Saturday, October 28, 2006

One-sided Self-Criticism of America

Sweeping theories emanating from within the USA on the meaning of its history are always interesting, if sometimes one-sided. I commented the other day on an article in another economist’s Blog, and the comments attached thereto, pursuing the usual bitter critique of British imperialism in Indian history on the treatment of the indigenous Indian population.

The gist of the critical comments were about the British record, admittedly not something to be proud about, but so one-sided was it that I quoted a well-known riposte from Winston Churchill, when excitedly question by an American journalist near the end of the Second World War in which she demanded to know what Britain was going to do about the Indians who had been ruled by Britain as a colonial power for over 200 years. Churchill replied to the effect: ‘That after 200 years the Indian population was larger than it had been before, was largely living in the same places they were when the British arrived and were in charge of a large railway system, an indigenous civil service, may of which had been educated at Britain’s best universities, whereas, after two hundred years of US rule the American Indians had been subjected to genocide, starvation and disease and were crowded into small areas of the whole country they lived in when the colonists arrived.’

Now, this comparison may have been exaggerated but it contained more than a grain of truth, and it illustrated the one-sided view of the world common in American criticism of the Old World. However, the point I am making is not meant to be one-sided, nor I hope offensive, because much criticism of American (US) history by American authors is also one-sided in the sense that it focuses on the US as if it is unique while ignoring similar traits exhibited by other nations contemporaneously.

Take these extracts from a review of ‘DANGEROUS NATION: America's Place in the World From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century’ Robert Kagan (2006), reviewed by David M. Kennedy, published in the Washington Post, 29 October.

Dangerous Nation deals largely in ideas, especially the distinctive assumptions, beliefs and values that have shaped America's singular role in the world. Yet this, too, is in the end a book about power. And it is aptly titled. Americans, he argues, have long worshipped at the altar of Mars, the god of war.

He insists, rather, that the American colonists were themselves grasping imperialists, on fire with aggrandizing ambitions that London refused to support. They chafed especially at the British Proclamation of 1763, which checked trans-Appalachian settlement in a misbegotten attempt to work out an orderly policy toward the Indians of the interior. The American revolutionaries lusted for an empire of their own, writes Kagan, and made war to get it.

Kagan says summarily that Adam Smith's 18th-century version of "liberalism" -- by which he means the unfettered "wants and desires of several million free individuals in search of wealth and opportunity, unrestrained by the firm hand of an absolute government, a dominant aristocracy, or even a benevolent constitutional monarch" -- has for 200 years been the mainspring of America's predatory, aggressive foreign policy.

Smith may have been over optimistic about the beneficial effects of commercial society and republican democracy, but he did not pursue his thinking after Wealth of Nations, which was published and revised several times during and after the American War of Independence.

I suggest in Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (2005) why this might be explained by his concerns that pursuing too strong a sympathy for the American colonists’ case would be risky, given his allegiance to constitutional monarchy (not the same as absolutist French monarchy) and liberty as it had developed in Britain into the supremacy of parliament(A. Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, Liberty Fund). In the event his concerns proved justified, especially following the French Revolution (1789) and the outbreak of the French Terror in 1793.

Smith died in 1790 and his friends and sympathizers notably thinned to a small core as the others made their ‘peace’ with the Establishment, still smarting from the loss of the colonies and now literally in fear for their lives in case the British common labourers rose in a French style insurrection. Dugald Stewart, his biographer, eulogist and close personal friend was ‘interviewer by Lord Craig, on behalf of the government, to judge how far Smith’s works could be taken as subversive enough to be disruptive of law and order if the poor were influenced by them.

Smith’s views on empire, wars for trivial ends and the role of ‘princes’ under the
influence of mercantile-minded legislators, were well known to readers. Stewart was left to moderate, if not emasculate, Smith’s more candid comments as abstruse points of political economy.

Kagan’s thesis is plausible if the view of the world is stuck within the confines of America. All he says about the grasping colonists, thirsting for empire by conquest reads as convincing, except that when you step back and look at the rest of the world in the 19th century, when US expansion was in full flood, which Kagan sees as anything but ‘orderly towards the Indians’, etc., I must remark that his founding of the US ‘imperialism’, loaded with guilt about the indigenous population (as it should be but that’s not my point) misses an important contemporary event elsewhere in the world where the successor population does not suffer the same angst, nor is it predecessor generations gifted with the imperialist energies credited to the equivalent population in the US.

I refer, of course, to the facts that while the US post-colonial revolutionaries were allegedly ‘unrestrained by the firm hand of an absolute government, a dominant aristocracy’, etc., the eastwards expansion of Russia into Siberia and lands to the south was likewise underway, as bloody, as aggressive and as ‘unrestrained’ by its most ‘absolutist government’ and actively encouraged by its most ‘dominant aristocracy’.

There is something missing in historical explanations for US ‘expansionism’ westwards which claims to have found a unique temper in the people who conducted it in America, somehow different from the temper of the people from Russia responsible for Russian expansionism eastwards.

[David M. Kennedy (no relation!) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for "Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945." He teaches history at Stanford University.]


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