You may have noticed that our military missions in the Middle East and elsewhere have increasingly become identified as promoting “nation building.” This may come as a surprise to a lot of people as it did to me when I was involved in an unusual series of events.

I had six years of experience as a Navy flier during World War II and 14 as a reserve research scientist in the United States Air Force; but it was in Berlin at a farewell dinner for me during the 1960s that the idea the United States military as a nation-builder was brought to my attention.

I had been in Europe for several years with ITT, responsible to work with NATO to design and install a tropospheric scatter communications system extending from Norway through Europe to Turkey. Since ITT had communications companies in most NATO countries I had worked with closely with all of them. It had been a pleasant experience.

This was at the time that Alaska and Hawaii had voted to become our 49th and 50th states. Representatives of NATO and the ITT companies treated me to a farewell dinner and at the end a number of toasts were proposed. Much to my surprise a member of the West German delegation proposed “Here is to the possibility that West Germany may become the 51st State of America.” Many people seemed to voice approval. Later I had an opportunity to express my surprise to his toast and the enthusiasm by which it was accepted.

The proposer said that after two World Wars it would be a long time until Europeans would feel comfortable with a united Germany; but as a part of Churchill’s “Atlantic Community,” things would be easier.

Then he told me that after World War II when Italians had a referendum to decide whether they should continue with a king, a substantial number wrote in their desire to become a state of the United States.

Later I related this discussion to Senator Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He confirmed the desires of the Italians and pointed out that America was anxious not to set any example that might justify the claims to parts of Eastern Europe by the Russians.

Senator Fulbright went on to remind me that throughout American history nation-building had always been one of our major activities, and that we have had both successes and a lot of failures.

Fulbright reminded me that the ineffective Articles of Confederation was incapable to effectively handle Shay’s Rebellion against confiscatory taxation — and the Constitutional Convention reinvented an entirely new nation that was composed of states that were ingredients of the nation.

Then we had the lengthy period of reconstruction following the Civil war, the long occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish American War, the successful occupations of Germany and Japan following the Second World War, and later the failures in Vietnam and now the continuing effort in the Middle East.

Fulbright noted that most efforts in nation-building appeared to have been a continued series of compromises. Considering that what we have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq has been attempted many times before. Remember that reconstruction of the South and occupation of the Philippines took more than half a century to give blacks equal rights and the Philippines their autonomy.

Coming forward to the present — President Obama appears to have taken a refreshing approach to limited warfare: in our involvement in Libya the President has limited American military engagement and let NATO allies take the lead in supporting the rebels.

This policy relies on collective, rather than unilateral, action; on surgical strikes or deployment of quantities of troops. The Obama approach to nation building appears to be close to what FDR anticipated America’s efforts in NATO should be applied. It seems to be a good correction.

Dr. Lloyd V. Stover has been involved in environmental and national security matters during most of the past century. He can be reached via email at ursine005@gmail.com.