There Once Was a President Who Hated War
American elites used to see war as a tragic necessity. Now they’re completely addicted to it.
Along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt is often hailed as one of the United States’ greatest presidents. FDR gave Americans hope during the Great Depression, created key institutions like Social Security that remain broadly popular today, led the country to victory in World War II, and created a broad political coalition that endured for decades. He made mistakes—as all presidents do—but it’s no wonder he’s still regarded with reverence.
On Aug. 14, 1936—83 years ago—FDR gave a speech at Chautauqua in upstate New York, fulfilling a promise he had made at his inauguration in 1933. It is a remarkable speech, where FDR lays out his thoughts on the proper American approach to international affairs. He explains his “good neighbor” policy toward Latin America, along with his belief that although a more liberal international trade may not prevent war, “without a more liberal international trade, war is a natural sequence.”
For me, the most remarkable feature of this speech is Roosevelt’s blunt, vivid, and passionate denunciation of war, expressed with a candor that is almost entirely absent from political discourse today. After making it clear that “we are not isolationists, except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war,” he acknowledges that “so long as war exists on Earth, there will be some danger that even the nation which most ardently desires peace may be drawn into war.”
But then he goes on:
“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”
Roosevelt then reminds his listeners that war can result from many causes (including, in a passage that surely speaks to us today, “political fanaticisms in which are intertwined race hatreds”). He hopes to preserve U.S. neutrality should conflict erupt elsewhere and warns against the few selfish men who would seek to embroil the country in war solely to reap war profits. To make sure the country does not foolishly choose profits over peace, he calls for the “meditation, the prayer, and the positive support of the people of America who go along with us in seeking peace.”
Yet, for all that, FDR leaves no doubt that the American people will defend themselves and their interests if war is forced on them. In his closing paragraph, he declares: “If there are remoter nations that wish us not good but ill, they know that we are strong; they know that we can and will defend ourselves and defend our neighborhood.” And it is precisely what Roosevelt ultimately did.
Seriously, can you think of a recent U.S. president who spoke of war and peace in similar terms, with equal passion and frankness?
Bill Clinton was no militarist, but he was so worried about being labeled a dove that he kept boosting defense spending, firing off cruise missiles without thinking, and blindly assuming that exporting democracy, expanding trade, and issuing open-ended security guarantees would suffice to bring peace around the world. And when he had a golden opportunity to broker a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, he whiffed.
By contrast, George W. Bush was a swaggering frat boy who brought wars to several places and peace nowhere. He liked to pose in a nifty flight suit and give high-minded, tough-talking speeches, but the unnecessary wars he launched killed hundreds of thousands of people and severely damaged America’s global position.
Barack Obama may have agonized over every targeted killing and major military decision, but he also ramped up the drone war, sent additional troops to Afghanistan to no good purpose, helped turn Libya into a failed state, and tacitly backed the Saudi-led war in Yemen. And when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (!), his acceptance speech focused as much on defending America’s role in the world—including its widespread use of military force—as it did on extolling the virtues of peace and the measures that must be taken to advance it.
Ironically, though Donald Trump loves military parades, flybys, and the other visible trappings of military power, he seems rather leery of war. Like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who sought and received five separate deferments from the draft during Vietnam, Trump (or his father) apparently saw military service as something that only less fortunate people ought to participate in. As president, he does seem to recognize that starting some new war could hurt him politically, even as his more hawkish advisors keep pushing him in that direction. And we’ve yet to hear him extolling the virtues of peace as candidly as Roosevelt did in 1936.
Look, you don’t have to tell a realist like me that we live in an imperfect world and that perpetual peace is a pipe dream. But the difficulty of the task is precisely why it merits serious attention. Yet instead of embracing peace as a virtue, U.S. politicians go to great lengths to show how tough they are and how ready they are to send Americans into harm’s way in order to take out some alleged enemy. But how often do they talk about trying to understand the complex origins of most contemporary conflicts? How often do they try to empathize with the United States’ adversaries, not in order to agree with them but so as to understand their position and to figure out a way to change their behavior without resorting to threats, coercion, or violence? How often do prominent politicians say, as Roosevelt did, that they “hate war”?
As I’ve said before, the U.S. disinterest in peace isn’t just morally dubious; it’s strategically myopic.
The United States should not shrink from fighting if such fighting is forced on it, but it should be the country’s last resort rather than its first impulse. The United States is remarkably secure from most external dangers, and apart from political malfeasance at home (see: the Trump administration), the only thing that could really screw things up in the short term is a big war. War is bad for business (unless you’re Boeing or Lockheed Martin), and it tends to elevate people who are good at manipulating violence but not so good at building up institutions, communities, or companies. When you’re already on top of the world, encouraging the use of force isn’t prudent; it’s dumb. Peace, in short, is almost always in America’s strategic interest.
Which makes it even more surprising that the word has mostly vanished from Americans’ strategic vocabulary, and here I think two big factors are responsible. First, fewer politicians (and especially presidents) have “seen war” in the way that Roosevelt had. Harry Truman did, and so did Dwight D. Eisenhower (obviously), John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. Needless to say, none of the post-Cold War presidents ever saw war in the same way.
Equally important, both the political class and the public have been imbibing an intoxicating brew of militarist rhetoric, imagery, and argument for decades. Americans cheer the troops at baseball games, wave giddily at thunderous aerial flybys, and finance all of their military adventures by borrowing money so that no one has to make obvious sacrifices now.
In Roosevelt’s era, Americans were still reluctant to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” but they fought with unexpected ferocity when attacked. They were slow to anger but united in response. The situation today is the exact opposite—they are quick on the trigger provided that none of them have to do very much once the bullets are flying. Instead of seeing war as a tragic necessity that is to be avoided if at all possible, Americans regard it as a rather sanitary “policy option” that takes place in countries most of them cannot locate and is conducted primarily by drones, aircraft, and volunteers. Americans fight all the time but without clear purpose or firm resolve. As one would expect, they usually lose, although others often pay a much larger price than they do.
There are faint signs that this situation is changing, after nearly 25 years of mostly failed adventures abroad. The foreign-policy elite may have acquired a certain addiction to war, but longtime addicts sometimes decide to turn their lives around and kick the habit. As noted above, Trump hasn’t started any new wars yet, and his various Democratic challengers aren’t pushing for more war either. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tulsi Gabbard have pretty fair (but not perfect) records on this broad issue, and each has been vocal in opposing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Pete Buttigieg wants the United States to rely less on military force in some places (but not others), Kamala Harris has been mostly silent on the issue, and the other leading candidates have more mixed records. Don’t forget that Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War, and both Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar lean in more hawkish directions.
I’m waiting for one of them to start talking openly and intelligently about peace. What is needed to promote it, and how can the United States use its still considerable power to keep itself out of war and to help others escape its destructive clutches? If any of the 2020 candidates decide to tackle this issue head-on, they might start by reading what a great president once said, 83 years ago.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.