The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Loving America, warts and all

Posted by Ron George on July 6, 2016

America the Beautiful Photography by Tim Reeves

America the Beautiful
Photography by Tim Reeves

America is and has been a considerably mixed message to the world – and to itself – since the Declaration of Independence was propagated on July 4, 1776.

We Americans are – for the most part – citizens of a good nation worthy of love and praise. In many ways, too, we are a great nation, a leader among the nations of the world, powerful and rich, perhaps the richest and most powerful the world has ever known.

Again, for the most part, America is a benign nation, but we must never forget – and at times we have forgotten – that the Eagle has blood on its claws, innocent blood, and that while our national values always have been rooted in republican democracy and the rule of law, our trajectory over the past 240 years also has been marked by grave injustice, exploitation, violence and genocide.

No nation’s hands are clean. All are bloodstained to some extent in many of the very same ways. America is not alone in having brought calamity upon innocent victims. It’s just that, as the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation, perhaps we should lead by example in how we express our patriotism, our justifiable love of country, with a healthy dose of humility and contrition.

This is not about some sort of religious revival, because above all – and this, in so many ways, we seem to have forgotten – America is a secular state, which is the very essence of our tradition of freedom for all of any faith or belief or even of none. Even though most Americans profess some sort of religious belief, the noble nation of which all of us are members is and must be grounded upon secular principles – so that all may be free of tyranny.

Indian Who Goes There? By Brent Learned

Indian Who Goes There?
By Brent Learned

In secular terms, contrition simply means being willing to say we’re sorry; and, more important, that we will strive not ever to repeat crimes we have committed in the past. The process calls us away from the flummery of a long holiday weekend wherein we consume more beer than ever to at least a few moments of moral examination and ethical reflection upon how we’ve gotten where we are and what may be the most productive and moral course for us in future.

Here are just a few points to ponder.

Native Americans

Scholars debate at length whether the conquest of North America by European colonists, settlers and the U.S. government constitutes genocide. There is no question, however, that America’s treatment of indigenous peoples has been morally shameful, probably criminal and a matter of continuing social concern. The cultural arrogance of the so-called Christian nations of Europe – especially England, France and Spain – became manifest on this continent over three centuries marked by sheer greed, duplicity and lust for power.

Some protested, usually on religious grounds, but their scruples found no traction in eras marked by the promise of wealth and power that lay in unexploited regions of the world. More often than not, indigenous peoples were seen as stumbling blocks to be rid of — “extirpated” was a favorite 19th-century term, as in the pulling of weeds – and certainly not a tapestry of cultures to be respected or human beings to be treated with dignity and respect.

Slave trade: Big business in America's formative years Etching circa 1800

Slave trade: Big business in America’s formative years
Etching circa 1800

Indigenous peoples tended not to give up their land and its resources without a fight. Their resistance tended to be met in typical American fashion – overwhelming force.

L. Frank Baum – yes, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – wrote in 1891, as editor of a Dakota Territory newspaper: “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one or more wrongs and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

Baum’s sentiments – that indigenous peoples were “untamed and untamable creatures” – were that of the overwhelming majority of Americans well into the 20th century. We forget at our peril that this kind of socio-cultural racism was once a defining characteristic of our national character, and that for some, it still is.

African slaves

The founders of our great nation agreed, as a matter of constitutional law, that slaves were no more than 60 percent human. (Article I, Sect. 2.3). Article V of the U.S. constitution explicitly protected the slave trade for 20 years by prohibiting amendments that would restrict that flourishing business. Tens of thousands of Africans were imported into southern states between 1787 and 1808. Article IV, Sect. 2.3 required states to return escaped slaves to their owners. This provision was fortified by “fugitive slave” laws in 1793 and 1850 making it a federal crime to harbor or assist slaves fleeing to freedom.

Frances Scott Key waxed poetic in 1814 about the land of the free and the  home of the brave, but that clearly did not apply to the nation’s enslaved peoples – mostly of African descent but also Native American – despite considerable principled opposition to what Southerners were fond of calling “our peculiar institution.” (For that matter, it didn’t apply to women, either.)

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave By Mark Henson

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave
By Mark Henson

Slavery, as immoral as it always has been, seems to have been, with violence, “as American as cherry pie” (quoting black revolutionary figure H. Rap Brown); and, as might be expected, the reason is that it was good for business. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 led to a major economic revival, especially in the South, where short-staple cotton was cultivated with legions of slaves, but also the North, the textile mills of which created unprecedented demand for the South’s principal cash crop.

Cotton demand also created a lucrative market for slaves. Historians have marveled that the 19th-century slave-trade system was so well organized, efficient – and profitable. (E.g., Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity.) By 1860, the slave population of the United States had grown from roughly 700,000 in 1790 to almost four million in 1860. U.S. cotton production tracked this phenomenal growth – from fewer than 300,000 bales annually in 1812 to roughly four million bales in 1850.

None of which begins to address widespread, brutal mistreatment of slaves and patronizing, manipulative and often murderous discrimination against their descendents for generations after the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery was ratified by the states in 1865. It is utterly appalling to know that, as late as 1995, historian R.R. Palmer argued that abolishing slavery in the United States constituted an “annihilation of individual property rights without parallel … in the history of the Western World.” ( A History of the Modern World, pp. 572–573, emphasis added.)

The nerve.


The oppression of women was not an American invention but merely the founders’ self-serving continuation of longstanding mores with utterly no basis in fact or morality. These magnificent articulators of freedom and liberty assumed women’s inferiority, coming as most of them did from Neo-Classical Renaissance traditions that embraced ancient Athenian culture and philosophical values. They might have aped Spartan society, which provided women with significant status, prestige and power not found in most classical cultures. Instead, the founders bought the usual blather such as that served up by Aristotle, who believed women were “utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy.” The great thinker’s solution? Segregation. (Where have we heard that before?)

Women's suffrage propaganda poster: Some southern states declined to pass the women's suffrage amendment for decades

Women’s suffrage propaganda poster: Some southern states declined to pass the women’s suffrage amendment for decades

Aristotle, though, was not the only philosopher in town. Stoics and Cynics famously supported equality of the sexes, especially in marriage but also in education. Since when, though, has egalitarianism appealed to the politically powerful?

Centuries of medieval poppycock about witches, Eve’s temptation of Adam and the Virgin Mary as a model of feminine submission left deep impressions in the cultural landscape; namely, that women were slippery, weak, untrustworthy, devious, deceitful and stubborn. It might be noted that Christianity played no small role in this deceitful discrimination.

Women for centuries were regarded as men’s property in marriage having no legal status whatever. They were not allowed to own property, conduct business, seek legal redress or even defend themselves against rape, which was not considered a crime in marriage. Participate in politics? Forget about it.

Women who tried to change the status quo were castigated, humiliated, arrested and physically abused. A newspaper editor – my boss, actually – once told me that the women’s movement of the 1970s was a fad, which was why the newspaper I worked for paid little attention to feminist issues and personalities.

(The same editor thought very much the same thing about the antiwar movement regarding U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia – until four white college students were shot to death by Ohio National Guard personnel during an antiwar protest at Kent State University.)

Women finally began voting in American national elections in 1920, but only after more than seven decades of militant protest and political pressure. Thirty-six states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution by Aug. 18, 1920; but still, there were holdouts, all in the South. Here they are with the years they finally ratified the women’s suffrage amendment: Maryland (1941), Virginia (1952), Alabama (1953), Florida (1969), South Carolina (1969), Georgia (1971), Louisiana (1971), North Carolina (1971)and Mississippi (1984).

Something else to add to America’s cherry pie: bigotry.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

While we’re at it, why not add a large dollop of international terrorism?

There were good reasons for attacking the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Both were significant components of the military-industrial complex that had attacked Pearl Harbor and committed unspeakable war crimes across Asia and the Pacific rim.

America was not the only nation in the market for nuclear weapons: the German effort fell short of success, and Japan simply didn’t have the technical knowhow. There always will be, however, more than just a mushroom cloud hanging over these nuclear attacks that killed far more civilians, including women and children, than military personnel. At some level, such deaths cease to be “collateral.” Unavoidable, perhaps, but only if we assume that weapons of mass destruction are required.

70 years Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki By Finn Nygaard,

70 years Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
By Finn Nygaard,

In this case, they were just part of our nation’s political calculation.

The man who oversaw America’s development of the A-bomb, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, wrote after the war that “the atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.” (Harper’s Magazine, February 1947) In other words, the atomic bomb was intended not only to destroy military targets – and anyone else who happened to be in the way – but also to scare hell out of the Japanese and drive Emperor Hirohito to surrender.

The A-bomb was seen as the most expeditious way to end the war with Japan. Other means were considered – a naval blockade, for example, or just a demonstration of the A-bomb by dropping it in, say, Tokyo Bay. The U.S. Navy, in fact, preferred the blockade idea, but the Army wanted to put an end to it, once and for all.

Why not the A-bomb demonstration? Stimson and his advisers, including world-renowned physicists, worried that the bomb wouldn’t work. It had never been tested being dropped from an aircraft. If the demo was a dud, then the message to Japan – in President Harry Truman’s words, “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland” – would be a dud, too.

When “messages” are sent with devastating, non-discriminating violence, it is nothing if not terrorism. We cringe, as we should, to recall the message sent to America on Sept. 11, 2001, by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, when 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center collapse. Ought we not to cringe as well that no fewer than 135,000 people were killed by American A-bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eighty-five percent of whom were civilians?

There’s a Christian saying against hypocrisy about taking the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.

This is a great nation, and most of the time, we’re a good nation; but it has cost a great deal in ways that we ought not forget.


One Response to “Loving America, warts and all”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    All true, all sad, all necessary to remember. But I just can’t help but think that this kind of reasoned, balanced, and forceful reflection just makes some people want to elect Donald Trump. How dare you bring up all this bad stuff? How dare we not?

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