Home/Daniel Larison/More Shoddy Interventionist History

More Shoddy Interventionist History

There can hardly be a more “pro-American” foreign policy than that espoused by America’s Founding Fathers. The guiding principles and actions of early U.S. foreign policy are a powerful testament to America’s commitment to securing liberty at home and prudently defending it abroad. America was the leading country in the world supporting the cause of republican self-government for the Latin American republics in 1821, Greece in 1823, and Hungary in 1848. ~Marion Smith

On two of these, this is damning with faint praise, and in the case of Greece it is not true. There is much wrong with Smith’s article, but this abuse of history is perhaps the most annoying. When Latin American republics were breaking away from Spain, and when Hungary was rising against the Habsburgs in 1848, there was no other independent state that expressed much in the way of support for their causes. After the Napoleonic Wars, the European Great Powers were actively hostile to any republican or liberal rebellion, and there were no other republics of any consequence that might have sympathized with them. It also hardly needs to be said that American support for these rebellions was purely moral and rhetorical, and involved absolutely no involvement of the United States government. All that the Monroe Doctrine sought to ensure was that there would be no attempt to impose Restoration governments in those Latin American republics that had achieved their independence. In practice, this required the U.S. to do nothing, because there was never any attempt to bring the Restoration era to Central and South America. The Hungarian rebellion was crushed by Russian intervention.

In the case of Greece, whose war for independence began in 1821, the Great Powers were initially wary of supporting a liberal nationalist revolution in Europe, but because it was directed against the Ottomans first the Russians, and then gradually the British and French lent the Greek cause some support. Indeed, without the joint intervention of the three powers’ fleets against the Ottoman navy, it is doubtful that the Greek Revolution would have succeeded. It was their support that secured Greek independence. American sympathy was all very well, but it once again had absolutely nothing to do with the policy of the government, and it had essentially no impact on the outcome of the war.

Smith is simply wrong in finding precedents in the “guiding principles and actions” of the Founders for the sor of interventionism his article implicitly endorses. Neutrality was the established and traditional policy of the United States until 1917. Attempts to find examples of the U.S. government “defending liberty abroad” before then are strained and inevitably misleading.

P.S. Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War contains many interesting details. One of these was that U.S. public opinion was generally in favor of the Russians during the war with Britain, France, and the Ottomans, and that there were even some American volunteers who fought on the Russian side. In fact, the U.S. went so far as to send military officers to advise the Russians, which was more than Washington ever did for the Hungarians. Contrary to the shoddy reasoning Smith employs, this does not show a traditional American preference for supporting Orthodox autocracy against its Western enemies.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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