November 06, 2006

The American Myth, Continued: Conquest and Murder for God and Civilization

I have described some of the crucial components of our national myth as follows:
The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?


The fable peddled after 9/11 addressed questions dealing with the entire world. The wake of Hurricane Katrina unmasked a corollary to this tale. This time, the storyline was contained within our own borders -- but it was no less ugly for that. In fact, the domestic fable that has taken hold in large parts of our media and among many so-called "respectable" intellectuals has confirmed that ancient hatreds have never left us. Those hatreds reveal the most virulent form of racism -- and they ought to give pause to all those who champion the kind of "civilization" they contend we are morally justified in exporting by means of missiles, bombs and bullets.
This racism has been an inescapable part of the American consciousness since the beginning -- and it found its target in both Native Americans and in the slaves we imported to support our burgeoning economy. With depressing regularity, it has also been directed at immigrants, as it is once more today. And it has been expressed in numerous episodes of conquest and barbarism, including, very notably, America's westward expansion.

The following is from a new book by Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. I'm reading it now, and it is wonderfully informative, hugely entertaining in its presentation, and frequently horrifying. Consider how far back in our history these themes go, and how often they have been repeated -- just as they are now repeated once more in Iraq and the Middle East. Sides writes:
The mission on which Kearny led the Army of the West [in 1846] had no precedent in American history. For the first time the U.S. Army was setting out to invade, and permanently occupy, vast portions of a sovereign nation. It was a bald landgrab of gargantuan proportions.


The war with Mexico was a complex affair with many tentacles of grievance, real and imagined, reaching back many years. Most immediately, the war had to do with Texas. Late the previous year, 1845, the United States had officially annexed the Lone Star Republic, which, a decade earlier, had declared its independence from Mexico after the bloody battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto. But Mexico had never recognized Texas's claim of independence and certainly was not prepared to see it pass into United States possession. ... Realizing that neither diplomacy nor outright bartering would achieve his expansionist ends, Polk was determined to provoke a war. He dispatched Gen. Zachary Taylor to disputed territory, between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, in southern Texas. It was an unsubtle attempt to create the first sparks. In April 1846, Taylor's soldiers were fired upon, and Polk was thus given the pretext he needed to declare war.

"American blood has been spilled on American soil," Polk spluttered with righteous indignation, neglecting to mention that Taylor had done everything within his power to invite attack, and that anyway, it wasn't really American soil--at least not yet. Mexico had "insulted the nation," the president charged, and now must be punished for its treachery, beaten back, relieved of vast tracts of real estate it was not fit to govern.

The simple truth was, Polk wanted more territory. No president in American history had ever been so frank in his aims for seizing real estate. ...

Perhaps to dignify the nakedness of Polk's land lust, the American citizenry had got itself whipped into an idealistic frenzy, believing with an almost religious assurance that its republican form of government and its constitutional freedoms should extend to the benighted reaches of the continent then held by Mexico, which, with its feudal customs and Popish superstitions, stood squarely in the way of Progress. To conquer Mexico, in other words, would be to do it a favor.


Whether U.S. expansionism was morally right or wrong, most Americans seemed to believe that it was inevitable--and that there was little point in resisting the tide of history. America and its ideals and institutions were spreading outward, westward, onward. The country could scarcely contain itself. The spirit of expansionism was everywhere in the air, like some beneficient germ. As the volunteers of Missouri marched, they marched with a kind of national giddiness. John Hughes rhapsodized that every soldier in the Army of the West "felt that he was a citizen of the model republic." Possessed of "a high moral sense and a conscious superiority over the Mexican people," Hughes wrote, they were embarked on a mission of high romance--west to the Pacific, south to the Halls of Montezuma!

A few years earlier, a young New York editor named John O'Sullivan had coined the self-justifying phrase that captured the righteous new tilt of the country. Writing in the New York Morning News, O'Sullivan argued that it was the fate of the United States, necessary and quite inexorable, to sweep westward and settle North America from sea to sea, "to overspread and possess the whole continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." In order to advance "the great experiment of liberty," the American republic must absorb new lands. It was, O'Sullivan suggested, her "manifest destiny."

At universities across the country, the youth had become smitten with the notion of American exceptionalism, and students began to show their patriotic fervor in a fashionable campus craze called the Young America Movement, which, among other things, unequivocally advocated westward expansion. Even the country's literary elite seemed to buy into Manifest Destiny. Herman Melville declared that "America can hardly be said to have any western bound but the ocean that washes Asia." Walt Whitman thought that Mexico must be taught a "vigorous lesson." Too long had Washington "listened with deaf ears to the insolent gasconnade of [Mexico's] government," Whitman argued; now it was time for "Democracy, with its manly heart and its lion strength to spurn the ligatures wherewith drivellers would bind it." Like Polk, Whitman had his eyes on New Mexico and California, asking, "how long a time will elapse before they shine as two new stars in our mighty firmament?"
Half a century later, the identical rationalizations and justifications would be used to take this expansionism international, with the Spanish-American War and our annexation of the Philippines. The racism was the same:
To the American people, McKinley explained that, almost against his will, he had been led to make the decision to annex: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and christianize them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died." McKinley was either unaware of or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, by most accounts, already Christians.
The justifications for a brutal and murderous occupation were the same:
Theodore Roosevelt wrote to the poet of empire, Rudyard Kipling, that before he could deal with the Philippines, he had to deal with "the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting." William Howard Taft, who became the Philippine commissioner in 1900, referred to "our little brown brothers," and contended they would require "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."
And the supposed economic "reasons" supporting this naked expansionism were the same, as made clear in Beveridge's infamous speech to the Senate, "In Support of an American Empire":
MR. PRESIDENT, the times call for candor. The Philippines are ours forever, "territory belonging to the United States," as the Constitution calls them. And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.
These noxious and immensely destructive beliefs are part of our nation's genetic code. Most Americans -- and all of our national leaders -- accept them as axioms, never to be questioned. The only concession they make to "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" is to state them somewhat more diplomatically and delicately. But the beliefs are the same -- and so are their deadly results.

There is much more about the Philippines in my essay, "The Old Theme -- A 'Redeemer Nation,' with Some Explaining to Do."

And see also: "The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism."

And "Myths of New Orleans."