A startling thought occurred to me recently and that is while I’m only approaching the age of sixty-seven, I have lived in eight decades on this planet. Every one of those eight decades has had an American involvement in a foreign war. To be sure there is a massive degree of difference in magnitude let’s say between World War II and Grenada, but both were wars nonetheless. There is a common thread in all of these involvements that goes beyond the immediate causes and that is the quest for Empire. A persistent undertone in American thought has been expansive since Jefferson made The Louisiana Purchase. While this need to expand hasn’t always been present in the public political debate as a motivation, those whose thoughts held sway over the political and intellectual backbone of our country openly discussed it. While America, which initially remained primarily an agrarian nation, was expanding into the vast frontier of this continent, our dreams of empire focused on taming the country and overwhelming its Native American population. By the mid Nineteenth Century, the industrial revolution influenced American thought and the need to expand to acquire natural resources, replaced agrarian needs, while making the taming of the frontier more urgent.
Given our constitutional underpinnings and the magnificent sentiments of the Declaration of Independence, many felt qualms about our displacement of Native Americans in our expansion westward. Darwin’s Origin of The Species, published in 1859 became an instant sensation for intellectuals worldwide and for those with the power to shape a nation’s thought processes. Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, was the new model for developing rationales and mythologies, which absolved the country of residual guilt in our struggle with the native population and allowed opinion shapers and ideologues to frame the issue in terms of the struggle of civilization against savagery.
Though most proponents of expansion never directly used the term Social Darwinism, it was the commonly understood intellectual underpinning of their theories. These theories devolved and spread into popular entertainments, literature, and journalism, creating a mythology of the virile American hero vanquishing the uncivilized brutes who would prevent our manifest destiny.
By the 1890’s most American thinkers believed the Frontier to be closed. Two of the most influential were Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt:
They both believed that the struggle of the “Frontier” had imbued the country with the energy that was leading to its emergence as a great international power. Turner was more subdued in emphasizing the heroic aspects of the struggle, while Roosevelt dwelled mainly on the singular heroism and virility of men who lived “the strenuous Life”. They also shared a belief that it was the natural state of human affairs for the “civilized races” to overcome the savage barbarians.Roosevelt was much more direct in his theories and they included the notion that the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic peoples were the most highly evolved and that it was their duty to bring civilization to the savages and rule over them. Mr. Roosevelt, coming from the upper, managerial classes also believed it was the duty of that class to guide the rest of the American populace, with their superior qualities of leadership. He was the more influential of the two writers at the time and his theories found themselves guiding popular American Culture in novels and in entertainments such as “Buffalo Bills Wild West Show.
This vastly popular entertainment depicted the heroism of the frontier and the virility of those heroes who tamed it. While Bill Cody was friendly with Native Americans and evinced some understanding of them, his show presented them as savages mercilessly attacking white settlers and white soldiers alike. This in turn evolved into a common American mythology, which had the effect of absolving all of our brutality in displacing the natives and gave great purpose to these actions. We were advancing civilization.
The quandary then for thinkers like Roosevelt and Turner was that if the American Frontier had energized this country towards greatness, with the close of that frontier, how could we re-energize our nation to continue to strive ever upwards in our destiny to become the greatest of nations? Roosevelt’s answer was much more open and direct than Turner’s and fit better into the needs of American Industry and into what was our manifest destiny to be first among nations. His answer was imperialism and empire. Roosevelt’s rationale was that those who were not of Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic origin represented inferior racial stock, which needed guidance by the more competent and more virile race that we represented. One might think pondering this statement that something is amiss with it, since the America Roosevelt talked of had a much more diverse population. While that is true, T.R. saw his class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as the “race” of the surviving fittest who needed to guide the less evolved racial types such as Native Americans, Blacks, Celts, Latins, Jews and other Eastern Europeans. While distinguishing his class from the others in the population, he at the same time conflated all Americans as representing the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic “Races”.
There are some that might argue that Roosevelt was known as a “Progressive” and that these are not what is considered to be “Progressive” beliefs today. The problem today, as in the past, is that when political/sociological discussions are framed in labels, the essence of the discussion gets lost. Labels change through the years. The original “liberals” for instance have far different beliefs than the present “liberals”. “Conservative” beliefs have shown a similar reversal through the years. The Republican Party of abolitionists became the Republican Party of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”.
That replacing the impelling energy of our westward expansion, with the impetus of imperialist notions of empire, made sense to those whose economic growth depended on expansion to new markets and control of new natural resources, the industrialist/capitalist/wealthy classes. Empire, rarely directly stated as such, provided for expansion of American business interests into a global market and a global supply chain. For the masses, each new imperialist gambit was framed in the classic mythological terms of avenging ourselves against savages who would bring this country down. Our enemies are always depicted as being less human than we, almost animalistic, therefore we are justified in opposing them with all the might available and with little mercy.
My proposition, outlined with needed brevity given the forum, is that our country in its expansion has always acted imperialistically, yet has used a series of myths to make our aims palatable and our motives seem pure. Today we are engaged in three wars, all with countries containing strategic resources and all these societies depicted as lacking the cultural civilization to create a modern, democratic state without our “assistance”. The thinking behind these involvements, at least publicly, is our troops and country making great sacrifices to uplift nations from oppression. Privately we are doing it to expand our world domination, empire, and for the benefit of those who determine our nation’s actions.
This article linked reveals the boldness of those who believe in American Empire and dream of a “Pax Americana” imposed on the world:
Given that this was engendered by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in 1997, it provides ample reasons for why we are at war today. You will note that the countries where we are making war also seem to be depicted popularly as failed nations, incapable of achievement in the modern world without our assistance.
Five years before the Project for a New American Century social critic and historian Richard Slotkin wrote “Gunfighter Nation”,
which impressed me greatly when I first read it and impresses me even more almost twenty years later. Slotkin provided the impetus for my musings here and I think unknowingly foreshadowed the events that have been shaping American Foreign policy in the Twenty-first Century. If we view the action of American Foreign Policy from this perspective, we can understand that imperialism has been the driving policy in our countries history and racialism conflated with civilization has provided the mythological underpinnings selling this policy to the people.
Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger