President Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war has been called “new” or “radical” by most media. But it’s an old policy. The U.S. has had a policy almost since our founding of confronting threats before they materialize, unilaterally if necessary. Historian John Lewis Gaddis compares 9/11 and the subsequent American reaction to the August 24, 1814, attack on Washington, D.C. by the British, who proceeded to burn the Capitol and the White House. Ever since that attack, Gaddis says that the United States has viewed safety as coming from enlarging rather than contracting its sphere of responsibility. The invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818 was done under the right to act preemptively, lest the territory become occupied by enemies of the U.S.
President John Quincy Adams saw power vacuums as a dangerous threat that the U.S. should fill. Gaddis notes that Adams came to regret the brutal relocations of American Indians, but he had argued in favor of moving them aside in order to expand the American state along an insecure frontier.
President James Polk annexed Texas in 1845 under the concern that the state might fail and the British and French might possibly take over. Gaddis also points out that the same thinking led Polk to war with Mexico, in order to obtain California, whose harbors might become vulnerable to seizure by Europeans. Two months after the controversial 1898 sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Spain’s Havana harbor, the U.S. declared war. President McKinley followed this act of military preemption with the decision to take all of the Philippines out of fear that Germany or Japan might take the islands over.
The next two decades saw Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson use similar arguments to stage preemptive military action in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Gaddis emphasizes that each time the grounds were the possibility that instability within those countries might give the European powers grounds for intervening. America wrote the Platt Amendment into Cuba’s constitution in 1901, thereby retaining the right to intervene in its affairs. Gaddis says that the Panamanian Revolution of 1903 and the subsequent construction of the Panama canal were themselves preemptive acts orchestrated by Roosevelt.
He concludes, “Concerns about ‘failed’ or ‘derelict’ states then, are nothing new in the history of the United States foreign relations, nor are strategies of preemption in dealing with them. So when President Bush warned, at West Point in June 2002, that Americans must ‘be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives,’ he was echoing an old tradition rather than establishing a new one.”
President George Washington, who warned against entanglements with foreign countries, favored a form of unilateralism. Similarly, John Quincy Adams had written that “real independence” required a disconnection “from all European interests and European politics.” They didn’t favor a “global test” for U.S. foreign policy. They favored preemptive war and unilateral U.S action.