[Americans] are surprised to learn that others hate them, are jealous of them, and even fear them for their power and influence. They have not anticipated, therefore, the way their natural expansiveness could provoke reactions, and sometimes violent reactions, against them.”
—Dangerous Nation, Robert Kagan
Reading Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation, a sobering look at American expansionism and sense of national destiny, one is put in mind of the prologue to James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid: “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.” In Kagan’s eye, America was never the bright-eyed hero (as puffed-up, arrogant neo-cons would have it) or the rapacious, bloody-eyed imperialist monster (the view of Chomsky and his carping minions) but rather something slightly unique: a country that never made a lasting empire out of its globe-spanning ambitions, even though it easily could have. Maybe we just didn’t have the attention span.
Dangerous Nation covers the pre-Revolutionary period up to the Spanish-American War that brought the 19th century to a close; a second book will bring us up to the present. It’s a thrilling but daunting block of history to rummage around in, but Kagan—author of Of Paradise and Power (2003)—is well up to the task. Although the author could have easily been sucked into a reiteration of early American history, given his rather broad thesis, he is quite able to bypass a strict chronological format and go wherever his subject takes him. Written with authoritative but nimble prose, it’s a brisk 560 pages, believe it or not.
Early on, Kagan triangulates his idea of America between the opposing viewpoints of idealism and cynicism, talking of how Americans have long thought of themselves as basically “inward-looking and aloof,” only venturing into the broader world in response to perceived threats. Americans widely believe this even after “four hundred years of steady expansion ... and despite innumerable wars, interventions, and prolonged occupations in foreign lands.” At this point, when one would imagine Kagan starting a thunderous denunciation of gringo imperialism, he instead writes of how Americans’ “lack of self-awareness has had its virtues,” sometimes making their power more palatable to people overseas, “for a nation so unaware of its own behavior may seem less threatening than a nation with a plan of expansion and conquest.”
American expansionism started early and in earnest, well before the declaration of Manifest Destiny. Following the Revolution, the relatively hollow federal government was thrust into conflict with Native Americans by the agitation of its own impatient citizens. Time after time, settlers would push into lands promised to Native Americans, who would then fight back. Then, settlers would call for military protection, after which the tribes were thrust back into regions eyed by yet more greedy settlers, and the process continued. This blundering, black comic routine would be replaced in the 19th century by a more ominous expansion of what America thought constituted its interests. Talk of how “nature” had granted American near-divine right to grow as fast as possible was quite common. It helps explain not just how America moved so fast to dominate North America but how it came to terrify the nations of Europe, who feared not just America’s military reach, but also the bad example its thriving democracy set for their own repressed peoples.
Kagan is a realist who understands idealism; a rare combination among historical writers, and part of what helps make Dangerous Nation such a gratifying and illuminating read. Even though the book has no illusions about what lay behind many of America’s early overseas’ interventions (some of the passages about Confederate politicians’ desires to turn South America into slave nations are especially chilling), Kagan is still aware that many Americans honestly believed (and still do believe) that “a strong America was good for the world.” Whether enough of those promulgating such beliefs really thought about them and their implications is another question. Graham Greene understood the damage that can be wrought by the well-meaning naïf, illustrated so graphically in The Quiet American.
In short, as Kagan writes, “Americans would be better off if they understood themselves, their nation, and their nation’s history better.” At a time when America is immersed in two bloody, grinding overseas wars, one of which was entered into with an almost complete lack of central planning or thought to its aftermath, these plainspoken words could hardly have more resonance.