Party Politics - The first decades

These differences were much in evidence from the very beginning of the two-party system, in the 1790s. Few were the foreign policy decisions in that decade that were not affected by partisan concerns. Even George Washington's Farewell Address, to this day the major statement of the need for American freedom of action in foreign affairs (it warned against "permanent alliances"), must be seen in light of the 1796 election. The French minister to Philadelphia, Pierre Adet, upset over the pro-British Jay's Treaty and America's failure to honor the 1778 alliance with France, worked hard to have Thomas Jefferson win the 1796 presidential race over the Federalist candidate, John Adams. That interference influenced Washington (and his coauthor Alexander Hamilton, a bitter foe of Jefferson) to issue the Farewell Address that warned Americans against tying themselves to the fortunes of any "foreign influence." The historian Alexander DeConde put it succinctly: "Although cloaked in phrases of universal or timeless application, the objectives of the address were practical, immediate, and partisan."

Party politics and electoral strategizing also permeated the atmosphere in the lead-up to the War of 1812 and indeed helped bring on the hostilities. As many historians have demonstrated, the increasingly bitter partisan struggle over domestic and foreign policy in the early years of the century, exacerbated by the effects of the war between Britain and France, grew into corrosive mutual distrust. Federalists and Republicans were deeply split on the best policy vis-à-vis Great Britain, and the vote for war followed partisan lines—81 percent of Republicans in both houses voted for war (98 to 23), and all Federalists voted nay (39 to 0).

But President Madison's concerns went deeper than defending against Federalist attacks on his commercial warfare policy. He also had to worry about dissension among fellow Republicans and the possibility that these "malcontents"—who wanted a tougher line against the British—might move to create an anti-Madison ticket in 1812. By the spring of 1811, sympathetic legislators were warning Madison that he had to do something to unify the party, and by July of that year the pressures of domestic politics were making it very hard for the administration to agree to anything short of Britain's total capitulation to American demands. According to the historian J. C. A. Stagg, for Madison "there seemed to be only one course of action that would be both honorable and effective. He could regain the initiative at home and abroad by moving toward the positions advocated for so long by his Republican opponents. If he did not do so, there was the possibility that they would coalesce into a formidable anti-administration party, make the issue of war and preparedness wholly their own, and turn them against him in the months to come." In Stagg's words, "the nation's honor, the president's political salvation, and the unity of the Republican Party required that American policy now be directed toward war." What's more, the strategy worked: by May 1812 the malcontents had faded and a sufficiently large Republican majority had emerged in both houses to renominate Madison. The declaration of war followed in June.

This is not to suggest that Madison's fears for his domestic political standing alone drove the decision making that led to war with Great Britain. Monocausal history is seldom satisfactory history. The violations of American maritime rights, the impressment of American seamen, British incitement of hostile Native Americans, American designs on Canada and Florida, the depressing effects of British policy on American farm prices—each of these mattered as well, as did the long-standing partisan squabbling between Federalists and Republicans. It is also clear, though, that the president's perceived political needs, specifically his concern about possibly losing his party's nomination in 1812, shaped American policy in crucial ways. In particular, understanding why the war happened when it did—in a presidential election year, and with the incumbent in a precarious position at home—requires understanding the high-stakes struggle within the Republican Party.

Consider again the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. In a provocative work bearing the prosaic title The Making of the Monroe Doctrine (1975), the historian Ernest R. May rejected the claim of Perkins and others that conceptions of national interest and foreign policy were supreme in the origins of the doctrine. Instead, May argued, party politics were decisive. ("The positions of the policymakers were determined less by conviction than by ambition.") In May's view the outcome of the foreign policy debates can only be understood in relation to the struggle for the presidency, because the Monroe Doctrine was "actually a byproduct of an election campaign." The threat of intervention by the European powers into the Western Hemisphere was nonexistent, and American officials knew it. As a result, they could play politics with the British proposal for a joint policy statement; John Quincy Adams opposed joint action while his bitter presidential rival John C. Calhoun fervently supported it. Adams's candidacy would have been hurt by consummation of an alliance with Britain because the British were thoroughly unpopular among the U.S. electorate. As secretary of state, Adams would have been attacked for joining with the British even if he opposed the alliance in private cabinet discussions. Calhoun pushed for acceptance of the London government's offer, knowing Adams would be blamed for it, while President Monroe, anxious to leave the presidency with his reputation intact, gave in to Adams to avoid a fight that might tarnish his record. It is a compelling argument, made in part, as May noted, on the basis of "inference from circumstantial evidence." One does not have to embrace May's thesis in its entirety—Were officials really so certain that no foreign danger existed?—to see that party politics were instrumental in the making of the doctrine.

And party politics were instrumental in foreign policymaking at various other times as well in the decades before John Hay took such delight at the outcome of the war against Spain. Here one thinks, for example, of the debate over whether to recognize Greek independence in 1823 (which, like the Monroe Doctrine, was intimately bound up with the 1824 presidential race); of President Franklin Pierce's attempt to acquire Cuba in 1854 in order to placate proslavery leaders in the American South; and of Grover Cleveland's decision—made partly for partisan reasons—not to submit the 1884 Berlin agreement on Africa's partition (of which he basically approved) to the Senate for approval.

Nor did things change after the century turned. The Wilson administration's original decision to postpone recognition of Bolshevik Russia in 1918 was not primarily the product of political pressure within the United States, but the fact that this nonrecogition continued for fifteen years and was intimately connected with domestic politics. A few politicians seem to have felt that nonrecognition would damage the Soviet Union or protect the United States against real dangers. Many more were convinced that taking a stand against the Soviet Union and domestic radicals was "good politics" or that those who openly favored diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union would suffer political punishment. Consequently, practical politics in the United States served to prevent these two major powers from discussing their differences until the need for foreign trade enabled Franklin D. Roosevelt to reestablish diplomatic relations in 1933.

In 1936 and again in 1940, Roosevelt allowed reelection concerns to affect his approach to the Nazi menace. In the late summer of 1936, Roosevelt told journalists of his desire to convene a conference of world leaders to discuss ways to assure the peace of the world; at the same time, he ruled out taking any steps prior to the election that could open him to Republican charges that he was embroiling the United States in overseas commitments. Four years later, Roosevelt's hesitation in finalizing the destroyers-for-bases deal with Great Britain—he delayed for nearly four months after receiving Winston Churchill's desperate pleas for destroyers—owed much to his fear that Republican challenger Wendell Willkie might use the issue to rouse isolationist sentiment and thereby cost Roosevelt the election that fall. Only after Willkie agreed not to make the transaction a campaign issue was the deal struck. Overall during that critical year, Roosevelt moved cautiously on foreign policy, concerned that open diplomatic moves would evoke isolationist predictions of U.S. involvement in the fighting and undermine his chances for a third term.

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