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June 12, 2001

The Peculiar U.S. Theory of Self-Defense


by Joseph Stromberg

A CLASSIC WORK REVISITED

Albert K. Weinberg’s Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963 [1935]) 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.

Weinberg 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.

PERSISTENT RATIONALIZATIONS

Some 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 the Left.

Defense 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).

THE US RIGHT TO PERFECT SECURITY

With 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

EARNEST YANKEES DISCOVER THE TROPICS

I 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.

Captain 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.

As 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.

On 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.

GLOBAL EMPIRE – THE ULTIMATE DEFENSE

In 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 careful.

So 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).

Thus, 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).

ERRING ‘ON THE SIDE OF MADNESS’

Now 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?

It 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Weinberg may be right. Very often madness seems a far better description of US policy than hypocrisy. Hypocrisy at least acknowledges morality.

An 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.

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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