Streetwise Professor

November 28, 2019

America is Exceptional, and Its Foreign Policy Failures Stem From Americans’ Failure to Acknowledge That Fact

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 1:47 pm

When reading Allen Guelzo’s review of Elizabeth Varon’s narrative history of the Civil War, Armies of Deliverance, this jumped out at me:

What will redeem even this quibbling is the significance of the basic trope around which Varon builds her narrative. It is Varon’s fundamental belief that Northerners entered into—and stayed in—the Civil War out of the conviction that they were rescuing the deluded Southern white masses from the tyranny of Southern slaveholders. Northerners saw the Confederacy as a vast kidnapping by these elites, who had turned the slaveholding states into a closed economic system approximating what Karl Marx called “feudal socialism.”
By overthrowing this slaveholder coup d’etat, and by destroying the yoke of slavery for both white and black, the way would be opened to redeem the South, through opening its doors to “free labor”—to open markets, competitive wage contracts and, in a word, capitalism. “What a commercial world this State of Virginia should be,” marveled a Union army surgeon in 1862. With the overthrow of the slave oligarchs, insisted Henry Ward Beecher, “Schools will multiply. Books and papers will spread. Churches will bless every hamlet.”
Confidence that Northern victory would bring this deliverance in its train motivated the constant refrain in Northern writing that the war was aimed only at the oligarchs, and that poor whites and freed slaves would flock eagerly to the banner of Unionism. Hence the joyful predictions that, sooner or later, a latent Southern Unionism would rise from its repressed well; hence, also, Lincoln’s attempt to negotiate a generous amnesty and Reconstruction policy. Varon acknowledges that other historians have recognized the attraction of “the deluded-masses theory,” but virtually all of them limit its influence to the early months of the war, before the stiffening of Southern resistance led Northerners to embrace instead a “hard war” of conquest and subjugation. Varon sees no such evaporation. To the contrary, she demonstrates the “deliverance” idea’s persistence, marshalling evidence from Edward Everett’s 1863 Gettysburg oration (the “other” Gettysburg address) to soldier diaries to newspaper pronouncements—all the way to Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting on April 14, 1865.
The painful irony of this conviction was that Southerners—and not just the oligarchs—simply did not share it. They repudiated the accusation of oligarchy and instead stressed Southern white solidarity, a solidarity fired by the sufferings they endured during the war. The end of the conflict left Southern whites militarily defeated, but even more defiant in their loss—and more contemptuous of Yankee missionary efforts to convert them to free labor—than they had been in 1861. And from this refusal springs the bitter fruit of Reconstruction.

During the nadir of the American experience in Iraq, I often drew parallels with Reconstruction. One major parallel was that utter military defeat was a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition to bring a vanquished region to heel. Conquering a populace is much harder than defeating armies.

The other major parallel is related to Varon’s interpretation of Northern thinking about the implications of victory. Per Varon, Northerners believed they were liberating oppressed masses from a small ruling class, and that the subjugation of that class would make the oppressed Southerners, black and white alike, into stereotypical Yankees who would adopt Yankee institutions and ways. In 2003, Americans (especially the neoconservatives) believed that the US was liberating oppressed Iraqis from a small (Sunni) ruling class, and that once liberated, (mainly Shia) Iraqis would adopt American (Western) values and institutions, and we could ride off into the sunset, like the Lone Ranger.

The happy visions of 1865 Northerners and 2003 Americans soon crashed into the reality that white Southerners and Iraqis didn’t want to become Yankees. The underlying reality here is that culture goes deep, culture is extremely particularist, and most of the world doesn’t share universalist American (Yankee) pretensions. Indeed, Civil War and Reconstruction demonstrate that at one time many Americans didn’t share such universalist pretensions.

If you look at many of the myriad debacles of what passes for American statecraft (e.g., the Wilsonian failure post-1918, Vietnam), they can be traced to a similar source: the American failure to understand the immense power of civilizational and cultural identity, and the concomitant belief that if given the chance–if “liberated”–everyone everywhere would become Americans.

Ironically, these beliefs have proved utterly resistant to repeated and decisive empirical refutation. Indeed, the near hysterical (well, maybe not so near) reaction to Trump in particular, and various strains of “nationalism” generally, among the establishment/government class demonstrates that they are still in thrall to such beliefs.

The ongoing impeachment farce is the most pathetic manifestation of this. Trump’s instinctual distrust of a corrupt and dysfunctional Ukraine clashes with the most deeply held convictions of The Interagency, AKA, the establishment Blob, which still pursues the chimeras that enticed Civil War-era Yankees and Iraq War-era policy elites. This time it will work! Trust us on this! Pay no attention to the sad litany of failures! We can make Sovoks into Yankees!

In a weird way, this is why I am an American exceptionalist, in the literal meaning of that term. I believe that the United States is largely an exception that proves the rule. America’s repeated attempts to make its very historically contingent institutions, culture, and development the universal rule are doomed to failure because they founder on the very historically contingent institutions, cultures, and developments of those it presumes to change.

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  1. In other news this Thanksgiving, NYT’s Charles Blow has yet another “hate America first” op-ed today going on how about the true history of the holiday that started 400 years ago. His depth of bile perfectly fits his employer.

    Comment by The Pilot — November 28, 2019 @ 3:31 pm

  2. “Trump’s instinctual distrust of a corrupt and dysfunctional Ukraine” is highly likely to have been imprinted by concerted effort of all the wonderful people around him ( Manafort immediately springs to mind, but there are others, and probably have been since the Czechoslovak StB was a thing) who either full-time or transactionally work for the Kremlin organized crime syndicate, which just so happens to be at war with Ukraine.

    Either that, or his acclaimed instincts are peculiarly and decisively muted when it comes to dealing with said entity, to the point of uncritically rebroadcasting the most ridiculous disinformation originated by it.

    “We can make Sovoks into Yankees!”,

    nope, you can’t, but you would be wise to keep the one kind of Sovok which is dangerous to outside world at bay, if only because two or three steps down the road from dismemberment of Czechoslovakia just so happens to be V2 landing in London.

    Comment by Ivan — November 28, 2019 @ 4:05 pm

  3. It’s not obvious to me that the American attitude you describe is much different from various religious cults in the past or – more particularly – quasi-religious ones such as Marxism-Leninism. Lenin set out to invade Western Europe in 1920 because he just knew that its oppressed masses must be longing to become Bolsheviks. He failed because, as it turned out, the Poles defeated the Red Army, having no desire to become Bolsheviks. Come to that the Puritans in 17th century England just knew that the population of the British Isles really would gain by having Puritanism imposed on them: they must have been shocked that the populations rejected them and welcomed the Restoration.

    Note that it doesn’t much matter if the conquerors provide good government: Cromwell ran Scotland rather well but the Scots wanted rid of him not only because he was a foreigner and a dictator but because he wasn’t a Presbyterian.

    The exceptional thing about the USA, it seems to me, is the utter ignorance and blindness of the ruling class to such considerations.

    Comment by dearieme — November 28, 2019 @ 4:39 pm

  4. “He failed because, as it turned out, the Poles defeated the Red Army”

    Yes, they successfully imitated a measure of dislike for Bolshevism for a while, but they never managed to fool Churchill and Roosevelt, whose instinctual distrust for the corrupt and dysfunctional Poland still landed it in Stalin’s paradise. Or something.

    Comment by Ivan — November 28, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

  5. It is Varon’s fundamental belief that Northerners entered into—and stayed in—the Civil War out of the conviction that they were rescuing the deluded Southern white masses from the tyranny of Southern slaveholders.

    A fantasy of a psycho-politically monolithic North, likely bolstered by picking out a suitable set of quotes and events.

    The US entered the war because southern states seceded from it and their separated military fired on Fort Sumter.

    It wasn’t North vs. South, it was a Unionist US vs. Secessionist states. There were Secessionists in the Unionist US and very likely (though I’ve heard nothing of them) Unionists in the Secessionist states.

    These grand theories couching the past in the partisan politics of the present become more and more tiresome.

    Comment by Pat Frank — November 28, 2019 @ 11:41 pm

  6. “Churchill and Roosevelt, whose instinctual distrust for the corrupt and dysfunctional Poland still landed it in Stalin’s paradise.” To justify this dimwitted complaint all you have to do is explain how Churchill and FDR could have kept Stalin out of Poland. Perhaps you think Truman (i.e. neither FDR nor Churchill) might have threatened to nuke Moscow if he didn’t withdraw his troops from Germany, Poland, and so forth? At least that’s an proposal rather than a mindless whinge.

    Comment by dearieme — November 29, 2019 @ 5:57 am

  7. “Trump’s instinctual distrust of a corrupt and dysfunctional Ukraine” Sheesh things must be far worse in Ukraine than even I imagined. I mean, if it even tweaked Trump’s dull antenna.

    Intriguing point about people ‘becoming Americans’ (or not). I’ve a pet theory that the vast majority of the developed world is deeply envious of America and desperate to become American, especially the likes of Russia and China (less so the Middle East, but I did say developed world). The problem is they just don’t know how, given the brackets and blinkers of their legacy culture, institutions etc, not to mention some rather powerful leadership cabals who aren’t too keen on things running away from them.

    A question: given you’re all southerners at heart, where do you stand on Californian independence?

    Comment by David Mercer — November 29, 2019 @ 6:08 am

  8. Ah yes, that old saying about doing the same thing and expecting different results.

    Comment by Andrew C Stanton — November 29, 2019 @ 9:53 am

  9. @Ivan…Manafort was a plant. He was grafted onto the Trump campaign by Spicer, Preibus and Pence, under the contrived ‘delegate ‘problem’. He lasted long enough to dispel any notion that Trump was really on to them. The SDNY may have more to say about Manafort.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — November 29, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

  10. @Pat-As I’ve noted in the past, one of the biggest puzzles of the Civil War is why the North responded to secession with force. Your explanation is conclusory, and unsatisfactory.

    It is of course reductionist to attribute a particular viewpoint to an entire section, and in a review Guelzo is summarizing Varon’s characterization of the viewpoint of a subset of the Northern populace, but a particularly important one. Varon is referring primarily to the Radical Republican portion of the political class. Yes, it was subset (and arguably a small one) of the Northern populace, but it was a particularly important one in driving policy. It exerted a disproportionate influence on war policy, and an even greater influence on Reconstruction policy.

    And that’s exactly my point. The views held by the subset of the population that exerts a disproportionate influence on policy are important, for good or ill. The influence of the particular viewpoint that resonates both in the Civil War era US and the Iraq War era US has definitely been for ill.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 29, 2019 @ 5:20 pm

  11. @The Pilot. I’ll probably write a post over the weekend about the hating-on-Thanksgiving phenomenon. I have somewhat of a personal stake in this, inasmuch as three of my distaff side ancestors were on the Mayflower (two dying within weeks of landing:P).

    Maybe I will summon up the gumption to read Blow-hard’s article. I surmise one of the items in his bill of indictment was the war against the Wampanoag’s during King Phillip’s War 55 years after the Mayflower, something that is often laid at the Pilgrims’ feet. (I had ancestors there too–I must be an evil MF, eh?) What is interesting about that is that the colonists had Indian allies.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 29, 2019 @ 5:28 pm

  12. @The Pilot. How soon we (that being the royal we) forget. Last year I wrote a post about the “war on Thanksgiving.” I think I will bump that to the top (as the phrase once went in blogworld.) I don’t think there’s much more to add.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 29, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

  13. @dearieme

    Well, they did nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki: I don’t see how Moscow is any less deserving.

    But more to the point of the joke you did not get: you do seem to suspect Churchill and FDR might have had considerations rather unrelated to Poland’s Transparency International rating while deciding to throw it under Stalin’s bus. Similarly, I suspect so did Trump in the case of Ukraine, meaning I find our esteemed host’s attempt at explaining Trump’s behavior in this case rather unconvincing.

    Comment by Ivan — November 29, 2019 @ 9:59 pm

  14. All I ask for, Ivan, is an intelligent practical suggestion for what FDR and Churchill could possibly have done to stop Stalin occupying Poland. I can see that you will find that too much of a challenge for at least two reasons.

    Comment by dearieme — November 30, 2019 @ 7:25 am

  15. “Well, they did nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki”: no, that was Truman. You do seem particularly clueless.

    Comment by dearieme — November 30, 2019 @ 7:26 am

  16. @10 cpirrong, perhaps the more basic puzzle is why the South initiated secession with force.

    After all, South Carolina immediately bombarded Fort Sumter. How should the US respond to such a causus belli as that, except to respond with force?

    I still think the idea that the North explicitly fought to rescue deluded Southern white masses is an absurd thesis.

    Comment by Pat Frank — December 3, 2019 @ 8:38 pm

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