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.

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