Manifest Destiny Then and Now

Midge Quandt

If we are working for a peaceful world, it is not enough to oppose the war in Iraq and our presence there because alternatives to force were not exhausted, as important as the anti-war movement is. If we are part of the struggle to put people before profits, as activists and academics in the anti-corporate-led globalization movement are, reform of the U.S.- dominated IMF and World Bank is not sufficient. To lessen the harshest burdens on poor countries is a useful but in the end not adequate response to the crisis of the global South, where a majority lives on $2 a day or less. The attempt to unseat Bush and his neoconservative crowd is also a piecemeal approach to a systemic problem.

I say this as someone who for years supported reformist politics because it was doable, pragmatic and took us in the right direction. What made me move to a more radical position was listening to and writing about the Sandinista Left in Nicaragua. Would a decrease in Nicaragua's external debt by the IMF help a very poor country where malnutrition and illiteracy are rampant; where 40% of school age children cannot get an education because they cannot pay the modest user fees? Not much! Is the war in Iraq something separate from the political and economic domination of Nicaragua and the rest of the underdeveloped world by the colossus of the North? No! The Sandinistas see that all forms of oppression are connected. And they are determined on wholesale resistance. It is my belief that we in the North can and should be too.

With this in mind, I want to argue that progressives and liberals need to make better links between the various aspects of U.S. hegemony. We are at a historic moment when the imperial project and the neo-liberal model are both undergoing crises of legitimacy. Social movements and their intellectual allies in the global North have a chance to undermine both. If we work in closer partnership with the more radical, class- based social movements in the South, we have the potential for a truly liberatory politics.

Meanwhile, linkages between the parts of the U.S. mission can be articulated and strengthened so that we have a clearer grasp of the realities we struggle against. For example, there is the close connection between American economic expansionism and militarism, a fact not always underscored by those whose focus is primarily on the war in Iraq. In Thomas Friedman's now well known words, "the hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonald's can't flourish without McDonnell Douglas . . . and the hidden fist is called the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines."

Then there is the crusade to export democracy to the Middle East and other "backward" areas of the world, ostensibly to combat terrorism. On April 21, Bush spoke of "freedom in the Middle East [as a] historic opportunity to change the world." However, the democracy that the Bush Administration is bent on transporting serves another function. Democracy and "good governance," the new panacea of the international lending agencies, are considered vital for the success of the free market and corporate penetration of the global South. Transparency, democracy, and an absence of corruption are all essential keys to the political stability that multinational corporations require.

Allied to the democratic zeal of the Bush Administration is the belief in America's historical mission on behalf of the West. As Bush said in his press conference of April 13, 2004, "the enemies of civilization are testing the civilized world...We're changing the world!" He intimated that his crusade was a God-given one. (According to Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, he thinks he is God's instrument in history. Many of Bush's appointees and members of his inner circle take religion very seriously, and people who work in the White House are strongly encouraged to attend Bible study groups.) The megalomaniacal messianism of the Bush team connects the different facets of what the Right and Left now openly call empire: economic, political and military. And empire it is, despite the president's insistence in the same press conference that "we're not an imperial power." Many of the president's neocon appointees represent a secular version of Bush's evangelical imperialism; their moralistic need to confront "evil" states is, according to James Mann's The Rise of the Vulcans, rooted in a cold-war mentality.

Not only are these elements of U.S. ideology intertwined; they are not new, nor are they newly intertwined. The 19th century saw the emergence of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny— a doctrine about the rightful territorial expansion of the United States. Manifest Destiny was an ideology used to justify nationalist expansion on the continent and later, overseas. Its elements reinforced each other as pieces of our imperial agenda do today. The idea of Manifest Destiny strengthened the moralistic triumphalism with which the U.S. took the land of "inferior peoples," like native Americans and Philippinos. It also justified overseas commercial expansion as the way to bring civilization to less fortunate parts of the world. In a similar way, the Bush Administration's crusade against evil is steeped in an arrogant, fundamentalist moralism that justifies doing anything we want militarily and appropriating any of the world's resources we want. This in the name of what Noam Chomsky describes as the need to establish a gulf between "the civilized West, with its traditional commitment to human dignity, liberty, and self determination, and the barbaric brutality of those who for some reason? perhaps defective genes ? fail to appreciate the depth of this historical commitment."1 I would hope that a look at the 19th century ideological roots of our informal empire (for the most part, without colonies) might help us better understand the way the various elements of the current U.S. drive for domination energize each other.

Manifest Destiny in the Nineteenth Century: Race, Religion and Economics. Commenting on the annexation of Texas, publicist John O'Sullivan coined the phrase Manifest Destiny to describe America's God-given mission "to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."2 In the 1830s and 40s, conflict with Mexico in the Southwest was the occasion for creating an ideology of expansion that was not only religious and political. It was also racial: the belief that American Anglo-Saxons were meant to dominate the continent and large areas of the world because of their racial superiority. (The "noblest stock;" "special people of Saxon blood"), a claim bolstered by the pseudo-science of the day.3

With this rationale, the U.S. forced Native Americans off the land; wrested Texas and California from Mexico; fought the Spanish-American War in 1898 for Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines; and promoted the Open Door Policy—a noncolonial imperialism—in China. ("The colored races of the debilitating tropics were at a childish stage of human evolution. For the benefit of the world economy, the tropics should be administered from the temperate regions.")4

Until the closing of the western frontier at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. used geographical enlargement and access to land to guarantee economic opportunity and democracy; mute social conflict; and avoid thinking about the problem of equity that arises dramatically when the acquisition of territory is no longer an option. (The same can be said for the use of overseas economic expansion to provide the frontier that replaced the continental west. The commercial penetration of the world in the last 100 years has produced the kind of astounding wealth that has enabled us to postpone and evade many issues of social justice.)5

Just as the several elements of American empire today form an interlocking whole, so did the ideological elements of Manifest Destiny. The unending need for territory was rationalized thus: the white race has a superior right to the land because it uses the soil in the way God intended. Speaking of American Indians in the 1830s, a Midwestern politician put it this way: "Is one of the finest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the creator to give support to a large population and to the seat of civilization, of science, and of true religion."6 The right use of the soil was equated with farming in accordance with the scriptural injunction to till the earth. This was morally and economically superior to the nomadic habits, i.e., laziness, of Indians. By extension, Mexicans and Philippinos tilled the soil, but not efficiently, as Americans did. They could therefore be legitimately annexed.

Democracy and Civilization. A higher power was also invoked to justify the extension of freedom across the North American continent. The words of Walt Whitman could be nearly interchangeable with the utterances of George W. Bush: "Providence had entrusted the fullest achievement of the moral glory of man to the best of human material, the mighty American democracy,"7 and a Christian (read Protestant), Anglo-Saxon one at that.

At first, the principal thrust of the U.S. policy was to annex territory that was populated mainly by American pioneers and only thinly by "lesser breeds" (Oregon, California, Texas.) Mexicans were politically, socially and genetically substandard; hence unable to take on democratic institutions and habits. But when the war with Mexico became more of a struggle than we had anticipated, the thought of regenerating the country arose. The U.S. was, in theory, against imperialism. We saw it as a European vice that was inconsistent with our traditions. (In Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that America was not an imperial power and that all our military wanted to do "was free the Iraqi people, bury our dead and then leave.") Mexico would be "the religious execution of our country's glorious mission, under the direction of divine providence, to civilize and christianize, and raise up from degradation . . . a most unhappy people,"8 stated one newspaper. But after the Mexican war started and then the Civil War erupted, talk of annexation ended for the time being. Our imperial mission, however, surfaced again when the mineral- and agricultural-rich Philippines appeared on the horizon at the end of the century. (Legend has it that President William McKinley was undecided about the Philippine question. He stayed up all night talking to God. By morning, He had told McKinley to "civilize and christianize the brown race"). The Philippines resisted until subdued in 1901. The U.S. killed over 200,000 people to "liberate" them.

Thus did racism, religion and capitalist expansionism work together to rationalize American empire. And modern imperialism needs a mission to legitimize it. Power and greed alone will not do the trick. "An economic system," V. J. Kiernan reminds us, "like a nation or a religion, lives not by bread alone but by beliefs, visions, . . . and these may be no less vital to it for being erroneous."9 The use of force was justified, as it is today, by appeals to the deity, democracy and civilization. The U. S. had in Manifest Destiny cultural permission for its imperial project. As is true now, each thread in the fabric of domination reinforced the other.

The Twentieth Century. During the course of the 20th century, the rhetoric of Anglo-Saxon superiority and "the white man's burden" lapsed, as did that of America's providential mission, together with territorial conquests. But overseas economic expansion, backed by military might and clothed in the oratory of the expansion of freedom continued through two world wars and the Cold War. From World War II to the end of the Cold War, the U.S. used military force more than 200 times; went to war in Korea and Vietnam; and was involved in counter-insurgency campaigns or covert operations in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The reason for these interventions was not only the containment of the Soviet Union and the Left around the world. It was also intended to protect and expand the U.S.-dominated capitalist system, including our access to the markets and raw materials of the global South.

In the 1980s, one form this intervention took was the U.S. logistical and financial support for counter-insurgency in Central America. We helped armies and paramilitary death squads repress revolutionary movements, notably in El Salvador and Guatemala, where over 200,000 people were killed between 1966 and 1982. It was during the 1980s that the U.S. also funded a counterrevolutionary military force against a leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. (In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. policy shifted to "democracy promotion"—elite rule combined with nominally democratic regimes in Latin America and also in the Philippines and Southern Africa. It was thought that these would make the world safer for capitalism than the old oligarchies or dictatorships).

Under Bill Clinton, there was an emphasis on diplomacy, the building of alliances and a multilateral foreign policy. However, the right to act unilaterally was a stated policy of the administration. (Every administration for the last 30 years has assumed that the U.S. would go it alone if necessary.) Meanwhile, the ideology and reality of imperial capitalism continued unabated. The creation of the WTO, adding to what the IMF and the World Bank were engineering, ensured U.S. domination of the South in an age of corporate-led globalization. With regard to Europe, the U.S. posture toward NATO, culminating in the Kosovo War, assured NATO's subservience to U.S. political and economic interests, not only in Western Europe but in the East as well: economies were to be further "atlanticized" and liberalized, that is to say, open to U.S. penetration. "Vibrant European economies mean more jobs for Americans at home and investment opportunities abroad," said a White House strategy document of July 1994.10

Ideology and Reality Today. Whether we have a Republican or Democratic administration, globalization and neoliberalism comprise the U.S. strategies for world domination. As Peter Gowan demonstrates, our effort to "go global" is aimed at "entrench[ing] the United States as the power that will control the major economic and political outcomes across the globe in the twenty-first century." 11 And the U.S. is using the post-9/11 crusade to coerce countries of the Global South to comply with our wishes on trade liberalization. (Before the WTO November 2001 meeting, Robert Zoelliek, the American Trade Representative, invoked the war on terror to warn the developing world that no opposition to our neoliberal trade agenda would be tolerated: the staying power of the coalition against terrorism, he insisted, depended on "openness" and "economic growth").

What are the continuities that link the ideology of nationalist, capitalist expansion in the last two centuries with the current U.S. imperial project? For starters, there is the missionary zeal to export democracy to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. By the June 2004 G-8 meeting, Washington was seeking allies in this effort. It hoped to make reform and democratization the centerpiece of the meeting. However, the cool reception from Arab leaders and setbacks in Iraq made this initiative unrealistic. So the emphasis shifted to the economic sphere with "development" and "modernization" as central terms. Moreover, as Edward S. Herman has pointed out, "the preferred word now is 'freedom' rather than 'democracy' as the former encompasses free enterprise; that is, the selling off of Iraqi state assets and opening the door to foreign sales and investment."12 A complementary argument to Herman's is that "democracy promotion" in the South has been the tool of developed countries: elite-run electoral democracies would gloss over the power that transnational corporations have there and make the world safe for investors.13

Then there is the ever-present reality of the racism in U.S. foreign policy. As in the 19th century, our oppression of others is reinforced by interlocking appeals to freedom and western superiority. Among representatives of the establishment, there is not only an open defense of imperialism; there is also a return to a version of the "white man's burden," sometimes reworked as the spreading of freedom and humans rights. Says Michael Ignatieff of Harvard, "imperialism used to be the white man's burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism does not stop being necessary because it is politically incorrect."14 And this doctrine has been applied by neocons like Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations to Iraq.

Like interventions in Grenada, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Somalia and Haiti, the Iraq war is being waged against people of color. The old division between colonizers and colonized is reappearing in the North-South relationship that this war exemplifies. The prevailing stereotype is that Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, are violent, antirational and antimodern. Adding to the mixture of racism and paranoia that feeds anti-Muslim sentiment is the conviction on the part of evangelical Protestants that the war in Iraq is part of a millennial crusade against infidels.15

Which brings us back to the role of the deity. "Freedom is not America's gift to the world," Bush told Bob Woodward. "Freedom is God's gift to everybody in the world." As occurred in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, religion serves to legitimate U.S. aggression, although in Washington the dichotomy of good vs. evil is often construed in a secular way as well. Religion or moralismóracismócorporate-led neoliberalismóall fuel the march of American triumphalism. But given the rising resistance to the U.S. around the world, we can hope not for long.

Midge Quandt is a historian and solidarity activist who works with The Nicaragua Network in Washington, DC. She thanks Adam Bierman and Chuck Kaufman for help with the research.


1Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1994, 284.
2Alfred K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny, 1935, 112.
3Reginald Horsman,.Race and Manifest Destiny, 1981, 5.
4Weinberg, 94.
5William Appleman Williams, Contours of American History, 1961.
6Weinberg, 79.
7Ibid, 146.
8Ibid, 173.
9America: The New Imperialism, 1978, 114.
10Alejandro Bendaña, Power Lines, 1996, 219.
11Monthly Review, June, 2004, 38.
12Z Magazine, June, 2004, 13.
13William Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, 1996, 6-7.
14Quoted in Monthly Review, November, 2003, 10.
15NPR, April 29, 2004.