Longtime subscribers to this magazine—extremely longtime subscribers—may remember an article in the January 1942 issue titled "Foundations of the Peace," in which Vice President Henry A. Wallace laid out several ideas for improving nutrition in the postwar world. The article was written when the United States was girding itself for what everyone knew would be a long and grim conflict. And yet here was the Vice President, already detailing post-victory programs! Nor was this considered odd; the press then was full of post-victory visions. The next issue of The Atlantic contained an essay by Thomas Mann titled "How to Win the Peace," and one by Alfred North Whitehead titled "The Problem of Reconstruction."
Wallace and the others seemed to salivate at the prospect of building a better world. They understood that the war would create a tremendous opportunity to reshape ravaged areas. And they were confident that the United States and its allies could accomplish great and beneficent tasks. "It is the hour for elation," a writer for The Nation declared just after Pearl Harbor, in an effusion characteristic of the era. "Here is the time when a man can be what an American means, can fight for what America has always meant—an audacious, adventurous seeking for a decent earth."
As it turned out, this confidence was entirely justified. After the war the United States fostered democracy in Japan—among a people who in 1942 would have been considered as unready for democracy as any in the world. The Allies rebuilt Europe in such a way that after millennia of conflict, war between Western European states is unthinkable today. American elites moved with a bold spirit to confront the Soviet Union, creating what Secretary of State Dean Acheson called the "situations of strength" that laid the groundwork for eventual victory in the Cold War.
This sort of confidence in America's ability to fundamentally improve the world is as foreign to us today as a Betty Grable poster. We no longer go into wars enthusiastic about opportunities to spread democracy and freedom afterward. We may go in with resolve, but we also go in obsessively aware of the limits of what we can achieve. We have to define the mission narrowly, we tell ourselves. We perpetually overestimate our enemies, underestimate our own power, and exaggerate the casualties we expect to incur. The Iraqi Republican Guard? Ferocious fighters, we were warned before Desert Storm—Americans will be coming home in body bags by the thousands. The Balkans? A hopeless cesspool. Afghanistan? A quagmire—look at what happened to the Soviets. The Taliban would rather die than surrender. Air power? It never works. America now enters every conflict with the might of a muscleman and the mentality of a wimp.
The modesty of our aims in entering wars is surpassed only by the timidity with which we conclude them. Can anyone imagine that Harry Truman would have crushed Saddam Hussein's army but then decided to leave the Iraqi dictator in power? Or that Douglas MacArthur or Dwight Eisenhower would have exulted, as General Tommy Franks did in early November, "[We've got] the easiest exit strategy we've had in years"?
The excuses we give for our fearfulness are many and varied: Our allies will abandon us. The Arab streets will explode. Those people in (name your country) aren't ready for democracy anyway. But the result remains the same: we achieve just as much victory as is needed to allow us to return home.
The failure of nerve starts at the top. When confronted with a range of opinions, our foreign-policy elites tend to cling to the darkest and most misanthropic one, often against all available evidence. For example, polling data and historical precedent suggest that the American people will tolerate casualties in pursuit of sensible political ends (they did so even through the campaign in Somalia). But it is an absolute article of faith in foreign-policy circles that the American people will not endure casualties and do not have the patience and fortitude to support any sustained foreign initiative—so it would be unwise to launch one. Similarly, when tyrannical governments have fallen during the past two decades, their defeats have usually brought good news: more than two dozen democracies have come into being as a result. But the foreign-policy establishment still operates on the assumption that whenever a dictator is toppled, the ensuing instability will be even worse than his totalitarianism. As U.S. forces were crushing the Taliban, surely the worst regime on earth, I was struck by how many foreign-policy experts and colleagues of mine in the Washington media I heard telling one another how naive it was to think that the Northern Alliance would be any better.
Flashbacks: "No Hard Feelings?" (July 11, 1995)
Atlantic articles explore Americans' ambivalence toward establishing full diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
What happened to America's confidence? The first answer, of course, is Vietnam. Second, American policy is now conducted largely by a meritocratic elite, which was not bred, as the best members of the old WASP elite were, to seize the responsibilities of leadership. Third, our triumph in the Cold War has had a perversely gloomy effect. That was a great moral and ideological victory, the argument goes, but now we live in a messier and grimmer world, one better suited to the sort of coldhearted caution espoused by so-called realists than to the warmhearted idealism of those who would champion democracy. We should try to stay out of as many messy situations as possible, the new conventional wisdom goes. If we allow ourselves to be driven by "moral enthusiasms," we'll only end up sapping our own strength.