The American Empire . . . bids fair, by the blessing of God, to be the most glorious of any upon Record.

—William Henry Drayton, 17761

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.

—Thomas Jefferson, 17842

I never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.—George H. Bush, 19883

“WEARE ALL AMERICANS NOW!” the front page of Le Monde cried in sympathy in September 2001, after airliners became missiles over New York and Washington. Besides solidarity and outrage, the headline held a broader truth, intended or not, that has been slowly dawning for the past one hundred years: through military might, big business, popular culture, covert operations and above all through social example and the shining promise of modernity, the United States has Americanized the world.

This process was just beginning when President Woodrow Wilson idealistically called for “a new world order” after the First World War.4 At that time the phrase had nothing to do with empire. Quite the reverse. Wilson was promoting his plan for a League of Nations, an international body that would safeguard each country’s sovereignty and settle disputes by arbitration. More than 10 million had died in four years of slaughter set off by a terrorist attack, the shooting of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian extremist. Or rather, the war had begun with the reaction to that attack—the invasion of a small country that had not sponsored the terrorism by an empire thirsting for revenge.

The United States never did join the League of Nations: not enough of Wilson’s countrymen shared his ideals. And it would take another great war before Europe learned the lessons of its past. The phrase “new world order” was not much heard again until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, leaving one nation mightier than all the others. An ironic reversal of Wilson’s internationalism came in 2002, when President George W. Bush did all he could to sabotage the founding of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Bush feared that American nationals might be brought to book overseas—a realistic worry, given that his administration was breaking international law on the treatment of war prisoners. In March 2008, with only months left in office, he vetoed a Congressional bill that would have stopped American interrogators from torturing their suspects.5

The United States is now the world’s lone superpower—a successor to Britain, Spain and ancient Rome—an empire whose deeds could make or break this century.6 Both within and beyond America, people are asking themselves what sort of imperium this might be. Will the new Rome, like the old, see its democracy wither as its power grows? Will it be ruled by a Senate, a Caesar or a Nero? Will its dominion be benign and inclusive, offering benefits as well as duties to its subjects, as in Rome and Britain at their best? Or will it be a rapacious overlordship, a robber empire extorting tribute and obedience, like the unloved reign of the Aztecs or the client-state networks of both Cold War superpowers at their worst?

After the flawed presidential election of 2000, the new Bush regime took the United States further to the political right than any other major western country since 1945, a shift that began before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.7 Washington’s reaction to that tragedy—trampling its own Constitution and the Geneva Conventions in an unjust “war on terror”—has squandered solidarity at home and goodwill abroad, provoking a re-examination of the nation’s essence: Is America what it thinks it is? Is America what the world has long believed it to be?

I hold that the recent difficulties run much deeper than a stolen election and an overreaction to a terrorist assault. The political culture and identity crisis of the United States are best understood as products of the country’s past—the real past, not the imaginary one of national myth. The United States did not grow in a vacuum by the power of its ideals: it is not so much a new Europe across the Atlantic as a unique organism engendered by history’s “Big Bang”—the collision of worlds that began in 1492. The new world order did not begin in 1919 with the League of Nations, nor in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union. It flows from Europe’s takeover of the entire New World, or Western Hemisphere: the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru, which triggered five centuries of European expansion, and the British-American conquest of what is now the United States. So the America of my title has two meanings: the great republic most of the world simply calls “America” and the American landmass as a whole. My question “What is America?” applies to both. The answers have long roots, reaching far beyond the familiar tale—the rise of one nation to predominance.

The year 1492 wasn’t very long ago. If you’re past fifty, as I am, you’ve seen for yourself at least a tenth of the time since Columbus sailed. We are all still living with the consequences, good and bad. Our world descends from the American “surprise” that stopped Columbus on his way to Asia. 8 Within a few decades of that momentous contact, the wealth, crops and land of half a planet—a half that had been developing in isolation for at least fifteen thousand years—were suddenly laid open to the whole. The seed that would become the United States was planted then. The new order is indeed a New World order, and modern America more truly American than we know.

As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner first recognized in 1893, the United States was forged “in the crucible of the frontier.”9 In the mythology created by romantic novels and Hollywood westerns, the frontier is a virgin wilderness tamed by heroic pioneers. The real frontier was a rolling three-century war zone, from 1607 to 1890, in which the continent violently changed hands. As white migrants both displaced and absorbed the original Americans, a new culture came into being: a rapacious hybrid dependent on expansion—part European, part indigenous, yet neither. Elements of the old European civilization withered or got left behind; other elements grew rank in new ways. Isolated and unschooled, the frontier became a breeding ground for militarism and religious extremism—the two aspects of American culture that outsiders, and many Americans, find most alarming today, especially when they converge in government policy as they did under Ronald Reagan and again, more strongly, under George W. Bush.10

Even before the Indian wars ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the United States had begun projecting its power across the Pacific and into Latin America. The nation did not wake up one morning and find that it was suddenly imperial; it always has been so. Its founding president, George Washington, was right when he called the United States “a rising empire” back in 1783.11 Nearly two centuries later, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed: “Our frontiers today are on every continent [stretching] ten thousand miles across the Pacific, and three and four thousand miles across the Atlantic, and thousands of miles to the south.”12 When American Marines sing “From the halls of Montezuma / To the shores of Tripoli,” they are not boasting idly but recalling their conquest of Mexico in 1847 and a war with Libya as early as 1801.13

The new republic was also a bold and worthy experiment, an attempt to remake western civilization along utopian ideals of freedom, democracy and opportunity—“the world’s best hope” as Thomas Jefferson, its third president, famously said.14 But the practice of those ideals relied on a unique historical circumstance: the opening up of a new territory, with new means, in which to try them. Seen from inside by free citizens, the young United States was indeed a thriving democracy in a land of plenty; seen from below by slaves, it was a cruel tyranny; and seen from outside by free Indians, it was a ruthlessly expanding empire. All these stories are true, but if we know only one without the others, what we know is not history but myth. And such myths are dangerous.

Today’s world, some argue, changes so quickly that the past is no longer much help to us. But I agree with the Australian historian Inga Clendinnen, who writes in a recent essay, “It is precisely because change is so swift that we need history.”15 From the personal to the international level, humans understand one another by watching behaviour through time. History is the best guide we have for threading our way through the frenetic video game of current events.16 As the game speeds up, with runaway technological and social change, the great risk is that both the old and the young become isolated, in different ways, by the parochialism of the present: one generation gets marooned, the next swept along without a ship’s log or a rudder.

To understand what forces shaped the United States and how the lone superpower may now play on the world stage, we must follow its record of expansion—for three centuries across its continent and for another century beyond. And we must begin with a clear sight of its American origins: of what awaited the European invaders in the Western Hemisphere. Any account that begins at the usual departure—the white-settler revolt against Britain in 1776—is starting halfway through the story.

Much of the first half is also the history of the English, my own nationality, who, like most human beings, have shown themselves capable of almost anything. Just as English school-children don’t hear much about their ancestors’ colonial outrages in Ireland or how the Mutiny in India was avenged by binding rebels to cannon and blowing them apart, so American youngsters are not taught about the conquest and “removal” of the original Americans or the events that made Benjamin Franklin denounce his compatriots as “Christian white savages.” 17 To sleep well in their beds, nations, like individuals, rely on the art of forgetting.

It is said that indigenous Americans can live with themselves only by remembering the past, and white Americans only by forgetting it. The United States may not have committed more crimes than most other imperial nations, but it forgets them more quickly and more thoroughly. From the earliest days, the country has been built on the belief that it is an exception to history and an example to the world. Each failure of its ideals is therefore seen as an anomaly, not a pattern.

When the realities of power do intrude on the national consciousness, Americans undergo a “loss of innocence.” This seems to happen about once a generation—as in the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Philippine War, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and now Afghanistan and Iraq. At least six of these nine were started mainly by Americans. Innocence grows back in defiance of truth like a self-restoring hymen, only to be lost again and again, with surprise and consoling resolutions of reform. Innocence is saved by ignorance, by not caring what the facts are—and therefore not learning from them. The elder George Bush made the remark quoted at the head of this chapter after a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian Airbus (said to have been mistaken for an F-14 fighter) in 1988, killing all 290 on board. It is hard to imagine a leading citizen of any other leading nation making such a remark in such circumstances or, if he did, receiving so little public censure. Only four months later, Mr. Bush was elected president. That his words did not wreck, or even hinder, his political career raises questions about American culture that the country and the world must address.

The United States regards itself, and has long been regarded, as the most “modern” country on Earth. Yet it is also archaic, a redoubt of Victorian beliefs in endless growth, untamed capitalism, unabashed nationalism and a universal mission. Such ideas may have been truly modern a century ago, but they have since fallen under suspicion elsewhere in the west, a rethinking driven by two world wars.

The United States is also home to a deep religious archaism, descended from the early Puritans and eerily similar to the belief system of today’s Islamic terrorists. (After the September 11 attacks, the televangelist Jerry Falwell, a key matchmaker of Christian extremism with the Republican right since Ronald Reagan’s day, said that America’s tolerance for atheists, gays, civil-rights workers and the like had angered God and “helped this happen.”)18 One in two Americans rejects the evidence for evolution; the rest of Christendom gave up fighting Darwin a century ago. From biblical literalism flows a distrust of science and learning, and even of mere intellect in politicians. Half the nation tends to vote on the basis of narrowly defined religious views and moral “values”—an electorate easily gulled by folksy demagogues fronting for powerful interests.

In his latest book, called The Assault on Reason, former vice-president Al Gore, who lost the 2000 general election (though not the popular vote) to the younger George Bush, castigates the “persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy.” The facts do matter. “Reason,” Gore underlines, “is the true sovereign in the American system. Our self-government is based on the ability of individual citizens to use reason in holding their elected representatives . . . accountable. When reason itself comes under assault, American democracy is put at risk.”19

Not only democracy but the future; not only America but the world. Historical amnesia may be a balm for patriots, but it can have no place in the twenty-first century’s increasingly precarious world order.

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