Experts discuss Jeffersonian politics

A panel of professors discussed how the United States’ current war and foreign policies relate to Jeffersonian ideas Thursday as part of the Thomas Jefferson for Today Conference.Samuel Watson, an associate professor of history at the United States Military Academy, said the most important lesson from Jefferson’s time and from conflicts in the modern era is that the military needs to be flexible.

“When any nation faces antagonists,” he said, it must either “fight, negotiate or withdraw.”

In 1807, Jefferson chose to fight, he said, and when that was not successful and he was still unwilling to give in, Jefferson withdrew into isolationism in 1808.

In regards to Iraq, Watson said, the ultimate danger is that the experience will spur another stint of isolationism.

“Once bitten in Iraq, twice shy in other nations when it might be best to intervene,” he said of the United States.

Watson said Jefferson eventually stopped worrying and came to love the military and avoided foreign entanglements.

In Iraq, military policies need to be flexible because the military has had to adapt its ways of fighting, he said.

Gene Smith, a history professor who discussed Jefferson and the Navy, said military ventures in the 1990s and early part of the 21st century have confirmed Jefferson’s ideas that foreign policies need to include various mechanisms for fighting, including anything from submarines to U.S. carriers.

In Jefferson’s approach to the Navy, Smith said, he devoted many of his resources to gun boats, which he said are now viewed as a failure because they did not inspire confidence. However, he said, Jefferson eventually realized he would need multiple crafts to succeed.

Smith explained how Jefferson’s policies changed over his administration, something Lawrence Kaplan, a university professor emeritus at Kent State University, said is indicative of Jefferson’s character.

“I’ve been trying to understand Jefferson for the past 55 years and I don’t think I’ve managed it successfully,” Kaplan said. “There are many contradictions, though there are several consistencies.”

Kaplan said Jefferson is wrongly portrayed as a pacifist at times, and while he often resorted to pacifism, he was willing to use force as a last resort.

Jefferson was known throughout history to deviate from his belief that the United States should not be attached to any one country, partially because of Jefferson’s belief that the United States can manipulate Britain and France, Kaplan said.

These ideas, though not directly, do correlate to NATO, Kaplan said, because in NATO, the United States maintains allies despite Jeffersonian attempts to detach.

NATO is an organization that began with 12 nations that came together on the basis of equality, he said. However, he said, while decisions are to be made based on consensus, they have often been driven by the United States’ status as a superpower.

Even in 2003, when France and Germany openly opposed the United States’ decisions regarding Iraq, the relationships between countries in NATO survived, Kaplan said. Despite Jefferson’s belief in detachment, he said, Jefferson did recognize the need for occasional support form Europe, something the United States still recognizes through its role in NATO.

“The United States in NATO needs allies and they need us,” he said, because the United States has the most military capabilities.

Claire Phelan, a graduate student of history, said the conference was attended by mostly academics and professors, some from other schools and some here independently.

After the panelists’ discussion, audience members asked questions regarding history.