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Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 68, Number 4, October 2004
pp. 1327-1328 | 10.1353/jmh.2004.0162

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The Journal of Military History 68.4 (2004) 1327-1328

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. By John Lewis Gaddis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01174-0. Notes. Index. Pp. viii, 150. $18.95.

The distinguished diplomatic historian John Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett Professor of History and Political Science at Yale, has produced an odd, half-formed little book that attempts to set the Bush administration's response to 9/11 in a larger context. The result makes for interesting reading but falls well short of being fully persuasive.

According to Gaddis, the abiding theme of U.S. grand strategy over the past two centuries has been a quest for security. Faced with real or imagined dangers abroad, the United States reacts by asserting its control over an ever-wider sphere of responsibility. "Expansion, we have assumed, is the path to security" (p. 13). Apparently, we seek to dominate simply so that we can be left alone.

Gaddis credits Secretary of State John Quincy Adams with devising the operational principles supporting this expansionist strategy. After the humiliation of the British burning Washington, D.C., in 1814, Adams enshrined preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony as the cornerstones of U.S. policy. For the remainder of the century, successive administrations relied on these principles to establish American preeminence throughout the Western Hemisphere.

By the early part of the twentieth century it was becoming apparent that enemies from outside the hemisphere could also pose a threat. But it took the surprise of 7 December 1941 to drive that reality home. Fully endorsing the logic of security-through-expansion, Franklin D. Roosevelt nonetheless took a different approach to implementing that strategy. Forswearing preemption and unilateralism, FDR established multilateralism as a core operating principle. But the shift affected means rather than ends. Indeed, for Roosevelt and his successors, the larger objective remained sacrosanct: to assure for United States "a preponderance of power—not a balance of power—and this time on a global scale" (p. 59).

The end of the Cold War rendered the imperative of multilateralism obsolete. Well before September 2001, writes Gaddis, an American preference for unencumbered freedom of action had begun to reassert itself. But it was not until 9/11 that unilateralism and preemption returned to full favor. Gaddis thereby rejects that charge that the Bush administration has abandoned the traditions of American statecraft. On the contrary: the policies of the forty-third president reflect "a return to an old position, not the emergence of a new one" (p. 26).

How then to explain the fact that the United States, occupying its island fortress in the New World, finds itself set upon by distant enemies? Gaddis can apparently find no rational explanation. Quoting Lincoln, he writes that our adversaries hate us because we are "the last best hope of earth" (p. 115). The United States has become "an irresistible target for those whose aspiration is to kill hope" (p. 116).

This, of course, neatly corresponds with George W. Bush's view. And it is a view that permeates the grandiose strategic pronouncements of the Bush administration and that has been put into service in justifying preventive (not preemptive) war.

But as a direct consequence of that view, as Gaddis nervously acknowledges, the United States today has committed itself to doing precisely what Adams famously warned against: it "deliberately goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy" (p. 110). As a further consequence, notes Gaddis, in "little more than a year and a half, the United States has exchanged its long-established reputation as the principal stabilizer of the international system for one as its chief destabilizer" (p. 101).

In the aftermath of 9/11, security did become for many Americans an urgent and immediate concern. This was eminently understandable. But to suggest that security constitutes the taproot of American statecraft—ignoring the influence of economic and commercial interests along with such factors as ideology, religion, and race—is surely misleading. At a time when finding our way out of the mess that we're in requires a capacity for ruthless self-examination, it also verges on being irresponsible.

Andrew J. Bacevich

Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts


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