Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
American Interventionism: A Hot Topic
If you ask a number of different people for their view on American military involvement in the Middle East, you're likely to get a number of different, strong opinions. Many Americans believe that the U.S. government should focus on domestic affairs, and that what happens in the Middle East is ''none of our business.'' Others believe that in this modern era, America must have a global presence in order to protect its interests. Differences of opinion over American interventionism in foreign affairs are nothing new; they have been present since almost the founding of the United States itself. In this lesson we explore interventionism throughout American history. Let's dig in!
Origins of U.S. Intervention and Early Instances
When President George Washington gave his farewell address in 1796, he warned against entangling alliances with foreign powers. As president, he worked hard to maintain strict American neutrality, and he encouraged his predecessors to employ the same approach. In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution (1780s and 1790s), isolationism was popular and perceived by many as America's path forward.
This did not last, however. Within two years of Washington's address, America found itself caught in the middle of a war between Great Britain and France. Though it did not officially declare war, the U.S. entered the Quasi War (1798-1800) against France. This was basically an undeclared naval conflict. The causes of the war are complex but stem from French naval attacks against American merchant vessels. Intervention in the war helped establish a greater American presence on the high seas.
A few years later, under President Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. chose to intervene in North Africa against bands of rogue pirates. The Barbary Wars (1801-1805; 1815) were fought because the U.S. refused to pay tribute in exchange for sailing rights to the Barbary Pirates of North Africa. This was an important intervention because the U.S. was essentially standing up for itself and telling the world, ''Look, we're not going to be pushed around.'' Early American interventionism was mainly related to trade but was also tied to the need for the young, untested nation to assert its power to the world.
Other Notable Instances of Interventionism
Unfortunately we don't have the time to address every instance of U.S. intervention, but we can highlight some of the more notable ones. Intervention in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) was mainly due to U.S. imperialism. In both wars, the U.S. intervened to gain territory. The Mexican-American War was fueled by an adherence to Manifest Destiny, the belief that it was America's destiny to extend its boundaries from coast to coast. Both conflicts were extremely popular with the public and helped secure America's status as a leading world power.
American intervention in World War I was not without opposition. In the years leading up to 1917, isolationism was very popular in the U.S. Nevertheless, under President Woodrow Wilson, America entered the war in 1917 and helped bring it to an end. As a result, the U.S. played an enormous role in the peace process and in the restructuring of the postwar world.
Intervention in World War II (1939-1945) resulted in the U.S. emerging as one of the two world's superpowers (the Soviet Union was the other) and arguably the most powerful country on earth. The war did wonders for the American economy: industry boomed. In the postwar period factories that had once produced tanks and planes were reconfigured to turn out automobiles, appliances, and other commercial products. Following intervention in World War II, the U.S. was unable to retreat back into isolationism. For better or worse (depending on one's perspective), the U.S. was now a global power with forces deployed all over the world and has remained so ever since.
In modern U.S. history, intervention in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Middle East has become highly controversial. The Vietnam War, especially, resulted in widespread protests as many Americans believed the U.S. had little or no reason for fighting. In the Iraq War (2003-2011) and other Middle East conflicts, the feelings were much the same.
Pros vs. Cons
What about the pros and cons of interventionism? In our modern time, proponents typically argue that the U.S. has a moral obligation to prevent evil and ensure peace. They believe that the U.S. should intervene in foreign affairs to prevent genocide, ensure stability, or for other humanitarian reasons. Think about the terror group ISIS: proponents argue that ISIS is so evil and destructive that the U.S. and other civilized nations should intervene to combat it.
The cons of interventionism include blowback, a term that became popular during the Cold War, for the unintended negative consequences of interventionism. For example, intervening to dismantle the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 ultimately destabilized the region, allowing ISIS and other radical terrorists groups to fill the vacuum of power. Another argument against interventionism is that the U.S. should focus on its own domestic affairs before spending money to ''fix the world.'' As we can see, opinions about interventionism are often strong, complex, and tied to one's political views.
Isolationism was popular immediately following the American Revolution and many Founding Fathers more or less promoted it. The Quasi War (1798-1800) was basically an undeclared naval conflict against France that began over issues of commerce. The war resulted in a greater U.S. presence on the high seas. Similarly, the Barbary Wars (1801-1805; 1815) were fought because the U.S. refused to pay tribute in exchange for sailing rights to the Barbary Pirates of North Africa. Manifest Destiny is the belief that it was America's destiny to extend its boundaries from coast to coast. It played an important role in America's decision to enter the Mexican-American War. Following intervention in World War II (1939-1945), the U.S. emerged as a global superpower and was unable to retreat back into isolationism. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) resulted in widespread protests as many Americans believed the U.S. had little or no reason for intervening.
Blowback is a term that became popular during the Cold War for the unintended consequences of interventionism. Critics of interventionism argue that the risks of blowback are too great, while proponents of intervention argue that civilized nations like the U.S. have a moral obligation to combat evil and promote peace.
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American Interventionism: Origins, Pros & Cons Quiz
Instructions: Choose an answer and click 'Next'. You will receive your score and answers at the end.
Pros of military intervention would likely include all of the following EXCEPT:
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