4/20/11 - entangling alliances with none

In today's excerpt - the foreign policy expressed by America's founding fathers was one of goodwill, peace, and "little connexion"—even though the nation was torn in a maelstrom of passions between those who favored strong alliances with France and those who instead favored strong alliances with France's arch-enemy, England.  This posture was codified in George Washington's 1796 farewell address when he said "Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all," and that "nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave." Washington emphatically added that "The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible." Thomas Jefferson famously argued in his 1801 inaugural address for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none."

In contrast to that view is the idea that America should intervene in the affairs of others as needed, and has the mission of saving the world. That idea is rooted not in the writings of the founding fathers, but instead in the writings and sermons of the Puritans 150 years earlier, who viewed American Indians as wanting them to "come over and help us" and who believed they were a "city on a hill." As Author Sarah Vowell puts it in describing the English Puritans who arrived in 1630 to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

"The most important reason I am concentrating on John Winthrop and his shipmates in the 1630s is that [America] is [still] haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as God's chosen people, as a beacon of righteousness that all others are to admire. The most obvious and influential example of that mind-set is Winthrop's sermon 'A Model of Christian Charity,' in which he calls on New England to be 'as a city upon a hill.' The most ironic and entertaining example of that mind-set is the Massachusetts Bay Colony's official seal. The seal, which the Winthrop fleet brought with them from England, pictures an Indian in a loincloth holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. Words are coming out of his mouth. The Indian says, 'Come over and help us.'

"That is really what it says.

"The worldview behind that motto—we're here to help, whether you want our help or not—is the Massachusetts Puritans' most enduring bequest to the future United States. And like everything the Puritans believed, it is derived from Scripture. In Acts, chapter 16, one night the Apostle Paul has a vision. In the vision, a Macedonian man appears and tells him, 'Come over into Macedonia, and help us.' So Paul heads west.

"So westward sails the Arbella in 1630. And then one night almost three centuries later President William McKinley will pray to God and God will tell him to help the Filipinos by Christianizing them (even though they have been Catholics for two hundred years), 'and the next morning,' he says, 'I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our mapmaker) and told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States.' So westward sail the gunboats toward Manila Bay. And then in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy, believing that the United States must 'bear the burden ... of helping freedom defend itself,' invades Vietnam; otherwise, he explains, 'if we stop helping them, they will become ripe for internal subversion and a Communist takeover.' So westward sail the aircraft carriers toward Saigon Harbor. And then, because the U.S. will keep on going west to help people until we're going east, the warships and the F-17 stealth fighters hurry toward the Persian Gulf. On March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush announced that 'American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.' Five days earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and his words redrew the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, replacing the Indian with a citizen of Baghdad, begging, 'Come over and help us.' Of the American invasion, Cheney claimed, 'My belief is that we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.' After all, we're there to help.

"In the present-day United States, the Massachusetts Puritans' laughable, naive, and self-aggrandizing idea that they were leaving England partly to come over and help American Indians who were simply begging for their assistance has won out over the Founding Fathers' philosophy of not firing shots in other countries' wars. In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson argued for 'peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.' "


Sarah Vowell


The Wordy Shipmates


Riverhead Books a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc


Copyright 2008 by Sarah Vowell


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