I think that there is a general recognition that at least since 9/11 the US has become more heavily focused on its security both domestically and internationally. There is of course an ongoing debate as to whether we have achieved an effective balance or have become obsessed with looking for threats under the bed. Calling it a security state is not really an exaggeration. Security is something that both nations and individuals must deal with. Since the US emerged from WWII as the single most powerful nation on the planet security issues have played an ever greater role in the national imagination. This did not all start on September 11, 2001.
I think that in order to put our present circumstances into perspective it is useful to look at the road that we have traveled to get to this point. For that reason and because I really like writing about history I am going to attempt to do that.
Given the complexity of the subject I am going to divide my exploration into two parts. In the first I will focus on the US's concern for its security in its dealings with the rest of the world. In the second I will focus on issues of domestic security. As we get closer to the present this distinction becomes more and more arbitrary, but issues of constitutional law do create distinctions in the discussion.
During the 19th C the new American republic focused most of its attention on establishing its domination over the western hemisphere. The drive fueled by the belief in manifest destiny took direct control over the best land in North America and the Monroe Doctrine established a claim to the rest of it as a sphere of influence. It effectively posted a sign saying Europe keep out. That led to a widespread preference for isolationism as a posture in foreign policy through out much of the country. The major exception to this view were the financial and industrial interest of the eastern seaboard.
Woodrow Wilson managed to eventually inveigle the country into entering WW I on the side of the allies. At that point a large minority of the public were foreign born citizens and residents who had immigrated, many of them from Germany and central Europe. The Wilson administration was greatly concerned to enforce their cooperation and participation. One of its approaches to doing so was the Espionage Act of 1917 which is still in force today and has proved an attractive tool for the present Obama administration.
At the point that the US entered the war the Allies and Central powers were both at the point of military, economic and political exhaustion. The US presence and money tipped the scales and brought Allied victory. Wilson easily convinced himself that he had been anointed as the savior of the world. Thus were born the twin notions of American exceptionalism and liberal internationalism. He left for the Paris peace conference carrying the torch of liberty with which he expected to lead humanity to perpetual peace and prosperity. He returned having signed the draconian Treaty of Versailles and expecting the US to sign up for his pet project the League of Nations.
Wilson lost the battle for ratification of the League treaty. Americans were not ready to take on the role of world leader that he envisioned for them. The country reverted to its isolationist position and decided that it was time to close the open door to immigration. The Republicans remained in power for the next 12 years and consistently pursued an arms length foreign policy.
The crisis of the great depression brought Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency. Having been an assistant secretary of the navy in the Wilson administration and the Democratic candidate for vice president he was steeped in the principles of Wilsonian democracy. During his first term his attention was focused on keeping the lid on economic and political stability at home. After that he became more and more focused on the steadily deteriorating international situation. There is no question that he wanted the US to play a very active role in international affairs. However, he faced major political constraints from the strong commitment of US public opinion to continued isolationism. In his best Machiavellian fashion he found ways to provide support to the UK. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor broke down the barriers of isolationism and the US was at war.
Through out the war FDR was at pains to use his charm on Stalin. On one occasion at the Tehran conference he connived with him behind Churchill's back in the dismemberment of Poland. The short term objective was getting the USSR to participate in the invasion of Japan once Germany had been conquered. His long range vision seems to have been of a world running under the joint control of the US and the USSR. He most definitely did not envision the cold war that was to come after his death.
The use by the US of the atomic bomb against Japan as soon as it was available brought the war to a close much sooner than anticipated. The problem then became one of keeping the USSR out of the game instead of enticing it in. After six years of the most brutal devastation that the world has ever seen, WW II came to an end. Sitting in the oval office was Harry S. Truman, a plucky little man from Missouri who had been told nothing by FDR and who had no experience in international affairs. The basic expectation of most Americans was that the troops would be quickly brought home and that the country would go back to tending to its own business.
There were two major strains shaping the US politics of planing for a post war world. FDR had laid plans for his version of the Wilsonian vision. The Breton Woods conference which took place before his death laid out a plan for the management of the global economy. Among other things it established the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which are still with us and created a place holder that later morphed into the World Trade Organization. The San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations was in the works and continued with Truman's full support.
Republicans were divided in their response to this approach. The traditional isolationist wing under the leadership of Robert Taft wanted no part of such foreign entanglements. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the ranking Republican on the foreign relations committee and John Foster Dulles were the Republican representatives in the US delegation to the UN conference. They were allied with the internationalist wing of the party.
I have done a great deal of reading about the history of the period from 1945-1948 when the post war geopolitics were very much in a state of flux. I am not entirely convinced that the cold war as it evolved was inevitable. Churchill was attempting to engage in traditional European power politics during most of the war. His desire was to extend the British sphere of influence as far east as possible. He was not really able to envision a world in which the British wouldn't really have a whole lot of influence left. However, whether the US and the USSR were on an inevitable ideological collision course, by 1948 with the Berlin blockade the cold war was on.
For a lot of people that is now ancient history. However, I grew up in the middle of it and I strongly believe that much of Americans view of the world is still influenced by that period. The world, like Gaul, was divided into tres partes, the US and Western Europe as the first world, the USSR, the Warsaw Pact and the PRC as the second, with all of the nations with little money and power as the third. The first and second stalked to globe as adversaries in war and love wooing the hearts and minds of the third. Looming over the entire world was the dark threat that soon both sides had The Bomb.
Dwight Eisenhower, as the great war hero, came home with a halo round his head in the view of the American public. In 1948 Truman offered to step aside if he would agree to run on the Democratic ticket. He declined and became president of Columbia University. Harry went out and gave em hell and won a truly dramatic skin of his teeth victory. Four years later Eisenhower agreed to run on the Republican ticket for fear that if he didn't Taft would take the presidency and attempt to take the country back to a policy of isolationism. Liberal internationalism became bipartisan policy.
Dulles, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was inclined to use the pulpit provided as Secretary of State to preach morality to the world. However, there was very little in the way of foreign policy in the Eisenhower administration that could be described as a significant departure from what the Democrats had been doing. The focus was on projecting US military power and moral supremacy. The partisan battle ground was fought over the domestic issue of communist infiltration into US government and public affairs. It was to exercise an influence on foreign policy along the way. Republicans, who for the most part had not wanted to deal with foreign problems found a useful political weapon in accusing Democrats of having done a less than perfect job in dealing with them.
John Kennedy ran for president against Richard Nixon who had built his political reputation on red baiting and character assassination. Kennedy found it essential to stake out a position of being tough on communism. This became a recurring script in US politics. Upon taking office JFK set out to burnish his anti-communist credentials by ramping up the US involvement in the long running war in Vietnam. There is now some documentation that supports the contention that prior to his assassination, Kennedy had become disillusioned with the prospects for a resolution of that mess and had plans to begin pulling out after the 1964 election. Either he never communicated those plans to his vice president and successor or LBJ chose to ignore them. Once he had obtained election on his own, he went hell bent for leather in the best Texas gunslinger tradition to show the world that Americans could stand up to the global communist menace. The domino theory was concocted to convince the public that if they weren't stopped in the Mekong delta, they would be landing on the beaches of California.
Everybody has seen the footage of the helicopter lifting off the last US marines from Saigon. The unthinkable had happened. The United States of America had been forced to throw in the towel in a fight with a small communist nation. Two presidents had been forced out of office in the process. Nixon got on the helicopter just short of impeachment. The aftermath of Vietnam was truly a low point in US foreign policy and power. It had the potential to be a turning point.
In 1972 George McGovern won the Democratic nomination and ran on a platform that endorsed many of the ideas of the new left. The campaign did much to fracture the Democratic coalition. Organized labor refused to endorse him and sat out the election. His resounding defeat left the party in disarray. However the scandal of Watergate handed the White House to the Democrats on a platter and Jimmy Carter, Sunday school teacher to the world, walked in. Anti-communist wars were not likely to be a hit in 1977, so he proceeded to hold Sunday school in the Middle East. Eventually he got in well over his head. The quagmire that helped end his presidency was a harbinger of 21st C foreign policy.
Ronald Reagan had the notion that the best way to deal with the general American demoralization of the 70s was a good stiff shot of all new and improved cold war. He did his best to breath new life into it with flag waving and slogans like It's morning in America again. He managed to breath new life into the party that was reeling from Watergate. Perhaps the greatest scene of his B movie acting career was shaking his fist at the Berlin Wall and delivering his line, Tear down that wall Mr. Gorbechev! Just after Ronnie had exited stage right, the wall came a tumbmlin down. The USSR proceeded to disintegrate in rapid order, mostly because of chronic internal problems rather than because Ronnie struck terror into their craven hearts. Suddenly after fifty years America was without a sworn enemy. It was yet another crisis of national identity. Just what was the world's sole remaining super power supposed to wear the ball?
During the Clinton years there was talk of a peace dividend and what to invest it in. However more people were interested in investing in glitzy dotcoms that promised to create virtual money out of virtual air. Never the less seed planted by America's past policies were already germinating to sprout dividends that would produce new challenges to global power. By having the CIA fund the rebels resisting the last military caper of the USSR in Afghanistan we provided the weapons and seed money that would eventually result in the Taliban and a launching base for 9/11. In deciding that the demise of the USSR opened the gate for the first Gulf war we created the US military presence in Saudi Arabia that provided inspiration for the formation of AlQueda.
The planes flying into the twin towers were generally accepted as the Pearl Harbor of the 21st C. We have established what promises to be a perpetual military presence in the Middle East. Once again we have a sworn enemy that persuades the American public to accept foreign wars and domestic security. It's name is terrorism. It has no state, no government and no army. Never the less we have managed to fit it into the cold war apparatus which was in desperate need of a purpose to justify its continued existence.
In retrospect I think it is accurate to say that Democratic presidents have been the architects of the basic structure of the international US security state. The motivation was always a mixture of liberal idealism and the urge for global hegemony. The Republicans by and large waited to see how it was going to work out and them began to make political use of it when it looked like a going concern, The really important point is that there has been a fundamental continuity in the goals of US foreign policy over the past 70 years. Despite the gyrations of election campaigns, whoever is in power follows a very similar path from the one that came before him. The present administration is no exception.