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Unmanifest destiny: mayhem and illusion in American foreign policy - from the Monroe Doctrine to Reagan's War in El Salvador.

UNMANIFEST DESTINY: Mayhem and Illusion in American Foreign Policy--From the Monroe Doctrine to Reagan's War in El Salvador.

Almost the first dictum that budding Latin Americanists tack to the wall above their typewriters comes from the grand old man of the continent's independence, Simon Bolivar. More than 150 years ago, Bolivar declared, "The United States seems destined by providence to plague [Latin] America with miseries in the name of freedom.' The contradiction between the rhetoric of democracy, progress and Free World values and the dismal realities of murder and backwardness haunts the soul of U.S. foreign policy.

This has been most obvious, it is tempting to say, in Central America during the last four years. Precisely because the crisis there is so intractable, Washington's efforts to sell and sanitize its policies have been more intense. An Administration that prides itself on its control of image, information and the national agenda has had a certain undeniable success in casting contras as "freedom fighters,' Nicaragua as a "totalitarian dungeon' and Salvadoran Army officers as pious devotees of human rights. Reagan's mastery of what political analyst Walter Dean Burnham calls the "shamanistic aspects of the Presidency' has led many of us to believe that the syndrome originates with him.

Bolivar's observation is a useful reminder that this kind of double talk has been around for centuries, and for many Latin Americans, it is a daily source of wonder and despair. In the conduct of its Presidents as well as the attitudes of its inhabitants, the United States remains the most resolutely ahistorical of nations, the most prone to self-mythologizing. To stave off doubt or dissent about the moral direction of its foreign policy, one Administration after another has reached deep into the wellspring of national myth and patriotic self-image and disguised its imperial actions in the language of victory and moral righteousness.

Why? asks T.D. Allman in Unmanifest Destiny. Why these "extravaganzas of destruction . . . in the name of freedom'? Why this "national capacity for fantasy'? Unmanifest Destiny is a bold survey of the recurring traumas of U.S. foreign policy. It muses on the first colonial adventures of the early nineteenth century, treks through the disasters of Southeast Asia and finally arrives, somewhat exhausted, at the present crisis in Central America. It is heartening to see a journalist--particularly one as well versed as Allman in the minutiae of U.S. history--make an unusual foray into the psychological and ideological mysteries of this country's drive beyond its own shores and try to tease out the historical reasons for its excesses, failures and deceptions. But one reason for the rarity of the psychological approach to history may be the problems of method it presents. The difficulties are formidable, and Allman, sadly, is only intermittently able to overcome them.

Allman's epigraph, from William Graham Sumner's 1911 War, is nicely chosen. "If you want war,' it reads, "nourish a doctrine. Doctrines are the most frightful tyrants to which men are ever subject, because doctrines get inside a man's own reason and betray him against himself.' Unreason and betrayal are at the core of Allman's argument, and he is most compelling when he analyzes the doctrines formulated by figures such as James Monroe and James K. Polk. Depending on one's politics, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 is commonly described either as an ennobling exercise in spreading the blessings of democracy to a benighted hemisphere or as a lethal declaration of imperial arrogance. In fact, as Allman demonstrates at length, it was neither. More prosaically, it was an adroit piece of nineteenth-century Realpolitik, masterminded by a British Foreign Secretary, George Canning. What has made the doctrine so dangerous is its selective application and revisionist interpretation in the hands of succeeding Administrations.

Polk, whose doctrine is more obscure, is a historical figure well worth disinterring. His seizure of Mexico in 1846, extending the union by conquest and preserving it by war, was the fullblown expression of Manifest Destiny. More important, Polk's behavior initiated that familiar twin thrust of so much subsequent U.S. policy: view history as conspiracy (in the 1840s the British and the Mexicans were the villains); then portray U.S. expansion as a just response to fictitious acts of aggression by the conspirator.

Part of Allman's difficulty is in blending historical exposition with bursts of rhetorical indignation. His text is punctuated by elaborate metaphors for America's national psychosis and its failure to achieve self-knowledge. The most powerful of these is borrowed from Frances FitzGerald. It is the Vietnam War planners' fantasy of an ultimate center of communist conspiracy, COSVN, "a reverse Pentagon in the jungle complete with Marine Guards, generals and green baize tables,' and their belief that the war could be won if only COSVN could be located and destroyed.

Unfortunately, the metaphors remain just metaphors--terribly suggestive but short on explanation. None of Allman's encyclopedic research solves the most persistent enigma: Are U.S. policymakers malign and duplicitous or sincere and misguided? Even Richard Nixon remains inscrutable. "We possess no evidence,' says Allman, "that Nixon ever deviated from the belief that we fought in Vietnam for a just and honorable cause.' Jeane Kirkpatrick, that avatar of ideological politics, may hold the key to Allman's dilemma in her view that Marxism is the enemy and any action taken to defeat it is moral. But Allman's understandablerage at Kirkpatrick takes the place of analysis, and that point is never quite made.

If Unmanifest Destiny is hard pressed to explain the horrors perpetrated by the United States, it positively flounders in dealing with Central America. Its account is littered with errors of fact and perception. "To commit the United States to a regime of torture and murder in a foreign country,' Allman exclaims angrily, "is to taint ourselves, as well, with the most loathsome corruptions.' Agreed, but he gives no sense of a causal connection between the policies of the United States and those of its vicious client nations. Nicaragua and El Salvador remain alien and unknowable, their "loathsome corruptions' intrinsic to their condition. Allman's Central America is all feudalism and entropy, rumbling volcanos and atavistic Mayan bloodlust. "In El Salvador,' he writes, "the talent for killing, like the gift for dying, simply overwhelmed any capacities either the good or the bad possessed for dealing with the complexities of life.' That characterization is inaccurate and, in its way, as ahistorical as the self-serving assertion by a U.S. diplomat that violence is simply "in the culture.'

At the end of the day, Allman implicitly admits that the task of explanation is beyond him. In his anguished search for the soul of America, he ransacks the culture, from Apocalypse Now to Thoreau, from Walt Whitman to Moby Dick, to conclude that "only a literary genius, some master of the surreal, could do full justice to the self-repeating, self-perpetuating absurdities of destruction.' It is a sterile conclusion, and one that is characteristic of too much recent liberal commentary on Central America. Allman could have found a dozen Latin American writers who see progress as well as absurdity in the region's ordeal. But, depressingly, he chooses to quote the conservative Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who with his gift for evoking "nearly half a millennium of ceaselessly self-repeating futility' remains obstinately locked in an ivory tower.

Embedded somewhere in Unmanifest Destiny is a good feature article on the four murdered churchwomen in El Salvador, some fine flourishes of invective and perhaps a scathing Op-Ed piece. Allman's instincts are deeply humane and his anger righteous, but in the end he is swamped in a morass of a book that raises many more questions than it can answer.
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Author:Black, George
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 20, 1984
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