How America Got It Right by Bevin Alexander
Book Excerpt - Introduction
by Bevin Alexander
The easiest way to get a handle on the world view of Americans is to realize
that we think of ourselves as inhabiting an island. We saw in our earliest days
that the Western Hemisphere sat isolated in the midst of two vast oceans, and
that these oceans both separated us from the rest of the world, and protected
us from the rest of the world.
We have consistently sought not to share this island with competing
world powers. Americans have been resolute to prevent in the Western Hemisphere
a replication of the eternally warring and competing great powers of Europe.
The concept of America as an island explains virtually all of American history.
It explains why we turned our back on Europe for the first century and a
quarter of our independence in order to conquer and populate the most important
and favored part of this island, and to eliminate any threat to it from the
north or the south. It explains why---although weak, newly independent and
lightly populated---we laid out the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to close off
colonization or interference in the Western Hemisphere, thereby preventing any
world power from challenging us on our island. It explains why, at times we
were disillusioned with or distrustful of Europe, we isolated ourselves behind
our oceanic moat—as we did after World War I when, in despair at Europe's greed
and bickering, we refused to join the League of Nations, and as we did briefly
in 1940 when France fell and we feared Britain was going to fall to Nazi
Germany. It explains why, after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7,
1941, we developed overwhelming military power and, over the following years,
went across our oceans and methodically destroyed the enemies threatening our
island. It explains why we were willing to risk nuclear war in 1962 when the
Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba and jeopardized not only the United States
but also the safety of the hemisphere. It also explains why, after suffering a
direct attack on our island on September 11, 2001, we are today repeating the
process of World War II, going wherever we have to in the world to destroy
those who threaten our island.
The steadfast resolve to protect our island lies at the heart of all our dreams
and aspirations as a people, and defines everything the United States has been,
is, and hopes to be.
We saw early in our colonial history that—because of our isolation from Europe,
and because of the immense wealth and bounty of our land—we had the opportunity
to build the greatest, freest, and most prosperous nation ever to arise on
earth. We spent the first century and a quarter of our independent existence in
creating this great nation. But to protect this treasure, we found that we
needed to establish the world's paramount military structure , and become the
world's preeminent political power. This book is the story of America's march
to economic, military, and political supremacy, and the ideals that have guided
us along the way.
As will be seen, we have made the right decisions in the vast majority of cases
throughout our history, choosing democracy over plutocracy, equality over
privilege, liberty over oppression, and the prosperity of the many over the
greed of the few.
We have not always been consistent. For a while early in our history we
listened to Alexander Hamilton, who tried to sacrifice the interests of
ordinary people to the avarice of the wealthy. We had a huge blind spot
about slavery and allowed that iniquity to continue and to throw us into a
bitter fraternal conflict. We withdrew into isolationism between the two world
wars and allowed dictators to attack innocent peoples. We fought against what
we thought was the spread of communism in Vietnam when we were actually taking
sides in a civil war. We have made other mistakes. But our lapses have been
infrequent, and our intentions have almost always been good.
This inclination to do right has been virtually unique among the nations of the
world, and for this reason we have been often misunderstood. How could a
country so rich and successful be so unselfish and caring? We must have
darker motives, critics say. We must be seeking to create an empire, to
dominate everyone else, to grab the oil or the trade or whatever else for our
own selfish purposes. People from more grasping, less-idealistic societies find
it impossible to accept that we honestly believe that giving everyone
opportunity is the recipe for abundance and happiness everywhere, not merely in
the favored reaches of the United States of America. We honestly believe that
securing other people's freedom is the best guarantee that we can keep our own.
We do not want to dominate the world. We want to live our lives in peace, and
we hope other peoples will do the same. We go out into the world to redress
errors, to stop unacceptable behavior, to challenge threats to our island and
our liberty. When we have settled the problem, we want to go home, not stay and
build an empire.
From the outset of our history, Americans have focused on creating a great
nation in North America, not on conquering other peoples. For more than a
century after the Revolution, Americans were preoccupied with establishing the
economic and political foundations of this nation. During the entire period we
took advantage of the fact that we were largely insulated by a great ocean from
the quarreling, avaricious societies of Europe. The British Royal Navy, more to
protect Canada and its trade with Latin America than to guard the United
States, largely kept other navies at a distance. We saw no need to interfere
with European empires, so long as they stayed away from our hemisphere.
Therefore, the United States played only a minor role on the world stage,
and—despite establishing splendid records in wars on land and sea—created no
world-class navy , and allowed its army to atrophy after every conflict.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Americans realized that the
protection we enjoyed behind the Atlantic and the Pacific could not endure. An
American strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, proved in his 1890 work, The
Influence of Sea Power upon History, that there can be no partial control of
the sea because the sea is indivisible. A superior fleet can move over the
whole sea, sweeping all lesser navies from it. This was the means by which the
Royal Navy had dominated the oceans for the previous two and a half centuries,
and the reason why Britain had been able to accumulate the largest empire in
the history of the world.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Germany began to challenge the
naval power of Britain, and by implication Britain's world domination. It was
this threat, above all else, that caused World War I of 1914-18. This war
brought calamity to Britain, France, Germany, and much of the rest of Europe.
At war's end a gravely weakened, almost bankrupt Britain no longer could afford
the world's largest navy. The United States saw that protection of the Western
Hemisphere now rested on its own shoulders. Far more significant, we saw that
we could not wait until an aggressive power had built enough strength to invade
our hemisphere, but that we must go out to the aggressor, wherever he was, and
smash him there. In short, we must take over the world hegemonic role that
Britain had exercised since 1660.
This meant that the United States was obliged to build the largest and most
powerful navy in the world---a task it took on at the Washington Naval
Conference in 1922. The public saw only that Britain accepted naval parity with
the United States, the first time it had done so with any country. But leaders
of both nations knew the treaty actually signified that the Royal Navy would
decline in the decades ahead while the United States Navy would grow.
It took the United States until 1940 to undertake fully the task of creating
the world's greatest military power. The spark came with the disastrous
collapse of France and the ascendance of Nazi Germany, and in the next five
years, the United States developed a military able to defeat any provocation
anywhere on earth. We have never relinquished our place since. Indeed, the
superiority of the U.S. military has grown exponentially since the end of World
War II. Its power now exceeds that of all the rest of the world combined. Along
with this power has grown American political strength.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States held back the spread of Communism,
and promoted democracy, the rule of law, market economies, and free trade
everywhere. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, no nation was able to
match the United States. Some countries feared we would use our power to
dominate the world. To prevent this from happening, they tried to tie down the
United States by means of international bodies like the United Nations and the
World Trade Organization.
Since the United States saw no insurmountable dangers on the horizon, it was
more or less willing to work within an international context. Then the
terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11,
2001. For Americans, the world changed in an instant. The terrorists had struck
directly at our island, at what we hold most precious—at the very treasures we
built our overwhelming military and political power to protect in the first
place. The attacks transformed our nation from a benign hegemon into a
This was another right decision of the United States, and a most vital one. For
terrorism and dictatorial rogue nations pose as great a danger to the peace of
the world as ever Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin did. We saw this with absolute
clarity on that horrible day of death and tragedy. And we resolved that this we
would not allow to endure.
As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote, most other
peoples have not yet comprehended that our primary intention is to preserve and
keep our own land with all its liberty and all its prosperity, and that we will
do anything and go anywhere to make this happen. Most people in other countries
were unprepared for our resolution after 9/11 to proceed door-to-door in the
very heart of the Arab-Muslim world, to make clear we were ready to kill and to
die to stop our society from being undermined, and to say, gun in hand, to the
people and to the governments who permit terrorists to exist, "What is it that
you don't understand about leaving our country alone?" 
Misconceptions about American motives and aspirations are not limited to lands
that harbor terrorists. In the spring of 2003, France , Germany, Russia, and
China refused to sanction America's overthrow of the Iraqi dictatorship. We
didn't actually expect the vastly different and more repressive societies of
Russia and China to fathom the injustice perpetrated on our people and
institutions, but we did expect such sensitivity from Western Europe, fellow
democratic societies that supposedly stood for the same value we hold dear.
Americans were compelled to confront a bitter truth: we were dead wrong in our
conviction, held for the last half of the twentieth century, that the United
States and Western Europe share a common resolve to preserve and advance
freedom throughout the world. We have been forced to accept, as Robert Kagan
has written, that Europe "is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of
laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation." A century
ago, when a rising Germany was facing insufficient challenge from other powers,
Winston Churchill warned that "we live in an age of great events and little
men." Europe once more is living in an age of great events and little men.
Americans believe that Western Europeans bury their heads in the sand when
difficult decisions must be made, abstain on issues where they should display
moral leadership, and take positions only when their own interests are directly
This has led Americans to conclude that ours is the only nation that will
actually go into the world and strike down evil. We were encouraged when
Britain and Australia especially, but also some Continental nations, lined up
with us. But we know that they would do little without the active determination
of the United States. For these reasons, we must dominate the political life of
this planet, and we must keep an invincible military as an
This book is the story of how we got it right in the past and how we intend to
get it right in the future.
. Hamilton favored a strong central government and banking system, and
believed the country should be governed by a monopoly of the educated and
privileged. "The people," he once said, "is a great beast." In his biography of
Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes, , "Too often, his political vision
harked back to a past in which well-bred elites made decisions for
less-educated citizens." See Chernow, 234. Hamilton wanted subsidies and
tariffs to protect emerging industries, and believed that America should look
to England as its model embracing urbanization, modern industries, and rule by
a few over the many. His party became the Federalists. Thomas Jefferson
believed the opposite. He distrusted strong federal institutions and elite and
wealthy leaders, and believed that the federal government should have limited
powers, leaving day-to-day governance to the common people. His party, the
Democratic Republicans, represented small farmers and craftsmen. See Kupchan,
168; Hicks, 218.
. Thomas L. Friedman "Because We Could," New York Times, June 4, 2003 .
. Kagan, 3.
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Copyright © 1986-2005 Bevin Alexander • All rights reserved
This excerpt is the "Introduction" chapter from How America Got It Right
and is reprinted with Bevin Alexander's permission.
Written by Bevin Alexander. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Bevin Alexander at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please
visit Bevin Alexander's website at:
About the Author:
Bevin Alexander is the author of nine books on military history. He commanded
the 5th Historical Detachment in the Korean War, 1951-52, and received three
battle stars for service at the front. He holds a bachelor's degree with honors
in history from The Citadel, and a master's degree with distinction from
Northwestern University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Longwood
University, Farmville, Virginia.
Published online: 12/18/2005.