Responding to lies about America's "isolationist" past and "imperialist" present

Posted: Nov 07, 2007 7:58 AM
Responding to lies about America's "isolationist" past and "imperialist" present

Those who claim that the United States has become a rapacious, arrogant, destructive, domineering and imperialistic power must somehow explain the continued independent existence of the nation of Canada.

Alongside our allegedly land-hungry and bellicose empire, the Maple Leaf Republic has flourished for more than two centuries --- vast, under-populated, resource rich and virtually defenseless. Unlike our Mexican neighbors to the south, the Canadians presented no substantial cultural or linguistic differences to sour the prospect of swallowing the Great White North. On three different occasions, Americans attempted or considered a push to absorb all or part of Canada: in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and during the complicated Venezuela Boundary Crisis with Great Britain in 1895. Nevertheless, the Yankee imperialists stopped well short of conquest and in the 21st Century era of unchallenged US hegemony, Canada has gone its own quirky way more notably than ever before, reveling in its separate destiny and distinctive institutions.

The history of U.S. respect for Canada’s continued sovereignty hardly comports with the prevailing anti-American clichés that suggest Americans long to impose on all the world the same “genocidal” approach we deployed against the Indians.

In one altogether typical fulmination, the British playwright Harold Pinter (author of joyless, often inscrutable dramas and screenplays of singular pomposity) used the occasion of his Nobel Prize for Literature to denounce the United States and all its works. In his “Pearl Harbor Day” Nobel Lecture of December 7, 2005, Pinter launched his own sneak attack on his American cousins. “The crimes of the United States,” he declared, “have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis. I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman, it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love.”

He goes on to denounce the United States for its “8,000 active and operational nuclear warheads… Who, I wonder, are they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris? Who knows? What we do know is that this infantile insanity – the possession and theoretical use of nuclear weapons – is at the heart of the present American political philosophy. We must remind ourselves that the United States is on a permanent military footing and shows no sign of relaxing it.”

Noam Chomsky, the only contemporary philosopher to receive ardent and explicit endorsement from both Hugo Chavez and Osama bin Laden, makes similar arguments about the monstrous and dangerous nature of the United States. In his 2006 book “Failed States” the prophet intones: “Washington’s aggressive militarism is not the only factor driving the race to ‘apocalypse soon,’ but is surely a significant one. The plans and policies fall within a much broader context, with roots going back to the Clinton years and beyond…. By now, the world’s hegemonic power accords itself the right to wage war at will, under a doctrine of ‘anticipatory self-defense’ with unstated bounds.”

In addition to outspoken America-bashers like Pinter and Chomsky, who accuse the United States of a long history of exploitative, arrogant militarism going back to the early treatment of Native Americans and the very origins of the nation, there’s another strain of anti-imperialist sentiment suggesting that our arrogant role in world affairs represents a recent and alien aberration imposed by some vile conspiracy of “globalists” or “neo-cons.” These impassioned critics of the current War on Terror (many of them clustered in and around the insurgent Presidential campaign of Congressman Ron Paul), conjure up images of a pacific, noble, non-interventionist past, when America had the good sense to avoid meddling in the business of other nations. Only recently, they argue, has the Republic involved itself in needless, dangerous and undeclared wars that sacrifice the true national interest for the sake of privileged but secretive economic elites.

Both brands of anti-Americanism misstate our history and require correction. No, the involvement in far-flung, often unpopular conflicts doesn’t represent a recent innovation but characterized every stage of our emergence as a world power. And the purpose of these numerous conflicts and interventions bore little connection to colonialism or conquest and most often displayed surprisingly and surpassingly unselfish intentions.


The United States fought its first war against Islamic extremism more than 200 years ago, producing inspiring victories in exotic locales, the first line of the Marines Hymn (“….to the shores of Tripoli), our first great post-Revolutionary military hero (Stephen Decatur), and his immortal toast (“Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”).

The Barbary Wars also lasted four years (1801-05), with a brutal recurrence ten years after that, and helped to establish a long-standing U.S. tradition of small wars, or so-called “low intensity conflicts.” As Max Boot points out in his superb and eye-opening book “The Savage Wars of Peace,” 2002: “There is another, less celebrated tradition in U.S. military history – a tradition of fighting small wars. Between 1800 and 1934, U.S. Marines staged 180 landings abroad. The army and navy added a few small-scale engagements of their own. Some of these excursions resulted in heavy casualties; others involved almost no fighting ….Some were successful, others not. But most of these campaigns were fought by a relatively small number of professional soldiers pursuing limited objectives with limited means. These are the nonwars that Kipling called ‘the savage wars of peace.’”

Ignoring the long record of American involvement in such conflicts in every corner of the globe, those who question our current world-wide role express reverence for a simple-minded (and non existent) tradition of isolationism. They cite George Washington’s words in his celebrated Farewell Address of 1793: “The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible….’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.” Jefferson also warned against “entangling alliances,” at the same time he negotiated a vast expansion of U.S. territory with France, and pursued the daring and difficult Barbary Wars.

Even Pat Buchanan, the three time Presidential candidate most often identified as a contemporary advocate of “isolationism,” rejects the idea that the nation ever cowered behind its Atlantic and Pacific “water walls.” In his provocative and beautifully written book “A Republic, Not an Empire,” (1999), Buchanan argues: “The idea that America was ever an isolationist nation is a myth, a useful myth to be sure, but nonetheless a malevolent myth that approaches the status of a big lie…. What is derided today as isolationism was the foreign policy under which the Republic grew from thirteen states on the Atlantic into a continent-wide nation that dominated the hemisphere and whose power reached to Peking….To call the foreign policy that produced this result “isolationist” is absurd. Americans were willing to go to war with the greatest powers in Europe, but only for American interests. They had no wish to take sides in European wars in which America had no stake.”

Donald Kagan makes a similar case in “Dangerous Nation” (2006), insisting that many Americans remain misled or ill-informed about the true nature of our history: “This gap between Americans' self-perception and the perceptions of others has endured throughout the nation’s history. Americans have cherished an image of themselves as by nature inward-looking and aloof, only sporadically and spasmodically venturing forth into the world, usually in response to external attack or perceived threats. This self-image survives, despite four hundred years of steady expansion and an ever-deepening involvement in world affairs, and despite innumerable wars, interventions and prolonged occupations in foreign lands…. Even as the United States has risen to a position of global hegemony, expanding its reach and purview and involvement across the continent and then across the ocean, Americans still believe their nation’s natural tendencies are toward passivity, indifference and insularity.”

This misconception helped to produce one of the most common (and ignorant) indictments of the Iraq War, with angry critics of Bush policy emphatically insisting: “This is the first time in history we ever attacked any country that hadn’t attacked us first.” In fact, virtually all our major wars began without some clear-cut attack by the enemy on American soil: the French-and-Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam and the First Gulf War claimed a total of tens of thousands of American lives based on incidents or interests, but without any undeniable mass assault. In 230 years of history only the Civil War (where Lincoln cleverly lured Southern forces into the initial bombardment of federal property at Fort Sumter) and World War II (where Japan struck at precisely one of those outposts of empire in distant Hawaii that anti-imperialists often decry) commenced in response to enemy strikes.

While American traditions hardly fit the “isolationist” and quiescent stereotypes that many anti-interventionists revere, they also amount to a far cry from the colonialist and imperialist selfishness associated with the European powers. Even the most bloody and long-standing U.S. occupations (as in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, or in Japan and Germany a half-century later) resulted in the voluntary departure of American forces. In some cases, the U.S. expansionism resulted in the incorporation of a territory as a full-recognized new state in the Union (as with Hawaii) while all observers recognize that the long twilight status for Puerto Rico will ultimately be resolved into either independence or statehood.

The nation’s lack of imperial designs revealed itself most clearly, perhaps, at the Versailles Conference following America’s triumphant (and very costly) involvement in World War I. Despite the fact that President Wilson clearly dominated the proceedings, the United States remained the only one of the victorious allied powers that sought no territorial or colonial enhancement at the proceedings.

In short, the categorization of the United States as a “dangerous nation” (in the 1817 phrase of America’s ambassador in London, John Quincy Adams) arose from ideological and cultural origins as much as the application of burgeoning power. Donald Kagan writes: “But aggressive territorial expansionism was not the only quality that made the young American republic dangerous in the eyes of others. Of equal if not sometimes greater concern was the danger posed by America’s revolutionary ideology, as well as by the way its liberal, commercial society seemed to swallow up those cultures with which it came into contact.”

This American ability to advance our interests through example and ideas deserves further exploration (next week), particularly in the context of the Cold War distortions so eagerly promulgated by today’s anti-Americans of the international left.