Manifest destiny

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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison has been thinking about current American Foreign Policy, and that in turn has reminded him of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

(ROBISON) The concept of Manifest Destiny has been around for a long time but probably not as long as most of us think – at least not always by that name. As far as I can tell, the phrase was first used by a man named John O’Sullivan in the 1840s to argue in favor of the annexation into the United States of Texas and then the Oregon Territory.

It was about sixty years later that Teddy Roosevelt announced that Manifest Destiny did not stop at the water’s edge; that it indeed extended across the Pacific, thus justifying the colonization of the Philippines, the acquisition of Guam, and then Puerto Rico.

President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War I saying that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Then Wilson said in his message to Congress in 1920: “It is surely the Manifest Destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

So, “Manifest Destiny,” the phrase that was earlier used to justify physical expansion across the American mainland, came to be used to justify making the world safe for democracy. Historically, Manifest Destiny was clearly a bipartisan concept.

And now President Bush has become a passionate evangelist for that view or at least an extension of it. As far as I know he has not publicly used the phrase “manifest destiny,” but there is every reason to believe that he embraces it.

Ronald Reagan did not use the phrase “manifest destiny” publicly, but he did repeatedly refer to America as “the shining city upon a hill.” It was, for Ronald Reagan, virtually the same as “manifest destiny.” It was a vision of America as extra special, as a gift of God, of the American people as “the chosen.” It was what social scientists here and abroad refer to as “American exceptionalism.”

This is just the sort of idea about which and around which academic conferences flourish. It is also dependable grist for politicians of all stripes wanting to show themselves as being more patriotic than their opponents. And sometimes it works.

Quite frankly, I think there is a great deal of academic and journalistic pronouncing about American Exceptionalism these days as a direct result of America’s current status as the world’s only super power. If World War II had ended differently, for instance, we would now be talking about either German or Japanese exceptionalism. The day will probably come when there will be talk of Chinese exceptionalism. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and told the Israelites that they were God’s chosen people, that was exceptionalism.

It strikes me that that is a good thing – except when that belief morphs into an extension of nationalism; when a people come to believe that it is their God-given mission to remake the rest of the world in their own image. There is true darkness down that road.

Do I believe in Manifest Destiny? You bet. I am just reluctant to see it turned into the political underpinning of aggression.

The basic concept, after all, is a bringing into the public square of a good dose of old-fashioned Calvinism, which is the belief that we all have a Providentially decreed destiny. The goal is to figure out what it is…..and then, in my opinion, to resist the urge to try to make everyone else’s destiny the same as our own.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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