defend. We continue as well to call (according to domestic political stripe) for the nurturing of new "eaglets" in the Third World, as long as their suckling or succoring does not risk our own corruption.

The American approach to the world shifted after 1980. We simply have not yet surveyed the watershed.

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  • Michael Vlahos recently became Director of the Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
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