The Reagan Doctrine, summarized as “Peace through Strength,” is rightly praised for its sensible protection of our interests and the conscientious pursuit of peace in our dealings with the world. However, it did not start with Reagan. Among the many debts the “Great Communicator” derives from his predecessors, his pursuit of peace through preparedness owes some credit to President Coolidge. While Coolidge certainly preceded the prospect of nuclear proliferation in our time, the struggle for world power was no less prevalent then. The principles remain unchanged because they stem from human nature.
In the first of his three-part series on “Promoting Peace” published after leaving the White House, Calvin Coolidge outlines the immense task of preventing war through adequate defense. Coolidge certainly understood the complexity of the problem and this enabled him to distill it down to its essence: a question of human nature. He writes,
When the test comes the people will give up almost any other human right to secure safety and protection. Whenever anarchy imperils a state a military dictator always appears, because they prefer him to the lawlessness of the mob…In protecting its citizens abroad as well as at home the government, in reality, is only protecting itself. To refuse and neglect to do this is nothing short of national suicide.
This principle is so well understood and so long established that nations accord to a foreign country, whenever the rights of its citizens are threatened or violated, the privilege of sending its naval and marine forces to protect them without considering such intervention an act of war.
One of the methods by which each government undertakes to preserve order so that it may protect its people from domestic violence and foreign hostilities is known as preparation for national defense. The great object that it all seeks to accomplish is peace…We do not have these [police, Army and Navy] for the purpose of making war, but for the purpose of preserving peace. The ability to protect the people within its borders and to insure to them the security which can only come from the orderly administration of law is so much and so peculiarly the first requisite of every government that under international usage civilized nations do not recognize a government which can not or does not meet these obligations.
As the inordinate power of the current regime grows, it becomes ever more apparent how far removed it is from this essential purpose of lawful order and national defense.
While Coolidge ensured the ratification of Kellogg’s Pact against war, he understood good government protects its citizens from lawless violence. At the same time, he knew that no measure could ever eradicate conflict completely. What he worked to maintain was an adequate force to meet evil, understanding that the unjust and violent are enabled when national defense is neglected. The former President continues,
No sure way has ever been found to prevent war. We all realize that it is one of the most hideous afflictions to which mankind is subject. Opinions may differ as to whether nations with adequate military forces are more likely to enjoy peace than those which neglect their defenses. In the last analysis, this is a question of dealing with human nature. Every one knows that if there were no police our cities would be ransacked within twenty-four hours. I very strongly suspect that if there were but one nation in the world supplied with an army and a navy, and, to make the supposition as strong as possible, if that nation were our own, it would not be long before the other nations had been overrun. It seems to me that it is almost a moral certainty that we should find some excuse for taking that action. But when we know that other countries have a considerable ability to defend themselves, it is human nature for us to regard them with a more wholesome respect and be more careful about violating their rights. If we reverse this picture we can likewise conclude that if others know we are prepared to defend ourselves they will be less likely to commit offenses against us.
We perform no favors by taking up the burden of each nation’s duty to self-defense. The lessons of the Great War taught him that. Europe would again defer to America for its rescue in World War II and, it seems, in every conflict since. Coolidge saw danger in the policy of making the world “safe for democracy.” Likewise, we only enable our rights to be ransacked and our lives taken if we indulge our enemies through a lack of preparedness. An absence of resolve and an absolute refusal to use force only encourage injustice to continue with impunity against our citizens and their rights. What constitutes an adequate defense, then?
The President answers,
They should be large enough so that others would see there would be a great deal of peril involved in attacking us. They should not be so large that our country would feel we would undergo no peril in attacking others…I have ventured the opinion that war would have broken out in Europe much earlier than 1914 if those countries had not been prepared to resist attack. I also believe that some of them were overprepared…Adequate defense does not require a return to the conditions which then existed, but rather requires their avoidance.
The question of defense, like a coin, has another side. Military might has natural limitations. It can grow too large and thereby undermine its goal to preserve peace. Defenses, however lethal or expansive, will never permanently override human nature’s “determination to be free.” What about individuals who have ideological, instead of national, loyalties? What of those who freely embrace death for their radical dream, like islamofascists?
That the wrongdoer, whether it be the individual or the nation, can be checked by force is apparent, but no force will be found adequate for an extended period to impose upon any considerable body of people a system which is recognized by the general standards of humanity as injustice and servitude. Such an attempt would create a revolt in which it would be found that the victims would rather die than yield. While an army and navy can be very useful to protect a nation from wrongful attack and unjust aggression, they cannot afford an absolute guarantee against war. Preparation for defense seems to me to be necessary in the world as we find it at the present time, and is useful, but it is well to recognize that there are limits beyond which it does not and cannot go in preserving peace…
Both sides of our obligation need equal care. This means understanding clearly that the use of national defense is not the evil here. Lawless and abusive destroyers of our citizen’s lives and liberties are the evil here, as Coolidge concludes,
…[W]e should take every precaution to prevent war, of which adequate defense is one. But we should also take every precaution to protect ourselves to the fullest possible extent from its ravages, if it does come. The Army and Navy serve the double purpose of prevention and defense. The individual and the race have not progressed beyond the point where they need the teaching and effect of discipline. We require not only the existence, but the outward manifestation, of authority.
Without the policeman impartially enforcing the law, and the members of our military and National Guard prepared to do their duty, peace is impossible. Without a national defense ready to use strength to confront the individual or nation who takes American lives, exacting life for life, the murderous and lawless continue emboldened. Reagan and Coolidge both understood that the problem was embedded in human nature. The bully, the criminal, and the despot best understand the language of force. Reason and law mean little to them without physical demonstration. It is by exercising our duties of adequate national defense that law and peace are reestablished, evil men and women are deterred and a balance of righteous force restored.