The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy

The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy

by Walter L. Hixson

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In this major reconceptualization of the history of U.S. foreign policy, Walter Hixson engages with the entire sweep of that history, from its Puritan beginnings to the twenty-first century’s war on terror. He contends that a mythical national identity, which includes the notion of American moral superiority and the duty to protect all of humanity, has had remarkable continuity through the centuries, repeatedly propelling America into war against an endless series of external enemies. As this myth has supported violence, violence in turn has supported the myth.


The Myth of American Diplomacy shows the deep connections between American foreign policy and the domestic culture from which it springs. Hixson investigates the national narratives that help to explain ethnic cleansing of Indians, nineteenth-century imperial thrusts in Mexico and the Philippines, the two World Wars, the Cold War, the Iraq War, and today’s war on terror. He examines the discourses within America that have continuously inspired what he calls our “pathologically violent foreign policy.” The presumption that, as an exceptionally virtuous nation, the United States possesses a special right to exert power only encourages violence, Hixson concludes, and he suggests some fruitful ways to redirect foreign policy toward a more just and peaceful world.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300150131
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,105,266
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Walter L. Hixson is professor of history at the University of Akron. He has published numerous books and articles on the history of U.S. foreign policy, including the prize-winning book George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast. He lives in Fairlawn, OH.

Read an Excerpt

National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy

By Walter L. Hixson
Copyright © 2008 Walter L. Hixson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11912-1

Chapter One
Birth of a Nation

A benign narrative of discovery and settlement established a frame conducive to the construction of Euro-American and U.S. identity in the New World. Within this frame, Europeans landed on virgin shores and proceeded to conquer the wilderness as part of the advance of civilization under the biblical God. Early modern European expansion brought immediate economic benefits, notably land, gold, sugar, slaves, and other valuable commodities, thus cementing imperial expansion as a sine qua non of the modern world.

In the tenth century Norsemen (Vikings) had landed in North America, but conquest began some five hundred years later with the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadores. Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, and Hernando de Soto instituted slavery, harvested the riches of gold and silver, and conducted depredations against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Although the Protestant English denounced the Spanish cruelties, they promptly dispatched a coterie of pirates, adventurers, and colonization schemers of their own in a quest to catch up with the Iberians in the race to conquer the New World.

This New World was an ancient one, having been "discovered" in a previous millennium, when the actual first settlers had made their way across a Bering Strait land bridge. People had inhabited, cultivated, and "changed the land" for centuries. Before Columbus's arrival, the Western Hemisphere, as Charles Mann notes, was "a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere." Indian civilizations thrived from the West Coast to midcontinent-site of the massive Mississippian culture at Cahokia-to the Mound Builders centered in today's southern Ohio, up and down the East Coast, and throughout today's Canada to the north and Central and South America to the south. In comparison with the Europeans suddenly in their midst, Indians were generally taller, cleaner, and in some ways more advanced, as in their comfortable moccasin footwear and fine birch-bark canoes but especially in their gardens, maize fields, and ability to feed themselves. The Europeans, however, brought fascinating things previously unseen by Indians, such as colored glass, steel knives, and guns.

The Europeans ultimately denied Indians legitimacy as fellow human beings. Europeans' discourse represented Indians as savages in the path of discovery, settlement, and progress, under God. "So thorough was the erasure," Mann notes, "that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed."

The Christian Europeans arrogated to themselves a culturally constructed higher morality than that which they ascribed to the aborigines. The conquerors embraced the concept of vacuum domicilium, vacant or virgin lands across the sea that God had set aside for them to exploit and colonize. The Europeans found sanction for violent ethnic cleansing in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7: 1-6): "When the Lord your God brings into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you ... the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them and show them no mercy."

While Columbus and his successors justified violence and plunder in the name of God, it was the diseases the Europeans brought that devastated Indian civilization. Throughout the Americas, smallpox, typhus, influenza, bubonic plague, and other pathogens spawned shattering epidemics that reduced the Indian population of perhaps 2 million before modern European contact to 250,000 by 1750, by which time 1.25 million Europeans and Africans inhabited the land. Thus, while Indians died by the multitudes, the European population soared and profited through the acquisition of land, wealth, and opportunity.

From the outset, then, the Euro-Americans linked their advancement, sanctioned under the biblical injunction to go forth to claim new lands for Christendom, with the destruction of heathen and savage peoples standing in the way of the Pilgrims' progress. While Indian societies were being "destroyed by [pathogens] their opponents could not control and did not even know they had," Europeans such as William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation naturally perceived "the hand of God" in this chain of events. Clearly, the Lord, in order to "make room for us," had brought on the deaths of "great multitudes of the natives."

As Euro-American settlement evolved, this cultural process of categorizing inferior enemy-others manifested itself in references to aborigines, savages, heathens, dark, evil, and uncivilized native peoples. With the enemy so defined, and with the discourse of the Christian mission on American shores fully articulated, conquest of the savage enemy assumed the mantle of just war. Despite the perpetual conflict between Protestants and Catholics throughout the early modern era, both embraced conquest of Indians and European conquest of the Americas.

Although they considered the Spanish papists less civilized than themselves, the English Protestants actually displayed the least interest in humanitarian and missionary activity among indigenous peoples. Beginning in the sixteenth century the French, for their part, proved far more willing to live among, and even marry into, Indian cultures in the North America interior. Thus it was the New English, and ultimately the American settlers-living apart from and typically encountering mainly to destroy-who proved to be the rightful heirs of England's Irish conquest and the militancy of the conquistadores. "Extermination, rather than colonization or enslavement, was the early English response to otherness," David Campbell observes.

As the Virginia colony of Jamestown strengthened its numbers, settlers advanced the campaign of conquest into the interior, showing their contempt for the aborigines by killing, dismembering, and burning homes and crops, along the lines of the sixteenth-century conquest of Ireland. On March 22, 1622, the Indian sachem (political-military leader) Opechancanough launched a murderous assault on the growing English community, killing in a single day some 340 settlers, more than a quarter of the Virginia population. Captain John Smith saw opportunity in the massacre, however, declaring, "We have just cause to destroy them by all means possible." After several months of warfare, the Virginians summoned the Indians, ostensibly for peace talks, at which time they offered them a toast of poisoned alcohol running through some 250 natives with swords. The Virginia governor, Francis Wyatt, succinctly put the war of extermination into its broader context, explaining the necessity of the "expulsion of the savages to gain the free range of the country for increase of cattle, swine, etc. It is infinitely better to have no heathen among us, who at best were but as thorns in our sides, than to be at peace and league with them" (emphasis added).

The comforting intercultural love story of Pocahontas elides a history of ethnic cleansing and underscores the critical cultural work performed by a mythic usable past. Daniel Richter argues that the significance of Mataoka, nicknamed Pocahontas, in her willingness to embrace the Europeans (literally, as she married one of them, John Rolfe, in 1614),"conveys lessons about a road not taken, about an intercultural cooperation that should have been, about a Native American who not only welcomed colonizers with open arms but so thoroughly assimilated in their ways that she changed her name and her religion in order to become one of them." Indians thus generally proved far more willing than the Euro-Americans to strive for cultural coexistence.

Events followed a similar pattern in the Pequot War (1636-37) in New England, as marauding settlers drove the Pequot out of the fertile Connecticut valley. In doing so they slaughtered as many as seven hundred Indians, mostly women, children, and old men along the Mystic River. The New English exploited long-standing rivalries among the indigenous tribes, who viewed themselves as independent peoples rather than adopting a collective identity as Indians. The Narragansett and the Mohegans joined with the settlers against the Pequot enemy, though Indians typically did not massacre one another. Stung by criticism over the ungodly violence, the Puritans belatedly launched "praying towns" to convert Indians to Christianity and compel their adoption of European cultural mores. The religious communities appealed to few, as most tribes disdained enforced cultural conformity of short hair, European dress, and particularly the divergent Western gendered ways in which men were expected to do farming and gardening, viewed as women's work in most Indian cultures, while the women were taught how to maintain a home like an English "goodwife." "Because the English could not conceive of permitting the Indians to remain independent and culturally autonomous peoples," Alan Taylor notes, "they had to convert or die."

The "foreign policy" of destroying savage enemy-others flowed from a Puritan identity of manly frontier conquest and an uncompromising religiosity. Forging a powerful link between material well-being and personal salvation, the Puritans laid the foundation for an acquisitive Christian culture on North American shores. Anxious, sanctimonious, and self-absorbed, the Puritans focused relentlessly on their perceived mission from God to redeem Christianity from the hopeless corruption of the Anglican Church and English society. Like the Old Testament Jews fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land, the Puritans would build a new commonwealth in Massachusetts as a model for all peoples of the world. They intended to carry out "the glorious work of God, so often foretold in scripture which ... shall renew mankind," John Winthrop explained. "And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America." Never doubting their cultural superiority, the Puritans embraced a Manichean worldview that perceived human existence as a deadly struggle between divine goodness and satanic evil.

Like the legend of Pocahontas, the Thanksgiving holiday elides ethnic cleansing with a romanticized rendering of peaceful cooperation in the New England settlement process. The Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag did indeed achieve a tenuous level of mutual understanding, marked by the celebrated feast of 1622. The Algonquians played a pivotal role in trade between interior tribes and the colonists. Metacom, a sachem now thought to be a grandson of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit, had grown up benefiting from the economic and cultural interaction of the burgeoning Atlantic trading network. Metacom became a prominent figure in Boston, began to wear European-style clothing, took the name Philip, and prospered under the integrated economic system.

As the Puritans strove to redeem the "howling wilderness" from the "atheistical" and "diabolical" savages, a brief but vicious race war erupted in 1675-76. The New English named the conflict King Philip's War, thus placing the onus on the Indian leader. In proportion to population this war inflicted a higher rate of casualties than any other in all of Euro-American history, as some one thousand whites and three times as many Indians perished. The Algonquian peoples had never experienced a war of extermination, yet they fought to the finish in an ultimately futile effort to preserve their lands, cultures, and ways of life. In an offensive launched by Metacom against more than fifty communities, the Indians lashed out at English property by burning houses, killing the livestock that had trampled their crops and gardens, destroying towns, and leaving their English victims scalped and stripped naked-deliberately depriving them not only of their property but also the civilized cloth on their backs and sometimes of their body parts as well. The English, oblivious to the calculated symbolism of the Algonquian violence, attributed these monstrous cruelties to the subhuman characteristics of swamp-dwelling savages. Yet, like their countrymen who had fought and conquered the Irish "barbarians," the English responded in kind by slaughtering, torturing, dismembering, and enslaving their own victims.

The war ground to an end when King Philip was shot and killed near Mount Hope. The English quartered his body and hung the pieces from four trees while staking his severed head on a pole, where it remained for decades as a ghastly relic of the fate that awaited Indians who opposed the righteous might of the New English.

Euro-American identity ultimately precluded coexistence with Indians. Relations with the Algonquians deteriorated as the New Englanders seized more and more land for themselves, replaced wampum with silver for currency, tried to enforce Christianity, and generally rejected opportunities for coexistence. The ongoing assault against Indian autonomy underlay the all-out attack by Metacom and his followers against the New English invaders. However, given "Philip's" demonstrated willingness to adopt some English ways and to coexist with the European settlers, it would be wrong, Richter argues, to assert that he unleashed the attack against the English for their mere presence: "It would be far more accurate to say he rebelled on behalf of cooperation-on behalf of the system of relatively equal intercultural relations under which he and his people had previously prospered, but that the mid-seventeenth-century English were determined to destroy."

The label King Philip's War thus framed the conflict as an Indian uprising when it was the Europeans who had rejected the path of mutual coexistence. Despite their victory, however, the bloodletting left the Puritans of Massachusetts badly shaken. Puritan elders, famous for their jeremiads, or political sermons, on the urgent necessity to root out evil and reform society, offered troubled reflections on the war's meaning. The violence had been horrific, and the destruction required decades of rebuilding. God must have been displeased to visit such carnage upon them. The war nearly had been lost, and in the end they prevailed only as a result of Metacom's failure to build alliances-indeed, he had fought simultaneously against rival Indians, including the powerful Mohawks, and had been correspondingly weakened. "As to Victoryes obtained," concluded Increase Mather, "we have no cause to glory in anything we have done."

In part the gloominess stemmed from a realization that while the war of conquest had been won, the moral purity to which the New Englanders aspired had been badly compromised in the process. The Puritans had shown that they were every bit as vicious, if not more so, than the savage enemy-other. It occurred to the more thoughtful Puritans that violent conquest characterized their identity in the New World. In 1692, Cotton Mather, son of Increase, reflected ironically on the savagery shown by the Puritans themselves: "We have [become] shamefully Indianized in all those abominable things. Our Indian wars are not yet over." The Mathers thus anticipated that Metacom's failed resistance was neither the first nor the last violent chapter in the struggle for a continent.

A foreign policy of expropriation and extermination of enemy-others flowed from an emergent American identity. Employing tropes of rebellion and treason, the New English frequently chose wars that embroiled their entire society in bitter struggle. Existential anxiety, living amid savages in the howling wilderness, with the Devil lurking in the forests, created a pervasive sense of psychic crisis that frequently played out in violence and hysteria. The series of major, bloody Indian wars took a toll on the Puritans and may well offer the best explanation, as Mary Beth Norton has argued, for the hysteria over witchcraft in Salem and other towns.

The early Americans internalized massive violence, which endured in subsequent centuries as a critically important component of national identity. "Extravagant violence," often directed against noncombatants, established the Americans' "first way of war both temporally and in terms of preference," the U.S. Air Force military historian John Grenier argues. "Americans created a military tradition that accepted, legitimized, and encouraged attacks upon and the destruction of noncombatants, villages, and agricultural resources," launching "shockingly violent campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest," Grenier explains. The Indian wars ingrained within the Americans a tendency to conduct "unrestrained" warfare to achieve the "complete destruction of the enemy."


Excerpted from THE MYTH OF AMERICAN DIPLOMACY by Walter L. Hixson Copyright © 2008 by Walter L. Hixson. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction: The Myth of America     1
Birth of a Nation     17
The White Man's Continent     43
Reunite and Conquer     74
Imperial Crises     102
Choosing War     132
Wars Good and Cold     163
Militarization and Countersubversion     192
Neocolonial Nightmares     214
Patriotic Revival     245
September 11 and the Global Crusade     277
Conclusion: Toward a New Hegemony     305
Discourse and Disciplinary Knowledge     309
Gramscian Cultural Hegemony     313
Postmodernism     315
Identity and Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory     317
Notes     319
Works Cited     341
Index     369

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