Adam Ash

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Deep Thoughts: imperial USA, a little history

Manifest Destiny: American Imperial Myth, Then & Now – by Michael Fitzgerald

There is a thread in American history that runs through Indian Removal, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Asian Rimland Wars, right on into the current conflict in Iraq. These adventures constitute a "pattern of racism and imperialism that began with the first Indian war in Virginia in 1622," writes historian James Loewen.[1]

History shows clearly that whenever Americans want something another nation has--such as land or oil or other resources--we are able to justify taking it. The usual contrivance is the age-old theory that non-white peoples are unable to govern themselves, so we must heed our "divine mission" to liberate them from their own ignorance and corruption, bringing our gifts of freedom, democracy and Christianity--whether they want them or not.

The difficult part is getting the American public to go along with these adventures. Sometimes as a justification we employ appeals to national security. In the case of Iraq, we’ve seen two sets of rationales: one official, the other unspoken. The official one, which has long since been discredited, was the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The unofficial and unspoken ones are racism and religious chauvinism ("Nuke 'em all").
When all three elements are present, you have something for everybody. This country has not seen such an explosive mixture of racism, religious chauvinism and naked greed since the war against Mexico in 1846.

Foundation myths
The conceit that we have a special mission from God to remake the world in our image is called American exceptionalism, but there is nothing exceptional about it. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Medeans, Persians, Egyptians, Israelites and Romans all espoused foundation myths designating themselves the "chosen people" of God.
Scottish economist C.H. Douglas wrote in 1943 that the chosen-race myth "is the key myth of history… in it, we can find an almost complete explanation of the world’s insanity."[2]

A foundation myth provides polyglot cultures a sense of kinship, a common if manufactured heritage. The Romans recognized the individual’s bond to the group could become a more powerful force than his or her own survival. What did the Romans think was the foundation of existence? What would they fight and die for?
"There are three things … we are willing to die for: God, country and family," Michelle Jones, command sergeant-major, U.S. Army Reserves, told an Army-base newspaper.[3]

It works on all sides. Suicide bombers believe they are dying for the glory of Allah.

Superiority means never having to say you’re sorry
Racist views were successfully exploited by the Franks, who led the Crusades in 1097. The Franks claimed descent from the "lost tribe" of Benjamites, driven out of Palestine by the Israelites. They thereby claimed the throne of David, and, through this claim, the Merovingian dynasty developed its "divine right" to rule.[4]
Having God on your side on every issue means you can never be wrong. U.S. leaders have often become infected with infallibility. Campaigning for a comeback in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt piled it on: "We battle for the Lord," he thundered. "[W]e stand at Armageddon."[5]

During the Cold War, Senator Lyndon Johnson proclaimed: "We shall, we must, with the guidance of God, embark on this course to redeem humanity… and with the righteous strength which centuries of freedom under God have given us, we cannot fail." [6]

Capitalism, Calvinism and Chauvinism
It’s no coincidence that capitalism and Protestantism ascended simultaneously. Jean Calvin theologically discredited the feudal system in 1541, paving the way for an upwardly mobile merchant class to replace the landed aristocracy. The genius of Calvin, observed sociologist Max Weber in 1904, was the creation of a new concept of God.[7] Prior to this crucial paradigm shift, surplus wealth--i.e., capital--was expected to be donated to the Church.
Essentially, Calvinism was a variation of the chosen-race myth. Its key element was a spiritual "elect" whose elevated position is preordained. The only way one can know if he or she is among the Elect is by his or her level of worldly success[8]-- in other words, if you’re rich, it’s because God loves you.

The Puritans of Plymouth Bay were staunch Calvinists and their legacy remains powerful. "American culture, in particular, is thoroughly Calvinist… [A]t the heart of the way Americans think and act, you’ll find this fierce and imposing reformer [Calvin]."[9]

The City on the Hill
Puritan leader John Winthrop, borrowing from the New Testament,[10] came up with one of the most enduring images in American myth: The City on the Hill. Aboard the Arbella , Winthrop exhorted his fellow travelers: "We are entered into a covenant with [God] … we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us..."[11] This 1630 speech marks the birth of American exceptionalism: Puritans will build a new nation, destined to become the light of the world.

Winthrop’s trope became part of the national fabric. It has been "interwoven throughout our history and our foreign policy," writes Duke University professor Gerald Wilson.[12] Some scholars insist every presidential candidate must allude to it or face rejection.[13] The City on the Hill image resurfaces in speeches by John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.[14] Reagan found it a surefire crowd pleaser. "I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life," he said in his farewell address.[15]

Tale of Two Cities
There are two schools of thought as to how the City on the Hill trope should be deployed. The America-as-example model purports that as a "Christian nation" we should be a model of freedom, democracy and piety, and lead the world through example. The later, activist interpretation insists America has the right--no, the duty--to "save" the world through intervention, with force if necessary. This is the America-as-instrument model; it was conceived during the Manifest Destiny era and later developed by expansionists such as William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Some Christians take issue with the instrumental position. Francis Bremer, professor of history at Millerton University and author of John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father , thinks Winthop would be "very disturbed" at the spin instrumentalists gave to his expression. Most upsetting, he said, is the way the idea has been taken from its original intent of America as an example to "America carrying its values into other countries."[16]

Americans feel obliged to "act on the belief that our system is … the best way for other people to live [and] we are going to bring it to them whether they want it or not," writes First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes.[17]
This contrivance ushered in a new era of interventionism. President Woodrow Wilson ran amok with it. Despite campaign promises to keep the country out of war, Wilson was one of the most warlike presidents ever. He sponsored several interventions in Mexico ("I am going to teach [them] to elect good men!"),[18] along with others in China, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, the Phillipines, Yugoslavia and even the U.S.S.R.

Major General Smedley Butler was one of Wilson’s most capable strongmen. Butler stuck a pin in Wilsonian "idealism" in a 1940 speech:

I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…. I could have given Al Capone a few hints….. I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys…. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street…. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers…. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."[19]

The instrumental model was taken even further during the Cold War and led to all-out wars in Korea and Indochina and interventions in Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere.

Manifest Destiny and Teutonic Supremacy
Instrumentalism, racism and greed became inextricably bound. "A search for personal and national wealth was put in terms of world progress, under the leadership of a supreme race," writes historian Reginald Horsman[20]
"Indian removal"--what today would be called ethnic cleansing--was unofficial federal policy during the Monroe presidency. Upon his election, General Andrew Jackson, having earned fame as an Indian fighter, made it official. Jackson’s policies became the model for Hitler’s "final solution."[21]

As a slogan, "Indian removal" was a bit blunt. "Manifest destiny" had a more Orwellian snap. The term was coined in 1845 by Democratic Review editor John L. O’Sullivan, an Irish-Catholic.[22] O’Sullivan intended the phrase to mean the flowering of democracy, not Anglo-Saxonism. Ironically, Manifest Destiny became a metonym--and a justification--for Anglo-Saxon domination. O’Sullivan, perhaps unwittingly, spoke to the Calvinist mindset: The word "destiny" alluded to predestination. "Manifest" hinted at the materialization of wealth reserved for the Elect. Manifest Destiny was nothing more than "a cluster of flimsy rationalizations for naked greed," writes historian George Tindall.[23]

It was a sentiment Americans inherited from their British forebears. "[T]he idea that England and Israel are intimately connected goes back at least to the 17th century. The extreme English Puritans believed they were God’s chosen people…."[23] Like the Franks, the "Anglo-Israelites" insisted they were descended from the "lost" tribes of Israel. They further asserted that the Jews are "cursed" for not accepting Jesus and that England was now the "true" Israel.[24] Linguists, however, found no connection between English and any Semitic language.[25]

From 1812 to 1840, a wave of German immigration washed over the U.S. Abandoning strict Anglo-Saxonism, Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Caleb Cushing, U.S. Commissioner to China and later U.S. Attorney General, proposed a new "American race"--a hybrid of English, French, German, Scots and Irish. The myth became more inclusive, but its effect remained unaltered: "In America’s relentless expansion," Cushing proclaimed, "men, nations, races, may, must, will perish before us. That is inevitable."[26]

Manifest Destiny simply meant Teutonic supremacy. "God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for 1,000 years for nothing," Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge bellowed. "He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world."[27]

Germany’s Answer to Manifest Destiny
At that time, a united Germany was still struggling to be born. German nationalists admired the effectiveness of Anglo-Saxon foundation myth. They could even have claimed it as their own--the Angles and Saxons were both from German regions. Pan-Germanic theories of racial superiority became the rage in European scientific circles,[28] and scientific principles were perverted to fit the racist agenda.

British economist Thomas Malthus’s 1798 theory that world population growth would outstrip food supply spread alarm among Teutonic supremacists. Charles Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest was distorted to suggest that "inferior" peoples deserved extinction. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton proposed the science of eugenics. Malthus and Galton had only proposed controlling population growth, but later proponents of the "master race" would interpret this to justify mass murder and genocide.[29]

A transatlantic colloquy of supremacist ideas took flight. German geographer Friedrich Ratzel visited the U.S. in the 1890s. Ratzel’s Politische Geographie lent scientific credence to the concept of lebensraum ("living space"). This merely echoed an 1846 statement by U.S. editor and poet William Simms: "[T]he race must have expansion."[30]
In Europe, theories of Teutonic racial superiority that had been around for hundreds of years reached critical mass. Adolph Hitler borrowed liberally from the American model. Many methods of Hitler’s Final Solution were "inspired by the U.S. government’s subjugation of the American Indian…. He often praised the efficiency of America’s extermination of the [Indians]." Hitler referred to Slavic peoples as "redskins."[31]

Again, racism became a tool of greed. Anyone in Hitler’s way or anyone who had resources he needed was fair game. Nazis were to show no mercy to subhumans, and should "delight in killing and displacing them and stealing their property…"[32]

During the Nuremberg trials, Hitler’s No. 2 man, Hermann Goering, insisted Nazi policy had been identical to U.S policy toward Native Americans.33 But the holocaust in the Americas outdid the Nazis’ Final Solution many times over: "The destruction of the Indians in the Americas was far and away the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world," writes historian David E. Stannard.34 Stannard estimates about 12 million Native Americans died as a result of ethnic cleansing in the U.S. and Canada; 68 to 90 million died in the entire western hemisphere.[35]

Manifest Mercantilism
As Benton predicted, Manifest Destiny marched westward and kept going. First came Texas in 1845, then New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California in 1846, and Oregon in 1848. But it would not stop at the Pacific. Hawaii was taken in 1898, and soon, Guam, Samoa and the Philippines would be added--a nearly straight line to the Orient.

China was the crown jewel in Benton’s plan. The Columbia River valley would become the granary of Asia, he said. From there, Benton foresaw a route to India. This trade would move through his hometown of St. Louis, "the gateway to the West."[36] Benton was indeed a visionary: in 1846--52 years before it came to pass--Benton proposed war with Spain in order to seize the Philippines as a base for Asian operations.[37]

In 1902, British economist John A. Hobson spotted what was happening: In order to cut costs and boost profits, the big industrialists cut back on labor--machinery was a big boon to that end--but they laid off too many people. As a result, U.S. businesses destroyed each other’s customer bases and created recessions. Few workers had money to buy anything. So, in order to keep the goods moving, manufacturers shipped them overseas. In short, U.S. industrialists exported their under-consumption problem.[38] Hobson predicted military force would be necessary to keep foreign markets open.

Garnering foreign markets for U.S. overproduction became a prime objective of foreign policy. Whenever markets for American goods--even potential markets--are threatened, U.S. reaction is predictably fierce. Commercial considerations were at the forefront of both world wars: Both were fought primarily to keep foreign markets open for business.

Shortly after World War I, Benton’s dream came true: China was brought into the American sphere with help from the corrupt Kuomintang government. But in 1931, Japan shut us out: It closed not only China, but the Philippines and Korea, to U.S. trade.

The U.S. could not afford to lose Europe--its largest market--to either Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R.[39] After WWII, it seemed the Soviets would shut the West out of crucial markets in central and eastern Europe. Neo-liberals wanted an "open door" to as many markets as possible and were losing ground. The Cold War was intended to "contain," if not "roll back," this exclusion.[40]

Russians were a slightly easier propaganda target than Germans. Since they were white, the race card wouldn’t work. Wilson’s tepid fighting-for-democracy heuristically was revived, but wasn’t particularly effective. Finally, U.S. propagandists hit on the religious justification: communists are atheists! In 1954, the phrase "under God"--a dig at "godless communists"--was quickly added to the Pledge of Allegiance.[41]

Race wars
American business leaders had long dreamed of a wide-open Asian market for their goods--along with the prospect of cheap labor. "Asia is our Eldorado," said Charles Denby, former minister to China, in 1899. "Here are hundreds of millions of the human race to be civilized [and] Christianized…."[42]

Even after Japan’s defeat in 1945 and the re-establishment of U.S. dominance in the Philippines, there were problems: In 1949, a communist revolution in China took control. The door to Western trade was again closed.

At the same time, a nationalist movement led by communists threatened to lose Vietnam as a French neocolony. President Dwight Eisenhower’s "domino theory" delineated U.S. fears: The Philippines might go next; perhaps Japan and the entire Pacific Rim would fall into the "communist orbit." The U.S. would be denied the area’s strategic raw materials: oil and rubber. This could seriously damage the U.S economy and "our way of life." Ultimately, the U.S. wasted $205 billion and slaughtered more than three million Vietnamese,[43] plus 150,000 Laotians and Cambodians, trying to keep Southeast Asia in the U.S. orbit.

Racial justifications made it easier. Asians were fair game. "We had to dehumanize our victims before we did the things we did," writes Stan Goff, former U.S. Special Forces master sergeant in Vietnam. "We knew deep down what we were doing was wrong. So they became dinks or gooks--just like Iraqis are now being transformed into ‘rag-heads’" [44]

Today we have all three elements of Manifest Destiny in play: racism, religious chauvinism and greed. Since 9/11, the U.S. has found another enemy that is easily demonized. The feeding frenzy should be as easy to stir as it was during the Mexican-American War. The average yahoo scarcely knows the difference between Iraqis, Iranians and Indonesians. "Nuke ‘em all," he rants --a predictable reaction when the enemy is both dark-skinned and non-Christian, not to mention sitting on our oil.

White man’s burden
One of the favorite tenets of Manifest Destiny asserts subhumans are not fit to govern themselves; therefore, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are doing them a favor by ruling them. Currently we are bringing democracy and civilization to the middle east--an area that was civilized when Europeans were still living in caves.

This is the arrogance of paternalism. "Can President Bush… do better with Muslims [in teaching them to elect ‘good men’] than Wilson did with Latin Americans? It seems unlikely, since neither seems ready to drop the didactic tone, with its attendant belief that the native population in question is made up not of men and women, but of ignorant children," writes New York Observer columnist Caleb Carr.[45]

Clearer than truth
The U.S., being founded on anti-monarchical and anti-imperialist ideals, is constrained by its own foundation myth. Expansionism and foreign adventures must be couched in language that obscures the real objective. "Duplicity in foreign affairs has sometimes served the national interest…. The assumption that the public won’t understand… has long made it tempting for both Democratic and Republican administrations to make their arguments ‘clearer than the truth.’"[46]

Expansionism can only be presented to the U.S. public with one or more of the following "official" justifications:
-national security: there must be some threat, real or manufactured;[47]
-humanitarianism: we have a moral responsibility to "liberate" oppressed peoples from ruthless dictators or, in the case of civil wars, each other;
-idealism: it is our responsibility to protect democracy and/or freedom for the rest of the world.
Tacit elements of racism, religious chauvinism and greed operate below the surface.

Away with wretched cant
No U.S. leader would openly declare, "We’re going in there because there is something we want." But there have been exceptions. One was Representative William Duer of New York. During the furor leading up to the Mexican-American War, Duer thundered, "If you wish this plunder, this dismemberment of a sister republic, let us stand forth like conquerors and plainly declare our purposes…. Away with mawkish morality, with this desecration of religion, with this cant about Manifest Destiny, a divine mission, a warrant from the Most High, to civilize, Christianize and democratize our sister republic at the mouth of a cannon!"[48]

Racism and religious chauvinism are the primary components of Manifest Destiny, but they obscure the true objective: plunder.[49] Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant who became Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s secretary of the treasury, saw racist rhetoric as a smokescreen for greed: "The allegations of superiority of race and destiny… are but pretenses under which to disguise ambition [and] cupidity…"[50]

The point was put even plainer by George Orwell. In Burmese Days, a character very much like Orwell himself--who was once a British imperial policeman in Burma--asks a comrade: "How can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal?"[51]

1. Loewen, James A. Lies My Teacher Told Me . New York: Touchstone Books, 1995. p. 248.
2. Douglas, C.H., Programme For The Third World War . Liverpool: K.R.P. Publications, no date listed. Excerpted in Butler, Eric D. "History Shaped by Myths."
3. Nisbet, Carol. "Helmly forecasts change." Fort Dix Post.
4. Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms:450-751 . London: Longman Group, 1994. p. 177
5. Quoted in, Cobb, William W., Jr. The American Foundation Myth in Vietnam: Reigning Paradigms and Raining Bombs . Lanham, Md.: University Press of America,1998. p 22.
6. Hogan, Michael J. Cross of Iron. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998. p. 319
7. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958 (originally published 1904-1905), p. 2-7.
8. Bjelajac, David. American Art: A Cultural History . New York: Harry M. Abrams, 2001. p. 63.
9. Hooker, Richard. "Discovery and Reformation: John Calvin." Washington State University.
10. King James Bible, New Testament. From Jesus’s "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5:14): "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."
11. Winston, Kimberly. "From Theological Tenet to Political
Password." BeliefNet.
12. Winston.
13. Winston.
14. Winston.
15 "President Reagan Quotes: In His Own Words."
16. Bremer, Francis. Quoted in Winston.
17. Haynes, Charles. Quoted in Winston.
18. Smith, Peter. Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations . Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 51
19. Federation of American Scientists. "Smedley Butler on Interventionism."
20. Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism . Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1981. p. 247.
21 Toland, John. Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography . Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. p. 802.
22. Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City . New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Excerpts from
23. Tindall, George. America: A Narrative History . New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1992. p. 527.
24. Kossy, Donna. "The Anglo-Israelites."
25. Williams, David. "British Israelism: an expose." 15 December,1998.
26. Horsman, p. 44.
27. Horsman, p. 253.
28 Loewen, 254.
29. Benes, Kveta. "From Indo-Germans to Aryans: Comparative-Historical Philology and the Racialization of Salvationist National Narrative, 1806-30." Harvard University seminar. 4 May, 2001.
30. Sereny, Gitta. Into the Darkness: From Mercy Killings to Mass Murder . London: Andre Deutsch. 1974. p. 50.
31. Horsman, p. 167.
32. Joseph. Excerpt from: .
33. Joseph.
34. Stannard, David. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World . Oxford, England: Oxford Press, 1993. p. x.
35. Stannard, David. E-mail correspondence with author.
23 March, 2004.
36. Horsman, pp. 90-91.
37. Horsman, p. 91.
38. Cashman, Greg. What Causes War . Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1993. p. 130.
39. McCormick, Thomas J. America’s Half-Century . Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. p. 53.
40. McCormick, p. 53.
41. Willing, Richard. "High court grills Pledge plaintiff." USA Today . 25 March, 2004.
42. Iriye, A. From Nationalism to Internationalism , p. 164.
43. McNamara, Robert. In Morris, Errol. The Fog of War . Sony Pictures Classics, 2003.
44. Goff, Stan. "Hold on to Your Humanity." International Socialist Review . January, 2004.
45. Carr, Caleb. "Woodrow Wilson Redux?" New York Observer , 15 April, 2003.
46. Schwartz, Benjamin. "Clearer Than the Truth." Atlantic Monthly . April, 2004.
47. MacIsaac, Stephen. Personal interview with author. Jacksonville University. May, 2003.
48. U.S. Congressional Record . Quoted in Horsman, p. 258.
49. Allen, Susan, M.B.A, C.P.A. Personal interview with author.
10 April, 2004.
50. Quoted in Horsman, p. 271.
51. Orwell, George. Burmese Days . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1934. p. 40.

(Michael Fitzgerald is a journalist, currently a correspondent for the Jacksonville Business Journal and a contributing writer and book reviewer for The Humanist . He’s written for Folio Weekly in Jacksonville, FL and is a former columnist for Orlando’s JAM magazine and Boston-based The Musicians Trade Journal . He lives in Jacksonville, FL)


At 4/30/2006 4:05 PM, Blogger zorathruster said...

Maybe there is another set of possibilities that closer align with US stated policy objectives:

1. We hoped that there was enough push in the post Desert Storm Iraq that would unseat Hussain and form a democracy without having to spend US forces and treasure.

2. Once that didn't happen, the long stated US objective of democracy in the middle east was pursued.

3. Since the US public was unwilling (found from poll studies and focus groups) to fund an Iraq war on the spreading democracy justification, they justified the war using "Weapons of mass destruction and involvement in 9-11". It was justified to the world under the auspices of the UN sanctions installed post Desert Storm.

4. Now that the US is involved we will pursue the long range objective to democratize the Iraq government and then leave.


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