In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer wrote a book that became a multi-million copy bestseller for its exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia. The book’s title, “The Ugly American” became iconic for the way the US government and its citizens are viewed around the world. Did Lederer’s exposé change US behavior? Not one bit. The reason is simple: we behave the way we do because we have believed from the beginning of our history that it is our manifest destiny to lead the world in the way it should go.
The white settlers along the Atlantic seacoast were convinced that it was their sacred destiny to move westward until they owned every bit of land “from sea to shining sea.” No matter that the land was already settled by several million indigenous people. Regarded as “savages” by the settlers, they would be moved aside and, if they refused to move, killed. The result, from the beginning, was not pleasant for those on the receiving end. For them, and that includes members of my family, it was genocide as they were “cleansed” from the land. It was to become an outcast, cast aside as unwelcome, to be denied membership in the human community, a caricature to be manipulated and shoved aside, and never really granted membership among the “Chosen”. To read this history from the standpoint of an American Indian is searing; to have lived it, and to live it, is nightmarish.
President Barak Obama, in his inaugural address to the nation in January, 2009, said “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.
“It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.
“For us, they packed up their possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and slowed the hard earth.
“For us, they fought and died in places like Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh. Time and time again these men struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might have a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
“This is the journey we continue today.” As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” says in response, “spoken like a true descendant of old settlers.” (Her book, by the way, is one that I highly recommend. It is available from amazon.com and walk-in booksellers everywhere.)
A few days after his address, President Obama made these remarks on Al Arabiya TV in Dubai: “America was not born as a colonial power.” In truth, its motivations were colonial from the beginning. But affirming democracy requires the denial of colonialism, as colonialism is the antithesis of democratic principles. When any nation or people sets out to ethnically cleanse a land of others, democracy loses.
More in my next post about the United States, and war.