CLASSIC WORK REVISITED
K. Weinberg’s Manifest
Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History
(Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963 ) still repays close and
careful reading. Already in 1935, this work brought together most
of the themes which would inform the later works of Charles A. Beard
as well as the postwar works of William Appleman Williams and the
so-called Wisconsin School. It was not Weinberg’s purpose to focus
on concrete interests in US expansion, although they were there,
to be sure, but to zero in on a series of rationalizations and low
theories whereby American leaders justified their all-too-swift
absorption of other people’s land and, then, their seizure of Hawaii,
the Philippines, and other insular assets in the name of their mission
to promote American overseas trade.
has one chapter per US rationalization; a list of
his chapter titles will give some notion of the scope
of his work: 1. Natural Right, 2. Geographical Predestination,
3. The Destined Use of the Soil, 4. Extension of the
Area of Freedom [the late Soviet Union used this one,
too], 5. The True Title, 6. The Mission of Regeneration,
7. Natural Growth, 8. Political Gravitation, 9. Inevitable
Destiny, 10. The White Man’s Burden, 11. Paramount
Interest, 12. Political Affinity, 13. Self-defense,
14. International Police Power, and 15. World Leadership.
At various times, US politicians have claimed such
things as a “natural right” to the Mississippi River,
a right to Cuba by way of geographical imperatives,
a mission to convert the heathen to Protestantism
and make them give up alcohol and tobacco, or a “right”
to world leadership in tandem with Britain on the
basis of a Teutonic gift for good government.
of these themes are not heard so much today. No.
10 – the White Man’s Burden – is back, in a curiously
inverted, guilt-ridden PC form; hence the great joy
two years ago at NATO’S being able to bomb Christian
European white folks in Serbia. I would say that nos.
4 (extension of freedom), 6 (regeneration), 13 (self-defense),
14 (police), and 15 (world leadership) are alive and
well, subject to certain doctrinal readjustments for
the new century. The late Clinton administration,
aka Brother Love’s Left-Protestant Traveling Salvation
Show, deployed several. The Bushians, careful to
keep up some small pretense of being interested in
the American people, like to stress 13, but their
best definition of defense comes down to world-meddling,
provoking China, and funding their unworkable and
destabilizing missile defense boondoggle. But then
the Bushites are the plodding Elmer Fudds of the piece,
always many steps behind the clever Bugs Bunnies of
being currently “in” – and never entirely out – it
is worth our while to summarize Weinberg’s treatment
of the theme. Over the long haul, he writes, it might
seem that the usual US conception of defense amounts
to saying that some other power’s assets are forfeit
because US leaders covet them and feel threatened
because some other power has assets to start with.
Thus US defense doctrine might be put down to mere
hypocrisy. Weinberg believes that to be incorrect.
US leaders have genuinely felt threatened, perhaps
as a result of a “long-enduring phobia” dating from
the late 18th and early 19th
centuries, when Spain (and then France) held land
to the west of us and Britain still controlled forts
on our northern and northwestern frontiers (p. 384).
US RIGHT TO PERFECT SECURITY
their federation less exposed to real danger than
most nations, US leaders nevertheless cultivated “a
feeling of preordained right to ideal security”
(p. 385). In the run-up to the War of 1812, the party
around Henry Clay urged conquest of Canada to end
Indian outrages allegedly encouraged by Britain.
I won’t let the British entirely off the hook, but
the fundamental problem was the encroachment of American
settlers on Indian lands in violation, generally,
of existing “treaties.” If the Indian problem was
chiefly of British origin, then the only complete
remedy, logically, would have been occupation of the
British Isles themselves, but that had to wait until
the Cold War.
we had acquired Louisiana (1803) and issued the Monroe
Doctrine (1823), which announced US opposition to
European powers’ export of “their system” to the New
World. With Texan independence (1836), we required
that state’s accession to the union, lest Texas be
led by British intrigue to abolish slavery, thereby
permanently blocking westward expansion by slaveholders.
That accomplished, we had to thrash Mexico in 1847
to secure Texas, only incidentally relieving Mexico
of half its territory. Then of course we had to thrash
each other (1861-1865) to see which Americans would
get the greatest use of the spoils.
YANKEES DISCOVER THE TROPICS
do not pass judgment on these things, now, except
to say that many of them – like the seizure of Florida
from Spain (1819) – had only a nodding acquaintance
with “defense.” After 1865, with the union duly “saved,”
annexing Canada and the balance of Mexico seemed less
important. Now we needed some, or all, of the Caribbean
islands as “‘natural outposts’ for the defense of
[US] shores” and “also for prevention of hostile use
by other countries” (p. 392). From Presidents Johnson
and Grant onward, there were proposals to buy Santo
Domingo and other island assets. Secretary of State
Seward’s purchase of Alaska was only part of an ambitious
program (realized later) of state-backed expansion
into overseas markets.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American Tirpitz, wanted,
in 1893, annexation of the Hawaiian Islands to ensure
“commercial and military control of the Pacific” (p.
395). In 1898, he got his way, and only later did
anyone notice that Hawaii might be as much of a liability
as an asset. This was especially evident in late 1941,
but no matter.
the awful 20th century opened, American
statesmen and publicists discovered our undeniable
“need” for the Danish West Indies and “the New
York Herald spoke of the impossibility of preventing
the islands from reaching their ‘natural destination’”
(p. 399). Under Woodrow Wilson, great defender of
the rights of small nations, the deed was done. Secretary
of State Robert Lansing, who might also be seen as
chief British representative to the United States,
leaned on Denmark to cede the islands to the US. After
all, there was a war in Europe. The awful Germans
– not having enough to do in the existing two-front
war might decide to conquer Denmark.
And, then, they might decide to force Denmark
to cede to Germany the Danish West Indies. Then, in
the uncertain future, that same Germany might
be at war with the United States. The Germans, having
set up their many and extensive surplus forces in
the islands, would become a major inconvenience to
the defense of the US.
the basis of “a lengthy series of assumptions regarding
mere contingencies,” as Weinberg puts it, it seemed
perfectly clear that Denmark must be forced to give
up the islands (p. 405). Such perfect and open-handed
US frankness soon brought about a “treaty.”
The Danish Foreign Minister Edward Brandes urged the
Folkething to ratify “in such a manner as a little
and weak state must accede to the wishes of a large
and powerful state when living in a world where justice
is abolished or enforced by might, yes, where might
not so seldom forms and molds justice” (p. 403).
Whether this Dane’s bad manners drew much comment
in Washington, I cannot say.
EMPIRE THE ULTIMATE DEFENSE
due course, Wilson got us into the great European
bloodbath, with mixed results. Oddly, the Germans
never did annex Denmark, never did demand the islands,
and never did menace the Western hemisphere. We had
to fight them on other grounds. But one can’t be too
many remotely “possible attacks” have been adduced
to justify US annexations and preemptive interventions
that it takes Weinberg nearly a whole page to list
them (see pp. 406-407). The mind-boggling result
“resembles almost a progressive madness, and certainly
has all the multiplicity of a crazy quilt” (p. 406).
Such “a hysterical apprehensiveness” (p. 406) and
“extremism” derive “from the assumption that since
the dangers of international life are not always calculable
by reason, defense should err on the side of madness
rather than reasonableness. This instrumental logic
rests in turn on a fanatical value – the valuation
of the nation’s life at infinity” (p. 409, my emphasis).
in only a century and a half, the leadership class
of a “republican” empire touted as the last best hope
of mankind had arrived, in practice, at the pagan
integral nationalism of Charles Maurras, all the while
denying that their country was really a nation in
the old sense. This had certain consequences: “Devotion
to the nation’s life leads to the regretful but unhesitant
sacrifice not only of any number of other nationals
but also of fellow citizens. Peoples sacrificing to
the grim romanticism of the totalitarian state accept
always, and others at least in crises, the mystic
idea that the individual citizen’s right of self-preservation
is zero. A hundred million times zero is not
infinity but merely zero” (p. 411, my emphasis).
‘ON THE SIDE OF MADNESS’
surely it is quite remarkable for Weinberg to have
seen so deeply into the psychology of US leaders a
full ten or more years before most of the post-constitutional
bureaucracies embodying a “defense” which erred “on
the side of madness had come into being, and before
the War Department got its Orwellian makeover as the
Department of Defense. What was the whole body of
doctrine about “mutual assured destruction” (oddly
referred to as MAD), associated with Bernard Brodie,
Herman Kahn, Henry the K, the Rand Corporation, et
al., if not madness expanding toward infinity?
is quite amazing, really, that Weinberg could figure
this out before the fact and without the high-theoretical
interventions of the Frankfurt School Marxists. There
is something very American, even heartlandish,
about Weinberg in this respect, something he shares
with Charles Beard, William Appleman Williams, and
B. B. Kendrick. It puts one in mind of the red/blue
map from election 2000, except that the redskins/rednecks
never have a candidate in the running, at least not
since the Establishment suppressed Robert Taft.
the madness goes on, with the make-believe leaders
of the reds wanting nothing so much as control of
the very heavens so that they may finally feel secure.
And what about those outer planets? I mean, the Klingons
might annex the moons of Saturn, and then they might
annex Phobos and menace the asteroid belt. I’d love
to see the defense contracts drawn up to meet that
clear and present danger.
may be right. Very often madness seems a far better
description of US policy than hypocrisy. Hypocrisy
at least acknowledges morality.
insanity plea might well be US leaders’ best bet,
however, should they ever find themselves on trial
somewhere, on the Nuremberg model, a model which their
own predecessors invented.