Manifest destiny

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(HOST) Lately, commentator Olin Robison has been thinking about empire-building and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

(ROBISON) It was ninety-seven years ago this month that the then President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, stood on the deck of the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, just off Hampton Roads near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to take and acknowledge the twenty-one gun salute fired from each of the sixteen battleships of the Great White Fleet as they returned from their around-the-world trip. Roosevelt had sent the ships off from the same spot fourteen months earlier. By the time they returned they had traveled forty-five thousand miles, putting into port on every continent.

Building and putting to sea sixteen mighty, state of the art battleships was all part of a deliberate attempt to establish the United States as a world power – and it worked.

That drizzly morning off Hampton Roads had to have been one of the most satisfying days of Roosevelt’s presidency – in fact, of his long and highly energetic public life.

Over the last several months I have tried to find an intellectually honest way to place in historical context the current American situation in the world. This is a distillation of part of that effort.

I have come to believe that, in the last hundred years or so, the United States has had three genuinely radical Presidents, especially as it pertains to foreign policy: Theodore Roosevelt, an unapologetic imperialist; Woodrow Wilson, a convinced and uncompromising idealist; and George W. Bush who, in ways reminiscent of Wilson, believes that it is the primary destiny of the United States to promote democracy.

In an odd and unexpected way, Mr. Bush’s current notions of America’s destiny can be seen as an extension of Woodrow Wilson’s uncompromising idealism.

Wilson went to Paris in 1919 to join in the negotiations ending World War I, the negotiations which, at the time, were intended to produce the peace to end all wars. He had his famous fourteen points, but two ideas trumped all the others: first was his advocacy of “open covenants openly arrived at” and, second, his pronounced belief in the right of self-determination of all people. This second idea shocked the Europeans, many of whom repeatedly warned Wilson that this was an unworkable idea and that it was going to raise expectations in distant places that would sooner or later lead to other wars.

But Wilson never gave in on any of his points and, in the end, this uncompromising position has led historians to be quite unkind to him.

My personal guess is that, over time, historians will be similarly unkind to President Bush.

The Bush passion for making the United States the world’s chief spreader of democracy really is an almost innocent extension of Wilson’s right of all people to self-determination.

The trouble with these wonderful concepts, of course, is that they assume that people, given the option, will choose wisely and they will at the same time embrace tolerance of others who think differently, or look different, or speak another language, or worship differently.

Unhappily, we are all learning together that those assumptions usually do not hold true.

It takes me all the way back to that small fundamentalist Baptist church in East Texas where the preachers talked constantly, or so it seemed, about something called “original sin.”

This is Olin Robison.

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

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