In which we see the most luxuriant freedom in the world is the freedom not to care
—Hey what, Mr. K.?
I’ll bet you’re really upset about what’s happened with the war in Narbone over the weekend.
—Oh, yes, Mr. K. Absolutely.
—What happened in Narbone?
You mean you don’t know? Tell ’em, Em.
—Oh, well, the situation is complicated. Really complicated. Um … I’ve never seen anything like it!
Yes, Emily, since I know you’re a foreign policy maven, I think you should fill us on some of the details. Do you think it’s as bad as what the CIA did in Iran in 1953? Or Guatemala in 1954? Or maybe the better analogy would be Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961.
—She has no idea.
—Shut up, Ethan. Well, Mr. K, I think it’s a little like all of them.
Hmmm. Scintillating analysis, Em. Yin, let me turn to you. You see I’ve got a map of the world up on the Smart Board. Can you point out Narbone to me?
—I don’t know where Narbone is. Is it in Africa?
—I think it’s in South America. Down by the South Pole.
—Isn’t Narbone like one of those small countries near Switzerland? Like Luxembourg or something?
No. In fact, Narbone doesn’t exist.
—I knew it!
Yes, Em, I figured you would catch from my tone (or my history) that I wasn’t being entirely serious. But note I said “entirely.” Narbone doesn’t exist. But of course Iran does. As does Guatemala. The Congo became Zaire; now it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo. Do any of you have any idea what happened in those places?
—I’ll take a wild guess: bad stuff went down.
Brilliant, Ethan. You have any idea what kind of bad stuff?
—I have no idea.
No. And I won’t bother going around the room and asking you. But the short answer is the U.S. government played an active role in overthrowing democratically elected regimes in all of those countries. I don’t want to go into the details right now; maybe you’ll study them someday. Then again, maybe not. Very few Americans anywhere know about what happened in these places and what role the United States played even at the time. I’ll tell you something else, though: the people who lived in these places certainly knew. As did their children. And very possibly their grandchildren.
You don’t know, because you don’t have to know. That’s one of your luxuries—very possibly your greatest luxury—as Americans: the freedom not to know. Or care. In an important sense, history is something that happens to other countries, because they’re subject to what outsiders, notably the United States, do to them. I don’t want to overstate the case: there have been times in recent times when the actions of other countries really have affected us. But you, your parents, your grandparents, even your great-grandparents: they’ve been insulated to a very notable degree.
—What’s your point, Mr. K.? Are you saying we shouldn’t be?
As a matter of morality and justice, Chris, probably not. There’s an old, supposedly Chinese saying: “May you live in interesting times.” It’s meant ironically, with “interesting” as a euphemism for chaotic and dangerous. But as a fellow American and as a person toward whom I feel a sense of good will, I don’t want you to live in interesting times, Chris. I’m grateful that I haven’t. In any event, these are not matters that are entirely under our control. But my point in bringing this all up is not to make predictions or criticize you, but to help you understand American history. Because the fact is that there was a time when Americans weren’t particularly well insulated. Despite winning their independence, having relatively weak Native American rivals, and being protected by a pair of oceans, the young American republic was weak and vulnerable. We’ve been talking about this in terms of domestic politics, and the arguments, sometimes fierce, about what economic direction the country should take. But that argument was conducted amid another, related argument: which foreign policy direction the country should take. And as with the economic argument, the divide here was between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. The fault line between them was the French Revolution.
The French Revolution. You’ve studied this, yes?
—Yeah. Last year.
What do you remember about it, Kylie? Do you remember when it started?
—Yeah. And there was something about a tennis court.
—And the king has his head cut off.
You’re three for three. Obviously, the French Revolution was a big, complicated affair. One of the most important in the history of the western world in the last 500 years, in fact. We can’t possibly begin to understand it in any depth here. The important point is that the Revolution plunged Europe into turmoil, as a powerful new French republic took on some powerful enemies, the most important of whom for our purposes was Great Britain.
A little review here: What role did France play in the American Revolution?
—They were our allies.
Yes. By the terms of a 1778 treaty, the United States was bound to a military alliance with France, particularly in the event of a war with England. But with the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, followed by the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1792, the governments of many nations believed they were no longer bound by any agreements they had reached with the former regime. So here’s what I’ll ask you: what should the United States do? Jonah?
—The French were our friends in the Revolution. I think we should stand by them.
Chris, you’re shaking your head.
—These are new people running the country. A new situation. I’m not saying we should definitely go with the British. I think we should make a decision based on what the situation is.
O.K., Chris. Let me tell you a little about what the situation actually is. The French government is now in the hands of radicals who seek to implement their ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity. They are rounding up enemies of the regime and murdering them.
Meanwhile, a host of nations have declared war on France and are marching on its borders. But the mobilization of the French population leads to a string of victories. You’re George Washington. And you’re getting conflicting advice. Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist allies are strongly pro-British. They admire the British economy, and are worried about the dangerously egalitarian implications of the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, who has recently returned from serving as ambassador of France, loves all things French, including its Revolution. Remember, he’s the guy who says, “The must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
—Just tell us, Mr. K. What does Washington do?
Look it up, Em. And we’ll talk about it tomorrow.
Next: French-Fried foreign policy