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The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America's Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest

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A fierce critique of civil religion as the taproot of America’s bid for global hegemony Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter A. McDougall argues powerfully that a pervasive but radically changing faith that “God is on our side” has inspired U.S. foreign policy ever since 1776. The first comprehensive study of the role played by civil religion in U.S. foreign relations o A fierce critique of civil religion as the taproot of America’s bid for global hegemony Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter A. McDougall argues powerfully that a pervasive but radically changing faith that “God is on our side” has inspired U.S. foreign policy ever since 1776. The first comprehensive study of the role played by civil religion in U.S. foreign relations over the entire course of the country’s history, McDougall’s book explores the deeply infused religious rhetoric that has sustained and driven an otherwise secular republic through peace, war, and global interventions for more than two hundred years. From the Founding Fathers and the crusade for independence to the Monroe Doctrine, through World Wars I and II and the decades-long Cold War campaign against “godless Communism,” this coruscating polemic reveals the unacknowledged but freely exercised dogmas of civil religion that bind together a “God blessed” America, sustaining the nation in its pursuit of an ever elusive global destiny.


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A fierce critique of civil religion as the taproot of America’s bid for global hegemony Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter A. McDougall argues powerfully that a pervasive but radically changing faith that “God is on our side” has inspired U.S. foreign policy ever since 1776. The first comprehensive study of the role played by civil religion in U.S. foreign relations o A fierce critique of civil religion as the taproot of America’s bid for global hegemony Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter A. McDougall argues powerfully that a pervasive but radically changing faith that “God is on our side” has inspired U.S. foreign policy ever since 1776. The first comprehensive study of the role played by civil religion in U.S. foreign relations over the entire course of the country’s history, McDougall’s book explores the deeply infused religious rhetoric that has sustained and driven an otherwise secular republic through peace, war, and global interventions for more than two hundred years. From the Founding Fathers and the crusade for independence to the Monroe Doctrine, through World Wars I and II and the decades-long Cold War campaign against “godless Communism,” this coruscating polemic reveals the unacknowledged but freely exercised dogmas of civil religion that bind together a “God blessed” America, sustaining the nation in its pursuit of an ever elusive global destiny.

30 review for The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America's Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest

  1. 4 out of 5

    Howard

    GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION. Walter A. McDougall has written an exhaustive (and I do mean exhaustive), thoroughly researched, thoughtful, thought-provoking study of what has been termed “The American Civil Religion” and how it has dictated U.S. foreign policy from the days of George Washington to those of Barack Obama. As one can discern from the book’s title and subtitle, it is obvious that McDougall doesn’t think the American Civil Religion (ACR) has always served the country well. So, what i GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION. Walter A. McDougall has written an exhaustive (and I do mean exhaustive), thoroughly researched, thoughtful, thought-provoking study of what has been termed “The American Civil Religion” and how it has dictated U.S. foreign policy from the days of George Washington to those of Barack Obama. As one can discern from the book’s title and subtitle, it is obvious that McDougall doesn’t think the American Civil Religion (ACR) has always served the country well. So, what is civil religion? Political scientist Ellie West defines it as "a set of beliefs and attitudes that explain the meaning and purpose of any given political society in terms of its relationship to a transcendent, spiritual reality." McDougall accepts that definition and explains further that a civil religion is a belief in an eternal reality, usually divinely ordained, and the nation’s place in it. The ACR unites Americans “and calls on them to realize the destiny God has in store for them.” THE THREE ACR’S. McDougall's main thesis is that the United States has witnessed three primary permutations of the ACR: 1) CLASSICAL ACR -- The classical ACR originated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and served as the guide for the nation’s foreign policy for almost the entire 19th century. The bible for the ACR during this phase was Washington’s Farewell Address with its warning to avoid “entangling alliances.” 2) PROGRESSIVE ACR – This ACR coincided with the Progressive Movement in American politics and governed foreign policy into the 1960’s. It included adherence to the ideals of the Social Gospel, the idea that it was not necessary to wait for heaven to experience perfection and a better life, that it was possible to establish such a life on earth. The watershed event that allowed the Progressive ACR to replace the Classical ACR was the Spanish-American War (1898). As a result of the nation’s first foreign war (not fought on the North American continent) and featuring its first amphibious invasion, America emerged with an overseas empire: the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. In addition, Hawaii was annexed to provide for fueling stations for ships sailing to service the Philippines. It also represents America’ s first foray into nation building when the treaty ending the war forced Cuba to accept protectorate status, including America's right to intervene in the island’s internal affairs, which it did in 1906, 1913, 1917, and 1933. In addition, the United States negotiated the right to have a permanent naval base at a place called Guantanamo Bay. McDougall reserves some of his harshest criticism for President Woodrow Wilson. He calls World War I a war that the U.S. could have avoided, that it was a “war of choice” much like the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars. He is critical of what he views as Wilson’s unrealistic, idealistic statements that it was a “war to end all wars” and a “war to make the world safe for democracy.” McDougall also criticizes Wilson’s messianic efforts at Versailles in which he unsuccessfully attempted to reshape Europe in America’s image. 3) MILLENIAL ACR McDougall traces this ACR from John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Barack Obama. With its emphasis on regime change, nation building, and human rights it is hard not to see this ACR as simply a continuation of the Progressive ACR. It has been pointed out that George Bush was on record opposing nation building during his presidential campaign. But then 9/11 happened. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in an effort to overthrow the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden and Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and to destroy that nation’s weapons of mass destruction program. However, when Osama evaded capture and no WMD were found in Iraq, establishing democracies in the two countries became the new goals of the administration’s Middle East policies. In other words, nation building. Furthermore, the president launched a “Global War on Terror,” a declaration of war against an abstract concept, similar to the “war on poverty” and the “war on drugs.” McDougall has nothing positive to say about the Bush foreign policy, which he views as being “Wilsonian.” In fact, the first chapter in his book is titled “Why the Bush Blunders?” McDougall believes that “civil religion turns toxic when twisted into a Jacobin creed peddled to people at home through mythical history and forced down foreign throats at gunpoint.” He maintains that Barack Obama bought into the Bush policies of regime change, nation building, and human rights. In reading Obama’s speeches it might be logical to believe that is the case. However, there is rhetoric and then there is action. If McDougall is correct, wouldn’t Obama have committed ground troops in Libya? He was certainly pressured to do so, but he resisted the pressure. And if he had followed in Bush’s footsteps, wouldn’t there be a hundred thousand, or more, American troops in Syria? A NEW ACR? David Sanger wrote in the New York Times that "American foreign policy has certainly been influenced by civil religion over the centuries. But the last president [Obama] didn’t step into that church, and the next one [Trump] is still figuring it out.” Well, what comes next? The book was published in November 2016, but was written well before the recent presidential election, and McDougall had no way of knowing that Donald Trump would be the next president (Who did?). But as it turns out, however, our current president is also on record as opposing nation building, but in the process of "figuring it out," will he change his mind? Or will there be a new ACR?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    I started this book before the inauguration last year, in an effort to bone up on foreign policy given the expectations that there might be changes to US foreign policy. Who knew?? It is clear that the author did not have much of a clue about what was coming. The premise of this book is that US Foreign Policy can be understood with the aid of knowledge of the American Civil Religion (ACR) that is in place and motivating the policy at a given time. The idea of an ACR is a scholarly stratagem used I started this book before the inauguration last year, in an effort to bone up on foreign policy given the expectations that there might be changes to US foreign policy. Who knew?? It is clear that the author did not have much of a clue about what was coming. The premise of this book is that US Foreign Policy can be understood with the aid of knowledge of the American Civil Religion (ACR) that is in place and motivating the policy at a given time. The idea of an ACR is a scholarly stratagem used by popular sociologists like Robert Bellah and others. It speaks to the efforts of US politicians to cloak their actions, policies, etc. in an extended general story about the place of American in the world with particular reference to general religious values and orientations. As the author points out, this is akin to what Karl Mannheim and others have called ideology. It is focused on religion in the US because of the history of the US and its various awakenings as a religious country. This seems reasonable that politicians would do this. Big national commitments entail costs and sacrifices - citizens give up their lives and treasure to pursue national goals. It is of obvious importance to ground the demands on citizens in values that citizens will recognize and respond to positively. Otherwise, foreign policy projects become exercises in the contracting of mercenaries. So far, so good. The book provides a comprehensive review of US foreign policy and readers who might not be familiar with the relevant details along the way to be prepared. This is a very involved and organized book and has a lot to discuss. It is generally useful in mapping out transitions between post-revolutionary foreign policy up through the Civil War and Reconstruction and eventually to progressive versions of ACR, beginning with the Spanish-American War. This second phase of the history, with its various ins and outs moves through the two world wars of the 20th century and through the Cold War up through the early 1990s. The story line then charts how US foreign policy goes off the rails more or less as the move towards a millennial version of ACR develops beginning with Clinton and moving on through Bush and Obama. What to make of all this? Well, the idea of an overall motivating ideology is a reasonable one - and hardly new to readers of US history. What Presidential pronouncements that get remembered failed to talk in terms of an ACR? Beyond providing the general terms, however, what else does a study like this provide? In any set of policy decisions, there are situational details and particular actors that matter as much or more than ideology does. Even more, US opponents take actions and interact with US policy makers in ways that determine actions and outcomes beyond what would be predicted by general principles. For example, is it really useful to view the isolationist parties prior to the US entry into WW2 as propounding an alternative ACR to that of Roosevelt? It is not clear to me, even after reading Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America” There are also lots of alternative stories in most situations where one does not need an ACR. For example, the unique situation of a strong US in the period of postwar reconstruction goes a long way to making sense out of the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s and the disillusionment that followed in the 1970s and 1980s. Gordon’s history of the rise and fall of the American standard of living does not require religious references civil or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong - the ACR construct is useful I suppose but does not have the broad usefulness suggested by the book. Again, when would the President not invoke some motivating and religious ideology to motivate a major policy initiative? Let’s just say I am unclear about the causal status of this construct. To me, the weakest part of the argument was in the 1960s and early 1970s as the Greatest Generation fails to enlist the Baby Boomers to support the war. There is much to unpack here and the treatment in the book comes across as superficial and even rushed. The recent Ken Burns film series, which has its own problems, did a much better job. Once the argument moves to a generational transfer and the focus of interest, I get lost easily. It is hard enough to do a capable job on old fashioned foreign and defense policy actions. Does expanding the focus to those born between 1946 and 1954 really clarify much of anything. It is a good book and I am sure that McDougall gives a good class at Penn. It was a bit of a broad agenda to pursue, however, and is no sin to have imperfections in the explanation.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    GREAT — until Nixon Seeing it blurbed by Andrew Bacevich was one good sign. Reading the dust cover and the table of contents was another. I realized I had found what offered the promise of being a great, Realpolitik-driven (NOT in the Kissinger sense) overview of American foreign policy in the light of American civil religion, and twists and turns in the interpretation of that civil religion, with specific, chunkable "eras." I nodded in agreement near the start of the book when he described America GREAT — until Nixon Seeing it blurbed by Andrew Bacevich was one good sign. Reading the dust cover and the table of contents was another. I realized I had found what offered the promise of being a great, Realpolitik-driven (NOT in the Kissinger sense) overview of American foreign policy in the light of American civil religion, and twists and turns in the interpretation of that civil religion, with specific, chunkable "eras." I nodded in agreement near the start of the book when he described American civil religion as "divine-rights Republicanism." Having read the likes of Walter Karp, I nodded when McDougall talked about one major such change happening with McKinley. (He goes lighter on McKinley than does Karp, but by no means gives him a pass.) I nodded with his illustration of how Wilson really wasn't neutral, especially on the issue of submarine warfare vs. blockade by extension. I very much agree with his assessment of FDR, including that not only was there no "Yalta sellout" abetted by a brain-dead Roosevelt, but that years earlier, he fully believed he could "control" Uncle Joe. I largely agreed with his assessments of Truman and Ike. Very much so with his take on JFK. Generally on LBJ. Very much so with his take on the American New Left vs. that of Europe. Then, we get to Nixon and he TOTALLY goes off the rails, including into conspiracy theory. No, seriously. I quote, page 306: "Nixon's triumphs were too personal, his motives too suspect and his means too devious for an establishment already nervous about the imperial presidency. So, the elites purged the nation of Nixon through the convenient Watergate scandal." And, this is an academic historian, a professor at a major university, claiming this. I immediately knew I would have to knock the book down a star from a planned five-star rating, but with further cogitation, knew I had to take it down two stars. The quote above is only the surface of Nixon whitewashing. First, McDougall implies that the Nixon of the enemies list, etc., only arose because of his overwhelming 1972 victory. Wrong and he knows that. Second, he claims that Nixon supported desegregation. Totally wrong. He enforced court orders on busing but worked to reach out to Wallace Democrats, etc., by making "busing" a four-letter word. Third, he pretends that Congress passed the War Powers Act out of nowhere, rather than as an explicit reaction to his secret bombing of Cambodia. (McDougall never mentions the word "Cambodia," period.) Fourth, he ignores Nixon's illegal interventions in Latin America, including but not limited to the Allende coup and "proddings" of Fidel Castro. Fifth, he insinuates that Nixon felt he had to keep an American presence in Vietnam as long as he did to fully work up detente with both Mao/Zhou and Brezhnev. Debatable at best. I still would be interested in reading his "Promised Land, Crusader State," but would do so with VERY skeptical eyes.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    DIdn't love this book or really agree with the overall argument, although I found it useful in many ways. McDougall traces the historical development of the US idea of itself in relations to the world and to metaphysical/religious/philosophical questions of meaning and purpose. He divides our "civil religions of foreign affairs" into several types. The classical CR tradition, starting with the founders, saw foreign affairs as a necessary evil at best, and at worst something that would hamstring DIdn't love this book or really agree with the overall argument, although I found it useful in many ways. McDougall traces the historical development of the US idea of itself in relations to the world and to metaphysical/religious/philosophical questions of meaning and purpose. He divides our "civil religions of foreign affairs" into several types. The classical CR tradition, starting with the founders, saw foreign affairs as a necessary evil at best, and at worst something that would hamstring the mission to build a city on a hill, or a functioning constitutional republic, at home. The classic statements of the classical CR were JQA's "In Search of Monsters to Destroy" letter and Washington's Farewell address. This CR reflected the weakness of the US at the time, its ability to be relatively isolated from EU affairs, and its belief that non-contiguous empire or foreign entanglement would cripple democracy and order at home. I thought this section was very interesting, and I'd agree with his argument wholeheartedly if he didn't romanticize this period so much. The rest of the book is basically a decline narrative from this ostensible high point. He traces the development of the CR through to Wilson and FDR, whom he believes became messianic in their desire to democratize, modernize, and reform the world. By the early CW, McDougall argues that the whole country had lost perspective on the national interest because its universalist CR had become all-encompassing cultural dogma, silencing realist critics who tried to bring things down to earth. He argues that this development provides a broad cultural framing for the invasion of Iraq in that once the Cold War was over the messianic version of the CR could run wild. I think this argument drastically overlooks the importance of 911 in taking us into Iraq. McDougall also doesn't do much to trace America's changing security requirements in a world that has become smaller and more integrated since well before WWII. In sum, I don't think this book really wrestles with the hard questions of foreign policy, although he's broadly right about the US CR becoming an impediment to sound policy-making and interest-defining in the 20th and 21st centuries. If you are looking for a book on the US Civ religion's evolution throughout history, go with Phil Gorski's recent American Covenant.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    A history of the ideology of US foreign policy which contains both historical analysis of changing circumstances as well as author editorializing, especially as we work ourselves forwards towards the present. In addition to being a large scale and quite critical interrogation for how the United States justifies whatever it does to itself, I also found intellectual succor for my often unpopular opinions on the horror of Woodrow Wilson and the misunderstood, if flawed, genius of Richard Nixon. Kee A history of the ideology of US foreign policy which contains both historical analysis of changing circumstances as well as author editorializing, especially as we work ourselves forwards towards the present. In addition to being a large scale and quite critical interrogation for how the United States justifies whatever it does to itself, I also found intellectual succor for my often unpopular opinions on the horror of Woodrow Wilson and the misunderstood, if flawed, genius of Richard Nixon. Keep in mind, however, that the author definitely slips into paleocon tropes from time to time. This shows his cards as a believer in one of the past forms of American Civil Religion and thus someone who discusses these debates from an insider's perspective. To someone like me whose realism is much more pagan and even anti-christian in character and who views pretty much most of American civil ideology (left, right, and center) as a bizarre and often anti-intellectual experiment from Puritan settlement on day one, this requires some grinning and bearing certain passages. But the overall critique is if anything strengthened by the location of the author within the framework of the discourse he is speaking about. And he does so with much erudition.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tripp

    Oh my, now is the time of despondency in the foreign policy world. After two failed wars in Asia and a foreign policy neophyte in the White House, understanding how we got here is a question many ask. For some the answer lies in WW2 or in Reagan/Clinton or Bush. McDougall takes it all the way back to the beginning arguing that we created a national civil religion that drives us to make poor decisions that go against the overall national interest. Not a comforting read at all (from his perspectiv Oh my, now is the time of despondency in the foreign policy world. After two failed wars in Asia and a foreign policy neophyte in the White House, understanding how we got here is a question many ask. For some the answer lies in WW2 or in Reagan/Clinton or Bush. McDougall takes it all the way back to the beginning arguing that we created a national civil religion that drives us to make poor decisions that go against the overall national interest. Not a comforting read at all (from his perspective would be hard to say if we would be better off with Clinton II or Trump) for those interested in foreign policy, as it calls into question the notion of our foreign policy models, but well worth it for an alternative view. Given the title, it should be clear, but this one is really for the international relations reader.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Scott Holstad

    I didn't like this book. And my criticisms are probably unfair, because the author most likely accomplished what he set out to do. I think I merely misinterpreted or misunderstand the primary thrust of where the thesis was going. I had been hoping for a general history of America's "civil religion" over the years through the present, but especially focusing on the Reagan years through the present, and I guess I expected some analysis which would frankly be somewhat critical of the present situat I didn't like this book. And my criticisms are probably unfair, because the author most likely accomplished what he set out to do. I think I merely misinterpreted or misunderstand the primary thrust of where the thesis was going. I had been hoping for a general history of America's "civil religion" over the years through the present, but especially focusing on the Reagan years through the present, and I guess I expected some analysis which would frankly be somewhat critical of the present situation. Now before you jump on me to tell me that that is exactly what happened in this book, let me admit that I gave up and stopped reading before I got too far in. So if the author did what I expected, it's my own fault for giving up. However, I literally have hundreds of books here waiting to be read, and I'm in the middle of reading over 100 at the present, so I really don't have the time or patience for authors who micromanage their topics to death, particularly when a layman's book is being somewhat treated as an academic book. Because this was detailed freaking history starting in the 1600s, going excruciatingly slow, unbelievably boring, and to be honest, while it's fine for historical authors to be objective and not have an agenda, on the whole, the very title of this book implied a definite agenda, one with which I'd probably agree. Yet, for the life of me, I couldn't tell what the author felt, believed, perceived, was advocating -- nothing!!! -- as he proceeded to regale the reader with amazingly boring trivial shit! And trust me, I don't claim to be the smartest person around, but I'm not entirely dumb either. For instance, I'm presently reading books in fields such as public policy, nuclear engineering, religion (especially the primary theistic ones), atheism, philosophy, history, business, blockchain technology, network engineering, espionage, biographies, science, fiction, poetry, cryptography, culture, international relations, think tanks, hardware, software development, health, machine learning, AI, electronic warfare, limited nuclear warfare, radar signal processing, management consulting, quantum mechanics & quantum computing, among other topics. Trust me -- I can handle details, I can handle boredom, I can handle a lot of "difficult" material. Sometimes I want to quit reading a couple of these other book -- one nuclear engineering book is killing me, and one book on microwave RF design is boring -- but I rarely have any questions as to the thesis of the books, the authors' stances or where they stand on issues, what their agendas are, etc. And while I obviously know sometimes you have to work hard to reach certain points, this damn book simply seemed pointless to me. Mere American religious and political history. Ho hum. Pretty much know those fields already. By heart. I thought this would be a little more cutting edge, and again, perhaps it is, but dammit, give me a reason to reach the point in your book where you venture into uncharted territory! Otherwise, I've got better, more educational, more stimulating, more challenging books to read -- piles of them. So for those of you who read this book in its entirety and came away impressed, please enlighten me as to why I am mistaken in my response to the book. In any event, I can't possibly recommend this book. I'm sure there are alternatives that do a much better job. I'm extremely disappointed. Two stars.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marc Ballon

    One of the best, most incisive analysis of US foreign policy that I've ever read. For anybody interested in understanding how America's "civil religion" has all too often led to failed attempts at nation building and never-ending wars to "make the world safe for democracy," Pulitzer Prize winner Walter McDougall's "The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America's Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest" is must reading. Highly recommended.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    This book focuses on the civil religion of the country and the way it has influenced the foreign policy of the U.S. government. There are are parts that drag between major conflicts when all there is is religious policy but overall it's a good book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Taras

    One of the best history books I've read. Usually don't read history books about countries of author's origin, but fluffy patriotism here. Nice, critical view at American history including many flaws. Walter changed my view re isolationism being a bad thing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    This was a five star book until the last couple of chapters. The beginning and middle were well researched and presented without the editorializing so common today. The last chapters really never dealt with the issues, but glossed over probably the most significant issue - drones. I look forward to the update

  12. 4 out of 5

    Michael Ting

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  14. 4 out of 5

    Christine Sunderland

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nate

  16. 5 out of 5

    Dana Jordan

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rob Sullivan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jack

  19. 4 out of 5

    Regina

  20. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  21. 5 out of 5

    Yardy Robinson

  22. 5 out of 5

    benji

  23. 4 out of 5

    Armand Michael

  24. 4 out of 5

    Brendan

  25. 4 out of 5

    River Bourgoine

  26. 5 out of 5

    Shashank Gupta

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eric Thrond

  28. 4 out of 5

    James Martin

  29. 5 out of 5

    Danny

  30. 4 out of 5

    Eduardo Legorreta

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