This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Presumably Putin’s Russia won’t be in a celebratory mood. The question is: should America be? While the former Warsaw Pact nations dropped their planned economies in search of fresh free-market identities, the collapse of communism failed to inspire a similar civilizational stock-taking on the part of the United States.
Might the past two decades—years fraught with wars of sanctions, occupations, and terror—have been different if it had? Precedent for paradigm-shifting change was at hand. A revolution in American foreign-policy thinking had followed the destruction of Nazi Germany; the old isolationism gave way to a rising liberal internationalism sustained by a powerful national-security state. The events of 1989 neither changed nor challenged that. Pentagonistas discovered, rather, a happy new lease on life in the Persian Gulf, the Balkan Peninsula, and elsewhere. The military mindset survived. Two decades on, this metaphorical American “wall” has yet to fall.
Some argue that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism made a post-Soviet peace dividend impossible. Yet even before 9/11, the U.S. reflexively sought monsters to destroy. In the early 1990s, a surging Asian economy alarmed both Wall and Main Streets, inspiring George Friedman and Meredith Lebard’s vexatious Coming War With Japan. Soon after, the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia elevated the Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosevic to Der Führer status in the West. “What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?” asked President Clinton as he sought to justify the intensive U.S.-led air assault on Milosevic’s forces. “How many people’s lives might have been saved, and how many American lives might have been saved?” Hundreds of Yugoslav civilians were killed in Clinton’s sortie war.
And the beat went on. Looking, as he put it, to “rid the world of the evildoers,” President George W. Bush put would-be nuclear-club crashers Iraq, Iran, and North Korea at the top of the country’s “most wanted” list.
In 1989, the intellectual mood went against any rethinking of American militarism. That summer, The National Interest published Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” a longue durée study contending that the ascent of political pluralism, market capitalism, and human rights prefaced a more peaceful world. The implosion of the Soviet empire appeared to make Fukuyama a prophet. But not everyone agreed. In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington projected a divided planet rocked by ethnic and religious violence.
Neither thesis proved conclusive. The Gulf War, radical Islam, and the de-liberalization of post-Yeltsin Russia seriously challenged Fukuyama’s claims, while Huntington’s compartmentalization of dynamic cultures into static categories such as the “Muslim World” or “Western Civilization” invited sharp criticism and failed to explain such geopolitical realities as the lack of clash in U.S.-Saudi relations or the advent of democracy in India, South Korea, and Turkey. More problematic, neither Fukuyama nor Huntington confronted the American leviathan. In their respective analyses, inevitability took over—a future of assured peace in Fukuyama’s case, a future of assured conflict in Huntington’s. This let the U.S. empire off the hook. Either America led the way toward greater global ideological accord or it needed to circle the wagons and wait for the coming Chinese and Islamic challenges to popular government.
In retrospect, neither “The End of History” nor “The Clash of Civilizations” prepared the United States for the post-Cold War world. Yet a reliable school of creative thinkers existed—even if it did include a dead apostate or two. In the works of historians Charles Beard (1874-1948), William Appleman Williams (1921-90), and Christopher Lasch (1932-94) a cohesive assessment of the American predicament emerged. These scholars—connected by their common midwestern anti-metropolitanism and suspicion of capitalism, as well as a hostility to liberal internationalism—created a counter historiography that challenged their country’s injurious embrace of consumerism, militarism, and imperialism.
A native of Knightstown, Indiana, Beard was perhaps the most important American historian of the 20th century. His research on the economic origins of the Constitution, historical relativism, and U.S. foreign policy continues to spark interest and debate. After assailing Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy, however, he became a pariah in his profession. His book President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (1948) infuriated historians who rejected its now generally accepted premise that FDR promised peace—“I’m not going to send your boys to fight in foreign wars,” he assured Bostonians just six days before the 1940 election—while moving behind the scenes to challenge the Axis powers.
A number of influential East and West Coast scholars sharply denounced Beard. Stanford historian Thomas Bailey wrote that his book constituted “a disgraceful mishandling of the evidence. One is forced to ask one’s self whether the author is a dolt or intellectually dishonest. … Beard is guilty of suppressing facts, hand-picking others, overstepping others, and misrepresenting still others—for all of which shysterism we would flunk the dissertation of a Ph.D. candidate in history.” Bailey had his own facts down cold—“we must ‘sell’ democracy vigorously, even militantly,” he wrote in a popular study on U.S.-Soviet relations.
Harvard’s Samuel Eliot Morison used his 1950 American Historical Association presidential address, “Faith of a Historian,” to scold Beard for failing to ready his countrymen for combat. Beard, he argued, “taught that no war was necessary and no war did any good. … It only rendered the generation of youth which came to maturity in 1940 spiritually unprepared for the war they had to fight.” In effect, Morison called upon historians to produce scholarship sympathetic to the nation’s emerging Cold War needs—and to marginalize those heretical colleagues who challenged the new foreign-policy consensus.
A self-described “American from the wilds of Indiana,” Beard’s midwestern isolationism clashed with Morison’s Boston-Brahmin internationalism. Disillusioned by World War I, Beard had broken intellectually from an imperial mindset long before FDR’s presidency. In a perceptive 1925 essay that appeared in The Nation—“War With Japan: What Shall We Get Out of It?”—he referenced the recent passage of the Exclusion Act, which barred Asian immigration into the U.S. and provoked the press on both sides of the Pacific to issue op-ed calls to arms. No doubt American racial anxieties contributed to the law, but Beard detected a more complex and widely embraced imperial apparatus at work. The “Big Navy Boys” in Washington, he maintained, looked to enlarge their service’s prestige and importance, organized labor hoped to use anti-Japanese propaganda to secure a preference for white workers, and ultra-patriots anticipated pushing “national and Christian virtues” around the globe. “All these [interests],” Beard wrote, “could be easily held in check by a President and a State Department really bent on peace with honor.” But the will simply wasn’t there. Instead, Americans masked their global ambitions in a self-deceptive piety—they fought, he concluded, a “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”
In 1947, the year before Beard’s death, the controversial historian William Appleman Williams completed a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. More than any other scholar, he advanced the Beardian critique of empire into the postwar period. Born in tiny Atlantic, Iowa, Williams warmly recalled growing up with “people who had community values at the center of their lives … [people] who turned the soil and harvest[ed] the crops [and] met others who sold and fixed the tools of the farm…” A World War II veteran, he arrived at the University of Wisconsin at a vital intellectual moment. For among the scholars in the history department were the distinguished early Americanist Merrill Jensen, the historian of the American peace movement Merle Curti, and the foreign-policy expert—and future UW president—Fred Harvey Harrington. All were Beardians. As Harrington later remembered, “Bill made his reputation advocating an economic interpretation of foreign policy. But when he arrived, he was in no sense economic. We fed him Charles Beard, which is the core of his work.”
The University of Wisconsin had also once been the academic home of the iconic historian of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, whose influence still lingered in Madison. Like many scholars, Williams’s education was shaped by Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), which famously concluded, “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”
Williams was interested in the foreign-policy implications of Turner’s thesis. If the closing of the frontier meant the death of American development, then did survival demand an overseas imperium? “He would be a rash prophet,” wrote Turner, “who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased.” Five years later, the U.S. declared war on Spain, took its Philippine possessions, and became a Pacific player.
Armed with a provocative mix of Turnerianism and Beardianism, Williams rewrote the history of American foreign relations. Most notably, his disquieting The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) rattled the cage of the foreign-policy establishment and its apologists. While they uncritically declared a militarized containment of communism to be a new and perhaps temporary phase in U.S. history, Williams dissented. The Monroe Doctrine, after all, had long ago deemed European ideologies incompatible with the free politics of the New World—and proposed to “contain” aristocracy in the Old. More generally, Tragedy resisted Henry Luce’s jingoistic call for an American Century. Instead, its author denied his country the moral high ground, insisting that economics rather than idealism drove its diplomacy. He shared, in other words, Beard’s belief that capitalism’s endless appetite for markets agitated the international scene. In doing so, Williams audaciously challenged his country’s sense of self-identity. “‘Isolationism’ for America,” he wrote, “is a denial of its entire cultural tradition of expansion and empire.” Imperialism had become “a way of life.”
Frustration shaped Williams’s work. In 1945—as in 1989—there arose an opportunity (also missed) for the U.S. to redefine itself as something other than a global hegemon. A similar discontent rippled through the oeuvre of his sometime correspondent, the cultural critic Christopher Lasch. An Omaha native and son of Robert Lasch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and opponent of the Vietnam War, Christopher trafficked in a tradition of populistic and progressive era politics. He impugned liberalism as frankly elitist and impulsively hostile to “the positive features of petty-bourgeois culture: its moral realism, its understanding that everything has its price, its respect for limits, its skepticism about progress.” It was this skepticism—of laissez faire, of a consumer utopia, and of America’s presumptive moral right to remake the world—that established his connections to Beard and Williams.
In his most ambitious book, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, Lasch described an American politics in paralysis. Both New Deal liberals and Reagan Republicans shared a common commitment to ever higher standards of living. And this required a divided world’s cooperation. Such prospects looked increasingly dicey. “Our twentieth-century experience of imperial rivalries, international competition for markets, and global wars,” Lasch wrote, “makes it hard for us to share the Enlightenment convictions that capitalism would promote world peace.” Yet the illusion of “progress” persisted. The shock Americans experienced on 9/11 is an indictment of how little they comprehended the implications of their global imprint, both economically and militarily.
More than a critic, Lasch—along with his midwestern predecessors—offered various responses to the nation’s predicament. Beard called for an American continentalism content with hemispheric self-sufficiency, while Williams counseled for the rejection of a militaristic “weltanschauung” that sought “to establish and maintain the American Way as the global status quo.” With greater specificity, Lasch showed that an alternative tradition to the consumer-imperial state existed in the United States. He drew a discernable line connecting the republican realism of the founding generation with the Populist revolt of the late 19th century and the artisan labor unions of the 20th. These and many other political, spiritual, and class expressions of a native anti-utopianism, Lasch contended, offered a patriot’s hope for a different path.
Yet they have made little impact. The national purpose keeps investing in one last crusade to bring about a peace millennium that never comes. The Spanish-American War led to a protracted debate over the U.S. role in the Pacific, which culminated disastrously at Pearl Harbor; Wilson’s “war to make the world safe for democracy” contributed to the rise of fascism and communism; World War II gave way to two major Asian wars fought within a broader stand-off with the Soviet Union. The second of those conflicts, in Vietnam, did raise the specter of superpower overexpansion, but ultimately contributed to a fresh round of militarization and the country’s avid desire, as George H.W. Bush put it, to “kick the Vietnam Syndrome at last.”
Perhaps, in the end, the peace dividend is the war dividend. The military-industrial complex offers the only way of life that many of us have ever known. It has come to define not merely American identity but American destiny.
Yet the price we are paying as a nation has become too high to ignore. A trillion dollar defense budget and a series of undeclared wars challenge the Republic. A homeland-security state that permits law-enforcement agencies to search the phone records, e-mail communications, and medical and financial records of its citizens compromises the very freedoms it purports to protect.
Thinking back about what a Beard, a Williams, or a Lasch might have to say about our new century of terror, a few ideas come to mind. Americans might do well to question how they define progress; to stop confusing standard of living with standard of materialism; to hold their government accountable for the policies it pursues in their names; to call for an end to the permanent war economy; and to demonstrate faith that their nation can thrive outside a hyperpower framework. The Republic awaits our reply.
Then again, we have been down this well-intentioned path to perdition before. Twenty years ago, in the Cold War’s dying days, Mikhail Gorbachev grandly announced, “the world is leaving one epoch and entering another, we are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era.” Thus did posterity record the false hopes and broken promises of 1989—the “miracle year.” Happy anniversary.
David Brown is the author of Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing and Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. He teaches history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.