America Great Again.” – Donald Trump’s campaign slogan
“America is already great.” – President Barrack Obama
“America is great because America is good.” – Hillary Rodham Clinton
“Let’s make America Great Again.” — Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan
There are few things on which Democrats and Republicans agree, but America’s Greatness must be the most vocal and unanimous. Before Vietnam, one thing we pointed to was never losing a war. Maybe that, in turn, comes from “winning” the Civil War which kept us “united” but at the cost of over a million lives and the utter devastation of several states and their civilian populations during General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea.
This self-congratulation, this adulation of power over others not equipped to withstand our economic, political and military firepower, manifested in the Louisiana Purchase (which gave us a quasi-legal excuse to displace the rest of America’s indigenous population); the Monroe Doctrine (which made virtual colonies out of every American country not already colonized by Europe) and the unique refusal of the United States to lower its flag in honor to any other country. This “Greatness” was definitely behind the popularity of Teddy Roosevelt and “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
From the start we have insisted on a superior status to other countries and other cultures.
We aspire to greater powers such as our veto power in the United Nations, our “right” to use nuclear and chemical weaponry against civilian populations such as Nagasaki, Hiroshima and rural Vietnam and our current stand against nuclear weaponry in other countries. The huge arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can each destroy every city in Russia or China remains one of the most treasured symbols of our “greatness.”
In the Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth, we joined England in a series of mini-invasions into China aimed at forcing certain cities to allow opium dens. Their purpose was to get this destructive product into China to balance our own populations’ demand for silk and tea. The descendants of these drug merchants now seem to be doing something quite similar to the populations of our own inner cities – all for the huge profits it provides despite the devastation it creates.
In 1853 and again in 1854, we sent the Seventh Fleet into what was eventually Tokyo harbor and threatened the Japanese Imperial Palace. From this foothold into medieval Japan, we imported cannon and modern rifles and American military expertise to wipe out the samurai and their culture and to force modern industry into Japan. Because they had few and poor natural deposits of iron and coal, this modern industry forced Japan to choose between economic dependence or colonial expansion. When, almost a century later, we stopped supporting their industries with raw material, they invaded Manchuria and China, which we condemned, despite having done something similar ourselves and having caused this situation by our earlier greed and selfishness.
Certainly a great deal of this “greatness” involved “taming the West,” putting up fences and railroads and wiping out the great buffalo herds and the people they sustained. During my childhood, Westerns were a large part of the informal education of our youth, showing the white man as heroic and the American Indian as either savage or subservient.
A large portion of our “greatness” during the latter part of the Twentieth Century derives from our “winning” the Cold War, of outlasting our equally menacing neo-colonial competitors, China and the Soviet Union, in a race to militarize, destabilize and then subjugate the Third World.
In 1955, for instance, we sent military “advisers” and modern weaponry to support a dictator who had been installed by the French shortly before their second withdrawal from their colony of French Indochina. South Vietnam had never been a separate country before but had, for millennia, been the agricultural south of Vietnam, much like the Confederacy of our own history except over millennia instead of decades and already divided into wealthy colonial cooperators and the people they taxed into serfdom.
In 1956, however, we sat idly by while 17 Soviet tank divisions brutally quelled the revolution in Hungary which had already ousted its Soviet-sponsored rulers. The two “superpowers” respecting each others’ “area of influence” and doing little to oppose tyranny on either side of the supposed “conflict.”
In 1975, Angola became an independent country, freeing itself from Portugal’s political and military control with support from Cuba, South Africa, and the Soviet Union. As with a lot of former colonies, civil war broke out almost immediately afterward between separate tribal factions1.
In this same year, President Gerald Ford sent $39 million in secret “aid” to Jonas Savimbe and his offshoot of MPLA called UNITA. This wasn’t money. This was half a million Claymore antipersonnel mines and thousands of automatic weapons. The Assistant Secretary of State resigned in protest and, three months after this aid started, it was revealed by the press to the world, prompting an amendment to the Arms Export Control Act prohibiting further arms shipments to Angola. In response to this, (as Reagan’s gang did later in Nicaragua,) Ford and his CIA Director, George H. W. Bush, continued this “aid,” but laundered the sales through another country, in this case, Israel.
Let’s understand why this happened. First, the US people had better things to do with their hard-earned tax money than send illegal weapons to a dissident faction in a civil war in central west Africa. What was important to those who orchestrated this travesty was stimulating the production of the new anti-guerilla weapons which moved tax money into friendly and helpful “pockets” and foiling any and all imperial aspirations of China or the Soviet Union with imperial advances of their own.
This had exactly the effect that Ford’s advisers had predicted: the opposition got more aid and the Soviets got more pushy, which ended in MPLA leadership firing Soviet surrogates and becoming more inclusive and more moderate. In other words, the Soviets overplayed their hand. This, in turn, led to a stronger and more inclusive Angolan government led by Josē Eduardo dos Santos starting in September, 1979. This led, in short order, to ending cross-border raids and a non-aggression pact with Zambia and Zaire. This, however, was countered by South Africa sending troops back into Angola from 1981 to 1987, which, in turn, was countered by $2 billion in Soviet aid. The fight escalated once again.
The point here is that every single bit of “foreign aid” on the part of many different countries with many different agendas destabilized the country, harmed innocent people, and did nothing whatsoever to further democracy, reform, or freedom. Spending begat spending – which was, of course, the whole idea – to make money by promoting warfare. Killing begat killing. The US conservatives who opposed Soviet and Chinese imperialism had an imperial agenda of their own. Furthermore, long after Jonas Savimbe died (of multiple gunshot wounds received from Angolan government forces in 2002), the Claymore mines he got from us and planted in his country continued to kill and maim innocents. Many are still providing this “aid” to generation after generation; a lasting legacy, courtesy of United States conservatives and us unwitting taxpayers. We are the only country in the world to manufacture these virtually perpetual instruments of indiscriminate destruction, banned by the rest of the civilized world; another obvious symbol of our unique “greatness.”
Four years after we left Saigon, consigning it to rejoin the ancient country of Vietnam, the Chinese communists invaded in the north, trying to reclaim their former colony but not succeeding. Two “opposing” superpowers coveted the same small country as their colony and neither were successful due to the third superpower’s addition of a robust antiaircraft missile system to Hanoi’s defenses and, of course, the local desire to be free after being occupied by a succession of foreigners for two centuries.
The Soviet Union was forced to give up on colonizing Afghanistan after a prolonged war from December, 1979 through February, 1989 which killed around a million people and ended in millions of refugees in nearby countries, mostly Pakistan and Iran. That war, coupled with their dishonesty and cavalier attitude after the Chernobyl disaster, was, most likely, the demise of the Soviet Union, not our opposition. Again, their own grandiosity; their own “greatness” got the best of them.
We took our turn at colonizing Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014 … with similar results. Invasion again led to war after the invader left. Our purpose, I am convinced, was not to “free” Afghanis or to gain freedom for anyone or to find the few al Quida operatives hiding there, but to turn tax dollars or tax-free government bonds into profit for the many lucrative industries surrounding the US military.2
These and similar scenarios have been repeated in various forms all over the Third World for over a century and a half.
In the Philippines, we sent millions of your tax dollars in aid to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who called anyone who opposed him “communist,” despite the region’s love for democracy.
We backed our own hand-picked dictator, Fulgencio Battista, in Cuba. We backed the Contras in Nicaragua against the freely-elected socialist government. We invaded any regime not already tied to a colonizing power which didn’t “cooperate” with our desire for special trading rights or didn’t match our zeal for massive profits. And, sometimes (as in the invasion of Iraq), we just created fictional reasons to send out troops.
We built huge military bases around the world and treated them as if they were United States soil. We even created an illegal air force, Air America, and hired American mercenary troops to further this agenda.
And, of course, after 9/11, we invaded relatively stable countries in the Middle East and completely and utterly destabilized the region. Now, we intend to compound these errors with more weapons and brutality. Our answer to violence, our “great” plan, is more violence dropped from high bombers and carried into civilian areas by drones.
The alternative answer is patience, understanding and humility, not more destruction. This was a different type of “greatness” best exemplified by President Jimmy Carter and his four years in office. It is something Americans can’t seem to grasp. Instead, they flocked to the man who sold “Gold Medallion Homes,” places where you got a free doorbell buzzer for spending three times as much money to heat your home and who gave you “Death Valley Days,” which glorified our brutal past.
We’re like the schoolyard bully, hitting up younger, more vulnerable kids for their lunch money. Everyone suffers from our intolerance and our delusions – even us, ourselves … not so great when you look at it that way.
1The Mbundu people and the multiracial, well-educated descendants of Portuguese colonists and local tribeswomen called themselves the MPLA and were Angola’s urban population. They continued to be supported by the same people against other local factions after the Portuguese withdrew. Cuba sent troops as well as weaponry. The MPLA was socialist but not communist, allowed a certain amount of communist propaganda and rhetoric, but balked at permanent Soviet or Cuban bases such as the US had in places like Thailand, Turkey and, against their will, Cuba itself.
2Please read War is a Racket, a short book available free on line written by retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler between the First and Second World Wars and chronicling his thirty years of service to American profiteers as their enforcer and stooge.