Since the early days of the Republic, American presidents have issued statements and declarations about foreign policy matters. They often have been expressed in bold terms, recounting the policies and values of the United States, as well as its aims and intentions, in addition to ideological content, venerating “free peoples” and the virtues of liberty. In time, these statements have assumed the status of “doctrines,” and their association with the President who announced them, constitute an important and prominent chunk of our nation’s diplomatic history. As it happens, most of the doctrines have followed the path of the “Monroe Doctrine,” a seminal statement of policies that reflected American purposes in the realm of international relations. At bottom, most of the doctrines—those named for Monroe, Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan and Bush—may be understood as responses to immediate challenges or crises. They have shared a similar purpose: to warn foreign nations, perceived as hostile to American concerns, of the United States intentions to promote and protect its interests.
The Monroe Doctrine, announced by President James Monroe in his annual message of December 1823, gave voice to a national interest long championed by American leaders—that the United States should protect its predominance in Western Hemispheric affairs by discouraging European intrusion. The initial impulse for the policy that became the Monroe Doctrine was a British-inspired fear that France might have designs on Spanish colonies in the Americas. France explained that it harbored no intentions of laying hands on the colonies, but the concern motivated the Monroe Administration to contemplate policies to protect against European intrusion into the Western Hemisphere. Did the United States need to project itself into European politics, or could it entrust its sphere of influence to the geographic fact of the Atlantic Ocean?
On December 2, 1823, President Monroe declared in his celebrated message to Congress that the American continents were no longer open to European colonization and that the United States would regard any effort of the European powers to extend their government to any portion of the Western Hemisphere as a threat to its peace and safety. In the same breath, Monroe assured Europe that the United States would not interfere with its dependencies in the Americas or involve itself in matters purely European.
In practice, the United States regarded the Monroe Doctrine as policy, not principle. Subsequent administrations were not bound by doctrines proclaimed by their predecessors and, in any case, judged events in Latin America on the basis of U.S. interests, not by a principle that the United States should oppose every European action in the New World. In 1845, for example, President James K. Polk sought to affirm U.S. interests in Oregon on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine. But when, in 1848, Polk tried to invoke the Monroe Doctrine to defend the government of Yucatan, he was rebuffed by Sen. John Calhoun, a member of Monroe’s cabinet, who dismissed the doctrine as irrelevant to U.S. interests in Latin America. During the Civil War, Secretary of State Seward, calculating the interests of the United States, decided not to challenge French defiance of the Monroe Doctrine in Mexico.
It is worth noting that President Monroe, in his configuration of the doctrine that he proclaimed, did not believe that he might, unilaterally, order the use of military force to protect U.S. interests in the hemisphere. On the contrary, he disclaimed all pretense of executive authority to initiate military hostilities, without congressional authorization. In 1824, Colombia asked Monroe for protection against France. President Monroe, a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, well understood the commands of the War Clause of the Constitution, and stated in a letter to James Madison, then in retirement at Montpelier: “The Executive has no right to compromit the nation in any question of war”; and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, replied to Colombia that “by the Constitution . . . the ultimate decision of this question belongs to the Legislative Department.”
Few presidential doctrines rival the influence and importance of the Truman Doctrine in its impact on the formulation and conduct of American foreign affairs. In the wake of World War II, and the onset of the Cold War, President Harry Truman carved out a policy that would govern US-USSR relations for decades. On March 12, 1947, in a message before a joint session of Congress, Truman declared: “At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” Too often, he observed, that choice was not a free one. Thus, it would be the policy of the United States “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” While Truman did not mention names of those free peoples facing subjugation, they included, most prominently, Greeks and Turks, their liberties endangered by communist influence and sources. Truman would ask Congress to provide them with $400 million in economic and military aid. The stakes were far higher than the freedom of the Greeks and Turks, Truman believed, for the United States was caught in a global struggle between two ways of life. Consequently, Truman deemed all of “the free peoples of the world” equally worthy of American assistance.
Although critics accused President Truman of establishing an interventionist foreign policy that plunged the United States into the Korean War and subsequently the Vietnam War, his policy was defended as one that counseled flexibility and restraint. But Truman, unlike Monroe, believed that the executive did possess the power of war and peace, and he committed the US to the Korean War, becoming the first American President to lay claim to unilateral authority to initiate war. The doctrine did establish guidelines for the remainder of the Cold War. It laid the groundwork for appeals to aid democratic forces, which left to subsequent administrations the determination of what constituted democratic behavior. Perhaps the most important legacy of the doctrine was that it inspired legislation that promoted its premises. For example, Congress established aid programs such as the Marshall Plan, and treaties, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), that committed the United States, economically and militarily, to the defense of Europe. The creation of the National Security Council and the dramatic increases in America’s military budget were also part of the Truman Doctrine’s legacy. For better or worse, many of the United States’ military actions, from Vietnam to its support of Afghani and Nicaraguan rebels, grew out of the doctrine. Scholars continue to debate the relative merits and wisdom of the doctrine, just as they debate the origins and causes of the Cold War.
The Cold War also provided a context for the emergence of the Eisenhower Doctrine. In January of 1957, President Eisenhower pledged to defend the Middle East region “from any country controlled by international communism,” a platform that reflected the influence of President Truman’s commitment to supporting “free peoples” resisting foreign aggression. Like the Monroe and Truman doctrines, Eisenhower’s doctrine grew out of significant challenges confronting American interests. Since 1946, the United States had sought to counter Soviet encroachment in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
The same impulse that energized the Truman and Eisenhower doctrines—Soviet aggression—provided the basis for what the New York Times in January of 1980, called the Carter Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980, President Jimmy Carter referred to the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and declared that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The Carter doctrine hastened the buildup of American arms, a process that was already underway by January 1980, and for which some scholars gave him great credit. It was the Reagan Administration, however, that capitalized on the perceived need for greater military expenditures and reshaping America’s military.
Of the various presidential doctrines that have emerged since World War II, the boldest, most far-reaching of the lot would come from the administration of George W. Bush. Unlike his predecessors who, for the most part, were carving out doctrines that emerged from the United States’ entanglement in the Cold War, the Bush Doctrine grew out of the attack on America on September 11, 2001. More than presidents before him, who articulated the concept of preemptive war, President Bush counseled the need for America to engage in “preventive war.” As articulated in a document entitled, “National Security Strategy,” released in September of 2002, President Bush warned against enemies seeking weapons of mass destruction, pledging to “act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” History, he said, “will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.”
The United States had long accepted the idea of preemptive war, that is, a clear and demonstrable need to initiate military hostilities in the face of solid evidence of a forthcoming attack, as seen, for example, in the massing of an army on the nation’s borders. The concept if anticipatory self-defense is well-heeled, but the evidence to justify it must be compelling. But the Bush Doctrine surpassed the concept of preemptive war and suggested the unilateral authority of the President to strike against nations who might, someday, represent a grave threat to the United States. Senior members of the Bush Administration began to describe and defend it: The United States doesn’t need to wait for the mushroom clouds before acting in its defense.
The doctrine of preventive war had once been suggested to President Eisenhower, who dismissed it immediately as unacceptable and dangerous. Indeed, if other nations embraced the concept of preventive war, striking nations who they regarded as adversaries and feared future hostilities, the result would be war across the globe. Critics pointed out the futility and folly of the doctrine of preventive war, which relied on crystal ball gazing with enormous consequences to the peace and security of the planet.