Article by Ralph Raico.
With the end of the 20th century rapidly approaching, this is a time to look back and gain some perspective on where we stand as a nation. Were the Founding Fathers somehow to return, they would find it impossible to recognize our political system. The major cause of this transformation has been America’s involvement in war and preparation for war over the past hundred years. War has warped our constitutional order, the course of our national development, and the very mentality of our people.
The process of distortion started about a century ago, when certain fateful steps were taken that in time altered fundamentally the character of our republic. One idea of America was abandoned and another took its place – although no conscious, deliberate decision was ever made. Eventually, this change affected all areas of American life, so that today our nation is radically different from the original ideal and, indeed, from the ideal probably still cherished by most Americans.
The turning point was signaled by a series of military adventures: the war with Spain, the war for the conquest of the Philippines, and, finally, our entry into the First World War. Together, they represented a profound break with American traditions of government.
Until the end of the 19th century, American foreign policy essentially followed the guidelines laid down by George Washington in his farewell address to the American people:
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is – in extending our commercial relations – to have with them as little political connection as possible.
The purpose of Washington’s admonition against entanglements with foreign powers was to minimize the chance of war. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, expressed this understanding when he wrote:
Of all enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.
History taught that republics that engaged in frequent wars eventually lost their character as free states. Hence, war was to be undertaken only in defense of our nation against attack. The system of government that the founders were bequeathing to us – with its division of powers, checks and balances, and power concentrated in the states rather than the federal government – depended on peace as the normal condition of our society.