Americans have always believed that they are a special people with a special destiny. This is the essence of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is set apart from other nations by its unique national character and a global mission to spread the values of freedom and democracy. Americans have embraced this national myth for more than two centuries. It holds that the Americans possess trademark qualities of rugged individualism and entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to fight for democratic principles, and a strong sense of morality and idealism. These qualities are coupled with the belief that the United States is endowed with a special responsibility to serve as a global champion of liberal and democratic values.
Understandably, the rest of the world has had mixed feelings about US exceptionalism. The global community has often accepted and encouraged the moral and political leadership of the United States. Americans have always been willing to fight for their freedoms, and particularly since the late 1800s, they have been willing to lend their support to the struggles of others peoples for such freedoms. This was the case in both world wars and the Cold War, which left only the United States standing after an epic standoff with the authoritarian Communism of the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, Americans’ belief in their own exceptionalism has fostered considerable resentment and frustration around the world. Many peoples do not accept the smug premise that the United States is superior to other nations. US leaders tend to present their foreign policies as driven purely by selfless and virtuous motives, but in reality, those policies are often as self-serving and unscrupulous as those of any other global power. The United States has justified its intrusions into the business of other nations in part on the grounds that it is exceptional—but the intrusions have often been unwelcome nevertheless. The affected populations have found it galling that US leaders champion freedom and democracy in their rhetoric but ignore those ideals when doing so serves US strategic interests. US exceptionalism has therefore been a mixed blessing for the rest of the world.
The Roots of US Exceptionalism
There is no precise definition of exceptionalism and no particular historical moment at which the idea was first conceived. The notion that Americans are a special – and specially blessed – people was prevalent long before the actual foundation of the United States. The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were blessed by God with the chance to begin life anew in a promised land. Such religious convictions were common among early New England settlers, and the notion that God literally blessed America—a notion that is likely familiar to anyone who has ever listened to a US political speech—has been an important component of exceptionalist thought.
Religious conviction instilled the idea that Americans occupied a blessed land, but geography helped to make that conviction a believable one. North America is endowed with remarkable geographic advantages. It occupies an enormous physical space. It has ample arable land and natural resources of immense economic value. For early European settlers, it seemed a gift from God for virtually unlimited Christian settlement. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans also provided a defensive buffer between it and the imperialist powers of Europe and Asia. Thus geography allowed the United States, once established, to survive its early years and develop into a great power.
Racial ideology also played a role in exceptionalist thinking. White settlers used the notion of racial superiority to justify their expansion into Native American lands. They presumed that the “savages” were on the losing end of history, destined to surrender their lands to the Anglo-Saxon race. Racial ideology helped US leaders to rationalize egregious policies toward Native Americans, as well as the longstanding practice of African-American slavery. When the United States pursued expansionist foreign policies in the late nineteenth century, racial assumptions were also used to justify “civilizing” foreign lands such as the Philippines and exercising predominant influence over the affairs of Latin American nations.
The last formative influence on the development of exceptionalism as an intellectual concept was political philosophy. When it was founded, the United States was conceived as a nation that would cherish individual freedom, political and economic liberalism, and republican democracy. These ideals turned an isolated colonial struggle against Britain into what political philosophers such as Thomas Paine (1737–1809) saw as a watershed moment in recorded history. Americans were not just struggling for their own independence, but for the universal principles of freedom and democracy. This assessment of the significance of the Revolution is one of the critical assumptions behind US exceptionalism.
The Impact of US Exceptionalism on the World, 1783–1898
It goes without saying that the notion of US exceptionalism has affected not only the course of US history, but also that of its global neighbors. This was not so great a concern at first, since the United States’ first leaders believed that the country ought to steer clear of the murky waters of international diplomacy. George Washington (1732–1799) warned that foreign entanglements with the corrupt powers of Europe and Asia would only corrode the exceptional moral fiber of the US citizenry. It was better to remain a beacon of democracy, shining for all the world to see, than to pursue an aggressive or expansive foreign policy beyond US shores. This perception of the appropriate global role for the United States, dubbed isolationism, dominated US foreign policy until the late nineteenth century, and its lingering influence can still be detected.
A reluctance to venture abroad did not prevent the United States from pursuing rampant expansionist policies across North America. The presumption that the United States had a right to trample its continental neighbors owed much to the concept of exceptionalism. In the 1840s, the US journalist John O’Sullivan coined the phrase manifest destiny to describe the divine mission of the United States to take over the continent. The process itself had begun long before and was punctuated by territorial gains such as the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, war with Canada from 1812 to 1814, and war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848. The most territory was gained from the brutal campaigns waged against Native Americans over the course of the nineteenth century.
In the same century the United States announced that, as an exceptional nation, it had a claim to the entire Western Hemisphere. In 1823 the Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to avoid any further colonization of Latin America. Since that time the United States has rarely tolerated much opposition to US political and economic objectives in the region, and various Latin American nations have been subjected to intervention and even occupation. In 1895 the United States Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that it was “practically sovereign on this continent,” and threatened Great Britain with war over a minor dispute over the border of Venezuela (Paterson 1999, 2–3).
Exceptionalism, Expansion, and Intervention, 1898–1945
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the traditionally isolationist course of US foreign policy had undergone a substantial change. In the late 1890s the idea of exceptionalism helped to justify a new foreign policy: expansion of US political and economic power to the far corners of the globe. The trigger was the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the United States annihilated feeble Spain and captured its colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. President William McKinley (1843–1901; served 1897–1901) was motivated to declare war both out of sympathy for the Cubans, who were suffering under cruel Spanish tyranny, and by the perception that US political and economic interests, such as expansion into the fabled “China market,” could be furthered by the war. His serene faith in US superiority also justified keeping the Philippines and retaining de facto control of the other newly acquired territories. Who could better civilize these backward peoples, McKinley publicly mused, than the benevolent and anti-imperial United States?
The idea that Americans were ideally suited to this mission was reinforced by the same amalgam of religion and racial ideology that had helped to create the notion of US exceptionalism in the first place. Other global powers noted the hypocrisy of this premise as they watched the United States brutally suppress a revolution in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902 and use its growing military and economic muscle to turn Latin America into a virtual US dependency. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–1909) was fond of “speaking softly and carrying a big stick,” and proclaimed the right of the United States to exercise an international police power over the Western Hemisphere. His assumption of US superiority, in the fullest political, economic, and racial sense, was shared by successive twentieth-century presidents.
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–1921) led the United States through World War I. He was a devout Christian and an equally devout believer in US exceptionalism. To Wilson, the United States was a supremely moral nation, the only nation that could act as an impartial mediator for the warring European states. The United States did not enter the war until 1917, and then it was with the stated intention of “making the world safe for democracy.” Wilson envisioned “peace without victory” and laid out his Fourteen Points for the settlement of the conflict. He hoped to build a peaceful and prosperous world order drawing on US values of political and economic liberalism. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Wilson made a valiant effort but had limited success in his attempt to reshape the world according to this prescription. It said much about his belief in exceptionalism and his grand vision of a more internationalist role for the United States in international affairs that he even tried.
In the 1920s the United States retreated somewhat to isolationism, but from 1933 to 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) gradually moved toward the sort of internationalist foreign policy that Wilson had championed. World War II helped to enshrine permanently in Americans’ consciousness the idea that the United States had to step up and fulfill its destiny as leader of the “free world.” Americans were rather late in entering the war against totalitarian Germany, Italy, and Japan, but their influence on the outcome of the war was immense. Roosevelt eased his fellow Americans toward a more internationalist conception of their global mission and relied on the traditional ideas of exceptionalism to explain this policy shift.
Exceptionalism and US Leadership of the “Free World,” 1945–present
The United States emerged from World War II as the most powerful nation in the world. In 1945 it accounted for half of the world’s manufacturing output, and US power, so amply demonstrated during the war, was reinforced by the United States’ sole possession of the atomic bomb. There was a global consensus that the Allies had fought the good fight against the evils of fascism. Now the authoritarian Soviet Union emerged as a threat to global freedom and democracy. From the US point of view, more frightening than the Soviet Union’s desire to control Eastern Europe was the alleged grand conspiracy of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) to spread Communism to all parts of the world. This was an exaggeration of the real scope of the Soviet threat, but President Harry Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–1953) nevertheless concluded that the United States had to lead world opposition to the Soviet Union in the emerging Cold War.
Between 1945 and 1950, Truman moved the United States toward the sort of global leadership role that Wilson had envisioned after World War I. This time the shift away from isolationism was permanent, and it was justified by familiar ideas relating to the exceptional character and special mission of the United States. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 declared that the United States would support free peoples everywhere against the expansion of Communism.
In the early postwar era the United States received widespread global support for their new superpower role. The fear of Britain and France in the late 1940s was not that the United States would intervene too much in global affairs, but that it might not intervene enough. For its part, in the early postwar period the United States lived up to its lofty rhetoric about promoting free peoples abroad. Instead of punishing its defeated foes, the United States moved quickly to rebuild the economies of West Germany and Japan and to establish democratic governments in both nations. The United States’ European Economic Recovery Plan (or Marshall Plan, named for the US secretary of state George C. Marshall), which operated between 1948 and 1953, brought roughly $13 billion of aid to exhausted, economically depleted Western Europe and helped ensure stability and democracy there.
The deeply instilled idea of US exceptionalism, with its emphasis on the United States’ special mission as a defender of freedom and democracy, helped to prepare Americans psychologically for the Cold War. It also, however, created blind spots in the US outlook on the world. Americans’ good-versus-evil mind-set led US leaders to make alarmist assumptions about the motivations of the Soviets, whose supposed desire to initiate another world war was debatable at best. It also helped to propagate a distorted world view in which any left-wing nationalist movement abroad was seen as part of a global conspiracy, directed from the Kremlin and designed to undermine a US-led democratic world order. This mind-set led to needless interventions in the affairs of other nations around the world, often in support of undemocratic leaders so long as they were opposed to Communism.
As it had in the past, the idea of US exceptionalism also helped to justify broad intervention around the globe over the course of the Cold War. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used covert tactics to help get rid of uncooperative governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, among other nations. Direct military intervention was also employed in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and in Vietnam from 1961 to 1973. The latter conflict escalated into a tragic and bloody war that ended in a North Vietnamese victory over the US-backed South, tarnished the image of the United States, and called into question the whole idea of exceptionalism. Massive bombing campaigns and widely reported atrocities committed by US soldiers against Vietnamese civilians shocked people both inside and outside the United States, which for the first time ever had been humbled and defeated.
Americans experienced a crisis of confidence in the wake of the Vietnam War. Some pundits wondered if the defeat in Vietnam marked the end of US exceptionalism, as the United States seemed weakened and beleaguered both military and economically. This period of self-doubt did not last long. The 1980s saw the revival of a simple, inspiring brand of exceptionalism, the credit for which can largely be placed with President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–1989), who denounced the Soviet Union as an evil empire and (quoting the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) hailed the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” Reagan could not imagine that other nations would wish to embrace anything but the US model of democracy and free trade. When they did choose otherwise, as was the case in leftist Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Grenada, he did not hesitate to intervene with CIA or military operations. Reagan was supported by the religious right in the United States, which was fitting, as religion had influenced the idea of US exceptionalism from the outset, and this helped to reinforce the uncritical view that the United States was naturally good and its enemies naturally bad.
In the 1990s Americans felt they had even more reason to believe that their nation was blessed. The United States outlasted the Soviet Union, which crumbled economically during the 1980s and was dissolved in 1991. This left the United States as the only remaining superpower and the unquestioned leading nation in the world. In 1991, after an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush (b. 1924; served 1989–1993) assembled an international coalition that drove Iraq out. This stirring success vindicated the idea, nurtured since the Wilson years, that the United States would assume the leadership of a prosperous and democratic world order.
The Future of US Exceptionalism
If anything, Americans have been more convinced than ever of their own exceptional character and position in world affairs in the early twenty-first century. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which Islamic extremists crashed planes into New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush (b. 1946; served 2001–present) adopted a unilateral new conception of US exceptionalism. His Bush Doctrine asserted that the United States possessed the right to preemptively attack any nation, at any time, in the defense of its national security. This policy was implemented despite global protest in March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq and deposed its leader, Saddam Hussein (b. 1937). Bush justified the war on grounds that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a claim that was questionable at the time and that was later revealed to be false. US credibility has suffered abroad as a result of this aggressive and openly militaristic shift in US foreign policy.
This new and virulent strain of US exceptionalism has done much to alter global perspectives on the United States. The idea that Americans are a special people, blessed by God and endowed with a mission to promote freedom and democracy in the world, is not new by any means, but its newly aggressive articulation and the United States’ concomitant willingness to use military force to solve global problems are new. These changes have overshadowed the historic US devotion to the values of freedom and democracy, which have previously earned the United States much respect and goodwill abroad, and raised troubling questions about the wisdom and legitimacy of US leadership on future international issues.
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