Commentary Magazine

America Invulnerable, by James Chace and Caleb Carr

Policy vs. Pathology

America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars.
by James Chace and Caleb Carr.
Summit Books. 367 pp. $19.95.

Revisionist perspectives on U.S. foreign policy have been a booming industry since that far-off day in 1959 when William Appleman Williams published his radical classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Although the variations have been virtually endless, the essential theme is that behind the myth of U.S. do-goodism and support for democratic values lie selfishness, rapacious capitalistic imperatives, warped anti-Communist messianism, etc., etc. Most of these hostile analyses have aimed at undermining any favorable summation of the postwar Pax Americana; a sub-genre, the Latin American foreign-policy critique, finds that the chain of U.S. perfidy stretches back in time much farther than that.

Until recently, what almost all of these exercises—some of them impressive pieces of scholarship, others decidedly less so—shared was a concentration on the global expansion of American power. Now there is a hot new product on the critical history market: the study of American overextension and decline. Although Leninist diatribes on this theme have been around for a while, the current boom involves less conventional (in the left-wing sense) and therefore more diverting forms of analysis. In the forefront is Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; not far behind, in many intellectual circles, is liable to be this arresting, quirky, quite flawed, and sometimes misleading work, co-authored by James Chace, a notable figure of the East Coast liberal foreign-policy establishment, and Caleb Carr, a relatively young foreign-policy researcher.

The thesis of America Invulnerable, briefly put, is that behind the 200-year rise of American power lies a collective psychosis, an obsession with perfect security, which has now reached the point of untenability:

For more than two centuries, the United States has aspired to a condition of perfect safety from foreign threats. Alarmed by even potential dangers to the nation’s security, Americans have forcefully responded to both real and imagined assaults against our own borders as well as against those of foreign nations and provinces we have seen as either strategically or politically linked to our own. . . . Yet the goal of absolute security has constantly eluded us. . . . To cope with these dangers, America has steadily expended an ever greater share of her national wealth and resources until—by the end of the 1980’s—she finds them stretched to the very limit.

With a presidential election almost upon us, and the possibility of a revitalized Democratic coalition spanning the distance from Capitol Hill to the White House, it is not hard to see where this argument is aimed: at a very substantial reduction of U.S. military spending, especially abroad; a restructuring of U.S. alliances with Western Europe and the Pacific; and a new, post-Afghanistan policy of concert with the Soviet Union, especially on disarmament issues. After Reaganism, neo-Carterism.

One of the principal functions of America Invulnerable is to give this kind of foreign-policy approach a more sophisticated underpinning than it has enjoyed in the past. Certainly, James Chace, the senior author, has the credentials for the job. Managing editor of the august gray quarterly Foreign Affairs from 1970 to 1983, he migrated to the New York Times Book Review and thence to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he is currently a senior associate. Chace has published a number of other works that urge the calculus of diminished ends and means in American foreign policy. His most up-to-date views have appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of the Carnegie-sponsored quarterly, Foreign Policy, where he outlines a much-reduced U.S. military commitment abroad and a new agenda that includes

. . . working with the West Europeans to reduce the U.S. military presence on the Continent, even should negotiations with the Soviet Union proceed haltingly or finally peter out. It means reexamining U.S. military needs in the Philippines and in South Korea, as well as the defense costs of America’s relationship with Japan. It means pursuing peace efforts in Central America, with an eye toward reducing military expenditures for the region. And it means, above all, taking seriously recent Soviet foreign-policy initiatives: proposals for cutting troop levels in Eastern and Western Europe, for reducing the number of arms and troops in northern Asia, for curbing naval developments in the western Pacific, for cooperating in the Persian Gulf and in the Arab-Israeli standoff, and for using the UN Security Council for peace-keeping missions and conflict control. [Emphasis added.]

Since paragraphs of Chace’s historical analysis in the Foreign Policy article are lifted almost verbatim from America Invulnerable, the relationship between the book’s thesis and these sweeping proposals is worth examining with some care. And care is certainly recommended when an analyst suggests that from the time of the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 to the announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative, American history has been governed by something closely akin to a psychological aberration. As the authors of America Invulnerable express it:

We are and always have been a nation preoccupied with security. But because of the special way in which we have defined that security, our perception has often taken a violent form that Americans themselves have been hard put to understand.

What is that form? Throughout history, say the authors, the U.S. has been “singularly unwilling to allow outside involvement in questions of national security,” an approach thereinafter referred to as “unilateralist,” or, in its most expansive form, “universalist.”

Let us leave aside, but not for too long, the question of tautology in this description—what is national security? and how does one share involvement in it? The point, apparently, is to construct a model of American history that is founded in the psychology of perception. Aberrant psychology, at that. The sack of Washington was the initial trauma, the authors imply, in the American search for absolute security. This, the nation’s leaders decided, must not be allowed to happen again. Trauma thus led to obsession, “characteristically American,” with the activities of Britain in this hemisphere, “an obsession rivaled in American history only by the 20th-century preoccupation with Soviet Communism.”



America Invulnerable is as much a journalistic exercise as a historical exposition, and it shows, especially in the book’s structure and organization. Quoting Henry Adams, the authors engagingly admit that analyzing national character is a difficult enterprise, then slide over the problem by asserting that the response of national leaders to security issues “established patterns of behavior that eventually became national characteristics. . . .” From there it is only a small, if not necessarily logical, jump to the journalistic habit of examining individual characters, a leap soon taken.

A psychological portrait gallery follows. First comes Andrew Jackson, ruthless, pathologically anti-British, willing to bend the facts on the southern frontier in order to drive out the Redcoats and gobble up Florida. James Polk, the “nation’s preeminent apostle of national security,” nibbling away at the Southwest, annexing California, carving up northern Mexico. Henry Cabot Lodge, arguing for Pacific expansion. Teddy Roosevelt, of course, fretting about imperial German ambitions in the hemisphere. Woodrow Wilson, espousing liberal democracy while practicing intervention—and replacing fear of European imperialism with fear of Bolshevism.

The names come faster as America Invulnerable progresses, and its assertions concerning American behavior become less historical and more sweeping. Truman’s commitment to Western Europe, we learn, grew out of a misperception of Stalin’s commitment to a Communist takeover in Greece. Dean Acheson’s famous memorandum arguing the case for intervention in Korea is described as a masterly summary of previous historical pleas for intervention in nonstrategic locales, entrenching a new kind of “inflated rhetoric” in U.S. unilateralism. The culmination, needless to say, is Ronald Reagan, SDI, the “heartfelt embodiment of America’s search for invulnerability.”

But in the nuclear age, the authors argue, the American search for perfect security can no longer be accommodated:

In the pursuit of perfect security in an imperfect world, we have always felt it desirable to act on our own—not isolating ourselves from other nations of the world, but walking a solitary path among them toward the kind of safety that might free us of any and all threats to our exceptional land. . . .

No more; we cannot afford it:

Security, as we approach the end of the second century of our history, can never be more than relative. . . . [This] will mean that despite our massive military and economic power and the blessings of a liberal democracy, we will be required to live as other great powers have lived in the past—with our safety, and the world’s peace, dependent on a judicious accommodation of often conflicting national interests.

America Invulnerable ends more or less on that note of impending American maturity. But engaging, and even gratifying, as this sort of teleological analysis may appear (at last! mental health!), it is marked throughout by misleading assertions of continuity, fuzziness of concepts, and occasional inaccuracy. More worrisome still is the basic narcissistic assumption (by no means rare in the foreign-policy world from which these authors derive) that international stability is more a function of cognitive psychology than of relations of force.

The authors’ very definition of American “unilateralism” begs this question. As Charles de Gaulle was wont to remind us, how else do great powers decide upon their interests, and act, other than alone? The “unilateral” history that Chace and Carr describe pejoratively can also be understood, as it is by America’s allies and even by most of its enemies, as the historical, often opportunistic, sometimes accidental rise of a great nation—helped by the results of two world wars it did not cause—rather than as the expression through time of a geopolitical neurosis.

In this light, it is interesting to compare Chace and Carr’s description of U.S. behavior with their description of Soviet behavior. The Soviets—Stalin anyway—do come in for criticism. “Personally and professionally, Josef Stalin was as obsessed as any American leader of this or any other period with the idea of making his nation safe from foreign threats” (emphasis added). One might say he was almost as sick as we were. But maybe not. For, the authors further note:

Lenin and Trotsky had tried to interact with outside powers, but had been answered with the Siberian intervention and an economic blockade. All of these experiences convinced Stalin that Russia’s security was her own affair, and, more specifically, his own affair, to be pursued in the only way left to him by the non-Communist world—unilaterally.

In other words, where we were traumatized, irrationally, by the British, so too was Stalin traumatized—but rationally—by us.



A lot of history is missing here, but with a purpose, since what is absent usually does not conform to the inherently narcissistic premise of the analysis. That premise, to repeat, is that if the U.S. psychology of perception were to change, the world would change. Thus, with Cuba, the authors write, “Whether the United States could have changed the outcome of the Cuban revolution through a more moderate policy . . . has remained a debate with no foreseeable conclusion.” (Fidel Castro, who has revealed that his initial “moderation” was basically a ruse, is presumably excluded from this debate.) And in Grenada,

a group of native military officers deposed the government and could not demonstrate to Washington’s satisfaction that they were free of Communist influence.

Which proves, in the authors’ view, that the Grenada intervention, like the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, was based on the same neurotic misconception.

There is a great deal more of this sort of thing in America Invulnerable, all climaxing in SDI, described here as a brainchild of Edward Teller which was then foisted upon a credulous Ronald Reagan. The key that made SDI possible in the authors’ view was the recurring dream of American unilateralism; a perfect defense, SDI was another way of going it alone. The difficulty is that they are describing the metaphor of SDI, and not at all what the U.S.—and the Soviets—in fact are groping to develop. Whatever else that thing is, it is a concrete manifestation not of a skewed psychology but of a technological rivalry within a defined relation of force. But then, in the circular, New Age thinking of America Invulnerable, that must be a distinction without a difference.



About the Author

George Russell is the executive editor of Fox New Channel.

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