The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

April 3, 2000

J. Reuben Clark (1871-1961) and Non-Intervention


The long life of Joshua Reuben Clark, Jr. embraced two quite different careers. Born in Grantsville, Utah in 1871, Clark received a law degree at Columbia University in 1906 and worked at the US state department from 1906 to 1913, leaving to form a private law practice. He served on the staff of the Army’s Judge Advocate General in World War I and "helped draft the Selective Service regulations" (the one thing I would hold against him). In 1928, he returned to the state department as undersecretary, and then became assistant to Dwight Morrow, the American ambassador to Mexico, in 1929. He served as ambassador to Mexico from 1930 to 1933. Thus his first career. In 1933, Clark returned to Utah and served in various high official capacities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon). Thus his second career.1


In both his careers J. Reuben Clark was a reasonably consistent advocate of nonintervention His most famous contribution was the Clark Memorandum of December 1928, which repudiated the "Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine. TR had held that President Monroe’s brief statement (1823) sanctioned frequent US interventions into the internal affairs of Latin American nations, whenever anything should go wrong – the definition of the situation being pretty much up to the United States. Clark wrote that, "[t]he Doctrine states a case of the United States vs. Europe, and not of the United States vs. Latin American." It was meant to act, and had acted, "as a shield between Europe and the Americas."2 The Clark Memorandum was published by the state department in 1930, although not as an official statement of policy.

According to two students of Clark’s ideas, Martin B. Hickman and Ray C. Hillam, Clark saw the Monroe Doctrine as "designed for defense and not domination." His memorandum "created the basis for a meaningful ‘Good Neighbor’ policy." They see Clark’s non-interventionism as fitting "squarely" in to "the Puritan tradition in foreign policy," which rested on "the necessity of human freedom, the rejection of power politics," "belief in the ultimate triumph of moral truth," and "the special historical mission of the United States."3 Similar themes can be found in the writings of Senator Robert Taft and Felix Morley.

Clark’s conception of freedom emphasized constitutional/republican liberty – an idea reinforced by the Mormon doctrine that the American Constitution was of divine inspiration. In Clark’s words, the Constitution was "the culmination of a long historical process which had its beginnings deep in the efforts of the English people to free themselves from the tyranny of absolute monarchy" – a process in which the hand of God was evident.4 As for rejection of power politics, Hickman and Hillam write that while Clark agreed with Woodrow Wilson that the old balance-of-power politics had failed, he drew quite different conclusions from this. Instead of entering into supranational organizations like the League of Nations, the United States ought to promote peaceful communication and commerce as well as forms of arbitration and mediation. This brings to mind Taft and Herbert Hoover. Clark wrote that "We must have a world organization for the purpose of deliberation, but not for the purpose of waging wars and imposing sanctions."5 Today’s state department could learn a bit from their old lawyer.


America could best serve its own moral progress and that of the world by eschewing great power rivalries and intervention. Participation in the two world wars, Clark said in 1944, had eaten away America’s moral strength, leaving our leaders to rely on "our brute force." He deeply regretted the erosion of the 19th-century laws of war and specifically condemned the wholesale bombing of cities and killing of civilians. With terror bombing, mankind had "gone back a half a millennium in its conduct of international relations in time of war," and further, "no nation has to bear a greater blame for this than our own." As for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said, "[s]ome of us think it was shameful." Morality had fled the world. "Are we Christians?" he asked. "We act like pagans."6

Sounding quite a lot like Felix Morley, John T. Flynn, Frank Chodorov, and C. Wright Mills, Clark warned against Cold War militarism: "[B]ig armies have always brought, not peace, but war which has ended in a hate that in due course brings another war." "Force [was] barren" and no foundation for a better world. As for the communist threat which justified militarism, and even preventive war, "[n]o group can permanently maintain itself by murder…. So it will be with communism…." We should keep the peace and wait for the inevitable implosion of the Soviet system.7


Clark’s notion of a unique American mission looked back to John Winthrop’s prophecy in 1630 that American would be "as a city upon a hill" – a theme reiterated in the 1970s by Senator J. William Fulbright. As Clark put it: "For American has a destiny – a destiny to conquer the world – not by force of arms, not by purchase and favor, for these conquests wash away, but by high purpose, by unselfish effort, by uplifting achievement, by a course of Christian living; a conquest that shall leave every nation free to move out to its own destiny; a conquest that shall bring, through the workings of our own example, the blessings of freedom and liberty to every people, without restraint or imposition or compulsion from us; a conquest that shall weld the whole earth together in one great brotherhood in a reign of mutual patience, forbearance, and charity, in a reign of peace to which we shall lead all others by the persuasion of our own righteous example."8

This is sound doctrine – whether American or Mormon. Given the many abuses of universalist rhetoric of late, some might shy away from the merest whiff of it. But a universalist creed based on being a good example, and nothing else has much to recommend it compared to what we have in its place. Certainly, if we followed such a path, our example might be rejected again and again, but this need not lead to serious conflict provided we have, truly, rejected the impulse to impose our "way of life." The path of empire was not for J. Reuben Clark, nor should it be our path.


I can understand how someone of Clark’s generation – which is roughly that of my grandfather, also born near the Great Salt Lake – could actually believe in the United States and think that, all things being equal, its government might actually be a force for good in the world and at home. I do not wish to ridicule this belief, which is rather touching after all, but three or four generations of imperial hubris later, many in my generation ask nothing of the system other than for it to go home, shut up, stay in doors, and leave us alone (the E.P. Thompson Plan, as previously noted in this column). It is simply impossible at this late hour to buy into Clark’s, or Taft’s, or anyone’s idealism about this system and its formerly-existing constitution. Too bad, really.


William Graham Sumner wrote that "[i]f you want war, nourish a doctrine. Doctrines are the most frightful tyrants to which men ever are subject, because doctrines get inside a man’s own reason and betray him against himself…."9 Certainly, doctrines are part of the imperial pattern and problem. We’ve seen the Monroe Doctrine in various guises, the Truman Doctrine, the Nixon, the Reagan, and now the still-emerging Clinton Doctrine. Policy-makers have cited the Monroe Doctrine to justify any number of interventions, although that doctrine has never led to major war - unless we count almost blowing up the whole place in 1962 (but that was just a side effect of the whole history of US-Cuban relations).

As Albert K. Weinberg pointed out, Clark’s memorandum was not the most non-interventionist reading of the Monroe Doctrine possible, but instead defended existing US policy toward Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti as being consistent with legitimate US interests.10 T.D. Allman holds that the Monroe "doctrine" – if such it was – was noninterventionist Monroe, it appears, did not even know he was making a doctrine. His handwritten message, delivered to Congress in 1823, headed off premature Global Democrats like Henry Clay, who imagined that US intervention to throw Spain entirely out of the New World was feasible and a good idea, too. By the time the dust settled, Latin Americans had largely solved the problem themselves. John Quincy Adams, who wrote much of Monroe’s message, famously said in his Fourth of July Address that "American goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Any fair reading of Monroe’s text suggests that it was, in its origins, an anti-interventionist document, pledging the US to stay out of European affairs over the water and promising US displeasure at European attempts to re-colonize the Americas. It did not exactly pledge the US to any concrete action flowing from that displeasure.11 The United States did not "enforce" the so-called doctrine at all in its first sixty or so years. Instead, American policy-makers prudently attacked the weak (Mexico) and negotiated with the strong (Russia, Great Britain). Here we have another of those "inner doctrines" which so often gainsay the current "outer doctrine." Much of the Cold War, too, can be understood on the basis of fighting the weak and accommodating the strong.

Thus, the Monroe Doctrine as a form of rhetoric is a snare and a delusion, a work of art never intended by James Monroe. President Polk had referred to the Monroe Doctrine in the run-up to his presidential war against Mexico in 1847 and by the late 19th century it was in vogue as plenary justification for anything the US felt like doing in the Caribbean basin. Such a reading can only be managed by ignoring Monroe’s text, deconstructing its absences and silences, and discovering its "spirit." This is best left to those who do it well; the Supreme Court comes to mind.

Hence J. Reuben Clark’s repudiation of Teddy’s "take" on the doctrine could have gone much further. Even so, many historians believe that Clark’s ideas did restrain US intervention for a few years, although they argue whether Herbert Hoover or FDR acted more consistently as a good neighbor. (It’s obviously Hoover.) Fairly soon, of course, the US returned to its traditional not-very-good-neighbor policy, followed in later decades by the really-bad-neighbor policy under which various operatives overthrew Latin American governments about once a week and handed millions of dollars and tons of armaments over to the forces of "stability" in various nations. These forces were, generally speaking, the chief cause of disorder in their respective countries, so the policy almost never lived up to expectations. R.M. Koster and Guillermo Sánchez write that "[i]f the United States had taken the money it spent on the uniformed gorilocrats of Latin America, and filled 747s with twenties and fifties, and flown over the continent shoveling cash out the doors, more good would have come from the taxpayers’ sacrifice, more benefit to the United States and its neighbors."12 Sociologist Stanislav Andreski has noted that while the United States is not the original creator of Latin America’s problems, its frequent interventions have helped to prevent any fundamental improvement in those societies (by which I do not mean socialism).


Doctrines like the improved readings of Monroe’s message have a way of becoming delusional ideologies. Ideology, readers may recall, is one of the three forms of power discussed by John Hall and Sir Ernest Gellner, the other ones being political-military and economic power. In dealing with the phenomenon of empire it is well to give each one its due.

One thing more: clearly, on a website where we try to build noninterventionist doctrine, we are not in a position reject all doctrine as such. The more we are aware of our own assumptions, the better job we can make of it. In this task, the religiously-grounded non-interventionism of J. Reuben Clark, Felix Morley, and others has a contribution to make as part of a larger tradition.


  1. "Clark, Joshua Reuben, Jr.," Dictionary of American Biography, ed. John A. Garraty (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), pp. 125-126.
  2. "The Clark Memorandum" (excerpts) in Armin Rappaport ed., Sources in American Diplomacy (New York: Macmillan, 1966), pp. 238-241.
  3. Martin B. Hickman and Ray C. Hillam, "J. Reuben Clark: Political Isolationism Revisited," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 7, 1 (1972), pp. 38.
  4. See Noel B. Reynolds, "The Doctrine of an Inspired Constitution," Brigham Young University Studies, 16, 3 (Spring 1976), pp. 315-340 (quotation, p. 321).
  5. Hickman and Hilllam, "J. Reuben Clark," pp. 40-41.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., pp. 42-43.
  8. Ibid., p. 45.
  9. Quoted in T.D. Allman, Unmanifest Destiny (Garden City, N.Y.: The Dial Press, 1984), on "Contents" page.
  10. Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1963[1935]), p. 444.
  11. T.D. Allman, pp. 98-160.
  12. R.M. Koster and Guillermo Sánchez, In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), p. 57.

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