In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared the promulgation of freedom to be “the mission that created our nation.” Fulfilling what he described as America’s “great liberating tradition” now requires that the United States devote itself to “ending tyranny in our world.” Many Americans find such sentiments compelling. Yet to credit the United States with possessing a “liberating tradition” is like saying that Hollywood has a “tradition of artistic excellence.” The movie business is just that-a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while the studios produce a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration; but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise. Something of the same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hard-headed lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to guarantee for people like themselves “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In the years and decades that followed, the United States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. Yet never during America’s rise to power did the United States exert itself to liberate others absent an overriding perception that the nation itself had large security or economic interests at stake. From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world’s unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration of 1861-65 as a response to the plight of enslaved African Americans is to engage in vast oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GIs did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort of 1941-45, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought. Crediting America with a “great liberating tradition” sanitizes the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale and thereby provides a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.
If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self-evident to the obtuse, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” He spoke truthfully. The Founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and to extend their commercial reach abroad. How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.
As the methods employed varied, so did the rationale offered to justify action. We touted our status as God’s new Chosen People, erecting a “city upon a hill” destined to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance and responded to the urgings of our “manifest destiny.” We declared our obligation to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and to uplift Little Brown Brother. With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to “show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Critics who derided these claims as bunkum-the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after 1898, Robert LaFollette in 1917-scored points but lost the argument.
Periodically revised and refurbished, the concept of American Exceptionalism (which implied exceptional American prerogatives) persisted. Meanwhile, when it came to action rather than talk, the architects of U.S. policy, even the most idealistic, remained fixated on one overriding aim: enhancing American influence, wealth, and power. The narrative of American foreign relations from the earliest colonial encounters with Native Americans until, say, the end of the cold war reveals a record that is neither uniquely high-minded nor uniquely hypocritical and exploitive. In this sense, the interpretations of America’s past offered by George W. Bush and by Osama bin Laden fall equally wide of the mark. As a rising power, the United States adhered to the iron laws of international politics, which allow little space for altruism. If the tale contains a moral theme, that theme is necessarily one of ambiguity.
To be sure, America’s ascent did not occur without missteps: opéra bouffe incursions into Canada; William McKinley’s ill-advised annexation of the Philippines; complicity in China’s “century of humiliation”; disastrous interwar economic policies that paved the way for the Depression; Harry Truman’s decision in 1950 to send U.S. forces north of Korea’s 38th Parallel, to name only some. Most of these mistakes Americans have long since shrugged off. A few, like Vietnam, we find impossible to forget even as we persistently disregard their implications. Yet, however embarrassing, these missteps pale in significance when compared to the masterstrokes of American statecraft. In purchasing Louisiana from the French, Thomas Jefferson may have overstepped the bounds of his authority and in seizing California from Mexico, James Polk may have perpetrated a war of conquest, but their actions ensured that the United States would one day become a great power. To secure the isthmus of Panama, Theodore Roosevelt orchestrated an outrageous swindle. The result affirmed America’s hemispheric dominion. In collaborating with Josef Stalin, FDR made common cause with an indisputably evil figure. But in doing so he destroyed the murderous Hitler while simultaneously vaulting the United States to a position of unquestioned economic supremacy. A similar collaboration forged by Richard Nixon with the murderous Mao Zedong helped bring down the Soviet empire, thereby elevating the United States to the self-proclaimed position of sole superpower.
The achievements of these preeminent American statesmen derived not from their common devotion to a liberating tradition but from boldness unburdened by excessive scruples. Notwithstanding the high-sounding pronouncements that routinely emit from the White House and the State Department, the defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy is not idealism. It is pragmatism, sometimes laced with pragmatism’s first cousin, opportunism. This remains true today even when President Bush has declared without qualification that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” In practice, this dictum allows the Bush administration to hector Iran or North Korea about their undemocratic ways while giving a pass to Egypt and Pakistan. It provides a rationale for military intervention in energy-rich Iraq, but finds no application in Darfur, Burma, and Zimbabwe. (On a flight, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I sat beside a retired Zimbabwean supreme court justice. Lamenting the dire situation in his country, he remarked, “Ah, if only we had oil. Then you would come rescue us.”) Bush’s critics charge him with abandoning principles that long governed American statecraft. A fairer judgment would credit him with having seized on 9/11 to reinterpret those principles, thereby claiming for the United States new prerogatives (such as waging preventive war) while shedding constraints (such as respect for the sensibilities of key allies) that had seemingly lost their utility. In this regard, the president was adhering to a well-established tradition. In the annals of history, the rise of the United States to the pinnacle of world power is an epic story worthy of Thucydides or Tacitus. It represents a stunning achievement. Yet those who see America’s ascent as an affirmation of virtue are indulging in self-deluding sentimentality. Although sentimentality may sell greeting cards, it ill becomes a great nation that, having reached that pinnacle, now finds itself beset with challenges.
Land of the Free
For those fortunate enough to be Americans, this rise to global power yielded rich rewards. Expansion made the United States the land of opportunity. From expansion came abundance. Out of abundance came substantive freedom. Documents drafted in Philadelphia promised liberty. Making good on those promises required a political economy that facilitated the creation of wealth on an enormous scale. Writing over a century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner made the essential point. “Not the Constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people,” he argued, made American democracy possible. A half-century later, the historian David Potter discovered a similar symbiosis between affluence and liberty. Potter credited “a politics of abundance” with creating the American way of life, “a politics which smiled both on those who valued abundance as a means to safeguard freedom and those who valued freedom as an aid in securing abundance.” In short, American prosperity underwrote American freedom. The relationship between the two was reciprocal. Especially as the Industrial Revolution took hold, Americans looked to material abundance to ameliorate domestic tensions and anesthetize the unruly. Money became the preferred lubricant for keeping social and political friction within tolerable limits. As Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, “we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms,” certain that more is better. Over time, prosperity also recast freedom, modifying the criteria for eligibility and broadening its claims. Running in tandem with the chronicle of American expansion abroad is a second narrative of expansion. The theme of this second narrative relates to the transformation of freedom at home. It too is a story of epic achievement overlaid with ambiguity.
Who merits the privileges of citizenship? The answer prevailing in 1776-white male freeholders-was never satisfactory. By the stroke of a Jeffersonian pen, the Declaration of Independence had rendered such a definition untenable. Pressures to amend that restricted conception of citizenship emerged almost immediately. Until World War II, progress achieved on this front was real but fitful. During the years of the postwar economic boom, and especially during the 1960s, the floodgates opened. Barriers fell. The circle of freedom widened appreciably. The percentage of Americans marginalized as “second-class citizens” dwindled. Political credit for this achievement lies squarely with the Left. Abundance sustained in no small measure by a postwar presumption of American “global leadership” made possible the expansion of freedom at home. Possibility became reality thanks to progressive political activism. Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped-in every case, the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution originated among radicals, pinks, liberals, and bleeding-heart fellow-travelers. When it comes to ensuring that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution of modern conservatism has been essentially nil. Had Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s counted on William F. Buckley and the National Review to take up the fight against racial segregation, Jim Crow would still be alive and well.
Granting the traditionally marginalized access to freedom constitutes the central theme of American politics since World War II. It does not diminish the credit due to those who engineered this achievement to note that their success stemmed in part from the fact that the United States was simultaneously asserting its claim to unquestioned global leadership. The reformers who pushed and prodded for racial equality and women’s rights did so in tacit alliance with the officials presiding over the postwar rehabilitation of Germany and Japan, with oil executives pressing to bring the Persian Gulf into America’s sphere of influence, and with defense contractors promoting expensive new weapons programs. The creation of what became by the 1950s an informal American empire of global proportions was not a conspiracy designed to benefit the few. Postwar foreign policy derived its legitimacy from the widely shared perception that the exercise of power abroad was making possible a more perfect union at home. In this sense, a proper understanding of contemporary history requires that we acknowledge an ironic kinship linking cold warriors like Curtis LeMay to feminists like Betty Friedan. General LeMay’s Strategic Air Command-both as manifestation of American might and as central component of the postwar military-industrial complex-helped to foster the conditions from which Friedan’s National Organization for Women emerged.
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