It is possible that we are at the end of an era, the last days of a messianic imperative that has dominated American foreign policy for the greater part of this century. During the past few years, the American people have offered evidence of being tired of the role of moral preceptor, policeman, judge and chastiser of the evil, the obnoxious and the inconvenient in other lands.
After World War II and confrontations with the Soviet Union marking the years of the Cold War, this messianism has been largely ideological. But the lesson the past half-century has taught us is that it is not ideology but nationalism, and to some extent religion, igniting the hopes and passions of the world. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Southeast Asia, where Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians have belied the domino theory, proving themselves nationalists first, communists a distant second.
The Soviet brand of messianism, in fact, has had little success in a passionately nationalistic Third World that rejects Moscow hegemony as it rejects Western colonialism. The Soviets dominate buffer Eastern Bloc states not by ideological persuasion but by military muscle.
Then there is the Nicaragua phenomenon. A popular American President failed in strenuous and sometimes illegal efforts to overthrow an inconvenient government in Managua, not, as some right-wingers would have it, because of an irresolute Congress, but because the American people resolutely opposed such aggression. They resisted extraordinary pressure from the White House, not because they were enamored of the Sandinista regime, but on the same grounds--had they been told the truth at the time--that they would have opposed earlier, even successful, Central Intelligence Agency aggressions against elected but inconvenient governments: Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Salvador Allende in Chile.
The people's reasoning, in fact, was nationalistic, not ideological. On moral and historical grounds they rejected direct American interference in the affairs of another sovereign state which, in spite of the propaganda, in no way threatened U.S. security. On grounds of experience, they sensed that, given the failure of the Contras to win substantial support among the Nicaraguan people, the U.S. Administration was in danger of being sucked, by this vacuum, into direct military involvement and a bloody replay of Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan did not invent the messianic impulse, though he carried it to bizarre extremes in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya. Every recent President has played his part. Uncle Sam's career as Messiah to the world moves back in time from Nicaragua to Vietnam to Korea to World War II, and eventually, in a sort of preview, to Woodrow Wilson and World War I, the one we hoped would make the world safe for democracy.
What moved us to engage in these conflicts at a cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives? In each case we believed that we were acting nobly in a noble cause. God and justice were on our side. They had always been on our side; in our Civil War they were on both our sides.
Perhaps this conviction found its greatest legitimacy in the 1930s and 1940s when we first perceived and articulated a messianic destiny.
Those were heady times, unforgettable to those of us who participated. The targets of our righteous wrath were those paragons of evil, Nazis and the Japanese imperialists who launched their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Along with our outdated battleships, they sank our equally outdated isolationism. We went to war in a unity unknown to us before or since.
Adolf Hitler made it unanimous by declaring war on us. With such enemies, it was easy to take the moral high ground. We saw a Manichean world, a conflict between pure light and unrelieved darkness. The slogans we coined tell the story: Franklin D. Roosevelt trumpeted Four Freedoms for all; Wendell L. Willkie, One World; Henry A. Wallace, a Century of the Common Man, Time-Life Publisher Henry R. Luce, perhaps more candidly, his American Century. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower adopted a crusader's sword as an emblem for the armies that would liberate Europe. Democracy against tyranny, pure and simple. And since only the Soviets could field the massive land forces--and endure the massive casualties--to overcome the common foe, we made Stalin's iron dictatorship a sort of honorary democracy--for the duration.
When victory brought not peace but a Cold War pitting former allies against each other, we continued our messianic fervor, now reinforced with ideology. We misread history to see the Soviet Union as an analogue of Nazi Germany and embarked on a new crusade against a monolithic communist conspiracy that--witness Yugoslavia and China--never existed.
During the Cold War, leaders of both U.S. parties swiftly demoted the Soviet Union from honorary democracy to "focus of evil," as President Reagan called it in 1983.