Abraham Lincoln, Reply to the Workingmen of Manchester, England (1863)

The American Civil War is imprinted upon the popular consciousness in important battlefields like Vicksburg and Antietam, in rousing speeches like the Gettysburg Address, in the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the death of Abraham Lincoln.  Knowledge, or at least awareness, of each of these events goes a long way to understanding the conflict that very nearly destroyed the American Union forever.  However, any understanding of the Civil War is incomplete without an awareness of the foreign policy dimension that the war possessed.

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Abraham Lincoln, Resolutions in Behalf of Hungarian Freedom (1852)

Americans were naturally interested in the course and outcome of the European Revolutions of 1848, which included the overthrow of the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe in France, the deposition of Metternich in Austria, the establishment of the Frankfurt Parliament in Germany, the creation of republics in Venice and Rome, and an uprising in Poland against the Prussian occupation. The American imagination was particularly captivated by the revolution in the Hungarian lands of the Habsburg Empire and the subsequent struggle of the Magyars, the main ethnic group in those lands, to achieve independence from Austria. The administration of Zachary Taylor had already dispatched an envoy to central Europe, with instructions to recognize the Hungarian Republic if it proved to be viable.

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Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897)

A prolific writer, Mahan became one of the most famous naval and sea power prophets of the late nineteenth century.  Concerned with the United States’ place in the world, Mahan wrote to influence both policymakers and common Americans.  Although some of his articles and books are less resonant today, they still provide a fascinating glimpse into the state of the world of in the 1890s, shortly before the Spanish-American War, and how it was perceived by many Americans. 

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Benjamin F. Tracy, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (1889)

In March 1889, a hurricane destroyed or disabled three American warships in the Samoan harbor of Apia, where they had been deployed to support the United States in a political dispute with Britain and Germany over the status of the islands.   The accident left the United States without any effective naval force in the Pacific and revealed the weaknesses of the existing fleet, as the old warships had been unable to get to sea and ride out the storm.  Advocates of a more assertive American foreign policy, to be underwritten by an expanded modern navy, seized upon the incident.  A perfect political storm did seem to favor their cause.  The new President, Benjamin Harrison, was a big-navy advocate, and for the first time since 1875, the Republican Party enjoyed clear majorities in both Houses of Congress.  U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was completing his landmark book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, and his arguments were already circulating among such influential and would-be influential figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Harrison’s Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Franklin Tracy.

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Henry Luce, The American Century (1941)

In February 1941, Henry Luce, the editor, publisher, and creator of Time and Life magazines, proclaimed to the readers of Life that America was in the war.  To many of his readers, such a bold assertion probably came off as perplexing.  After all, World War II, at this point ravaging Europe for about a year and half, did not involve American blood.  For at least some Americans, it was unclear that the war would ever involve American blood—arguments in favor of isolation were still strong, and many Americans were unwilling to believe that the problems of Europeans could ever become their own.  So how, then, could Luce make such a claim?

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Instructions to Commodore Matthew Perry on the Opening to Japan (1851-1852)

“It is the President's opinion that steps should be taken at once to enable our enterprising merchants to supply the last link in that great chain which unites all nations of the world, by the early establishment of a line of steamers from California to China.”  So begins a letter of instructions from Secretary of State Daniel Webster to Commodore John Aulick in June of 1851 on the subject of “opening” Japan to the outside world.

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Jimmy Carter, Commencement Address at Notre Dame University (May 1977)

In May 1977, the still comparably new-to-the-Presidency Jimmy Carter made his way to Notre Dame to give that spring’s commencement address.  He used the opportunity presented to him to chart before the new graduates and the American people as a whole his plan for the foreign policy of the United States during his presidency and well beyond.  The speech is best remembered for Carter’s assertion that his administration would be free of the “inordinate fear of communism” that had too long distorted American foreign policy.

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John C. Calhoun, Report on the Reduction of the Army (1820)

John C. Calhoun has gone down in American history as the great theorist of state rights, with the associated doctrines of nullification and the concurrent majority, qualifying him as the intellectual grandfather of secession and the Confederacy. But in his early public career, Calhoun was a staunch nationalist, a supporter of the War of 1812, and one of the Republic’s most distinguished Secretaries of War. Among his significant contributions to American statecraft was a Report on the Reduction of the Army, dated December 12, 1820.

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Madison’s Examination of the British Doctrine

We cite Madison’s Examination as a classic of American strategy and diplomacy because it set the stage for one of the last, and in the end unsuccessful, efforts of the Jeffersonian Republicans to realize one of the principal goals of the Revolution in international affairs.  The Founders – including Adams’ father – had hoped that entrance of the United States into the Euro-Atlantic state system would bring about a new configuration of international power, one favorable to liberty and reformist domestic politics.  This more peaceful and republican world would be underwritten by norms of international behavior that followed an increasingly liberal law of nations. 

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