Letter to the editor: Is the United States a force for good in the world?

America has served the world well


I read Matthew Housiaux’s Oct. 3 article, “Latin America suffered the consequences of U.S. independence, imperialism,” with a mix of interest and reservation.

In his article, Housiaux advanced a forceful case for why the United States should share a significant portion of the blame for the poverty and chaos in Latin America today.

While I agree with Housiaux that America has not always lived up to the lofty ideals of its founding, I believe his claims are based on a set of flawed outlooks, a few of which I shall proceed to dispel.

The first part of Housiaux’s article focuses on the Haitian Revolution and how, somehow, the United States is responsible for that country’s current state of political strife and impoverishment. This view could not be any further from the truth.

First of all, the 1804 Haitian Revolution under Dessalines was no picnic. It was a bloody movement that saw the massacre of the island’s white population. Boisrond-Tennorre, secretary to Dessalines, proclaimed at the height of the killing, “For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink and a bayonet for a pen!”

No cause, no matter how noble, justifies the violent elimination of any group of people based on the color of their skin, black or white.

Second, the America of the early 19th century was not the America of today.

In 1804, the United States consisted of a group of thirteen ragtag states that were still reeling from revolting against the greatest fighting force at the time (the British Empire).

That enemy, now relocated to Canada, was too close for comfort. To the west and south, America had to maintain constant vigilance against the French and the Spanish. Does this sound like the sort of country that goes about throwing its weight around?

For all the idealism it would have implied, an official recognition of the Haitian Republic would have done Haitians no good without a navy and an army, which America simply did not have to spare.

Housiaux judges U.S. foreign policy by a standard he applies to no one else. He denounces America for protecting its self interest while expecting other countries to protect theirs. Americans need not apologize for their country acting abroad in a way that is good for them. Why should it act in any other way?

Indeed, Americans can feel immensely proud about how often their country has served them well while simultaneously promoting noble ideals of the Constitution and the welfare of others.

Twice in the 20th century, the United States saved the world: first from the Nazi threat, then from Soviet totalitarianism. After destroying Germany and Japan in World War II, America proceeded to rebuild both nations, and today they are close allies.

All over the world today, the United States continues to be a force for good. In all these cases, American interests abroad did not taint American ideals; just the opposite is true. The ideals dignified the interests.

Surely, none of this is to excuse the blunders and mistakes that have plagued U.S. foreign policy over the decades, from internment camps to Vietnam. But it will be unfair for us to ignore the other side of the ledger as Housiaux has done.


Failures as crucial as achievements


Having read Kofi Gunu’s astutely written critique of my column on American imperialism,  I must offer my best rebuttal.

The first point Gunu makes concerns the abhorrent violence that accompanied the Haitian Revolution.  He is, no doubt, correct.  The atrocities committed by “Emperor-for-Life” Jean-Jacques Dessalines, including a massacre of Haiti’s remaining white population in the wake of its 1804 independence, sent the island nation into a downward spiral from which it has not yet recovered.

He forgets, however, that this descent into chaos was precipitated by the kidnapping of the great general Touissant L’Ouverture by French forces in 1803.

L’Ouverture was a stabilizing force for the many factions which made up the Haitian independence movement. In his absence, a power vacuum opened up, which Dessalines and future monarch Henri Christophe attempted to fill.

One can imagine similar results if the British had managed to dispatch or kidnap George Washington. Washington was not only crucial as the military leader of the American Revolution. During the early years of independence, he became a much-needed symbol of national unity—a (near) universally admired figure who helped mediate the ideological squabbling of the country’s two main political factions: the Federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton) and the Democratic-Republicans (led by Thomas Jefferson).

As luck would have it, in the United States, one faction did not dominate and/or succeed in purging  all opposition from the ranks of government. Democracy won over in the end. But to suggest that the U.S. opposed the Haitian Revolution out of democratic principle is ludicrous.

I will grant that, in the early years, the United States did not perform any racially motivated killings quite as grisly as the one which occurred in Haiti. At least, not initially. Instead, over the course of the 19th century, the country decimated the once flourishing native population in the name of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny.

Historians estimate that, between 1500 and 1900, the number of native Americans dropped precipitously from 12 million to a mere 237,000. David E. Stannard has called this “the worst human holocaust  the world has ever witnessed.” (Some may argue with this point, but it remains compelling, nonetheless).

In short, the overriding theme of American history, even up to the present day, is that racism and economic self-interest too often undermine what I think is also a sincere commitment to protecting the human rights of other nations around the world.

Gunu claims that I “judge U.S. foreign policy by a standard [I hold] for no one else.”  On the contrary, I am simply trying to even the score.  I judge U.S. foreign policy by the standard that we now (ostensibly) hold for every free nation.

Americans are right to have a problem with Russia annexing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine. But, in turn, they should also have a problem with the Obama administration offering military aid to despotic regimes in Latin America.

As the most powerful country in the world, the United States need not be handled with kid gloves.  Most of us can already recite by heart a list of great American achievements.  I agree with Gunu that they should not be forgotten.

But if we are prepared to claim these achievements as our own, we must also not ignore the failures.