HOW AMERICA GOT IT RIGHT: THE U.S. MARCH TO MILITARY AND POLITICAL SUPREMACY
By Bevin Alexander
Crown Forum, $25.95, 298 pages
REVIEWED BY PETER HANNAFORD
Bevin Alexander is no shrinking violet. He makes one of the strongest cases yet for American exceptionalism, beginning with: “The concept of America as an island explains virtually all of American history.” Step by step he takes us through the history of the republic, concluding that we spent our first 125 years creating a “great nation” and the years since protecting “this treasure.” To do so, he says, “… we found that we needed to establish the world’s paramount military structure and become the world’s preeminent power.”
Mr. Alexander analyzes the role military action has played in the nation’s record of getting most things “right.” Even the Civil War, the result of what he called our “huge blind spot about slavery,” produced imaginative military commanders such as Ulysses Grant and “Stonewall” Jackson. He likes Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson’s deepest impulse was to expand the nation ever westward. Hence, the Lewis & Clark expedition, whose purpose was to get to the Pacific Ocean and the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.
When early settlers moved westward to the Appalachian Mountains, “… the American character was formed,” he says. “Two ultra-American principles” emerged from the frontier: the determination to “gain freedom, democracy and prosperity” and “to challenge anybody … who might threaten American security or independence.” The Monroe Doctrine — audacious at the time — underscored this. The term “manifest destiny” wasn’t coined until the 1840s, but that impulse had been an American trait from the earliest days of the republic. At the time of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, only 25,000 Americans had been west of the Appalachians. By 1800, the number was half a million.
The author notes that from the end of the War of 1812 until the end of the 19th century, we were preoccupied with completing the nation, coast to coast. By century’s end our industrial and economic expansion had put us ahead of Europe. President James Polk wanted the Oregon territory and got it through negotiation, but it took a war with Mexico to acquire California and the Southwest. The war was over quickly, thanks in large part to professional military leaders, he says. The decision to create a U.S. Military Academy came after the War of 1812 and paid off fully by the time of the Mexican War.
Mr. Alexander says the United States made three “profoundly right” decisions between 1917 and 1922: entering World War I, rejecting membership in the League of Nations and “building the world’s greatest military power to foil future attempts by aggressive nations to enslave other people.”
Concentrating on economic expansion after the war, we became more isolationist, but the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized the nation into action. The author also believes that President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to create the Manhattan Project — which produced the atom bomb — “was one of the greatest examples in America’s history of getting it right.” Not surprisingly, he believes President Truman’s decision to use the bomb was right because a land war in Japan might have cost a million U.S. casualties.
Mr. Alexander cites several more instances of “getting it right” in the postwar world — the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Berlin Airlift, the Cuban missile crisis — before telling us the U.S. “got it wrong” in Vietnam because our vital interests were not at stake. Ronald Reagan gets credit for being the catalyst to end the Cold War. He writes, “Reagan’s buildup of U.S. military power put an intolerable strain on the Soviet Union.”
Finally, the author traces the rise of Islamist terrorism to a sense of frustration on the part of many Muslims that had been growing since Islam “… turned its back on liberty and progress, adopted repressive governments and fell hopelessly behind Europe as early as the 15th Century.” This was heightened in recent decades by unsuccessful efforts of Arab armies to drive the Israelis into the sea.
Two occasions are cited as leading radical Islamists to believe the United States was a paper tiger: President Carter’s failure to act when our embassy staff was held hostage in Tehran and Clinton’s decision to engage in “nation building” in Somalia. The September 11, 2001 attack was an inevitable result.
Mr. Alexander sees the Iraq invasion as part of the war against radical terrorists, though he does not underestimate the difficulty of making democracy stick in Iraq. The author gives a bracing recipe of the nation’s responsibilities in the years ahead. He concludes, that “The leftist critics have got it wrong — because what they are hoping for, peace without a price, will never come to pass on this earth.”
Peter Hannaford is the author of “Recollections of Reagan.”