Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power. By Bruce Cumings. Yale University Press; 641 pages; $38 and £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
AMERICA’S dominant Atlanticist idea, free trade and an Anglo-American internationalist outlook, emerged out of cold-war necessities, owing more to NATO than to Plato, as Bruce Cumings puts it. For much of the preceding three centuries, America nurtured its sense of exceptionalism by turning away from European monarchy, conflict and class. And not just turning away: turning West. Across a vast continent a “westering“ people established the novus ordo seclorum that is on every dollar bill.
The story of America’s rapid unrolling of the exceptionalist carpet is very well told by Mr Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago. The huge genocidal land grabs—from Mexico and from Indian tribes—were cloaked in self-righteousness. The new lands were handed back their virginity. Frederick Jackson Turner, admiring historian of Manifest Destiny, called them “a fair, blank page“.
The emerging frontier, everyone agreed, was an Eden. But the machine quickly moved into the garden with the railway, the world-shrinking telegraph, grid-straight roads, farm boundaries and industrialised agriculture. California, grabbed from Mexico by that imperialist president, James Polk, was different from the start. This is where the West really began, when gold was found in 1848.
The discovery marked the first of many chain-reaction explosions that have hurtled California forward since. Mr Cumings writes marvellously about the “herky- jerky movement“ and the telescoping of change in the state. After the gold came citrus, oil, property, lettuce (“green gold“), aircraft and, most recently, Silicon Valley. With their Apple iPhones, Californians have reclaimed Eden. Joan Didion wrote that in California “things had better work out here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.“
But not out of sea. The discovery of gold shifted global perspectives. It led Karl Marx, who had already completed “The Communist Manifesto“ with Friedrich Engels, to start his studies over again, culminating in “Das Kapital“. A new market had sprung up out of nothing.
It also refired notions of long-distance exchange across the Pacific: no sooner had Americans looked upon the West Coast than they looked beyond it. Starting with Hawaii, Manifest Destiny took to the water, in the form of missionaries, trade, expeditionary forces and notions of decisive sea power advocated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval theorist.
By now, American expansionism began to resemble Europe’s old-fashioned imperial empires, which it was fast approaching from an eastward direction. Having taken the Philippines from Spain in 1898, occupation not liberation followed. The same techniques used against the American Indians—terror, atrocities, native reservations—were put to service crushing the squalid Filipinos. Nine-tenths of the generals fighting in the Philippines had fought Indians. The commanding general thought that it might be necessary “to kill half the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life.“ The Philippines prove to be a quicksand, but the Americans keep marching “if only in a circle, while the politicians plumb the phrase book of American ideals.“ Korea (Mr Cumings’s early area of expertise), Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: the left-leaning historian sees a consistency, at least, in latter-day interventions.
Most Americans are clueless about the Philippines occupation, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died. Even after recent wars they have little sense of the United States as an imperial power. The author shines a light on America’s “stealth empire“ abroad today, unsure of its mission. The American century, Mr Cumings contends, began only in 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s occupation of Japan after defeat. In Asia, he is not convinced that China’s rise has changed the equation. From Pearl Harbour today, the US Navy dominates the Pacific, and America’s Asian allies still communicate on security matters through the United States rather than with each other.
America has 800-odd military bases and installations around the world, some of the biggest in Asia. Mr Cumings calls them an “archipelago of empire“, largely out of sight to fellow Americans. He tours bases in South Korea and Japan. They live in another age, with Pat Boone on the juke-box. Contact with the natives seems mainly with the kind who, for a fee, squirm up and down on your lap. Cultural communication with “the Orient“ remains tricky. This is a lively rattlebag of a history of the Pacific slope and of how the Pacific Ocean came to be an American lake.
(Mar 11th 2010 | From The Economist print edition)