As an American living and working in Asia, I have watched recent events in the Middle East, and for that matter around the world, with a sense of anxiety, feelings shared by many if not most American ex-pats of my acquaintance. Such anxieties, not surprisingly, have been apparent in recent Pearls (see Fear and Loathing in Manila and Never Ask Questions, God's on Our Side). I have received feedback of decidedly mixed content and tone, ranging from long, philosophical pieces from Nam 'vets to esoteric commentary on Dylan's 1963 lyrics to obscene tirades from red, white, and blue patriots questioning my masculinity and calling me ugly names.
All are welcome, even the latter. At least it provides hard evidence that somebody reads these damn things. As for the critiques and flames, no problem other than the characteristic lack of civility, venomous tone, and tendency to demonize anything not supporting a very narrow worldview. Seems like some folks have forgotten that we Americans still have free speech, at least last time I checked.
Nevertheless, I've decided to avoid generating punditry on the Bush administration or current American foreign policy from now on for reasons best left to the reader's imagination. Besides, there are so many people writing about such things with more contextual knowledge and inside poop than I do that I'm not sure I could contribute much to the debate.
But I still think it's important to try to understand the underlying psychodynamics and historical forces of the emerging new world order. At the core of such an analysis lies a consideration of the American psyche and the Weltanschaaung that fuels the historically unprecedented Pax Americana that will apparently set the tone in international relations for some time to come. Following find a rambling and idiosyncratic commentary on that theme, with some reference to the "special relationship" that informs the intricate tap dance of the American and Filipino peoples.
Although many cultural commentaries on the American ethos begin with the Founding Fathers and their philosophical inspirations in the enlightenment (Voltaire, Locke, et al.), I find another historical reference point more compelling - the closing of the American frontier towards the end of the 19th century (for a commentary on this influence in the context of the multinational/intercultural business world, see Icebergs and Rorschach Blots). After decades of pushing westward to settle the continent, we found ourselves running out of territory (the fact that we decimated the original inhabitants was by and large seen as an unfortunate necessity). Among the implications: (a) we were losing a significant portion of our national self-identity, and (b) the images and mythology of manifest destiny would now take on a life of their own apart from the physical frontier.
The west had already been romanticized early in the 19th century with James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. The frontiersman Natty Bummpo (aka Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, Pathfinder) was continually retreating from the advance of civilization, first in upstate New York and eventually in the Great Plains decades later. Cooper's overarching theme was the importance of individual freedom and the preference for wide open spaces to claustrophobic city life.
During the 1860s, dime novels and newspaper serials began glorifying the exploits of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Annie Oakley, typically in wildly overblown and apochryphal style. Although modeled on real Americans, the pop culture depictions soon took on a life of their own. One of the most popular of the new heroes was Buffalo Bill Cody, who had made his mark as an Army scout, buffalo hunter, and Indian fighter. Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody) had many friends among the Plains Indians, who named him Pahaska (long hair) for his flowing locks.
As the frontier closed, however, Buffalo Bill found himself being depicted as the symbol of the decimated buffalo herds and the brutalized American Indian tribes. In a simultaneous effort to maintain his reputation and make money, he became an impresario, with his primary production being the long-running and wildly popular Wild West shows. The first Wild West Show (1882), featuring skilled cowboys, ex-pony express riders, sharpshooters, cowgirls (Annie Oakley herself) and Sitting Bull (the famed Sioux chief). The shows were carefully choreographed to capture and (in a sense) to commodify the wild west, which was rapidly disappearing by the last decade of the century. The shows proved incredibly popular, and the Wild West Show running at the Chicago World's Fair in 1895 drew six million folks. (Ironically, Sitting Bull was no longer with the show, having been killed by a US Indian agent on a reservation in 1890).
In the early 1890s, the Census Bureau announced that a definable and contiguous "frontier line" no longer existed. A young academic, Frederick Jackson Turner, began exploring the implications of this "closing the frontier." He first presented his ideas, a sweeping vision of America's frontier experience, at the 1893 annual meeting of the American Historical Association (coincidentally, also in the Windy City).Turner believed that the frontier experience played out "with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on with the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader…the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with the city and the factory system". This constant reinvention at the frontier was where America defined its most fundamental values, including (again per Turner) "...coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things... that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism".
Although Turner's ideas have largely been rejected by contemporary academics, his original paper ("The Significance of the Frontier in American History") was probably one of the most influential in the history of American social science, and certainly within the discipline of history. And clearly, many elements of the frontier experience would soon become embedded in American mythology and self-identity, not the least of which were:
- Rugged individualism: Americans are tough and individualistic, they can by golly get the job done no matter what it takes. Early settlers had to be self-sufficient or they perished. Such success, often against tough odds, bred an inveterate optimism.
- Moral simplicity: On the frontier you don't waste time in existential debates about right and wrong.
By the time Edison introduced his cinemascope as the century drew to a close, the wild west was gone. Interestingly, many of the stuntmen and cowboys in early silent Westerns had been real cowboys before hitting the land of wine and roses. For that matter, Wyatt Earp, long-retired from marshalling in Wichita and Dodge City and shooting it out with the Clantons at the OK Corral, died in Los Angeles at the age of 80 in 1929. Well-known silent flick cowboy actors Tom Mix and William S. Hart were among the pallbearers.
Geopolitical events were also helping transform America's cultural self-identify, and its global ambitions, by the end of the century. The great colonial powers - "Old Europe," as a certain contemporary Secretary of Defense refers to them - tolerated the upstart Americans in the years after the end of the Civil War. However, recognizing America's growing industrial strength, the European powers courted Uncle Sam to an extent, for example by increasing diplomatic ties and beginning to listen to what American Presidents had to say. The American population was growing rapidly, and the industrial revolution was in full swing. Transport/infrastructure had improved dramatically and international trade was expanding rapidly as the end of the century approached. By 1900, America was the leading global producer of coal, iron, and lead.
Congress began to regularly increase the defense budget, and the country soon had a respectable naval fleet of heavily armed steel warships. Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (published in 1890) shaped US foreign policy and military ambition. Command of the sea was widely defined as the be-all and end-all, and America's military men (and an increasing number of politicians) were stressing the importance of having a strong merchant marine, a good navy, and plenty of ports around the world. Any good imperial power needs permanent trading partners, as in the case of the European colonies that served so well as exclusive trading partners for their respective colonizers, not to mention providing handy overseas bases for ongoing imperialist adventures.
America's military brass knew that they couldn't properly project the potential global power of their big steam ships unless they had places to dock for coal, resupply, and drydock. At the same time, American business interests were eager to penetrate the newly opened Chinese market. They recognized, however that America would need a base in the Far East before that would be feasible. American admirals openly coveted Subic Bay in the Philippines and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The explosion that destroyed the USS Maine in Havana, instantly killing 254 American seaman (February 1898), provided the spark that would soon propel the Americans even further Westward - across the Pacific to the Philippine archipelago. Although the navy's investigation never identified responsibility for the explosion, the American press, led by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, had no doubts that it was the evil and cowardly Spanish. Before long the public had been whipped into an uproar (Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!) and Admiral Dewey was steaming into Manila Bay (for some background, see An Oversimplified History Lesson).
However, after the Spanish were defeated in Manila Bay and the Americans became the de facto colonial power in the Philippines, McKinley had the option of granting the Filipinos independence. McKinley's stated objective was to make the American West Coast secure from any raids by the Spanish fleet, and that had been accomplished. Indeed, Aguinaldo had returned to the archipelago on an American naval vessel with the understanding that that was exactly what would happen. McKinley could have set up a protectorate and turned over administrative power to the Filipinos.
Instead, he hesitated, ruminated, and tracked the political wind. At least two factors were part of the decision making process.
First, the Philippines was of great economic and strategic importance to the United States. American factories were cranking out the goods and needed a market; they also needed a foothold in Asia for eventual penetration of the China market. The Europeans were already zeroing in on China. Henry Cabot Lodge referred to the Philippines specifically as an exclusive market for American goods. McKinley firmly believed that territorial expansion would develop new markets for American goods, provide reliable sources of raw materials/commodities, and lead the way to the China market. Besides, everybody knew that America had been growing rapidly and was now a world class power.
Second, McKinley's philosophy with regard to the distant Asian islands (which he was unable to locate on a map when war broke out) was based largely on Social Darwinism. American sociologists had, during the same period that Turner was developing his frontier thesis, given an essentially racist theory legitimacy by arguing that "just as man has gained dominion over the animal world, so the highest type of man shall gain dominion over all the lower type of man" (Lester Frank Ward, a well-known American sociologist arguing for war with Spain). In other words, America had a God-given responsibility to help inferior races, unfortunately stereotyped as Little Brown Brothers in the case of the Filipinos.
During the 1898 mid-term elections, McKinley discovered that of all the bombast that peppered his speeches, the most effective were blatantly imperialistic appeals based on that particular moral necessity. McKinley worked hard to convince the American people that the adventure in the Philippines archipelago had nothing at all to do with colonialism or imperialism. The spin, as we would now call it, was that Uncle Sam was just doing his part to make the world a better place and helping out an unfortunate people. The economic windfall and international credibility - Uncle Sam finally gets a colony! - were merely spinoff benefits.
Ultimately, McKinley, claiming that he had heard the voice of God, decided that annexation and benevolent assimilation were the best strategy. He sent an occupation force led by General Wesley Merritt to lay siege to Manila and its Spanish occupation force. During the initial guerilla war (1899-1900), the Americans were distracted by the high profile Presidential contest between McKinley and William Jennings Bryant and hostilities were somewhat contained and inconclusive. However, as soon as McKinley was re-elected, the gloves came off. Secretary of State Elihu Root instructed General Arthur MacArthur (the military governor) to use the same methods (surprise surprise!) that had been used to conquer the American West.
The American army promptly abandoned the civil works and humanitarian assistance efforts they had started to turn their attention to eradicating the insurgents and pacifying the land. There were 70,000 troops in-country by the end of 1900. The war soon degenerated into a war of annihilation, with horrible atrocities on both sides (largely glossed over in American history textbooks, with somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 Filipinos dying in the effort).
As an aside, I've always found it fascinating that the most prominent figure in the Anti-Imperialist league, formed in June 1898 to fight annexation of the Philippines, was none other than Mark Twain, who wrote:
"I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do... But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem... It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
Many of the metaphors of the wild west stayed with us throughout the 20th century and, indeed, are perhaps even more important now than ever. Although World War I was messy and existential, World War II fit nicely with the American ethos of good vs. evil. Hitler and the Japanese were devils, and the Yanks led the Allies to the inevitable victory. The Cold War, which demonized the Red Menace, provided yet another clean dichotomy between the white hats and black hats (for some discussion of the origins of the Cold War and American spooks in the Philippines, see Hearts and Minds, Folk Songs, and Psyops).
It was probably not coincidental that 1948, the beginning of the Cold War, was also the beginning of the "golden age" of Westerns. In High Noon, Gary Cooper (in a parallel to the McCarthy hearings) plays a man of tremendous integrity who stands up to a gang of cutthroats because it is the right thing to do, even though he was abandoned by the community. John Wayne type heroes always did whatever was required to get the job done, almost always with considerable loss of life on the other side. Then, when the killing is done, the hero rides off into the sunset, leaving the pacified town to the able hands of the citizenry. In Rio Grande, Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne, of course) is charged with a black ops mission in which he crosses the Mexican border. If he's caught the authorities will disavow all knowledge, but if he succeeds nobody will question his methods. The same dilemma faced by General MacArthur in Korea.
The heroes of the great American Westerns - as well as the detective movies and outer space flicks (i.e., Star Wars) that owe their inspiration to the genre - are always self-reliant, confident, and on a Mission from God. The West - as well as the planets being pacified by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo - is usually pictured as a beautiful land of pristine open spaces, big prairies, awe-inspiring mountains, and desert mesas. The West stands for opportunity, independence, and triumph over evil. It provides a place to retreat from the advance of civilization, a refuge from the humdrum of a factory job, and a change to re-create oneself on one's own terms.
So... bearing in mind that I started this Pearl by disavowing any intentions of commentating further on the current administration's policies, I shall let this Pearl fade away into the sunset along with the heroes of the classic Western flicks. As is sometimes my wont, this Pearl has roamed widely through diverse academic territory in fields where I am not a specialist. Historians may be irritated about my handling of Turner (who I know is largely passé and politically incorrect), political scientists will probably think I glossed over huge subtleties in my handling of McKinley, and God knows what film critics will think.