Is the United States the Good Country: Nation Building & Boots on the Ground.

There are a few veins of rhetoric coming from the left that deserve a bit of historic perspective – those veins being “nation building” and the idea that America has failed its historic values by engaging in “torture.”

Here’s what Barack Obama has said recently concerning what he seems to perceive…  and strives to  persuade … a  shameful and failed  history of American nation building:

“The time of deploying large ground forces with big military footprints to engage in nation building overseas, that’s coming to an end,” 1

The phraseology here is telling … “nation building overseas, that’s coming to an end” as if this were a long overdue end to long and sordid  chapters of American history – a course correction necessary to attain the noble destiny of an America long lost to evil designs of past generations and American leaders.

This smacks of one having little knowledge – no … I stand corrected – little knowledge and even less care and regard for the successes of American nation building at least since World War II – successes that rightfully make this nation, the Untied States of America, an exceptional nation.   And what are these successes?

As I was contemplating this essay, I noticed an interesting lead article in the current issue of Commentary magazine – The Good Country 2 from which I will reference below as it lends credence to the idea that the United States has successfully engaged in a great deal of nation building, especially in the days following World War II. And this success has been to the benefit of not only the US, but especially and strikingly to the world at large. 

  … to wit:

The late 1930s through 1945 saw the much of the world engulfed in the flames of war and the aggressive expansion of tyrannical expansion of empire. The German annexations of Austria – the  occupation of the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, followed by the take over of all of Czechoslovakia – the invasion of Poland – Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declaring war on Germany followed by the Nazi invasion and takeover of virtually all of Western Europe – the German aerial attack on Great Britain and the German betrayal and invasion of its Soviet ally  … and all during this time the calculated attempt to exterminate an entire peoples – the Jew, at the cost of some 6,000,000 innocent lives lost to the concentration camps gas chambers. 

In the East, the Japanese empire was brutally expanding with Japanese troops invading Korea, China, Manchuria, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Dutch East Indies, Malaysia, New Guinea  and many of the islands of Micronesia … and then the attack on the American territory of Hawaii at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

History shows this period of the 20th century to be the bloodiest and most destructive in human history … the World War ended with the unconditional and total surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945. The defeated  nations, Germany and Japan, as well as much of Europe and the far east lay in the ruins of unconstrained war.

What followed World War II was an allied – though mostly American – occupation of much of Europe and Japan. This total defeat and subsequent occupation of defeated nations and territories however, was unique in history. The occupation was not one of plunder and brutal subjugation of defeated foes … on the contrary. In Europe through the Marshal Plan under the direction of President Truman, Europe entered a period of reconstruction and rehabilitation under the protective  military umbrella of American troops. Likewise in Japan under the direction of US Army General Douglas MacArthur, Japan entered into a period of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

In both these former enemy  nations, a new form of government was imposed on the defeated nations – yes imposed … constitutional and representative governments  … a new form of government under the protective umbrella of US military.   Nation building yes – but of a kind unheard of prior.

And let us not forget South Korea … another successful episode of nation building that we are reminded daily by our Samsung telephones and TVs, and as we drive our Kia or  Hyundai – while at the same time we see their neighbors to the north – barely able to grow an ear of corn for their impoverished populace.  

Let us now turn to the Commentary article and look at some of the highlights:

President Obama’s foreign policy of disengagement has been shattered by the events of the past year. His conviction that a retrenched United States would be better for Americans at home and for people around the globe has only invited aggression, from the Middle East to Europe to the Pacific. The animating ideas behind Obama’s policies have been called into question: the beliefs that “military solutions” are always inferior, that American troop deployments are tantamount to occupations, that multilateral compromise is more moral than decisive unilateral action, and that America’s enforcement of world order does more harm than good.


This is wrong. Indeed, it is tragically wrong. Having compared growth and development indicators across all countries of the world against a database of U.S. “boots on the ground” since 1950, I’ve discovered a stunning truth: In country after country, prosperity—in the form of economic growth and human development—has emerged where American boots have trod.

Unique among dominant powers in world history, America intervenes in the world not merely to advance its own narrow interests but to forward a greater good. And that is due in large measure to the belief that the greater good is in America’s national interest—that a freer and more prosperous world is one in which the United States will flourish.


Critics call it empire. Academics call it hegemony. Some of its champions have called it unipolarity. But the data show a distinguishing feature beyond those descriptions: The projection of universal liberty has been the beating heart of U.S. foreign policy. But not for this president. At West Point earlier this year, Obama declared: “To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution…U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Our power is a “hammer”—in his view, a destructive tool. But is that really what a hammer is? Hammers are tools for construction, not destruction. In that sense, the metaphor works very well. Indeed, from 1950 to 2010, more than 30 million U.S. troops were deployed around the world, the vast majority to allied countries, stationed in permanent bases, and cooperating in peace. They were building, not destroying.


What happened in the places where American military personnel put down roots is nothing short of astonishing. The most dramatic stories are, of course, those of Germany and Japan, which the United States cultivated into financial superpowers after they had been crushed in the war. The most remarkable story is South Korea’s. Average per capita income in South Korea climbed from $1,500 in 1953 to $27,000 in 2013. The U.S.-allied South was much poorer than the Stalinist North, and autocratic rule was the norm for decades—but in the long run, economic freedom led to breathtaking prosperity and, later, a robust liberal democracy. Credit goes to the South Koreans, to be sure, but its American alliance, the provision of an authentic security umbrella, and tens of thousands of Americans on the ground prepared the way to a better future.


From this we can infer that the presence of U.S. troops is less about “nation-building” in terms of Keynesian stimulus and more about ideas—the spread of notions such as property rights, investment security, and rule of law.

About the Author

Tim Kane is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and has twice served as a senior economist on the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. He is co-author with Glenn Hubbard of Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America, recently out in paperback.

There is much more in this article, and I hope it’s message is widely disseminated. It’s message is overdue in an American culture that more and more hears more of the evil that is America rather than the goodness that is the true heart and heartbeat  of America.  I strongly encourage you to read and digest the entire article.


Before I close this piece, let me remind us all of the nation (re)building that occurred within the boundaries of our own nation. I refer here to the ending of our Civil War that came so close to destroying that Shining City on a Hill. At the conclusion of the war, in the small Courthouse at Appomattox Virginia,  Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In history past, in conclusions of battles and wars, the vanquished were most often taken into slavery and their leaders humiliated and executed publicly. At Appomattox, the vanquished, including General Lee were offered Pardons for their treasonous rebellion and sent home to rebuild the nation. 

America is the Good Country – the Exceptional Country – the Shining City on a Hill that has been the refuge and opportunity for millions across many generations. Let us not lose site of it’s history! Let not our failures and shortcomings  – real or fabricated – wash the goodness from the shores of our great nation.

Let us hope that President Obama is correct and that “ … nation building overseas, that’s coming to and end.”  But the realist in me tells me that there will be more to come. My hope is that future nation building will follow the traditions set forth at Appomattox – in Germany – in Japan – in South Korea.





Don Johnson – December 2014


2 responses to “Is the United States the Good Country: Nation Building & Boots on the Ground.

  1. Pingback: No Way Out for Iraqis Who Helped U.S. in War–My Heart is Saddened by What is Happening There. | A Yearning for Publius

  2. “Torture” nice.

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