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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Dangerous Nation’: A Provocative, Revisionist Look at American History – First of Two Volumes

Posted by kinchendavid on December 26, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV (HNN) – At last, a historian has finally gotten it right. Americans were “neoconservatives” from the start of the nation – nay, even before the start. That is, if the word “neoconservative” is used to designate an expansionist, righteous worldview that sees America as different from others. Not only different: Better!

That’s my reading of Robert Kagan’s “Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century” (Knopf, $30, 527 pages, index, notes, bibliography), the first of two volumes that take a fresh – often radically provocative – look at American history and foreign policy. I’m eagerly awaiting the second volume which should be published in 2007.

Founding father Ben Franklin saw himself as both a loyal Briton and an American citizen and suggested well before the Revolution that the center of gravity of the British Empire had moved across the Atlantic to the emerging United States of America, Kagan notes. The standard of living in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution was higher than that in England, for most people, and the population was growing rapidly, in contrast to slow growth in Europe (If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s true to this day, with America growing rapidly – much of it because of legal and illegal immigration — in the 21st Century, in contrast to stagnant Europe).

Historians have been too quick to take American politicians at their word – or used just part of a speech to come to conclusions, suggests Kagan. Adams, Jefferson and succeeding presidents ignored the words of George Washington to avoid permanent, entangling alliances with European and other nations and went about building an American Empire.

Washington himself, in his younger days, in the mid 1750s, was part of an expeditionary force that attacked French strongholds in today’s Pennsylvania, even though official British policy was to have a buffer of Indian territory between the British colonies and the French ones, Kagan says.

The part about entangling alliances in Washington’s Farewell Address (for the complete text from the Avalon Project, click here: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm) was written with the help of Alexander Hamilton at Washington’s request, to attack the pro-French feelings of Jefferson, at a time the new nation was in a “quasi” war with France, Kagan says. Hamilton and Washington favored better relations with England. By the mid-to-late 1790s, the “factions” that Washington inveighed against – and which occupy most of the text of the Farewell Address of 1796 – had become the nascent political parties: The Federalists of Hamilton, Adams, Washington and others and the Anti-Federalists or Republicans of Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry, etc.

The second volume promises to deal with Wilson and other presidents like FDR who said one thing and did another. In my recent commentary on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Woodrow Wilson, http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/061219-kinchen-comment.html, I cited the late Concord University professor Sidney Bell’s 1972 book about Wilson’s foreign policy — “Righteous Conquest” — in stating that Wilson said one thing about foreign military adventures and did what he wanted, usually the exact opposite — as in leading the (mostly) unwilling U.S. into World War I in 1917.

Indian removal didn’t start with Andrew Jackson, Kagan writes. The sainted Thomas Jefferson was as ruthless as Jackson in clearing out Indian settlements in places like Tennessee and even Georgia almost three decades before Jackson went about removing the indigenous peoples of the Southeast and newly acquired Florida.

To read what Jefferson says about the Indians and their future in America is enough to turn any present day reader’s stomach, just as it is with Jackson. Jefferson wanted the Indians to become “civilized.” The tribes that did so, the Cherokees, for instance, who settled down and became farmers and Christians, fared little better than the ones who wanted to keep their own style of living as hunter-gatherers, Kagan writes.

I was surprised to find no mention of Aaron Burr in the book’s index or in the book. There was a reference to James Wilkinson of Kentucky, the corrupt, double-dealing commanding general of the U.S. Army at the time (1805-6) and one of Burr’s most important co-conspirators in his alleged plot – for which Burr was tried (and acquitted by Chief Justice John Marshall – a bitter foe of Jefferson) for treason in 1807 – to separate the western part of the nation from the eastern. Burr was an expansionist in the tradition that Kagan writes about, some would say even celebrates, in “Dangerous Nation.” Burr attempted to do in the early 1800s what the Americans who settled in the Mexican province of Texas finally did in 1836 – carve out an independent country in lands held by the Spanish.

“Righteous Conquest” is a good description of what the Pilgrims and Puritans had in mind; they were expansionist from the very beginning. After the Revolution, the U.S. standing army was a puny 700 men strong, Kagan says, and only the militias of the various states were available to keep settlers out of Indian lands – and they didn’t do a very good job.

Both the Indians and the French – and later the Spanish – saw the Americans for what they really were: Believers of “Manifest Destiny” before it acquired that popular designation in the mid-1800s.

Kagan emphasizes the divisive nature of slavery from the nation’s beginning, and how it affected foreign relations. Even many Southerners recognized the hypocrisy and contradiction of preaching freedom while owning slaves, Kagan says.

Southerners were especially fearful of a slave revolt in the wake of the one led by free blacks in Haiti at the end of the 18th Century and Jefferson refused to recognize or trade with the black nation. De Tocqueville’s account of America in the 1830s noted the difference between the industrious north and the almost entirely agricultural south and he used the term “American” only to refer to northerners, Kagan says.

This is a densely packed history, with extensive notes. If I were a history teacher and could use any book as a textbook on American history and diplomacy, “Dangerous Nation” would be on my short list. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone seeking a fresh perspective on American history.

Kagan’s 2002 “Of Paradise and Power” made him a hero to the neoconservatives because of his view that Americans are from Mars (warlike) while Europeans are from Venus (effeminate). This is an oversimplification, of course, but “Dangerous Nation” may end up making Kagan popular with the far left-wing fans of Howard Zinn (“ A People’s History of the U.S.”) and Noam Chomsky! Stranger things have happened.

A State Department official from 1985 to 1988 in America’s first “neoconservative” administration, that of Ronald Reagan (a former liberal Democrat turned Republican), Kagan, 48, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Washington Post columnist. He is a 1980 graduate of Yale University, earned a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and holds a PhD in American History from American University in Washington, D.C. He keeps his keen, contrarian eye on the world from his home in Brussels. He is married to Victoria Nuland, U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

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