We Forget Our Own Cruel Past

Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the former executive editor of World Policy Journal

President Clinton’s actions toward the conflict in Kosovo are directed by a guiding principle of his foreign policy: that America must “give back to a contentious world some of the lessons we learned during our own democratic voyage.” Indeed, exporting “democratic values,” specifically the tolerance and pluralism that have come to be regarded as central to the American creed, has emerged as a foreign policy imperative embraced by both Democrats and Republicans. Statesmen and foreign policy mandarins tout these “democratic values” and America’s supposed heritage of harmonious diversity and civic comity as the solution to the world’s civil wars--the Kosovos, the Albanias, the Bosnias and the Chechnyas--that have proliferated in the post-Cold War world.

U.S. policymakers smugly urge (and then, paradoxically, try to force) these fragmented societies to play nice: to elevate compromise and tolerance above ethnic, nationalist or religious domination as their organizing principles, just as we do in multiethnic, multicultural, multi-faith America. But these bromides are rooted in an idealized view of America’s development, not the historical reality.

Before Americans cast stones at aggrandizing Serbians, they should realize that the United States was built through conquest and force, not by conciliation and compromise. The founders described the United States not as a country but as an empire. For reasons of national security, economic development and racial chauvinism, they embarked on a course of imperial expansion. This meant taking land that belonged to others, subjecting foreign peoples to American rule and crushing separatist movements.


The process began with genocidal wars against American Indians, a 300-year conflict that impels today’s historians to characterize American expansion on the continent as “invasion” rather than “settlement.” These wars, one of the longest series of ethnic conflicts in modern history, were resolved not by power-sharing or the other “reasonable” solutions today’s foreign policy experts recommend, but by obliteration. As one congressman asked with resignation in 1830, describing the United States’ destruction of Native Americans as the price of its development, “What is history but the obituary of nations?”

Also crucial to America’s development was the Mexican War, in which a democratic United States swallowed two-fifths of the republic of Mexico, that is California and Texas and all the territory in between.

In decrying the merciless use of force in Kosovo, Americans seem not to realize that their own Civil War was hardly different. The United States nearly destroyed itself in the central episode of its nation-building--a brutal and irreconcilable nationalist-separatist conflict in which one vision of America crushed another. Although the Constitution, like many of the means lauded by foreign policy analysts today to forestall civil conflict, attempted to equalize sectional differences by guaranteeing the South a disproportionate voice in national politics, this could not work in the long run for the United States. The arrangement foundered as the North’s power and ambitions grew, and the South refused to become subordinate to or dependent on an opposing, and increasingly threatening, ideology and political economy.

In the end the North’s vision--of a powerful centralized state, a so-called “Yankee Leviathan,” deemed necessary for capitalist development--emerged as the nation’s. This vision, despite a persistent mythology promulgated by the victors, was triumphant not because it was intellectually or morally superior; it prevailed, as the United States prevailed over Mexico 20 years earlier, through superior force.

The U.S. foreign policy community self-righteously proclaims that America should pressure and tutor societies plagued by ethnic, nationalist and separatist wars to adopt “reasonable” solutions to these conflicts. But the history we brandish as a light to nations is largely a sanctimonious tissue of myth and self-infatuation. Taken without illusion, our national experience gives us no right to preach, but it should prepare us to understand the brutal realities of nation-building, at home and abroad.