Okay, you might have heard that then-Secretary of State John Hay wrote to Teddy Roosevelt–as recounted on page 105 in Cracks in the Melting Pot, edited by Melvin Steinfeld, and published in New York by the Glencoe Press–of the Spanish American War as a “splendid little war,” you might have seen the quote, “We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world,” from Senator Albert Beveridge on January 9, 1900, on the same page, and you’ve heard the war analogies used in sports and business competition. As Steinfeld explained the prevailing argument for annexing the Phillipines, on page 106, “it was our duty to uplift this people which was ‘unfit for self-government,’ as President McKinley so conveniently phrased it.”
We do a lot of “uplifting.” Based on casualty counts available at GlobalSecurity.org, and adding in for the Indian Wars, which had pretty much finished exterminating Native Americans in 1890, the United States has had its military deployed in at least one engagement–involving combat fatalities–in each of 158 of the 222 years from 1775-1996. This doesn’t count underhanded activities like sponsoring coups in Chile and Iran. And it doesn’t count proxy wars fought in third world nations during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, like the civil war in Angola or U.S. support for Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.
President Bush’s claim to be spreading liberty in the Middle East recalls our attitudes in the subjugation of the Philippines (also not listed); it presumes that other parts of the world benefit from our domination. It recalls Senator John C. Calhoun, who, in a speech on the Senate floor on 4 January 1848 (which Steinfeld reprinted on page 88) said, “The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped–the Portuguese at least to some extent–and we are the only people on this continent which had made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed, and talked about, to erect these Mexicans into a territorial government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States.”
The Iraqis, it seems, are incapable of forming a government on their own; the United States must guide them, and so it has, to a proposed constitution which the Sunnis are so likely to vote against that the Shi’ites and the Kurds changed the election rules to ensure its adoption–and under United Nations and United States pressure, may change the rules back. Some Sunnis withdrew from the election that elected the interim government charged with writing the constitution–ostensibly due to the security situation; others boycotted it in deference to “a man purported to be Osama bin Laden [who] endorsed Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq and called for a boycott” or for fear of legitimating the election of a puppet regime in which minority Sunnis were certain to be underrepresented.
How can we justify replacing Saddam Hussein not with good government, but sheer chaos? “How,” Steinfeld rhetorically asked, “could one possibly justify replacing Spanish domination with American domination? The answer was to be found in the generous nature of a superior, civilized people who had only the best of intentions toward ‘our little brown brothers,’ as we affectionately called the Filipinos.” We failed in the Philippines. And we are failing in Iraq. This “superior civilized people who had only the best of intentions,” after illegitimately invading Iraq, set up illegitimate elections to establish an illegitimate government to write an illegitimate constitution. I think of Calhoun’s anarchy–it would be much to his chagrin that now it is white people who are in charge.
There is no sign yet that the American people recognize the lunacy of manifest destiny. We see ourselves as a peaceloving people, even as we have thrown our military weight around for more than two thirds of our history and expanded from a few colonies on the east coast of North America to the world’s only superpower, a nation that outspends the next six on its military. To challenge our military adventurism is to “spit on” the service of our military men and women who put their lives on the line; it is to “hate freedom and liberty.” It is to be unpatriotic.
If manifest destiny remains a principle of American ideology, we will repeat this mistake we have made so many times before. “Love it or leave it,” says the old bumpersticker. But how can it be sane to remain?