After American Exceptionalism

Final Lecture, History 434, Spring 2017

For my students


What is at stake in American Exceptionalism, and what happens if we give it up?

We began this class by asking whether the United States could be considered an empire.  This was a difficult question, and we had protracted debates.  Some people wanted to resolve the issue by saying that the United States has done things that could be defined as imperial, but not in the same ways or for the same reasons as other empires.  We read historian Jeremi Suri’s contention that U.S. support for “nation building” around the globe is and has been distinct from an imperial project.  Of course, this position is definitive American exceptionalism, because it promotes the idea that U.S. wields power differently, somehow, than other nations did and do.

Justification for expansion and conquest goes back to Puritan invocations of the first testament in asserting their mission to make a “City on a Hill” as a beacon to the world. Reviewing American history from discovery and colonization to the founding of the republic, the push first West across the Mississippi and then across the Pacific Ocean, we began to work with empire as an analytic framework. This lens allowed us to compare episodes in national expansion: the colonization of North American Indian nations, the annexation of Hawai’i, the conquest of the Philippines.

Some of the students who most resisted the idea of the United States as an empire stopped coming to class around this time.  I was sorry to lose them, because I think of the history classroom as a place to practice the democratic art of debate. But I also wondered whether they stopped coming to class as a way of protecting something of great importance to them.

At around this time in the semester, we were fortunate to have a classroom visit from historian Daniel Rodgers, who was on campus to deliver a public lecture.  Rodgers writes that exceptionalism creates a bounded national identity, a sense of who is and who is not included.  “It manufactures an artificially homogenous ‘we’ bounded off, by the sharpest of imagined contrasts, from a universalized ‘they’ in the world beyond[*].”[†] Letting go of exceptionalism, then, is challenging, because it means losing a particular idea about our identity.

Exceptionalist narratives of national identity are exclusive. They bound the nation and reinforce both geopolitical and social boundaries. As a result, some people have more access to the symbolic and actual goods of American exceptionalism than others. At the same time, these narratives create the moral certainty of national virtue.

A deep ambivalence runs through contemporary accounts of the initial period of overseas expansion at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Many commentators took up the “white man’s burden” as the mantle of world leadership inherited by the United States from Europe.  An exceptionalist view of overseas expansion saw it as the logical extension of American “manifest destiny” to extend Christian civilization and the mission of the City on the Hill. The United States would be a different imperial power, one blessed with divine mission.

Other contemporary commentators debated the merits of acquiring lands and governing people outside the boundaries of the continental United States.  For some, colonial acquisitions in the Caribbean and Pacific threatened to challenge American identity by bringing racially different populations under the flag.  Often ignoring that the existence of the United States was founded on the conquest of Indian nations, others questioned whether a nation founded on a democratic ideal should rule territories acquired through military conquest. Both of these anti-imperialist positions were also exceptionalist: they held that the United States had a particular mission and identity in the world that might not be compatible with the practices of empire.

In this same historical moment, W.E.B. DuBois made his now famous connection between practices of inequality and segregation operative in the United States at the time and the inequalities perpetrated by empire.  DuBois posed “the problem of the color line, not simply as a national and personal question but rather in its larger world aspect in time and space.” Recognizing that the goods of American exceptionalism were not equally distributed, DuBois noted that African Americans who built the nation were largely excluded from its benefits.

While he pinpointed the inequality prevailing in the United States – overseas territorial acquisitions commenced at a period of ascendant racial violence throughout the nation– DuBois did not limit his analysis to the necessity of Black inclusion in the American exceptionalist project. Instead, asserting the existence of a color line operative beyond the nation, DuBois was also among the creators of a key, internationalist alternative to exceptionalism.   We noted his involvement in founding the first Pan-Africanist Congress of 1900. Pan Africanists viewed empire and white supremacy as global projects requiring a unified, international response.

As the United States became engaged in maintaining territorial dependencies as well as broad economic and political interests abroad, internationalist responses also multiplied.  We read historian Christina Heatherton’s account of how the incarceration of Mexican anarchist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon at Leavenworth, Kansas occasioned the founding of a “university of radicalism” in the prison. In this international “convergence space,” suspected dissidents of a multitude of backgrounds and ideologies exchanged ideas and information: “Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, a container of dissent against racial capitalism and militarism, became a site through which the fluidity of the racial regimes within and across borders was made legible.”  [‡]

The internationalism of the Pan Africanist Congress and the “university of radicalism” provided a counterpoint to exceptionalist narratives of U.S. expansion in the early twentieth century.  As Spring Break approached, with its traditional Wisconsin snowstorm, one student asserted that the United States became far less international between the world wars, retreating into what many historians have described as a period of “isolationism.”

This insight about isolationism is part of a particular U.S. historical narrative.  In this narrative, Americans grew tired of war and international engagement after both world wars, retreating instead into material and nation building concerns.  This is an exceptionalist historical narrative, focusing on the particular progression of the nation with respect to the rest of the world.

I thought about the 1920s, often taught as a decade of prosperity and pleasure: Fordism and flappers.  It is, of course, also a decade in which U.S. forces were deployed multiple times to the Caribbean, often remaining in countries like Nicaragua and Haiti for decades, installing and backing regimes friendly to national economic and political interests; a decade in which then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover commenced the negotiations that resulted in the Firestone Natural Rubber Corporation’s plantation in Liberia.

The fluorescence of consumer goods in the interwar period was very much a global enterprise.  If bananas appear in Faulkner’s accounts of early twentieth century rural Mississippi, it’s because someone imported them.  And when the United Fruit Company imported bananas, they also occupied countries, built infrastructure, suppressed labor unions and peasant uprisings, and propped up despotic regimes favorable to the U.S.  “Fordism” as an American way of labor and life depended on cars, which ran on tires; the rubber for these tires came from Africa.

We have spent a lot of time since Spring Break – not that it has gotten much warmer since then, though at least there’s no snow on the ground, now that it’s May– exploring the international excursions that facilitate the free flow of bananas, oil, rubber, and other resources.  Under the rubric of fighting communism, making the world safe for democracy, continuing the civilizing mission and protecting that City on the Hill, the United States has been relentlessly international, extending influence, culture and arms around the world. The development of the national security state brought the force of American exceptionalism to bear in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Congo, Chile, to name only a few.

We looked at the brief tenure of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of Congo, in 1960.  Products of internationalist collaboration and planning, the victory of the Congolese National Movement was part of a wave of decolonization movements in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.  While justified in exceptionalist terms, the presence of the CIA in places like the Congo during the Cold War was part of an international, imperial pushback against these liberation movements.

(I want you to remember how difficult it was to find information about this movement; how the struggles of working men and women to take ownership of their lands, labor and country seem to have disappeared with the assassination and literal liquidation of Lumumba. There are parallel stories of struggle and even victory that are occluded by the exceptionalist frame. It’s important that certain narratives seem to crowd out, even extinguish, other ones.)

U.S. global endeavors continue to be explained and understood through the framework of American exceptionalism, from the “Cold War coups” we have spent time examining to the renewed emphasis on the War on Terror and making America democracy safe from the world.  We are repeatedly told that this exceptionalism can make us safe in a dangerous world. Just as it did in the early 20th century, exceptionalism creates boundaries, making clear who belongs and who does not; recently issued executive orders banning refugees and enhancing federal deportation efforts are only one part of this. We are told that these things are necessary for our safety from terrorists and criminal “aliens”.

So what would happen if we gave up exceptionalism?

Rodgers writes: “The alternative to exceptionalist history begins with recognizing the immense amount of slippage in the real world between the categories of “here” and “elsewhere.” It requires not only dismantling the overgeneralized and overimagined rules of elsewhere but also realizing that the elsewhere is present at home.”

We read Andrew Friedman’s book, Covert Capital,  which takes a distinctly non-exceptionalist approach.  Friedman argues that the landscape of CIA office buildings and suburban domestic spaces developed in dialogue with the transnational military culture of Viet Minh Saigon.  Premised on white supremacist practices of land tenure and segregation, these landscapes evolved transnationally, so that when the first wave of Viet Minh refugees arrived in Arlington, they took their place in a culture already familiar to them. The suburban landscape of northern Virginia was shaped by and shaping of empire.

During class presentations earlier this week, we learned of a fairly little known, early CIA effort: the overthrow of President Shukril al-Quwatli in Syria in 1949.  (My vote for least known coup.)  The United States opposed al-Quwatli because of his resistance to the construction of a pipeline from the oilfields of Saudi Arabia to the ports of Lebanon.  After a bloodless coup, Al-Quwatli was jailed, ushering in an era of international intrigue and regime changes ultimately leading to the ascendance of Hafez Al-Assad, father of the current Syrian ruler Bashir Al-Assad.

So here is something we can learn from letting go of exceptionalism.  The “bloodless coup” performed in service of oil pipelines is newly familiar to us in the U.S., in the wake of the clearing of Oceti Sakowin camp on Standing Rock reservation.  We could say as Malcolm X did when John F. Kennedy was assassinated that this represents the chickens coming home to roost, as the national guard deployed militarized force against water protectors from all over the world; we could say it is history come full circle to return to the Dakota frontier.  One of the lessons of Oceti Sakowin this past year is about global interconnection and the human need for water: in Flint, in South Dakota, in Somalia, in Ecuador: everywhere.

And this is what we get when we let go of exceptionalism: connection and shared history. And it is this shared history that can help us move forward. In the words of poet Aurora Levins Morales:

This time we’re tied at the ankles.
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.

This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none. 

Thank you for staying the course in this class and making it to this final lecture.  Thank you for being an awesome class and being ready to debate and disagree and learn. This is, in part, what democracy looks like.

[†] Daniel T. Rodgers, “American Exceptionalism Revisited,” Raritan; Fall2004, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p21.

[‡] Christina Heatherton, “University of Radicalism: Ricardo Flores Magon and Leavenworth Penitentiary,”American Quarterly, Volume 66, Number 3, September 2014, pp. 557-581; p. 563.

After American Exceptionalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s