Learning Content: 20th Century Foreign Policy

“[T]he general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws: its jurisdiction is limited ot certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which re not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.” —James Madison, Federalist 14, 1787

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Change Over Time: To what extent has U.S. foreign policy changed over the 20th century?

Principle: Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1789 contained one major piece of advice to the country regarding relations with other nations: “avoid entangling alliances.” Those words shaped United States foreign policy for more than a century.

While many Americans believe Washington’s words continue to hold significance for the country, the United States has been heavily embroiled in world politics throughout the 20th century as a world power. Additionally, as foreign policy and world conflicts take more of the government’s focus, questions about the appropriate role of and involvement of Congress and the President in regards to these conflicts have arisen.

In this module you will analyze U.S. foreign policy over time. After grounding yourself in the traditions of foreign policy as established by George Washington, you will discuss the shifts between neutrality and involvement. You will review the content and materials with an eye to continuity and change as well as the constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances.

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Building Context

Continuity and Change: To what extent has U.S. foreign policy changed over the 20th century?

Principle: Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

Adapted from writings by Bill of Rights Institute; Todd Estes, Oakland University; Melvyn Dubofsky, Binghamton University; Anthony Badger, Cambridge University; Patrick Allitt, Emory University; Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College; and Andrew Busch, Claremont McKenna College


The period from 1890-1920, known as the Progressive Era, marks a period in U.S. history when the country underwent multiple changes. Population growth, waves of immigrants, advances in industry, and other factors led many Americans to the conclusion that the country’s governmental systems needed to be radically altered in order to better fit the interests of the nation. The country not only amended many of its domestic policies, it also developed a new strategy concerning foreign affairs that differed from the traditional stances of the Founding Era. One such alteration was an increase in the country’s willingness to take military action in foreign conflicts. As such, the Progressive Era marks a time period in which the United States began to practice a foreign policy that was international in its scope and did not focus solely on defending American citizens and their property. The Spanish-American War (1898) epitomized this shift toward global intervention. The United States entered the war for various reasons, but at its heart, the conflict was motivated by the desire to promote the ideals of civilization, democracy, and freedom around the world. The traditional policy the country followed from the founding of the country up until the Progressive Era certainly promoted these principles globally but encouraged neutrality in foreign wars unless U.S. citizens or their property faced duress. Fearing the cost of a large, professional army, as well as the dangers a power-hungry general with a large force behind him might pose to the republic, the Founders favored limiting foreign military involvement. By focusing instead on defending the country, military forces and costs would not need to be so large. Multiple factors, however, including increased military strength, the desire to promote Western civilization, and globalization led to a shift in policy. During the Progressive Era, the United States took a more active role in international affairs by fighting around the world in the name of ideals as opposed to merely the defense of the homeland.

Roosevelt and the World

Theodore Roosevelt used executive power vigorously as he pursued his aims overseas. In the 1880s and 1890s, he joined other young Republicans advocating an expansive foreign policy, one that featured a navy. American businesses and politicians dreamed of opening overseas markets for the products of American farms and factories. As assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, Roosevelt had advocated annexation of the Hawaiian Islands and war against Spain to free Cuba and expand U.S. power. He demanded the spoils of the Spanish-American War, that “splendid little war,” which ended with American control over Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, and Cuba. When France and Germany tried to close the Chinese market to other nations, Roosevelt endorsed the Open-Door Notes, released by Secretary of State John Hay, that beseeched European powers in China to respect the commercial rights of all nations. Ever the realist, however, Roosevelt knew there was little the United States could do to enforce its policy in China. (

As president, Roosevelt promoted expansion abroad but recognized the limits of American power. His actions in the Caribbean, which he considered America’s backyard because of the Monroe Doctrine, transformed it into an American lake. Unable to obtain the funds from Congress to build a two-ocean navy to help him command the Atlantic and Pacific, he instigated a revolution in the Colombian province of Panama, creating a new Panamanian state that granted the United States the right to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. To ensure the security of the future canal, Roosevelt acted to dominate Caribbean waters. When Caribbean island states and continental ones, most notably Venezuela, defaulted on loans to France and Germany, he promulgated the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. The Roosevelt Corollary suggested that the United States would act as guardian for all Caribbean states that defaulted on their debts to foreign investors; it would restore financial and political order in failed states to keep Europe out of the affairs of the western hemisphere.

This 1906 political cartoon depicts Theodore Roosevelt wielding the Monroe Doctrine against European powers to keep them out of Dominican Republic and Caribbean.

America and a World at War

Wilson pursued a foreign policy as ambitious to expand the nation’s role in the world as Roosevelt’s had been. Where Roosevelt favored realpolitik, Wilson was an idealist guided by a missionary zeal to spread democracy through military intervention. He intervened in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and deployed marines to Central America. He also presided over the opening of the Panama Canal (1914). When Mexico erupted in rebellion and civil war between 1910 and 1917, Wilson decided to teach the Mexicans how to act democratically and elect the leaders he wanted. Twice he intervened militarily, first staging a naval and marine invasion at the port of Vera Cruz in 1914, and again in 1916, sending a U.S. Army detachment under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, one of the more notorious Mexican rebels, until Pershing was recalled to fight in World War I in Europe.

Pancho Villa (center) and General Pershing (right) were involved in President Wilson’s “Missionary Diplomacy” plan to help Mexico act more like the United States.

In the summer of 1914, Europe erupted into war as the Central Powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, lined up against the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Tsarist Russia. Wilson wanted to maintain U.S. neutrality. He asked Americans to be neutral in thought as well as action.

However, neutrality proved impossible. Wilson supported the idea of “freedom of the seas” to allow Southern cotton growers and Midwestern farmers to ship their goods to overseas markets, particularly the allied nations. That same principle allowed American corporations to produce and ship armaments to Britain and France while American bankers made loans to the allies.

Britain used its sea power to blockade the continent and deny the Central Powers American goods, though Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan protested this as an unneutral stance by the United States in favor of the allies. Germany responded to the British naval blockade by declaring its own blockade of Britain and enforcing it with submarine warfare. U-Boats torpedoed Allied and American merchant ships in 1915, sinking the passenger liner Lusitania with the loss of more than 1,000 civilian lives, including 128 Americans. In response, Wilson threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany unless it halted undersea warfare. Germany initially heeded Wilson’s demand but Bryan resigned, fearing that Wilson’s policy on submarine warfare would lead to war.

While Wilson struggled to maintain U.S. neutrality, the war in Europe became a bloody stalemate. With the belligerents unable to end it, Wilson proposed to act as a mediator, offering “peace without victory.” Despite having suffered irreparable human and material losses by the end of 1916, the combatants had no use for Wilson’s peacemaking. Rejected as a mediator by Britain and Germany, he appealed for peace on January 22, 1917, going over the heads of the warmakers to deliver a public address known as the “Peace without Victory” speech. In it, Wilson promised the world free seas, disarmament, self-determination, and a League of Nations to maintain international law and morality.

Wilson found no takers for his utopian peace plan. Instead, in February 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and gambled it could defeat the allies before the Americans could send an army overseas to join the allies. A month later, a liberal revolution in Russia deposed the Tsar and weakened resistance on the Eastern front. Germany now expected to turn the tide of battle on the Western front and worried less about U.S. intervention. The potential for a decisive German victory troubled Wilson, who favored an Anglo-American world order. The British encouraged him to intervene on the Allied side by providing Americans with the “Zimmerman telegram,” which conveyed an offer from the German foreign office to Mexico. If Mexico entered the war on the German side, a victorious Germany would return to Mexico the territories seized by the United States in the Mexican-American War.

Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. He promised a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” and better for all humanity. As the official wartime propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, later expressed the U.S. war aim: It was not “merely to rewin the tomb of Christ, but to bring back to earth the rule of right, the peace, goodwill to men and gentleness he taught.” The rhetoric of Wilson and his administration promoted a progressive vision for a new world order of stability and lasting peace. (See the America Enters World War I Narrative; the Over There: The U.S. Soldier in World War I Narrative; and the George M. Cohan, Over There, 1917 Primary Source.)

This political cartoon from around 1919 titled Can He Produce the Harmony? shows Wilson conducting a World Peace Symphony with the nations of the world as the musicians. (credit: The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum)

U.S. intervention at first failed to turn the tide of battle. However, in November 1917, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and ousted the provisional government in a second communist revolution, withdrawing Russia from the war in March 1918. Not only did the Russian revolutionaries sign a peace treaty with Germany, they released the secret treaties negotiated among the belligerents in which the signatories had planned to divide the spoils of war by allocating territory and colonies to the victors. In January 1918, Wilson responded to these events with yet another speech expressing his progressive idealism, in which he enunciated his famous “Fourteen Points,” among them: 1) free seas; 2) free trade; 3) self-determination for all peoples; 4) colonial liberation; 5) arms reduction; 6) no secret diplomacy, but open covenants openly arrived at; and 7) a League of Nations to establish global law, peace, and harmony. Several clauses proposed self-determination for groups of people in collapsing European empires. Wilson again offered a peace without victory or victors. (See the Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, 1918 Primary Source.)

In November 1918, Germany sued for peace on the basis of the “Fourteen Points.” Early in 1919, the victors convened in Versailles, France, to negotiate a peace treaty. Wilson arrived in Europe to the applause of the British and French people. A hero in Europe, he had been repudiated by his own people in November 1918, as Republicans swept back into control in Congress. The peace conference, instead of creating a peace without victors, assembled only the triumphant. As the French leader Georges Clemenceau noted, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.”

Woodrow Wilson (left) received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Paris in late 1918 to negotiate a peace treaty for World War I. Here he is pictured with French President Raymond Poincaré.

The treaty that resulted violated many of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. It held the Germans solely responsible for the war and demanded they pay the victors enormous reparations. It distributed lands held in 1914 by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire to both the victors and the new nations created in the aftermath of the war. Britain and France retained their prewar colonies, obtained control of former German colonies, and divided the Middle East between them. Wilson’s major accomplishment was the establishment of a League of Nations.

Wilson returned home to campaign for ratification of the treaty and its League of Nations. Republicans in the Senate, who had won a majority in the 1918 election, opposed the treaty because Article X stated that the international body could decide when the United States went to war, which violated Article I, section 8 of the Constitution. Some senators were willing to compromise if the offending clause were removed, while others were “irreconcilables” who would never vote for the treaty. In September 1919, Wilson began an 8,000-mile, whistle-stop train tour to sell the treaty to the American people over the next 22 days. In Pueblo, Colorado, however, he suffered a major stroke that completely disabled him for the remainder of his presidency. While the Senate debated ratification, the president’s wife and senior cabinet members ran the executive office. Wilson was obstinately opposed to removing Article X and damaging the cause of collective security and world peace, so he refused to compromise with Republican opponents of the treaty. Three times between December 1919 and March 1920, the Senate failed to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty. (See The Treaty of Versailles Decision Point.)

Isolationism in the 1930s

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s initial focus was on the domestic economy, but foreign affairs demanded his attention with the rise of authoritarian and expansionist governments in Europe and Asia. Only a few weeks after he took office in 1933, an Enabling Act in Germany gave the decrees of the new chancellor Adolf Hitler the force of law and ended any pretense of parliamentary democracy. Scornful of the ineffective western democracies and fueled by a desire to expand Germany’s borders, Hitler broke the Versailles Treaty and launched a massive re-armament program. He marched into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, effectively annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, invaded Poland in 1939, and conquered most of continental Europe in 1940 before attacking the Soviet Union in 1941. Meanwhile, in the Far East, an increasingly authoritarian, militaristic Japan invaded Manchuria and China and clearly intended to exercise complete economic and military control of East Asia.

The Neutrality Acts

In the United States, disillusionment with earlier American involvement in World War I was strong. In 1934, congressional hearings by the investigating Nye Committee had blamed American entry into the war on domestic bankers and arms manufacturers who were financially dependent on an Allied victory. The determination not to be entangled in future European conflicts led to increasingly rigorous neutrality legislation in the 1930s and the scaling back of America’s military might. Americans generally supported a policy of nonintervention that kept the nation out of foreign wars and focused on events at home.

The 1935 and 1936 Neutrality Acts embargoed arms and banned loans to all belligerents at war to avoid the United States being dragged into the conflict. The Neutrality Act of 1937 prevented all trade with belligerents, though it did allow for “cash and carry” of nonmilitary provisions to help nations that were victims of totalitarian aggression. The “cash and carry” policy meant that any supplies provided by the United States needed to be paid for in cash and transported by the purchaser. Roosevelt also called for free nations to “quarantine” aggressor nations. By 1938, the U.S. Army consisted of fewer than 140,000 men, and isolationist sentiment ran high.

From the start, Roosevelt had been under no illusion about the nature of the Hitler regime and its anti-Semitic character. But he could not ignore the strength of isolationist sentiment in the United States. He cooperated with Congress in formulating neutrality legislation that would avoid the danger of America being sucked into war through the provision of arms to the belligerents. But he increasingly believed that Hitler sought world domination and that the Americans could not simply rely on the barrier of the Atlantic and the British Navy to protect the American homeland.

After the Munich crisis of 1938 in which Great Britain and France acceded to Hitler’s demands for territory in Czechoslovakia, Roosevelt launched a massive drive to re-arm the United States. As Germany marched through Europe after 1939 and threatened to destroy Britain, Roosevelt worked to enable Britain to survive. In 1939, Congress replaced the Neutrality Acts with a new cash-and-carry program that allowed for the purchase of military as well as nonmilitary goods. This effectively ended the arms embargo that had been in place since 1936.Then, during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, Roosevelt agreed to send 50 old destroyers to Britain in return for several naval bases around the globe. In addition to this expansion of the military arsenal, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in 1940 to expand the nation’s armed forces with the country’s first peacetime draft.

In 1941, Congress expanded the concept of cash and carry and began the Lend-Lease program, providing billions of dollars in arms to the Allies. The U.S. Navy increasingly protected British convoys as they collected munitions and arms and carried them to Britain. For a long time, Roosevelt hoped Britain would somehow survive without the United States going to war. The debate over U.S. participation in World War II continued as the isolationist America First Committee and the aviator Charles Lindbergh rallied the American people against the war, while the Committee to Defend America, led by journalist William Allen White, pushed for measures to stop militarist expansion across the globe.

Roosevelt articulated his vision of what was at stake in the war against tyranny. On January 6, 1941, the president delivered the State of the Union address, declaring he was determined to support the free nations already engaged in war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. He stated that the United States must defend the essential “four freedoms,” which were freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear (or aggression). In August, Roosevelt met with Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Newfoundland and declared common principles of free nations in the Atlantic Charter (see The Atlantic Charter, 1941 Primary Source). The Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter were assertions of free principles rather than specific policies for defeating the militarist forces.

In the Far East, the Roosevelt administration increased pressure on the Japanese to stop the expansion of their brutal empire after the massacre of hundreds of thousands in Nanking, China. Japanese leaders, denied access to raw materials by an American embargo, did not believe the Americans had the appetite for a war 10,000 miles from home, or that they could fight a two-front war against both Germany and Japan. Therefore, in December 1941, Japan therefore launched a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, hoping to inflict sufficient damage to force the United States to a settlement that would meet Japanese economic needs (see the Pearl Harbor Narrative). But for all the devastating losses inflicted at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had not secured a knockout blow, because many U.S. aircraft carriers were not present during the attack. The Japanese attacks did succeed, however, in prompting the United States to formally enter the war (see the Foreign Policy in the 1930s: from Neutrality to Involvement Narrative).

Post World War II

World War II ended in 1945. The United States and the Soviet Union had cooperated to defeat Nazi Germany, but they mistrusted each other. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, believed the Americans had waited too long before launching the D-Day invasion of France in 1944, leaving his people to bear the full brunt of the German war machine. It was true that Soviet casualties were more than 20 million, whereas American casualties in all theaters of war were fewer than half a million.

On the other hand, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, who had become president after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, believed Stalin had betrayed a promise made to Roosevelt at the Yalta summit in February 1945. That promise was to permit all the nations of Europe to become independent and self-governing at the war’s end. Instead, Stalin installed Soviet puppet governments in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, the parts of Europe his armies had recaptured from the Nazis.

These tensions between the two countries set the stage for the Cold War that came to dominate foreign and domestic policy during the postwar era. The world’s two superpowers turned from allies into ideological and strategic enemies as they struggled to protect and spread their systems around the world, while at the same time developing arsenals of nuclear weapons that could destroy it. Domestically, the United States emerged from the war as the world’s unchallenged economic powerhouse and enjoyed great prosperity from pent-up consumer demand and industrial dominance. Americans generally supported preserving the New Deal welfare state and the postwar anti-communist crusade. While millions of white middle-class Americans moved to settle down in the suburbs, African Americans had fought a war against racism abroad and were prepared to challenge it at home.

The Truman Doctrine and the Cold War

Journalists nicknamed the deteriorating relationship between the two great powers a “cold war,” and the name stuck. In the short run, America possessed the great advantage of being the only possessor of nuclear weapons as a result of the Manhattan Project. It had used two of them against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in the Far East, with destructive power so fearsome it deterred Soviet aggression. But after nearly four years of war, Truman was reluctant to risk a future conflict. Instead, with congressional support, he pledged to keep American forces in Europe to prevent any more Soviet advances. This was the “Truman Doctrine,” a dramatic contrast with the American decision after World War I to withdraw from European affairs. (See the Harry S. Truman, “Truman Doctrine” Address, March 1947 Primary Source.)

The National Security Act, passed by Congress in 1947, reorganized the relationship between the military forces and the government. It created the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the office of Secretary of Defense. The Air Force, previously a branch of the U.S. Army, now became independent, a reflection of its new importance in an era of nuclear weapons. Eventually, NSC-68, a secret memorandum from 1950, was used to authorize large increases in American military strength and aid to its allies, aiming to ensure a high degree of readiness for war against the Soviet Union.

What made the Soviet Union tick? George Kennan, an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow who knew the Soviets as well as anyone in American government, wrote an influential article titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Originally sent from Moscow as a long telegram, it was later published in the journal Foreign Affairs under the byline “X” and impressed nearly all senior American policy makers in Washington, DC. The Soviets, said Kennan, believed capitalism and communism could not coexist and that they would be perpetually at war until one was destroyed. According to Kennan, the Soviets believed communism was destined to dominate the world. They were disciplined and patient, however, and understood “the logic of force.” Therefore, said Kennan, the United States must be equally patient, keeping watch everywhere to “contain” the threat.

Containment became the guiding principle of U.S. anti-Soviet policy, under which the United States deployed military, economic, and cultural resources to halt Soviet expansion. In 1948, the United States gave more than $12 billion to Western Europe to relieve suffering and help rebuild and integrate the economies through the Marshall Plan. The Europeans would thus not turn to communism in their desperation and America would promote mutual prosperity through trade. The Berlin crisis of 1948–1949 was the policy’s first great test. (See the George Kennan (“Mr. X”), “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” July 1947 Primary Source.)

Foreign Policy in the Kennedy Administration

In the 1960 campaign, Kennedy had charged that the outgoing Eisenhower administration was responsible for a “missile gap” by allowing the Soviet Union to outstrip the United States in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, thus putting the country at risk of defeat in a nuclear war. In reality, the United States was far ahead of the Soviet military in the arms race, although the Soviets worked hard to close that gap over the next decade.

The Kennedy administration soon faced a series of foreign policy crises only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. A young Marxist named Fidel Castro, son of a wealthy farmer, wanted to lead a communist revolution in his native country of Cuba. He joined revolutionary movements in Latin America and then returned to Cuba from Mexico with a group of revolutionaries in 1956. In 1959, they overthrew a corrupt, U.S.-backed dictatorship and installed a new communist dictatorship. Castro’s government seized private property and imposed a one-party state before forming an alliance with the Soviet Union.

The presence of a communist state so close to the United States was regarded by U.S. foreign policy experts as a humiliating Cold War defeat and a threat to national security. The Eisenhower administration set in motion plans to train, equip, and deploy an invasion force composed of anti-communist Cuban exiles to overthrow the Castro regime. On April 17, 1961, less than three months after Kennedy’s inauguration, these 1,400 invaders landed on a Cuban beach known as the Bay of Pigs and were routed by Castro’s forces. President Kennedy publicly took the blame for the fiasco, a humiliating setback for his young administration.

The U.S. military provided only minimal assistance to the Cuban exile army landing at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, for fear of appearing to be involved in the attempted overthrow of Castro. These A-4 Skyhawks flew over Castro’s forces as a form of intimidation without actually attacking.

In June 1961, Kennedy met with his Soviet counterpart, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, at a Vienna, Austria, summit meeting. With the Bay of Pigs setback on both men’s minds, Khrushchev attempted to intimidate the young and inexperienced president. A shaken Kennedy remarked to a reporter afterward in confidence, “Now we have a problem in making our power credible.”

Kennedy soon faced another and deadly challenge in Cuba (see The Cuban Missile Crisis Narrative.) In the fall of 1962, American spy planes photographed construction sites in Cuba that intelligence analysts soon realized were bases intended to house Soviet missiles. When completed, these bases would greatly enhance Soviet capabilities to wipe out American defenses and command centers in a nuclear attack. This meant the Soviet Union would have first-strike capabilities and so could win a nuclear war. That possibility undermined the logic of mutual assured destruction (MAD), which held that neither side would launch a nuclear strike because each was assured that it, in turn, would be destroyed when the other side responded. The resulting “Cuban Missile Crisis” proved the most perilous moment in the entire Cold War. While Soviet freighters carrying missiles steamed toward Cuba, Kennedy’s advisers called on him to use military force to bomb the missile bases or even invade Cuba. Kennedy opted for a more measured response, positioning American warships to blockade Cuba instead. In the end, Khrushchev called back the freighters, while in return, Kennedy secretly pledged to dismantle U.S. missiles based in Turkey, near the Soviet border, and also to refrain from invading Cuba.

President Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam

Although President Johnson assured voters in the 1964 campaign that he was not going to send “American boys” to fight a war in Vietnam that should be fought by “Asian boys,” he was already considering an escalation of the conflict after the election. On the night of August 4, 1964, after an incident involving North Vietnamese torpedo boats a few days before in the Gulf of Tonkin, the USS Maddox responded to sonar signals and, deciding it was once again under attack, fired into the darkness.

There were no attackers, but nonetheless, Johnson ordered retaliatory U.S. airstrikes against North Vietnamese coastal installations. He also secured congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which served as a functional declaration of war against North Vietnam until it was repealed in 1971 (see the The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, 1964 Primary Source). What Congress did not know was that the administration had been prepared since May to submit such a resolution when the right incident came along. Congress also did not know about the Maddox’s role in ongoing raids along the North Vietnamese coastline.

U.S. bombers launch ordinances over North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965.

These actions were part of a pattern of deception practiced by successive administrations in Vietnam, which the American public learned of only with the publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” a top-secret Defense Department study of the war, commissioned in 1967 and leaked to the press in 1971. In the spring of 1965, President Johnson dramatically escalated the American war effort by initiating Operation Rolling Thunder (an air assault on North Vietnam) and dispatching marines and soldiers to engage in combat (see The Vietnam War: Ia Drang Valley Narrative). As the number of American troops fighting in Vietnam increased, closing in on 500,000 by the end of 1967, so did the number of American casualties. Only 206 American soldiers had died in the war in 1964; in 1967, more than 11,300 lost their lives (see The Vietnam War Experience: An Interview with Veteran William Maxwell Barner III Primary Source).

President Johnson spoke of steady progress toward victory, but the American public grew increasingly uneasy. Support for the war collapsed when the Communists launched their surprise “Tet Offensive” at the end of January 1968, attacking Saigon and dozens of smaller cities across South Vietnam. The United States lost more than 2,000 soldiers in February, the highest monthly death toll to date. The Communists lost far more and, militarily, the offensive was a significant military defeat for them because their forces were decimated. But psychologically it proved a victory, fatally undermining public support for the war in the United States (see the Walter Cronkite Speaks Out against Vietnam, February 27, 1968 Primary Source). The shock also led to President Johnson’s decision to not seek reelection in 1968.

Reagan’s Cold War Foreign Policy

At the same time, Reagan followed a foreign policy of “peace through strength,” supporting big increases in the defense budget and the deployment of new weapons systems. He presided over the largest peacetime defense budget in history—approximately $220 billion in 1981 and increasing at 7 percent annually—which greatly enhanced American military readiness and modernization but contributed to growing federal deficits. He also embraced a research program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), intended to develop a defense against nuclear missiles. The Soviets objected strongly to SDI, but Reagan persisted, arguing for the moral superiority of a free society against Soviet totalitarianism. In 1983, he made a speech in which he indicted the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and he frequently predicted that communism was doomed to collapse because of its economic inefficiency and denial of basic human freedom. Whereas previous administrations had embraced détente, Reagan rejected that idea and instead pursued policies to facilitate the collapse of communism.

Reagan restored the policy of containment by strengthening traditional alliances with Western Europe and Japan, building a strategic partnership with China, and giving aid to the embattled government of El Salvador in its fight against Cuban-backed communist guerrillas. Going on the Cold War offensive, he announced the Reagan Doctrine, a policy of trying to roll back the Soviet empire by aiding anti-communist guerrillas in Afghanistan (the mujahideen), Nicaragua (the “contras”), Cambodia, and Angola, countries that had fallen into the Soviet orbit in the 1970s. “We must not break faith,” Reagan argued, “with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” He ordered the invasion of the Caribbean island country of Grenada when hardline communists seized power and killed the prime minister. The administration feared for the lives of American medical students on the island and especially a possible Soviet and Cuban military presence there. Reagan also approved a policy of economic warfare against the Soviet regime, including reducing its access to Western money and technology, with the aim of bringing about its downfall.

In October 1983 U.S. and allied forces from neighboring islands invaded the Caribbean country of Grenada removing a pro-Soviet communist government and securing the safety of American medical students on the island.

After a series of aging leaders died in office in the early 1980s, a new generation took power in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, understanding that the collapsing Soviet economy and stagnating society were in need of reinvigoration, pursued a policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring with freer markets). He also proved open to a new relationship with the United States. Reagan and Gorbachev held summit meetings in Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in 1986, Washington, DC, in 1987, and Moscow and New York in 1988. With Reagan pressuring the Soviet leader and the Russians unable to keep pace with western computer technology, the two agreed to make significant cuts in their nuclear arsenals.

In 1987, Reagan spoke at the Berlin Wall, which divided the city into free and communist sectors, calling on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev attempted to reform and save Soviet Communism through glasnost and perestroika, but when the peoples of the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe embraced those principles, they undermined the repressive Communist regime. Two years later, mostly peaceful uprisings against communism swept over the Eastern European countries, and the Berlin Wall came down. Gorbachev decided to withdraw the Soviet army from the city and not intervene to repress the people who were fighting the puppet regimes of Eastern Europe for their liberties. Two years after that, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. These events spelled the end of the Cold War between the two superpowers that had lasted since 1945. (See the Ronald Reagan, “Tear Down this Wall” Speech, June 12, 1987 Primary Source) (See the “Tear Down This Wall”: Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War Decision Point.)

By that time, George H. W. Bush had been elected as Reagan’s successor. Bush focused largely on foreign affairs, especially managing the last stages of the fall of communism and dealing with a crisis in the Middle East. This began when Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait. Bush put together an international coalition that decisively defeated Saddam’s army and drove him from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.

Although the Reagan-Bush years produced some significant foreign policy successes, there were failures as well. A peacekeeping mission in Beirut, Lebanon, went awry when terrorists bombed a barracks, killing 241 U.S. Marines. Reagan was also entangled in the Iran-Contra scandal when it became known in late 1986 that National Security Adviser John Poindexter and Col. Oliver North had headed a secret operation that sold weapons to Iran, including 1,000 powerful anti-tank TOW missiles, for the release of hostages. Reagan denied knowledge of the operation in a televised address and news conference, which he recanted after it was discovered that he had approved it.

In October 1983 terrorists drove a truck full of explosives into a barrack of U.S. Marines in Beirut killing 241 of them.

The press soon made public that Poindexter and North had also funneled the proceeds of the arms sales to the Contras in Nicaragua during a period when Congress had legally banned military aid with the Boland Amendment. (The Boland Amendment had subsequently been reversed by congressional approval of military aid to the Contras in 1985.) Poindexter resigned, and Reagan fired North, but not before North shredded documents to obstruct the investigation. Reagan appointed the Tower Commission, which faulted the president for serious lapses in managing his administration. Reagan took responsibility for the scandal, and Congress launched an investigation. A defiant North testified at hearings during the summer of 1987 and won popular support. However, the Iran-Contra Affair contributed to growing distrust of government that originated in Lyndon Johnson’s credibility gap over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation.

After Operation Desert Storm, U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s entered a period of relative calm for America. Some analysts argued that that Americans were witnessing the “end of history,” the final victory of liberal democracy, and had largely lost interest in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the United States was still engaged in world affairs and wars around the world. The Clinton administration intervened abroad to support democracy and to solve humanitarian crises in Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. Clinton withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia after they were attacked in Mogadishu and suffered approximately 100 casualties in urban fighting, but he backed NATO bombing campaigns to stop ethnic cleansing (i.e., genocide) in Bosnia and Kosovo. (See the Has Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” Thesis Been Proven Correct? Point-Counterpoint.) (See the Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, 1989 Primary Source.) (See the U.S. Foreign Policy in Somalia and Rwanda Decision Point.) (See the George H. W. Bush, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 23, 1991 Primary Source.)

Saddam Hussein remained an adversary in the Middle East; Clinton ordered an extensive bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998 when Saddam expelled U.N. weapons inspectors. Meanwhile, Islamic terrorism gained new strength, most visibly in the rise of the al-Qaeda network headed by Osama bin Laden. In February 1993, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists bombed New York’s World Trade Center, and al-Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Two years later, al-Qaeda attacked the U.S.S. Cole, a navy vessel at port in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors and wounding more than 30 others. Clinton responded with law enforcement efforts and cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda camps.

The U.S.S. Cole was attacked by suicide bombers in October 2000 and 17 U.S. sailors were killed. Here the Cole is being tugged after the bombing. Note the large gash in the side of the ship.

George W. Bush and a Changing World

Most of George W. Bush’s presidency was consumed by the War on Terror, the United States’ response to al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Bush’s external response initially focused on attacking al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan, which the terrorist group had used as safe haven. The Taliban regime was toppled in short order and al-Qaeda was driven into hiding, but fighting continued. In 2003, fearing that Saddam Hussein retained a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was friendly with terrorists, Bush received authorization from Congress to invade Iraq. Saddam’s dictatorship there was quickly toppled, but U.S. forces did not find the WMDs they expected. The Bush administration then shifted the primary rationale for the invasion to spreading democracy and peace in the Middle East. After the successful overthrow of the regime, U.S. forces encountered an insurgency from supporters of Saddam as well as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Facing a deteriorating situation with heavy U.S. casualties from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Bush ordered a surge of additional troops that turned the tide of battle in 2007. (See the U.S. Military Intervention in Afghanistan Decision Point.) (See the Was the Invasion of Iraq Justified? Point-Counterpoint.)

Resource Review

Continuity and Change: To what extent has U.S. foreign policy changed over the 20th century?

Principle: Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

There is a wealth of resources available in our Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness digital textbook. The resources are organized into different categories including:

📎 Inquiry Organizer: Summary of chapter objectives and resources

📖 Chapter Introductory Essay: In-depth overview of significant events in the time period

🔎 Narratives: Shorter essays on a dramatic story or individual

📍 Decision Points: Narratives that describe a pivotal decision in history

💬 Point-Counterpoints: Differing sides of an argument presented by scholars or historical figures

✒️ Primary Sources: Firsthand accounts from the time period

📝 Lessons: Instructions and handouts to engage students in the classroom

✏️ Unit Essay Activity: Culminating essay based on AP LEQs to assess chapter objectives

Using the provided reflection questions, review the following resources:

  1. 📝 George Washington’s Foreign Policy: Comparisons across U.S. History
  2. ✒️ Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, 1918
  3. 🔎 Foreign Policy in the 1930s: From Neutrality to Involvement

Then choose at least two more resources to review. In the discussion, you will be asked to share your reflections of these resources.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do these resources reveal about equality and liberty for African Americans from 1865-1877?
  2. How do these resources help in understanding the causes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century?

Other Resources

Instructional Plan

Continuity and Change: To what extent has US foreign policy changed over the 20th century?

Principle: Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

The following instructional plan is an example of a conceptual teaching approach, centered on an overarching essential question. Not all resources on this topic available in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness have been included. Review the plan using the provided reflection questions.

  • To what extent are the constitutional principles and historical reasoning skills evident in the materials and activities used in the instructional plan?
  • To what extent does the conceptual focus of this instructional plan help students answer the essential question (To what extent has US foreign policy changed over the 20th century?)?
  • What adjustments might you make to better address the constitutional principles and/or historical reasoning skills?
  • What adjustments might you make to the timeframe, guiding questions, and/or instructional activities for it to suit your classes?
  • How will these adjustments positively change the student outcome for understanding and using these principles and/or skills?

What’s Next

Continuity and Change: To what extent has US foreign policy changed over the 20th century?

Before you engage in the assessment for this module, you will participate in a discussion with the course instructor and other course participants.

For our discussion, we will reflect on the following questions:

  • Explain what these resources reveal about separation of power and/or checks and balances and US foreign policy throughout the 20th century?
  • Describe how these resources help in understanding continuity and change in US foreign policy.
  • Which resources do you think helped most in answering the guiding question: To what extent has US foreign policy changed over time? Why?
  • How might you change or adjust those resources to suit your classes?