Visions of America

September 25, 2007

Since the beginning, U.S. international rela- tions have had the intensity of a crusade. To ex- plain this, one must explore the set of beliefs generally shared by the nation's leaders and the foreign policy establishment about the nature of the United States of America. These beliefs operate like myths: they enhance the impor- tance of the nation's actions and justify them by reference to a larger philosophical and moral framework. Even at its birth the leaders of the United States understood that their experiment was a profound break with the political philosophy and principles of the European monarchies. For white males with property the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the op- portunity for self-government offered a new be- ginning. "We have the power," said Thomas Paine, "to begin the world again." 3 Those prin- ciples have inspired other Americans as well as people throughout the world to demand their universal application. From the earliest days, this country's leaders saw it as a unique society, an example to the rest of the world. John Winthrop of the Massachu- setts Bay Colony described it with characteristic hyperbole: " Men shall say of succeeding planta- clones: the Lord make it like that of New Eng- land: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon the Hill, the eies of all people upon us.', 4 Americans had, the story goes, not only an exceptional moral character but also special in- sight into the mysteries of self-government. "I presume that there are not to be found five men in Europe who understand the nature of liberty and the theory of government as they are under- stood by five hundred men in America," said Joel Barlow, a New England chaplain, lawyer and entrepreneur in 1788.5 With that under- standing came a mission to enlighten the rest of the world. Two centuries later, President Reagan sounded a characteristic note: "We are freer than any other people. We have achieved 3 891c eD/noN 31 5"2NALA Rmnort more than any other people... [AJll of those representatives from all over the world... here to look at our election to learn how they could spread the word about that kind of freedom in their own countries." 6 This cherished belief in moral superiority has, at critical moments, absolved U.S. leaders from serious moral reflection about the consequences of their actions. Our own history speaks mourn- fully to that double standard. "It is our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of lib- erty and federative self-government entrusted to us." 7 Filling the continent from coast to coast, White European Americans drove Red Ameri- cans before them, enslaved African Americans to tend their plantations, forced Spanish Ameri- cans to surrender their land, imported Oriental Americans to construct their railroads and ex- ploited Irish, German, Italian and Polish Amer- icans to build their factories. In his novel White Jacket, Herman Melville wrote, "We Americans are the peculiar, the chosen people-the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. God has pre- destined.., the rest of the nations must be in our rear." 8 Thomas Jefferson, indeed, proposed that the Seal of the United States should bear the image of the Children of Israel being led by a shaft of light. 9 Such beliefs imbued U.S. leaders with the zeal of missionaries. Spreading the good news meant territorial expansion, and evenJefferson, who ardently professed the virtues of smallness, recognized that the nation's ultimate aspirations were imperial: "I am persuaded," he wrote in 1809, "that no constitution was ever before as well-calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government." 1 0 As the young nation prospered, imperial in- tentions grew more explicit: "[Our system] will fit a larger empire than ever yet existed, and I have long believed that such an empire will rise in America, and give quiet to the world," de- dared Matthew Lyon, a congressman from Vermont and Kentucky, in 1816.11 Give quiet to the world...Quite rapidly, America's expansion became a mission civilitrice. As early as 1816, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay was looking beyond the continental United States: "It is in our power to create a system of which we shall be in the center and in which all South America will act with us."12 There was at least a refreshing frankness to imperial rhetoric in the 19th century: "Those who are not for us are against us." -Sen. Henry Stuart Foote, 1851.13 "Our form of government is adapted to civil- ized man everywhere... Let us, then, while perfecting our institutions, not refuse to expand our boundaries." -Ignatius Donnelly, 1868.14 "If nobody can lick us, we need not be afraid to play the just and generous big brother among the nations." -Henry Demarest Lloyd, c. 1885.15 "The world is to be Christianized and civil- ized." -Josiah Story, 1885.16 "I am an exporter. I want the world." -Charles L. Lovering, textile manufacturer, 1890.17 The Class Will Please Come to Order-Somebody? William H. Crawford, New York Times, December 22, 1963 By the infant years of the new century, the United States had become a first-rank industrial power with a modern navy and the ability to realize its territorial ambitions. This was the era of the famous Roosevelt Corollary, asserting the 32 NACLA ReportNov/Dec 1983 WHY NOT GET THE BREEDING GROUND? HOLLAND, CHICACO TRIBUNE U.S. right to police the Western Hemisphere. Soon after, in the face of revolution in Mexico and Russia, Woodrow Wilson declared that such disorders needlessly disrupted civilized society. To his secretary of state, William Jen- nings Bryan, the goals of U.S. foreign policy were "to prevent revolutions, promote education and advance stable and just governments."' 8 Wilson would express the quintessence of America's mission-self-importance and cru- sading zeal, all supremely mindful of the mate- rial basis for America's prosperity: "Our industries have expanded to such a point that they will burst theirjackets if they can- not find a free outlet to the markets of the world ... Who shall say where it shall end?"'9 "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men." 2 0 "The world must be made safe for democ- racy." 2 ' By 1961, John F. Kennedy could say without fear of exaggeration, "Our frontiers today are on every continent." 2 2 U.S. leaders have repeatedly justified expan- sionism as being opposed to some Evil Other-- be it the Red Indian, German Kaiserism or Mexican revolutionaries. Today of course, it is the Soviet Union. U.S. policy in Central Amer- ica is a tragic reflection of that obsession with the Evil Other-tragic and ironic, because it be- trays our own origins. The American Revolu- tion and the formation of the United States of America stood for a new principle in the history of nation-states: the right of a people to self- determination. Men and women "were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness... Whenever any form of govern- ment becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it and to institute new government . . When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security." How total the commitment of the Declaration of Independence: "it is their duty." And yet, as William Appleman Williams argues in his book America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, the quest for empire has over- whelmed this fundamental principle. Of the post-war world, he observes: "My citizen's soul is weary under the burden of my knowledge of my country dishonoring its once noble commit- ment to the right of self-determination. I leave it to others to... retell and embellish the grisly truth about Iran and Guatemala, Indonesia and Santo Domingo, Italy and Cuba, Vietnam and Watergate. And Chile. Perhaps most of all Chile. For there we purposely destroyed a man who was dedicated to making a peaceful transi- tion to the Future. Jefferson trembled for his country. In deep and quiet anger I weep for mine."2 3 Professor Williams continues, "Our rulers -are unable to disengage from even the most ob- vious mistakes in foreign policy with any intelli- gence and morality, or grace and dignity, and they continue to pout and whine about (and in- tervene in the affairs of) most of the people with whom we share the globe." The control of our foreign policy by a small and essentially unac- countable elite, which also controls our domestic political economy, survives, he complains, "through inertia and even more because no vital alternative has been proposed and agitated."" 2 4 Central America again reminds us of how we have yet to find alternatives to the worldview of this elite, its designation of who are our friends and who our enemies. Their myths have be- come our myths, their vision our vision. The time is long overdue for us to make our own decisions, find our own myths, create our own vision of America. VISIONS OF AMERICA 1. FromJefferson's first inaugural address. Quoted in William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolu- tionary World: 1776-1976, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1976), p. 33. 2. Quoted in William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, p. 108. 3. Ibid., p. 30. 4. Ibid., p. 25. 5. Ibid., p. 44. 6. The New York Times, November 11, 1982. 7. John L. O' Sullivan in the New York Morning News, December 27, 1845, quoted in William Appleman Wil- liams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, p. 35. 8. Quoted in William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, p. 36. 9. Ibid., p. 34. 10. Ibid., p. 25. 11. Ibid., p. 59. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid., p. 92. 14. Ibid., p. 125. 15. Ibid., p. 120. 16. Ibid., p. 123. 17. Ibid., p. 120. 18. Ibid., p. 144. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid., p. 139. 21. Ibid. 22. Quoted in William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life, (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 193. 23. William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, p. 178. 24. Ibid., p. 193.

Tags: US foreign policy, idealism, Imperialism, Cold War

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.