Saturday, June 30, 2012

A review of Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion by Walter Nugent

Nugent concludes his survey with words:

" This history of national expansion reals that it has not always been clean. America's preeminence, even its very territory, frequently resulted from force, subterfuge, or other reprehensible means, often varnished over by the language of liberty, freedom, and such terminology familiar since Jefferson, rephrased by Lincoln, and repeated in the American-inspired United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Beautiful rhetoric expresses the ideals of the republic. But the unspoken, unadmitted reality was and is that of an empire." pg. 316.

This conclusion is not the result of just one instance in the past but a parade of occurances and policy that started at the beginning of this country's foundation and carried forward in an almost continuous progression of taking what was wanted by any means necessary. This progression can be explained by merely looking at the chapter headings and confirming the facts presented. Those facts are not always pleasant and often reveal a dark underbelly that too few care to recognize.

Chapters are as follows:
Transappalacthia, 1782: First Land, First Good Fortune

Lousiana, 1803 : Second Good Luck

Canada, 1812-1814: Failed Aggression Northward

Florida, 1810-1819: Southward Aggression I

Texas, 1811-1845: Overpopulating and Conquering

Oregon, 1818-1846: Fixing the Canadian Border

California and New Mexico, 1846-1848: Southward Aggression II

Populating the Empire

To Alaska and Across the Pacific

Around The Caribbean

The Global Empire.

Nugents conclusions are not new ones. What Nugent does do is to put these various movements and periods together, and concentrating on the imperial tendancies we can see that his conclusion is the only one that matches with the reality of history. All through the book he brings to life the thinking of the leaders and exceptionalism and the notions that only white Americans can make best use of the territories as they present themselves on the horizon.

An interesting point in light of some current debate is that the filling of the continent could not have been accomplished without easy immigration. Immigration as long as it was the right kind. It was also the notion of excluding the granting of citizenship to conquered peoples hindered some of out more lustful desire of aquisition such as the taking of all of Mexico.

The postscript accurately describes our imperial appetite as a changed form that does not include direct possession. We have many bases around the world and those forces are there to make sure we have access to raw materials and markets.

These are hard lessons to learn but stopping our ears and eyes do not make them go away. Being aware of our past might help change our views and make our place in the world better. By being aware of our past dark side we may someday really stand for those ideas of liberty.

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