Back to top

Historical Background

Review the Historical Background

Why the thirteen states needed a federal umpire:

Today, the United States is one nation, but that’s not how it began. The thirteen North American colonies operated separately, each with its own charter, local laws, and assembly accountable to the British King. When the colonies came together to fight for independence, they wrote individual constitutions to establish self-government. Over a period of five years, while the Revolutionary War proceeded, the states also hammered out a collective agreement. The so-called Articles of Confederation created a federation, “a firm league of friendship,” that could make recommendations but had no power over the sovereign states. The states were thirteen individual countries united against a common enemy. The Articles of Confederation that joined the “United States” created no executive or judiciary branch. Its legislative branch had no power to collect taxes or regulate commerce. When the Revolutionary War ended, the confederation sold its navy and reduced the Continental Army to 700 men. Any and all future changes to the agreement required unanimous consent.

Following independence, the coalition weakened. Some states struggled to repay their war debts. Others coped with internal unrest and foreign threats. They wrestled with balancing state autonomy against the advantages of a stronger confederacy. Some of the former revolutionaries, particularly George Washington, realized that the central government was too weak to curb violence within states or protect the nation against foreign rivals. States raised tariffs (import taxes) against one another and disintegration threatened. After Shay’s Rebellion in 1787, it became clear that a new structure was needed to maintain peace.

The Federalists and the Antifederalists debated a controversial new constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787. The Antifederalists opposed the strong central government it might create. They felt the nation was already too large to be centrally administered. They feared that a distant government would grow corrupt and tyrannical. The Federalists disagreed. They believed that a federal system would create stable government. It would also act as an “umpire” between the states to “compel acquiescence” if one tried to break the rules of the alliance. It would promote unity and prosperity. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, all strong supporters of the Constitution, wrote a series of essays on their political philosophy. In the Federalist Papers, they argued against the Articles of Confederation and in favor of the new Constitution. Ultimately, this fierce debate concluded with the ratification of a new U.S. Constitution giving much greater authority to the federal government. To it, a Bill of Rights was added to protect individuals from abuses of federal power.

The new republican (non-monarchical) government created by the Constitution was the first of its kind. It was a grand experiment that not only allowed individual states to pass their own laws, but also created a federal government to coordinate the interests and policies of the states, negotiate with foreign nations on behalf of all, provide a national defense, regulate interstate trade, mint a common currency, and collect taxes. Perhaps most importantly, it acted as an informal “umpire” among the states and provided a forum (the U.S. Congress) where representatives from each state could meet with others and approve common rules. Unlike the nations of Europe, which lacked a federal umpire, the states mostly avoided violent conflict with one another. Despite a terrible Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century, America has remained united for more than two centuries and achieved prosperity through a large common market that combines the economic productivity of fifty separate states.

Washington’s Great Rule:

The most urgent task of the new federal government was to create internal stability and establish peaceful relations with foreign countries. The election of the widely popular George Washington fostered a sense of common identity. In addition, Congress quickly ratified the Bill of Rights, which appeased the Antifederalists. The first presidents had the unenviable task of devising a national foreign policy during a time of great instability. The French Revolution unleashed violence and chaos across Europe. Britain and France went to war, disagreements within the U.S. government led to intense partisanship, and conflict over slavery threatened to split the new country apart. President Washington set the direction for U.S. foreign policy that guided other presidents for the next 150 years. In his Farewell Address, he set forth what he called his Great Rule, a policy of political neutrality toward other countries’ disputes.

Principles underlying Washington’s Great Rule:

Neutrality did not mean that the new nation was passive or never went to war to advance its own interests. It even joined with other nations in times of danger, such as when the country allied with France to defeat Britain in the War of Independence. President Washington defined neutrality as a policy of avoiding permanent alliances, especially ones that required an open-ended military commitment.

Washington advised the nation to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” He believed that America needed time to “settle and mature . . . and to progress without interruption.” He felt that political alliances tended to reinforce biases that prevented an honest assessment of the nation’s own needs. As he wrote, “The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” President Washington thus established a policy of neutrality in foreign disputes, rejection of foreign alliances, and friendly commercial relationships with all nations. Corresponding with this policy of neutrality, the United States maintained only a small navy and army for most of its history.

American Wars During Washington’s Great Rule:

The United States was nonetheless involved in several military conflicts during its first 150 years. When forced to defend its sovereignty, property, or citizens, the nation called up men and armed for battle, such as against the Barbary pirates between 1801 and 1816 or during the War of 1812 against Britain. Territorial expansion also brought military conflict, including the Indian wars and Mexican- American War. Nonetheless, even during these conflicts, the principle of avoiding foreign alliances, remaining neutral in European wars, and avoiding a large, permanent mili- tary force was maintained.

Advantages of International Neutrality (1789-1947):

Freedom from the responsibility of permanent alliances and foreign intervention allowed the United States to focus on its own growth. George Washington’s successors stressed a policy based on strong economic relationships with other countries, but no military commitments.

President Thomas Jefferson argued that economic incentives were the best way to achieve international peace. Jefferson believed that a standing army would threaten liberty by placing too much power in the hands of a few powerful men. In his Letter to David Humphries in 1789, he wrote. “There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation, and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors, that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot, but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army.” Jefferson felt it was far better to call up state militias whenever need arose rather than risk the possible misuse of a large “standing” (permanent) army. Jefferson was just as opposed to a naval fleet. After the 1798 Quasi-War with France,   Jefferson asked Congress for the authority to shrink the Naval fleet from forty-two warships to six. Jefferson’s policy of neutrality encountered challenges between 1800 and 1815, with wars against Britain and the Barbary states of the North Africa, but his dream of a new, more peaceable form of international relations persisted.

Forty years after the Declaration of Independence, John Quincy Adams reinforced Washington’s “Great Rule” in a July 4th, 1821, speech. After reciting the full text of the Declaration of Independence, Adams warned against foreign entanglements, stating: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Adams was also the primary author of the Monroe Doctrine (below). Although nineteenth century America was not able to avoid foreign conflicts entirely, for the most part it maintained political neutrality and avoided the constant warfare that wracked Europe.

The Monroe Doctrine:

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 established the Western Hemisphere as a U.S. sphere of influence, warned the great powers to cease colonizing the Americas, and pledged non-interference in European conflicts. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt extended this doctrine with The Roosevelt Corollary, in which he declared that the United States had the responsibility to act as “an international police power” in the Western Hemisphere. Between 1823 and 1917, the US was involved in limited military conflicts that included the Indian Wars, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War, as well as occasional “police actions” in the Caribbean and Central America. Up until World War I, the United States maintained a foreign policy defined strictly by its own interests, not by promises to other nations outside the Western Hemisphere.

World Wars One and Two:

Two world wars during the twentieth century convinced the United States that threats outside the Western Hemisphere could threaten its safety. America reluctantly entered into these wars to protect its interests, and afterwards sought to disarm, return to a policy of neutrality, and create an international system to sustain peace.

President Woodrow Wilson initially declared neutrality in the first of these wars, though this position gradually became hard to maintain. In the first months of 1917, Germany drew America into the war by sinking U.S. merchant ships in the Atlantic and sending the infamous Zimmerman Telegram that plotted an alliance with Mexico against the United States. In April of 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany. In his speech to Congress on April 1, 1917, President Wilson expanded the scope of American interests and responsibility by stating, “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Following this speech, Congress authorized the United States to help repel the German invasion of France and Belgium. Nonetheless, the US entered the war to protect itself and its values, not because of a preexisting commitment to any other nation.

U.S. involvement in World War I was comparatively brief. However, the U.S. mobilized over four million troops, whose determination and sheer numbers helped bring the long war to an abrupt end. Approximately 116,000 died from wounds or disease. European nations suffered much greater losses: 1.7 million Russians, 1.7 million Germans, 1.4 million French, 1.2 million Austrians, and 900,000 British soldiers perished.

Before the fighting ended, Wilson announced a plan for international peace and security on January 8, 1918, in the Fourteen Points he presented to Congress. This plan promoted free trade, self-determination, transparency, and democracy through a new structure for international organization. Wilson called for American participation in a “general association of nations” to provide “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” The League of Nations was founded on January 10, 1920, to settle disputes through negotiation and enforce laws collectively. Sixty-three nations joined. Congress refused to ratify Wilson’s treaty, however, and the United States never belonged to the League.

Nonetheless, in an effort to slow an arms race, President Warren Harding convened the Washington Naval Conference in 1921. The great navies of the world had been expanding their fleets and fortifying their coasts, and many feared that this would inevitably lead to renewed war. The resulting Five-Power Naval Treaty of 1922 was unprecedented. It committed the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan to reducing forces. It introduced limits on the size of navies, and led to the scrapping of numerous warships. The Washington Treaty ended a long period of competitive increases in battleship construction. The limits were extended in the London Naval Treaty of 1930 and the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936.

But threats soon arose on land, following the outbreak of the Great Depression. Even so, the American people remained determined to avoid foreign conflicts during the early years of World War II. From Japan’s conquests in China in September 1931 to Germany’s conquest of Poland in September 1939, the American public strongly supported neutrality. Congress passed a series of laws between 1935 and 1939 that prevented the United States from entering conflicts then breaking out around the world, and even supplying nations trying to defend themselves. Isolationists were determined to close every loophole that had seemingly dragged the United States into World War I, even if it meant watching Europe and Asia self-destruct. Nonetheless, the explosion of global violence gradually changed public perspectives.

Opinion began shifting with the collapse of Poland. Over 84 percent of Americans polled had decided Germany must be stopped. President Franklin Roosevelt also believed that allowing the allied “Axis Powers” (Germany, Japan, and Italy) to proceed unchallenged would put America itself at risk. Congress finally removed the embargo on sales of war materiel. The United States began selling and lending goods to nations under attack, while still embargoing materiel to aggressors. Japan finally forced Roosevelt’s hand, triggering America’s active participation in World War II, by bombing U.S. and British territories throughout Asia and the Pacific on December 7 and 8, 1941. These attacks destroyed most of the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Philippines, leveled the U.S. garrison on Guam, and severely damaged the Pacific Naval fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Germany declared war on the United States a few days later.

New International Institutions and Global Norms after World War II:

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and Guam, talks had been underway to fundamentally change the rules of international engagement. Roosevelt and Churchill met aboard a British Warship, the HMS Prince of Wales, off the coast of Newfoundland in August of 1941. This meeting, known as the Atlantic Conference, resulted in the Atlantic Charter. It declared that the world must abandon the use of force to settle disputes and that all nations, regardless of size or strength, possessed the right “to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Roosevelt and Churchill agreed not to seek new territory for their own nations, and instead restore to other nations the lands they had lost. This agreement was among the first of several measures to establish new rules for international relations.

During the war, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union (the so-called “Grand Alliance”) held a series of conferences to work out a plan for post-war peace. They agreed on the need for an international organization to replace the failed League of Nations. The United Nations was born. Its purpose, stated in the Charter of the United Nations, was to prevent aggression, cultivate respect for self-determination, foster economic cooperation, and protect human rights. The principle difference between the League of Nations and the United Nations was the Security Council: a council with five permanent members (America, Britain, China, France, and Russia) and ten elected members with the power to authorize military action in case of threats to the peace from aggressors.

From their experience in the Great Depression,  the Allies knew painfully well the extent to which economic conditions sometimes drove political violence. To stabilize the global economy, the Allies also held the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. There they laid plans for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. The International Monetary Fund worked to avoid the “competitive devaluations” that fueled the Great Depression.16 The World Bank facilitated reconstruction after the war, and soon expanded its mission to alleviate poverty worldwide.17 The World Trade Organization was envisioned as a way to open markets, but the Cold War delayed implementation for many decades. Instead, international trade operated temporarily under the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. When the Cold War ended, the current World Trade Organization finally came into being in 1994.19 While the international system forged at Bretton Woods was not perfect, it fostered peace and prosperity around the world. Wars between nations declined steadily. The global economy boomed for many decades.

Stalemate at the United Nations:

Unfortunately, the Cold War undermined the maturation of the new UN Security Council. The permanent members often vetoed one another’s votes in international disputes. Without its own army and navy, and without agreement among its most powerful members, the fledgling United Nations struggled to reach its full potential. Encouraged by governments in Western Europe that feared Soviet expansion, the United States backed into the role of security guarantor, triggered partly by the Greek Civil War.

The Greek Civil War:

While Europe and Asia began the long task of reconstruction after World War II, the Soviet Union began reinforcing its borders and consolidating power. Russia absorbed the nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and compelled Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey the first year, followed by civilian and military personnel if requested.

The bill passed, but not without prolonged debate. The concerns of both opponents and supporters resonate to today. Congressman George Bender argued, “If we go into this Greek thing we shall be pouring in money and the blood of our sons for generations.” Senator Hugh Butler noted that the Truman Doctrine was asking Americans to accept “the entire burden of remaking the world . . . [and] adopt a permanent policy of spending hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in this crusade.” Others warned that some countries might see the Doctrine as evidence of American imperialism, sparking fresh wars. Those who supported the bill argued that devastated Western Europe was physically unable to resist Soviet pressure and the infant United Nations still too weak to manage world conflict. Britain was on wartime rations and most West European cities were in rubble. Senator Herbert O’Connor warned that only the United States retained the wherewithal to “head off a third world war before it reaches the shooting stage.” Senator William Fulbright asserted that if all Europe fell to communism, “our future would indeed be dark.” In the end, a large, bipartisan majority passed the legislation. Truman won over the America public.

The Cold War:

The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1947 and 1991, known as the Cold War, pitted two military superpowers against each other for more than forty years. Most nations chose sides, becoming members of the so-called Eastern bloc or Western bloc. (Some joined what was called the Non-Aligned Movement.) The two superpowers that fought as allies in World War II had very different philosophies. The United States was a democratic, capitalist society committed to access, arbitration, and transparency, while the Soviet Union was a highly secretive, single-party, authoritarian government with a state-owned economy. Further complicating the situation, decolonization spread worldwide during the same period as the great British, French, and Dutch Empires disintegrated. These events were all interrelated. Both America and Russia publicly endorsed decolonization. They competed for the allegiance of new nations formed out of the former colonial empires. Both superpowers gave military and economic assistance to many of these wobbly new governments. The Truman Doctrine committed the United States to defend the sovereignty and stability of all “free nations” right at the moment that the number of nations was rapidly increasing.

The term “Cold War” was used because the two powers never fought directly, though both armed themselves heavily with conventional and nuclear weapons. This arms race was based on “mutually assured destruction,” which meant that if either side fired at the other, nuclear warfare would destroy both nations, if not the world. While this deterred open violence between the United States and the Soviet Union, it did not stop military action in countries like Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In addition, both sides used economic aid, propaganda, psychological warfare, espionage, and even sports and the performing arts to compete for dominance.

The first major crisis of the Cold War was the Soviet blockade of Berlin. At the end of WWII, a multinational force occupied the former Nazi capital of Berlin and divided it into four sectors, each controlled by a different Allied force. In June of 1948, the Soviets tried to force the Western Allies to yield their sectors of Berlin by blockading roads, railways, and canals. This endangered German citizens in the Western-controlled areas. In a coordinated effort, the Western Allies airlifted supplies, food, and fuel to meet their needs. This coordinated effort was so successful that flights landed every few minutes for over a year. The Soviets eventually lifted the blockade in May of 1949, but in order to stop Germans from fleeing the communist-controlled sector, the Soviet Union constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961. The wall separated West Berlin from the Soviet sector and the surrounding countryside under communist control. It divided the ancient capital for 28 years, until German citizens spontaneously tore it down in November 1989.

US Interventions During the Cold War, 1947-1991:

The Truman Doctrine played out in a number of ways. Not only did the U.S. provide financial and military aid to a range of countries seeking to rebuild or avoid communist takeover, it also joined North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a defense alliance. Doing so meant abandoning Washington’s Great Rule altogether. Ratified on April 4, 1949, NATO was a permanent military alliance. It provided (under Article 530) for the collective defense of any member attacked by an external party. An alliance of Soviet-bloc nations, the Warsaw Pact, formed in 1955 to counter NATO. The U.S. subsequently signed numerous permanent alliances, took sides in many internal conflicts around the world, and built a standing army.

The Truman Doctrine guided many of the actions of the United States over the following decades, including intervention in the Korean War, covert actions in Iran and Guatemala, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and an immensely unpopular war in Vietnam. Throughout, the United States provided a military guarantee that helped many European and Asian nations feel secure enough to focus on economic development and political cooperation, knowing that the United States protected them from outside aggression. In nations of Eastern Europe to accept communist rule after 1945. The western powers mostly accepted these tragedies as unavoidable, but hoped to save countries not yet under Soviet control. When civil war broke out in war-devastated Greece, the government there lodged a complaint with the UN against the communist nations of Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia for supplying illegal arms. Britain initially rendered military and economic aid, but it was still reeling from World War II as well. So in February of 1947, the British sent the United States an ultimatum: step in or let Greece go under.

The physical and economic destruction of Europe had been catastrophic. World War II cost England alone over $30 billion. German bombs leveled thousands of factories and crushed over four million homes. They decimated roads, trains, ports, and communications. Food was in short supply and still being rationed. In 1947, the British public was more concerned about domestic housing, food, and fuel than foreign security. Under great public pressure, the British government notified the United States that it could no longer maintain the role of protector of Europe or sustain the balance of power. They needed to feed their own people first. The United States would have to adopt the role of umpire because no one else could.

Truman had not anticipated any permanent military presence in Europe. At the end of WWII, the American public demanded that soldiers come home, as in previous conflicts. Truman discharged millions. The armed forces dropped from 12 million to 1.5 million by June of 1947. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised President Truman and congressional leaders that the Soviet threat to Western Europe was real. He warned that communist parties had dramatically expanded in Italy, France, Austria, and Hungary. Countries like Iran and Turkey were under duress. If these countries fell, the Soviets would dominate not only Southern Europe, but also the approaches to the Middle East and India.20 Truman warned congressional leaders that it was in the nation’s interest to keep communism from taking over “three-fourths of the world’s territory.”

The Truman Doctrine:

President Truman addressed a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, to ask for assistance to Greece. The Truman Doctrine was born—and the foreign policy of the United States, which had maintained neutrality and resisted foreign alliances for over 150 years, was fundamentally altered. The president proclaimed: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” asked for America itself, the Cold War sometimes contributed to domestic upheaval. Hysterical fears of communist infiltration were stoked by congressional investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. Civil rights movements were strengthened by the glare of international scrutiny. How could America criticize Soviet human rights violations when its own citizens were not equal under the law? Anti-war protests over U.S. military action in Vietnam divided the nation along political and generational lines. Foreign intervention caused some Americans to question the morality and meaning of their country.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, effectively ending the Cold War. Some events happened almost overnight, but the end had been coming for decades. Beginning in 1969, the rivalry began to soften. Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, took the first steps by signing treaties with the Soviet Union and Poland that accepted the loss of German territories during WWII. This lessened Poland’s dependence on the Warsaw Pact for defense against Germany. Additional attempts to negotiate peace over the next two decades included Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Vladivostok Summit on Arms Control, and the Helsinki Accords. In addition, trade embargoes were gradually dropped. This period of détente beginning in the 1970s nudged the peace process along.

However, the emergence of new leadership in the Soviet Union was probably the greatest single factor in ending the long stalemate. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms beginning in the mid-1980s to revitalize the economy and make government more transparent. He also announced that the USSR would no longer intervene in the internal affairs of other countries to force them to remain communist. Surrounding nations could choose their own systems of government. These reforms, combined with Eastern European nationalism and political turbulence within Russia, led to the fall of Soviet communism. By 1991, the Soviet Union no longer existed. It split into fifteen separate nations across Eastern Europe and Asia, the largest of which is Russia. The Cold War was over. Many thought this would bring a “peace dividend” and that collective security would finally emerge.

US Military Intervention After the Cold War, 1991-Present:

The Truman Doctrine did not expire with the Cold War. The policy promised “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures”—a mandate much broader than simply curtailing communist aggression. The expectation evolved that some outside power would always be there to defend the territory and rights of weaker nations. The atrocities of World War II also fundamentally changed world attitudes and expectations towards matters like genocide and “ethnic cleansing.” The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights gave individual rights priority over national sovereignty. National leaders were no longer allowed to do as they pleased within their national borders. The international community accepted a responsibility to stop genocide, mitigate civil war, and prevent aggression, even though few countries other than the United States possessed the physical power to do so. As long as there were “subjugated peoples,” and no clear alternative to the American security umbrella, the Truman Doctrine would not be obsolete.

The European Union, which established a common European citizenship in 1993, appeared for a time to offer such an alternative. Its resolve was tested with the civil wars that emerged in the Balkans after the fall of the Soviet Union, when communist Yugoslavia also broke apart into several new states. The largest of these countries was Serbia, whose leader, Slobodan Milosevic, balked at the break-up. His strategy was to divide people along ethnic and religious lines to build his power. When other European nations recognized the independence of Croatia, Serbia responded with violence in both Croatia and Bosnia. Mass murders to carry out “ethnic cleansing,” the use of rape as a weapon of psychological warfare, and vicious attacks on civilians in the cities of Sarajevo and Srebrenica put the international community under severe pressure.

European leaders insisted on diplomacy alone. They rejected military force and refused to arm the Bosnian or Croatian people to defend themselves. American President Bill Clinton urged instead that the local people should be armed and NATO should provide air support. European officials rejected this advice. For nearly four years, Serbian paramilitaries besieged the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, killing more than 10,000 civilians, and in July 1995 they overran the town of Srebrenica, where they swiftly executed an estimated 8000 Muslim males. Clinton decided that the United States had an obligation to protect the population and pushed for NATO to delegate responsibility to American officers. The genocide in Yugoslavia was brought to a quick end and five successor states were recognized under a treaty negotiated in Dayton, Ohio. The U.S. once again played the role of umpire, enforcing international norms against genocide and the subjugation of small nations.