[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]
[image ALT: a blank space]

This webpage reproduces a section of
The Atlantic System

Forrest Davis

Reynal & Hitchcock
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 1
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p. xi  Foreword

Unlike the Axis blueprints for a New World Order, a sterile prisonhouse inhabited by robotlike heroes and faceless subject races, the Atlantic System is old, rational, and pragmatic. Growing organically out of strategic and political realities in a congenially free climate, its roots run deep and strong into the American tradition. It was Henry Adams, endlessly seeking form and design in history, who first gave a name to the community of interest binding the self-governing peoples around the Atlantic basin. That was as recently as 1906. But back of Adams stood the great nineteenth-century forefathers of the Atlantic System. In the Americas they were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe as well as that reluctant progenitor, John Quincy Adams, and the Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar, who brought independence to one‑quarter of South America. George Canning, the English Foreign Secretary who professed himself alternately fascinated and repelled by the "hard features of trans-Atlantic democracy," was likewise a forefather, although his parenthood had a cynical cast.

Jefferson, terming it the "American system," was foremost in accepting England's adherence. To all these wise gentlemen it was apparent — as it is again today — that the Atlantic world, pre‑eminently the legatee of the liberal revolutions of the eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, had a set of political institutions and interests essentially in conflict with those of Central and Eastern Europe. It was not lost on the Presidents of the Virginia succession, and on Adams, Bolivar, and Canning, that modern democracy was flourishing best in the states of the Atlantic seaboard — in both  p. xii Europe and America. The forefathers likewise were aware, as we are today, that the peaceful development of the Atlantic world depended upon sea power. Then the shield of the Americas was British sea power. Today it is the concert of Anglo-American power, an English-speaking entente that has grown to maturity within the last half-century.

It was in 1823 that Jefferson, Madison, and President Monroe defined the Atlantic System in a memorable exchange of letters dealing with Canning's proposal of an Anglo-American alliance to safeguard the independence of the New World against the Quadruple Alliance, secular arm of the Holy Alliance. Canning wished, on behalf of the English merchants, to forestall revival of Spanish trade monopolies in Latin America. The Americans had a wider interest. Agreeing that the incipient Monroe Doctrine was more than a double-edged policy forbidding the Americas to European conquest and forswearing our interference in purely Old World affairs, the three Founding Fathers had no doubt that it was also a lever prying England away from the autocratic Continental System, and a clamp attaching her to the Atlantic world. To these democratic Virginia gentlemen, liberty and tyranny still had the ring and the sharp contours of freshly minted coins, and the authoritarian league of sovereigns under Alexander I and Metternich was morally repugnant as well as a threat to the peace of this hemisphere. Seeking counsel of his predecessors, Monroe wrote: "Has not the epoch arrived when Great Britain must take her stand, either on the side of the monarchs of Europe or on the side of the United States, and, in consequence, either in favor of despotism or of liberty?"

Both former Presidents advised acceptance of Canning's tender, for as Madison (who had fought England in 1812) pointed out, "with the British power and navy combined with our own, we have nothing to fear from the rest of the world; and in the great struggle of the epoch between liberty and despotism we owe it to ourselves to maintain the former, in this hemispheres at least." The Sage of Monticello, a land-hungry, democratic imperialist who bought the Louisiana  p. xiii Territory, coveted Cuba and Florida, and anticipated a transisthmian canal, was at once more definitive and more militant. Europe, as Jefferson saw it, was "laboring to become the domicil[e] of despotism," and America should therefore surely be making "our hemisphere that of freedom," arguing further: "One nation, most of all, could disturb us in this pursuit. She now offers to lead, aid, and accompany us in it. By acceding to her proposition, we detach her from the band, bring her mighty weight into the scale of free government, and emancipate a continent at one stroke, which might otherwise linger long in doubt and difficulty."

Twice Jefferson had witnessed war between the Americans and the British. Yet now, impelled by recognition of a common enemy and therefore common English-speaking interests, he advocated that with Britain "we should the most sedulously nourish a cordial friendship, and nothing would tend more to knit our affections than to be fighting once more, side by side, in the same cause." Moreover, a war in defense of the "American system" would not be alone "her [England's] war, but ours" as well.

Three years after this correspondence Bolivar held the first inter-American conference at Panama. There he sought unsuccessfully to bring Great Britain and the United States into a political structure spanning the Atlantic, one based on Bolivar's belief in the political solidarity of the American republics with the British Empire.

Monroe and his Secretary of State, the knotty John Quincy Adams, elected to make the Monroe Doctrine unilateral. Canning's bitter strictures against the United States and his aggressive part in the recent war made him unwelcome to Adams as a collaborator. Yet the fact that England and America were partners in erecting this barrier to Continental reaction was implicitly recognized by the authors and the sponsors of the Monroe Doctrine. While the admonishing declaration came from Washington, the power of enforcement lay with the British fleet. Not for two generations would we begin to accumulate sufficient sea power to defend the dictum. Meanwhile Canning, with truthful arrogance,  p. xiv could boast in Parliament that he had "called the New World into being to redress the balance of the Old"; the Latin republics were able to consummate their independence in the lee of British sea power and American assertion; and this country rounded out its self-allotted portion of North America undisturbed.

History, as everyone knows, simulates itself. Substitute Hitler for Czar Alexander, the Nazi New Order for the Holy Alliance, and you have a continental Europe again "laboring to become the domicil[e] of despotism." The parallel cannot, however, be pushed too far, the earlier league of kings having lacked the demonic, concentrated will of the contemporary tyranny. Yet a significant point of similarity does exist in England's case. As in Napoleon's time, as in 1823, and also as in 1898, when she balked attempts to revive the Holy Alliance — this time against the United States — England again has placed herself outside a despotic Continental System.

From the 1820's to 1890, in which year the United States began to put forth strength beyond its own borders, Anglo-American collaboration on even terms in Atlantic affairs remained in the germinal stage. The Atlantic was prevailingly an English sea, as it had been except for brief interruptions since Elizabeth's freebooters and the elements scattered Philip II's "invincible" Armada in 1558; and England, having the power, was not disposed to share the authority. During the American Civil War, it is true, the North developed enough naval strength to blockade the Confederacy effectually and to command the American seas, but that was only an episode of a period in which, to the outside world, whatever Atlantic System existed was preponderantly British. Only when the United States undertook a part in the world commensurate with its internal strength did there push above the ground the shoots of the Atlantic System as a genuine partner­ship of the English-speaking Powers committed to guardian­ship of a common ocean and a common, humane civilization.

As it thrived — in 1896, during the Spanish War of 1898, in 1903, at Algeciras in 1906, and of course in 1917 — the Atlantic  p. xv System increasingly gained the approval of instructed Americans as a beneficent, sheltering growth. Not until 1939, however, with the Americas again threatened by a despotism far grimmer, far more brutal and reactionary, than the Continental System that sent the Virginia Presidents hurriedly to the side of the recent enemy, would it become widely apparent that defense of the Atlantic world inextricably involved defense of the English-speaking world. Again Great Britain was the eastern outpost of the Atlantic System. This time the peril was more urgent. In partial realization of that strategic fact, the United States Government undertook to wage a quasi‑war; a "white war," half in, half out. The reason for that tentative behavior on the part of an Administration believing this to be also our war is that many citizens, as usual, were unprepared psychologically for the defense of their vital interests by force — unless and until the enemy, bearing convincing credentials, appeared on our doorstep. For so many years we have lived with a lie that it too has entered into our tradition.

The lie is that the United States has led an isolated existence. Each generation sees its revival to comfort the faint-hearted, fortify the pacifist and the fifth-columnist, confuse the thoughtless, and supply ammunition to partisans, in spite of the demonstrable facts that (1) we have intervened morally, politically, and economically in Europe and Asia whenever it suited our purposes; and (2) we have not remained apart, either as colonies or as republic, from any general European war since 1689. They are all in the school histories: King William's, Queen Anne's, King George's, the French and Indian, the Napoleonic Wars, and the First World War.​1 The first five being American segments of the intermittent struggle between England and France from Louis XIV to Napoleon.

We have, moreover, maintained two provocative international policies. The Monroe Doctrine, underwriting the territorial integrity of a fabulously rich, underpopulated,  p. xvi inadequately defended continent extending for many thousand miles, is by no means self-enforcing. For four decades the Open Door policy has been a forcible assertion in the relations of China with other Powers. It was bearing us toward war in 1921. Had England joined hands with us, we might easily have become embroiled with Japan ten years later. Under isolationist impulses we compelled abrogation of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1921, dictated terms of sea power around the globe, and interfered with power relation­ships in Europe as well as Asia. A great Sea Power, we have shouldered defense commitments sweeping from Iceland to Cape Horn and westward across the Pacific to Asia and for two decades we have shared command of the seas with Britain.

The result of this contradiction between profession and deed is an often unrealistic and usually infirm foreign policy. It explains why in both phases of world war we have seemed to "drift" toward war. Twice within this generation, after vowing neutrality we have gravitated into the support of a beleaguered Britain from motives strictly American and in defense of the Atlantic System. In neither case did our Government have any option if it wished to preserve the true security afforded by our oceans. The wonder, given the history of the Atlantic System, is not that we went to the side of Britain; it is that we did not go earlier.

The history of the Atlantic System is the story of Anglo-American relations during the last half-century: the quarrels and misunderstandings; the forces operating both to attract and to repel; the "broad entente" (as André Siegfried describes the bond) existing between these strongheaded, individualized peoples. A secondary theme is the rise of the United States from an inferior place in the council of nations into a junior partner­ship, then a full partner­ship, with England in the Atlantic System, with intimations of larger leader­ship to come.

Forrest Davis

Cornwall, New York,
September, 1941.

The Author's Note:

1 The First World War was really, of course, only the first phase of a world war of which we are now seeing the second phase.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 11 Oct 14