In each century since our nation’s founding, foreign enemies have tested the strength of the American republic, our national security, and our political principles. September 11, 2001 was not the first devastating attack on U.S. territory: in 1814, the British burned Washington, D.C., and, in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A look back at these two events reminds us that 9/11 was not a wholly unique event. The death, destruction, and shock of the attacks reinforced a lesson learned previously by generations of brave Americans who bequeathed to us a United States, independent, strong, and free.
Soon after the American Revolution, the Napoleonic wars in Europe prompted England and France to infringe upon American sovereignty on the high seas. France demanded bribes in its diplomacy and England impressed American citizens, forcing them to serve in the British Navy. In response to these violations of American independence, the United States sought to assert its sovereignty and secure the hard-won blessings of liberty for American citizens. But years of inadequate defense spending had left the United States ill-prepared to fight the War of 1812.
The few American victories against the British were directly attributable to earlier congressional appropriations for forts, frigates, regular troops, and officer training. These military preparations were far less than what Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson had requested, because Congress was confident that diplomacy was sufficient to maintain peace. As a result, President James Madison was unable to defend the young capital. In the summer of 1814, British troops landed in Maryland and within eleven days captured Washington, D.C. They burned the Houses of Congress, the White House, and the Library of Congress (which housed Jefferson’s collection of books). Though Great Britain and America soon negotiated a peace, the ultimate cost of the war was much more expensive than increased defense preparations would have been.
Over a century later, Japan’s growing military and increasingly aggressive policies in East Asia during the 1930s went largely unchecked. Confusion and discord at home in America led to timidity abroad. A growing isolationism on the one hand, and a deferring, altruistic foreign policy on the other, left American interests unprotected.
Even as World War II raged on, many Americans (having forgotten the lessons of their early foreign policy) pretended that the U.S. would remain unaffected. The attack on Pearl Harbor shattered such notions and required a bloody and costly war to defeat America’s enemies and reassert America’s sovereign independence.
Combating the radical Islamic terrorism responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001 has its own set of unique challenges and requires new policies. But 9/11 did not change the world such that new principles are required to protect America. We are still a people who desire the exercise self-government at home and independence abroad. America has faced implacable enemies before: the British in the nineteenth century and the Japanese in the twentieth century. But the grand strategy required to address these challenges is still that of America’s founding fathers.
Throughout this twenty-first century, foreign powers will invariably continue to threaten our independence. America certainly cannot withdraw from world affairs in a naïve hope for isolated safety. Indeed, experience has shown that ignoring threats abroad makes Americans less safe at home. Two centuries ago, In the midst of America’s fight to protect its independence against the coercion of foreign powers, James Madison wrote: “It is a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.” America’s commitment to protect its sovereign independence and America’s military preparedness against its enemies continues to secure the blessings of liberty for its citizens. That is the lesson of 9/11; a lesson that has been reinforced throughout America’s history as an independent nation and one that must never be forgotten.