Two of the favorite whipping boys of the intelligentsia are American imperialism and American exceptionalism and how the latter led to the former.
Very little could be further from the truth.
The first thing we need to do is separate various periods of American history.
In the 19th century we were in an expansionist mode and grew from 16 states in 1800 to 45 states by 1900 fueled by waves of immigrants escaping the unexceptional chaos of Europe. Our growth was across a contiguous land mass and even the mid-century flirtations with annexing Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean areas had a geographical imperative in their reasoning. This was not imperialism in the sense that we were not sailing off over the water to distant lands to demand that other peoples send us their goods and pay us tribute – and support the garrison that we sent to ensure that we got the lion’s share of each – and we were more than a little sensitive to that idea having gotten rid of the Lion ourselves almost within living memory.
There is a long standing argument about Alexis de Tocqueville and American exceptionalism. The most often quoted passage out of Democracy in America on the subject is:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.
It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers been more rare. Many Europeans, struck by this fact, have looked upon it as a natural and inevitable result of equality; and they have thought that if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness.
To reason thus is, I think, to confound several ideas that it is important to divide and examine separately; it is to mingle, unintentionally, what is democratic with what is only American.
Where we find the real ideas of egalitarianism are in the following passages:
If a [democratic] society displays less brilliance than an aristocracy, there will also be less wretchedness; pleasures will be less outrageous and well being will be shared by all; the sciences will be on a smaller scale but ignorance will be less common; opinions will be less vigorous and habits gentler; you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.
The New Englander is attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he has an interest in it because he shares in its management; he loves it because he has no reason to complain of his lot; he invests his ambition and his future in it; in the restricted sphere within his scope, he learns to rule society; he gets to know those formalities without which freedom can advance only through revolutions, and becoming imbued with their spirit, develops a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and in the end accumulates clear, practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.
So finally we don’t have some sort of combination of manifest destiny, the quest for empire and a lust for God, gold and glory wrapped in a flag as American exceptionalism but rather the practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects or to translate it into 21st century prose work, the dignity of work and the equality of labor is what separated America from Europe. The idea that we were the chosen people, the city on the hill or anything of the like is a modern fabrication of convenience from those who would not work if they could.
By the beginning of the 20th century we were no longer living in de Tocqueville’s world. The dreadnought was effectively the first ICBM. Coastal cities could be reduced to rubble before they were able to defend themselves. Alfred Thayer Mahan was the leading American strategist of the new age and he knew that, “It is now accepted with naval and military men who study their profession, that history supplies the raw material from which they are to draw their lessons, and reach their working conclusions. Its teachings are not, indeed, pedantic precedents; but they are the illustrations of living principles.”, and the most important lesson learned was, “Free supplies and open retreat are two essentials to the safety of an army or a fleet.”
If America was to be safe, let alone have a voice, in the new age we needed the ability to project power across the world. We did not need to conquer vast swaths of land nor did we need to subjugate peoples not as strong as ourselves – and for the most part we did not! What we needed were forward bases for the materiel of war, for troops and for the machinery of delivery. The Kaiser might threaten to send a fleet to collect from a defaulting Venezuela but a Theodore Roosevelt, carrying a big enough stick and walking softly, could and did discourage him. Compare the American experience with the British and if they were the epitome of imperialism we were isolationists by comparison.
This situation prevailed for most of the 20th century. We marched into 37 nations that were either subjugated or under the threat of subjugation. When they were free or the threat was alleviated we marched out again. Compare this please with the Soviet Union who gave Europe the Iron Curtain while we gave the the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Air Lift – not to mention NATO which kept the bear behind the curtain for over 40 years. Our new found desire to become the evangelists of democracy and equality throughout the world is far more likely to turn us into the armed camp of imperialism than commercial venture ever did.
About the only point were I agree with Bacevich [and always beware of anyone who claims to be respected by both sides!] is in his criticism of our economic irresponsibility. Barry Goldwater predicted his loss to Landslide Lyndon with the pithy observation that, “you don’t shoot Santa Claus.” Since he has been a common thread in this discussion we will return to de Tocqueville to explain the problem more fully:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”
We are 235 years into our democracy and may well be circling the drain. Finish up with Mr. Goldwater we assert, ” I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Th”Free supplies and open retreat are two essentials to the safety of an army or a fleet”
The limits of power : the end of American exceptionalism New York : Metropolitan Books, 2008 Andrew J. Bacevich Exceptionalism United States Hardcover. 1st ed., later printing. 206 p. 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -194) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
The Limits of Power identifies a profound triple crisis facing America: the economy, in remarkable disarray, can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; the government, transformed by an imperial presidency, is a democracy in form only; U.S. involvement in endless wars, driven by a deep infatuation with military power, has been a catastrophe for the body politic. These pressing problems threaten all of us, Republicans and Democrats. If the nation is to solve its predicament, it will need the revival of a distinctly American approach: the neglected tradition of realism.
Andrew J. Bacevich, uniquely respected across the political spectrum, offers a historical perspective on the illusions that have governed American policy since 1945. The realism he proposes includes respect for power and its limits; sensitivity to unintended consequences; aversion to claims of exceptionalism; skepticism of easy solutions, especially those involving force; and a conviction that the books will have to balance. Only a return to such principles, Bacevich argues, can provide common ground for fixing America’s urgent problems before the damage becomes irreparable.