American Exceptionalism

Howard Zinn, in the latest issue of the Boston Review, examines the long history of American exceptionalism. Critics of the neo-conservative foreign policy agenda of the current administration often forget (or are ignorant of) the rich tradition of exceptionalism that the United States has. This is hardly the first time in our history that a president that waged war in the name of democracy and liberty. Zinn writes:

American exceptionalism was never more clearly expressed than by Secretary of War Elihu Root, who in 1899 declared, “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.” At the time he was saying this, American soldiers in the Philippines were starting a bloodbath which would take the lives of 600,000 Filipinos.

Bush?s national-security strategy and its bold statement that the United States is uniquely responsible for peace and democracy in the world has been shocking to many Americans.

But it is not really a dramatic departure from the historical practice of the United States, which for a long time has acted as an aggressor, bombing and invading other countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Grenada, Panama, Iraq) and insisting on maintaining nuclear and non-nuclear supremacy. Unilateral military action, under the guise of prevention, is a familiar part of American foreign policy.

Zinn also points out that while many of Bush’s critics are on the left of the political spectrum, exceptionalism is hardly a conservative practice. Progressives and liberals, notably Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, were not afraid of waging war in the name of freedom. Alternately, there are plenty of conservatives who shudder at the current direction of U.S. foreign policy, from isolationists like Buchanon to, well, curmudgeons like Wendell Berry.

And of tangential interest, Zinn’s discussion perhaps offers another perspective on the on-going discussion of pacificism and just wars on Gideon’s site.