This morning, the president gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. There were lots of these moments:
And lots of these moments:
I just want to focus on one particular moment, one line, in this speech – a speech reportedly written by our old friend Stephen Miller.
From the beaches of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia, it is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others. Instead we helped build institutions like this one to defend the sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.
And all at once, millions of historians and people around the globe cried out:
Anyone with even the thinnest knowledge of postwar history knows that the U.S. absolutely tried to impose its way of life on others through political, military, and economic pressure during the Cold War and beyond. To quote Hawkeye Piece: “I just don’t know why they’re shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread.” In the long run, we didn’t even care much about the democracy, as long as they bought the white bread.
But the fact that Miller would even try to make this claim, as full of nonsense as it is, is tied to the way we tend to talk about “expansion” in the United States, and the way we don’t talk about colonialism in its various forms.
Could you draw the shape of the United States in 1787? Or 1803? Or 1848? Or 1870? Probably not, because the narrative of “Manifest Destiny” is so powerful. When we talk about “expansion,” we show the outline of the current borders because we can’t imagine that they weren’t always meant to be the borders. This oft-circulated GIF, made up of images from Wikimedia Commons, is a prime example.
“This map recognizes European colonial claims, no matter how tenuous, while ignoring all of the nations that already existed on the content, nations with whom the United States made war, treaties, and trade agreements. It assumes the perspective of European sovereign nations, the sort that Miller would find valid, and deems portions of the continent “Unclaimed Territory.”
This map also excludes current colonial possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific. It makes no attempt to show U.S. colonial occupation of the Philippines, which ended a year after World War II. Nor does it show the places the U.S. tried and failed to colonize or annex: parts of Canada, Mexico and Central America, and Cuba.
This is the problem with using the phrase “territorial expansion” instead of using the language of colonialism. Expansion implies empty spaces waiting to be filled. It also tacitly ties “expansion,” and therefore colonialism, to land and land alone. Therefore, if the U.S. didn’t take possession of Axis colonial land claims in Africa and Asia, there wasn’t any “territorial expansion,” and so no real colonialism. It’s not that many in the U.S. don’t recognize cultural colonialism, really, it’s just that they don’t seem to see it without it being tied to immediate territorial claims.
Moreover, this emphasis on land allows many contemporary United Statesians to lament the Trail of Tears, and maybe even the Carlisle Institute, and yet express relief that at least now members of these displaced and dispossessed are citizens who can participate in U.S. institutions so maybe it’s all fine. Miller says that the U.S. didn’t take land or impose values, it just created the U.N. to protect things like “sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all,” which are presented as things everyone understands and desires in the same way.
In both situations, the popular understanding of colonialism as something rooted in explicit territorial expansion helps obscure the fact that the U.S. political system and the United Nations are institutions that are based on a specific set of values and were set up to impose and perpetuate them. All evidence suggests that Miller knows this, and sees it as a feature, not a bug.
In this little snippet, Miller made a historical argument that is problematic on about 15 levels, but assumes – probably correctly – that many in his American audience wouldn’t question it.
Question it, and every historical argument made by this and every administration past and future.