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Main | III. Later Imperialism and Early Exceptionalism »

IV. The Latter Stages of American Imperialism and Early American Exceptionalism

The American West, American Imperialism, and American Exceptionalism

            By the time of the American Revolution, American colonists were practically finished in their pacification of the eastern Indian tribes and of the acquisition of the lands previously owned by those Indians. Many of the eastern Indians by then had been driven west, either prior to our major westward expansion or as a direct or indirect policy resulting from our inexorable push ever-to-the-west.


            There is a town in Ohio whose name is Delaware. When it was founded, Delaware, Ohio knew it was not in Delaware. Rather it was named after the Delaware tribe of Indians, who originated along the Delaware River. But the fact that Delaware, Ohio has the name it has suggests that the Delawares were pushed as far west as Ohio before there was a United States of America. And the likelihood that few Americans even know there was an Indian tribe who called themselves the Delawares is indicative of what happened to many of the tribes; they just completely disappeared off the geographic and linguistic map.


            There is a town in Illinois named Ottawa. The Ottawas were an Indian tribe who originally lived in what became eastern Ontario, western Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio. So how did Ottawa, Illinois get its name? The Ottawas were forced to go that far west and beyond by the early 1800s.


            There is a town near Kansas City, Kansas, called Shawnee Mission. It got that name because the Methodist Church established a school there to educate Shawnee Indians who were also driven from their ancestral lands in Ohio by the early 1800s.


            After the Revolution, there was no standing national Army, and most people did not want one. Each state was to have its own militia, or what in recent times we would call the National Guard. And if the nation-state of the United States of America ever needed an army, it was to be a militia per se, and not an official permanent military force. It was a primary intent of the framers of the United States Constitution to prevent a national army from ever waging an armed conflict against the citizenry or against the states. Because of what had happened in Europe in previous times, many of the signers of the Constitution were leery of a strong central government. If citizens ever needed to be put down by armed conflict, it was the state militias which would be empowered to keep the peace, not a federal army. Therefore the Second Amendment to the Constitution said the following: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”


            What, very precisely, does the Second Amendment mean? From the mid-nineteenth century up until fairly late in the twentieth century, it seems to have been interpreted to mean that either the United States or the individual states had a right to defend themselves against enemies foreign or domestic. Initially, almost no one thought that the Constitution was meant to guarantee every individual American the right to own guns. Guns were thought to be necessary for state or national defense, not for personal defense. Thus if guns were needed to quell any insurrection of any sort, “the people” needed to have guns.


            Perhaps because of that rather nebulous, ill-defined and libertarian philosophy, guns became an important part of American culture in a way which has characterized no European nation-state or culture to this day. A much higher percentage of Americans own firearms than the citizenry of just about any other country in the world, with the exception of a very few states such as Switzerland, where most males from ages twenty to sixty are required to keep rifles in their homes for the defense of the nation, should it ever be attacked.    


            In colonial and post-Revolutionary times, relatively few Americans possessed guns, because they were relatively expensive. But enough people had enough guns to be able to overwhelm Indian tribes in the relentless American march to the West. Besides, within a century of the first whites arriving in what became the USA, whites far outnumbered Indians east of the Mississippi. Rifles proved to be far more effective weapons against bows and arrows than bows and arrows were against rifles, and so the Indians were rather readily subdued. It is impossible to quantify, but undoubtedly the American self-identification with guns from our nation’s birth was a major factor in the evolution of America as an imperialistic power. Guns in the hands of many American citizens made America more willing to wage armed conflict to expand our national influence than was true for most other nationalities.


            As imperialistic as America became, however, the American entry into World War I, belated as it may have been, was definitely not an example of American imperialism or aggression. After all, we were the last of the great powers of the second decade of the twentieth century to take up arms in the great struggle. Nor was our entry into World War II (again, belatedly) exemplary of American imperialism.


            By the middle of World War II, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, had concluded that the Soviet Union would be the world’s enemy after the war against the Axis Powers had been won. Mr. Churchill certainly proved to be prescient in that view. By 1950, when the Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb, it was apparent that they and their allies were arrayed against the United States, Britain, and the western allies. From 1945 to 1991, the two undeniable world superpowers were the USA and the USSR.


            Since 1950, there has been no war of substantial international consequence fought anywhere in the world in which the United States has not been involved, either with troops on the ground or indirectly through machinations in the background. (It should be noted that the same cannot be said for the Soviet Union, or now Russia once again.) In the two largest armed conflicts since World War II, Korea and Vietnam, America was the primary combatant nation in those struggles. The Soviet Union was not directly involved at all. To be sure, we had allies, but it was the US which determined the nature and the breadth of the conflicts.


            Very few Americans during the wars in Korea or Viet Nam ever imagined that we were fighting to preserve the American Empire. That was because very few Americans ever imagined that America had or aspired to have an empire in the first place. But to the rest of the world, the American Empire began in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, and it gained its greatest traction after World War II. Our undeclared and unmapped empire continues stronger than ever to this day, despite the internal political shots that were taken at it in the political campaign of 2016. Americans of a particular political stripe choose to believe that America is weaker now than it has been in many years. Politically, economically, and militarily, the facts do not bear out that supposition. Whether we like it or not or recognize it or not, America definitely has an empire, of sorts, and it is an enormously powerful one at that.


            On September 11, 2001, the United States of America was attacked by nineteen Islamist terrorists. Undoubtedly they were directly supported by several hundred or even a few thousands of other Islamists, and indirectly likely by many millions of miffed Muslims. In point of statistical fact, however, it was only nineteen young men who actually commandeered the four airplanes.


George W. Bush had been in office less than eight months when the 9/11 attack happened. His response to it, and that of his Administration, was the primary determinant in the nature of his presidency for the next seven-plus years. “The War on Terrorism” which he declared became the main thrust of the Bush II presidency. In a way it was a large feature of the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama as well, although no doubt that is the last thing Mr. Obama wanted or intended.


            It was not difficult for George W. Bush to win support for a war against Islamists. After all, the US had been waging wars against foreign nations and peoples for a century and a half, and we have always had a penchant for military bellicosity. We have guns, and we are good at fighting. To deny that is to ignore a major element of our history. Besides, 9/11 killed more Americans in a single attack than any other such event since Pearl Harbor. Unlike Pearl Harbor, however, virtually everyone killed in 9/11 was a civilian. Thus there was even more widespread support for the actions taken by the Bush Administration following the attacks against New York City and Washington than there was after the attack on Hawaii.


            Almost immediately we began bombing Afghanistan, hoping thereby to kill the primary planner of 9/11, Osama bin Laden. US Special Forces and later regular troops were sent into Afghanistan as well. Then, after a year and a half of preparation, we and our “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq. After all, we were told, Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. We also were told that we would be greeted as liberators. Curiously, that warm welcome never seemed to have been offered by any Iraqis, no matter what their politics or religion may have been. No Iraqi flowers were inserted into the barrels of any American rifles.


            Since 2003, the USA has been involved directly or indirectly in conflicts involving Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine (were such a nation to exist), Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria. In addition we were involved, to one degree or another,   in all the countries which experienced the Arab Spring of 2011.  


            In the minds of most Americans, we have been waging a war against Islamist terrorists for the past sixteen-plus years. But then, it also needs to be securely lodged in the minds of most Americans that we have been waging war against somebody or other for many of the past two hundred and fifty years. In the minds of many Muslims elsewhere in the world, however, we have been involved in a war with Islam itself since September of 2001, if not before.


We need to recognize that it is only extremist American Christians and other similar zealous American citizens who truly believe it is a national necessity for America to combat Islam. Without question, most Americans of every religious persuasion or no religion strongly oppose a declared American war against Islam. Nevertheless, it is a sad and very disturbing fact that millions of Muslims across the globe believe that America secretly is attempting to obliterate Islam. In light of our history, that is a very disturbing misperception that is almost impossible to eradicate.


            Still, only the most nationalistic and ideologically blind Americans would ever attempt to refuse to acknowledge that our nation has become increasingly imperialistic over the past century. We need to understand that it is impossible for all major powers at any point in history not to be perceived as imperialistic by the rest of the world. Nations with massive power must either use or lose that power. It is an inescapable historical axiom of international politics. And it is that ancient political truth which guarantees that all major powers eventually lose their widespread influence in the world. No nation or empire has ever maintained its power in perpetuity.


            It also behooves Americans to admit that as a people and culture, America is more violent than most other contemporary developed nations and cultures. To deny that is to ignore history.


Let us briefly examine a widespread, if also relatively minor, example of the American penchant for violence, and that is American football. Football, as practiced by American males, is a sport invented by lunatics for lunatics. I personally confess that I love it, even though I never participated in it except in pick-up touch football games. Only recently have many Americans come to see that American football’s days as the undisputed new national pastime are numbered.


            But please contemplate, for a moment, the true nature of American football. Twenty-two giant boys or men line up against one another. A peculiarly-shaped ball is propelled to one of the giants (preferably an unusually agile and tall one), and either he throws the ball to another tall giant, hands it off to a shorter, stockier, and more muscular giant, or he  runs it himself, which most quarterbacks and coaches frown upon. It is the purpose of whatever offensive player has the ball to be knocked to the turf as hard as possible and as soon as possible. Thus it is hoped that the ball-carrier will somehow fumble the ball, either because his arms and/or legs have been mangled by several giants simultaneously flattening him or because one or more of the other giants rip the ball from his hands or arms.


            Football is the quintessential American sport. What other game is like it? Not even rugby, which is certainly a very “physical” game, has nearly as many injuries as does American football. Besides, rugby was invented in England. No college or professional football team emerges from a football game without several injuries to key or not-so-key players. In reality, “violence” is the true name of the game in American football. And, as I have been trying to establish by means of all these arcane philosophical musings, violence is an indirect result of the steady gun-toting American movement to the West since colonial times, and our growing imperialism since the Civil War, and our emergence as the Sole Superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. You may think I am drawing at straws here, but I believe I am not. This steady progression of American violence has been real and, given the way American history evolved, was virtually inevitable and interconnected. Furthermore, when American football is finally abandoned by schools, colleges, and the NFL, an identifiable factor in the national psyche shall also perish. Millions will mourn its passing, and if I am still alive when it happens, I likely shall be one of them. But pass it shall, whether sooner or later.         


* * * *


            It should come as no surprise to anyone that large numbers of early Americans came to view their country as an especially exceptional one, despite our inescapable violence and imperialism. The seed idea of American exceptionalism probably originated as early as the colonial period, if only because those who considered America exceptional also considered themselves exceptional. In many respects their self-appraisal was correct. It took immense courage and optimism for anyone to leave the Old World for the New World, particularly when the likely future of America could not be accurately envisioned in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. The people who crossed the North Atlantic in very small ships were very hardy souls, simply because they voluntarily chose to make the crossing. Nobody forced them to go; they just went.


            In other words, America was not established by what a certain Vice President called, in quite another context, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The first European immigrants who came to these shores were exceptionally adventuresome. They had courage; they had pluck; they had fierce resolve. If in the process they needed to quell the courage or quash the resolve of those who opposed them, especially the Indians, then so be it, as far as they were concerned. They were engaged in an undertaking such as the world had never seen anywhere at any time in its history, and they were determined to transform the American Dream into America the Beautiful, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.


            Over the course of four centuries, America turned into an economic colossus never before matched by any other nation in any other historical context. It resulted in large measure from a commitment to relatively the least regulated and the most expansive form of capitalism the world has ever seen. Nobody does capitalism the way America does capitalism. Many Americans, especially business moguls, think our economy is regulated almost to death.  Compared to most nations, however, our economy is Capitalism-Writ-Large-And-On-Steroids. The American dollar is still the leading world currency upon which all other nations gauge their own economic strength or weakness.


            How did we become the wealthiest and most powerful nation-state in world history? There are many factors which explain it. At the outset, the people who came to America in the early days were pioneers, but they were a particular kind of pioneers. They saw this nation to be the Land of Opportunity. In the earliest years, most of them wanted to get away from the restraints they believed held them down in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Their determination was exceptional.


            They cleared the land and fairly quickly turned it into a breadbasket for the world. They raised livestock of all varieties. They built mills along the rivers and dug canals going in every direction. They cut down trees and created lumber sufficient for everything needed domestically and then exported it to foreign lands which had little or no timber. They established factories. At first they were small operations with few workers, but in time they became enormous ventures covering many acres with thousands of workers. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they were cranking out products sold throughout the nation and the world. Their energy was exceptional.


            They began to string railroad tracks throughout the East and then the Midwest. But that was not enough; it would never be enough until rails stretched from New York to San Francisco and Seattle and Los Angeles. When the golden spike was pounded into the last tie at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, the West was officially and visibly yoked to the East, and America would never be the same again. Merchants could sell their wares  all across the country, as tens of thousands of miles of track spread out like steel spiderwebs. Their entrepreneurial instincts were exceptional.


            Inventors revolutionized industry and agriculture. Eli Whitney and his cotton gin made cotton king, especially after the Civil War broke the yoke of slavery and there were no longer multitudes of workers to pick the cotton. John Deere and his steel plow, Cyrus McCormick and his reaper, Thomas Edison and his light bulb, and two other inventors who don’t even require a surname because they are known worldwide simply as Orville and Wilbur. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century there were hundreds of thousands of patents for every imaginable product. The USA of the early twentieth century was the China of the early twenty-first century. Their ingenuity was exceptional.


            Individual entrepreneurs created colossal corporations: John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, Thomas Watson. A much later generation would much more swiftly circle the globe with their particular type of inventive technology: Gates, Ellison, Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg. They did not employ nearly as many workers as the early inventors, but they transformed the world much more quickly by their inventions. Their expansive vision and foresight was exceptional.


            The depth of feeling for the country in the hearts of the countrymen was also exceptional. It is not by happenstance that most of the texts for our national hymns were written between 1875 and 1910. It was then when Americans were particularly filled with extraordinary pride in their homeland. America was then the newest of the world powers, and it had gained its power in the shortest amount of time compared to all other world powers through all time. Americans felt that in their deepest being. America had quickly conquered a continent, and shortly thereafter it ruled a world. Or so it seemed to its citizens. Their patriotism was exceptional.


            It was in the years immediately following the victory in World War II that America took its proper and singular place in global affairs. It appeared for a long time as though there were two superpowers, and everyone thought there were, but in truth there was only one. The single feature of power in which the Soviet Union could match America was in nuclear weapons. True, that was a very significant factor in military might, and had either side started to fling its nukes at the other, it is quite conceivable the world might then have ended in a radiated and incinerated apocalypse. Happily, perhaps astonishingly, that did not occur, and in 1991 the USSR disintegrated. Russia went rapidly from a nation of 280,000,000 people to a nation of 160,000,000 people. It shall become, so the demographers predict, a nation of 100,000,000 before this century is finished. And America? In 1990 we had 260,000,000 people, and now we have over 320,000,000, an increase of almost 25% in just a quarter of a century. Many of the newcomers are immigrants and not native-born, however. You may have heard that not all our fellow citizens are pleased about that, and one particularly well known citizen among us in particular.    


            In the near aftermath of World War II, The American Congress and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower believed the Soviet Union was intent on world domination. In retrospect, that seemed to be a reasonable conclusion. Therefore we embarked on a foreign aid program which had never before been witnessed in any country, nor is it likely ever again to be matched. There were years in the late Forties and early Fifties when foreign aid was nearly 10% of the total national budget. Serving our own national interest was uppermost in our post-war foreign aid policy, but altruism was surely a secondary reason. Those days, however, are long gone. Now we are at best average among the developed nations in the amount of military or economic assistance we give to underdeveloped (or well developed) nations. With Russia well contained (we hope), our national largesse has diminished greatly.


            Nevertheless, on a per capita basis, Americans are individually the most philanthropic people on earth, even if our government has cut back on its generous impulses to peoples in great need around the world. American generosity toward other people and toward innumerable institutions of many varieties is exceptional; it truly is.


            Not all of our exceptionalism has been of a positive nature, as we have seen. As a primary example, the attitude of our government and our people toward immigrants swerved back and forth in very discernible national mood-swings throughout our history. Before and after the American Revolution, there was considerable reluctance about admitting German immigrants into the colonies or country. That was also true after World Wars I and II. It was due in part to the fact that the new Teutonic neighbors did not have the common decency to speak English at all or to speak it with a guttural and possibly indiscernible accent. When the Irish and Italians came in the later nineteenth century, they were not welcomed warmly by many Americans mainly because they were Roman Catholics, and it was widely believed that being Roman Catholic was no proper way for an American Christian (which meant a  “Protestant Christian”) to behave.


            Eventually we agreed to allow most European nationalities to become immigrants, but it was usually on a strict quota system, especially for Eastern European nations, whose exact locations most Americans neither knew nor cared about. But of course people from Great Britain were always welcome: English, Scots, and Welsh. The Irish? Well maybe….


            When the immigrants arrived here, they tended to stick together in small communities among themselves. That pattern was established in order to validate the old aphorism that “Birds of a feather stick together,” whose essential meaning has nothing to do with birds. But it really was a silent witness to the never-spoken or even conceived aphorism that “Folks on an INS tether stick together.” There was safety in numbers for new Americans who created their own safe havens in cities and towns all over America. However, ethnic neighborhoods or communities were a thorn in the flesh to many Americans whose forebears had been living here a long time, meaning at least a full generation or two. Why didn’t the immigrants integrate themselves into the larger American society, they wondered. Besides, once the genuine “native Americans” were here (the white European immigrants), the latter-day genuine Americans didn’t want any other kinds allowed into the American melting pot. It had already melted far more than necessary, or at least more than the self-described pale-faced natives wanted.   


            Have Americans been more opposed to immigrants than the citizens of other nations around the world? Probably not. But we have been confronted with a far higher percentage of immigrants over a shorter span of time than almost any other nation on earth, simply because we eventually had such a huge national land mass, and we wanted and needed to fill it up with people. But what kind of people? That was the question.


            Native-born Americans came up with certain pejorative alternative nouns to denote immigrant nationalities or ethnicities: Krauts, Micks, Wops, Degos, Spics, Kikes, Hunkies, Russkies, Chinks, Japs, Wetbacks, Canucks. These, it is important to underscore, were not terms of endearment. I personally am very glad we allowed two Canucks in particular to get immigrant visas. My parents were both born in Canada, but they moved into the States in 1928, allowing my three older brothers and me all to become native-born Yankees, as the Canadians call all of us, and by that term Canadians do not mean just those who live north of the Mason-Dixon line.   


            Until the late twentieth century, we always had grave reservations about “Orientals” coming here. In the nineteenth century context, Orientals were people literally from “the Orient,” that is, from the eastern edge of the Eastern Hemisphere: Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia (either of the attached or the island variety). Until recently we let few Chinese in, we know what we did to the native-born Japanese in World War II, and the only reason we allowed many thousands of South Vietnamese into our country after the fall of Saigon in 1975 over a few tense months was that they had collaborated with our military in the war we thrust upon their country. Had we not given them asylum and citizenship, many of them would have been killed by the victorious North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. In the last several years we have allowed an alarmingly limited number Afghans and Iraqis into America on immigrant visas, and for the same reason. But we have been too stringent with those poor souls, and many are dead or in prison because of our understandably but regrettably strict policies toward Afghan and Iraqi (i.e., Muslim) applicants for immigrant visas.


            Currently, and for the past few decades, our biggest immigration brouhaha has been the result of multitudes of Latinos, especially Mexicans, who have tried to flood across our southern border. They present a problem to many Americans because, like earlier immigrants, they do not seem to possess sufficient common sense to speak English as their first language. But of course it is much more complicated than that. “They take our jobs,” it is claimed. No doubt they do take some of our jobs, but many of these immigrants are willing to take jobs native-born Americans do not want and refuse to accept. That means that if the Latinos don’t take them, “real Americans” will have to take them, but they will do so only for much more pay, which means prices will go up, which means there will economic consequences. (Economics is well described as the dismal science. Its “dismalitude” is perceived in such mundane matters as an acceptable economic income for immigrants.)


            For the past three or four decades America has adopted what might be called “a niche status” for certain kinds of immigrants. If they have a lot of assets, say, a million dollars or more, or if they possess certain educational skills, especially in medicine or the sciences, and particularly especially if those skills are in fields that “real Americans” don’t possess enough of, we will gladly shake their hand, invite them in, and they are on a fast track to US citizenship, regardless of where they may have come from. We are not alone among the world’s nations in adopting that policy. Many countries contribute to the brain drain from many other countries. Nevertheless, we are noteworthy leaders in promoting the drains of brains from everywhere we can arrange the drain. As for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free - - - not so much. At least not anymore.


            In  January of 2017 we emerged from an eight-year presidency of markedly pro-immigrant sentiments, all things considered (except for Syrians, North Africans, most Iraqis or Iranians, and certain other dubious nationalities.) Now we have presumably entered a markedly anti-immigrant presidency (except, perhaps, for the Really Rich, those worth many millions of dollars, who co-sign loans for building hotels and resorts and golf courses in exotic places all over the world). But this swing from one side to the other on the immigration issue simply illustrates a pattern which has long existed in the world’s Most Well-Mixed Ethnic Stew.


            Whatever else America is, it is the largest, most diverse, most complex, and most exceptional melting pot the world has ever known. No other nation anywhere on the globe could have accomplished ethnically what in actuality we accomplished in less than three centuries. It is claimed that New York City and Los Angeles have more ethnicities and nationalities as residents and citizens than any other cities anywhere on this planet.


Only Russia, China, Canada, Brazil, and Australia had borders large enough to accommodate 320,000,000 people in merely three centuries. However, there were geographical and other less tangible barriers in all five of those countries which prevented such an immense influx of foreigners into their terrestrial turf. Very few people want to immigrate into Russia, China, or Brazil. Furthermore the Han Chinese in China, who are the vast majority of all the Chinese in China, allow in only one thousand immigrants per year, and all of them are ethnic Han Chinese. A mere thousand! More people want to immigrate into Australia than Australia will allow in. Only Canada of the Other Big Five has long had as welcoming an immigration policy as the USA. But geography and winter still dissuade millions of other nationalities from wanting to enter into the truly kinder, gentler nation that Canada represents. In any case, America and Canada are the only two non-Asian nations in the world whose population has increased on an average of one percentage point or so per year for the last century, and that is in large measure because of immigrants.


            In numerous examples, a few of which have been enumerated here, The United States of America has been an exceptional state in the world community of nations. If we are honest, though, we must admit that our exceptionalism is both negative and positive. On balance, in American minds it is far, far more positive than negative. In the minds of many other people elsewhere, it is a toss-up, while in the perception of still other multimillions of people, especially in places like China, Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan, and somewhat in Iran and Iraq, our exceptionalism is far more negative than positive.     


            In the next lecture we shall review how our history has led us to the place in which we now find ourselves, and what that means for our near and not-so-near future.