American Exceptionalism has an appealing patriotic buzz, though we owe the phrase to Josef Stalin, who was exasperated by American communists and their assumption of special rights and privileges. Manifest Destiny was the 19th century equivalent,
and was created by a journalist to support war with Mexico. Both phrases are aggressive statements of American power implying special rules. Statesmen from John Quincy Adams to Abraham Lincoln questioned Manifest Destiny, but it had a primal patriotic appeal – We’re Number One! It caught on.
Today it reminds me of something we used to sing while drinking in college, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.
We don’t talk or write much about it, but the U.S. is unique in one very significant way: we command a huge land mass rich in resources and are unchallenged north or south. That creates a totally different situation from that of European nations, packed cheek by jowl with neighbors to challenge and correct each other. Our regional dominance is asserted in the Monroe Doctrine, which was never seriously challenged until Fidel Castro threw out Batista and the Mafia in 1959, and hooked up with Nikita Khrushchev. Our bicontinental dominance also creates a dangerous psychology, a sense of being unique and invulnerable, destined to prevail. It is a classic NIMBY statement, and is not seen as being reciprocal: when Khrushchev came to Cuba, Eisenhower and Kennedy were enraged, and out of that came the Bay of Pigs. But when Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs toppled the Ukrainian government and Putin reacted as we did with Cuba, we saw this as Russian aggression. No NIMBY for Russia.
Like Adams and Lincoln, Kennedy had reservations about unbridled use of U.S. power, and was backchanneling with Castro when he was killed in Dallas. He was by nature, education and social background, a global thinker, and like Lincoln and FDR he did not fear to include political enemies in his inner circle. (He also overruled the most senior of them, Dean Acheson, in the Cuban Missile Crisis.) American Exceptionalism was not a current phrase at the time, but Kennedy’s take on its inherent arrogance is indicated by his rejection of the Dulles Brothers absolute worst decision ever, which was to ignore popular sentiment in Vietnam. Kennedy had an ear not only for the American people, but other peoples as well. He knew and did not ignore the fact that Ho Chi Minh would win an election. As a book reviewer circa 1990, I was startled to learn that in memos and directives at the time of his death, JFK was bucking senior advisors and turning away from deeper involvement in Vietnam. American Exceptionalists of the time (which is to say, corporate movers and shakers who stood to profit) spoke of Vietnam as a domino that could fall and bring down an endless line, with communism taking over. And WTF could those little brown third world buggers do about it when we loosed the world’s greatest-ever war machine on them with their AK 47s and handfuls of rice?
We know now. But American Exceptionalists, i.e. Neocons, avoid admission of this single greatest American error of that century, and the Big Picture it clearly suggests.
The Big Picture is that Manifest Destiny/American Exceptionalism are wines that did not travel well. Despite deposing the elected government of Iran in the 1950s, and the CIA coup in Chile which installed Augusto Pinochet, and our general plundering of Latin America – despite all this, our reputation and prestige were intact before Vietnam, because the USSR was doing equally ugly things. They were not restored under Bush 41 and Bill Clinton, but there was progress and restraint. Bush was satisfied to cripple Iraq without destroying it. Clinton somehow found a way through the Serb/Croat horror without expanding it, and in his time the nightmare of Northern Ireland was set on a course to end the killing. Imperfect solutions, but in the end creditable.
There was a great existential lesson in Vietnam, but the myth of American Exceptionalism stopped us from learning it. Germany learned from WW2, which rolled through their homeland; we learned nothing from Vietnam, which was on the other side of the globe. Most importantly, we failed to learn is that we’re not as exceptional or omnipotent as we like to think, but part of humanity, exceptional mainly in our origin and geographic luck. The founding fathers did not think of us as fundamentally superior to other peoples – there is humility as well as pride in our great documents and letters of that time, an egalitarian spirit we are losing in this century.
Another lesson yet to be learned is that imposing ourselves and our culture on other peoples runs into the same problem that George III ran into here: people will fight amazingly hard, beyond reason, for the ground they live on. Starving, they will still fight, as we fought. They will make themselves into human bombs when all else fails. And they will not respect those who fail to conquer them.
And they will ignore us, as is happening in the Middle East. Rather than exceptional, we were proved fallible, again defeated, and are ignored. There’s nothing exceptional about what happened there except the profits reaped from that war by corporate Exceptionalists. The three trillion dollars lost in Iraq and our eighty military bases worldwide do not make us exceptional in any good way; they make us feared and disliked. And Putin’s reaction to Ukraine has elevated him to another level of respect. His expeditious limited use of force near his borders is seen as statesmanlike.
American Exceptionalism has become presidential bluster, and nothing will really change until we rid ourselves of this silly and dangerous notion that we are different from and better than the rest of humanity. All nations are exceptional in that they have their own unique cultures. People envy what used to be our general economic well-being, but the liking and respect that existed half a century ago have been dissipated by the cost and psychology of the war machine created by this notion of American Exceptionalism.