Ten years ago, at a panel discussion in Wales, I was asked about a particularly contentious issue of U.S. foreign policy. To the disappointment of my hosts, I responded by apologizing for being a bit old- fashioned about such matters: I was raised to a rather traditional sort of patriotism, and didn’t believe in bashing my country while traveling abroad.
I hadn’t thought about that day for years, but it came to mind this week after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s criticism of the State Department’s initial response to the assaults on our embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
In explaining why few Republicans have jumped to endorse Romney’s comments, the AP (among other observers) reminds us that “the old notion that politics stops at the water’s edge still resonates in some quarters in Washington.” I have long loved the phrase, and the old-fashioned part of me, of course, wants to agree with the idea that whatever our domestic disagreements, we are unified as we face the rest of the world.
Alas, we are long past that point. A quick glance at the George W. Bush years should serve as an adequate reminder that being commander-in-chief of a nation under threat is no longer viewed as providing an immunity from criticism. The truth is, it never was.
The old saw that “politics stops at the water’s edge” is just that -- an old saw. Few considered soldiers dying in Vietnam as a reason to avoid attacking the presidents who presided over that war. Nor can the Vietnam protests be dismissed as the self-indulgence of the baby-boomer generation. Thomas Jefferson’s political enemies excoriated his handling of the war with the Barbary States. Abraham Lincoln clashed repeatedly with the radical wing of his own Republican Party over his generalship in the Civil War. And by the end of 1943, a growing chorus of the Greatest Generation was demanding that we bring our boys home from Europe.
I am not suggesting that the maxim has never been followed. My point is that it has been honored in the breach.
So where does it come from, this notion that politics stops at the water’s edge? Many historians describe it as an artifact of the Cold War, when the parties were united against the communist enemy. The maxim is often attributed to Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who used it in a speech in 1947, upon his ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg, a Republican, was explaining why he intended to buck isolationist elements in his party and support the Truman administration’s internationalism, including the Marshall Plan.
But Vandenberg, though he might have popularized the phrase, was not its originator. He might have picked it up from James Reston of the New York Times, who used the phrase in an article on Truman’s Middle East policy the year before Vandenberg uttered it. Reston, however, did not invent it, either.
The earliest usage recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of American Slang is drawn from the Helena (Montana) Independent in 1939. With the help of Google Inc.’s Ngram Viewer, I turned up a reference in the 1938 edition of “History of the United States” by Charles Austin Beard and Mary Ritter Beard, who refer to the phrase as “an old saying.”
One possible origin is in relation to the common-law understanding of certain rights in riparian land as ending “at the water’s edge” -- the notion being that privileges exercised on the land are transformed into duties to others once one enters a river or lake. One also finds in Christian sources from the 19th century an image of baptism in which the believer, “at the water’s edge,” leaves his old self behind.
Whatever the origin of the phrase, a lot of recent writers think we should discard it. Nicholas von Hoffman, in his 2004 book “Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies,” scoffed: “Politics does not stop at the water’s edge, or anyplace else. … What stops at the water’s edge in a war-or- peace discussion is political courage.”
Earlier this summer, Paul Waldman, a contributing editor at the American Prospect, derided the supposed tradition: “We often hear that if you’re a politician, it’s unseemly to be political ’on foreign soil.’ But seriously, who cares? Are we worried that people in the rest of the world will discover the terrible truth that we engage in politics and that people from our competing parties don’t much like each other? Horrors!”
But before we toss away so venerable a maxim -- even one honored in the breach -- we should consider the reasons for its survival. In the first place, the realist might point out that a potential enemy considering attack might pause if he believes that our fractious nation can unify in the face of danger. Second, the notion that politics stops at the water’s edge has an attractive unifying quality, implying that, in times of crisis, we can perhaps be one people. Finally, there is a transcendent quality to the claim because of its suggestion that politics is small and America is large -- just as every politician insists, and some no doubt believe, that our commonalities are greater than our differences.
Let’s not forget that the ratchet can turn both ways, and sometimes has. The flip side of the unspoken rule against criticizing the president’s foreign-policy initiatives was that the president wouldn’t politicize them, either.
This symmetry was brought forcefully into public view in 2002, less than a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, after Karl Rove went to Austin, Texas, to address the Republican National Committee before the midterm elections. Rove urged that the campaign be constructed around the theme that the Republican Party would do better than the Democrats in protecting America. Among the many critics of the speech was longtime Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan, who responded in disgust: “Patriotic Americans have always taken the view that politics stops at the water’s edge.”
There is a lovely, almost poetic, idealism to this sentiment. A nation seriously devoted to the principle that we share in a larger purpose than the pursuit of partisan advantage would be far more attractive than the one in which we live. So I vote to keep our hoary maxim about the water’s edge, whether or not we can live up to it. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I still consider the America the sentiment expresses an America worth aspiring to.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his most recent novel is “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s highlights: the editors on the tax spat in France, on Egypt’s dance around the U.S. embassy breach and on the disingenuousness of last year’s debt-ceiling debate; Jonathan Alter on Romney’s “No Apology” foreign policy; Noah Feldman on China’s invisible heir apparent; Ezra Klein on a carbon-tax fantasy; Willie Pesek on China’s missing No. 2 man; Jonathan Weil on banks that admit their balance sheets are awful; Alex Marshall on why capitalism and government are friends after all.
To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org or @StepCarter on Twitter.