When it comes to American foreign policy, The Simpsons might just provide the lens we need to understand our own history.
For 20 years The Simpsons has satirized the banalities and foibles of American life. From Lisa's precocious insights to Bart's antics, the show emerged as Generation X's reply to Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Brunch. Unlike Mike Brady or Ward Cleaver, there is no wise paterfamilias at the show's core. Instead, there is Homer Simpson. Whether he is watching Itchy & Scratchy, eating donuts, or swilling a can of Duff beer, Homer, is an exaggerated American "common man" who embodies Americans' naïveté, excess, and basic decency.
As a Gen Xer raised by and on television, I became a keen student of unrealistic depictions of American life and human motivations. For this reason I never liked Perfect Strangers. I could see Larry letting Balki live with him for a few months, but years on a fold-up couch, even after he was engaged? Though BJ and the Bear was a guilty pleasure, I realized well-adjusted men don't live in 18-wheelers and have a monkey for a best friend.
Faced with this sort of competition, The Simpsons became a sensation because it was the first sitcom to realistically depict an American family. As an academic who studies U.S. foreign policy, I often think about what I learned from 1980s sitcoms whenever I go to conferences or review a book. In the hands of many foreign policy specialists, William McKinley might as well be Perfect Stranger's clueless and spineless Larry Appleton, and Lyndon Johnson is BJ's corrupt and scheming Sherriff Lobo. It is not as if McKinley and Johnson were perfect or even necessarily admirable men, but they were human beings who, like Homer Simpson, possessed a full range of foibles and noble characteristics. The same is true of American foreign policy writ large. The range of American international relations over time should reflect the crass, naïve, ambitious, and good motivations behind policy crafted by people.
In writing, I always keep "The Homer Doctrine" in mind. Inspired by The Simpsons, the Doctrine simply explains that even regrettable and downright bad episodes in American history are not products of a scheming Montgomery Burns-like imperialist, but are usually a result of Homer-esque laziness, naïveté, and bumbling good intentions. Similar to individual Simpsons' episodes, the Homer Doctrine allows for very bad endings but also some happier conclusions. Mostly, it reminds me that foreign policy is a reflection of real life, and that historical interpretations of human actions and decisions should bear more resemblance to Homer's befuddled attempts at parenting than J.R. Ewing's machinations on Dallas.
Sandwiched between the civil war and the 20th century's dawn, the Spanish-American War reflects the Homer Doctrine's necessity. When historians write about it, many see it as a case of big power imperialism motivated by an imperialist United States. While the war had imperial results, its roots are much more muddled and Homer-esque than history books allow.
In the latter decades of the late 19th century, Cuba became embroiled in a bloody civil war where rebels fought to oust their Spanish overlords. Trying to maintain the last vestige of an empire, Spain separated civilians from rebels by moving peasants into "strategic hamlets." Endemic war caused food shortages, malnutrition, disease and resulted in thousands of deaths and an emergent humanitarian nightmare.
Aghast at the news from Cuba, middle-class Americans organized and sent foodstuffs, supplies, and the Red Cross's Clara Barton to the island. Even with supplies and the Red Cross, the civil war made Barton's humanitarian task all but impossible. By the mid-1890s, middle-class Americans of all political stripes called for a "humanitarian intervention."
As the movement for American intervention gained steam, William McKinley entered the White House. At first glance, the Civil-War-vet-cum-politician could hardly have been more unlike Homer Simpson. Pious, serious, reserved, and revered by those closest to him, McKinley was a Rock of Gibraltar-a president John Wayne could have admired.
McKinley eventually opted for war, but he is not the Montgomery Burns many historians imagine. Like the 20th episode of the Simpsons 16th season, "Home Away from Homer," in which Homer accidentally drives Ned Flanders from Springfield by betraying his own principles and their friendship, McKinley lost control of events once war commenced. Indeed, the lure of empire, geopolitical realities, and the president's racism and blindness to Filipino and Cuban nationalism resulted in America's temporary acquisition of an overseas empire.
Whether it is Ned Flanders, Cuba, or Afghanistan, the "Homer Doctrine" remains instructive. American foreign policymakers, from presidents to national security staffers, are guided by a complex mixture of idealism, naiveté, selfishness, and sometimes a zeal for donuts and Duff beer.
Jeff Bloodworth is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a professor of history at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.