Skip to content
September 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


Central to myths about how the United States conducts its foreign policy is the one of America as the divinely blessed, exceptional nation. Exceptionalism differs from patriotism and pride in country as normally expressed by saluting the flag, or singing the national anthem, or giving war heroes their due with parades and funeral honors.  Exceptionalism insists on our moral mission to spread far and wide our divinely-anointed values – religious, political, and economic.

Exceptionalism also forces us to create reasons or rationalizations when our actions fall short of reaching the Holy Grail.  In our darkest hours, we stubbornly cling to the benevolence of our intentions, even when others perceive them to be self-righteous, narcissistic, arrogant, aggressive, and/or hypocritical.

Replacing exceptionalism with a more realistic foundation for dealing with the realities of a messy world need not undermine our pride in the United States as a force for good in the international community.

1630 – 1980:  The Rise of the City on the Hill

We came by the myth of exceptionalism honestly.  It predates the birth of our nation. During a 1630 voyage of Puritans to the New World, Minister John Winthrop proclaimed, “We must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people upon us; so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work…we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.”

The Declaration of Independence, our articles of political faith, made the bold and unprecidented assertion that our ideals were universal:  “. . .  all men are endowed by their Creator with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (See last month’s post, “Divided We Stand,” for more about the Founders’ thoughts on religion.)  America’s grand vision buttressed President Jefferson’s justification for the Louisiana Purchase (1803) as part of the creation of an “empire for liberty.”

Mid-19th century expansionism referred to “our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent that Providence has given us.”  That mission allowed us to rationalize provoking Mexico into a war that ended in the Treaty of Guadaloupe, by which the United States acquired Texas and California and an area that included present day Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Late 19th century efforts at American overseas expansion, already claiming divine approval, added the dimensions of racial and cultural superiority. Clergyman Josiah Strong’s Our Country (1885) found audiences ready to extend Anglo Saxon culture globally. Senator A.K. Beveridge in “March of the Flag” (1898) advocated our “free institutions broaden their blessed reign…until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind.”

A combination of perceived Providential encouragement, rationalization, and raw power led to a rash of American conquests at the end of the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th century: the overthrow of Hawaii’s legitimate government prior to its annexation, the takeover of Samoa, and a war with Spain that led to the incorporation of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  President McKinley defended his decision to take up arms against the Catholic Philippines (1898-1901) by promising to extend Christian influence there (presumably of the Protestant persuasion) in tandem with the blessings of democracy.  For a variety of economic reasons, ours and theirs, many a Latin American country saw a visit by United States Marines into the 1930s: Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico, among others.

Most Americans of the time had few qualms about planting the flag on foreign soil, although they derived no economic benefits from America’s empire. They responded enthusiastically to calls by the jingoistic yellow press to “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain,” a reference to an 1898 incident in which an American battleship exploded, supposedly sabotaged by Spain while stationed (illegally) in Havana Bay harbor.

In 1910, at the height of invasive exceptionalism, “America the Beautiful” became our national hymn. It celebrated a country on which “God shed his grace.”

Foreign policy decisions based on exceptionalism can impact the domestic situation in unforeseen ways, and not always for the better.  More than once, we’ve been forced to go against our own ideals.  Lands obtained by the Mexican Cession heightened sectional tensions over slavery and made it more difficult to retain political structures needed to preserve the Union.  The Filipino-American War, in which our troops employed torture and a scorched earth policy and herded civilians into concentration camps, called into question our democratic discourse about freedom, choice, and elections.  Wielding a “big stick” in Latin America cast the United States in the role of bully.  Teddy Roosevelt fomented a revolution that gave Panama independence from Colombia as a prerequisite to constructing the Panama Canal on American terms, a manipulation that was incongruent with the idea of a nation based on the rule of law.

Consistent with the myth of exceptionalism, President Wilson’s declaration announcing America’s entry into World War I turned what had been a three-year ethnic conflict into a crusade for its final eight months “to make the world safe for democracy.” Ennobling our cause led to demonizing not only Germany but German-Americans and anti-war dissenters, a tendency toward suspicion that spilled over into the Red Scare following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Two years later, the U.S. Justice Department rounded up more than four thousand “radicals” in thirty-three cities in a single day.  Many were imprisoned or deported.

For the next 20 years, burned by the war’s failure to live up to our expectations, the United States moved into a neo-isolationist phase of no entangling military alliances, a policy that continued while fascist threats and aggression by Hitler and Mussolini accelerated.   Isolationism was exceptionalism in reverse gear, holding America above the doings of the tainted rest of the world.

On February 17, 1941, “The American Century,” a widely-read magazine editorial in Life written by publisher Henry Luce, questioned the country’s retreat from international affairs by reviving traditional American exceptionalism. Luce explained “. . . there is no possibility of the survival of American civilization except as it survives as a world power.” Only the United States offered the world freedom of speech and religion and an end to poverty and misery, he argued.  Its duty as a redeemer nation was to exert the full impact of its influence.

Nine months after the editorial appeared, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States.  The debate between interventionists and isolationists came to an end.

Post WW II and Onward      

Post World War II American foreign policy focused on containing the Soviet Union, which had annexed Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and large chunks of Poland. Our efforts were seen as crucial for stopping limitless expansion by a ruthless, atheistic, communist dictatorship driven by a secular messianic ideology.  Strategic planner George Kennan’s famous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (Foreign Affairs, 1947), called on the USA to exhibit long-term, patient, non-histrionic containment of Soviet expansive tendencies.

Yet despite its cool detachment, his report ended with an apostrophe to manifest destiny: “The thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which….has made their entire security as a nation dependent on….accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.”

We thanked Providence by providing money and arms to Greece and Turkey to ward off communist subversion and, via the Marshall Plan, to rebuild European economies as a buffer against communist victories at the ballot box. The establishment of NATO, and NSC-68, part of the National Security Act, called for a major peacetime military buildup.  The price of liberty now meant eternal vigilance everywhere, all the time.

The costs of the Cold War for the United States were not only financial. The crusader mentality unleashed a second Red Scare directed against alleged communist sympathizers and agents who supposedly had planted themselves in the state department and throughout the foreign policy establishment. Civil liberties took another big hit from the tactics employed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the McCarthy hearings. Thousands of Americans, especially those in the entertainment industry, were blacklisted.  Some never recovered from the emotional and financial devastation.

Fearful of nuclear attack and threatened by a “doomsday clock” creeping ever closer to midnight, children practiced duck-and-cover drills in schools, families constructed air-raid shelters, and the military-industrial complex grew and flourished, often to the detriment of domestic needs, an imbalance that remains in dispute to this day.

City on a Hill imagery continued through the late 20th century and into the 21st. Ronald Reagan spoke of America as “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” In addressing the nation after 9/11, President Bush suggested: “America was targeted for attack because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”  Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential contender, has claimed: “In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”

Of Silk Purses and Sows’ Ears

Some exceptionalists deny the United State was ever an empire.  Or, at worst, it was a liberal one that promoted independence under representative forms of government, and intervened for humanitarian reasons to alleviate what scholar Michael Mandelbaum referred to as the “palpable sufferings of peoples inflicted by their own governments or as a result of the absence of effective governments,” for example, in Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia.  Mandelbaum argues that “if America is a Goliath, it is a benign one.” The United States, he concludes, acts more like a world government than an empire by providing security, global access to oil, currency stability, and flourishing free trade that preserves peace.

Whatever the virtues of American foreign policy, and there are many, the myth of exceptionalism bites it in the ass when it encourages democratic nation-building in places lacking all of the prerequisites:

* a market-driven economy, in which a large middle class has sufficient economic and political clout to force the government to take its interests into account;

* past experience in representative government where the people voted for candidates from established political parties and accept the legitimacy of opposition groups;

* a lengthy common history, shared culture, ethnic homogeneity, or a long tradition of peaceful tolerance.

Post WWII Germany and Japan each possessed some of these prerequisites; hence, their American-supervised transitions to democracy succeeded.

By contrast, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan share histories of agreements between foreign occupiers that created artificial entities. They endured centuries of rebellion, social unrest, coups, assassinations, and factions dominated by local warlords.  Primary allegiances belonged to tribe, sect, or religious group, not nation. The U.S. plunged ahead anyway, confident our “can do” uniqueness could defy history.  Truth took a back seat to rationalization in the form of dubious intelligence reports of unprovoked attacks on the USS Maddux in the Tonkin Gulf and the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Because the normal rules of war did not apply in these places, the use of napalm, indiscriminate bombings and IEDs, waterboarding, and other kinds of torture (Abu Ghraib) made it increasingly difficult to retain the myth of anything exceptional in America’s operations on these battlefields, or in Afghanistan, where we remain entrapped in the longest war of our nation’s history.  Yet retain the myth we do, even while, as a nation and as individuals, we stagger under the domestic costs and repercussions.

History has been trying to teach us something, and it’s not that the United States is no different from other nations in conducting its foreign policy, or that it’s even worse.  It’s that American exceptionalism has limits.  Removing a murderous thug like Saddam Hussein from power, for instance, may be desirable on humanitarian grounds, but given the world’s inexhaustible supply of vicious tyrants, we cannot take on all of them. We cannot be all things to all people.  We’re not infallible.  Our resources are not unlimited.

And even when we succeed abroad, the cost may be too great.  In a 1953 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spelled it out clearly:  “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Not sending large numbers of troops off to war does not rule out other approaches to conflicts:  diplomacy, for one, but also using air power, including drones; economic boycotts; and marshalling support from the international community.  Employment of these kinds of tools helped to rid Libya of strongman Mohamar Khaddafi.

We need to tone down references to our exceptionalism, which others see as bragging or condescension. We need to acknowledge that many of our foreign interventions rested not on a divine calling but on self-interest and/or racial and cultural ethnocentrism and did not improve the daily lives of the needy.  We cannot assume “God’s blessing” for America exists in perpetuity no matter what we do.

Foreign policy is one area in which individual citizens can do little but react after decisions have already been made.  Still, as citizens, we need to be wary of politicians who, in the name of exceptionalism, ignore the full story of American conduct in world affairs, its strengths and weaknesses, its virtues and vices.  We can look for the motivation behind the exhortation.  We can admit that no matter how divine the inspiration may be, we remain human, with all the potential for error that implies.  We can choose to be clear-sighted in our humanity, and we can demand clear-sightedness of our leaders.

May the truth be with us.


William Pfaff, The Irony of Manifest Destiny, 2010

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the EmeraldCity, 2006

Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath, 2005

George C. Herring, America’s Longest War, 1985



Leave a Comment
  1. Veda Boyd Jones / Sep 1 2012 11:12 am

    A clear assessment of American foreign policy.

  2. Lynn Hinds / Sep 1 2012 5:18 pm

    An “exceptionally” good essay, Harvey. Just a couple of thoughts I’d like to share.

    The “First-Comers” to America (they weren’t dubbed “Pilgrims” until the nation building following the War for Independence) came for their own religious freedom, although they denied it to others. The model which they followed was the Exodus from Egypt and immigration into the Promised Land. As Protestant America adopted the Pilgrims (and Puritans) as a role model, the concept of “exceptionalism” was buttressed by the Bible. It was a circular argument; the idea came from the Bible therefore the Bible justified it. (In dealing with slavery and homosexuality we have done a similar thing). I remember growing up in a Protestant church and thinking we were God’s people when a sermon dealt with Old Testament Israel.

    And second, the blacklist and McCarthy hurt more than government workers and Hollywood actors. I had a video I used to play for my class on the rhetoric of Vietnam. It was narrated by Jack Webb (Sargeant Friday of Dragnet). It showed a typical mid-western town except that we were told that it was a replica behind the Iron Curtain, where Communists were trained to look and sound like Americans. Our school board members, our minister, our milkman might be Commie plants. The film “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” was popular at that time and seems to confirm the fear that we were in danger from our fellow Americans. Many suffered from that form of fear and terror.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 2 2012 8:29 pm

      Lynn — Thanks for the scholarly tidbits. I’ll try to get them into the ebook version. Probably I won’t do the same with the personal stuff, but I will share that Sandy’s dad was highly suspicious of my interest in Russian history.

  3. bRant hinrichs / Sep 1 2012 10:00 pm

    Thank you, Harvey.

    Just to follow up on Lynn a little, I’ve always had a question about this, and you seem like the perfect person to ask: how much do you think Minister Winthrop might have been influenced in his proclaimation by his familiarity with the King James Bible, especially Mathew chp 5 (portions of the sermon on the mount):

    “13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

    14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

    15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

    16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

    Since it (King James Bible) was finished around 1611, i’m guessing Winthrop would have know about it and even read it or had a copy of it. I’m very interested in the history of how he came to use those exact words that he did.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 2 2012 8:39 pm

      Brant — The King James version was meant to combat the unwarranted theological perspectives of the Puritan “Geneva Bible.” Yes, John Winthrop brought a copy with him on his 1630 voyage. However, in his “Model on Christian Charity,” his translations varied some from those in the King James Bible. For details, Google “King James Version/Winthrop.” The first hit should take you right to “Model on Christian Charity.” For even more, Google “The Winthrop Society.”

  4. MerCyn / Sep 6 2012 6:39 pm

    The arrogance of some people – including many politicians and policy-makers – and their ignorance of the history and lives of the people and countries their actions affect result in mistakes our country is forced to deal with for decades. I do not know what the answer is, except to vote for people who are knowledgeable about the world beyond their own borders and/or are willing to objectively learn. Wishful thinking, I believe.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2012 12:30 am

      Not always wishful thinking. Eisenhower, for one, refused to send American troops to Vietnam and turned down the military’s request for substantial spending increases. Our current defense secretary, Leon Panetta, also has made proposals for reducing military expenditures. The ignorance you speak about was certainly present in the decisions to go into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

  5. elektronisk cigaret med nikotin / Sep 8 2012 9:26 pm

    I think other website proprietors should take this website as an model, very clean and fantastic user genial style and design, let alone the content. You’re an expert in this topic!

  6. Harvey Asher / Sep 10 2012 12:31 am

    Thank you for your generous praise!

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

%d bloggers like this: