Home/The Repository/What Are the Purposes
of a Foreign Policy?

What Are the Purposes
of a Foreign Policy?

No one can think intelligently on the many complicated problems of American foreign policy unless he decides first what he considers the real purpose and object of that policy. In the letters which I receive from all parts of the country I find a complete confusion in the minds of the people as to our purposes in the world — and therefore scores of reasons which often seem to me completely unsound or inadequate for supporting or opposing some act of the government. Confusion has been produced because there has been no consistent purpose in our foreign policy for a good many years past. In many cases the reason stated for some action — and blazoned forth on the radio to secure popular approval — has not been the real reason which animated the administration.

Fundamentally, I believe the ultimate purpose of our foreign policy must be to protect the liberty of the United States. The American Revolution was fought to establish a nation “conceived in liberty.” That liberty has been defended in many wars since that day. That liberty has enabled our people to increase steadily their material welfare and their spiritual freedom. To achieve that liberty we have gone to war, and to protect it we would go to war again.

Only second to liberty is the maintenance of peace. The results of war may be almost as bad as the destruction of liberty and, in fact, may lead, even if the war is won, to something very close to the destruction of liberty at home. War not only produces pitiful human suffering and utter destruction of many things worthwhile, but it is almost as disastrous for the victor as for the vanquished. From our experience in the last two world wars, it actually promotes dictatorship and totalitarian government throughout the world. Much of the glamor has gone from it, and war today is murder by machine. World War II killed millions of innocent civilians as well as those in uniform and in many countries wiped out the product of hundreds of years of civilization. Two hundred and fifty thousand American boys were killed in World War II and hundreds of thousands permanently maimed or disabled, their lives often completely wrecked. Millions of families mourn their losses. War, undertaken even for justifiable purposes, such as to punish aggression in Korea, has often had the principal results of wrecking the country intended to be saved and spreading death and destruction among an innocent civilian population. Even more than Sherman knew in 1864, “war is hell.” War should never be undertaken or seriously risked except to protect American liberty.

Our traditional policy of neutrality and non-interference with other nations was based on the principle that this policy was the best way to avoid disputes with other nations and to maintain the liberty of this country without war. From the days of George Washington that has been the policy of the United States. It has never been isolationism; but it has always avoided alliances and interference in foreign quarrels as a preventive against possible war, and it has always opposed any commitment by the United States, in advance, to take any military action outside of our territory. It would leave us free to interfere or not interfere according to whether we consider the case of sufficiently vital interest to the liberty of this country. It was the policy of the free hand.

I have always felt, however, that we should depart from this principle if we could set up an effective international organization, because in the long run the success of such an organization should be the most effective assurance of world peace and therefore of American peace. I regretted that we did not join the League of Nations.

We have now taken the lead in establishing the United Nations. The purpose is to establish a rule of law throughout the world and protect the people of the United States by punishing aggression the moment it starts and deterring future aggression through joint action of the members of such an organization.

I think we must recognize that this involves the theory of a preventive war, a dangerous undertaking at any time. If, therefore, we are going to join in such an organization it is essential that it be effective. It must be a joint enterprise. Our Korean adventure shows the tremendous danger, if the new organization is badly organized or improperly supported by its members and by the public opinion of the people of the world.

The United Nations has failed to protect our peace, I believe, because it was organized on an unsound basis with a veto power in five nations and is based, in fact, on the joint power of such nations, effective only so long as they agree. I believe the concept can only be successful if based on a rule of law and justice between nations and willingness on the part of all nations to abide by the decisions of an impartial tribunal.

The fact that the present organization has largely failed in its purpose has forced us to use other means to meet the present emergency, but there is no reason to abandon the concept of collective security which, by discouraging and preventing the use of war as a national policy, can ultimately protect the liberty of the people of the United States and enforce peace.



I do not believe it is a selfish goal for us to insist that the overriding purpose of all American foreign policy should be the maintenance of the liberty and the peace of the people of the United States, so that they may achieve that intellectual and material improvement which is their genius and in which they can set an example for all peoples. By that example we can do an even greater service to mankind than we can by billions of material assistance — and more than we can ever do by war.

Just as our nation can be destroyed by war it can also be destroyed by a political or economic policy at home which destroys liberty or breaks down the fiscal and economic structure of the United States. We cannot adopt a foreign policy which gives away all of our people’s earnings or imposes such a tremendous burden on the individual American as, in effect, to destroy his incentive and his ability to increase production and productivity and his standard of living. We cannot assume a financial burden in our foreign policy so great that it threatens liberty at home.

It follows that except as such policies may ultimately protect our own security, we have no primary interest as a national policy to improve conditions or material welfare in other parts of the world or to change other forms of government. Certainly we should not engage in war to achieve such purposes. I don’t mean to say that, as responsible citizens of the world, we should not gladly extend charity or assistance to those in need. I do not mean to say that we should not align ourselves with the advocates of freedom everywhere. We did this kind of thing for many years, and we were respected as the most disinterested and charitable nation in the world.

But the contribution of supplies to meet extraordinary droughts or famine or refugee problems or other emergencies is very different from a global plan for general free assistance to all mankind on an organized scale as part of our foreign policy. Such a plan, as carried out today, can only be justified on a temporary basis as part of the battle against communism, to prevent communism from taking over more of the world and becoming a still more dangerous threat to our security. It has been undertaken as an emergency measure. Our foreign policy in ordinary times should not be primarily inspired by the motive of raising the standard of living of millions throughout the world, because that is utterly beyond our capacity. I believe it is impossible with American money, or other outside aid to raise in any substantial degree the standard of living of the millions throughout the world who have created their own problems of soil destruction or overpopulation. Fundamentally, I doubt if the standard of living of any people can be successfully raised to any appreciable degree except by their own efforts. We can advise; we can assist, if the initiative and the desire and the energy to improve themselves is present. But our assistance cannot be a principal motive for foreign policy or a justification for going to war.

We hear a great deal of argument that if we do not deliberately, as part of a world welfare program, contribute to the raising of standards of living of peoples with low income they will turn Communist and go to war against us. Apart from such emergency situations as justified the Marshall Plan, following World War II, I see no evidence that this is true. Recent wars have not been started by poverty-stricken peoples, as in China or India, but by prosperous peoples, as in a Germany led by dictators. The standard of living in China or India could be tripled and yet would still be so far below the United States that the Communists could play with equal force on the comparative hardships the people were suffering. Communism is stronger today in France and Italy than in India, though the standard of living and distribution is infinitely better in the first two countries.

However, I think as a general incident to our policy of protecting the peace and liberty of the people of the United States it is most important that we prevent the building up of any great resentment against the success and the wealth which we have achieved. In other words, I believe that our international trade relations should be scrupulously fair and generous and should make it clear to the other peoples of the world that we intend to be fair and generous.

For the same reason, and as a contribution to the world economic progress, I believe that some program like the Point Four program is justified to a limited extent, even if the Russian threat were completely removed. I supported the general project of a loan to Brazil to enable that country to build up a steel industry to use the natural resources which are available there. I believe that the policy not only assisted the development of that country in some degree but that in the long run it contributed to the growth of trade between Brazil and the United States and therefore to our own success in that field. But such programs should be sound economic projects, for the most part undertaken by private enterprise. Any United States government contribution is in the nature of charity to poor countries and should be limited in amount. We make no such contribution to similar projects in the United States. It seems to me that we should not undertake any such project in such as way as to make it a global plan for sending Americans all over the world in unlimited number to find projects upon which American money can be spent. We ought only to receive with sympathy any application from these other nations and give it fair consideration.

Nor do I believe we can justify war by our natural desire to bring freedom to others throughout the world, although it is perfectly proper to encourage and promote freedom. In 1941 President Roosevelt announced that we were going to establish a moral order throughout the world: freedom of speech and expression, “everywhere in the world”; freedom to worship God “everywhere in the world”; freedom from want, and freedom from fear “everywhere in the world.” I pointed out then that the forcing of any special brand of freedom and democracy on a people, whether they want it or not, by the brute force of war will be a denial of those very democratic principles which we are striving to advance.

The impracticability of such a battle was certainly shown by the progress of World War II. We were forced into an alliance with Communist Russia. I said on June 25, 1941, “To spread the four freedoms throughout the world we will ship airplanes and tanks and guns to Communist Russia. If, through our aid, Stalin is continued in power, do you suppose he will spread the four freedoms through Finland and Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania? Do you suppose that anybody in Russia itself will ever hear of the four freedoms after the war?” Certainly if World War II was undertaken to spread freedom throughout the world it was a failure. As a matter of fact, Franklin Roosevelt never dared to go to war for that purpose, and we only went to war when our own security was attacked at Pearl Harbor.



There are a good many Americans who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world. They rightly point out that the United States is so powerful today that we should assume a moral leadership in the world to solve all the troubles of mankind. I quite agree that we need that moral leadership not only abroad but also at home. We can take the moral leadership in trying to improve the international organization for peace. I think we can take leadership in the providing of example and advice for the improvement of material standards of living throughout the world. Above all, I think we can take the leadership in proclaiming the doctrines of liberty and justice and in impressing on the world that only through liberty and law and justice, and not through socialism or communism, can the world hope to obtain the standards which we have attained in the United States. Our leaders can at least stop apologizing for the American system, as they have been apologizing for the past 15 years.

If we confine our activities to the field of moral leadership we shall be successful if our philosophy is sound and appeals to the people of the world. The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. They are inspired with the same kind of New Deal planned-control ideas abroad as recent administrations have desired to enforce at home. In their hearts they want to force on these foreign people through the use of American money and even, perhaps, American arms the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles and the force of its persuasion. I do not think this moral leadership ideal justifies our engaging in any preventive war, or going to the defense of one country against another, or getting ourselves into a vulnerable fiscal and economic position at home which may invite war. I do not believe any policy which has behind it the threat of military force is justified as part of the basic foreign policy of the United States except to defend the liberty of our own people.



In order to justify a lend-lease policy or the Atlantic Pact program for mutual aid and for arming Europe in time of peace or the Marshall Plan or the Point Four program beyond a selective and limited extent, any such program must be related to the liberty of the United States. Our active partisanship in World War II was based on the theory that a Hitler victory would make Germany a serious threat to the liberty of the United States. I did not believe that Germany would be such a threat, particularly after Hitler brought Russia into the war, and that is the reason I opposed the war policy of the administration from the elections of 1940 to the attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The more recent measures for Marshall Plan aid on a global scale—and to the extent of billions of dollars of American taxpayers’ money—and the Atlantic Pact arms program are and must be based on the theory that Russia today presents a real threat to the security of the United States.

While I may differ on the extent of some of these measures, I agree that there is such a threat. This is due principally to the facts that air power has made distances so short and the atomic bomb has made air power so potentially effective that Russia today could do what Hitler never could do—inflict serious and perhaps crippling injury on our cities and on our industrial plants and the other production resources which are so essential to our victory in war.

Furthermore, the Russians combine with great military and air power a fanatical devotion to communism not unlike that which inspired the Moslem invasion of Europe in the Middle Ages. The crusading spirit makes possible a fifth-column adjunct to military attack which adds tremendously to the power and danger of Russian aggression. The Russian threat has become so serious today that in defense of the liberty and peace of the people of the United States I think we are justified in extending economic aid and military aid to many countries, but only when it can be clearly shown in each case that such aid will be an effective means of combating Communist aggression. We have now felt it necessary in order to protect the liberty of the United States against an extraordinary special threat to adopt a policy which I do not believe should be considered as part of any permanent foreign policy. We have been forced into this not only because of the power of Soviet Russia but because the United Nations has shown that it is wholly ineffective under its present charter. The new temporary policy may be outlined as follows:

1. We have had to set up a much larger armed force than we have ever had to do before in time of peace, in order to meet the Communist threat. I believe this effort should be directed particularly toward a development of an all-powerful air force.

2. We have had to adopt as a temporary measure the policy of extending economic and military aid to all those countries which, with the use of such aid, can perhaps prevent the extension of Russian military power or Russian or Communist influence. We have backed that up by announcing definitely to Russia that if it undertakes aggression against certain countries whose independence is important to us it will find itself at war with us. This is a kind of Monroe Doctrine for Europe.

3. We have had to adopt a policy of military alliances to deter, at least, the spread of Communist power. To control sea and air throughout the world, the British alliance is peculiarly important. Again, we hope that with the decline of Russian power and the re-establishment of an international organization for peace such alliances may be unnecessary.

I opposed that feature of the Atlantic Pact which looked toward a commitment of the United States to fight a land war on the continent of Europe and therefore opposed, except to a limited degree, the commitment of land troops to Europe. Except as we find it absolutely essential to our security, I do not believe we should depart from the principle of maintaining a free hand to fight a war which may be forced upon us, in such a manner and in such places as are best suited at the time to meet those conditions which are changing so rapidly in the modern world. Nothing is so dangerous as to commit the United States to a course which is beyond its capacity to perform with success.

In the course of later chapters I shall discuss the wisdom of this temporary policy and apply it to the particular situations which we face throughout the world. But it must always be considered, I believe, as a temporary expedient. It cannot avoid the possible danger of involving us in war with Soviet Russia, but it should not provoke a war which otherwise might not occur.



The main point of this preliminary statement, however, is to emphasize that our foreign policy must always keep in mind, as its ultimate goal, the peace and security of the people of the United States. Most of our presidents have been imbued with a real determination to keep the country at peace. I feel that the last two presidents have put all kinds of political and policy considerations ahead of their interest in liberty and peace. No foreign policy can be justified except a policy devoted without reservation or diversion to the protection of the liberty of the American people, with war only as the last resort and only to preserve that liberty.

Originally published in A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951).

Robert A. Taft (1889-1953) was a U.S. senator from Ohio and senate majority leader under Dwight D. Eisenhower.

leave a comment

Latest Articles