Two years after the passage by a unanimous House of Representatives and all
but two senators of the August 7, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and amid
continuing escalation of the Vietnam War, the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright published The Arrogance of Power
(New York: Random House, 1966) in which he attacked the war's justification,
Congress' failure to set limits on it, and the dangerous and delusional
impulses which gave rise to it. Fulbright's critique, to which he had already
given voice in unprecedented hearings on the war, legitimized the growing
anti-war movement in a way that had not been possible before the book's
publication and shattered what until then had been an elite consensus that
U.S. military intervention in Indochina was necessitated by the Cold War
Despite the Cold War, Fulbright, who died in 1995, perceived already in 1966
that the United States, with unmatched military power, was taking on
imperial attitudes similar to those held by previous great empires like Rome
and 19th century Great Britain, and that a unilateralist and war-like spirit
had infected the nation in ways that it would live to regret. He especially
noted how isolated Washington had become from its traditional allies in
His observations and warnings at the time appear deeply relevant to the
United States under George W. Bush, particularly in the wake of the
publication last week of the administration's sweeping "National Security
Strategy of the United States of America" and its request that Congress
authorize a war resolution arguably as broad and as unilateral as the Gulf
of Tonkin Resolution approved in the early stages of the Vietnam War.
On U.S. Foreign Policy: "Throughout our history two strands have coexisted
uneasily - a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable
strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years
for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably
well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But
...when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of
high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to
look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry
On War Fever: "Past experience provides little basis for confidence that
reason can prevail in an atmosphere of mounting war fever. In a contest
between a hawk and dove the hawk has a great advantage, not because it is a
better bird but because it is a bigger bird with lethal talons and a highly
developed will to use them."
On False Historical Analogies: "The second great advantage of free
discussion to democratic policy-makers is its bringing to light of new ideas
and the supplanting of old myths with new realities. We Americans are much
in need of this benefit because we are severely, if not uniquely afflicted
with a habit of policy-making by analogy: North Vietnam's involvement in
South Vietnam, for example, is equated with Hitler's invasion of Poland and
a parley with the Viet Cong would represent 'another Munich.' The treatment
of slight and superficial resemblances as if they were full-blooded
analogies -- as instances, as it were, of history 'repeating itself' -- is a
substitute for thinking and a misuse of history."
On the Responsibility of Congress: "Many Senators who accepted the Gulf of
Tonkin resolution without question might well not have done so had they
foreseen that it would subsequently be interpreted as a sweeping
Congressional endorsement for the conduct of a large-scale war in Asia."
"I, as one Senator, am unwilling to acquiesce, actively or tacitly, to a
policy that I judge to be unwise as the price of putting the best possible
face on that policy. To do so would be to surrender the limited ability I
have to bring influence to bear for what I would judge to be a wiser policy
and would constitute a default on my constitutional responsibilities and on
my responsibilities to the people of my state."
On the Arrogance of Power: "[P]ower tends to confuse itself with virtue and
a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a
sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other
nations - to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that
is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends
also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission,
a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to
do God's work."
"The more I puzzle over the great wars of history, the more I am inclined to
the view that the causes attributed to them - territory, markets, resources,
the defense or perpetuation of great principles - were not the root causes
at all but rather explanations or excuses for certain unfathomable drives of
human nature. For lack of a clear and precise understanding of exactly what
these motives are, I refer to them as the 'arrogance of power' - as a
psychological need that nations seem to have in order to prove that they are
bigger, better, or stronger than other nations. Implicit in this drive is
the assumption, even on the part of normally peaceful nations, that force is
the ultimate proof of superiority - that when a nation shows that it has the
stronger army, it is also proving that it has better people, better
institutions, better principles, and, in general, a better civilization."
"[The arrogance of power is defined as] the tendency of great nations to
equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal
mission. The dilemmas involved are pre-eminently American dilemmas, not
because America has weaknesses that others do not have but because America
is powerful as no nation has ever been before, and the discrepancy between
her power and the power of others appears to be increasing."
On Imperial Temptations: "Despite its dangerous and unproductive
consequences, the idea of being responsible for the whole world seems to be
flattering to Americans and I am afraid it is turning our heads, just as the
sense of universal responsibility turned the heads of ancient Romans and
"It is a curiosity of human nature that lack of self-assurance seems to
breed an exaggerated sense of power and mission. When a nation is very
powerful but lacking self-confidence, it is likely to behave in a manner
dangerous to itself and to others. Feeling the need to prove what is obvious
to everyone else, it begins to confuse great power with unlimited power and
great responsibility with total responsibility: it can admit of no error; it
must win every argument, no matter how trivial. For lack of an appreciation
of how truly powerful it is, the nation begins to lose wisdom and
perspective and, with them, the strength and understanding that it takes to
be magnanimous to smaller and weaker nations.
"Gradually but unmistakably America is showing signs of that arrogance of
power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great
nations in the past. In so doing, we are not living up to our capacity and
promise as a civilized example for the world. The measure of our falling
short is the measure of the patriot's duty of dissent."
"If the war goes on and expands, if that fatal process continues to
accelerate until America becomes what she is not now and never has been, a
seeker after unlimited power and empire, then Vietnam will have had a mighty
and tragic fallout indeed."
On the Dangers of Empire: "Having done so much and succeeded so well, America is now at that historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its
perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is
beyond it. Other great nations, reaching this critical juncture, have
aspired to too much, and by overextension of effort have declined and then
"Lacking an appreciation of the dimensions of our own power, we fail to
understand our enormous and disruptive impact on the world; we fail to
understand that no matter how good our intentions - and they are, in most
cases, decent enough - other nations are alarmed by the very existence of
such great power, which, whatever its benevolence, cannot help but remind
them of their own helplessness before it."
On Transforming Other Nations: "We all like telling people what to do, which
is perfectly all right except that most people do not like being told what
"Traditional rulers, institutions, and ways of life have crumbled under the
fatal impact of American wealth and power but they have not been replaced by
new institutions and new ways of life, nor has their breakdown ushered in an
era of democracy and development."
"Bringing power without understanding, Americans as well as Europeans have
had a devastating effect in less advanced areas of the world; without
knowing they were doing it, they have shattered traditional societies,
disrupted fragile economies and undermined peoples' self-confidence by the
invidious example of their own power and efficiency. They have done this in
many instances simply by being big and strong, by giving good advice, by
intruding on people who have not wanted them but could not resist them."
"What I do question is the ability of the United States or any other Western
nation to go into a small, alien, undeveloped Asian nation and create
stability where there is chaos, the will to fight where there is defeatism,
democracy where there is no tradition of it, and honest government where
corruption is almost a way of life."
On Unilateralism and Support from Traditional Allies: "One detects in Europe
a growing uneasiness about American policy, a feeling that the United States
is becoming unreliable and that it may be better - safer, that is - to keep
the Americans at a distance."
"We have become .a one-issue participant in world affairs, hungering after a
kind word or some token of support, for either of which we are more than
willing to pay a handsome reward.
"Nevertheless, our major allies are not supporting us in Vietnam. A few
countries do have strong words of encouragement for us; they see America
doing its 'duty' as leader of the free world and, while their own young men
go to school, get jobs, and raise families, they are quite reconciled to
having American boys fight and die in the jungles of Southeast Asia, because
if Americans were not fighting and dying in Vietnam, they tell us, America's
friends in other parts of the world - they themselves, for example, -- might
lose 'confidence' in her. We are very grateful for this support. Other
countries, dependent on the United States for their defense or for monetary
support, for economic aid or for export markets, have found silence to be
the better part of discretion; occasionally they have some mild praise for
us, which makes us feel happy, and occasionally they have a mild reproach,
which makes us feel angry and injured. Still others, who do not understand
that they are supposed to feel 'secure' because Americans are fighting in
Vietnam, are regarded as 'senile' or 'eccentric' by American officials, who
profess 'sadness' and 'puzzlement' but never - heaven forbid - anger in the
face of such ingratitude and apostasy."
"[The United States is willing to defy allied opinion because of] ...an excess
of pride born of power. Power has a way of undermining judgment, of planting
delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and
otherwise sensible nations. As I have said earlier, the idea of being
responsible for the whole world seems to have dazzled us, giving rise to
what I call the arrogance of power, or what the French, perhaps more aptly,
call 'le vertige de puissance,' by which they mean a kind of dizziness or
giddiness inspired by the possession of great power. If then, as I suspect,
there is a relationship between the self-absorption of some of our allies
and the American military involvement in Vietnam, it may have more to do
with American vanity than with our friends' complacency."
On International Law: "Law is the essential foundation of stability and
order both within societies and in international relations. As a
conservative power the United States has a vital interest in upholding and
expanding the reign of law in international relations. Insofar as
international law is observed, it provides us with stability and order and
with a means of predicting the behavior of those with whom we have
reciprocal legal obligations. When we violate the law ourselves, whatever
short-term advantage may be gained, we are obviously encouraging others to
violate the law; we thus encourage disorder and instability and thereby do
incalculable damage to our own long-term interests."
On National Greatness: "I do not think that America's greatness is
questioned in the world, and I certainly do not think that strident behavior
is the best way for a nation to prove its greatness. Indeed, in nations as
in individuals bellicosity is a mark of weakness and self-doubt rather than
of strength and self-assurance."
"In her relations with Asian nations, as indeed in her relations with all of
the revolutionary or potentially revolutionary societies of the world,
America has an opportunity to perform services of which no great nation has
ever before been capable. To do so we must acquire wisdom to match our power
and humility to match our pride. Perhaps the single word above all others
that expresses America's need is 'empathy'."
"The inconstancy of American foreign policy is not an accident but an
expression of two distinct sides of the American character. Both are
characterized by a kind of moralism, but one is the morality of decent
instincts tempered by the knowledge of human imperfection and the other is
the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit. .The
[latter] is exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt, who in his December 6, 1904,
Annual Message to Congress, without question or doubt as to his own and his
country's capacity to judge right and wrong, proclaimed the duty of the
United States to exercise an 'internal police power' in the hemisphere on
the ground that 'Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a
general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America ultimately require
intervention by some civilized nation.'
"After twenty-five years of world power the United States must decide which
of the two sides of its national character is to predominate - the humanism
of Lincoln or the arrogance of those who would make America the world's
One year later, amid deepening involvement in Vietnam and the spread of the
anti-war movement, Fulbright gave a speech on the "Price of Empire" in which
he said the United States was behaving ever more like an imperial power.
This is a passage from that speech.
"Before the Second World War our world role was a potential role; we were
important in the world for what we could do with our power, for the
leadership we might provide, for the example we might set, Now the choices
are almost gone: we are almost the world's self-appointed policeman; we are
almost the world defender of the status quo. We are well on our way to
becoming a traditional great power -- an imperial nation if you will --engaged
in the exercise of power for its own sake, exercising it to the limit of our
capacity and beyond, filling every vacuum and extending the American
"presence" to the farthest reaches of the earth. And, as with the great
empires of the past, as the power grows, it is becoming an end in Itself,
separated except by ritual incantation from its Initial motives, governed,
it would seem, by its own mystique, power without philosophy or purpose.
"That describes what we have almost become, but we have not become a
traditional empire yet. The old values remain -- the populism and the optimism,
the individualism and the rough-hewn equality, the friendliness and the good
humor, the inventiveness and the zest for life, the caring about people and
the sympathy for the underdog, and the Idea, which goes back to the American
Revolution, that maybe just maybe we can set an example of democracy and
human dignity for the world.
"That is something which none of the great empires of the past has ever
done -- or tried to do -- or wanted to do -- but we were bold enough, or presumptuous
enough, to think that we might be able to do It. And there are a great many
Americans who still think we can do It, or at least they want to try.
"That, I believe, is what all the hue and cry is about -- the dissent in the
Senate and the protest marches in the cities, the letters to the President
from student leaders and former Peace Corps volunteers, the lonely searching
of conscience by a student facing the draft and the letter to a Senator from
a soldier in the field who can no longer accept the official explanations of
why he has been sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. All believe that
their country was cut out for something more ennobling than an imperial
destiny. Our youth are showing that they still believe in the American
dream, and their protests attest to its continuing vitality.
"There appeared in a recent Issue of the journal Foreign Affairs a curious
little article complaining about the failure of many American Intellectuals
to support what the author regards as America's unavoidable "imperial role"
in the world. The article took my attention because it seems a faithful
statement of the governing philosophy of American foreign policy while also
suggesting how little the makers of that policy appreciate the significance
of the issue between themselves and their critics. It Is taken for granted,
not set forth as an hypothesis to be proved, that any great power, in the
author's words, "is entangled in a web of responsibilities from which there
Is no hope of escape," and that "there is no way the United States, as the
world's mightiest power, can avoid such an imperial role. . . ." The
author's [Irving Kristol's] displeasure with the "intellectuals" -- he uses the
word more or less to describe people who disagree with the administration's
policy is that, in the face of this alleged historical inevitability, they
are putting up a disruptive, irritating and futile resistance. They are
doing this, he believes, because they are believers in "ideology " -- the
better word would be "values" or "ideals" -- and this causes their thinking to
be "irrelevant" to foreign policy.
"Here, inadvertently, the writer puts his finger on the nub of the current
crisis. The students and churchmen and professors who are protesting the
Vietnam War do not accept the notion that foreign policy is a matter of
expedients to which values are irrelevant. They reject this notion because
they understand, as some of our policy makers do not understand, that It is
ultimately self-defeating to 'fight fire with fire,' that you cannot defend
your values in a manner that does violence to those values without
destroying the very thing you are trying to defend."
Copyright C2003 Jim Lobe
Tomdispatch.com is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fellow at the Nation Institute, for anyone in despair over post-September 11th US mainstream media coverage of our world and ourselves.
© 2003 TomDispatch.com