#TheBigwhiteLie and American Exceptionalism

Is America really the one indispensable nation in the world?

Photos by Lucas Sankey on Unsplash

In 2014 during a commencement address to the graduating cadets at West Point, President Barack Obama uttered the following words:

“When a typhoon hits the Philippines or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past and it will be true for the century to come.”

What at first appears to be standard discourse that has come to be expected of a US president, contains a rather insidious sentiment lying below the surface. The notion that the United States is the “one indispensable nation” is not just rhetorical window dressing to adorn a speech addressing the military.

It is the heart and soul embodiment of American exceptionalism. If #TheBigwhiteLie is the Leviathan that lurks in the depths of American life, then American exceptionalism is the water this beast breathes— the environment that gives it sustenance and shelter. It is the darkness of the deep sea in which the beast lies in wait.

In my time of living abroad for the past six years, when having discussions of American foreign policy, I have often used this quote by President Obama as a way of conveying intangible aspects which defy reason or logic. Most people either tend to ascribe US imperialistic actions to an overly cynical opportunism in pursuit of its interest, or the pure embodiment of an evil empire out of control. What is not well understood is the hubris of American exceptionalism that normalizes empire and renders the reasoning behind its bellicose behavior as a logical inevitability. 

American exceptionalism is the idea of manifest destiny, which endowed the country with a God-given right to expand from coast to coast, justifying the conquest and theft of native nations and the expulsion of their people. It is the same manifest destiny behind the Confederate States of America’s plan of expansion southward all the way into South America in pursuit of their own colonial empire; the same attitude that lead to over a century and a half of expansion and intervention in our hemisphere, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, in the Caribbean and Latin America, which is colloquially referred to as “America’s backyard”; whether it be US campaigns of terror such as Operation Condor, which was the US direct support of right-wing and fascist regimes in South America resulting in the purging of leftists, which gave them free reign to repress anyone in opposition leading to the deaths of upwards of 60,000 people, whether it be the invasions of countries such as Panama and Grenada, or the recent string of US backed coups and attempted coups all across the Western Hemisphere. American exceptionalism is the arrogance that allows us to refer to our country as America, the one and only America, in a hemisphere full of Americas. 

This hubris leads to a paranoid fear of outsiders, a xenophobia which not only fuels the calls to further militarize our borders and scapegoat immigrants and foreigners as the cause of our problems, but it is also what allows us to uncritically condemn nations that do not align with US interests, whether it be Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Hugo Chavez and Nicholas Maduro’s Venezuela, or Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and allows the demonization of entire populations such as Russia and Chinese equating the citizenry to the government as the one and the same.

Take note of this next time you read an article with nebulous references and innuendos about “the Russians” or “the Chinese” espousing the dangers of our elected officials, or us as US citizens even speaking to these pesky foreigners, for they are all agents witting or unwitting of their government. We are lead to believe that the whole world is out to get us, justifying the need for a bloated military budget, which engorges itself to gluttonous levels on federal funds which are much needed domestically.

To give President Obama’s quotes its proper context in the mythos of American exceptionalism and #TheBigwhiteLie, I would like to end with a story from Daniel Ellsberg, who famously blew the whistle on the murderous nature of US policy in the Vietnam War, with the release of the Pentagon Papers. In his time working for RAND Corporation, he was involved in policy formulation for the contingency plans for a war with the Soviet Union. In these foreign policy circles there was a general feeling that a nuclear war could be winnable, completely denying the evidence of the existential consequences for human existence of a large nuclear winter resulting from a nuclear exchange.

A conventional war with the Soviet Union was believed to be uneconomical and could possibly bankrupt the country and thus the only “real” option was an “all out war” as Ellsberg described it, which included the uses of a nuclear first strike, not only on the major population centers of the Soviet Union, but also the a preemptive nuclear bombing campaign on the cities of China. 

When Ellsberg drafted a question to the joint chiefs asking how many people would be killed if that plan were carried out without interference, he found that they had estimated that 375 million would die in The Soviet Union and China alone in the first few weeks, and another 600 million would be killed in Eastern and Western Europe from fallout, and 100 million more across the contiguous landmass of Asia.

The plan to defend the United States involved the cold and calculated callous murder of upwards of a billion people in Europe and Asia, solely in the name of “national defense”.  According to Ellsberg, during a presentation about this plan by General Thomas S. Power (who was also one of leaders of the firebombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 people in one day), when explaining that after fallout had been accounted for, 300 million people in China would die (which was half the population at the time), General Power was asked whether an attack on China was necessary if China had not been involved in the conflict:

“A voice out of the gloom from somewhere behind me interrupted, saying, “May I ask a question?” General Power turned again in his front-row seat, stared into the darkness and said, “Yeah, what is it?” in a tone not likely to encourage the timid. “What if this isn’t China’s war?” the voice asked. “What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?” “Well, yeah,” said General Power resignedly, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.”

With this in mind I ask you to reconsider what the true implications of the quote by President Obama. Consider the implications for how we treat and regard people in the world foreign to us and consider what it really means for our Presidents to truly believe that our country is the “one indispensable nation”. 

Ellsberg interview: