Book Review: America

Dangerous Nation – America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.  Robert Kagan.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.

By Jim Miles

In an earlier essay “Of Paradise and Power”, Robert Kagan summarizes the beliefs of the American people as “The proof of the transcendent importance of the American experiment would not only be found in the continual perfection of American institutions at home but also in the spread of American influence in the world.”  While he is good at not committing himself to saying that he himself believes this, he does say that whether these views are “welcomed, ridiculed, or lamented” they “should not be doubted.”  Although the essay was a discussion on the relationship between the U.S. and Europe, Kagan obviously had more global thoughts in his mind.  Much of that belief system is expressed in his new work, "Dangerous Nation."

It is that belief structure that has made America a dangerous nation, dangerous to those who deny it, and equally if not more dangerous to those whom they are supposedly helping.  The strength of the work is in taking the long view of American history and exposing it as one long road of expansionist imperial actions that created ongoing conflicts as the frontier changes from the Appalachians, to the Ohio Valley, westward through Spanish imperial territory to California, ending (in this volume) with the beginning of the Spanish War in 1898.  In addition, Kagan ties together American domestic policy and foreign policy arguing effectively that the two are highly inter-twined – as they usually are in most political jurisdictions that have any trade relationships with the rest of the world – even though traditional treatments tend to separate the two.  

The weakness of the presentation is that it is essentially a “political textbook” history, a history of the political elites and the many arguments and discussions they had that influenced American actions.  For it being a long history, it is also a very narrow one.  Most of the references and quotes, on both sides of the policy arguments, are from political figures, some well known, others less well known.  There is some, but very little, in the way of discussion of how the business world viewed proceedings, of the religious rhetoric that accompanied the political rhetoric, of the media and the propaganda that is always part and parcel of any empire, and very little of how the people – of the U.S., of the Americas, and of the world – viewed these conversations and actions. 

It is the latter that is the weakest portion of the book, as Kagan gives the impression, intentionally or not, that the “people”, “many Americans”, “the colonists” are the ones who controlled the thrust of American actions.  He talks of popular “demand”, of popular “ferment”, of popular “opinion”, “popular attitudes”, suggesting that the government “followed” the wishes of the people.  Certainly these people did not consist of the native Indians who were treated rather savagely and violently across the whole continental arena, nor were they the slaves, people considered to be even lower than the natives, bought and sold as property; nor were these people the working poor, who as in any era, received sometimes brutal treatment under the supervision of the large business owners and often revolted against them, yet were the ones conscripted to fight the businessmen’s imperial wars, whose own sons could buy their way out of war. 

These people were not the ones on the receiving end of American rhetoric as it expanded across the continent and then on into the rest of the Americas, people who were able to see for themselves how American rhetoric, from the very first settlements on the continent, was always at odds with the method of delivery, mostly at the end of a gun barrel.  The people that Kagan discusses in his story are the wealthy elites who held the main power in Congress and the House of Representatives, and in spite of their rhetorical differences, pursued the same agenda of land acquisition and wealth creation.  

Representing the “people” was obviously not Kagan’s objective, although he enlists their support in his argument.  If the history had been written more broadly, it likely would have more of the appearance of Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History of the United States" that presents a somewhat different view.  Other recent works, such as Stephen Kinzer’s "Overthrow" and Chalmers Johnson’s "Sorrows of Empire" present diametric views in particular with the Spanish war.  Kagan’s section on the Spanish empire does not represent much of the violence imposed upon the cultural and geographical landscapes of the west and southwest.  It is true that humanitarian conditions in Cuba were abysmal before the war, and Kagan writes a political story whose only solution is war, revealing the lack of depth and perception that is evident in most rhetoric used to achieve a given goal.  The story of the explosion of the Maine and the lead into the Spanish-American War, where Kagan ends this first volume, does not discuss the possibility – and probability – of the Maine explosion being from a coal bunker explosion as discussed by sources from the United States Naval Institute.  There is no acceptance of the media frenzy that accompanied the preamble to the war, and especially into the war after the explosion, all discussed more readily with Zinn, Kinzer, and Johnson, a frenzy that created much of the “popular” support.

The result of the war is that the U.S. was “saddled with the occupation of Cuba” for the next four years.”  Saddled?  Cuba is riding America?  This term contradicts his previous discussion in which McKinley “was opposed to handing Cuba over to the rebels”, fearing it “would produce chaos and more violence.”  More than likely, it reflected Kagan’s earlier presentation of “the view shared by many Americans on the island and by many Cubans of the upper classes that independence would be a disaster for Cuba.”   America was not “saddled”, Cuba was saddled with an American occupation.  America was the rider, bridling and reigning in the “savages” of Cuba, allowing the sugar, mining and other business interests to grow while denying the Cubans the freedom to determine their own style of government after their own revolution from despotism. 

The occupation of Cuba “fell far short of most Americans’ hopes and expectations”, much as the north’s occupation of the south after the civil war was a failure in its attempts at reconstruction.  Kagan continues that Americans did not anticipate “having to fight a four-year war against a Filipino army bent on independence.”  A small semantic lapse, but is it not strange that the Filipino’s are “bent” on independence, not willing to accept the obvious natural graces of the American army who denied them their independence in the first place?  Pretty much the case with America now “saddled” with the occupation of Iraq. 

In spite of these criticisms the book is well worth reading as it is well researched and instructive into the thoughts and processes that do occur at the elite political level.   On the topic of the Civil War, not being personally schooled in the broader view of the conflict, the information appeared timely and relevant both as historical information and for providing ongoing comparisons to what continues to happen with the expanding frontiers of empire today.  The Monroe Doctrine and its influence on local politics in conjunction with foreign policy – again at the elite level – also appears well developed. 

Kagan does present truths about the "Dangerous Nation" throughout its history: its willingness to use force and not consider a full range of alternate options; its inability to see the hypocrisy of the rhetoric against the brutality of many of the actions taken; its self-perpetuating but so far unfulfilled belief that it is the penultimate development of human freedom and democracy, invisible to critique inside the nation, so blatant in its disastrous outcomes on the expanding frontiers.  It is not phrased quite in this manner, but it is a valid interpretation of the whole presentation. 

Kagan appears to be one of those who is a believer in the overall goodness of intentions of the American “people”, apparently not quite putting together the view from elsewhere that actions speak louder than words, that what you do speaks so loud, others cannot hear what you say. Regardless, I look forward to the second volume and the insights that it might provide into domestic governmental thinking as he works his way through the swift and dramatic changes of the Twentieth Century. 
-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government. 

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