Sebastian Awatramani

The Death of Thomas Jefferson

The Death of Thomas Jefferson

Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian perspectives on foreign affairs stand in stark contrast with one another. On the one hand, Jeffersonian democrats are characterized by isolationism, partly based on fears that foreign entanglements and complicated interests would lead to the destruction of democracy domestically. Hamilton, on the other hand, saw the future of the United States as one which would supplant Great Britain as the world’s hegemon, and the country would focus on pursuing and securing the interests of commerce abroad. [1] These two streaks of American ideology waxed and waned and different times throughout the history of the United States, but through the course of the centuries, Jefferson’s principled idealistic streak was all but eliminated when the United States emerged with preponderant power [2] after WWII. From then on, Hamilton’s legacy would seize the reigns of the United States government, which posthaste would incorporate the bidding of corporate interests into its foreign policy prospectus, or at would least present a strongly suggesting appearance as such. This, of course, is a broad, if not controversial, perspective on the many complex conflicts in which the United States found itself in and after the 20th century, and indeed is meant to be interpreted as a broad motivation of the United States during this time, and not the only identifiable factor in any particular war. Rather, in this paper I will argue first that even when other factors seemed wholly relevant to any particular conflict, without the Hamiltonian outlook on foreign policy, the US would have pursued very different policies. Secondly, I will argue that the Hamiltonian perspective has grown stronger throughout the 20th century, being merely an impetus at first in the conflict in Vietnam, but growing into the raison d’etre by the dawn of the 21st under George W. Bush’s war, not just with Iraq, but with the very structure of the Iraqi society and way of life; that is, the US modus operandi graduated to a sort of neocolonialism administered by corporations and secured by the US government, not completely dissimilar to the means by which the East India Trading Company subjugated the people of India. Underlying both of these arguments is the contention that the United States foreign policy is like that of any other historical hegemon: imperialistic and geared toward world dominance for the sake of its own interests without regard for notions of justice or democracy.

We begin our conversation by dissecting the motivations to invade Vietnam. The official story goes somewhat like this: in the midst of the Cold War, the United States stood on one side of a bipolar balance of power with the Soviet Union on the other side. But beyond the standard view of power politics was a war of ideology, with the United States representing freedom and democracy while the Soviet Union represented communism, totalitarianism, and repression. Built into the Soviet’s means of conducting foreign policy were expansionist tendencies and the need to spread communist ideology, which if successful would spread throughout the world and threaten the security of the United States along with its way of life.

From this view, Vietnam was a microcosm among many that comprised the conflicts of the Cold War, and under the “domino” [3] theory that if one state fell to communism, other states elsewhere would follow in their place, the United States was obligated for the sake of preserving its way of life to prevent Vietnam from falling to communism.

However, scrutiny of the invasion of Vietnam will demonstrate that the domino theory was more likely than not an ad hoc pretense for invasion. In the first place, the mechanisms by which the domino theory would work are never laid out. In Vietnam and United States Global Policy, Noam Chomsky elaborates on this point.

“They are vague as to just how the rot will spread to Thailand or why they fear a Thai ‘accommodation’ to China. This imprecision cannot be an oversight these are, after all, the crucial issues, the issues that led the planners to recommend successive stages of aggression in Indochina, at immense risk and cost. But even internal documents, detailed analyses of options and possible consequences, refer to these central issues in loose and almost mystical terms.” [4]

It is worth considering the question: how might the dominos fall? Take as granted the US contention in a State Department policy statement from 1948 that Ho Chi Min’s success would lead Vietnam to be a “totalitarian state which would evolve inevitably from Communist domination.”[5] Why then would neighboring states like Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand go on to adopt communism? Being exposed to the horrors of totalitarian communism would seem to be a strong reason not to adopt it. Another possibility is offered by Chomsky in the same essay, “The only ‘threat’ posed by a unified Vietnam, hostile to China and limiting its ambitions to Laos and Cambodia, is the threat of social and economic progress within a framework unacceptable to American imperial interests.”

Further United States justifications fell short as well. While the US might have had a reasonable fear of the spread of communism based on what they knew at the time, they were also aware that the struggle in Vietnam was driven by nationalism as a response to French colonial rule, and that communism was a secondary consideration for the Vietnamese. In the same policy statement, the Department of State writes, “While the nationalist movement in Vietnam … is strong, and though the great majority of the Vietnamese are not fundamentally Communist, the most active element in the resistance of the local peoples to the French has been a Communist group headed by Ho Chi Minh. This group has successfully extended its influence to include practically all armed forces now fighting the French, thus in effect capturing control of the nationalist movement.”

In reality, the invasion of Vietnam was all but inevitable before the obsession with the specter of communism, or indeed the domino theory, entered the zeitgeist[6]. In the same policy statement, the Department of State notes a long term objective as, “to foster the association of the peoples of Indochina with the western powers, particularly with France with whose customs, language and laws they are familiar, to the end that those peoples will prefer freely to cooperate with the western powers culturally, economically and politically.” The implications of this statement are egregious when it is considered that Vietnam was subjugated at the time of writing to French rule as a colony, and that the US’s internal position was to, at best, foster their colonial tendencies—a marked departure from the US’s anti-colonial, Jeffersonian history, but perfectly in line with Hamiltonian notions of a foreign policy geared toward commerce. In the case of Vietnam, the French interest was not, of course, in securing freedom for its people any more than that was the purpose of the East India Trading Company when subjugating the Indians. Rather, its interest was in raw materials such as rubber, and the interest of the US concerned the securement of military and economic influence in Europe.

A last point that before transitioning to the war in Iraq bears mentioning: at no point in during the war in Vietnam did the United States ever find solid evidence of a collusion between North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, nor with China. Chomsky notes on this fact that there was an automatic assumption that Vietnam must be engaged in collusion, and when evidence was not found, its absence was ignored. [7]

Being that the war in Vietnam was lost, it is difficult to speculate on what kind of rule the United States would have imposed in the case of a win. In the case of Western Europe after World War 2, the United States took an active role in shaping and rebuilding fallen European states, providing assistance in the form of the Marshall Plan as well as defense in the form of NATO. However, the United States engaged in nation building in Europe with the consent of the European governments for the purposes of containing communism and exerting its own influence. With this considered, it perhaps wouldn’t be accurate to call the US colonial with respect to their actions in Western Europe, but with respect to Iraq, colonialism appears to be back in full force. It was, in essence, the invasion of a sovereign state and the promulgation of rules and regulations especially friendly to US business interests going so far that we would be right to characterize it as corporate domination.

Once again, let us begin with the official story. On September 11 th, 2001, Islamic terrorists committed the most violent act of terrorism in the world’s history by hijacking and flying planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though the 9/11 terrorists were unconnected to Iraq, CBS News reported that the Bush administration began to make inquire into the feasibility of an Iraqi invasion within hours of the attack[8], and in 2003 began to make its case for invasion to the American public. The pretense for invasion, they claimed, was that Iraq’s Dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to the world at large. To assuage deficit hawks, Bush claimed that the war would be paid for with Iraqi oil[9]. After a quagmire of a war, no such weapons were ever found, though the country was decimated, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and a power vacuum created which led, according to President Barack Obama, to the establishment of ISIS, or the Islamic State, more than a decade later [10].

What is of interest to us in Iraq is the institutions the United States created, and the power that was given to American corporations. Political scientist Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos notes that months after the invasion, Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, declared Iraq “open for business” and went on to issue the Bremer Orders, mandating “selling off several hundred state-run enterprises, permitting full ownership rights of Iraqi business by foreign firms and full repatriation of profits to foreign firms, opening Iraq’s banks to foreign ownership and control—in short, making Iraq a new playground of world finance and investment.” [11] Because provisions of the Bremer orders were illegal under Geneva conventions, they were instituted by the US backed Iraqi government, along with provisions that future Iraqi governments would be unable to modify them.

The parallels with colonialism here are unambiguous: the world’s hegemon invades an underdeveloped country, subjects the population to the rule of foreign institutions, usurps the property rights of the indigenous population, and allows foreign corporations to dominate the newly acquired colony. If there is are salient difference between the British Empire and the American, it is the language in which the invasion was draped and the fact that the United States instituted their reforms through a puppet government rather than through conspicuous corporate control; it is of course unacceptable in the world’s post-colonial period to state explicitly that a nation should invade another nation for economic gain; instead, leaders must invoke fear (of WMDs, of communism), Wilsonian appeals (of democracy for the Iraqi people), and institute governments that appear legitimate on their surface, to foster public support.

There are however some salient differences on this front between the Vietnam War and the Iraq war. In the Vietnam War, the contention of this paper is not that the US had a direct colonial interest in the same way as did France in Vietnam or the US in Iraq. Rather, the contention is much broader: the United States’ war against communism was a war against the spread of a competing ideology which threatened to supplant the United States as a dominant power, which translates in actu to supplanting the power structures inherent in a capitalist system. The fact that communism failed remarkably and that it led to unspeakable horrors is not a relevant point when discussing the United States’ motivation, as the failures of communism had yet to make themselves apparent by the time Vietnam had entered its radar. The threat then is not one of communism per se, but a threat of losing world dominance.

By the time the Bush administration took office, the world was a very different place. The US had entered its unipolar moment and no competing ideologies or countries posted a viable threat to US security. But this did not stop the hegemon from engaging in major conflict with a country that we should believe only coincidently has major strategic economic interests (oil) and a strategic geographic location via-à-vis allies and enemies in the region.

A fair objection to this line of reasoning is that it doesn’t establish beyond reasonable doubt that direct, individual economic interests drive the US to engage in war and nation building. It will be said, for example, that some combination of security, or in the case of Vietnam and Iraq, mistaken interpretation of the facts can fully explain these wars without attributing malicious motives and individual influence on the drive to war.

One objection worth considering is that security itself for an imperial hegemon is underlain with economic considerations to the point where it is difficult to draw a distinction between the two. For example, it is both in the economic interest of oil producers and in the United States’ security interests to ensure stable oil production in the Middle East; whether direct evidence of collusion between corporations and the United States government exists, it is unlikely to be discovered. However, we can appeal on this fact to self-evident aspects of human nature: avarice tends to be a convincing force when what one wants is prohibited by obstacles, and humans are especially apt at creating justifications, even to the point where the lies become sincere to the liar. If it were the case that security per se and mistakes could explain the various wars into which the United States has engaged, then there should be far less in the modern history of the US to criticize. [12] That is, honest mistakes and legitimate security concerns should not have produced as many wars worthy of criticism as have been produced. It is the US, and not its allies, after all which has engaged in the greater part of interstate conflict since the end of WW2, and in many of those cases, there exists an obvious economic motivation, which after so many conflicts, the coincidental nature thereof should be viewed suspiciously.

But let us accept for the sake of argument that the various conflicts which have obvious economic motivations were in fact some combination of mistake and/or legitimate security, and not simply a means of dominating as a hegemon. If that is the case, then it would serve the United States well to (a) utilize multilateral institutions such as the UN, trusting that the world community may have a critical perspective worth considering when lives and world stability are at stake, and (b) develop standards of evidence that must be met before the United States enters into conflict, except in the most immediately threatening of circumstances (e.g. direct retaliation). This in practice would reduce the appearance of impropriety on behalf of the United States as well tend toward a more just and equitable foreign policy

In sum, the United States no longer adheres to Jeffersonian principles of peace and prosperity, instead it has embraced a Hamiltonian foreign policy perspective that seeks world domination. To illustrate this, we considered the invasion of two countries, both of which were of economic interest, but neither of which offered legitimate justification for invasion. In the case of Vietnam, we noted that the domino theory on which it was based was never elucidated, and nor was evidence of collusion between Vietnam and communist states ever uncovered; in the case of Iraq we noted that the US found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But we find in both cases a parsimonious explanation for engagement: gaining or maintaining hegemonic status; and we see a similar means of doing so: by establishing rule through military conquest. Finally, we recommended that the United States pursue a foreign policy based on multilateralism and standards of evidence so as to avoid even the appearance of impropriety and the violation of moral principles.

[1] Mead, Walter Russell. 2001. Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World . New York: Knopf. pp xv, 87-89

[2] Leffler, Melvyn P. 1992. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War . Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. pp 3

[3] Hook, Steven W., and John W. Spanier. 2016. American Foreign Policy since World War II. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, an imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc. pp 91

[4] Chomsky, Noam, and James Peck. 1987. The Chomsky Reader. New York: Pantheon Books. pp 230

[5] “State Department.” State Department. (March 16, 2016).

[6] According to Andrew Hart in lecture, it was not until the Korean War and the Chinese embrace of communism that anticommunism became the focus of the Cold War. Further, Eisenhower did not elucidate the domino effect until 1953. The State Department policy statement referenced, meanwhile, was published in 1948.

[7] pp 244

[8] “Plans For Iraq Attack Began On 9/11.” CBSNews. (March 16, 2016).

[9] “Iraq War: Predictions Made, and Results.” 2001. The Christian Science Monitor. (March 16, 2016).

[10] “President Barack Obama Speaks With VICE News .” YouTube. (March 17, 2016).


[11] Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing The Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books. pp 142

[12] This argument is similar to an argument Chomsky makes in the aforementioned essay. It is not the same, but as it is also an attack against ignorance as an excuse, I am mentioning it for the sake of propriety.