American Patriotism Part II: Change

Patriotism is a domestic phenomenon and practice. It is that part of a larger national political culture that supports and legitimizes the exercise of foreign policy. Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong, published early in the Iraq war, shows that an important function of state-sponsored patriotism is to structure the public discourse and shape public imagination in ways that malign and effectively disqualify alternative arguments as unpatriotic and treasonous, thereby shutting down a wider public debate on the direction and purpose of the country’s foreign policy.

But as part of a debate on what America stands for, its values and role in the world, patriotism has historically also helped to constrain and contest the exercise of state power abroad. This is evident in the tradition of anti-expansionist, anti-imperialist, and anti-interventionist arguments.[i] When John Quincy Adams (not an isolationist but a realist after all) warned in the interest of national sovereignty against “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy” he predicted that America “might become the dictatress of the world [but] would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”

The question is whether the nature of one of America’s admirable traditions, the great debates over the country’s role in the world, has permanently changed since World War Two.[ii]  My previous research points to the 1940s as a period of dramatic reconfiguration of both foreign policy debates and popular conceptions of American nationalism. The rhetoric of patriotism serves to mobilize a society around notions of national identity. Over the course of the 1940s two government campaigns – to convince Americans of the need to fight the Axis and to resist Soviet plans of domination – occurred in quick succession. But they differed significantly in their respective visions of social cohesion and national interest and in their nationalist appeals. American nationalism in World War Two owed much to the New Deal culture and was hence profoundly different from its successor forged in the early Cold War.

An important shift occurred in the transition from World War Two to the Cold War, partly through discrediting so-called isolationist positions, partly through the merger of Nazism and Stalinism in the term totalitarianism, not as an analytic concept but as a battle cry against the ideological other. A carefully crafted blend of anticommunism with World War Two lessons shaped a new nationalist ideology which now included reliance on and ennobling of military means as the most moral and effective way to act in the world (Munich lesson).[iii]

The impact of this “shadow of war” on the domestic scene has received comparatively less attention from diplomatic historians than American globalism itself.  My hypothesis is that the nation’s newly assumed international obligations and its overseas commitments became a new crystallization point in the development of American postwar national identity and nationalism. An interventionist internationalism and a heavy reliance on military strength have become defining aspects of “who we are” as Americans.[iv] While these elements are traceable to earlier versions of the American empire, they become much less contested after 1945 (with the possible exception of the Vietnam War).

Over the course of the past six decades successive American generations have been accustomed to their country leading the (free) world, assuming the burdens and costs of globalism — and being at war. This has obviously repercussions for a country’s sense of national identity and its culture of patriotism. It is not surprising that the Millennials who grew up in wartime feel the need to assert their patriotism.

In the mobilization of the country for war, Washington regularly invokes universalist claims, the belief that all people share the same desire for – an American conception of – freedom, human rights and democracy. Later in the thick of fighting, a less idealistic and more defensive-aggressive patriotism comes to the fore.[v] As attacks, losses and costs mount, the earlier mentioned “injured innocence” sentiment turns against the people among whom American soldiers are fighting, whether in South East Asia or the Middle East. Contempt, hatred, and vengeance get added. Nationalism becomes more chauvinistic and militant as a result of war.


If, according to my thesis an American sense of national identity underwent a profound transformation after 1945, it will continue to change. Many commentators saw Barak Obama’s election in 2008 as a vote for change in this regard. A significant part of American society, especially the younger generation, has tired of costly self-righteousness and reliance on military strength.

Nationalism in its more solipsistic version (i.e. ignorant of the world and of history) can distort the national-political discourse, pulling debates away from reality, blinding a society to important challenges. Several of my fellow SHAFR-bloggers, like other public commentators, have raised such concerns.

Interestingly enough, the same point was recently made by two senior members of the JCS who in allusion to Kennan’s famous Foreign Affairs article, signed their blueprint of “A National Strategic Narrative” as Mr. Y. Arguing from the point of national security they shift attention back to domestic priorities like education, health care, sustainability and infrastructure. Rather than unilaterally shaping its global environment, the United States according to the patriotic appeal of Messieurs Y has to compete and cooperate with other nations and has to strengthen its domestic resources for this purpose.

[i] David Mayers, Dissenting Voices in America’s Rise to Power (2007); Jonathan Hansen, The Lost Promise of Patriotism (2003). Hansen discusses Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, and W. E.B. DuBois, thus setting the stage for John Fousek’s analysis in To Lead the Free World. American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War (2000) where the emerging cold war nationalist consensus is challenged mainly in labor circles and by African American commentators.

[ii] One of the best recent analyses is Robert Westbrook, “Isolationism Reconsidered” Raritan 30, No 2 (Fall 2010), 17: “one of the most important consequences of World War II for the American moral imagination was the complete displacement by war’s end of the anti-interventionists’ narrow, ‘continentalist’ conceptions of “national defense” by their opponents’ expansive, ‘globalist’ conceptions of “national security” and democratic obligation – conceptions that remain dominant to this day.”

[iii] Tony Judt, “What Have We Learned If Anything?” New York Review of Books, 1 May 2008, explaining the historical reasons why war is not a last resort for this country.

[iv] Michael Sherry in his account of the militarization of US foreign policy after 1941 acknowledges that well into the early part of the 20th century war and defense rarely dominated national politics.

[v] Susan Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2009).