The United States' Need for an Enemy

A study of the form, function, and evolution of the necessity of opposition since 1765

Essay, 2014

20 Pages, Grade: 78


Andre Chavez*

The form, function, and evolution of America’s need for an enemy is represented by three principal rudiments which have come to influence the American mentality and worldview, determine US foreign policy and domestic affairs, and by and large, shaped American society since its conception.1 The first element can be found rooted in America’s colonial and revolutionary beginnings as an ideological construct, caused by decades of conflict and aggressive political rhetoric that facilitated fear and paranoia amongst the populace. Such hostility entrenched itself in the American psyche as a deep-seated conception that the United States was to be a nation and peoples constantly embattled, facing an enemy at every turn. This inevitably led revolutionaries to embed such sediments within the constitutional and legal documents that have come to shape the political outlook of the nation ever since.2 The second element to further reinforce enemy-dependence has taken hold of and influenced processes of the American political system in several ways: On a transnational level, the United States’ search for identity has come to shape its economic outlook on the world, one where American ideals of Democracy and freedom are equitably exported on a global scale and thus, necessitates that a perpetual enemy is maintained, one that can offer the US the ability to achieve and maintain global economic hegemony and the formation of free markets world wide that provide commercial entities beneficial to it.3 Furthermore, the framing of enemies foreign and domestic has been used by American political leadership and society to obstruct rising threats from within, to maintain domestic stability by the state and by implication, divert public attention

* Andre Chavez is an MA History student due to graduate in 2016 at Swansea University.

away from such problems to consolidate national rule.4 Thirdly, the existence of a national enemy beyond US borders, real or imaginary, has come to validate the inflation of governmental spending on defence and a global military presence over the past seventy years. Those industries involved in the production of war materials have convincingly used the art of enemy-ship to keep the American public and segments of the US government subdued and supportive of its economic aims. |5

Historiographical debate concerning America’s constant need for an enemy has developed into a complex concept studied and examined by scholars from a vast range of professions and sub-disciplines. The First World War helped to spawn academic exploration into the political justification for military intervention, and related decision-making processes by a small contingent of American historians trained by German, politically-orientated historians.6 One such German scholar, Carl Schmitt, in his 1926 publication,Concept of the Political, was the first to reason that ‘the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy’.7 By the time Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his Farwell Address warning the nation of the emerging military-industrial complex in 1961, neo-progressive scholars had been busy investigating the economic justifications for war by examining US involvement in two World Wars. Prominent foreign policy expert George Kennan’s successful multi-series collection,American Diplomacy, published through the first half of the twentieth century, argued that America’s vested economic interests in militarisation during the Second World War was a result of a cooperate-controlled political system which favoured business interests rather than public opinion, coupled with America’s inherent habit of searching for enemies had decided much of nation’s diplomacy measures since.8 The later 1960s saw the emergence of political psychology as a prominent academic occupation, championed by David J. Finlay’s, Ole R. Holsti’s and Richard R. Fagen’s,Enemies in Politics, which contended that every social order within an organised body has forces working against it threatening to destroy it. These forces, say the trio, help to define its functions by the labelling of such forces as enemies. These theorists used the American foreign policy agenda toward the Communist threat during the Cold War to demonstrate the way in which governments define their enemies within the political sphere.9 Political psychology saw a re-emergence during the 1980s by the likes of Murray Edleman and Vomik Volkan, who contributed much to the understanding of humankind’s mental processes in establishing enemies while attempting to throw light on how individuals and groups, namely how governments and policymakers define,

frame, and react to what they perceive as enemies.10 Research gains made by scholars of this hybrid science has constructed the basis for which abstract notions of American enemy-dependence have sprung.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent decline of Communism as a threat to American global supremacy marked the beginning phase of recognition by the academic community, US popular culture and wider public of the concepts of American enemy-dependence as a national tradition. John Updike’s novelRabbit Rest, accurately captured the American psyche during the years of Communist decline, when the novel’s protagonist, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom lamented, ‘Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?’11 Only three years’ prior to this, Georgiy Arbatov, a key advisor to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned Americans: “We are doing something really terrible to you, we are depriving you of an enemy.”12 Publicist Charles Krauthammer sarcastically asked in an article highlighting the rising anti-Japanese sentiments in America amidst the declining threat of Soviet Russia, ‘is there a law of conservation of national hostility’?13 Political satirist Pat Oliphant most accurately captured the political despair of an American government without an enemy in early June of 1990, as shown by the drawing below.14

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Caricature by Pat Oliphant, Source: Pat Oliphant, Fashions For The New World Order (Kansas City: Universal Press Syndicate, 1991), 86.

Such public awareness of the concept triggered several political- scientists and historians to search for the root cause of America’s inherent need for an enemy. Tom Engelhardt claims that the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima signalled the beginning of America’s need to identify an enemy.15 Shoon Kathleen Murray and Jason Meyers’ work however suggests that forty years of the Communist threat posed by the Soviet Union made Americans prone to seeking new enemies thereafter. Complimenting this was the view of Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, who similarly suggest that the use of public images to depict the Russian threat during the Cold War was most responsible for shaping the foreign policy attitudes during the ensuring years while Jonathan A. Crowden examined the role of images of the enemy and its influence on how the political elite envisaged future enemies after the decline of Communism.16

Yet not until the sudden attacks on September 11 2001, and the ensuing US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have scholars and the wider public begun to understand that America’s aggressive interventionist foreign policy and its need to maintain an enemy is not merely an after-effect of the Second World War, Soviet Communism, a Gulf War hangover, or even the impact of global terrorism as some of the abovementioned scholars have suggested.17 But rather its origins derive from a deep-seated, ideological construct rooted within the American psyche. In 2007, as the War in the Middle East began to stagnate, Engelhardt asked, ‘Is there an imaginable America without enemies and without the story of their slaughter and our triumph?’18 In an attempt to explain this, Jeremy Engles’ 2010 publication, Enemyship: Democracy and Counter-revolution in the Early Republicdemonstrates that such an America has seldom existed, pointing to the nations’ colonial beginnings as a hostile environment in which established a cultural paranoia within its legal and constitutional documents where the nation is perceived to be facing a continuous enemy.19

Even fewer however have attempted to bridge the gap between the theory of American enemy-dependence as an ideological construct with the modern political and economic debates that have so effectively supported such an argument over the past several decades. This paper will attempt to bring together these theories to demonstrate that the form, function and evolution of the United States’ need for an enemy spans from the time before the nations’ creation to the present day, and have come to take the shape of several political and economic concepts ever since. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, it had become commonplace to name and maintain enemies as a result of the fear, corruption and conspiratorial nature of colonial America. The political and social instability of the colonial New World provided a breeding ground for such behaviour, with hostilities of every imaginable kind taking place. Colonial Americans at one time or another combated slave rebellion, Native American attacks, New England banking interests, the uprising of poor farmers, a plethora of religious denominations during peace and the French and Spanish armies during the Seven Years’ War, and later Great Britain and her German mercenaries during the War of Independence. Such a hostile environment helped to cement the long-standing need for an enemy from within that Americans became accustomed to.20 The taxation crises of the 1760s became the mechanism that brought together individual colonies of different social, economic, and political circumstances, which had previously found it difficult to unite, to face a single defined enemy of the people.21 Indeed, Whig rhetoric such as that displayed in Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense,published in 1776, capitalised on the chance to galvanise a population easily succumb to enemy-naming.22 In his work, Paine points to King George III as the source of America’s problems, depicting the monarch as having a malevolent plan to take American freedoms and usurp their liberty.23 Thus the British parliament, and Britons in general were placed in stark contrast with Paine’s vision of American republicanism.

Yet even with the national kinship provided by the spirit of revolution; Americans found their fellow countrymen more politically divided than ever, as the writings of several Royalist and anti-Federalist pamphleteers vying for power had shown to significantly contribute to the characteristics of fear, corruption, and conspiracy culture that took hold on the outlook of revolutionary Americans, particularly that of Samuel Bryan. 24 In his public writings, Bryan claimed that criminal conspirators “with virtues of a Washington” shackle the press, lie to the public and supress opposition in order to bring about the “most odious system of tyranny that was ever projected …whose complicated and various evils would be infinitely more oppressive than and afflictive than the scourge of any single tyrant.”


1 The political and economic factors representing America’s need to maintain an enemy have throughout the historiography shown to lend particular traits to each other. However, this paper will attempt to draw a distinction between the two.

2 See Jeremy Engels,Enemyship:Democracy and Counter-revolution in the Early Republic(East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010). Also see Jeremy Engels, ‘Friend or Foe: Naming Enemies’,Rhetoric & Public Affairs12, (2009).

3 See Natsu Taylor Saito, Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law (New York and London: New York University Press, 2010) and Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz, ‘American Hegemony: American Enemy’, Foreign Policy 92, (1993), 5-23.

4 See Alexander Hinchliffe,Contamination and Containment: Representing the Pathologised Other in 1950s American Cinema(Nottingham: University of Nottingham, doctoral thesis, 2009).

5 Michael Cohen, ‘The biggest threat to America? The size of its own military budget‘,The Guardian (2013) budget [accessed 20 April 2015].

6 Such early scholars included Samuel Flagg Bemis and Dexter Perkins. William B. Pickett, ‘The Historiography of American Foreign Policy’,OAH Magazine of History7, (1992), 13-15.

7 Carl Schmitt,Concept of the Political(New York: University of Chicago Press, 1926), 26; and Parag Khanna,The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order(New York: David Lindroth , 2008), 39.

8 See George Kennan,American Diplomacy(London: University of Chicago Press, 1947).

9 See David J. Finlay, Ole R. Holsti and Richard R. Fagen, Enemies in Politics (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967).

10 See Vamik D. Volkan, ‘The Need to Have Enemies and Allies: A Developmental Approach’,Political Psychology6, (1985).

11 John Updike,Rabbit Rest(New York: Penguin Group, 1990), 45.

12 Samuel P. Huntington,Who are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 258

13 Charles Krauthammer, ‘Do We Really need a new Enemy?’,Time Magazine12, (1992); Yet Krauthammer suggests that post-communist life for America should focus on non-military efforts of protecting itself and its allies while preserving the harmony of the post-Second World War grand Western alliance that won the Cold War. Yet it is exactly this line of thought that has further fuelled America’s need to be embattled

14 Pat Oliphant,Fashions For The New World Order(Kansas City: Universal Press Syndicate, 1991),

15 Tom Engelhardt,The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a generation(New York: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 14.

16 See Shoon Kathleen Murray and Jason Meyers, ‘Do People Need Foreign Enemies? American Leaders Beliefs’ after the Soviet Demise’,The Journal of Conflict Resolutions43, (1999), 555-569 and Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley,’Public Images of the Soviet Union: The Impact on Foreign Policy Attitudes’,Journal Of Politics52, (1990), 1-28.See Shoon Kathleen Murray and Jonathan A. Cowden,’ The Role of “Enemy Images” and Ideology in Elite Belief Systems’,International Studies Quarterly45, (1999), 455-481.

17 In a 2012 Foreign Affairs article Michael Cohen had reasoned that the global war on terror was the starting point for America’s search for an enemy. See Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen,‘Clear and Present Safety’ForeignAffairs (2012) and-michael-a-cohen/clear-and-present-safety [accessed 16 April 2015].

18 Philip Abbott,Exceptional America: Newness and National IdentityNew York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1999), 2; Engelhardt,The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a generation, 4.

19 Engels, Enemyship: Democracy and Counter-revolution in the Early Republic, 1.

20 Ibid, 18; Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies,Why Do People Hate America?(New York: Disinformation Company, 2002), 13.

21 Emma Florio,The Problematic Search for an Emerging American Identity before the Revolution: An Analysis of Colonial Newspapers and Secondary Literature(Illinois: Illinois Wesleyan University, 2013), 2.; John J. Miller and Mark Molesky,Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France(New York: Doubleday Books, 2004), 58.

22 Paine’s work was widely read amongst the American populace, selling 500,000 the first year, 120,000 of which sold in the first three months. This is a high figure for a population of three million. Thomas Paine,Common Sense (Annotated)(Amazon Digital Services, Inc, 2013), 86.

23 To German historian Jürgen Heideking that the English and King George III became the first ideological enemy of the American people. Samuel P. Huntington,Who are We?: TheChallenges to America's National Identity(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). The Townshend Acts were cited as such moves by the King as an attack on American rights.

24 Prominent early American scholar Benard Bailyn remarked that behaviour was deeply rooted in the political awareness of Britons and thus became part of the political life in the New World. Furthermore, It should be noted that historians have claimed that the nation was divided into three identifiable groups: A third supported revolution and separation from England, a second third outright opposed such a move and remained loyal to the crown, and the third group remained natural and uninterested in the political fractioning of America. Burton Weltman, Was the American Revolution a Mistake?: Reaching Students & Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as a Choice (Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2013), 34; Gordon S. Wood, ‘Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution’, The William and Mary Quarterly 1, (1966), 3-32.

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The United States' Need for an Enemy
A study of the form, function, and evolution of the necessity of opposition since 1765
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USA, cold war, us foreign policy, interventionism, Kalter Krieg, US Außenpolitik, militärische Intervention
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Andre Chavez (Author), 2014, The United States' Need for an Enemy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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