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American Amnesia: We Forget Our Atrocities Almost As Soon as We Commit Them

Historical amnesia is a dangerous social phenomenon because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.

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The Great Seal is, in fact, a graphic representation of "the idea of America," from its birth. It should be exhumed from the depths of the psyche and displayed on the walls of every classroom. It should certainly appear in the background of all of the Kim Il-Sung-style worship of that savage murderer and torturer Ronald Reagan, who blissfully described himself as the leader of a "shining city on the hill," while orchestrating some of the more ghastly crimes of his years in office, notoriously in Central America but elsewhere as well.

The Great Seal was an early proclamation of "humanitarian intervention," to use the currently fashionable phrase. As has commonly been the case since, the "humanitarian intervention" led to a catastrophe for the alleged beneficiaries. The first Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, described "the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union" by means "more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru."

Long after his own significant contributions to the process were past, John Quincy Adams deplored the fate of "that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty… among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement." The "merciless and perfidious cruelty" continued until "the West was won." Instead of God's judgment, the heinous sins today bring only praise for the fulfillment of the American "idea."

The conquest and settling of the West indeed showed that "individualism and enterprise," so praised by Roger Cohen. Settler-colonialist enterprises, the cruelest form of imperialism, commonly do. The results were hailed by the respected and influential Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1898. Calling for intervention in Cuba, Lodge lauded our record "of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century," and urged that it is "not to be curbed now," as the Cubans too were pleading, in the Great Seal's words, "come over and help us."

Their plea was answered. The U.S. sent troops, thereby preventing Cuba's liberation from Spain and turning it into a virtual colony, as it remained until 1959.

The "American idea" was illustrated further by the remarkable campaign, initiated by the Eisenhower administration virtually at once to restore Cuba to its proper place, after Fidel Castro entered Havana in January 1959, finally liberating the island from foreign domination, with enormous popular support, as Washington ruefully conceded. What followed was economic warfare with the clearly articulated aim of punishing the Cuban population so that they would overthrow the disobedient Castro government, invasion, the dedication of the Kennedy brothers to bringing "the terrors of the earth" to Cuba (the phrase of historian Arthur Schlesinger in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who considered that task one of his highest priorities), and other crimes continuing to the present, in defiance of virtually unanimous world opinion.

American imperialism is often traced to the takeover of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in 1898. But that is to succumb to what historian of imperialism Bernard Porter calls "the saltwater fallacy," the idea that conquest only becomes imperialism when it crosses saltwater. Thus, if the Mississippi had resembled the Irish Sea, Western expansion would have been imperialism. From George Washington to Henry Cabot Lodge, those engaged in the enterprise had a clearer grasp of just what they were doing.

After the success of humanitarian intervention in Cuba in 1898, the next step in the mission assigned by Providence was to confer "the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples" of the Philippines (in the words of the platform of Lodge's Republican party) -- at least those who survived the murderous onslaught and widespread use of torture and other atrocities that accompanied it. These fortunate souls were left to the mercies of the U.S.-established Philippine constabulary within a newly devised model of colonial domination, relying on security forces trained and equipped for sophisticated modes of surveillance, intimidation, and violence. Similar models would be adopted in many other areas where the U.S. imposed brutal National Guards and other client forces.

 
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