America Isn't an Innocent Abroad


Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School, and a book review editor for HNN.

While the beaches of Hawaii provide rest and relaxation for many tourists, others visiting the Hawaiian Islands stand in long lines to observe the submerged battleship Arizona as a monument to December 7, 1941, a day which President Franklin D. Roosevelt assured Americans would live in infamy.  Thus, Pearl Harbor, almost seventy years after the Japanese attack on the American naval base, remains hallowed ground to many Americans who equate Pearl Harbor with the 9/11 plane hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  In both cases, the conventional wisdom dictates that the United States was the victim of unprovoked aggression.  American innocence was shattered by those who attacked without warning and inflicted death and destruction upon a people and society serving as a beacon of freedom in a hostile world.

This perception of American exceptionalism and the apparent parallels between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were evident in an October 2006 Oklahoma City (ironically, the site of America’s most deadly act of domestic terrorism) speech by Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chief of Naval Operations and now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Mullen asserted that in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, “There were clearly two competing visions of the world:  one of freedom, the other of tyranny.  And tyranny appeared to have the upper hand.”  The admiral then asked his audience to “fast forward to today” and the war on terror, which he equated with the challenges facing the United States and President Roosevelt following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma City audience was reassured that just as good and democracy triumphed over evil and fascism in World War II, the United States would emerge victorious over Islamic terrorists threatening the American way of life.  George W. Bush echoed these sentiments in his 2006 National Pearl Harbor Day, offering no evidence of introspection regarding the place of the United States in the world.  The perceptions of American innocence and good intentions are simply givens which no true American patriot would question.  Yet, the reality of the American presence in Hawaii and the Pacific, as well as American foreign policy pursued during the Cold War, presents a more complicated narrative which Americans continue to ignore at their own peril.

Back in Hawaii, visitors to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor are treated to a twenty-minute film presentation which attempts to place the Japanese attack within historical context.   With large numbers of Japanese visitors, there is certainly no overt racism present in the National Park Service narrative.  The Japanese Empire is constructed as the aggressor in the Pacific War, but the blame for hostilities is placed upon Japanese militarists who gained control of the government, invaded China, and allied with Nazi Germany.  The Japanese people and Emperor Hirohito are essentially exonerated.  On the other hand, the Americans are depicted as the champions of democracy intent upon protecting China, Hawaii, and Indochina from Japanese aggression.

But Hawaiian tourists might want to also visit the ‘Iolani Palace, the royal residence constructed by King Kalakaua in 1882, where a different perspective of the United States presence is offered.  Visitors are cautioned about demonstrating proper reverence for the past, expect in this case the respect is focused upon Queen Lili’uokalani, whose monarchy was toppled in 1893 by American businessmen in cahoots with the United States Navy.  Blocked from the lucrative American sugar market by the McKinley Tariff, those business interests sought guaranteed access to American markets through territorial annexation by the United States.  As visitors move through the beautiful palace in their padded slippers, they are informed by tour guides that in 1895, the Queen was placed on trial, in her own throne room, for treason against the newly-constructed Republic of Hawaii—a government representing the aspirations of American planters like Sanford Dole rather than the interests of the indigenous Hawaiian people.  The Queen was put under house arrest for almost a year in a second-floor bedroom of the palace, where she worked on a quilt reflecting themes of Hawaiian sovereignty.  Meanwhile, many of the royal furnishings were sold at public auction by the new government. 

Lili’uokalani appealed to President Grover Cleveland to oppose a treaty of annexation and restore her monarchy.  The treaty was temporarily blocked in the Senate, but Cleveland failed to support restoration of the legitimate Hawaiian authority.  In the favorable expansionist atmosphere fostered by the Spanish-American War, however, Hawaii was accepted as an American territory, although statehood was not conferred until 1959.  Lili’uokalani never regained her throne, and she died in 1917.  Well off the beaten tourist path, the ‘Iolani Palace remains a symbol of Hawaiian nationalism and pride.  Disregarding the troubled history of the Hawaiian monarchy distorts the American presence in paradise and perpetuates acceptance of American innocence.  It does not seem to dawn upon anyone to ask what the U.S. Navy was doing at Pearl Harbor.  Assumptions of innocence erase such troubling questions from the mind and promote unquestioning acceptance of American expansionism as promoting the spread of democracy.

In reality, the annexation of Hawaii was part of American expansion into the Pacific in search of markets, placing the American empire upon a collision course with Japan.  Military success against Spain led to the 1898 Treaty of Paris, under which the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.  The Platt Amendment approved by the Senate also gave the United States the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the Cuban state which gained its independence from Spain.  The Spanish-American War and its aftermath made the United States a colonial power intent upon extending the benefits of its superior civilization to the Hawaiian Islands and Pacific as well as the Caribbean.

Under President Roosevelt, the United States also embraced an interventionist policy in the Caribbean and Latin America.  Formulating what came to be known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt asserted a dominant role for the United States to ensure stability in Latin America, sending Marines into the Dominican Republic to collect debts and interfering in the internal affairs of Columbia to construct a canal in Panama under American control.  Proclaiming an aggressive foreign policy, Roosevelt was fond of applying the “big stick” of military intervention to secure markets and extend American influence in the world—an influence which Roosevelt perceived as benevolent.  His successor William Howard Taft believed that the benefits of American civilization could best be extended globally through investment and the promotion of business interests.

Woodrow Wilson, however, maintained that the policies of Roosevelt and Taft failed to emphasize the unique moral mission of the United States.  Highlighting the necessity of the United States to spread the virtues of democracy, Wilson intervened in the Mexican Revolution and vowed that he would teach the Mexicans to elect good men.  Under Wilson, U. S. Marines also invaded Haiti and Nicaragua, but the president’s diplomatic focus was on the war in Europe.  Although he insisted upon neutrality in his 1916 reelection campaign, American economic interests poised the United States to intervene on the behalf of the British.  Wilson, however, could not justify military action on the basis of crude economic and materialistic forces.  Instead, he would raise the moralistic issue of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare against defenseless civilians.  Citing the loss of 128 innocent Americans with the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915, Wilson was able to don the cloak of innocence and secure a pledge that Germany would abandon unrestricted submarine warfare.  When a desperate Germany broke that pledge in 1917, Wilson secured a declaration of war from the Congress.  In his war message, Wilson emphasized the themes of innocence and selflessness as the United States was only entering the conflict to assure world peace and promote democracy.

George W. Bush would employ Wilsonian rhetoric in 2003, suggesting that the invasion of Iraq would foster democracy in the Middle East.  Both Bush and Wilson would find it difficult to control the forces that were unleashed by war.  Bush failed to foresee the Iraqi opposition to the invasion, while Wilson’s Fourteen Points neglected to promote self-determination for colonized peoples.  The Versailles Treaty violated the “peace without victory” platitudes of the Fourteen Points, and American participation in the League of Nations was rejected by the Senate.

While disillusionment and isolation are concepts often employed to describe post-World War I American diplomatic relations, in reality the 1920s are better characterized as showing continuing adherence to the development of markets and reliance upon unilateral military interventions in Central America.  The Great Depression threatened international trade as countries sought to protect domestic markets by increasing tariff duties.  Beset by economic crisis and the pressure to acquire precious natural resources, the world drifted toward dictatorship and war.  Short of resources such as iron ore and oil, the Empire of Japan invaded China and endangered American commitment to the open door.  As expansionist states in the Pacific, the United States and Japan were on a collision course.  When Japan moved into the undefended French colony of Vietnam, the United States responded by freezing Japanese assets which essentially denied Japan access to American oil markets.  Running out of oil reserves and confronted with a demand from the United States that she withdraw from China and Vietnam, Japan answered with assaults upon American military bases in Hawaii and the Philippines that were perceived as threats blocking Japan’s seizure of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.  The struggle for dominance in the Pacific culminated in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed by Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Many Americans continue to perceive the use of atomic weapons against Japanese civilians as justified by the righteous indignation of an innocent nation provoked by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Yet, the history of American expansionism on the North American continent, followed by imperialistic designs in the Pacific and Latin America, raise serious questions about assumptions of American innocence.  While the indigenous peoples of Hawaii and the Philippines were not prepared to welcome the Japanese as liberators, they had also resisted their incorporation into the American empire.  Thus, the World War II narrative of American innocence perpetuated at Pearl Harbor is more conflicted than visitors to the Arizona recognize, and the same is true for the history of American participation in the Cold War, culminating in the tragedy of 9/11 and the conception of sacred space at ground zero in New York City.

The ambiguities of World War II and the Cold War, which would rise from the ashes of the global conflict against fascism, were little apparent, however, to many Americans in the 1940s.  Americans enlisting in the war effort perceived that they were engaged in a global struggle with fascism whose defeat would usher in an era of peace with all people having an opportunity to live and labor free from oppression.  This sense of the war’s possibilities both domestically and internationally was well captured by folksinger Woody Guthrie, who served with the Merchant Marine during the war.  Writing to dancer Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, with whom he was expecting a child, Guthrie believed, “It makes me glad when I think that this is the war that’s going to give not only Jews, but Irish, Negro, Catholic, Protestant, Italians, Mexicans, Hindus, Indians, everybody of every race and color, an equal place to work and live equal, under the sun.”  6

Like many working people, Guthrie would, unfortunately, be disappointed and disillusioned by the postwar world.  Dreams of peace were shattered by the emerging Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, while domestic reform was stifled by McCarthyism and the anticommunist crusade.  New Deal reformers, labor activists, and advocates for civil rights were silenced by accusations of communism.  According to the consensus ideology which dominated American politics, an ever expanding capitalist economy would solve all problems of inequality.  Thus, there was no need to protest or dissent.  The only threat to the American consensus was international communism directed from the Kremlin in Moscow.  Accordingly, it was imperative that the United States develop a strategy to protect innocent Americans and struggling democracies worldwide from Soviet aggression.  Diplomat George Kennan proposed the concept of containment in which the United States would assume a leading role in preventing the spread of Soviet communism.  Kennan, however, imagined that containment would rely primarily upon diplomacy and economic policies rather than military might.  The Truman administration, nevertheless, elected to focus upon the development of the national security state and a military response enunciated in the Truman Doctrine.  This militarized approach to the perceived threat of the Soviet Union and international communism would dictate American foreign policy for the next four decades; convincing Americans to view national wars of liberation through the lens of a monolithic international communism.  The failure to factor regional conditions into policymaking would lead the United States into foreign policy blunders with disastrous results for Americans and indigenous populations in Vietnam, Latin American, and Afghanistan.

The die for this myopic view of the world was cast with the Truman Doctrine in 1947.  Again, the United States assumed the role of an innocent nation protecting world democracy against the designs of an atheistic dictatorship intent upon world domination.  Little consideration was given to the views of former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace that the Soviets might perceive the post war actions of the United States as aggressive and provocative.  The prevailing sense of American innocence, however, assured that Wallace’s reservations received little serious attention.

Instead, the Truman administration blamed the Soviets for the unraveling of the wartime alliance by failing to support free elections in the Eastern European nations liberated by the Soviet military.  Increasing concern about the democratic future of Eastern Europe was also spread by Winston Churchill’s March, 5 1946 Fulton, Missouri speech which employed the expression “Iron Curtain” to describe the European nations under Soviet control.  Yet, neither Churchill nor Truman acknowledged that the Soviet policy of seeking buffer states might be influenced by concerns over the invasion of Russia by Germany in World Wars I and II. 

Thus, in February 1947, when the British Embassy informed Washington that Great Britain could no longer afford to extend assistance to the government of Greece engaged in a civil war with communist insurgents, Truman was determined to go on the offensive against the Soviets.  On February 27, 1947, Truman met with Congressional leaders at the White House regarding the crisis in Greece.  Reportedly, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (Republican, Michigan), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that Truman use the Soviet threat in Greece to “scare the hell” out of the American people.  Truman responded with a March 12, 1947 address to Congress, requesting $400 million in military and financial aid be appropriated for the struggling governments of Greece and Turkey.

In his congressional address, Truman asserted that the political and economic chaos in Greece was due to “a militant minority exploiting human want and misery.”  This militant minority, of course, was the Greek communists abetted by the Soviet Union.  Employing what would later be termed the domino theory of Soviet expansionism, Truman insisted that if an armed minority was able to impose its will on Greece, then Turkey would be vulnerable and chaos might spread throughout the Middle East.  Furthermore, he concluded that the defeat of democracy in Greece might have serious repercussions for free nations in Western Europe.  Accordingly, the president called for the United States to embark upon a global crusade to protect freedom against the forces of darkness constituted by the Soviet Union.  America, God’s innocent nation state, was again prepared to make the world safe for democracy.

In reality, the Greek situation was more complex than outlined by President Truman, and Stalin was evidently adhering to a 1944 understanding with Churchill that the Soviets would not extend military aid to the Greek communists.  In fact, Stalin did not support the Greek communists until after the United States authorized the Truman Doctrine and military intervention in Greek internal affairs.  But such points were inconvenient for the ideology of American exceptionalism in which democratic innocents were employed in a struggle for global supremacy against the forces of Soviet totalitarianism.  The ensuing Cold War would rage for the next forty years with wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.  The United States emerged triumphant, but the aid extended to authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, and Nicaragua would also lead many in the world to question the commitment of the United States to free institutions and social justice.  And in the post-Cold War world, many of the chickens would come home to roost in “blowback” which challenged American innocence in the Cold War.

In 1950, the United States, in a rare exception to the policy of unilateral military intervention, fought under a United Nations flag to deter North Korea, ostensibly acting on orders from Stalin, from conquering democratic South Korea.  Yet, the South Korean government of Syngman Rhee was hardly a model democracy.  Rhee’s regime imprisoned and killed political dissidents while rejecting American calls for political reform.  According to William H. Chafe, the American intervention in Korea established dangerous precedents characterizing the foreign policy of the United States in Vietnam and throughout the Cold War.  Chafe argues that the Korean War led the President to bypass Congress in waging war and controlling the flow of information, “reinforced the tendency already present in American foreign policy to support dictatorship in the name of freedom,” and highlighted the difficulty for American forces to distinguish friend from foe.

The stalemate of the Korean War was frustrating to Americans who embraced the victory culture of World War II.  America’s greatest Cold War foreign policy triumphs in the 1950s, however, were the product of covert operations in which American claims of innocence and commitment to democratic principles were revealed to be hypocritical.  In the name of democracy the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) fostered coups in Iran and Guatemala that favored American business interests at the expense of popularly-elected governments.  In 1953, the United States engineered the overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh, whose policies were deemed unfriendly to Western oil interests, in favor of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, known as the Shah of Iran.  The shah’s dictatorial policies culminated in the Iranian Islamic Revolution.  Due to historical amnesia and manifestations of innocence, Americans failed to understand the origins of resentment toward the United States leading to the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran and today’s strained relations between the United States and Iran.  In a similar vein, in 1954 the CIA overthrew the Presidency of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, portraying the efforts of Arbenz to control American corporations, such as the United Fruit Company, as evidence of communist influence.

Of course, concerns regarding Soviet influence in Latin America were focused upon Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution.  Incredulous Americans again proclaimed their innocence as the Soviets planted the seeds of an alien ideology only ninety miles from the nation’s shores; ignoring the long history of American military intervention in Cuba on behalf of authoritarian regimes friendly to American business interests and culminating in the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

President Lyndon Johnson continued the Latin American interventionist policies of previous administrations; invading the Dominican Republic while expanding the American commitment to Vietnam.  Johnson employed the Wilsonian rhetoric of an innocent nation protecting a struggling democracy in South Vietnam from communist aggression.  Nevertheless, the United States would suffer military defeat at the hands of North Vietnam which Johnson insisted upon calling a “pissant” nation.  The divisions in American society wrought by the war, along with atrocities such as the My Lai massacre, challenged America’s mythological sense of innocence, encouraging a rare period of reflection.  The Watergate crisis and its exposure of abuses by the post-World War II “Imperial Presidency” also forced Americans to question their leaders and assumptions of national innocence.  The Vietnam experience was costly for Americans, with over 50,000 dead in Southeast Asia, but the war was more devastating for the Vietnamese people whose losses exceeded one million. 

The aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, along with inflation and an energy crisis in the 1970s, fostered what some termed a culture of malaise.  Acknowledging limitations on growth, some American began to perceive themselves as global citizens whose consumption habits should not dominate the world economy.  But other Americans were uncomfortable with notions of self-sacrifice in which they would discard the mantle of world superpower while curtailing consumption and energy use.  Instead, voters succumbed to the promises of Ronald Reagan that there should be no limits for American economic growth and that the United States should assume its responsibilities as the “city upon a hill” to which the world looked for leadership.  Reagan reinvigorated the Cold War crusade against the Soviet Union, termed the “evil empire” by the former actor.  Yet the Reagan commitment to “freedom” would be disastrous for many Americans. 

Massive tax cuts for the wealthy and the lifting of government regulations on business contributed to the growing economic chasm between rich and poor in the United States.  In Central America, Reagan’s obsession with communist expansion resulted in American support for right-wing death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, while in Nicaragua the Reagan administration extended military aid to the Contras fighting the Sandinista Revolution, which had deposed the Somoza family dictatorship installed by the United States in the 1930s.

In the Middle East, the dubious commitment of the Reagan administration to democracy was evident in the support of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq as a check upon Iranian expansion.  Reagan also seized upon the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as an opportunity to inflict military and economic harm on the “evil empire.”  Providing military hardware and training to the mujahideen, whom Reagan extolled as “freedom fighters” reminiscent of America’s founding fathers, the United States was able to embroil the Soviets in a Vietnam type of defeat which their financially-strapped society was unable to withstand.  Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet Union helped pave the way for the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev who was unable to hold the Soviet Empire together.  But Reagan’s Cold War victory, the victory of the market over communism, did not constitute the end of history.

In Iraq, America’s client Saddam Hussein would challenge the United States in the oil fields of Kuwait.  And after introducing massive amounts of weaponry into Afghanistan, the United States walked away from the Afghans after they achieved the American goal of inflicting a military defeat upon the Soviet Union.  A bloody civil war in Afghanistan ensued from which the Taliban emerged triumphant, introducing at least some element of stability in the war-torn society.  Resentment against the United States made Afghanistan an ideal location for al-Qaeda recruitment and training, culminating in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  By the early twenty-first century, many in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America questioned the American assumption of innocence and commitment to democracy as enunciated in the Truman Doctrine and America’s anticommunist crusade.

Nevertheless, Americans cling to their belief in national innocence.  In response to the attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush asserted that some in the world hated the United States because they envied the freedoms and high standard of living enjoyed by Americans.  Instead of calling for national self sacrifice and introspection, Bush insisted that Americans could defeat terrorism by continuing to consume and traveling to Disneyland.  He also ordered military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as components of a global war on terror rather than seeking to apprehend the criminals who devised the 9/11 plot.  Saddam Hussein has been overthrown, at the cost of considerable Iraqi and American blood.  The political future of Iraq remains uncertain amid continuing fears of civil war and Iranian influence.  Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan is a decade old with limited progress being made in combating the influence of the Taliban and the corruption of the Hamid Karzai presidency.  Yet, innocence continues to be employed in the argument for American intervention in the “graveyard of empires.”  The August 2010 cover of Time magazine features the disfigured face of a young Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha and the caption, “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?”  The assumption is that the United States must stay in Afghanistan in order to protect Afghan women from the Taliban.  However, Aisha’s nose and ears were actually mutilated by her father, and the idea of America as the protectors of the innocent ignores the fact that attacks of American drones and Rangers endangering women and children only expands the recruiting potential of the Taliban. 

The death of Osama bin Laden, frustrations with Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror, and concerns about the domestic economy have produced increasing dissatisfaction with the continuing U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan.  President Obama has responded to this discontent by beginning a limited military withdrawal from Afghanistan.  However, the president has certainly not encouraged any serious reexamination of how the United States became involved in this conflict as such introspection might force Americans to question assumptions of national innocence and exceptionalism.

Those who question this mythology are dismissed as unpatriotic and accused of dishonoring those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor or Ground Zero.  However, we need to ask these difficult questions to assure that these lives were not lost in vain and that the future is not clouded by the false assumption of American innocence and exceptionalism.  On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone, “America’s response to 9/11 was basically to blow off the entire question of why it happened, change the set-design behind the same old us-vs-evil commies cowboy-movie world view, and to patch the hole blown in our self-esteem with a crude mix of stage-managed self-congratulation and sentimental claptrap.”  In a similar fashion, Reverend James Dace of the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church, a religious leader who knows something about tragedy, proclaimed, “Whether sincere or cynical, there is nothing more dangerous to the national psyche than a sense of righteousness victimhood feeling of vengeful nationalism, the most insidious of civil religions, whose adherents are most likely to be carried away by furious emotion.”  Nevertheless, the type of  vengeful nationalism which Dace lamented was certainly on display as Americans cheered the death of Osama bin Laden.  While it seems fair to describe bin Laden as a mass murderer, displays of fans chanting “USA, USA,” at ballparks upon learning of the terrorist leader’s killing by Navy SEALs indicates that many Americans continue to suffer from historical amnesia and have little grasp of the complex world in which they live.

America is not the “Great Satan,” but neither is the United States the great innocent who disavows self-interest and empire in favor of promoting democracy.  Americans too often exhibit historical and cultural amnesia as they embrace American exceptionalism by interpreting their national history, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 as examples of innocence violated.   The reality of American history is far more complex, and we ignore this troubling history at our own peril.

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