What Would John Adams Do About Iran?
In the summer of 1798, U.S. President John Adams faced the gravest crisis of his time in office. Hostilities with the revolutionary, expansionist regime in France had been rising since his election, with French privateers seizing American merchant ships off the Atlantic coast. Adams’s effort at diplomacy had backfired. The envoys he had sent to France had been met with extortionate and insulting demands; the publication of their dispatches, in what came to be known as the XYZ Affair, had provoked a firestorm of outrage and war fever, the likes of which the young republic had never before known. The public, led by Adams’s own Federalist Party, was demanding a declaration of war. Adams himself had stoked those public passions. But now, in the summer, he hesitated between belligerence and yet more diplomacy.
The United States is now locked in conflict with Iran, another revolutionary, expansionist power. It is not yet summer 1798, but it’s getting close. Today’s president, Barack Obama, as firmly committed to the principle of engagement as Adams was to the principle of neutrality, is still giving diplomacy a chance. But the bugles are sounding. Israeli officials openly and urgently talk about the need for military action; Iran has apparently responded with a barrage of assassination attempts abroad; and polls show that a majority of Americans are prepared to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The president is under pressure, not from his own party, but from his adversaries, to issue an ultimatum to Iran. We may be only one stupid mistake away from the point where an attack becomes unavoidable.
Although Americans view themselves as slow to anger and reluctant to take up arms, the historical record argues otherwise. Adams was the first, but not the last, U.S. president, to feel the enormous pressure of the public clamor for war. Exactly 100 years after the XYZ Affair, President William McKinley cowered before the braying of the yellow press for war against Spain, the colonial master of the Philippines and Cuba. In one of the grossest public abuses of religious sentiment on record, McKinley famously claimed that he had fallen to his knees to ask divine guidance on the issue, heard God instruct him to liberate and Christianize the Filipinos, and “slept soundly.” And half a century later, when the Soviets blockaded Berlin, President Harry Truman confronted demands that he force a military showdown. The Red Army was, of course, a much more formidable foe than Spain, and Truman wisely overruled his more bloody-minded generals — as John F. Kennedy would later do during the Cuban missile crisis.
Adams himself was convinced that France threatened not only American commerce but American sovereignty; in a speech before a special session of Congress, he accused the French Directory of seeking “to separate the people of the United States from the government” in order to foment domestic upheaval. He created a new Department of the Navy and began building warships. In the aftermath of the XYZ Affair, he stood aside as Federalists whipped through Congress the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at French nationals and sympathizers. In short, Adams behaved less like Obama than like George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Unlike Bush, however, Adams did not want war, and neither, it turned out, did France. Once Charles M. de Talleyrand, France’s foreign minister, saw that the United States was preparing for war, he began authorizing intermediaries to tell influential Americans that France had no wish for hostilities and would accept a new envoy with none of the onerous conditions (including the payment of a douceur, or bribe, to himself) imposed on the previous mission. Adams began hearing from private citizens and diplomats, including his son John Quincy, then minister in Berlin, that France wanted peace. None of this was publicly known, and opinion remained no less inflamed. But Adams concluded he had to take a risk on Talleyrand’s bona fides. In February 1799, he appointed his minister to the Netherlands as envoy to France. And in October 1800, the two sides signed a peace treaty known as the Convention of 1800.
Standing up to the war hawks was the most noble and selfless act of Adams’s tenure. As historian William Stinchcombe concludes in The XYZ Affair, “in this respect alone his record as president must be judged as superior to that of many others.” Adams believed he had signed his own political death warrant, and he may have been right: He lost considerable Federalist support and was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. McKinley, by contrast, not only apparently slept like a baby but cruised to reelection. One moral of the story is thus that choosing diplomacy over a needless war may gain a president credit with posterity, but not with voters. If the temperature rises, Obama, too, may have to risk his political future in order to resist the call to arms.