Skip to main content

Wickham: America's War on Terrorism, A new Manifest Destiny?

The tragic events of September 11 unified most Americans against a new world of international terrorism. The psychological shock of America's vulnerability began intense national introspection and profound change to self-perceptions. To many, this reflection ignited a spirited revival of the nation's virtual state religion - one belief combining the sacred and secular into a Christian sense of mission with patriotism. The 19th century variant of this state religion was a "manifest destiny" to spread democracy and true civilization by territorial expansion and subjugation of indigenous peoples.

Invoking a religious mission, President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address signaled a return to a divine sense of destiny as a "calling" to lead the world to defend liberty and justice. Bush's address marginalized America's genocide and ethnocide of indigenous peoples by claiming that liberty and justice "are right, true and unchanging for all people everywhere." Bush again invoked providence to pursue the War on Terrorism in a speech in May 2003 to Coast Guard Academy graduates, stating that "America has a spiritual energy which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind."

The events of September 11 and the open-ended War on Terrorism, along with intellectual and cultural shifts, strongly suggest that the manifest destiny of old has been resurrected as a new variant of imperialism - America's mission to defuse the passions fueling terrorism and stem the underlying tide of anti-Americanism abroad, by recasting and selling a positive image of itself as the democratic hope of all mankind. The Spring 2003 edition of Foreign Affairs Journal was devoted to countering the impression abroad of America's imperialist ambitions.

The national conversation after September 11, including intellectual discourse, TV and print media, indicates conservative rhetoric pining for a nostalgic return to the traditions and attitudes of manifest destiny. Christian leaders preached the terrorist tragedy as a divine punishment for America's decadent and pagan lifestyle. Congressmen proclaimed "America is no longer great" because a Christian nation went to sleep. Political commentators became furious with liberal leaders who blamed September 11 on our secular "sins of slavery, and dispossession and killing of Native Americans." A book from Oxford University Press in 2003 entitled "Faith in Nation: Origins of Nationalism," confirms that religion has historically formed the roots of nationalism. Even pop culture is witnessing a near hysteria of "retro-chic" in fashion, furniture, and automobiles.

A disturbing essay is "The West's Anti-Westernism," in The Survival of Culture series in The New Criterion, a publication of the Foundation for Cultural Review. Mark Steyn condemned the 2001 Congressional Resolution inaugurating Native American Month, as "bogus revisionist history" by claiming the Constitution borrowed from the Iroquois Confederacy. He argued that the only real issue is whether the American Indians will accept a "post-dated check" for cultural genocide.

The character of a new manifest destiny will not materialize overnight. The opening two salvos involve not only "hard" military power, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, but "soft power" or the ability to entice others by example. The National Interest focused on soft power this Spring included essays interpreting Bush's national security strategy such as "The American Empire," "Empire and Strategy," with "The Imperial Tense" heralding a new "manifest destiny."

Soft power began cleverly influencing world public opinion (amid boasts of attacking Iraq) with Bush's sudden epiphany offering the Israeli-Palestinian Road Map, and $15 billion to create his AIDS Emergency Relief Fund - a curious reversal of his abstinence-only answer. Soft power also includes publicizing a new Iraq and Afghanistan inspiring examples of freedom in the region. In Bush's USCG Academy speech this May, he blended military defiance against terrorism with compassion in foreign policy in a new humanitarian initiative against African hunger. But soft power diverts funds away from domestic programs, particularly those administered by BIA and IHS. The cheers for billions to AIDS Relief is deafened by the roar of Native Americans plagued by equally deadly epidemics of diabetes and alcoholism - diseases arising from government complacency and under-funded health care.

A significant indicator of a shift in Federal Indian policy is the historical correlation - a connection between shifts in American foreign policies during or following warfare, and the catastrophic disruption of federal Indian policies. History teaches that many federal Indian policies remain vulnerable to both the expedience of national security interests and America's preoccupation to sell a positive national image abroad. These influences often end up marginalizing the disparate claims of tribal governments over the singular American majority. For example, the "barren years" from 1945 to 1966 resulted from the profound influences on federal Indian policy after World War II. The world witnessed a massive assault on colonialism that liberated many peoples. To avoid the ire of anti-colonialist world opinion, America suddenly offered the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946. But the Act treated tribes as mere citizen landowners without the sovereign power to eject the unlawful trespasser - leaving only monetary damages like an eminent domain "taking" of one's backyard. Remedies also obliterated the carefully drawn legal status afforded various tribes based upon nation-to-nation treaties, as domestic-dependent nation treaties, or as executive order tribes.

The termination era in the 1950s underscored America's obsession to advertise its idealism abroad amid the rise of communism and the Cold War. America saw itself on an inexorable march towards the true democratic and egalitarian civilization by dissolving old tribal memberships but creating a new illusion of an empowered and integrated Native minority.

The vigorous national debate over America's new sacred-secular destiny should not blunt the struggles nor reverse the gains made toward tribal sovereignty. A complex next step awaits - how Indian country should respond. Many forums exist to inject into mainstream American debate a more honest look at the country's repression of its indigenous peoples. The new manifest destiny should not dissolve into this melting pot the unresolved rights to tribal sovereignty, or the unanswered injustices upon indigenous peoples at home.

John A. Wickham, of Evergreen, Colorado, is a civil rights attorney.

(Editor's note: this column draws from the author's essay in American Indian Quarterly, Winter 2003.)