*Last week I wrote about what I believed to be one of the defining traits of our country: allowing people to choose their destiny. American exceptionalism was (and is – if it still exists) based on freedom of choice.
This was evident in Washington refusing to become a dictator – he preserved the people’s ability to choose their leadership. The idea of freedom of choice was evident after the Civil War when the Union, with the notable exception slavery, generally allowed former Confederate states to choose how they would operate. This was true even though it was clear that the former Confederate states were largely re-creating a society that a war was just fought to eliminate.
The curse of American exceptionalism and this freedom of choice is that Americans are so enamored of their freedom of choice that we often assume everyone would love to choose, and further that other countries will make the same choices we as Americans would make. In reality the freedom to choose means the freedom to choose options that are the opposite of the American way. The story of the late 19th and 20th centuries and American interaction with other nations shows the United States forcing nations to choose America.
The United States begins its acquisition of Hawaii with business interests forcing the island kingdom to overthrow their monarch and adopt a pro-American constitution. The thought was that American businessmen knew better about what form of government Hawaiians wanted than Hawaiians. Certainly at some point the creation of the kingdom of Hawaii involved conquest. But by the 1890s a majority of Hawaiians were comfortable with their monarch. But even more problematic is that the United States was supposed to be anti-conquest.
Around the same time the United States was stirring things up in the Pacific, we got involved in the Spanish American War. At the end of that conflict the United States gained multiple colonies in Guam, Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. This episode in American history illustrates the curse of American exceptionalism very clearly. Despite obvious independence movements in at least the Philippines and Cuba, we could not comprehend that any territory would not want to associate with us. At the end of the Spanish-American War it was becoming clear that the freedom to choose was only valued by the United States so long as you chose us.
One point of commonality between Hawaii and the territories gained from Spain is that all of these territories are populated by people of color. So there is the temptation to assert that the racial element is the guiding factor. However the example of the Soviet Union is proof that Caucasians can also be deemed unworthy of choosing their destiny. The 1917 Russian Revolution saw the overthrow of the monarchy and eventually the establishment of a theoretically communist government. The United States supported counter revolutionaries to try to restore the monarchy for years and didn’t recognize the Soviet Union as a country until 1933. The fact that the USSR leadership was not going to associate with and mimic the United States meant more than the ethnicity of its citizens. Ultimately it meant that the choice of the leadership was invalid.
Lastly in the 1950s and 1960s in Vietnam the United States actively prevented free elections to stop someone from gaining power that would have undermined American interests. This was despite the fact that the Vietnamese quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their efforts to cast off colonial rule by the French; this was despite the fact that they appealed directly to the the United States because of the apparent American affinity for freedom of choice. But by the time Vietnam was making these overtures to the United States it was too late.
The idea of freedom of choice is what made the United States exceptional early in our history. Adherence to that idea made our country stand out in the past. Unfortunately the gift of this idea was so intoxicating that it turned into a curse because the United States would not accept that others would not adopt our version of this gift or our political and economic systems more generally. More recent events prove that the United States has become less and less exceptional in terms of allowing for choice.
Our rise as a global superpower has curtailed our promotion of choice and led to our promotion of American desires. This is not very surprising as it is generally the desire of those in power to stay in power.
It might also be pointed out that even when the country was promoting freedom of choice that it was hardly a perfect nation. For starters freedom of choice was not enjoyed by the entire population. But that concept was at least something the country could hang its hat on as the thing that made us different.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.