Saturday, December 06, 2008

From Colony to Superpower: Angry about the Past

Rob posted a response to my last bit on From Colony to Superpower, slightly taking me to task for my disgust and outrage about the foreign policy of the early American republic. Tomorrow we are starting a new chapter, but I thought I would go ahead and post a slightly edited version of my comment to his post.

While I certainly don't think there is a single narrative of American foreign policy history (or American history generally), there certainly are major themes, one which is a religiously inspired American exceptionalism that John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush share. You are right that asking whether JQA would have supported the Iraq war is worthless, but I think it's certainly fair to find that theme of American thought outrageous and to express that outrage at the actions of 2003 or 1823. My reading of the foundations of American foreign policy is one of outrage and disgust, both at the actions of the time and the actions of today that share much with the past.

But one can certainly place these actions in their proper context and be outraged about them. Even though we are in the same generation of academics, I feel like we are representing different generations in this debate, with me operating as something of throw back to the generation who came of age in the 60s and 70s and were really pissed off about both the past and present and expressing that anger in my teaching, research, and writing. Just about everyone else I know is as pissed as am, but people seem reticent to express that anger professionally. I'm not saying you are one of these people, but it's just an observation based on our very different reactions to what we are reading.

I am angry about the past; if I wasn't I don't think I could be a historian. I just can't do the academic objective distance thing. If I think John Quincy Adams is a bastard, as he was in his foreign policy, I'm going to say that. We can't draw straight lines from the past to the present, but we can certainly build connections. I believe those questions are quite meaningful and are helpful explanatory tools; certainly the history of American exceptionalism, bullying of other nations, and belief that we are enacting God's will are among those connections. This might not make us different from or worse than other countries, but it has led to some quite despicable behavior, including in this decade.