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A Thought for Presidents’ Day

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 21 years ago, in 2003, on the World Wide Web.

Today, about 100 people braved temperatures just above freezing to stand for peace at Toomer’s Corners in Auburn.

In honor of the event, here’s a thought for Presidents’ Day: What would the other George W. do?

Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

In the execution of such a plan, 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. 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. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.

–President George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

3 replies to A Thought for Presidents’ Day Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Glenn Farber

    Unfortunately, Washington’s Farewell Address suffers from a certain hypocrisy, of the “we got ours already, so pull up the ladder” variety. You have to ask the question: Would Washington have delivered this paean to non-interventionism had he been addressing, say, the French court in 1777?

    Now, that isn’t to suggest any equivalence between a US war on Iraq and French war on Britain in assistance to the colonies. But it does illustrate that absolute non-interventionism is always colored by American history, and not always the most moral policy.

· May 2003 ·

  1. Charles W. Johnson

    Glenn Farber calls George Washington to task, suggesting that it was a tad hypocritical for the military commander who gladly took help from the French, Spanish, etc. to turn around and suggest American non-involvement in European wars.

    Of course, I was using Washington’s address to make a polemical point, and there is historical context that needs to be considered here. But I’m not sure that Farber correctly understands Washington’s position. Neither Washington, nor the other founders, believed in “absolute non-interventionism.” Washington, Jefferson, et al. were perfectly happy with the idea of making temporary alliances born out of common strategic interests. What they opposed was the permanent entanglement of America with feuding powers abroad, along with the corresponding permanent state of war, formation of a standing military machine, growth of Executive power, etc.

    Part of the reason behind Washington’s remarks, it should be noted, was that at that time the French were trying to make exactly the reverse argument. The idea was: “We got involved to help you out in your war with England, so now you should intervene to help us out in our war with England.” But entering into a permanent, reciprocal alliance with France would have gotten the U.S. embroiled in the next hundred years of feuds amongst the European powers and inflicted a warfare Leviathan on us in short order. (Instead, the Leviathan had to wait until World War I, when we did precisely what Washington urged us against–getting involved in the perpetual wars of the European powers.)

    The point of saying all this is that a person can affirm something like the sentiments above while not being an “absolute non-interventionist.” Indeed, George Washington was one such person. To get a grip on the force of this point, consider some of the differences between, say, French intervention in George Washington’s war with England and American intervention George Bush’s war with Iraq.

    1. French “intervention” in America aided a domestic uprising, already underway for several years, in order to establish a home rule. American intervention in Iraq was a military campaign of Americans, by Americans, and for Americans. It was not carried out as assistance to an existing local uprising (except for a very limited role by Kurdish peshmergas in the north), and it has ended in the conquest and occupation of Iraq by American forces.

    2. French “intervention” in America represented a temporary policy born out of strategic interest, rather than a permanent military entanglement. The conquest and occupation of Iraq, on the other hand, is part of an apparently permanent military commitment to American command and control over the Middle East. Two points are of particular note:

    These differences are all-important, because they represent a fundamental difference in the power relationships involved in the “intervention.” Imagine what would have happened if the French Crown’s “assistance” during the American Revolution was to land a huge army in order to “liberate” the Americans–with French troops storming New York City and Boston, patrolling the streets of Philadelphia, only occasionally deigning to cooperate with American troops, throwing out the British colonial governors, quartering their own French troops where the British troops had been quartered before, doling out lucrative reconstruction contracts to (only) French companies, and then making a vague quasi-commitment to convening a meeting of hand-picked American delegates to put together a French-friendly government… whenever they get around to it.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the difference between these two approaches to intervention is the difference between strategic solidarity, and empire.

— 2004 —

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