The Chinese Cyberattacks: What Andrew Jackson Would Say--And What He Would Do

According to a Pentagon report, the United States defense industry has been infiltrated by Chinese hackers and vital national security information has been stolen. This has just been the latest and largest incident in a long line of Chinese violations of US national sovereignty and betrayals of American trust. Andrew Jackson, one of this country’s greatest presidents, would have seen China’s latest attack as a direct affront to American honor, requiring immediate and decisive action.

The New York Times reported that the Obama administration neither identified the source of the attack nor castigated the Chinese government for these acts of espionage. Instead, the current administration only hinted at the origin of the attack, noting that the “digital addresses” of the hackers “could be traced to the neighborhood in Shanghai that is headquarters to the Chinese military’s cybercommand.”

Andrew Jackson reacted very differently when faced with a similar crisis during his tenure as chief executive.

Jackson was a Tennessee lawyer, planter, soldier, and statesman who first experienced war and international conflict as young teenager in his home state of South Carolina. Thirteen-year-old Jackson fought in the American Revolution as a scout and was captured by the British. While imprisoned, the young Jackson received a scar on his face from a British officer’s sword after refusing to clean the Brit’s boots. He would carry the scar for the rest of his life, a constant reminder that he preferred dying on his feet to living on his knees.

Jackson was orphaned as well as scarred during the Revolution and carried a lifelong hatred of the British. Consequently, he grew fond of France due to their aid and close relationship with the United States during that war. These prejudices would become significant when Jackson reached the presidency.

“Old Hickory,” as Jackson was often called, earned his nickname battling the Creek Indians and British in the War of 1812. Jackson, sick with a number of maladies--including a recent bullet wound as a result of a brutal frontier brawl--led his contingent of militiamen through some of the toughest terrain in the undeveloped South. During his campaign, Jackson defeated Creek, Spanish and finally British forces in America’s newly-acquired territory from the Louisiana Purchase. His victory at the Battle of New Orleans, sadly diminished and misunderstood today, was one of the most stunning, improbable and critical victories in American military history. Jackson’s triumph over America’s arch-nemesis made him a national hero and a contender for higher office.

Unlike his opponent in the 1824 and 1828 presidential elections, John Quincy Adams, Jackson had virtually no experience in foreign courts and high national diplomacy; he had been a complete outsider in Washington D.C. during his brief experiences as a Tennessee Senator. Instead, Jackson learned about the art of negotiation from his harsh experiences in military life and the ruthless frontier, where he frequently dealt with belligerent tribes, brutish frontier characters, and foreign powers trying to gain a stronger foothold in the New World. Jackson also drew upon his experience with “affairs of honor”; he killed a man in a duel for insulting his beloved wife and personally brought a vicious criminal to justice, who only surrendered because Jackson had “shoot in his eyes.” Eventually, even world leaders would face the “shoot in his eyes,” and Jackson learned to use his reputation to his advantage in diplomacy. When Jackson finally defeated Adams in the election of 1828, most D.C. insiders thought that he was merely an ignorant backwoodsman who would lead the country to ruin and folly, but they would prove to be gravely mistaken.

As president, Jackson faced a number of foreign policy crises, the most instructive to our modern dilemma was his dealings with the great European powers in his day, England and France. Though rapidly growing, the United States did not measure up to England and France in terms of absolute power. Jackson’s administration was thrown into turmoil due to a showdown over French spoliation claim, dating back several decades, in which French ships had robbed Americans on the high seas.

During his time as secretary of state and president, experienced diplomat John Quincy Adams had only accomplished an agreement to disagree with the French. Trade between the US and France remained mostly favorable to France, and no progress had been made in paying the Americans that had been robbed. War was avoided, but little else was accomplished and most Americans thought getting concessions from French to be impossible. Adams was a good diplomat and a knowledgeable statesman, but he had failed to achieve his foreign policy vision while in office. But Jackson cared little about French power and even less about the opinions of the DC Establishment.

Jackson’s administration worked out a deal with France, lowering tariffs on wine and other products in exchange for payment regarding the spoliation claims. The tariffs were lowered, but the French, seeing the US as a second-rate power, failed to make good on their side of the bargain and pay up. Jackson was livid.

The great Jacksonian historian Robert Remini wrote of Jackson’s reaction, “Jackson was thunderstruck. He could not imagine a more stunning defeat, nor a more studied insult. The French had administered a savage blow. And they should have known that Andrew Jackson was not a man to be taken lightly.”

Though most of the world expected the United States to roll over for France--including most of his own cabinet--Jackson would not allow such an insult to American honor to go unchallenged. Although Jackson had always favored France, his feelings ultimately followed American interests alone. He immediately began to prepare the coastal defenses for war, called upon Congress to appropriate money for the fight, and considered unleashing America’s small but potent navy on French ships in order to take back what France “owed” the American people.

Jackson said in his message to Congress:

It is my conviction that the United States ought to insist on a prompt execution of the treaty, and in the case it be refused or longer delayed take redress into their own hands. After a delay on the part of France for a quarter of a century in acknowledging these claims by treaty, it is not to be tolerated that another quarter of a century is to be wasted in negotiating about the payment.

Congress was shocked, and French leaders demanded an immediate apology.

Just as he had as a young boy refusing to clean the boots of a British officer, Jackson held his ground. Jackson tersely responded to the French in the Washington Globe, “France will get no apology.”

The American people loved that their president would bow before no one and were ready to fight for their nation’s honor. Jackson was one of them, a symbol of the strength, honor, self-respect, and self-confidence that Americans at that time had in spades.

French leaders, who already viewed Jackson as a militant, bloodthirsty barbarian, realized that a war with Jackson and the Americans would cost them dearly. They feared not only the expense of war, but the consequent inevitable shift of American relations towards alliance with their great rival, Great Britain. The French caved and paid; Jackson’s foreign policy victory was complete.

By asserting the United States as an independent nation and not a pawn of France, Jackson opened up the first glimpse of the “special relationship” between the US and Great Britain. The British no longer saw the US as a nation powerless to respond to their insults. Instead, they saw a potential ally, a rising nation capable of standing up to mighty France. Jackson overcame his personal prejudice against the British and paved the way for more amicable relations between the two countries. Following up on Jackson’s successes, his successor Martin Van Buren achieved a goal that had eluded Americans for a quarter of a century: the opening of trade to the British West Indies, leading to enormous economic benefits for both countries.

Jackson’s foreign policy was simple but effective. First, he believed strongly in the principle of “peace through strength,” and nearly tripled the navy’s budget. He said in his farewell speech, “We shall more certainly preserve the peace when it is well understood that we are prepared for war.” A firm believer in free trade, Jackson understood that a powerful navy was the best way to protect trade and prevent the violation of American rights overseas. He learned from the diplomatic naiveté of the political idol of his youth, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that the reward of free trade alone was enough to prevent war and that a powerful blue water navy was unnecessary. The U.S. paid dearly for these utopian ideas and independence was almost entirely lost in the War of 1812. American weakness brought economic ruin, war, and the near-extinction of the American experiment.  

The Obama administration has allowed the mighty U.S. navy to shrink to its lowest levels in a century, and the Chinese have become increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea. Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) said of China’s actions in the South China Sea, “Due to China's growing power in the region, by taking no position Washington has by default become an enabler of China's ever more aggressive acts.”  Jackson would have immediately shifted spending priorities to a build-up of combat ships, and after the latest hacking incident, probably would have deployed a large number of ships in the South China Sea as a warning. He certainly wouldn’t have vacillated in his message to the American people and Chinese government: the US will no longer accept such belligerence.

Second, Jackson understood the value of American independence in relation to other countries. Jackson was the only American president to entirely eliminate the national debt, a feat accomplished in 1836. He would have been appalled by American reliance on borrowed money from China, a nation that sees the US as its chief rival and feels like it can steal our military secrets with impunity.

Jackson supported the manufacturing of military material in the United States, and though he was committed to free trade, supported protective tariffs for industries that he considered vital for national defense. The US economy is strong enough these days to support military industries without putting up trade barriers; but the government must make a concerted effort to separate the defense industry from belligerent nations like China.

And lastly, above all else, Jackson would not have allowed a violation of American sovereignty and honor to happen without a harsh response, and he inspired enough fear and respect from his opponents to get what he demanded. Opponents thought Jackson was a crazy, bloodthirsty maniac, and that usually got them to the bargaining table a whole lot faster than if they thought he was seen as a man of sound reasoning and good judgment. Jackson understood this and used his reputation to good effect; in other words, he was crazy like a fox.

The best message to send to China would be to let them know that they are ripping Americans off with currency manipulation and theft of intellectual property rights, and that the US will no longer allow it, suggesting a trade war or more. Mitt Romney used a similar message in his campaign, which the China Daily called “worrying” and “pugnacious." The mainstream media considered this to impolite "China bashing," but Americans were pleased that some leaders were finally saying what they were thinking and getting “pugnacious." The key is not to execute a trade war--a war China knows will be more damaging to it than to the U.S.--but to have America’s enemies believe our president is willing to consider any option to preserve U.S. sovereignty and honor.

Thomas Jefferson allegedly said to Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster in 1824:

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President....His passions are terrible....When I was President of the Senate he was a Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. His passions are no doubt cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

Jackson turned out to be a much better president than Jefferson, in large part because his friends and enemies thought he was a “dangerous man." Jackson’s strength as a leader, coupled with the self-confidence of the American people, forced a much greater power to back down. Today, in regards to China, more than anything else, Americans need a leader with “shoot in his eyes."


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