Tag Archives: manifest destiny

Is American Destiny Manifest?

American Progress, (1872) by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Columbia, a personification of the United States, is shown leading civilization westward with the American settlers. She is shown bringing light from the East into the West, stringing telegraph wire, holding a school textbook that will instill knowledge, and highlights different stages of economic activity and evolving forms of transportation. Wikipedia

Oddly enough, I had reached the same conclusion as Robert Kaplan in the process of writing my book on the West Fork valley. It was the West Fork of White River, tumbling northward along our long valley that carved the land where I live and thus the livelihoods and experiences of the people who live here. This is Kaplan’s thesis in his book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes American’s Role in the World.

Reading Kaplan took longer than I had expected. His prose forms dense thought clusters embroidered by quotes and references to a wide array of thinkers. But I was motivated soon after starting the book by his storyline which follows his journey from the east coast to the Pacific. And by the fact that from as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved geography.

Oh, not exactly the study of geography—although I’ve learned to appreciate that as well—but rather the experience of it. The varying shades of dirt and sand, the rise of hills and mountains, the sudden drop of arroyos and canyons carved by quick floods and persistent rivers. Rivers, desert, plains – all if it thrills me each with its own particular mood and energy. If I had been able to travel the world in my younger more flexible years, it wouldn’t have been to visit cities or museums, but rather to see the lay of the land.

But I digress. It’s not from that perspective that Kaplan examines geography’s role in the course of American history. Rather, he argues that by the unique circumstance of our nation’s particular framing by the world’s two largest oceans as well as our unique pioneer spirit, we are fated to serve as world leader. I’d have to read this book again—and his other books including The Revenge of Geography—in order to be convinced that I don’t agree with his conclusions, but as of this moment, I really don’t.

A U.S. soldier stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, Iraq, April 2003 Wikipedia

Kaplan describes the conflict between America’s urge toward isolationism and the stake (and responsibility) we have in a global community. His narrative journey from east to west parallels (intentionally) the path of the pioneers, providing him the storyline needed to talk about how the experiences of pioneers created the unique American personality. In developing this view, Kaplan cites Bernard DeVoto and his student Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in stating that “…the geography of the American West freighted the United States with a precise and unprecedented international destiny. DeVoto saw dynamic, westering America, in Schlesinger’s words, as ‘the redeemer, spreading its free institutions to less fortunate peoples.’”[1]

…The American character of today is still to some extent a frontier character born of those solitudes [the Rockies]. Our rapacious form of capitalism, as well as the natural, unspoken national consensus to deploy the navy and air force, and sometimes even the coast guard, to the four corners of the earth, are signs of it.[2]

Kaplan’s view of the American story – and the view of many others he cites – is based on the idea of Manifest Destiny:

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:

–The special virtues of the American people and their institutions

–The mission of the United States to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America

–An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty

Historian Frederick Merk says this concept was born out of “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example … generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.”[3]

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861). The title of the painting, from a 1726 poem by Bishop Berkeley, was a phrase often quoted in the era of manifest destiny, expressing a widely held belief that civilization had steadily moved westward throughout history. Wikipedia

In this view, pioneers pushed west in order to escape the exhausted moral fiber of their European ancestors and to carve a new, more honest way of life. Pioneers faced unimaginable hardships that stiffened their spines and led to a national character found today in fighter pilots and bold inventors. Kaplan superimposes this foundation on the world of the 21st century and questions the proper role of our nation in the global community.

He concludes that we as a nation are fated by our geography to be the leader in a “post-imperial world.” Delving into brief analyses of other regions in an attempt to understand the possibilities for U.S. interaction and intervention, Kaplan posits a leadership role of post imperialism for the U.S. but refuses to acknowledge any self-serving intention for such a role. Rather, by our unique position with oceans on both sides and the determined character of our people, we have pursued globally what needed to be done with the same vision as we pursued the western frontier.

Although the book has stimulated intense thought, I could not escape arguments that popped into my mind against his conclusions. With random brief nods to our rampant capitalism, never in these nearly two hundred pages did Kaplan talk about the role of corporations or profit seeking-entrepreneurs in motivating modern U.S. foreign policy or the pioneers. Free land, or the exploitation of virgin forests and wildlife, or the unearthing of precious minerals were what motivated the pioneers as much as seeking freedom to live outside the dictates of European kings and classism. That same motivation for wealth is what governs our foreign policy today, whether it’s the protection of corporate interests in developing nascent oil fields (Middle East, Southeast Asia, South America) or in more obscure resources like the rare earth deposits in Afghanistan. We might appease our consciences about trampling indigenous tribes to build oil pipelines by the idea we’re bringing them the wonders of modern civilization, but it remains to be seen whether modern civilization is superior to millennia-old sustainable traditions.

My limited scholarship on these topics can’t stand against the background of an author and scholar of the stature of Robert D. Kaplan. I’d have to read all seventeen books plus the works of other knowledgeable scholars to even begin to claim any authority. But I’m discouraged by his failure to discuss even for one paragraph the role of wealth-seeking so intrinsic to the American experience or the influence of corporations in our imperialism. His assertion that our worldwide deployment of warships and air power is basically a function of our benign responsibility and exceptionalism strikes me as outrageously self-serving.

Manifest destiny excused the genocide of Native Americans. Kaplan tries to sidestep that reality in quoting Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954):

What destroyed the Indian was not primarily political greed, land hunger, or military power, not the white man’s germs or the white man’s rum. What destroyed him was the manufactured products of a culture, iron and steel, guns, needles, woolen cloth, things that once possessed could not be done without.[4]

I call bullshit.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Cuba, in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. A black boy is washing windows, a Native American sits separate from the class, and a Chinese boy is outside the door. The caption reads: “School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!”

But Kaplan’s work also forces me to reassess what I’ve been taught throughout my lifetime about our role as a nation. I equivocate on whether to accept that our system of governance is the most enlightened in the world, but I can’t call to mind one that seems superior. I also can’t deny that we enjoy the highest standard of living and that our wealth, indisputably ill-gotten in many ways, has still been a life-saving resource to endangered, starving or sick people around the world. I can’t ignore the accomplishments of our technology in creating a global culture joined through the Internet, telephones, and television which in many ways may serve as the ultimate means of moral arbitration.

I’m bemused by Kaplan’s assertion that our national character and world role stems from our unique continental configuration in having an ocean both to our east and our west. But so does Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Canada, South Africa, Great Britain, Italy, France, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and more. Could it be that the wealth-building resources of these other nations had long since been exhausted either internally or by other empires before the modern age?  Why doesn’t Kaplan acknowledge that the American colonists stumbled onto a continent virtually untouched by human exploitation and it is from that harvest of Nature’s bounty that our wealth was captured?

Why doesn’t he talk about what might happen when our soil, rivers, and forests are as decimated as those that used to undergird the wealth of Europe or India?

No matter my arguments at various points in his work, I’m glad I read it. I will read it again. Kaplan’s previous positions as national security chair at the U.S. Naval Academy, as a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security means I need to know more about what he knows and how he thinks if I hope to consider myself informed on our nation’s foreign policy. This no doubt has been the rationale for his many readers/reviewers including James Mattis, David Petraeus, Henry Kissinger, and many other prominent Americans not to mention review boards and other authors.

~~~

[1] Kaplan, Robert. Earning the Rockies. New York: Random House. 19

[2] 24

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny

[4] Kaplan 27

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The Futility of Standing Rock

american_progress

American Progress, an 1872 painting by John Gast, is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. Here Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads civilization westward with American settlers. She then brings light from the East into the darkness of the West, stringing telegraph wire as she sweeps west; she holds a book that “represents learning and knowledge” as well. The different stages of economic activity of the pioneers are highlighted and, especially, the evolving forms of transportation.

 

Is Standing Rock the line in the sand where Americans demand a do-over? Does the heroic action of Natives suddenly provoke the nation to a change of heart?

I don’t think so.

Yes, there was a treaty with the Sioux in 1851. “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (10 Stat. 949) was a treaty signed on July 23, 1851, between the United States government and Sioux Indian bands in Minnesota Territory by which the Sioux ceded territory. The treaty was instigated by Alexander Ramsey, the first governor of Minnesota Territory, and Luke Lea, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. The United States wanted the treaty to gain control of agricultural lands for more settlers.”[1]

330px-sioux01

Location of Sioux tribes prior to 1770 (dark green) and their current reservations (orange) in the US

But that wasn’t the end of forced Sioux treaties. “The Treaty of Fort Laramie (also called the Sioux Treaty of 1868) was an agreement between the United States and the Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brulé bands of Lakota people, Yanktonai Dakota, and Arapaho Nation signed on April 29, 1868 at Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory, guaranteeing the Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, and further land and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The Powder River Country was to be henceforth closed to all whites.

“Repeated violations of the otherwise exclusive rights to the land by gold prospectors led to the Black Hills War. Migrant workers seeking gold had crossed the reservation borders, in violation of the treaty. Indians had assaulted these gold prospectors, in violation of the treaty, and war ensued. The U.S. government seized the Black Hills land in 1877.

450px-siouxreservationmap

Map of the 1868 Great Sioux Reservation, and the subsequent changes in reservation borders

“More than a century later, the Sioux nation won a victory in court. On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the United States Supreme Court upheld an award of $15.5 million for the market value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest at 5 percent, for an additional $105 million. The Lakota Sioux, however, refused to accept payment and instead demanded the return of their territory from the United States.

“In more recent proceedings the U.S. Courts have seen that some of the monies associated with the claim have been expended and, as such, claim that the agreement is valid. In fact, several thousand tribal members have filed for and are awaiting for a final decision by the Court to decide to issue the resources to tribal members.”[2]

“In the summer of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began a protest against construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, also known as the Bakken pipeline, which, if completed, is designed to carry hydrofracked  crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to the oil storage and transfer hub of Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline travels only half a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and is designed to pass underneath the Missouri River and upstream of the reservation, causing many concerns over the tribe’s drinking water safety, environmental protection, and harmful impacts on culture. The pipeline company claims that the pipeline will provide jobs, reduce American dependence on foreign oil and reduce the price of gas.”[3]

In the tradition of all ancient native people, the Standing Rock protesters’ view is broader and longer term than the typical white view. For ancient people, monetary gain has no standing compared to the value of drinkable water. Someday the pipeline will leak. Maybe not in our lifetime or even in our children’s lifetimes, but someday the pipeline will leak.

What then? The oil won’t just wash away in the next rain. It penetrates the soil where it continues to pollute for decades. Or longer.

There is no argument against this. The Sioux protest at Standing Rock is legitimate in its concern over the long term future of the water.

And what the hell difference does that make? When have the white invaders of North America (and South America, Central America, the Pacific Islands, etc.) ever considered the long term impact of their actions? Our ‘manifest destiny’ was to expand across the continent to ‘redeem’ and remake the land in the white vision of farms and villages. While not embraced by all political leaders of the 19th century, the concept of manifest destiny was widely held by whites and fit hand in glove with the view that we alone held special God-given virtues that granted us exclusive right to fulfill this destiny.[4]

It was our duty as whites to cleanse the lands of heathen beliefs and believers. It was our duty as whites to pursue progress even if it meant using slaves to do so. And so forth.

The reward for such noble efforts was to reap the bounty these lands had to offer. Gold and silver. Virgin timber. Animal skins and meat. Oil. The DAPL pipeline is more of the same. We found this oil and we need it.

A bigger issue looms behind this protest. If by some quirk the Sioux are the ultimate winners of this contest, think of what might happen next. If their treaties are to be honored, if their ancestral lands and holy places and burial grounds and natural resources are found to be theirs, what happens to all the white people who have bought those lands, built their houses, barns and fences, sent down roots for over four generations?

What happens with all the other Native tribes’ treaties that have similarly been ignored?

Are we ready to give up the majority of our homes, schools, cities, and workplaces in order to honor our treaties? Once we acknowledge the rights of the Sioux to determine the fate of the DAPL, we’re on a slippery slope toward that end. This is why you won’t see elected officials rushing to the side of the Standing Rock protesters. They’re sworn to uphold our laws. Our laws, not the long held beliefs of Natives.

We enforce our laws now just as always—by force. Our laws are part and parcel of manifest destiny. We made them to suit us, not the Natives. If we pick at one thread in our long history of occupation and oppression, the entire fabric of our way of life starts to unravel.

The law says protesters are occupying private land. The law says that Energy Transfer Partners, the Army Corps of Engineers, and others have met the legal (our law) requirements for building the pipeline. The law says that trespassers and obstructionists are subject to arrest for violating the law.

We want what we want. We want to drive our cars to the theater and grocery store. We want the internet, running water, and convenient heating and cooling. We’ve invented these things to further advance our well-being. To justify all that has come before including slavery and genocide, we can point to landing a man on the moon, modern medicine, and the microchip as a few examples of our superiority.

Our manifest destiny.

Even a win for the Standing Rock protest would not solve the bigger issue. Even if by some fiat the pipeline route is changed, or the oil piling up at the fracking sites is ultimately moved by truck or railcars, the bigger issue remains. We live on Native lands and harvest Native resources.

When the gold, silver, copper, rare earth, and every other microcosm of value have been mined, cut, harvested, and fished, then what? When the waters become too polluted to drink or feed our crops, then what? When the soil becomes too depleted and contaminated to grow our food, then what?

levcrpp1080012_1024_x_768

Deforestation is one of the main causes of climate change. It is the second largest anthropogenic source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, after fossil fuel combustion.

We’ve pretty much run out of new continents to exploit.

We already see the horizon. It is there in the wasteland of our industrial cities. It is there in the overflowing containment ponds leaking hazardous mining waste. It is there in the lost futures of whites who believed in their manifest destiny and now find themselves discarded as Destiny chooses robots instead of men to build cars.

Manifest destiny gave us this land. It gave us right to work laws that gutted the power of organized labor. It gave us multi-national corporations who have no allegiance except to money.

Manifest destiny still drives not only our national attitude about domestic affairs but our international policies as well. “The belief in an American mission to promote and defend democracy throughout the world, as expounded by Thomas Jefferson and his “Empire of Liberty” and Abraham Lincoln, was continued by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Under Harry Truman (and Douglas MacArthur) it was implemented in practice in the American rebuilding of Japan and Germany after World War II.

“George W. Bush in the 21st century applied it to the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Iraq. In proclaiming a mission to combat terror, Bush was continuing a long tradition of prophetic presidential action to be the beacon of freedom in the spirit of manifest destiny.”[5]

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Traverse_des_Sioux

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Fort_Laramie_(1868)

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sioux

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_destiny