The United States was born out of a struggle against an imperial power. Beginning in the 1840s — seven decades after its founding — it embarked on a succession of "wars of choice" that were profoundly at odds with its founding principles and left it with an empire of its own. This inaugural "Thomas Paine" column looks at how American changed — and how its empire is handicapping its future.
Our present predicament didn't happen overnight. It was a long time in the making. Along the way, America changed. We forsook our birthright, we deceived ourselves and, ever so slowly, our loadstar changed from liberty to force. When it was all over, we woke up and had an empire.
The United States broke with the foreign policy of its Founders in three wars of choice. We used guns to annex two-fifths of Mexico. We used guns to remove Spain from its colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines. We used guns to replace Germany as the leading military power in Europe.
In the seven decades between the start of the Mexican-American war in 1848 and America entering World War I in 1917, the die was cast.
We didn't go to war with Mexico, Spain and Germany to defend ourselves. President James Polk proclaimed it was our Manifest Destiny to redraw our southern border to include almost half of Mexico. Likewise, President McKinley thought it was our Manifest Destiny to replace Spain as a colonial power in Cuba and the Philippines. In World War I, President Woodrow Wilson repackaged Manifest Destiny as saving the world for democracy.
War no longer needed to be justified as defending our country. War was now justified as promoting democracy around the world. Americans were now a force for good in the world.
The U.S. Constitution was subverted in the wars against Mexico, Spain and Germany. Yes, Congress declared war in the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War and World War I. But the legitimacy of the congressional declaration was undermined by Presidential lies:
Americans weren't attacked on American soil, as President Polk claimed. In fact, volunteer American soldiers were attacked on Mexican soil.
The Spanish didn't sink our ship in Havana, as President McKinley claimed.
The Germans sunk our ship, but President Wilson didn't mention the American guns on board which violated our declared neutrality. Wilson's Secretary of State resigned in protest.
Each of these presidential lies was an impeachable offense. There were no impeachment proceedings. We just looked the other way.
These three wars of choice redefined American exceptionalism into something very different from what the Founders intended. We were no longer exceptional because of our unique form of government. The federal government no longer existed to protect the sovereignty of the individual.
The government now existed to promote democracy abroad. Never mind that the American republic was never a democracy. (The Constitution established a republic. The Founders rejected democracy because it didn't protect the individual from the tyranny of the majority.)
Each war of choice made the next one easier. President Polk's decision to take the country to war against Mexico made President McKinley's decision to go to war against Spain seem less unreasonable. It is hard to imagine President Wilson taking the country to war against Germany if Polk and McKinley hadn't gotten their wars.
Now the Constitution was turned upside down. We were set on a trajectory that turned the government against citizens. Wilson tolerated no war dissent and severely limited civil liberties.
We could have turned back to the foreign policy of the Founders. Mexico was no existential threat to the United States. But the war was popular and Polk gave the people what they wanted and made the country richer. We could have stopped there.
The little war with Spain was avoidable, too. But that war was also popular, cost-free and journalism became an accomplice in war. We could have stopped there. But wars of choice had become a habit for ambitious Presidents — and Wilson was ambitious.
Wilson's decision to take the country to war against Germany was far-reaching. The rapid rise of Germany was a reality that the major powers in Europe had to recognize. The Germans built an economy greater in size than the combined economies of France, England and Russia. Rather than let the Europeans find their own solution, Wilson decided to enter into an "entangling alliance" against Germany.
Unlike the two earlier wars of choice, World War I became unpopular at home. Fifty-thousand Americans gave their lives to fight the Kaiser. Clemenceau and Lloyd George ran circles around Wilson at the Versailles peace conference. Wilson lost the peace and the Versailles Treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate.
World War I made World War II inevitable. Wilson's war of choice created Roosevelt's war of necessity. The French and English demanded onerous reparations from Germany. The ensuing inflation destroyed the Germany economy. Hitler rose to power by exploiting the political backlash inside Germany. The Second World War was a continuation of the unfinished business of the First.
World War II laid the foundation for an American empire. Six million Jews and 30 million Russians perished. This led to the creation of Israel and the outbreak of the Cold War. The United States took over British bases around the globe, and our forward presence gave impetus to bin Laden, 9/11 and the permanent war on terrorism.
The 120 million who perished in these 20th-century conflicts died mostly because of the failure of the existing major powers to accommodate the new strength of Germany on the European continent.
The solutions to yesterday's problems create today's problems. We live with the choices made by those who went before us. Looking back, Woodrow Wilson was the worst President in American history: His intervention in the First World War was the equivalent of a European power coming to the United States during the Civil War and saying South wins, North loses.
Now the Germans are back in the driver's seat in Europe. The Germans are once again dominating the economy of Europe. The United States is sidelined by the weakness of our economy and our staggering debt. We have lost our way and don't know how to get out of the empire business.
**The Globalist's Thomas Paine column will examine the points of departure between America's founding principles and its historical and contemporary reality. Join the debate about this article on our Facebook page.