Michael Lind. Foreign Affairs. Volume 78, Issue 5. September/October 1999.
The debates over Kosovo blurred the old divisions between liberals and conservatives, but they did not rise above an even older split in American politics and foreign policy: the enduring divide between a hawkish South and a dovish North. Regional differences based on culture and values have made Greater New England the heartland of opposition to foreign wars and the US military establishment since the 1700s; they have also made the South a bastion of interventionism. All too often, the regional divides over US foreign policy have just been a reprise of the Civil War—and they are a recipe for paralysis.
America’s Dovish North and Hawkish South
The war in Kosovo opened more fissures in the American public and the U.S. foreign policy elite than any U.S. military intervention since the Vietnam War. Many have remarked that viewpoints about the war transcended the ideological categories of left and right, producing unusual alliances of conservatives and liberals among both supporters and opponents of the NATO campaign against Serbia. What has been overlooked, however, is the influence of American regional culture-not only on attitudes toward the war in Kosovo but on the domestic politics of foreign policy throughout American history.
That so little attention has been paid to regional influences on U.S. foreign policy is surprising. After all, the polarization of American domestic politics along regional lines is one of the most obvious and striking phenomena of our time. The disproportionately southern congressional leadership reflects the new southern base of the Republican Party. Both liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans find their strongest support in the states of New England and the northern tier. The superimposition of regional cultural loyalties atop partisan ideologies accounts for much of the increase in partisan rancor in the United States. To name only one example, the impeachment of President Clinton revealed a stark division between this southern president’s political enemies, who are overwhelmingly southern, and his predominantly northern defenders.
While the sectional division in domestic politics has become familiar, the impact of the divisions between America’s regions on its diplomacy is a neglected subject. When the influence of sectionalism on U.S. foreign policy is discussed at all, it is usually in the context of trade disputes, which pit the northeastern-midwestern manufacturing belt against the high-tech industries and commodity exporters of the South and West. But regional influences on U.S. foreign policy go far beyond conflicts of economic interest. Regional differences in the United States based in culture and values-particularly the enduring differences between anti-interventionists in the North and pro-interventionists in the South-have shaped debates over American foreign policy in every generation and will continue to do so.
Regionalism and America’s Early Wars
Regions in the United States are notoriously difficult to define. The best guide, perhaps, is provided by speech regions. Most linguists identify four regional dialects of American English: northern, midland, highland southern, and coastal southern. The Greater New England or northern speech region, according to the historian David Hackett Fischer, includes “New England, upstate New York, northern Ohio and Indiana, much of Michigan and Wisconsin, the northern plains, and the Pacific Northwest, together with islands of urban speech at Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco.” Since the late 1700s, this area has been the heartland of opposition to foreign wars and the U. S. military establishment. Pro-war, pro-military attitudes have been strongest in the areas identified with coastal southern speech (the Tidewater South) and, to a lesser degree, in the Highland South, from West Virginia through Tennessee to Texas.
The pattern of Greater New England’s opposition to wars and the opposite tendency of the South, especially the Tidewater South, to be strongly interventionist first manifested itself in the earliest years of the Union. During the War of 1812, the hawks tended to be southerners like Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Congress’ vote on the war followed sectional lines, not partisan lines. In the House of Representatives, the northern-and-mid-Atlantic—dominated Federalist Party voted unanimously against the war; the southerners who controlled the Democratic-Republican Party solidly backed it.
This pattern reemerged in subsequent conflicts. Southerners generally favored the western expansion of the United States; northerners disproportionately opposed it. In the 1830s the most extreme American pacifists broke away from the American Peace Society to form a new organization that forswore the use of force even in self-defense. Its name tells the story: the New England Non-Resistance League.
Another example of the extreme antimilitarism of New Englanders is provided by Charles Sumner, the powerful Massachusetts senator who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between i86i and 1871. Sumner’s first major public speech was an 1845 Fourth of July oration in Boston in which he horrified the veterans in the audience by blaming war on arms manufacturers, calling West Point “a seminary of idleness and vice,” and describing soldiers as “wild beasts” who rejoice “in blood.” His speech culminated in the declaration, “In our age there can be no peace that is not honorable; there can be no war that is not dishonorable.” True to his pacifist principles, Sumner refused to fight back when he was caned on the floor of the House in 1856 by South Carolina Representative Preston S. Brooks, in retaliation for Sumner’s verbal assault on Brooks’ cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew P Butler.
For New Englanders like Sumner, the Mexican War was a national disgrace. Boston, the capital of the antiwar movement during the War of 1812, was also the center of opposition to the Mexican War. The Boston-based American Peace Society charged the U.S. government with aggression against a “poor, feeble, distracted country.” Both the Democrats and their opponents, the Whigs, were divided along regional lines. In February 1847, just before the U.S. victory at Buena Vista, Thomas Corwin, a Whig senator from Ohio, encouraged the Mexican enemy to welcome American soldiers “to hospitable graves.” The Boston Brahmin Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes, claiming that to do so would make him an accomplice in an unjust war. Jailed, he wrote his classic essay Civil Disobedience, which inspired later generations of (mostly northern) antiwar activists in the United States.
In general, the South was as enthusiastic about the Mexican War as the North was hostile. Many leading southern military officers, including Robert E. Lee, became members of the “Aztec Club,” an organization of veterans of the Mexican War. To some degree, this was because the U.S. military has almost always been dominated by southerners. As Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard political scientist, has noted, “The South gave military professionalism its only significant support in the pre-Civil War years. A `Southern military tradition’ existed in a way in which there was never a New England, Middle Western, or Rocky Mountain military tradition.” Huntington points out that in the U.S. Army of 1837, 3 of the 4 active generals, 6 of the 13 colonels of the line, and lo of the 22 highest-ranking officers were not only from the South but from one state: Virginia.
The pattern of southern support for foreign wars was broken during the Spanish-American War when-for the only time in U.S. history, with the possible exception of the Kosovo war-intervention abroad was the project of northeastern elites. As the historian Richard Franklin Bensel notes, “imperialism rationalized the interests of the northern industrial core, their agrarian allies, and the Republican party”-at the time a northeastern-midwestern coalition. Meanwhile, many former Confederates opposed the war out of bitterness toward the federal government. But antiwar sentiment did not end there. Even though the Spanish-American War was a northern enterprise, it was opposed vehemently from within the North. David Hackett Fischer writes, “Anti-imperialism was a regional movement, centered in New England.” Once again Boston became the center of the antiwar movement.
American Sectionalism and the World Wars
After the outbreak of World War I, congressional voting on “preparedness” legislation between 1915 and 1917 revealed the by-now–familiar pattern. The anti-interventionists were concentrated in Greater New England, with a few allies among populists in the Highland South. The myth of conservative isolationism to the contrary, most of the World War I-era isolationists held left-of-center views: Progressive Republican followers of Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette and southern and western populists of the William Jennings Bryan school. In the Senate, the most consistent opponents of preparedness and intervention in World War I were all from the western section of Greater New England: George W. Norris (R-Nebr.), Asle J. Gronna (R-N.D.), Harry Lane (D-Ore.), and La Follette himself In the House, as in the Senate, all but one of the representatives who never voted to put the nation on a war footing or intervene were from the same region. Remarkably, four of the seven most consistent opponents of U.S. involvement in World War I came from the same state in Greater New England: Wisconsin.
The South, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly in favor of U.S. participation in this European war, as it had been in favor of U.S. involvement in the Napoleonic Wars in 1798 and again in 1812. Twothirds of the southern members of the Senate and four-fifths of the southern members of the House voted in favor of every one of Woodrow Wilson’s wartime policies. The exceptions tended to be found in the Highland South. Among the Highland southern allies of the Yankee isolationists in the years preceding World War I was a populist Democratic senator, Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma-the grandfather of novelist Gore Vidal and an ancestor of the late Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and his son, Vice President Al Gore. His “Gore Resolution” prohibited travel by U.S. citizens on armed merchant vessels.
Between World War I and World War II, the leaders of isolationism in Congress were William E. Borah (R-Idaho), Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.), George Norris (R-Nebr.), and Robert La Follette, Sr. (R-Wis.). Although often described as “midwestern conservative isolationists,” they were all actually Greater New England progressives, usually to the left of center in domestic policy. Another of their number, North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye, became an important progressive anti-interventionist. In 1934-35, Nye chaired a Senate committee investigating allegations that the munitions industry and international finance had drawn the United States into the Great War. According to the historian Thomas N. Guinsberg, Nye, along with Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) and a Missouri Democrat, Bennett Champ Clark, then staged “a most effective preemptive attack that took the leadership of foreign policy away from the White House.” They passed neutrality laws similar to those of the years preceding World War I-and also similar to legislation passed by the northern-dominated Democrats in Congress during their later attacks on presidential foreign policy prerogatives in the 1970s and 1980s.
As war with Hitler appeared imminent, the American political elite was divided along regional lines, rather than partisan or ideological ones. Southern Democrats like Senators Harry Byrd and Carter Glass of Virginia supported ED.R.’s military policy even though they bitterly opposed the New Deal. As war with the Axis approached, Representative Luther Patrick of Alabama joked that “they had to start selective service to keep our boys from filling up the army” as volunteers. The isolationist America First Committee succeeded least in the South.
At the same time, many northerners, both Democrats and Progressive Republicans like La Follette, endorsed the New Deal while opposing FD.R.’s military measures in exactly the same way many northern Democrats and liberal Republicans later supported the civil rights and welfare programs of Harry S Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson while opposing their anti-Soviet foreign policies. The New Dealer Rexford Tugwell pointed out that the West (that is, Greater New England) supported F.D.R.’s progressivism at home but not his interventionist foreign policy, while the South supported interventionism abroad but not a progressive domestic policy. In August 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor, interventionist southern Democrats provided the votes to save the extension of the draft law from defeat. In the fall came the vote on amending the Neutrality Act. Seven southern states cast all their votes to revise “neutrality” to let the United States aid Britain in its struggle with Hitler. Four Greater New England states-Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Idaho– cast all their votes against the measure. By providing Roosevelt with a narrow margin of victory on preparedness measures, southern interventionist representatives played a key role in defeating Nazi Germany.
America’s Regional Cold War Split
The pattern of northern isolationism and southern interventionism continued into the Cold War. Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft voted against both the Marshall Plan and NATO. The legacy of Greater New England isolationism also explains the curious fact that William Langer, a progressive Republican senator from North Dakota, opposed the Senate’s censure of Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy-and the fact that McCarthy was admired by Robert La Follette’s son Philip. McCarthy’s hatred and suspicion of U.S. national security agencies resonated with many left-of-center progressive isolationists in Wisconsin and surrounding states. Indeed, it is no accident that the same region produced both McCarthy, determined to expose alleged communist subversion of American national security agencies in the 1950s, and Idaho Senator Frank Church, determined to expose the immorality of the CIA in the 1970s. Both McCarthy and Church must be understood in the context of two centuries of Greater New England opposition to standing armies and the national-security state. Nor is it an accident that it was McCarthy of Wisconsin’s attack on the Virginia-bred General George C. Marshall and the largely southern U.S. Army that finally led to the demagogue’s downfall at the hands of the southern-dominated U.S. Congress. Significantly, the most influential school of anti-Cold War thought in the academy and press was the “Wisconsin School.”
The regional continuities in American foreign policy during the Cold War are clear despite the political realignment of 1964-94, in which the two parties exchanged their constituencies. As the right-wing Goldwater movement, based in the South and the West, became more powerful in the GOP, growing numbers of progressive and liberal Republicans from New England and Yankee states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Oregon joined the Democratic Party. At the same time, blacks deserted the party of Lincoln and joined their traditional northern Protestant and Jewish white allies in the Democratic coalition. Meanwhile, white southerners and, more slowly, northern white Catholics moved into the Republican Party. By the early 1970s, the Greater New England Protestant-black-Jewish alliance had captured the national Democratic Party. Following the congressional election of 1974, conservative and moderate southern Democratic committee chairmen were purged by mostly northern left-liberal reformers. (In 1956, two-thirds of the Democrats chairing House committees had been southerners.)
The reason for the collapse of Cold War liberalism in the Democratic Party was not Vietnam but the transformation of the party’s base. Even if there had been no Vietnam War, the Democratic Party probably would have become more isolationist in the 1960s and 1970s as its demographic base moved northward. Many of the antiwar activists and politicians came from backgrounds or regions formerly associated with Republican progressivism and anti-interventionism. Lyndon Johnson, a product of the old southern-northern Catholic New Deal coalition, found himself presiding over a party increasingly identified with antimilitary northern Protestants and Jews. Lady Bird Johnson marveled in 1967 at the way that the Republicans supported the Cold War while the Democrats were abandoning it: “Lyndon and I watched Senator John Tower for the Republicans and Senator Joe Clark for the Democrats on television-the Today show-talking about Vietnam. What a twist of fate it is to see the administration-indeed, us-being explained, backed, yes, even defended by John Tower, while that red-hot Democrat Joe Clark slashes at the administration’s policy with rancor and emotion.” What escaped the First Lady’s attention was the fact that the difference was less partisan than regional: Tower was from Texas, Clark from Pennsylvania. (Senator George Aiken, famous for saying that the United States should declare victory and get out of Vietnam, was from Vermont.)
The divisions within the Republican Party over Vietnam also followed geographic fault lines familiar from earlier American wars. Northern Republicans tended to be more dovish than southern Democrats. At a 1965 Republican governors’ conference, the only two governors who refused to sign a pro-war resolution were from the Greater New England anti-interventionist belt: George Romney of Michigan and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. In spring 1967, three Republican senators from Greater New England-Jacob Javits of New York, Charles Percy of Illinois, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine-met to promote a more dovish line for the GOP. The drift of Greater New England Republicans into the Democratic fold was symbolized by the conversion of Senator Floyd Haskell of Colorado, an antiwar Republican.
The contrast between northern anti-interventionism and southern interventionism can be illustrated by a comparison of Idaho Senator Frank Church and Representative Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, who chaired the House Armed Services Committee from 1965 to 1970. Church, a harsh critic of U.S. Cold War policy and national security agencies like the CIA, was photographed in 1966 holding up a picture of his hero and predecessor in the Senate from Idaho: William Borah, the Republican interwar isolationist. Rivers, reflecting the tradition of nineteenth-century South Carolina “fire-eaters,” summed up his attitude toward Vietnam thus: “Words are fruitless, diplomatic notes are useless. There can be only one answer for America: retaliation, retaliation, retaliation, retaliation! They say, Quit the bombing. I say, Bomb!”
Northern congressional Democrats in the 1970s, turning against the interventionist heritage of the disproportionately southern and Catholic Cold War liberals, revived techniques used by the isolationist northern Republicans of the 1930s, like banning U.S. military aid to factions in countries like Angola and Nicaragua and attempting to strip the presidency of foreign policy powers. The leader of the movement in favor of a War Powers Act was a Democratic representative from historically anti-interventionist Wisconsin, Clement J. Zablocki.
The domestic divisions over U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s, Peter Trubowitz writes, “were also sectional, not ideological…. While Cold War internationalism continued to strike a responsive chord in the South, it had lost much of its appeal in the Northeast.” (Indeed, the Cold War never had much appeal in the Northeast, except in regions with large numbers of anticommunist Catholics). According to Trubowitz, “Most of the so-called doves were liberal Democrats and Republicans” from the Northeast, whereas the “hawks were a group made up of conservative Democrats from the South and Republicans from the West.”
The Greater New England anti-interventionist bloc coalesced once more in the 1980s behind the nuclear-freeze movement, which won the endorsement of 446 New England town meetings. The sponsors of the first congressional resolution backing the nuclear freeze came from Massachusetts (Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Edward J. Markey) and Oregon (Senator Mark Hatfield). Three out of four voters in Massachusetts supported the nuclear freeze; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Ashland, Oregon, among other cities in the isolationist belt, declared themselves “nuclear-free zones.”
Meanwhile, white southern Democrats rallied behind President Reagan’s militant Cold War policy. In 1980, southern whites who favored higher defense spending were 52 percent Democratic and 34 percent Republican; by 1984, they were 49 percent Republican and 38 percent Democratic. Almost 80 percent of southern whites who voted for Reagan believed that defense spending should be increased beyond Reagan’s buildup-itself the largest peacetime buildup in U.S. history.
By the 1990s, the Tidewater South was the most solidly Republican region, and Greater New England was the bastion of the Democrats. Enough southerners left the Democratic Party after 1960 to give the Republicans a majority in both houses of Congress by 1994 and a near lock on the White House from 1968 to 1992. The regional polarization of the two parties was reflected in the congressional vote authorizing President Bush to wage war on Iraq. Most Democrats voted against the measure, and most of the dissenting Democrats whose alliance with the Republican minority let the declaration of war pass were southerners.
At first glance, the pattern of partisan attitudes toward Kosovo appears not to fit the familiar pattern. Many southern conservatives opposed the NATO campaign against Serbia, while many northern liberals supported it. On close examination, however, the NorthSouth split is still faintly discernible through the superimposed palimpsest of party loyalties.
On April 28, the House of Representatives voted on several proposed endorsements of the war. The votes were mostly partisan; the Republican majority that had impeached President Clinton voted against his Balkan policy, while most Democrats rallied behind their party’s leader. Such partisan loyalty was made easier, no doubt, by the fact that the NATO campaign did not seem to the public like a major war (indeed, no American soldiers were killed in combat). Even so, the deviations from the partisan norm were instructive. Representatives from Greater New England states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, and Ohio were overrepresented among the Democrats who broke with their party to vote against Clinton’s bombing campaign. The only Texan Democrat who did so was Lloyd Doggett, who represents liberal Austin, a major college town. Just as significant was the regional identity of the Republicans who voted to formally authorize the Balkan war. Approximately half of these were from southern or southwestern states. Virginia alone provided a fifth of the Republicans who broke with their party to back the bombing. Even more significant, another resolution in which Congress, on behalf of the U. S. government, would have formally declared war on Yugoslavia was supported by only two members of the House, one from Texas (Joe Barton, a Republican) and one from Mississippi (Gene Taylor, a Democrat). However distorted by the Clinton-era politics of scandal, the old regional pattern still holds.
War and American Regional Culture
The historical record, then, could not be clearer. There is a centuries-old anti-interventionist, antimilitary culture in the United States, centered in New England and the regions of the Great Lakes, the Midwest, the Upper Plains, and the Pacific Northwest settled by New Englanders. In the twentieth century, as European Catholic immigrants diluted the influence of Yankee Protestant stock in New England itself, the epicenter of this political culture shifted westward to the Middle West and Far West. For generations, the isolationists of Greater New England have battled the pro-military interventionists of the Tidewater South. The populists of the Highland South have often been divided over foreign policy, as they were divided in their loyalties during the Civil War and the American Revolution. The pedigree of Yankee isolationism runs from the New England Federalists through the northern Whigs and northern Democrats who opposed the Mexican War to the New England anti-imperialists of the late nineteenth century, the liberal Republican anti-interventionists of the first half of the twentieth century, and the anti-Cold War northern liberal Democrats of the second half. Today’s pro-military, interventionist Republicans, for their part, are the political heirs of the pro-military, interventionist Roosevelt and Wilson Democrats, as well as of the expansionist Democrats of the early nineteenth century and their predecessors, the Jeffersonian Republicans who favored the War of 1812.
What accounts for this remarkably persistent pattern of North-South disagreement about the necessity and legitimacy of U.S. military intervention abroad? Traditional accounts of U.S. interventionism and isolationism have explained them in terms of the ties between immigrant groups and Old World countries. This explanation does help account for the opposition of German Americans and anti-British Irish Americans to U.S. intervention in both world wars. But political scientists like Samuel Lubell who attribute interwar American isolationism chiefly to the influence of German and Irish American voters are mistaken. Isolationist sentiment from 1914 to 1941 was strong in many northern states with negligible German and Irish populations.
Quasi-Marxist economic determinist explanations are no more convincing. In Defining the National Interest, Trubowitz attributes the persisting sectional divisions between the hawkish South and the dovish North to different regional economies. Given the South’s enthusiasm for other American wars, it is not necessary to explain southern hostility to Hitler and his allies, as Trubowitz does, in terms of a southern strategy of defending overseas markets for cotton exports. The “agrarian” explanation of Greater New England isolationism is no more convincing. The historian Paul Michael Rogin speculates that the opposition of North Dakota Senators Quentin Burdick and George McGovern to the Vietnam War “owes something to the radical agrarian heritage.” But agrarianism cannot explain both the anti-interventionism of the North and the interventionism of the South.
The real reason for the persistence of sectionalism in U.S. foreign policy can be found in the “ethnoregional” theory of American politics, which has been developed by David Hackett Fischer, Daniel J. Elazar, D. W. Meinig, Kevin Phillips, and others. This theory holds that, in the United States, powerful ethnic and regional subcultures are more important and enduring than political parties or ideologies. The meaning of “Democrat” and “Republican” differs from generation to generation; regional subcultures like those of New England and the Tidewater South change far more slowly.
The greatest insight of ethnoregional theorists is that immigrants in the United States do not assimilate into a uniform American national culture but assimilate into one of a small number of preexisting regional cultures. The historian Wilbur Zelinsky defined a “Doctrine of Effective First Settlement,” which holds that “whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to affect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been.” According to Zelinsky, “in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.”
Historians disagree about how many such enduring regional cultures there are in the United States. But most scholars agree on at least three: a “Yankee” culture that spread westward overland from New England, a “Quaker” culture originating in Pennsylvania, and a “Cavalier” culture originating in the coastal South. Most, but not all, include a fourth regional culture, that of the Scots-Irish Highland South, from Appalachia to the Ozarks and Texas.
In addition to distinctive folkways and dialects of English, these four groups of British American immigrants also had their own unique variants of a common individualistic and liberal British political culture. Fischer describes the New England Puritan ideal as “ordered freedom,” the Quaker ideal as “reciprocal freedom,” the Scots-Irish ideal as “natural freedom,” and the Tidewater southern ideal as “hegemonic freedom” (essentially, deference to traditional elites). Elazar calls the New England tradition the “moralistic” culture, the mid-Atlantic tradition the “individualistic” culture, and the coastal southern tradition the “traditional” culture.
These British American regional cultures have been overlaid and altered by waves of European and, more recently, Latin American and Asian immigration. The concentration of European Catholic immigrants in the industrial belt more or less effaced the older midAtlantic Quaker region. By 1955, New England itself had ceased to be “Yankee”; thanks to European immigration, fewer than 30 percent of Connecticut’s inhabitants had ancestors who had lived in New England for more than two generations. The Yankee tradition therefore lived on chiefly in the Great Lakes region, the upper prairie, and the Pacific Northwest. Along with the Scots-Irish Highland South and the Anglo-American Tidewater South, the western section of Greater New England has been little affected by large-scale immigration, other than that of German and Scandinavian Americans whose cultures have tended to reinforce Yankee norms. These three regions show greater continuities in attitudes toward foreign policy than do areas like the industrial Midwest, California, and the Southwest, where populations have been churned by massive immigration and relocation. Contrary to popular belief, regional cultures have proven to be far more stable than the ethnic cultures of immigrant groups, which usually fade away after a generation or two.
The ethnoregional theory answers the mystery of American sectional differences over war. Regional disagreements about intervention overseas are part of a larger pattern of regional disagreement about the legitimacy of all forms of violence. “Historians of Southern mores are agreed that violence as an aspect of Southern life clearly distinguished the region from the rest of the country,” the historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown has written. Of the southerner, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the energy which his [northern] neighbor devotes to gain turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat.” Southern states lead the nation not only in military academies but in homicide rates, death penalty laws, and low penalties for domestic violence. Northern states have the lowest homicide rates and the greatest number of statutes requiring a citizen to retreat before attacking an assailant or burglar.
These regional differences reflect the divergence in moral systems between the post-Calvinist Puritanism of Greater New England, which shuns violence as a means for resolving disputes, and the cultures of honor of the Scots-Irish Highland South and the Anglo-American Tidewater South. The two southern cultures are quite different. But compared to Greater New Englanders, both Highland and Tidewater southerners approve more of violent retaliation for insults. Southerners are not indiscriminately violent. The difference between northern and southern homicide rates stems almost entirely from the violent responses of southerners to personal offenses: arguments, insults to women, lovers’ quarrels, and family disputes. The researchers Richard E. Nisbet and Dov Cohen discovered that, at the same university, white southern students were more likely to respond aggressively than white northern students to the same set of insults and provocations. The same researchers have pointed out the similarities between the culture of honor of white southerners and that of inner-city African Americans, most of whom are descendants of southern migrants.
In addition to different attitudes toward violence, both collective and personal, Greater New Englanders and southerners have inherited different conceptions of the character of the United States. The idea of American messianism or exceptionalism, of a special American destiny in the world, is a northern idea-a secularized version of the Calvinist utopia of the perfect Puritan commonwealth, safe in the New World from the corrupting influences of the Old. The power of this utopian tradition, in both its Protestant and secular forms, explains why almost every wave of social and moral reform in American history has emanated from New England or areas like California initially settled by New Englanders: abolitionism, prohibition, animal rights, pacifism, suffragism, and, most recently, the antismoking movement. By contrast, the Tidewater southern gentry and the Highland southern yeomen have viewed North America in terms of cheap land and quick wealth. For southerners, British North America is a new England, different in scale but not in kind from the old England; for the Puritans and their cultural descendants, North America is, or should be, a new Jerusalem.
The fundamental incompatibility of the rival regional mentalities was captured by Henry Adams: “The Pilgrims of Plymouth, the Puritans of Boston, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, all avowed a moral purpose, and began by making institutions that consciously reflected a moral idea. No such character belonged to the colonization of 1800. From Lake Erie to Florida, in a long, unbroken line, pioneers were at work, cutting into the forest with the energy of so many beavers, and with no more moral purpose than the beavers they drove away. The civilization they carried with them was rarely illumined by an idea…” Of the mostly southern Jeffersonian Republicans, this quintessential Yankee intellectual, the descendant of two scholarly Massachusetts presidents, wrote, “I am at times almost sorry that I undertook to write their history, for they appear like mere grasshoppers kicking and gesticulating on the middle of the Mississippi River. There is no possibility of reconciling their theories with their acts…” To southerners, even intellectual and progressive southerners, the notion that a government or society should be organized according to a “theory” or “idea,” rather than on the basis of tradition and custom, was the ultimate in New England madness.
The ethnoregional theory also clears up a minor historical mystery. For much of the twentieth century, American historians (most of them northerners) struggled to understand why the South had been so ardently in favor of war with Britain in 1812. Surely, they thought, the pretext that America’s “national honor” had been insulted by British practices like the kidnapping and conscription of American sailors had to conceal other motives. Some historians speculated that economic greed, not maritime grievances, was the “real” reason for the War of 1812. In recent decades, however, several historians have argued that national honor must be taken seriously as a motive for the War of 18i2. Unlike New England Puritans, Pennsylvania Quakers, and midwestern Germanic Protestants, southerners based their way of life on the violent defense of honor—personal honor, family honor, communal honor, and national honor.
Fischer notes that the only time the Federalist Party, based in New England, gained the support of Tidewater and Highland southerners was during “the quasi-war” with France in 1798-99. This suggests that southerners were motivated by cultural attitudes rather than by strategy during the Napoleonic Wars. Southerners were just as enthusiastic about fighting France and helping Britain in 1798-99 as they were about fighting Britain and helping France in 1812-14. There was a world war on, and southerners wanted a fight; choosing whom to fight was a secondary matter. “The war fever of marked the beginning of a consistent pattern in American military history,” Fischer writes. “From the quasi-war with France to the Vietnam War, the two southern cultures strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against. Southern ideas of honor and the warrior ethic combined to create intense regional war fevers in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1911, 1941, 1950 and 1965.”
The ethnoregional theory also explains another curious fact of American political life-the tendency to find the most outspoken doves in the Senate, rather than in the House. For example, two senators from Idaho-the progressive Republican William Borah and the liberal Democrat Frank Church-symbolize the hostility of left-of-center anti-interventionists to national security agencies and foreign wars. The underpopulated states of New England and the Yankee-settled northern tier and Rocky Mountain states have disproportionate clout in the Senate, thanks to the provision that allots Senate seats on the basis of statehood rather than population. Throughout American history, the House has usually been more hawkish than the Senate because the nation as a whole has been more hawkish than the overrepresented inhabitants of Greater New England.
Refighting the Civil War
There is no reason to believe that America’s regional divide in foreign policy attitudes will diminish any time soon. The melting away of regional subcultures has frequently been announced, but it has not yet occurred, and it may not occur. The geographic mobility of Americans may actually reinforce regional subcultures by encouraging a voluntary partition, with liberal southerners moving to the North and conservative northerners fleeing Boston or New York for the more congenial environments of Atlanta or Dallas.
The division between socially liberal, anti-interventionist, and antimilitary northerners and socially conservative, interventionist, and pro-military southerners is as old as the American republic. This divide manifested itself throughout the New Deal period of Democratic hegemony, when both camps had representatives in both parties. Since the 1960s, however, the two national parties in the United States have become more internally coherent and regionally polarized than at any time since the 1920s.
For the foreseeable future, therefore, the pattern of the past generation will persist. Although there will be Democratic hawks and Republican isolationists, in general the Republicans, with their new base in the South, will back a strong military and an assertive defense policy; the Democrats, rooted in Greater New England, will favor defense cutbacks and strategic retrenchment. The differences in attitudes toward national security policy, rooted in regional moral conceptions, will be reinforced by differing economic interests. The South and the Sun Belt have traditionally favored free trade because neither their old agricultural industries nor new high-tech industries (like computers or aerospace) are threatened by foreign competition-unlike the old manufacturing industries of the northeastern-midwestern Rust Belt. The booming U. S. economy of the late 1990s, along with the absence of major foreign military threats, masked these conflicts of values and interests. But a recession or new security threats might lead once again to bitter political conflict between the pro-military, free-trade faction based in the South and Southwest and the anti-interventionist, protectionist Northeast.
In the long run, demography may favor the southern coalition. The core white Democratic constituencies-Greater New England Protestants and Jews-have low birth rates. Northeastern states lose congressional seats to the South and West with every census. Blacks, the most loyal Democratic voting bloc, will soon be outnumbered by Latinos, whose long-term loyalty to the northern Democratic coalition is far from certain. Indeed, many, if not most, assimilated Mexican Americans will find southern traditionalism more familiar and attractive than the values of the post-Puritan North.
Enduring regional divisions will be reflected in institutions as well as parties. The southerners who are disproportionately represented in the leadership of the U.S. military and the Republican Party will tend to view the proper goals and instruments of U.S. foreign policy radically differently than will the northerners overrepresented in the prestige media, universities, and the Democratic Party. The breakdown of the largely northeastern bipartisan foreign policy establishment in the 1960s and 1970s has led to the formation of rival Democratic and Republican foreign policy elites. If these rival elites, over time, recruit from different regional populations, profound cultural and moral differences may come to divide southern and western hawks from northern and eastern doves.
Such polarization is bad for the United States and its allies for several reasons. If changes in party control of the federal government result in dramatically different foreign policies, America’s reliability as an ally will be thrown into question. The capture of different branches of the U.S. government by regionalized parties with incompatible conceptions of the national interest is a recipe for paralysis.
Public policy can do little to alter the enduring regional subcultures in the United States. Still, a few institutional reforms might reduce the direct translation of regional differences into political rivalries. A conscious effort by Republicans and Democrats to represent all regions in their parties would benefit both the parties and the country as a whole. Although unlikely, electing the House by proportional representation would make it easier for northern conservatives and southern liberals to elect representatives. By weakening the solid conservative South and the solid liberal North, this would detach ideological liberalism and conservatism from regional identity. The federal government and the states might pass laws to encourage the physical decentralization of the media, now concentrated in New York and on the northeastern seaboard, to try to make the media elite reflect America’s regional and cultural diversity. Reinstating the draft, if necessary for other reasons, would have the added advantage of diluting the overrepresentation of southern conservative Republicans in the military. In Congress, the traditional division between the foreign relations committees (dominated by northerners) and the armed services committees (dominated by southerners) might be overcome by merging them into a single foreign policy or national security committee in each house. In addition, the overrepresentation of anti-interventionist, antimilitary Greater New Englanders in the malapportioned Senate could be neutralized by merging House and Senate foreign policy committees into a single joint foreign policy committee-a reform that would also strengthen the leverage of Congress as a whole in its dealings with the presidency. These reforms are not likely. But in their absence, U.S. foreign policy will continue to be what it all too often has been: civil war by other means.