Failing to learn from history

Young Americans, whose liberty and security will depend in part on how future presidents conduct foreign policy, have good reason to study how past presidents did it.

A recent scientific survey, however, determined that most college seniors didn’t know the difference between President George Washington’s understanding of the imperatives of American foreign policy and President Woodrow Wilson’s — remarkable, given that Washington’s and Wilson’s visions represent profoundly different strains in the making of American policy.

Washington, a great general before he became president, might be called an apostle of prudence. He cast a cold eye on the nature and practice of international relations, always searching for the path most likely to serve, and to advance, American interests. Conflict, he believed, was an ineradicable condition of human affairs; America, unless its most vital interests were threatened or compromised, must avoid it.

Woodrow Wilson, a distinguished Princeton professor and president, was an idealist. An activist American policy, he believed — activist and interventionist — should recognize the obligation to establish an international order that would bring permanent peace to the world.

During Washington’s presidency, the French Revolution brought down a monarchy that had aided America in our war for independence. When those who had made the revolution made war on their neighbors, Washington spurned ideological appeals that he demonstrate American solidarity with republican France. His administration insisted that the country maintain a strict neutrality.

Like other presidents, Washington was at pains to explain his views in a Farewell Address.

“Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rival ship, interest, humor, or caprice?” he asked. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

Washington believed that his country should maintain a strong defense and mind its own business. “Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies,” he advised his countrymen. “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”

In 1917, at President Wilson’s request, Congress declared war on Germany. He did so for reasons that compelled, and still compel, broad understanding and support. He went a step further, however: “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he insisted. He offered also a detailed program for the management of European affairs — and, indeed, world affairs. His Fourteen Points represented “the program of the world’s peace … is our program.” The last of his Fourteen Points insisted upon the creation of a “general association of nations” for supervising international affairs — “supervision” meaning a program that, somehow, could maintain international peace.

It is difficult to imagine a vision less like President Washington’s.

This critical point is lost, however, on most college students of 2008. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released a study based on a survey of 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges nationwide. Each was given a 60-question multiple choice “civic literacy” exam, focusing on American history, government, international relations and economics. The typical student failed, with the average senior scoring only 54.2 percent.

One test question asked where one would find a warning to the American people to avoid entangling alliances and involvement in Europe’s wars. Was it in Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, Washington’s Farewell Address, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the League of Nations Covenant, or The Treaty of Versailles?

Seniors, it turned out, were less likely than freshmen to answer this question correctly. Only 44.6 percent of freshmen and 36.6 percent of seniors knew it was Washington’s Farewell Address. The most commonly selected wrong answer was Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Seniors, moreover, were more likely to make this mistake (27.7 percent) than freshmen (22.7 percent).

Americans, in this presidential election year, are still struggling to find a sensible consensus for dealing with the challenges and threats of a post-9/11 world. We might find that consensus sooner if colleges taught students at least the rudiments of how Americans dealt with the world in other turbulent eras.

(Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting is president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Lehrman American Studies Center, president of the H. Frank Guggenheim Foundation and superintendent emeritus of the Virginia Military Institute.)

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