Walter Nugent: The American Habit of Empire, and the Cases of Polk and Bush

[The author is ANDREW V. TACKES Professor of History (emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame. This is an expansion of his presidential address given at the annual meeting of the Western History Association in St. Louis, Missouri, on 13 October 2006. While the content is solely the author's responsibility, he wishes to thank Suellen Hoy, Alan Lessoff, and Walter LaFeber for their invaluable editorial contributions and suggestions.]

... Several years ago I taught seminars on the U. S. territorial acquisitions and began a book on them, soon to be finished. It ties together the acquisitions with the demographic occupation, better known to us here under the old W.H.A. rubric of "the westward movement." The book has expanded into a broader history of American imperialism since 1782. There have been three phases. The first was the acquiring of the continental landmass from Atlantic to Pacific, including unsuccessful raids on Canada and a highly successful one on Mexico. A second then followed: the offshore acquisitions including Alaska, Hawai'i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the protectorates around the Caribbean and Pacific. Finally, a third has taken shape, the "virtual" (non-territorial but real) empire of the Cold War and post-Cold War periods, the more than seven-hundred military and naval bases the U. S. maintains around the world, including the new embassy, the world's largest, that the U. S. is building in Baghdad.

Only the first phase involved settlement in a truly major way. But all are of a piece, a continuous record of empire-building. And it was the West, as we have traditionally thought of it and studied it, where Americans learned the imperialist habit, because it was so successful, so quick, and frankly (despite the constant conflicts with neighbors and with Native peoples), so easy. Those other peoples were overwhelmed by disease, by technology, by money, by resources, by ideology, by warfare, but also and definitively by the hugely high American rate of natural increase. Americans out-procreated everybody—not only the Native Americans, but also the French and the Spanish, who claimed vast American empires but were never able to fill them with their own people. Americans did, and displaced them.
Besides demography, imperialism has also been a habit easily learned and continued because of a particular ideology. It has rested on a persistent set of beliefs, most fundamentally the exceptionalist conviction: that this nation has been divinely or providentially favored and stands for a morally good polity, worthy of export; that its territorial and imperial successes demonstrate that; and that therefore the nation may countenance or even demand further imperial enterprises. Very often, the preferred method for implementing this ideology has been military force.3 Americans extended liberty for themselves in the nineteenth century, and have exported their notions of it since then, frequently by using their armies and navies.

When this exceptionalism becomes securely embedded in certain minds, such as a president's, it can underwrite imperialistic, unilateralist, aggressive, and tunnel-visioned behavior. To describe that kind of mind, it is useful to recall the philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin's contrast between the hedgehog and the fox. Berlin drew this comparison from the Greek philosopher-poet of the seventh century BCE, Archilochus. Archilochus remarked: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing."4 Berlin explained that "there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends ... connected, if at all, only in some de facto way ... centrifugal rather than centripetal ... seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects," and so on. Hedgehogs are by no means stupid, in this view; Berlin put Dante, Plato, Hegel (and probably Marx had he chosen to) among the hedgehogs. He put Shakespeare, Aristotle, and James Joyce among the foxes. Berlin readily admitted that "like all oversimple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd." Nevertheless, "it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation."

In a recent essay in the New Yorker, Louis Menand takes the hedgehog-fox dichotomy a little further, into the conduct and criticism of world politics. Hedgehogs, in this arena, see everything as "ultimately determined by a single bottom-line force: balance-of-power considerations, or the clash of civilizations, or globalization and the spread of free markets. A hedgehog is the kind of person who holds a great-man theory of history.... [He may even think of himself as that great man.] Whatever it is, the big idea, and that idea alone, dictates the probable outcome of events.... Foxes, on the other hand, don't see a single determining explanation in history," but rather "a shifting mixture of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophecies." The two do not correspond to realist versus idealist, or conservative versus liberal. They can be either, though hedgehogs are "more likely to be extreme politically, whether rightist or leftist." Hedgehogs, therefore, are highly self-confident, over-predictive, less absorptive of evidence contrary to their big idea, less flexible. There are further refinements, but that is the gist.

Pushing this yet another step, from international affairs in general to American presidents as foreign-policy actors, some have been foxes. Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Bill Clinton come to mind. Others were hedgehogs. This group includes James K. Polk and George W. Bush. (Lincoln was probably a fox who was forced by extreme crisis to act like a hedgehog, but might not have later, had he lived.) I would like to explore here some similarities (and a few differences) that I have found in Polk and Bush, despite their separation in the White House by a hundred and sixty years, in the hope that we might better understand both of them, as well as the American habit of empire.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network