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Column: America Is Still in Love With Its Mythology

East Montpelier,Vt.

My old roommate, whom I’ll be seeing at our 60th reunion in about a week, occasionally sends me books, usually on subjects political and historical. His latest and very intriguing gift has gotten me pondering education in America: Do we believe the whitewash we give our kids is really history? Do we think their delicate psyches are unable to handle the facts, or does religio-political pressure significantly dictate what our teachers are allowed to present?

I’ve wondered for decades, for example, what might be the source of our endemic white American machismo. You know what I mean. Why is John Wayne so much more popular than Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper? Why is it considered hilarious to display a bumper sticker proclaiming, “This vehicle insured by Smith & Wesson”? Or “America = God, Guns and Guts”? Why is Teddy Roosevelt’s visage carved into Mount Rushmore? Why does Chrysler employ a gravelly bass voiceover dripping with cowboy drawl in its commercials for Dodge Ram?

If you look up “machismo,” you’ll find its origin is, of course, Spanish, and originated in the days of European patriarchy, when it was assumed that men were by nature stronger and wiser than women. As during the past century it’s become obvious to most rational observers that this isn’t necessarily true, the sense of the word has suffered pejoration to the level, often, of ridicule. Still, it’s alive and well in America. When people manipulating keyboards can now accomplish — or wreak — so much more than John Wayne and a thousand Green Berets, you’ve got to wonder why.

That’s where my roommate’s gift comes in. It’s titled The Imperial Cruise. Its author, lest anyone jump to the conclusion he’s a flaming liberal out to prove a point, is James Bradley, whose first best-seller, Flags of Our Fathers, was sufficiently patriotic to persuade the famous actor and empty-chair debater Clint Eastwood to make a movie of it. The Imperial Cruise describes the 1905 voyage to the Far East of a whole shipload of American luminaries led by Secretary of War William Howard Taft, ostensibly on a friendship cruise, but with a secret and more sinister purpose — and as it turned out, a far more disastrous result: to encourage Japan, with the United States’ blessing, to establish hegemony over Korea, China, and Manchuria. Japan was flush from its recent triumphs in the Russo-Japanese War, and more than eager to agree. The problem was that the purpose of the mission was not only secret, but extraconstitutional, as well. It led to Japan’s clash with Western interests in the Pacific theater, and eventually to the Second World War. But President Teddy Roosevelt was a hard man to thwart when his principles prompted him to action. His famous expression,”Bully!” was appropriate in more ways than one.

Teddy’s principles included, perhaps most prominently, a belief in the so-called White Man’s Burden, a phrase popularized by Rudyard Kipling in 1899 in a poem of the same name. White Aryans, it was supposed, had risen from the dark forests of central Europe and, through conquest and moral and intellectual superiority, spread relentlessly westward, first as Teutons and then Anglo-Saxons, to the Atlantic Ocean and the British Isles, subjugating inferior races, generally darker than their own. Still itching to follow the sun westward, they had then discovered the New World, planted their empire on its eastern shores, and marched westward again, scattering the savages before them. At the shores of the Pacific Ocean, they still gazed westward, seeing before them vast opportunity for further improvement.

It’s practically impossible now to conjure the zealous missionary atmosphere of the United States around 1900. Without the slightest doubt of our good intentions, we assisted native revolutions — against the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines, against Colombia in Panama, against native Hawaiians and Puerto Ricans — and then, for their own good, replaced the brown-skinned victors with United States administrators, soldiers and marines. Roosevelt, after the betrayal of the infant Philippine government, wrote, “Our earnest effort is to help these people upward along the stony and difficult path that leads to self-government. . . .What has taken us thirty generations to achieve we cannot expect to see another race accomplish out of hand.” Newspaper cartoons depicted Filipinos as black Africans with wild hair, grass skirts, silly smiles, and bone necklaces. Few Americans knew any better. It was assumed that when the United States invaded a country and pointed or fired guns at its citizens, sometimes killing thousands of them, the intention was benevolent. As Bradley notes at one point, that’s still the case today.

American officials extolled the noble principles of the Aryan saviors of the Filipinos. Soldiers writing home, however, told of mass slaughters — “persons of ten years and older.” One soldier wrote that he had waterboarded 160 Filipinos (yep, we’ve been at it for a long time), and 134 of them had died. The men even had a rollicking song about waterboarding, sung to the tune of Marching Through Georgia. But Bradley writes, “ ... the truth made little difference. Americans so embraced the benevolent intentions myth that they ultimately could not accept the idea that their humanitarian military was capable of atrocities.” One general, when a senator asked him if our behavior was within the rules of civilized warfare, replied, “These people are not civilized.”

You’d think that, 100 years later, we’d have learned something. But as we commemorate this week our service member’s sacrifices “in the defense of freedom,” it seems stupid not to ask what their deaths have accomplished in the past 60 years. We have the largest military budget in the world, ensuring the preservation of American machismo. More people hate or wish us ill than they do any other nation. As American society becomes ever less “Aryan,” radical conservatives react ever more obstinately against the rising tide. And American history books, unless they’ve improved a lot since my high school days, still tell us how fortunate the world has been to have us around.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.