America’s War of Ideas

In the run up to another war in the Middle East, after stalemate in Afghanistan and Iraq, what is it in the American DNA that makes us think it it will be different the next time? What is the story we continually tell ourselves about our indispensable nation that seems to cloud the facts on the ground?

It boils down to two poles of the American personality personified by two iconic Americans:  the rough and ready Teddy Roosevelt and his teacher, the pragmatist William James. Do we respond more to the dream of an indispensable nation with a monopoly on freedom, faith, and the high ground or the notion of pragmatic realism and restraint and the insistence on testing every idea by its results?

The historian Jackson Lears says the Roosevelt triumphal vision of America has itself triumphed: we go to war, and make decisions, based on a deathless dream of winning the day. We’re thinking through both sides of the century-old conversation in the person of Seth Moulton: Harvard graduate, Marine officer and veteran of Iraq, now on his way to Congress after a primary challenge that unseated the nine-term Representative John Tierney.

Hillary Clinton, at the start of her pre-election media blitz, says we’re failing to tell the American story. But just which story is it? Are we charging up San Juan Hill, or are we settling down and growing up?

Guest List
Seth Moulton
Marine veteran of four tours in Iraq and now Democratic nominee for Congress in Massachusetts's Sixth District.
Jackson Lears
the American intellectual historian at Rutgers University, author of Rebirth of a Nation and editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review.  
Reading List
The Moral Equivalent of War
William James
James's 1906 essay is the guiding light of this conversation, with his sad and prescient 1901 address on "The Philippine Question" following close behind:
…The consciousness which the experience has cultivated is a consciousness that all the anti-imperialistic prophecies were right. One by one we have seen them punctually fulfilled:—The material ruin of the Islands; the transformation of native friendliness to execration; the demoralization of our army, from the war office down—forgery decorated, torture whitewashed, massacre condoned; the creation of a chronic anarchy in the Islands…; the deliberate reinflaming on our part of ancient tribal animosities…. the inoculation of Manila with a floating Yankee scum; these things, I say, or things like them, were things which everyone with any breadth of understanding clearly foretold; while the incapacity of our public for taking the slightest interest in anything so far away was from the outset a foregone conclusion.  
Letter to G. Stanley Hall
Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt's 1898 letter on manliness to the early child psychologist, G. Stanley Hall shows the other side of the question — a view of vigorous American manliness:
I must write to thank you for your sound common sense, decency, and manliness in what you advocate for the education of children. Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail. I am particularly glad that you emphasize the probable selfishness of a milksop. My experience has been that weak and effeminate men are quite as apt to have undesirable qualities as strong and vigorous men. I thoroughly believe in cleanliness and decency, and I utterly disbelieve in brutality and cruelty, but I feel we cannot too strongly insist upon the need of the rough, manly virtues.
Teddy Roosevelt, Not-So-Great Reformer
Jackson Lears, "The New Republic"
Lears reviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin's acclaimed new book on Teddy Roosevelt, The Bully Pulpit, with a little more skepticism about the man than most are willing to admit.
The Way We Were
Steve Walt, Foreign Policy
Our favorite realist, Professor Steve Walt, has written another column on "The Way We Were" — on the tentative, sometimes reckless, always inconsistent use of American superpower in the world after the Cold War.
Citizen Soldier
Michael Zuckerman, Harvard Magazine
short profile of Seth Moulton, the public servant — tracing his thought back to the late Rev. Peter Gomes, his education, and the inscription on the war in World War I.

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  • hughessayted

    Great show. Each guest, Chris, and the framework of pragmatism added together fruitfully.
    Seth’s discussion of the ease of military action, the idea that our role outside of the government and military, in the civilian world, is not as citizens but as consumers…”go out and shop”, not get together and debate the next move following 9/11.
    Sarah’s point about the state department having limited its roll to outlining the military options that we always immediately introduce as “on the table.” And the militarization of our intelligence.
    Jackson Lears’ point about understanding the importance of focusing on the consequences of actions, not the exceptionalism of the US, which encourages us to judge the gaseous moral contrail of its sole military solution long after it’s been launched.
    Look at the 5 Arab countries that have joined us and ask who they are and who paid for fighter jets and military hardware they are using. To use the pragmatism coinage “by the fruits not the roots”, we can review what is happening in Ukraine. The pressure to join a Western European community had as one of its kernels joining NATO, selling it military hardware and incorporating it into INTEROPERABILITY, the most important feature as far as our greatest export enjoys.

  • pwparsons

    How about having Richard Slotkin REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE, etc., (also PBS’ “Custer” Episode/”The Wild West”)? This issue is ESSENTIAL! See, also,You Tube/A Brief History of the USA – Bowling for Columbine – Michael Moore. D.H. Lawrence Studies in Classic American Literature–“Americans are killers…” Also, YouTube –“Gen. Smedley Butler, “War Is A Racket”…

  • Potter

    This was such a wide ranging discussion. I am surprised that it came together in more or less one hour, in some crazy way.

    Chris asked why do we keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result? ( Because we do!)

    I like the pragmatists “by the fruits, not the roots” because to me this means never mind the blame. Everyone is to blame and we can go back in time forever. Let’s look at what works. I thought President Obama’s speech at the General Assembly this week was very strong. The world community has been sitting back it seems and allowing us to take charge with our military approach. We have reached an end to what that can do; we have diminishing returns and maybe for a long long while now too.

    The problem is we have heard great speeches and from Obama before. The thing is implementation, movement in these other areas, what we know are the harder, more difficult efforts beyond the dropping of bombs and selling or providing more advanced weaponry and training. And too, importantly working to be a better example- so important, mentioned last night in this discussion.

    I remember Sarah Chayes amazing effort in Afghanistan very well. I have a basket of the special soaps made with local ingredients that the coop exported. I so admire what she organized there. To me it was such a great example of what we should be doing a lot more of: facilitating the creative, the communal, the productive, the peaceful reaching out. This was soldiering of another sort, giving.

    Our efforts with regard to containing Ebola in West Africa, are this kind of effort. And I am sure there are other such small efforts that are unsung.

    I must listen again to Sarah’s complicated prescription of what how to untangle.

    The link to Obama’s speech:

    • sidewalker

      Potter, I don’t think you can dress humanitarian efforts, such as the ebola example you mention, in military garb without giving a very mixed message when that military is associated with imperial exploits around the globe. In fact, one of the reasons some people in Liberia are reluctant to believe the authorities and foreign organizations is that they think the virus is a biological weapon.
      I would also like to push back on describing the ebola effort as unsung. The outbreak started in May and only now when it is almost out of control Obama and his military with lots of pronouncements try to be half-hearted heroes. Unsung are the local medical worker with lack of protective clothing giving up their lives to help sick patients. We should also note that no local doctors or nurses were rushed on planes to the US, Canada, or other wealthy nation to receive special treatment.

      • Potter

        HI Sidewalker!

        Not untrue what you say, but given our reluctance in general these days to deploy military because of blowback and perceptions, the least “bad”option now that we have been awakened to the dreadful possibilities, is what we are doing. Since only the military has the organization and the discipline and the funding, Obama had to grab it. This is really not entirely altruistic either, or not only for sure. We need to nip this before it becomes worldwide and to us and really uncontrollable. To my reading of William James’ essay, I think it’s a good example or evolution of what he was talking about especially since James wrote in a very different world, a world much less “global” where a local deadly virus might not spread or even be known.

        As well I hope you are wrong about Ebola ( from arising around the Ebola River?) being actually almost out of control. I hope we do not get there. But that is hard for us to know since we are being assured not to panic. Almost out of control is too close to being out of control. I hope the alarm we are, on the other hand, helping to spread in the host countries of West Africa takes hold. It’s an enormous job. And here we are the US ( as far as I can see) in the lead and as well asking, begging, for volunteers yet to risk their lives to help out. So yes we have to protect those that come from afar with experience and offer them the highest care we have so as to not scare away others that we need. This principle of first responders we hold here too. I don’t think this is a racial discrimination We just do not have the medicines yet nor the means to help everyone.

        I think too this is a great mission for the UN. But I offer it as the example nearest to grab- there are so many really unsung others where efforts are not so obviously self-serving… the AIDS epidemic for instance.

        Yes we are late to realize but also this does fall on the US doesn’t it? We are there because we are needed. And true true unless you read such articles on the local ( and look at the photos say in the NY Times ) the local medical workers are doing the best they can at the front lines, but desperately in need of our help.

        • sidewalker

          I agree, Potter, unfortunately it is the least “bad” option, but it is still far too little too late if we consider the military resources used in Africa for destructive and exploitative purposes and the resources available. Save the Children reports 765 new cases in West Africa last week and this number should be doubled or tripled according to experts on the ground if unreported cases are included. Obama has said 1,700 beds will be available, though The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project up to 1.4 million people infected by January. It is not even a bandaid response.

          By out of control I am referring to the situation in West Africa. Since Ebola is non-airborne for now, it seems unlikely to spread quickly where there are good medical conditions and procedures. Now that there is a known case in the US, I hope the media doesn’t create panic.

          I would like to think there is no racism behind the awful response to this Ebola crisis, and yet the piece below makes a good case that it is part of the reason conditions have become so dire.

          • Potter

            Sidewalker, The black agenda report is a bit strong for me. But I did investigate to my ability and time the case of the two local doctors and I don’t think that they were deprived of more help because they were black. Dr. Olivet Buck was denied by the UN org WHO I believe because her case was so advanced that it would have been too risky to move her. The funding denied could have been made up from elsewhere, even Germany. The other case, Dr. Khan, was a medical call as the drug may have caused more harm, it was thought at the time, than good as the Dr. seemed to be fighting this on his own.

            What we see depends on where we stand I guess. I know we all have racist tendencies and that has been reflected in the thinking about how where when to act.

            To tell you the truth I only said “least bad option” about the US playing a prominent role not thinking much. I don’t know if there is really any other option that is real other than leaving this disease take it’s devastating course, leaving it to perhaps the UN to manage. Those are not options. I am more sympathetic to the notion that this was a gradual awakening and gradual understanding that belongs not only to us but to the world. There are a number of problems that our military and Center for Disease Control are working on to try to control this including testing and hoping that this drug ZMapp (with Canadian help) is going to be effective and can be quickly manufactured. This may or may not work. As well we are looking to get this to African patients almost immediately even before testing is completed here.

            I am sure that people know us for the violence we can produce, but they also know us as advanced and charitable too.They know the UN agencies. They need what knowledge/understanding of Ebola that we have. They need help. And then they need help with effective organization and protection. As well, because of mistrust, they need assurance.

            Federal officials said some of the early doses of ZMapp will be tested for safety in healthy volunteers. That is controversial because it means the scarce drug would be diverted from patients in Africa.

            Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said it was necessary to establish basic safety, particularly in light of mistrust of Western medicine by some people in the outbreak area. “The reality is,” he added, that such safety testing “will happen quicker in the U.S. or the U.K.” But the Wellcome Trust has given a grant of about $5.2 million to a consortium that will move quickly to test ZMapp and other drugs in sick patients in Africa.

            The US to increase production of Experimental Drug But May Not Meet Demand

          • sidewalker

            Potter, it has not been just those two doctors, but many local medical personal have not received the same consideration. We shouldn’t forget about the case of Miguel Pajares, the Spanish priest also in advanced stages of the disease who was nonetheless flown out.
            I am not suggesting there is an active conspiracy, yet while I think the black agenda article is intentionally provocative it is nearing the truth. If we just consider all the scrambling now taking place as the disease has struck much closer to home, this discrepancy of life valuation becomes clearer.
            While any other, especially distant others generally have less significance in our lives, it seems hard to deny, looking at the historical record, that foreign others, especially coloured others don’t warrant the same concern and compassion. How else would it be much easier to justify killing them to exploit their recourses than to instead offer sufficient resources to sustain their lives?

          • Potter

            I disagree. Tonight I heard a woman expert on infectious diseases on the PBS Newshour talking about our hubris that is getting in the way more than anything. We think we know and can do it all with our technical advances. But we are obviously still learning and making mistakes. She stressed that we have to work to control this at the source, in West Africa. I don’t think skin color or access to resources is the issue at this point about this threat. It’s more a matter or realizing how we cannot have the luxury of only being concerned about us here in this globalized world.

        • rosmedia


  • christopherlydon

    We’ve been here and talked about these things before. And it all sounds more urgently gripping now. The common links here are Congressman-to-be Seth Moulton, and our eternal teacher William James.

    Seth Moulton on National Service, from January 2007:

    Seth Moulton on his way to Iraq for the second of four tours, from May 2007:

    William James: Son, Brother, Hero. With his Bancroft Prize biographer Robert Richardson, from December 2006:

  • hughessayted

    From Eliot’s The Diifficulties of a Statesman:

    …A commission is appointed
    To confer with a Volscian commission
    About perpetual peace: the fletcher’s and javelin-makers
    and smiths
    Have appointed a joint committee to protest against the
    reduction of orders…

    It’s a tawdry plumage that makes us flightless. The President’s speeches are leaden. His state department has to live inside blast walls because our diplomacy is a grammar of threats. Sarah nailed this point. John Kerry is nothing but a dry agitating flint waving himself about with the hammer of a bomb cocked. Richard Holbrook was the mentor for our diplomats and emblem of our diplomacy – Do what we say and we won’t bomb you. Exceptional.

  • Knotts

    The country has forgotten Dennis Kucinich’s proposal for a Department of Peace. Most of the political and media world laughed at him. This was two months before 9/11/2001. The idea in different forms stretches back to a proposal by Benjamin Rush in 1793. I had an ear out for it in your discussion, but did not notice any mention.

  • The word you were looking for was PURPOSE !

    The kids at Milton Academy wanted to know what their purpose
    was going to be. Staying in Afghanistan gave Sarah Chayes purpose.

    The people of Afghanistan and Iraq see us as a purposeless people.

  • Potter

    The editorial in the NYTimes today: Dismal Lessons from Libya and Yemen

  • Richard Gonci

    So there I was, pontificating (which is my wont) as to the dearth of any
    intellectual discourse in the broadcast ether! And, then, there you were… as a
    balm to my soul. Radiating from 90.9 with the likes of Seth Moulton and Sarah
    Chayes. Praise the Lord and pass the cranial ammunition! Eschewing any easy
    answers. Leaving the listeners hungry for more… not self-satisfied with the
    thin gruel of pre-conceived notions. I sigh with relief that I am challenged to
    think… not rewarded for the size of my blinkers!
    Seriously, nothing but rhetoric has categorized the declamations of both sides of the ISIS/ISIL intervention “debate.” This discussion elevated my head above the fog of fatuous and self-serving pontificators.

  • sidewalker

    This conversation ended with a discussion about the role and power of capital where it should have started with this. War is big business in the US and a key component of class warfare, that keeps shifting today’s taxes and those of posterity as debt to the 1% or the .01%. The funding of the armament industry and the use of its products in war to keep production lines moving also plays an important role in avoiding greater capital crisis brought about by economic stagnation. All the fear narratives, the moral imperative narratives, the freedom and justice narratives and American exceptionalism narratives, to many outsiders not bombarded with these from birth, seem just as rhetoric to justify or mask the workings of the capital corporate elite, who operate very pragmatically on the logic of capital accumulation and who enjoy the political power this affords them to wage overseas wars in order to assure greater accumulation. It is still far from popular to talk directly about capitalism is the US, but in a world where the top wealthiest 85 people have the same amount as the bottom 3.5 billion and where the top 10% have 86% of all wealth, according to Oxfam, shouldn’t a discussion of America’s War of Ideas more prominently address the unspoken narrative of how the few continues to exploit the many?

    • Chris

      Point well made, dear Sidewalker. The great William James called himself a socialist and pacifist as well as pragmatist… as in the opening of ‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’

      ‘In my remarks, pacifist though I am, I will refuse to speak of the bestial side of the war-regime (already done justice to by many writers) and consider only the higher aspects of militaristic sentiment. Patriotism no one thinks discreditable; nor does any one deny that war is the romance of history. But inordinate ambitions are the soul of any patriotism, and the possibility of violent death the soul of all romance. The militarily-patriotic and the romantic-minded everywhere, and especially the professional military class, refuse to admit for a moment that war may be a transitory phenomenon in social evolution. The notion of a sheep’s paradise like that revolts, they say, our higher imagination. Where then would be the steeps of life? If war had ever stopped, we should have to re-invent it, on this view, to redeem life from flat degeneration.

      ‘Reflective apologists for war at the present day all take it religiously. It is a sort of sacrament. It’s profits are to the vanquished as well as to the victor; and quite apart from any question of profit, it is an absolute good, we are told, for it is human nature at its highest dynamic. Its “horrors” are a cheap price to pay for rescue from the only alternative supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, of “consumer’s leagues” and “associated charities,” of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet! …’

      • sidewalker

        Thank you, Chris, for these quotes. They remind me that I must read more of James, a wordsmith and thinker of the highest order.

      • Potter

        I just read James’ essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” you link (and thank you!) and it takes focus and some sinking into James’ message and language. This reminds me of David Grossman’s book-essay “Death as a Way of Life” and as well Chris Hedges “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning”.

        This then seems infinitely more sane than war as James incorporates into his vision the need or natural instinct of militarizing ourselves, marshaling ourselves for some larger purpose. I was mindful that this was written in 1910, before the world wars, one more awful than the other– and still this experience and the memory of it was not cure..

  • Zoe

    What a wonderful show! The discussion was wide-ranging and expansive but coherent and all of a piece at the same time. The minute-by-minute 24-hour breaking news cycle can leave us dizzy and without a chance to reflect and analyze, and this conversation was an intellectually powerful antidote to that phenomenon.

    Lots of food for thought in this conversation, in particular the points about the subtle evolution, in our national consciousness and in our government, to where war has become a default — a default means without an end or purpose, and accompanied by a vigorous refusal undertake an honest historical reckoning about results.

  • hurley

    Great shows recently, though tempted to ask why you give Seth Moulton such a pass. Four tours in Iraq invites the question what was he was doing there — in an illegal, immoral war — beside establishing his political viability, as Clinton put it in rather different circumstances so many years ago. Blind ambition, I would say, judging even from my memory of your interview with him in 2007. Harvard, Marines, politics: the process toward power seems almost ineluctable, particularly given SM’s obvious gifts in that direction. I’d prefer my leaders more low-key and dare I say pacifist. A friend rebuked me for not seeing things in more avowedly pragmatic terms, claiming that SM had at least issued a mea culpa of sorts in claiming that he’s learned lessons, and so forth. That seems to me the standard clap-trap of anyone who has erred and is in pursuit of office. Mistakes were made, etc., Hillary Clinton being a prime example. It’s all just blood under the bridge.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The great Dutch historian who died in 1945, Huizinga (his “Waning of the Middle Ages” is a famous masterpiece) gives us a “usable historical flashlight” on the ideological lead-up to the instincts and thoughts of a William James, when Huizinga writes:
    “Palmerston and Disraeli had gone on building up a vast power structure in which, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the two new qualifications of nationalism and imperialism fully applied.

    Palmerston was still in the happy position of being able to domineer with a diplomatic warning wherever in the world one of Britain’s interests seemed threatened or when he wished to poke Britain’s nose into some question.

    Around 1878 the British themselves gave the name “jingoism” to the raucous and overweening nationalism of their countrymen. The coarsening of the national consciousness that developed in a number of countries in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is undoubtedly closely related to both the coarsening of the press and the beginning of the arms race that was the fatal consequence of the wars from 1864 on.

    In France, the notion of ‘revanche’ gave rise to a party that was the fist to call itself ‘nationalist.’ The method of the ‘putsch’ was making strides.

    In the unsavory phenomena that gave an aspect of degeneration and disruption to the last five years of the century—the Dreyfus Affair, the Jameson raid, and the like—nationalism occupied a larger place that could then be suspected. No one was able to foresee to what extremes it would lead in the new century as the impelling force of the whole life of the state and civilization.

    It seemed as if a quite different stream of ideas, broad and powerful, was destined before long to submerge all patriotism and nationalism and eventually to sweep it away in its irresistible current: the current of socialism. In its essence totally antinational, socialism had offered passive resistance to the forces leading imperialism and militarism throughout most of the century.

    The hour of trial for (internationalist and antimilitarist) socialism struck in August 1914, and the speed and completeness with which socialism’s opposition to national policy in all the warring countries collapsed provided a dubious warning for the future.
    That fact illustrated how little the so-called ideologies of modern times
    resemble the convictions for which the martyrs of the faith once fell.”

    (“Men and Ideas, Essays by Johan Huizinga” 1959, Meridian Books paperback, page 150-151.)

    This backdrop by Huizinga gives you some of the historical whirlpool of isms that William James analyzed so trenchantly.

    Notice that Disraeli mentioned in the essay above, is credited with being the progenior ultimately of today’s neoconservative jingoism, as explained in recent issues of “The Weekly Standard”, a neocon periodical edited by a leading Zionist hawk, Bill Kristol.

    This also teaches you that the past is not behind you but in front of you.

    Richard Melson