American Exceptionalism and US Imperialism  - Peter Kuznick on Reality Asserts Itself (pt 1/3)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on October 15, 2013. On Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, Prof. Peter Kuznick, historian and co-author with Oliver Stone of the Untold History of The United States, looks at the ideas that justify American conquest and empire.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.

When President Obama spoke at the United Nations, he again said (’cause he had said before) that he considered America an exceptional country. He called it “exceptional”. And I’ll play that quote for you in just a few minutes. But, of course, he’s not the first one to have said that. This idea of American exceptionalism, according to many, goes to the very heart not only of American foreign policy, but of American identity itself.

Here’s a quote from 1900. This is Senator Albert J. Beveridge in support of the annexation of the Philippines. He said:

“God has. . . . made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.”

He goes on to say:

“This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.”

Of course, it’s not only from a fairly conservative position that this gets articulated. Let’s jump ahead a few decades, just before the Iraq War. Here is a liberal version of the same thing. Michael Ignatieff, Canadian academic, at the time living in New York (and had become quite a renowned intellectual in many circles), writes in a cover story for The New York Times Magazine, just on the eve of the Iraq War, the following:

“America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden. . . . The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”

Michael Ignatieff went on to become leader of the party for about five minutes, and this article helped to send him into political oblivion in Canada.

One of the more militant spokesmen for American exceptionalism and a hawk on most affairs and foreign policy is John McCain. Here’s McCain on exceptionalism:

“I do believe in American exceptionalism. . . . We’re the only nation I know in the world that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creators with certain rights. And those we have tried to bring to the world.”

And here’s another quote:

“Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

No, that wasn’t John McCain. That was Barack Obama at the United Nations, the quote I referred to at the beginning of all of this. And I think you find from 1900 on–and I’m sure we’ll find quotes even earlier than that–it’s all more or less the same story.

Now joining us in the studio is Peter Kuznick. Peter is a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He’s a cowriter of the ten-part Showtime series called Untold History of the United States with Oliver Stone, which is just about to come out–in fact, I think it has just come out on DVD and in all the various ways. One can download an electronic book.

Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.


JAY: Now, I’ve done a whole series with Peter and Oliver on their Showtime documentary, which I think is an excellent film, and I think you should go back and watch that series after we watch this.

But we’re going to now focus on this one concept, because Barack Obama, when he said–it’s a big code word to say America’s exceptional. Everyone knows that you’re positioning yourself in this whole tradition of the defense of America as the exception. And in many ways this begins, does it not, as an exception to the old colonial world. We’re not colonial Europe. We don’t go and colonize people. We are the land of liberty. We fought for revolution, for our own freedom, and we bring freedom everywhere. We don’t bring chains. I mean, that’s the narrative, isn’t it?

KUZNICK: Yeah, that’s the narrative. This is deeply rooted in American history and American traditions, this idea that the United States is not only different from all the other countries, that we’re better than all the other countries. This goes back way before the American Revolution, goes back to John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella in Massachusetts Bay in 1630, when the Puritans were out to disembark and build the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his famous sermon he says, America shall be–he says, “we shall be as a city upon a hill” and the eyes of all the world will be upon us. And they, from the very beginning, were staking out a position that they were going to be the model, and it was termed the model for Christian charity.

JAY: The new Jerusalem.

KUZNICK: Yeah, the new Jerusalem, the model for all the backward people in Europe, in England especially. And they were going to follow the American example, the example of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were going to convert to the true vision of Christianity. And then the forces of Satan would be vanquished and the force of God would triumph.

We always represented the forces of God in that way. And Americans still see us as the force of God. According to a fairly recent survey, 57 percent of Americans said that God has given America a special mission to perform in the world and in history–57 percent. So this is not only deeply rooted in our past; it’s still with us today. So it’s part of this evangelizing, Christianizing, civilizing mission that the United States has towards the rest of the world.

JAY: That narrative isn’t so original, though. Like, the British thought they were doing that, the Spanish, the Portuguese. All the old European colonizers would have talked about sending priests, and they were going to go civilize. And I assume that was still the mentality in terms of the expansion in North America, the genocide against native people. I mean, nobody thought they were being liberated. They thought they were being civilized, quote-unquote, which is still the kind of old colonial narrative.

KUZNICK: [crosstalk] the notion of liberation is a much more modern notion. And they weren’t thinking in those terms.

JAY: But when we get–jump ahead, which is–and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me the first big overseas adventure which is dressed up as liberating is the invasion and then what leads to the annexation of the Philippines. Or is there something before that, where that more modern narrative–?

KUZNICK: It’s the biggest overseas adventure. But the war against Mexico can be seen also as an imperialist venture of a different sort.

JAY: [crosstalk] the rhetoric of liberation there? Or was it more straight colonial conquest?

KUZNICK: Well, the rhetoric of defending America’s honor was there from the beginning. And Lincoln was among those who denounced it most fervently.

But in terms of the broader overseas conquest, what you’re getting at is the change that occurs the 1890s with the invasion of the Philippines as part of the Spanish-American war. It didn’t have a lot to do with what was going on in Cuba, which was the main focus, but we immediately took the Philippines also. And why did we do that? Because we needed those way stations, because we were obsessed even at that point with the China market. And so the Philippines and other stations on the way, Midway and Guam, were important for us developing the–taking over the China market.

JAY: And this meant narrative of liberating, not colonizing, Stuart Creighton Miller in 1982, writing about the American adventure in the Philippines, writes:

“Americans altruistically went to war with Spain to liberate the Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos from their tyrannical yoke. If they lingered on too long in the Philippines, it was to protect the Filipinos from European predators waiting in the wings for an American withdrawal and to tutor them in American-style democracy.”

This is from Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines.

KUZNICK: Yeah. That sounds pretty hollow now, doesn’t it?

JAY: Doesn’t it?

KUZNICK: Yeah. But even then, this is 1982.

JAY: This is in 1982.

KUZNICK: So this was in the aftermath of Vietnam. There’s no excuse for that kind of thinking back in 1982 either.

But, you know, to understand that, the Beveridge quote that you started off with, he goes on to say, God “has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.”

I mean, so, it’s this vision, again, suffusing this Christian vision–we’re doing–we’re God’s nation, the chosen people, going out to civilize the rest of the planet of all these heathen, and especially in the Philippines. But Beveridge was important, because he was the only senator to actually visit the Philippines, and everybody was waiting for his benediction or criticism. And he comes back and he gives this glorious support for what America was doing there.

JAY: And it’s almost never talked about, what America did in the Philippines. So I’m sure most of our viewers don’t really know how barbaric that war was.

KUZNICK: It was barbaric. If you look at the island of Samar, the order was to turn it into “a howling wilderness,” to kill every male over the age of ten. And we did that. It was a slaughter. But it was also a racist slaughter. Some of the soldiers wrote back letters saying it was so much more fun to kill these little niggers here in the Philippines. There was a big southern element involved in this, a lot of discrimination, a lot of racism.

JAY: Concentration camps where hundreds of thousands of people died.

KUZNICK: Concentration camps. The beginning of waterboarding for the United States occurs in the Philippines. We explicitly use waterboarding there.

JAY: And this is all–in the beginning is a sort of American support for–there was a revolutionary movement to fight against Spanish colonization.

KUZNICK: Yeah. The revolutionary movement was run, headed by Emilio Aguinaldo. He was sure that he was going to get American support, ’cause they were a popular democratic movement. But instead–up to that point the United States had generally been on the side of progressive reform around the world. Why 1898 is so important: because the turning point–the United States goes from being a supporter of revolutionary movements–and we have a revolutionary tradition ourselves that we’re proud of–to becoming the leading counterinsurgency force in the world. That doesn’t begin with Petraeus; this begins really in 1898, when the United States begins to position itself against reform and radical change everywhere. And then the United States begins its mission of intervening in a lot of places throughout Latin America. Every time there’s unrest or revolutionary movements, especially the ones that threaten American business interests, the United States sends in the Marines.

Smedley Butler’s warning about that in his later statements about–that he was a muscleman for capitalism [incompr.] go in there. He said, we overthrew this movement to support the national bank boys here and for Harriman here. And he talks about it very explicitly. And Butler, as you know, was the most decorated Marine of his generation, maybe even still. And he says–he wrote a book, War Is a Racket and denounced everything he’d been doing from the Philippines and China up through the 1920s and 1930s.

JAY: Well, talk a little bit more of happened in the Philippines, ’cause, as I say, it’s almost been eliminated from the popular historical discourse.

KUZNICK: It was the first major American colonial venture. The United States at that point was differentiating itself from the Europeans and from the old European empires. The American attitude was that we’re not going to be a colonial empire. We hated colonial empires ’cause we fought against and liberated ourselves from one. Britain was not very popular in the United States during this time. Even when we enter World War I, there’s a lot of resistance to going in on Britain’s side, because the Fourth of July celebrations were anti-British celebrations throughout this period. There was a lot of hostility toward the British Empire still, and we didn’t want to be classed as an empire with them. American public thought very negatively about empires.

But that thinking is beginning to change. And we see that happen in the 1900 election when William Jennings Bryan is running against McKinley. McKinley might have been a reluctant imperialist, but by 1900 he had embraced imperialism pretty fully.

JAY: This is William Jennings Bryan in 1900 accepting the nomination for president from the Democratic Party. Here’s a quote:

“If we have an imperial policy, we must have a great standing army as its natural and necessary complement. The spirit which will justify the forcible annexation of the Philippine islands will justify the seizure of other islands and the domination of other people, and with wars of conquest we can expect a certain, if not rapid, growth of our military establishment.”

That’s 1900.

KUZNICK: I guess he was wrong, ’cause we never developed a military establishment or a national security state.

JAY: Yeah, everyone goes on about Eisenhower’s warning about this. This is 1900.

KUZNICK: Yeah, Bryan was on the mark when it came to this. It’s unfortunate that Bryan is remembered more for his reactionary stance in the Scopes Trial, for his opposition to evolution in the 1920s. But Bryan was a real progressive, and Bryan was an outspoken anti-imperialist, and he was in favor of progressive policies toward women, toward elections. I mean, there are a lot of things about Bryan. And he stood up on principle against Wilson before World War I. He resigned in principle as secretary of State because it was clear to him that Wilson was pushing the United States toward war on the side of Britain in World War I.

JAY: Just to give a sense again of just how barbaric the American war against the Philippines was, here’s a couple of quotes from Mark Twain. Many people probably don’t know–some of you probably do know–but Mark Twain was one of the leaders of something called the anti-imperialist league that came into being to oppose the war against the Philippines. Here’s a couple of quotes from Twain.

“It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

And he writes:

“And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed”–referring to what Philippines would be after annexation. “We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

It was an intense, vicious, vigorous debate about all of this in 1900.

KUZNICK: Yes. There was a sharp debate in the Senate. Many people denounced imperialism from the beginning and, like Bryan, understood that we’re going down this slippery slope toward becoming an empire. And an empire to them meant the big standing army, which was going to repress strikers, was going to repress farmers. This oppression doesn’t only exist overseas; it’s going to be directed at home as well, in their vision. And it goes against what they saw as the revolutionary tradition, everything that America was supposed to stand for.

But you see that split, and that split reoccurs over and over again. That’s the battle between Henry Wallace and Henry Luce in 1941, 1942, when Henry Luce says, the 20th century must be the American century and the United States is going to dominate the world in all these ways, militarily also. And Wallace says, no, the 20th century must be the century of the common man; we need a worldwide people’s revolution in the tradition of the American, French, Latin American, and Russian revolutions.

So [incompr.] we still have that in the United States now, a conflict between these two visions of the role the United States is supposed to play, and which is why in a situation recently when the public comes out so strongly against military attack against Syria, that’s part of that tradition again. And that’s also a part of America. Unfortunately, that has been muted, has been–the other forces have tended to win, ’cause you can usually rally people around the flag and around warfare in the United States throughout the time from 1898 to the present–with some exceptions, but that’s been more the case.

JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, we’re going to talk a little bit more about why this shift takes place towards the end of the 19th century, and then a little more examination of the narrative of American exceptionalism and the reality of American foreign policy. So please join us for part two of our interview with Peter Kuznick on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

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Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and is currently serving his sixth three-year term as a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians. He has written extensively about science and politics, nuclear history, and Cold War culture.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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