“National Interest” and Noninterventionism in 40s-50s

The concept of America’s “national interest” is one of the main arguments warfare-state politicians use to justify sending American troops all over the world at such an enormous cost. But what is America’s true national interest? Perhaps America is spending a lot of money on a plan that does not actually pursue national interest. George Lundberg, a prominent sociologist who served as the 33rd president of the American Sociological Society, wondered if the American foreign policy he was seeing in the 1940s and early 1950s was in the country’s true national interest. Lundberg wrote an essay in 1953 called “American Foreign Policy in the Light of National Interest at the Mid-Century” to voice his concerns. He found that America had gone from a foreign policy of strategic non-interventionism to one dominated by a powerful executive who disregards the pubic and uses propaganda to increase his own powers.

The United States has a long history of non-intervention. Lundberg describes this long-standing policy as “continentalism.” The idea was that America would develop its own civilization on its own terms, independent of foreign opinions and influences. Lundberg explains: “Concretely, the policy meant non-intervention in the controversies and wars of Europe and Asia and resistance to the intrusion of European and Asiatic power systems and imperial ambitions into the Western Hemisphere (Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Barnes, p 576).” This did not necessarily mean the U.S. would never intervene in any conflict, but it would never do so without regard to national interest. President Washington advocated for the strength of the U.S. military to ensure it could “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall council (ibid.).” The potency of this strategic non-interventionism was that it enabled delayed response, what Lundberg calls “the capacity to take into consideration aspects of the environment relatively remote in time and space (p 580).”

By the middle of the 20th century, American foreign policy was dominated by a stupendously powerful executive, supported by a bipartisan foreign policy consensus resembling one-party rule. Lundberg argues that the U.S. government multiplied its powers by disregarding public opinion and using propaganda to gain fraudulent support for those powers. He cites the examples of the World Wars, both of which had very little support from the American public. Wilson won his re-election campaign in 1916 on the slogan of “He kept us out of war.” Roosevelt publicly proclaimed to be against American intervention in World War II to keep up with public sentiment (p 612). But it was also a fraud; he was secretly planning intervention at the same time as his public statements against it.

The result of this power-grab by the U.S. government during the World Wars was an unprecedented tax burden to fund intervention and what Lundberg calls “the Fuhrer knows best” principle of foreign policy. The U.S. executive was asking Americans to embrace the Fuhrer principle with regard to itself at the very time that it was supposedly fighting this principle abroad. Lundberg described the unprecedented tax burden of the Truman Administration: “The administrations of all Presidents from George Washington through Franklin D. Roosevelt, including two World Wars, the Civil War, the War of 1812, collected $248,000,000,000 of taxes. President Truman’s administration in a few years has levied $12,000,000,000 more, the fantastic total of $260,000,000,000 (p 598-599).” Perhaps this is what the politicians mean by “national interest.”

Lundberg, George A. “American Foreign Policy in the Light of National Interest at the Mid-Century.” In Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. Ed. Harry Elmer Barnes. Ostara Publications, 1953. 555-626.

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1 Comment to ““National Interest” and Noninterventionism in 40s-50s”

  1. By Valentine Anthony, August 31, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

    This is an interesting and informative article by the author Brian Gabriel. It answers my question Whose interest is National Interest?, which is a thematic concept in International Relations Syllabus in universities vis-a-vis in International Relations.

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