Four themes in particular form the frame for American foreign policy during its first hundred years: independence, territorial expansion, belief in a national destiny, and commerce. Throughout, ideological visions combined with a hunger for land and territory, a healthy respect for European power, commercial interests, and fears for American security. From the vantage point of the present, American foreign policy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appears relatively inactive and isolationist. Compared with the global reach of American foreign policy during the Cold War and after, the Monroe Doctrine, for example, seems a small thing. Yet the experiences of the early republic contributed lasting pieces to the ideological perspective from which Americans came to view the world in the twentieth century and beyond.
The history of American foreign policy begins with the assertion of independence. One historian, Bradford Perkins, has characterized the American Revolution as "an act of isolation." Although the colonial relationship with Britain was soon severed by the Treaty of Paris (1783), the theme of independence reoccurred throughout the foreign policy of the early Republic. Americans envisioned a New World free from what they saw as the corrupting influences of the old. John Quincy Adams, for one, articulated a "Doctrine of Two Spheres," dividing the Old World and the new. And George Washington famously warned in his Farewell Address in 1796 against "entangling alliances" with Europe.
Perhaps the most significant expression of new world separatism came in the Monroe Doctrine of December 1823. The Monroe Doctrine had two main elements. First, President James Monroe asserted that the Americas were "not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." Although the United States did not propose to challenge existing colonial territories, it pledged to resist any further extension of European power into the Western Hemisphere. The second aspect of the Monroe Doctrine asserted U.S. opposition to European intervention in New World conflicts. The president declared that his government would view any European effort to intervene in Latin American affairs as "the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States." Monroe set up his country as the protector of the New World, though he had little power as yet to back up his claims. The Monroe Doctrine was nonetheless of lasting significance: As Bradford Perkins has written, the 1823 statement amounted to a "diplomatic declaration of independence."
The great powers of Europe, especially Britain, France, and Spain, did not acquiesce all at once to this division of the world. Following the war for independence from the British empire, the United States spent the early years of the nineteenth century in the Quasi-War with France after refusing to join Napoleon's war against Britain. Then, after an embargo on both British and French trade failed, the republic found itself again at war with Britain. The United States fought the War of 1812 to protect neutral trading rights, but most contemporaries viewed it as a second war for independence. The Treaty of Ghent (1814), which ended the war, changed little, but it did ratify American independence from Britain. Although Europeans generally denied the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine, characterizing it as a statement of ambition rather than reality, none of the great powers openly challenged it, allowing Americans to believe themselves successful. Throughout the nineteenth century European preoccupations such as the Crimean War (1854–1856) left Americans largely to their own devices, encouraging the illusion of isolation from European conflicts and a belief in a true separation of the Old World from the new.
A second theme of early foreign policy was a belief in American destiny. Few among the early generation of Americans questioned that their new nation was meant for greatness. In part this belief came from the Puritan heritage. The United States represented a "city on a hill" that God had chosen for a special destiny and mission in the world. This mission was understood over time in different ways, but the survival of America's republican government remained central. Early Americans believed that republican government was fragile, easily corrupted into tyranny from above or anarchy from below. After all, the republican experiments of the past had ended in failure. Moreover, the French Revolution raised significant questions for Americans about whether republican government could succeed elsewhere in the world. The excesses of the French Revolution, in particular the Terror (1793–1794) and the eventual rise of Napoleon as emperor (1804), reinforced a sense of exceptionalism and superiority in the American mind. This sense of superiority also had a racial aspect. American destiny was an Anglo-Saxon destiny. As Hunt explains, belief in racial hierarchy was part and parcel of American ideology.
The mixture of mission and race played out in a third theme of early foreign policy: expansion. For nineteenth-century Americans geography was destiny. To the west lay an empty continent, and expansion was nothing less than inevitable. For Americans at the time the same divine providence that had guided the founding seemed to sanction a right to expansion. In the 1840s the writer John O'Sullivan gave name to this impulse: manifest destiny. O'Sullivan believed in the inevitability of American greatness and the necessity of the American example for the world. Americans must "carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of the beast of the field," he wrote. The United States had a mission "to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." The new nation would make "manifest" the virtues of freedom and Anglo-Saxon civilization. As the historian Anders Stephanson explains, manifest destiny served as a legitimizing myth of empire. Manifest destiny helped reconcile the national mythology of exceptionalism and virtue with ambition and acquisitiveness. Americans thus understood their territorial expansion in a particularly American way, drawing on ideas deeply embedded in their cultural heritage and self-identity.
And the United States quickly overspread the continent. Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase (1803) marked the first major expansion, extending the boundaries of the United States to the Mississippi River. Subsequently, John Quincy Adams became a key architect of American expansion, negotiating the 1819 Transcontinental Treaty with Spain, which extended American claims all the way to the Pacific. These claims did not go entirely unchallenged, as the British sought to retain their foothold in the Pacific Northwest and Mexico claimed significant portions of the Southwest. Moreover the issue of slavery complicated considerably the process of admitting new states into the union. And of course the continent was not empty: The Cherokee and Iroquois among others tried desperately to keep their ancestral lands. But with a combination of war and treaty the United States managed to secure hold over much of the continent by mid-century. Racial attitudes of superiority helped rationalize the bloody and dangerous work of subduing the native populations, as did the ideology of destiny and divine mission. At the same time, race paradoxically limited American expansion to the south. During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), President James K. Polk turned away from conquering the whole of Mexico, believing that Latin Americans were not ready for republican government. This belief in Latin American inferiority proved lasting, though ambivalence toward spreading democracy did not.
The final ingredient of early foreign policy was commerce. Revisionist historians such as William Appleman Williams argue that the search for markets has driven American foreign policy from the beginning. Commerce and efforts to protect American trade in particular have always been an element of foreign policy. Americans have long shown a tendency to assert universalistic claims and champion neutral rights that serve American interests. The rebellion against Britain was in part over trading privileges. Even more so was the War of 1812. There were territorial issues and domestic political positions at stake in the War of 1812, but maritime rights were central to the American grievance with Britain. The United States opposed the British efforts to blockade France by decree, known as a "paper blockade," and demanded that Britain recognize the principle of "free ships free goods." Goods transported by neutral American shipping should be immune from seizure by British naval forces and American seamen free from impressment into the British navy, argued the Madison administration. The War of 1812 did not resolve these issues, though the principles of free trade and neutral shipping won some protection under international law in subsequent decades.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Secretary of State John Hay passed the Open Door Notes to the other great powers. Hay hoped to establish the principle of free trade and open markets. The subject was the China trade, but the principle involved transcended the particulars. Much as the Monroe Doctrine expressed a long-held belief in the separation of the Old and New Worlds, the open door notes signified the importance of trade and commerce to American policy-makers. Williams has argued that the open door represents the keystone of American foreign policy. Americans have throughout their history sought to secure global markets, an open door, for American goods. To Williams and other revisionist scholars, the impetus of the open door has made for an inherently expansionist U.S. policy that has in effect created an informal empire under the guise of asserting neutral rights. Revisionists exaggerate, perhaps, the dominance, the power of the open door, but trade and commerce nonetheless have remained central elements of the story.
Until the end of the nineteenth century American ideology had little influence beyond its borders. The mythology of the founding and the other tenets of American identity served to reinforce unity at home. Most Americans perceived the United States as a nation apart and clung to isolationist attitudes. But growing American power and widening commercial and political interests meant a turn to a more activist foreign policy beginning in the early years of the twentieth century. The first president of the new century, Theodore Roosevelt, proved an able champion of American power, sending his new navy around the world. Roosevelt also involved himself in Old World diplomacy, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Events in the Old World soon ensured that Roosevelt's successors would see little alternative but to continue the project of asserting American power.
World War I (1914–1918) and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia stand together as the defining events of the twentieth century. World War I brought to an end the Habsburg and Turkish empires, opening the question of nationalism and self-determination in eastern and central Europe. The Bolshevik Revolution, meanwhile, introduced a new ideology to the world: Marxist-Leninism. The conflicts created by the combination of declining empires, unleashed nationalisms, and new ideologies proved lasting, shaping events for the rest of the century. President Woodrow Wilson, who served from 1912 to 1920, proved a pivotal figure who redefined American traditions to meet the new circumstances of the twentieth century. The growing power of nationalism, the ideological challenge of Marxist-Leninism, and the revolutions set loose by retreating empires: to these challenges Wilson brought a distinctly American response.
Wilson has remained a controversial figure. Scholars have variously seen him as a starry-eyed idealist and as a wise statesman who pursued a kind of enlightened realism. An idealist Wilson certainly was. The president believed in the perfectibility of man and his institutions and that extending democracy could make for a more peaceful world. He sought to channel nationalism into democratic direction and find an alternative to the political arrangements of the past, in particular the secret treaties and multinational empires he believed had brought about the Great War. He hoped the orderly legal arrangements of the League of Nations would prevent conflict while at the same time protect traditional American interests in free trade and neutrality.
With a liberal's fear of radicalism Wilson intervened in the Mexican revolution (1910–1915) to "teach Mexicans to elect good men." With equal distaste for conservatism he saw little reason to regret the breakup of the multinational Habsburg empire in central and eastern Europe. And with a traditional American ambivalence toward social change he sought to turn back revolution in Russia, fearing the challenge to property rights Marxist-Leninism seemed to represent and the instability the revolution threatened. The president believed in democracy. But he also saw spreading democracy abroad as a way to ensure the American way of life at home. In this he abandoned his predecessors' pessimism about the possibilities for republican government elsewhere. The United States should not only serve as an example, but also actively promote liberal values abroad. In Wilson, moralism, ideology, and interest entwined in an activist, universalist liberalism. That Wilson's vision ran aground against the radicalism of revolution, the impossibility of intervention on behalf of self-determination, and the institutionalized rivalries of the European great powers in no way lessened its lasting influence.
Yet despite the universalist implications of the Wilsonian vision, the United States in the interwar period limited its involvement in world affairs, refusing to join the League of Nations. This is not to say that the U.S. withdrew entirely from the world during the 1920s and 1930s. It participated in naval conferences with the other great powers and tangled with Japan in the Pacific, but not with the kind of far-reaching universalist claims and hopes of 1918. For all the importance Wilsonian ideology seemed posed to have in shaping American foreign policy in the aftermath of World War I, it was rivaled by isolationism. Prosperity at home took precedence over idealism abroad, particularly after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
But this aloofness from the world could not last. The 1933 Nazi seizure of power in Germany meant little to most Americans at the time, but its effects soon rippled throughout the international system. After the invasion of Poland in 1939 the United States was not entirely uninvolved in World War II but proved able to avoid direct intervention. Instead President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his country an arsenal for democracy against Germany and its allies. After Japanese pilots bombarded Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, however, events again drew the United States into a pivotal role in world affairs, and it faced the challenge of reconciling its traditions and self-image with the ways of the world.
Although Wilsonianism was held responsible by the 1940s for the failed peace settlement of Versailles, it still exerted a powerful hold on the American imagination. The bipartisan support for the United Nations, the new collective security organization proposed in 1945, and Roosevelt's wartime rhetoric testified to the continued power of Wilsonian ideals. But against these hopes the post–World War II peace felt fragile, in part as a result of the new vulnerability that technology imposed and Pearl Harbor symbolized. The lessons of history hard learned at Munich and Versailles combined with old beliefs in American mission and exceptionalism as policymakers of the 1940s wrestled with the dilemmas of the postwar world. It soon became clear, even as World War II was coming to a close, that chief among these dilemmas was the reality of Soviet power. Within two years of the end of the war, a unique kind of conflict, soon dubbed the Cold War, was on. America's new vulnerability had an agent, Soviet communism, and a panacea, the strategy of containment.