American Exceptionalism: The Rhetoric and the Reality

December 19, 2013

“Our business is killing, and business is good.”

– Slogan painted on a US 9th Infantry Division helicopter in Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta, 1969


The Conditioning

Virtually all of us born and raised in US America have been, or were, inculcated in the myth that the United States is the greatest country in the history of the world endowed by our creator to bring prosperity to the impoverished and Christianity to the heathen. Indeed, we are exceptional – unusual, extraordinary – but not in the ways we were led to believe.

Cognitive Dissonance

In 1969 Viet Nam, dramatic, seemingly incomprehensible differences between what I had been taught and firmly believed about the nobility of “America,” and the unspeakable transgressions I experienced with my own senses, required me to either ignore these troubling differences as invalid, thereby preserving my beliefs, or recognize that what I had been taught was extremely flawed and seriously challenge my comfortable paradigm, setting me on a path of scary truth-seeking.

The Wool IS our Eyes (Not pulled over them)

What are the origins of a cultural ethos that manifests in such unconscionable behavior? My war experiences led me to re-examine US and world history, cultural cliches, and unquestioned assumptions. Reading my grandfather’s 1906 U.S. history book, “The History of the United States” by James W Garner and Henry Cabot Lodge, made me realize our white cultural sense of superiority was explicitly taught to generations of US Americans. For example, the first chapter proudly explained that the “destruction” of the American Indians was due to the fact “that inferior people must yield to a superior civilization in one way or another. They must take on civilization or pass out.”  Some would claim the wool has been pulled over our eyes. However, a careful reading of history reveals that the wool has been IN our eyes from our origins.

It’s no accident that the US American culture has proven to become an extraordinarily dangerous imperial threat in the world. And our behavior is consistently and exceptionally brutal and pathologically violent at home as well as abroad, since our oligarchic ruling structure is exceptionally fearful of genuine people power wherever it manifests.

Eurocentric values of systematic violence and arrogance were introduced into the New World in 1492 when Italian Cristoforo Columbo, sailing under the Spanish flag, invaded the West Indies. Columbus’ log stated, “with fifty men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.” Eyewitness Bartolome de las Casas described unspeakable behavior that “no age can parallel….cruelty never before seen, nor heard of, nor read of.” The Indigenous possessed no vocabulary to describe the bestiality inflicted upon them. The Arawak Indians were virtually wiped out in 40 years.

Our original English Puritan settlers established the tone of sacred superiority. “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us….For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. Since the early 1600s, prior to creation in 1789 of the formal US government, groups of armed adventurers and frontiersmen (operating as paramilitary death squads) alongside various European militaries, engaged in almost constant bloodshed with the “beastly” Indians, carrying out one of the greatest genocides in human history.

The Colonies Began As Private Commercial Enterprises

The corporate control of our government that we decry today has been with us more or less since our nation’s founding. The early “settlers” did not come seeking business or trade with “savages”, but were in effect employees or indentured servants of private commercial, corporate enterprises of stock-holding London investor-based companies who magically received grants from the Crown to develop lands inhabited by Indigenous in what are today Virginia and Massachusetts. The settlers were charged with the grunt work of planting and harvesting crops which were then sent to England to satisfy investor needs for quick profits in the New World. Many of the men we call our “Founding Fathers” – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Morris, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin – were early speculators who claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of Indian land. The Founding Fathers vision was an “empire of liberty” [Jefferson], “imperial republicanism” [Madison] and a mercantile, imperially expansive nation – a new “American system.” Theirs was not a vision of democracy. In George Washington’s second term as President he declared that emergence of “democratic societies” threatened the new republic.

New World Holocaust

It is estimated as many as 18,000,000 Indigenous north of the Rio Grande inhabited more than 600 autonomous societies in 1492, speaking an estimated 500-plus languages. Remarkably free of serious diseases before the Europeans and African slaves arrived, terrible epidemics introduced by the newcomers killed hundreds of thousands. Many Indians were forced into starvation and thousands of others were systematically murdered and massacred as settlers moved westward from the Atlantic coast colonies. Over the next four centuries a massive die-off reduced the original native population by more than 95 percent. Speaking with forked tongue, the US Government broke all of its 600 plus treaties and agreements with various Indigenous nations. This holocaust of immense proportion has yet to be sufficiently recognized for its significance to us today. This forceful dispossession of other peoples is our original cultural sin and the wool in our eyes keeps us from seeing it.

US Military Precedents

Our exceptional US military precedents were established in 1779 during the Revolutionary War, when Continental Army Supreme General George Washington ordered General Sullivan to completely eliminate the Iroquois who were mostly siding with the British against the settlers invading their lands:

“The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements… It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more…. to lay waste all the settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed. [Y]ou will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements… Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”

This order, explicitly or implicitly, established imperial US military principles operating to this day: (1) Total war/genocide targeting all inhabitants for elimination; (2) preventing peace; (3) pre-emptive war; (4) terror; (5) crime of self-defense; (6) revenge. Learning that our nation’s “Founding Fathers” resorted to both terror and pre-emptive war was jolting.

General Sullivan’s dutiful execution in 1779 of Washington’s orders 1779 has been graphically described by historians as “the most ruthless application of a scorched-earth policy” in US American history comparable to Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea, General LeMay’s incendiary wasteland bombings of North Korea in 1950-53, and search-and-destroy missions carried out by US soldiers in Vietnam. All the Iroquois settlements were wasted despite being considered one of the most advanced Indigenous federations in the New World.

Manifest Destiny – Continental Expansion

Early “manifest destiny” behavior was psychically facilitated by combination of ethnocentrism (ethnic superiority) and a deep racism – fear manifested as hatred directed toward people of “color,” or those who otherwise looked “different” from white Europeans. Policies were aimed to eliminate certain human beings so they would have an “inability to injure us.” Today’s war OF terror continues this pattern.

Thomas Jefferson’s interest in an empire of liberty was summarized in his 1809 letter to James Madison:  I am persuaded no Constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.” Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase exercised by President Jefferson in 1803 despite possessing no constitutional authority whatsoever, the new republic began grandiose expansion with nine territorial additions to the original states, along with fifteen islands and the Panama Canal Zone. Continental and hemispheric manifest destiny was completed by 1890 with the US Army massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee. An earlier subsidy of economic development was slave labor of Black Africans and wage slavery of poor Asian and European immigrants.

Early Congressional militants such as Henry Clay and others interested in promoting the “American System” urged expansion into Canada and Cuba, claiming that the “virtuous and patriotic” framers possessed “too much wisdom to restrict Congress to defensive war.”

US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere was “authorized” by the 1823 Monroe Doctrine that declared the American continents “are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers” and that “any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere” would be considered “dangerous to our peace and safety.”  Early westward expansion was first justified under the slogan “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 when “The Democratic Review” declared that it was “Our manifest destiny to over spread the continent allotted by Providence for the development of our yearly multiplying millions. John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts described the US as a “nation, coextensive with the North American Continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”

Examining the historical records of the Continental army, and the formal army of the Republic, reveals that army units were involved between 1775 and 1902 in more than 9,000 distinct skirmishes, of which nearly 3,200 involved serious casualties. More than 1,200 of these were battles against Indian nations. In the same period of time, US naval units, which by 1900 had surpassed the strength of the British Navy, had been militarily engaged on more than 1,500 occasions while capturing some 4,000 merchant vessels in foreign seas. Additionally the US Navy made thousands of military port calls in Latin America, Asia, Russia, and Africa. Few found fault with this imperial behavior. With God on our side, then as now, we could do no wrong.

Manifest Destiny Goes Global

In addition to the thousands of paramilitary and military operations waged against Indigenous from the 1600s to 1900, US Presidents have ordered at least 560 overt military interventions, funded by Congress and the people, into more than 100 countries from 1798 to the present, justified to protect “American interests.” In addition, thousands of covert operations, all illegal, have been conducted since the CIA’s creation in 1947. Today, US “Full Spectrum Dominance” is assured with over 1,000 military installations around the world, Special Forces death squads operating in 150 countries, military ships sailing in every seaspace, military planes flying in every airspace, and satellites and weapons launched in outerspace. On the home front, an exceptional spying apparatus tracks our every move while insidious myopic propaganda daily bombards our brains, all justified under the paternalistic “we know best” tone of superiority and exceptionalism in which information is presented.

“American interests” (free marketeers) have long ruled our policies. In 1859, US Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO) urged trade and lucrative commerce with Asia to “realize the grand idea of Columbus carrying wealth and dominion with it. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt bragged that he had forcefully taken Panama from Colombia due to the latter’s incapacity “of keeping order on the Isthmus” claiming that in “flagrant cases of wrongdoing” by Latin American republics, the US had the right to exercise a “Big Stick police power” justifying increased intervention in the internal affairs of Latin America – the Roosevelt Corollary.

In 1907, while lecturing at Columbia University, future president Woodrow Wilson described the theme of the new American century:

Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down….Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.”

The US gained more prominence as an aggressive world imperial power after arrogantly and criminally dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Since WWII, it has increasingly ruled by terror, ordering over 390 military interventions in more than 100 countries, while bombing 28 of them, and threatening nuclear bombs on 20 different occasions.

Today’s “globalization,” enforced by terror and war, is product of the continuous theme of Eurocentric exploitation first established some 500 years ago. In a short historical time period, original inhabitants of North America were forced to accept an Eurocentric standard of intolerant religion (Christianity), a politics of arrogance and doublespeak (gruesome exploitation described as “democratizing”), and an economics of private greed (capitalism), while being permanently dispossessed of their land and rich cultures. How do we explain this genocide? I argue that this cultural ethos remains etched into our souls, residing as repressed memory and hidden feelings of terrifying shame. But we can’t see it because of the wool in our eyes.

Historical Precedents of Imperial Behavior

This kind of diabolical imperial pattern is not unique in world history. Intentional inducement of fear (terror) has always been and continues to be a significant policy for control of one nation, or one group, by another. It is not restricted in its application to the United States civilization. It has been used since the advent of “civilization” some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

In seeking a peoples-oriented history, new facts and circumstances often contradict the prevailing and “sacrosanct” story. Unfortunately, many of the attitudes uttered by white, Puritanical Pilgrims, founding fathers, and greedy civilian and military “leaders,” remain insidiously and structurally operative. Overtly expressed as well as suppressed sentiments of racism and classism continue to dominate much of our personal and political lives. A question I often ask is, how can one nation of human beings so callously and thoughtlessly drop bombs on another nation of human beings, knowing that thousands will be murdered? Exceptional pathology, indeed! I believe such barbarism can only be explained by a deep cruel racism and/or ugly ethnocentrism operating as defense mechanisms that distract us from long-festering insecurities.

The American Way Of Life Is Not Negotiable

Behavior continually couched in terms of divinely blessed American exceptionalism is above reproach. When President George H.W. Bush attended the June 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (UN Conference on Sustainable Development), he resisted pleas of 152 leaders of other countries to make lasting changes that could ensure protection of the world on which all nations depend, boldly proclaiming “The American way of life is not negotiable.”

George Kennan, director of US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, published a top-secret document in 1948 in which he shared an honest prescription for successful US imperial policy:

“…we have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population… Our real task…is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity …. We should cease to talk about … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization… [W]e are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”

Post-World War II US plans for global dominance (as opposed to what we were taught was a Soviet plan) are spelled out in National Security Council Report #68 (NSC-68), April 14, 1950, “United States Objectives for National Security.” An ultimate declaration of US global “Manifest Destiny,” NSC-68 formulated a worldview where leaders of the United States asserted their unique right and responsibility to impose their chosen “order among nations” so thatour free society can flourish,” that US policy must “foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system.” A global imperial policy was indispensable to “protect our belief in ourselves and our way of life.” NSC-68 “imposes on us, in our own interests, the responsibility of world leadership” such that we must seek to “foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.”

Following World War II, the US considered all political and economic sectors or regions of influence that it did not control as being a threat to its global objectives of an integrated political-economic capitalism, i.e., promotion and global spread of a grotesquely consumptive American Way Of Life (AWOL

US Civilization Built Upon Three Exceptionally Diabolical Holocausts

Conveniently left out of the discussion is the fact that our civilization is founded on three holocausts (subsidies): (1) stealing land at gunpoint while murdering millions of Indigenous with impunity; (2) stealing “free” labor at gunpoint while murdering millions of Africans with impunity; (3) stealing global raw materials at gunpoint while murdering millions of people around the world with impunity during the “The American Century” (20th). Our systematic theft of land, labor and resources with no accountability has terribly spoiled us.

Exceptionally Unjust, Repressive and Narcissistic

We are exceptional – exceptionally violent, narcissistic and pathological. We are exceptionally consumptive and therefore exceptionally polluting, exceptionally deceitful and exceptionally imperial in order to preserve our sense of superiority at any cost.

The US is an exceptionally class-based society ruled by the 1 percent, ranking as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, per the CIA. Astonishingly, .1% (one-tenth of 1%, or 310,000 persons), have more combined pre-tax income than the poorest 120 million people combined.  Social epidemiologists tell us that social health directly relates to scale of income inequality – how large the gap is between rich and poor. Inequitable societies such as the US tend to have exceptionally high rates of violent crime and homicide as residents experience increased hostility, and are less likely to trust one another in community.

Consequently, the US possesses an exceptional dependence upon incarceration, especially of its poor and ethnic minorities, such that more than 2.5 million citizens are imprisoned in more than 9,000 jails and prisons. The US holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – boasting the world’s highest per capita detention rate with 800 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Torture has also long been US policy. A 1931 government report concluded that use of torture was “widespread” throughout the entire U.S. criminal justice system and it remains an unspoken policy to this day.

Within our own borders, US military units, augmented by private vigilante groups, have violently intervened over 160 times on behalf of corporations putting down worker’s demands for fair labor policies, despite laws prohibiting their use. Historians conclude the US has the “bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world,” with over 700 deaths and thousands of injuries before the 1930s.

Whites’ fear of losing their indispensable subsidy provided by slavery and low-wage servitude, led to exceptionally grotesque violence against African Americans with thousands of lynching’s, mutilations, and official executions in the 1800s and 1900s. Virtually every Black person living during that period experienced terror on a regular basis, and these scars remain searing to this day.

We Are the Savages – RX: Cleanse the Wool From Our Eyes

Thomas Jefferson’s words in our Declaration of Independence – that [King George III] “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an indistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” describe precisely our behavior in Viet Nam, and in virtually all of our historical imperial crimes. Who are the real merciless savages? I submit that Jefferson had it backward, an example of psychologist Carl Jung’s shadow concept describing performance of a kind of dishonest jujitsu projecting shameful inner demons onto others (demonizing) in efforts to avoid the pain of emotional honesty and personal intellectual accountability. In Viet Nam I discovered that I was one of the merciless savages.

Our exceptionally insatiable, addictive consumption is the domestic political energy driving our exceptionally imperial foreign policy, the latter being necessary to preserve our exceptional orgy of materialism. Our insistence on being “Number One” hides our exceptional national shame and fear of facing our genocidal origins, thus making us an exceptionally dangerous threat to the Planet. Our business remains killing, and business remains lucrative.

We can choose to become a humble and empathic society. Indeed, our survival as a world requires becoming exceptionally noble in caring and sharing. Or, we can stubbornly cling to our delusions of grandeur using dangerous defense mechanisms necessary to sustain them. My prescription for earnest truth seekers is to live more simply apprenticing in the art of becoming a revolutionary, while pursuing passionate justice and practicing brutal honesty. Such path would cleanse the wool from our eyes enabling a painful but refreshing recovery of our humanity.


  1. david kenneally
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    very good article, brian. these ‘other side’ accounts such as yours and howard zinn’s a people’s history of the united states expose the emperor with no clothes. i’ve asked myself and my old high school friends why we never were taught this if we were, indeed, the ‘good guys’ all the time, but ,of course, that could never happen, could it. we have always been told just to drink the ‘kool aid’… and we did.
    thank you for your courage to tell truth to power. chris hedges is another voice in the wilderness telling truth to power.
    i had not heard of you until i read your interview in a back issue of the sun magazine yesterday. i’m looking forward to reading your book.
    namaste, dave

  2. Posted December 30, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

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