Twice in this century, Americans resisted giving up the ideas of neutrality and noninvolvement. Certainly before World War I, most Americans did not know their own power--nor their nation's. And before America entered World War II, the view from the other side--from the midst of the Battle of Britain--was simultaneously hopeful and bleak. If America entered the war, it would be long fought and surely won; but if America stayed out, the Nazis might never be defeated.
I vividly remember the crystallization of that certainty on Pearl Harbor day. We learned of the attack while at the dinner table at Chequers, the prime minister's official country home. On that Sunday evening, apart from the normal entourage and family, the guests included the American ambassador, John Winant, and Averell Harriman, the Lend Lease expeditor for President Roosevelt.
At 9, as on every other night, Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned on the BBC, and we heard the announcer begin a detailed summary of the day's happenings. Then came a startling interruption: "The news has just been given that Japanese aircraft have raided Pearl Harbor, the American naval base in Hawaii."
The prime minister immediately put in a call to President Roosevelt, who said, "It is quite true. They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We are all in the same boat now." The president added that he would go to Congress for declaration of war the next morning. The prime minister responded that he would go down to the House of Commons and declare war on Japan within an hour after the American declaration.
All of us in the room knew that evening that the world would now be transformed fundamentally by American power, as it had long since been transformed by the American ideal.
And, as we all know, in the aftermath of that victory, the United States did not disengage. Led by this nation, the West contained communism and prevailed sooner than President Kennedy could have expected in what he called "the long, twilight struggle."
So America did not return to isolationism after the war. But half a century later, the question urgently presents itself again: Will this nation choose to engage in or avoid events beyond our shores? I believe, sadly, that question is still open. The defeat at Pearl Harbor led to an era of American commitment. Will the victory at the Berlin Wall lead to an era of American timidity?
The danger comes not because of our national leadership, but in spite of it. President Bush directly met the challenge of aggression, forthrightly led the United States into and through the Gulf War and in the process strengthened America's role as a beacon of liberty and security for a new world order.
President Clinton has strengthened that course--in more difficult and certainly less clear-cut circumstances. He intervened in Haiti despite dire warnings of inevitable failure at a high cost in casualties--and then largely succeeded with hardly any American losses. His steady course in the Middle East and his bold initiative in Ireland have brought both of these long, historically imbedded struggles close to settlements that once seemed all but unattainable.
Now, the hardest test is Bosnia. Against the advice to give up and consign the Balkans to chaos, this president insisted that America had a responsibility to meet. He refused to unilaterally violate the arms embargo, which would have driven our allies out and Americanized the war. When one side flouted common standards of democracy and bombed civilian populations with impunity, he finally persuaded NATO to agree on a serious and sustained bombing campaign. And when the bombing had a profound effect and negotiations resumed, he moved the talks to the United States and committed his administration to sculpt an agreement.
The resistance along the way has proceeded from a genuine if misguided belief that the United States can be isolated from this problem or from the world at large. The call to a new isolationism restates an old argument that is historically discredited and potentially disastrous. It demands a candid statement of the necessity for involvement and of the consequences of a measured activist exercise of American power.
First of all, it is clear that an engaged America is essential to both liberty and stability, for the material well-being of Americans and of the rest of the world as well. Not every issue demands our involvement, but the guiding principle cannot be to act where it is easy and retreat when it is difficult.
Second, the responsible exercise of American power will bring casualties. We will lose some young Americans if we act; in case after case, we will lose many more if we do not. If a situation is not worth risking casualties, then it is not worth being there at all. The price of freedom can be high. Past generations of Americans have willingly paid that price. Future generations are likely to be called on to do the same.
Third, we must strengthen our allies and our international institutions to distribute the responsibilities of global order. We should seek loyal allies, but we should not demand automatic assent. President Jacques Chirac of France made a blunt and indispensable contribution to reshaping policies toward Bosnia. His words did not always make his allies comfortable, but in the end, they made the way ahead clearer.
Fourth and finally, the exercise of American power to achieve a world of peace and justice cannot be passing or temporary. Effort and sacrifice will be a continuing responsibility for the United States, as the world's superpower, and for other nations that must enlist in this cause.
I hope now that we will stay the course--and that the fate of those values abroad ultimately can determine the state of our freedom at home. I am confident that if we do our part, if we exercise the power we have in the ways we should, then America will live on in liberty and the driving force of history will continue to be the American idea.