The presidential campaigns are locked in debate over the wisdom of pre-emptive wars. George Bush elevated the idea to official doctrine last year in a speech laying out the case that the best defense against terrorism is a good offense.
As many commentators have pointed out, Iraq isn’t the first time America has struck pre-emptively. From the 1846 invasion of Mexico to the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia — “we seek to prevent a wider war,” explained President Clinton at the time — pre-emption has been a robust part of the American national security tool kit.
Indeed, as the presidential candidates slug it out, many Americans spend the dog days of summer celebrating one of history’s great pre-emptive military expeditions: the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West Coast and back.
The expedition is seldom seen in that light. Instead it tends to be celebrated as mere exploration. For example, author Stephen Ambrose’s best-selling book “Undaunted Courage” a few years ago saluted Meriwether Lewis as “the greatest of all American explorers.” In reality the expedition was about far more than exploration.
As Landon Y. Jones put it in his more recent “William Clark and the Shaping of the West” (Hill & Wang), the voyage was “intimately connected to … the larger agendas of international empire-building.” The seeds of the expedition lay in fears other powers might claim much of the West for themselves if the United States didn’t get there first.
In particular, Jefferson was shocked by an 1801 book detailing an equally amazing expedition across Canada to the Pacific eight years earlier by a British trapper, Alexander Mackenzie.
The book, in addition to chronicling the harrowing trip, talked frankly of opening a trade route to Asia and establishing British control over the Northwest. Jefferson also was concerned the Spanish might press north from Mexico and the Russians expand inland from the West Coast.
So in January 1803, even before the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson dispatched a secret message to Congress demanding $2,500 to finance a voyage to the Pacific.
Congress went along, despite the usual grumbling. Jefferson claimed he only wanted to investigate a commercial route to the Pacific, but this wasn’t the whole truth (sound familiar?). He had long expressed frankly imperial ambitions, though he was sensitive enough to democratic opinion to assert what he wanted to establish was a continental “empire of liberty.”
Jefferson had even earlier advocated a private expedition, but the Corps of Discovery was primarily military in character, aside from Clark’s slave York and an interpreter (and his Indian wife Sacagawea) hired along the way. Lewis and Clark began their trip 200 years ago. They would return after nearly three years of arduous travel and minimal loss of life.
Today the only visible sign of the expedition is Clark’s inscribed signature, with an 1806 date, on a sandstone pillar at a lovely site on the Yellowstone River near Billings, Mont.
But the trip’s consequences were enormous, as Jefferson surely realized. The federal government staked its claim not just to the Louisiana Territory but to the entire West. Land-hungry Americans and immigrants soon began to trickle, then flood, across the Mississippi and over the Rockies, led by the fur interests that did the real exploring of the early West.
For a Native American, of course, the Lewis and Clark expedition may not seem an unalloyed good. The book by Landon Jones unflinchingly traces Clark’s subsequent role in formulating “removal” methods used to clear the Indians out of the way of the onrushing European-Americans.
And nothing about Thomas Jefferson’s pre-emptive act means the current war in Iraq is necessarily justified (or that Mr. Bush was wise to make pre-emptive war a formal doctrine).
But there’s no denying Jefferson’s pre-emptively created empire of liberty led to one of the largest, freest and most prosperous nations on Earth. That should be remembered in revisiting the doctrine of pre-emption during this presidential contest.
Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.