Walking through the aisles of a Barnes and Noble yesterday I glanced at the cover and blurb for the newest novel by Dale Brown. A former member of the U.S. Air Force, Captain Brown’s newest work, Iron Wolf details the fictional machinations of Russia in Eastern Europe, and the dedication of a few brave Americans, and their Eastern European allies, to stop them. In the middle is the current American president, the first woman to hold office, who is unsure of how to handle the burgeoning foreign policy crisis. Oh, and I forgot the part about the use of manned drones by the heroes in the book. The book’s premise brought back memories of my reading habits as a teenager and young adult. As a young man growing up after the Cold War, I read quite a few of these books. Looking back, I begin to think about what those books said about an American society struggling to deal with a post-Cold War world.
I am at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans, a place I had never been to before–and yes, the food and drink are outstanding. I am here ostensibly to present a paper on a project that the Academy of American Franciscan History has sponsored as part of a book series. My book is on Franciscans and the culture they created through media. The panel went well, but more on that topic (again) some other time.
I attended an excellent panel Friday morning (at 8:30) entitled “Christian Origins of the American Century,” chaired by MSU’s Malcolm Magee and commented on by Andrew Preston of Cambridge. The panelists were all very strong and young and well-spoken. In short, the panel was a great success. I want to give a brief review of it because the panel demonstrates, as Preston observed, all the great work that has been done religion and American foreign policy, and the great amount of work still needed to be done.
The panel’s creator was a Cara Burnidge, who is working on a book that deals with how World War I and the debate over the League of Nations offered Protestants opportunities to establish specific religious positions on the role the United States would play after the war. Among the most interesting insights Burnidge offered was the battle over the kinds of Biblicism Protestant church leaders, and leading politicians such at Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson brought to bear on competing visions of an American foreign policy. In short, each historical actor believed that the war and the fight over the League revealed who had a “true” vision of Christianity. Burnidge emphasized that this battle took place well-before historians typically peg the schism in evangelical and fundamentalist thought–the Scopes Trial is at least five years after the debates over the League take place. And so she sees clear signs of a fracturing among Protestants over international affairs before domestic events take center stage.
The second paper came from Mark Edwards, a friend of this blog, who regularly offers sharp comments to our many posts, and who is the author of The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism. Mark’s paper was on the little known (though not for long) Protestant polymath Francis Pickens Miller, whose writing on totalitarian nationalism and the need for unified Christian front as a countervailing force, anticipated by a decade the work and pronouncements of his much better-known contemporaries, Reinhold Niebuhr and John Foster Dulles. Mark is looking specifically at how Miller worked through the Council on Foreign Relations to help shape a Christian response to horrors of World War II and Soviet Communism. For me, Mark brings a great deal more context to the development of Niebuhr’s thinking–in fact, Mark has a hunch that Miller understood where Niebuhr was headed with Christian realism before the great man did himself. Mark has begun to marshall a set of sources that will, it seems to me, be a definitive look at the way religion played a fundamental role in the shaping of foreign policy in the 1940s and 1950s, and not merely as I and others have argued, as a set of assumptions and almost rhetorical arguments for opposing Communism and framing war.
The third presenter was Caitlin Carenen from Eastern Connecticut State University whose new book is strong and timely, The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel. The title states what Carenen’s significant contribution is: she illustrates how *liberal Protestants* played a role in the formation of and support for the state of Israel. Thus, this is not simply a story about fundamentalists and evangelicals using Israel for domestic consumption and foreign policy leverage. Among the great revelations of Carenen’s work is her well-documented campaigns by the American Christian Palestine Committee (ACPC) to convince liberal Protestants that supporting the state of Israel and its ownership of Jerusalem made sense. While the reasons for such support might sound obvious–Christian guilt over the Holocaust and geo-political calculations about the region–the ACPC still had its work cut-out for it when trying to convince groups of Protestants that Jews had a legitimate claim to statehood in the Middle East.
All three papers were really well-delivered–something that I know we all can appreciate. The comments provided by Andy Preston demonstrated why he is simply one of the best historians of modern America today. Preston has written a big book on religion and American foreign relations, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. It is the first full length look at the interaction between religion and American foreign policy to appear. And because Preston is a fine writer, it is a persuasive and genre-setting work. His comments were generous and specific but I want to conclude with the one that is most revealing and pertinent to me. Preston asked, quite justifiably, in these Christian origins of the American century, where are the Catholics? Indeed, none of the papers took up this angle, though, admittedly, none of the authors claimed they would. However, the absence of mention of Catholics in the presentations suggests that work needs to be done on not merely the general integration of religion in the history of American foreign policy and war, but the also integration of Catholics into it. This is not to say that the topic is completely overlooked but I expect we will see studies in the coming years that bring Catholics into debates over the League of Nations, the alliance system of the early cold war, and the creation and support of Israel, among other topics. I know I will contribute to that discussion in someway…perhaps with something on Richard John Neuhaus.
In light of the good comments my post on Andrew Bacevich received (and I am always grateful for the response we get here at this blog), I wanted to highlight the role conservatism might play in assessing recent American history with war. I just read a great review essay by Robert Westbrook in Raritan about the legacy of anti-interventionism in the context of the American Century. Westbrook’s initial focus is a book entitled Ain’t My America: the Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Kauffman might also be known by his blog: “Front Porch Republic.” Westbrook and Kauffman are neighbors (a town apart) in upstate New York. And, as Westbrook notes, they share similar leanings in their critique of American adventurism abroad. Kauffman regards himself as a protector of a certain kind of conservatism that, he argues vigorously in many books and essays, has been undermined by a very dangerous impostor. Westbrook writes, “For [Kauffman], nothing is less conservative than the quest for empire, a quest that threatens everything that a genuine American conservative would hope to preserve. Conservatism–love of the traditional, the local, the small, the modest–has been highjacked by power-hungry ideologues whose immodest, abstract, global ambitions are at least the equal of those liberals they assail.” In short, Kauffman asks: what is conservative about invading Iraq?
Westbrook is generous to his neighbor but critical of Kauffman’s limited vision of conservatism and, even more, of his inability to get to the heart of the matter. Kauffman wants to protect the homeland by decrying imperialism abroad. Fair enough, but such an argument lumps Kauffman in with some curious company–making Pat Buchanan middle-of-the-road. Moreover, Kauffman’s wistful vision harkens back to an era that is simply gone. Westbrook notes: “Indeed, one the most important consequences of World War II for the American moral imagination was the complete displacement by war’s end of the anti-interventionists’ narrow, ‘continentalist’ conceptions of ‘national defense’ by their opponents’ expansive, ‘globalist’ conceptions of ‘national security’ and democratic obligation–conceptions that remain dominant to this day.” Westbrook wrote about this transition from another angle in is a great brief volume of essays entitled, Why We Fought” Forging American Obligations in World War II.
Westbrook contends that there was, of course, a very vigorous and legitimate debate to be had over the transition hastened by World War II. And while that debate was won by great persuaders such as Henry Luce and intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann, it is worth considering a statement historian Charles Beard made in response to the “ornate, glistening, masculine words” of the champions of the American Century.
He explained that those Americans who resisted rushing into wars the world over did “not propose to withdraw from the world, but…propose[d] to deal with the world as it is and not as romantic propagandists picture it…America is not to be Rome or Britain,” Beard declared, “it is to be America.”
Westbrook seems to share the cautious, perhaps humble sentiments of Beard and, by extension, Kauffman and Andrew Bacevich (with whom Kauffman at times shares a stage in debates against neoconservatives). Yet Westbrook also distinguishes between those who echo the arguments made by the America First Committee and its successors, and those who understood the exceptional nature of World War II. In short, sometimes America needs to intervene in the world, despite the cost and sacrifice. And while Westbrook sympathizes with the instincts of Beard, Kauffman, and Bacevich, he also wonders what new ideology would replace the one that has existed since Luce’s vision of an American Century. Decrying the mistakes of the past has clearly not been enough to bring that vision to an end. What we need to ask is what will replace it?