While he was right to question Sen. John F. Kerry's statement that going to war based on necessity is a time-honored tradition in America ["The Kerry Doctrine," op-ed, Aug. 1], Robert Kagan may have attached too much significance to a sound bite in a political speech.
Mr. Kagan was correct that most of the wars fought by the United States have been wars of choice. However, most Americans believe that we go to war based on necessity or at least our principles because we're the good guys. To have stated the unvarnished truth probably would have caused an uproar.
But Mr. Kagan went too far in suggesting that a "doctrine of necessity" would "entail a pacifism and an isolationism more thorough than any attempted by a U.S. government since the 1930s." Mr. Kerry did not say in this speech or in any that I am aware of that we would go to war only if we were directly imperiled.
Adherence to our treaties and alliances may be considered a necessity. Adherence to our principles may be considered a necessity. Responding to requests for aid and assistance may be considered a necessity. Necessity does not rule out humanitarian wars or intervention to prevent genocide.
Mr. Kerry has stated his desire to work with and listen to our allies on Iraq, terrorism and a range of other issues. This certainly is not isolationism.
Dictating terms to the international community, being an international bully and fighting reckless wars does not make us internationalists.
Suggesting that the threshold for war and military intervention should be high is not a call for isolationism or pacifism. Neither Bill Clinton nor Jimmy Carter were isolationists as president, though certainly they were less hawkish than the Bush administration. Most reasonable observers would consider that a good thing. Mr. Kerry is very likely to fall in the same tradition.
Robert Kagan offered a thoughtful critique of the "Kerry Doctrine" -- that the United States goes to war only "because we have to." I suggest another example he failed to mention.
Did President Abraham Lincoln really have to use force to preserve the Union in 1861? After all, the people of several Southern states were only asserting a right that had been spelled out in the Declaration of Independence long before. These people reached their decision through democratic political processes.
No serious historian would contend that the Confederacy had any designs on Northern territory. Had Lincoln been willing to abandon Fort Sumter instead of resupplying it, 600,000 American deaths could have been avoided.
I believe that Lincoln was un- questionably right to act as he did, but I wonder how supporters of the Kerry Doctrine could reach the same conclusion.
The writer is Winthrop professor of history at Harvard University and author of the two-volume "A History of the American People."