150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Foreign Policy and the Crisis Mentality
January 1967
By George McGovern

As the war in Vietnam escalated through the 1960s, contention over America’s involvement in that conflict mounted at home. In 1967, an Atlantic essay by George McGovern—one of the war’s most prominent and outspoken critics—decried what the senator saw as an unfortunate American tendency to make precipitate leaps into foreign entanglements “of uncertain significance.”

The thirteen colonies which leveled their muskets against the established order have evolved into the world’s mightiest power in a highly dangerous nuclear age. This is a responsibility which demands a rare capacity to distinguish between fundamental forces at work around the globe and localized crises of uncertain significance.

But there is a disturbing American tendency to overreact to certain ideological and military factors while overlooking issues of vastly greater relevance to our safety and well-being. A civil insurrection in Santo Domingo or Vietnam is dramatic, but what is its significance compared with such quiet challenges as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the surging of nationalism and social upheavals in the developing world, or the mounting crisis of hunger and population? What, too, is the relationship of the quality and strength of our own society to our position in the world? How will the world see us if we succeed in pacifying Vietnam but fail to pacify Chicago?

Volume 219, No. 1, pp. 55–57

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