Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum

I have been reading a little about World War II lately.  I have always been fascinated by World War II.  It was a time when the world teetered on the brink of insanity.  In many parts of the world civilizations were turned upside down.  If you read a lot about the Nazis it is really amazing how they were able to pervert every aspect of society for their own ideological political gains.  They were able to turn things that were normally good, like motherhood, and corrupt them towards their own ends.

I have a question and I don’t mean to be controversial.  I am not asking this to purposely get some right wingers’ heads to explode.  First I came across the following passage from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in an old blog I wrote:

“The rich and beautiful valleys of Wyoming are destined for the occupancy and the sustenance of the Anglo-Saxon race.  The wealth that for untold ages has lain hidden beneath the snow-capped summits of our mountains has been placed there by Providence to reward the brave spirits whose lot it is to compose the advance-guard of civilization.  The Indians must stand aside or be overwhelmed by the ever advancing and ever increasing tide of emigration.  The destiny of the aborigines is written in characters not to be mistaken.  The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the downfall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red men of America.”

That was said by The Big Horn Association in 1870.  That was said about Manifest Destiny.

A very simple explanation of Manifest Destiny is:  In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief in the United States that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent.

Hitler wanted what was called Lebensraum or “living space” for his Reich.  A very simple definition of Lebsenraum:  The territory that a state or nation believes is needed for its natural development, especially associated with Nazi Germany.

So my question is, especially considering the fate of many of the Indians and the Jews, what is different about Manifest Destiny and Lebensraum?

I am asking that as a rhetorical question to get you thinking.  I know that in some ways there were many differences you could bring up.  The industrial murder of the Holocaust was very different from the Indian Wars, as cruel as the Indian Wars were in many ways.  There are many cultural and political differences that you could bring up as well.  The degradation of values was nowhere as complete in even the worst of times in America as they were in Nazi Germany, not for a second.

But in school we are brought up, or at least I was, to think of Manifest Destiny in a mostly positive light.  But we wiped out many people in order to acquire this “living space”.  I’m not trying to say that everything America does is bad or “blame America first”.  For instance, in World War II we were on the right side of history.  But I do think there are many myths and stories that we don’t question.  I posed this particular question to make you think.  If we can understand the distortions of the past, we have a better chance at unraveling the distortions of the present.

The Storm Of War

I just posted a link to an article in The New York Times about how climate change has been deemed a threat by our military.  Is it possible that our military might be right and that our civilian leaders, especially the right wing, who are tripping over themselves to deny climate change, could actually be wrong?  Could our leaders put our country, and the world, at great peril by not listening to the military?  Has anything like this ever happened before?

Strangely enough I just started a book called The Storm of War.  It is written by esteemed historian Andrew Roberts.  It has gotten great reviews not only because of the quality of Roberts writing, but also because of his excellent scholarly work doing research for this book.  One of the conclusions that Roberts comes to is that Hitler might have had a chance of winning World War II if only he had listened to the military.  Hitler was fighting a political war that was based as much on ideology as it was anything else.  His military leaders urged him not to start a second front against Russia.  However, Hitler was determined to have Lebensraum, or “living space”, for his Reich.  He also dedicated many needed resources towards The Final Solution that could have been used towards military aims.

Now don’t go getting your panties in a bunch.  I’m not comparing anyone to Hitler directly.  What I am saying is that when we deny cold hard facts for ideological reasons, we run the risk of defeating ourselves.

The Past In Color

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Black and White Photos In Color

The above link is to a bunch of historically black and white photos that have been colorized.  Some of them are better done than others.  However, many of them are quite compelling as they make the past appear to be less distant.  The suffering of those looking for work in the above picture is made all the more absurd by the brightly colored sign.  They also look like what they are, people that are struggling during hard economic times, very much like ours, instead of people caught up in the problems of another era.

The below picture of women in New York in 1900 is made much less alien to our modern world than the same picture would be in black and white.  All of a sudden the past becomes a place I can imagine myself in, that is not too different from our world.

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Tip of the hat to my friend Chris Saunders

The Foggy Morality of War

I have been traveling a lot lately and have been ridiculously busy, as well as dealing with some personal things.  Because of this I don’t feel that I have been able to come to any strong opinion if we are taking the right course of action against ISIS.  I feel like the only way you can get a bead with what is going on in the world anymore is to read a host of different opinions and try as best you can to parse the truth out of them piece by piece.  (And don’t watch the TV news ever!)

However, I have had some random thoughts and questions that do speak ill of our times.  I thought I would share them:

1.  What does it mean when we have been at war so long that the fact we are bombing another country doesn’t seem all that odd?  Like I should either be morally outraged or cautiously supportive, but I can’t seem to feel any strong emotion one way or the other.  Is this how peace in our time truly dies?  Little by little, year after year, until we just except the horrible state of things?

2.  What does it say that when we go to war I no longer trust the reasons that we are being given?  I like Obama overall, at least a million times more than his opposition, but I can’t help but feel that any president from either side is at least going to be partly influenced by our ever growing military industrial complex.  The Bush Administration’s bogus Iraq War did a great deal to damage the credibility of our leaders.  However, if you read American history from the end of World War II on, we don’t exactly have a great track record.

3.  Would a group like ISIS even be an issue had we stayed out of the Middle East?  Is our involvement now going to bring a group even worse than ISIS in the future?

Look I am under no illusions that the world would be better off without ISIS.  However, knowing that, how that fact is dealt with is where things start to become murky.  Obama may very well be taking the best approach that he can given the circumstances that he is facing.  I don’t feel that I have read enough to know what to think about our current military approach.  But it does trouble me that we have reached a place, where due to the events of recent years, that the morality of our country at war appears more foggy than ever.

Cultural Apocalypse

In reading Hampton Sides’s excellent In the Kingdom of Ice I came upon the story, only a side story in the book, of the Yupiks, a native population in Alaska.  They were destroyed when the white man came along and killed their food source and supplied them with alcohol.   In their case it was the walrus and not the buffalo. 

It was the Arctic version of a story well known to Americans, the story of the buffalo and the Indians of the Great Plains.  Here, as there, the wholesale slaughter of a people’s staple prey had led, in a few short years, to ruinous dislocations, terrible dependencies – and a cultural apocalypse.  

I have read a good deal of history books.  I was a History Major and eventually an American Studies Major.  Yet, this slaughter is something I have never heard of.  It took place as late as the 1880’s,  hardly ancient history.  That is less than 150 years, the span of two human lives. 

When we, as a people, go into a region, such as we have in Iraq, do we really know the history of what went on there?  There is so much we don’t know about our own history.  There is so much that we don’t know period.  How do we make informed political decisions, especially when human life hangs in the balance? 

In the Kingdom of Ice

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The writer Hampton Sides has a new book out called In the Kingdom of Ice.  I have only just started reading it, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but if it is anything like Sides’s other books it will be worth every penny.  Sides is one of my favorite history writers.  Following in the footsteps of Shelby Foote, Sides knows how to write accurate history with a the eye of a cinematographer and the gift of natural storyteller.  Every single one of his books has opened a new world up to me.  I can’t even imagine the insane amount of research and work that goes into these books.  His other three books, all worth reading, are as follows:

Blood and Thunder:  This is the story of Kit Carson and the Indian Wars that take place largely in New Mexico.  Along with the equally fascinating Empire of the Summer Moon, written by S.C. Gwynne about the Indian Wars in Texas, this book book is at the top of my list for my favorite history book.  If you read both of these books you will have a great idea of what actually happened during our westward expansion.  Both of these books are fascinating, intelligent, and page turners.  

Ghost Soldiers:  This is Sides’s book on the Bantam Death March and the operation that took place to rescue the survivors.  It is at times both haunting and exciting.  Also, many of the little details that Sides includes are fascinating.  It makes you understand why the Japanese Empire was doomed to failure for the way that they treated those that they conquered.  Another interesting fact is that the American government introduced speed to our soldiers during World War II.  They gave it to the soldiers performing the rescue operation so that they could stay up for several days to complete the operation in the time needed.  

Hellhound On HIs Trail:  This is a book about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray.  The subtitle of this book is The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History.  It does deliver all of the details on the manhunt of James Earl Ray, and it is fascinating.  I did not know, for instance, that James Earl Ray had actually escaped from prison.  But what makes the book really fascinating is the juxtaposition between Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray.  King believed in nonviolence to the point that he refused to travel with armed body guards.  And although Sides does not shy away from King’s adultery or other human failings, you understand after reading the book about why he was such an inspiring figure.  His vision for humanity was one of decency and dignity.  Meanwhile Ray is one of life’s losers, a man without any clear goal or passion.  He is a hollow man whose small-mindedness brought him to violence.  They are figures at the complete opposite ends of the human spectrum.  

I was a History Major and eventually an American Studies Major in college.  There is no reason that history shouldn’t be fascinating.  Occasionally you should challenge yourself with a large sprawling work like William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as these kinds of books can present the big picture in ways that other books can’t.  But usually if history is hard to read, and Shirer’s book is not, it just tells a very complex history, it is the fault of the writer.  Sides’s work is no less valid for being readable.  He is simply a great writer as well as a great historian.  If you are interested in our country, all of these books are worth looking into.  You will learn a great deal while being entertained.  

Passport Propaganda

Last night I forgot one of my books and was stuck in a situation where I had nothing to read.  I started reading the quotes in my passport and realized that almost everyone was propaganda and most were easily disproved.  They are all part of, as George Carlin would say, “the national bullshit story.”  I thought I would post the quotes and then follow up with why a response to each one:

The principle of free government adheres to the American soil.  It is bedded in it, immovable as the mountains. – Daniel Webster

Ok, total bullshit.  First of all soil cannot be bedded with principles of anything.  Our soil, aside from possibly the particular chemical makeup of it, is no different than any soil.  Also, democracy and free governments are never immovable.  They are things which need vigilant citizens to maintain.  Just look at the history of our voting rights.  Look at the current NSA scandal or things Hoover’s FBI did or any of number of things to learn how free government and democracy are easily eroded. 

We have a great dream.  It started way back in 1776 and God grant that America will be true to her dream.  – Martin Luther King

I am nitpicking with this one.  Martin Luther King was obviously a great man.  The quote itself is fine in a kind of whitwashed way.  However in 1776 they did let slavery remain legal.  Also, whether or not there is a God, it is again going to take actual people to make us stay true to the founder’s more noble ideas. 

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.  – John F. Kennedy

Again, I like John Kennedy fine, but this is simply untrue.  If we look at the history of Guatemala or the Congo or many other examples, there are plenty of times that we let liberty be snuffed out. 

This is a new nation, based on a continent, of boundless possibilities. – Theodore Roosevelt

This might have seemed more true in Roosevelt’s time.  However, with our modern environmental problems we are seeing that even our vast continent is not boundless in its possibilities.   Nothing physical is boundless. 

Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come from the heart of America. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

This is a very vague statement.  What exactly is the heart of America?  Is it the people?  If so there have been many times when presidents passed things by executive order without the outright consent of a large amount of people.  Is it Washington?  If that place always has a heart I’ll shit myself.  Besides, the decisions they make there, look at Iraq, don’t always pass in the world as planned.  Again a vague statement that is a bunch of meaningless feel good nonsense. 

For this is what America is all about.  It is the uncrowded desert and the unclaimed ridge.  It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground.  Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.”  Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man. – Lyndon B. Johnson

Again vague feel good nonsense, this time rooted in American exceptionalism.   Johnson himself found the limits to our power in Vietnam.  Case closed. 

May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world. – inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869

This refers to the transcontinental railroad.   It should be noted that much of the work was done by Chinese laborers.  Although it is disputed how many, varying wildly, many of these workers died. 

We send thanks to all the Animal life in the world.  They have many things to teach us as people.  We are glad they are always here and hope it will always be so. – Excerpt from the Thanksgiving Address, Mohawk version

There is nothing wrong in and of the quote itself.  However when you use it as a selling point for our country it helps to remember how we treated the Indians and how we have exploited animals.  The Mohawks also fought against us in the Revolutionary War and The War of 1812.  We also took their land.  Also, look how we treated the buffalo, which we almost wiped out of existence during the western Indian wars.  Look now at how we treat animals in factory farming.  Again the statement is fine, but when you examine it closely as a selling point for America, it kind of makes you wonder. 

The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity – Anna Julia Cooper

This statement is another one that is fine in and of itself as an idea.  However, it is false when used as a selling point for America.  Also, first of all, you are not born with the right to anything.  Rights have to be fought for and maintained by vigilant citizens.  If we were born with rights we wouldn’t have needed the Civil War or the women’s suffrage movement.  Also if one looks at gerrymandering today, you can still see that our freedoms, in terms of the right to truly govern ourselves as a true democracy, are still being eroded.  We are also not free in a lot of ways.  If I get caught with weed in Texas, a victimless crime that hurts no one, what freedom I do have will dissappear.  

My point is not to be a killjoy or to say we should stamp out attempts at using language to aspire to greater things.  It is just that we need to, as individuals,  to think.  Democracy and freedom are not birthrights, are not unique to America, and do not come from God.  Only by being vigilant citizens, paying attention to what is going on, and by standing up for those that are oppressed,  can we truly have a democracy that represents all.  Also, total freedom is an illusion.  To be free in a way in which we can all persue our own version of happiness, as long as we don’t hurt others, is still along ways off. There is much work to be done.