The United States of America - A Love Letter - Part One
What can I say about the United States of America that hasn't been said already? Since its inception, it has been praised, vilified, criticized, and honored for not only its actions, but its very existence. It is a complex tale, foreign to those who live in the present though they may live on the same land. It's one that involves kings from cities long gone and wars for salvation fought by prophets you've never heard of. It involves people being burned to death over possession of a book, and it is inseparable from slavery and racial hatred. But make no mistake, this is a love letter, because to love something, you have to come to terms with the flaws - not to focus on the past, but to appreciate the future.
The story of the United States of America begins when the first states popped up in Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago. Their importance is not in their deeds, but in their structure - the common form of government was that which mixed a King and a priesthood to channel both mortal and divine wrath. Life then was more urban than you might expect, but it was still very much a brutal place to be. Flaying was very popular with the Assyrians, and their brutality was both for fun and for ensuring dominance over their lesser neighbors. They were eventually unseated by a coalition of nations including the Persians, who would eventually become the preeminent power in the middle world.
The people that you know as the tyrannical bad guys from 300 were lead by a God King, but they didn't revel in brutality as the Assyrians did (which isn't to say they didn't get brutal - look up scaphism). In fact, Cyrus the Great declared the first known record of human rights was the only non-Jew declared Messiah in the Bible. Was his appreciation for the dignity of mankind entirely altruistic? Of course not. It was a way for locals to keep their personal lives intact while having their local ruler replaced by a guy in an unfamiliar hat and not revolt. But it was important because it elevated humans ideologically from fearful animals desperate for subsistence and security into a being with intrinsic rights, that couldn't (legally) be treated like cattle or a basic resource.
Persian culture influenced Greek culture far before Thermopylae happened. It is difficult to discern whether the idea of personal rights predated Persian influence, and those with known biases like Herodotus make it difficult to properly discern between history and propaganda. What we do know is that Greece became the progenitor of Western civilization, with all the culture, literature, and philosophy that we recognize as its own. Athens became the most well-known example of early democracy. And yet with all this advancement, there remained familiar evils. Slavery was widespread not only in Sparta but in Athens as well, not to mention the poorly documented barbarians to the north, and the Egyptians. It was even present in Achaemenid Persia as well, although these were generally prisoners of war or rebels.
Meanwhile, Rome slowly grew from an outcropping of fugitives and cast-offs into a sophisticated legalist society that eventually spanned the Mediterranean and Western European regions. Upon annexing Greek territory, they embraced its culture and history to magnify their own. Their wealth and power grew, and with it grew the patrician's passions and desires. Constant jockeying for power between the patrician families combined with a near-constant state of war. Thus the phrase "Rome conquered the world in self-defense" entered the lexicon, and the usage of convenient casus belli to expand the borders, seize new resources and plunder new lands became a general course of action. Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire "new resources" also meant slaves drawn from market or conquest, sent to villas to serve the wealthy, sent to gladiatorial arenas to do their part in keeping Bread & Circus going, or sent to mines in Spain to toil the rest of their short lives in dark, dismal conditions.
As Rome in the West collapsed and it was replaced by barbarian successor states, the Christian church formed the core of education and society in an increasingly scared world. The influence churches had over Western Europe at this time is hard to overstate - in the total absence of civil Roman government, the people turned to God's representatives to help them coordinate defense, trade, and family life. They certainly helped all they could, but over the centuries influence transformed into power, and power transformed into wealth. Counties coagulated into duchies and duchies coagulated into kingdoms; noble estates ad royalty would clash to increase their own rights and privileges at the expense of the other. All throughout, the church remained an important organ in government, a bulwark against corruption and sin.
That is, until corruption and sin became bywords for the Church. Many heresies and rebellions against the Church have happened throughout the years, but none so consequential as the Lutheran Reformation. This rejection of the supremacy of the Church of Rome gave the power to determine divine truth to each individual. In an era where the vast majority of people were peasants and serfs bound to the land to serve and die for their overlord, this brought the promise of chaos. And chaos did abound - not only in the initial Lutheran Reformation, but also in the Hussite Wars, the Munster Rebellion, and the Peasants War.
By this time, the first European colonial settlements had been established in the New World. An important aspect of colonization to keep in mind is that invading a foreign land didn't immediately become immoral in 1491. All of human history up to that point had been different groups of people trying to better their own lot at life, often at the expense of their neighbors, often involving bloodshed. It is easy to cast judgment on those that were adventuring for the glory of their nation and the profit of themselves if you don't take into account that there was absolutely no precedent to respect borders or civil rights. The Treaty of Westphalia and the concept of national sovereignty wouldn't even come into being until over 150 years after Christopher Columbus' first voyage across the Atlantic! This ignorance on the shared nature of man was exacerbated by the rapid transmission of diseases between Europeans and Amerinds, leading to a massive depopulation of the native Amerinds that made further colonization that much easier. It turns out it's easy to conquer a group of people when they're dealing with their version of a zombie apocalypse.
The different European powers had different doctrines on how to run a colony - the Spanish generally used the Amerind population to wrest as much gold and silver from their colonies with total disregard for their lives or well-being, the French attempted to integrate the Amerinds into their settlements in North America and utilized African slaves in the Caribbean, the Portuguese brought more slaves to Brazil than any nation brought to any colony. Most of the British colonies were created as religious havens for persecuted minorities - Massachusetts Puritans were distrusted as Protestant fanatics unable to submit to proper royal rule; Maryland Catholics were distrusted as Papist traitors; the Pennsylvania Quakers were distrusted because of their explicit total obedience to God over temporal masters. Some, like New York, were founded purely for economic reasons. Georgia was initially a penal colony. Each of the colonies were unique - some had better relations with natives than others, some supported Cromwell over the Crown, some were distinctly Scots-Irish rather than English. But as the British Empire grew and the North American colonies developed, rifts began to appear.
The disagreement between colonial Patriots and British Royalists could have been just another disagreement between aristocrats and monarchs arguing over privileges and obligations. Paying for war costs was a substantial sum back then as it is today, and the argument of who should pay was always a matter of debate. The Seven Years War between Britain and France was fought across the world wherever the two countries could find each other, and one of these places was in North America. After the war, the victorious British wanted their colonists to pay for the cost of protecting them, which the colonists were largely okay with - except for the fact that they had no method to debate what the cost would be. This taxation without representation became a rallying cry for patriots as they wrested control of the colonial legislatures one by one from loyalists and fence-sitters.
What soon came to be was the Declaration of Independence. Not a binding legal document as there was no real government to bind it to, it was nevertheless a vital piece of what was to become the American Identity - That all men are created equal. That they are endowed by a non-specific Creator with unalienable rights including but not limited to the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That government comes from the consent of the governed. That citizens have both the right and the duty to rebel and overthrow a despot. These beliefs eventually gave foundation to the Constitution of the United States of America, the first and oldest modern democracy.
The cruel reality was that all men may have been created equal, but they sure as hell weren't considered it. Slavery was still very much alive in America and in the world this time, and slave markets from Savannah to Timbuktu to Istanbul were distributing their indubitably destitute, heartbroken products to those that would buy them. Racial equality was more foreign an idea to Europeans and their colonists then the slaves they "employed". And how couldn't it be? There was a caste system in place in Europe for a thousand years that put nobles over the non-noble in an innate, natural sense. Not as dogmatic or stark as the caste system in India, it nevertheless made subjects lesser than their overlords. The closest Europe got to this point to a sustainable democracy was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was only democratic for the nobles. How could one possibly look over an ocean and see an equal when he couldn't look down the street and see one?
The schizophrenic view of all men being equal but that men could still be held in servile bondage because of their origin was apparent in the first days of the Republic. There were abolitionists, segregationists, back-to-Africans, and slavers constantly debating what the proper path was to take as thousands upon thousands suffered in fields, houses, beds and fighting pits. There were slave revolts like those started by Nat Turner and abolitionist revolts like those started by John Brown, and slavery gradually became illegal in the northern states. It was still enshrined as a vital institution in the south, and though a very small population of the south owned slaves, the economic output of that region was largely dependent on the shackled and the scourged.
Arguments about slavery turned into arguments about sovereignty. The argument was essentially an extension of the Treaty of Westphalia - that the states making up the United States were in fact States - that is, they were sovereign governments consenting to a federation with the other States, like the European Union, instead of administrative subdivisions of a singular sovereign power. Supporters of the Confederacy in the upcoming Civil War would point to the fight for sovereignty and self-determination as the principle cause of the conflict, but that argument inevitably leads toward supporting states rights over individual rights, which I would argue goes against the Ideals planted in the American psyche by the Declaration of Independence.
The American Civil War began with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, and what followed was four years of what has been called the last gentlemanly conflict. This is not to say that it was an easy war - more Americans died in this war than any other war, largely because both sides were Americans. What made this war different from those that followed was that it generally didn't utilize machine guns. The mechanization of warfare put less importance and influence on the individual soldier, and it was a direct result of the industrialization that had been increasing pace rapidly over the previous 50 years. While the Confederacy had the advantages of quality soldiers and officers, the Union had more men, more factories, and more international markets for its goods to finance the war and get needed supplies. The naval blockade around the Confederacy prevented it from benefiting from the fruits of globalization, and it proved to be one more nail in its coffin. The penultimate blow for the Confederacy was the Siege of Petersburg, where the trench warfare and emphasis on artillery gave witnesses an unwitting view into the beginning of the First World War.
The gearing up of industrialization and the rapid expansion of wealth due to globalization widened a rift that had existed for all of American history. Though the tide was rising, not all boats were being lifted. The industrialization that made the individual soldier unimportant and replaceable also applied to factory workers. Speaking the truths of the importance of capital financing and the need for investment, captains of industry also spoke the lies that living standards could not be improved for its workers without harming the integrity of the system. It was essentially the same argument against peasants by nobility in Germany in the 1500's that sparked the Peasant's Rebellion, and America had a few of its own. The increase in wealth did not coincide with an increase in morality, and humans proved to be just as selfish and short-sighted then as 350 years prior. Movements to give workers a share of the company or increased wages were harshly suppressed by Pinkertons and soldiers in railroads, coal mines, and garment factories, often with deaths and forced labor.
The succession of William McKinley by Theodore Roosevelt was a breath of fresh air for American society. The promise of a square deal for the Americans united three principles - conservation of natural resources, prevention of corporate overreach, and consumer protection. What also come along for Americans was the beginning of their Empire - the victory against the Spanish in 1898, an endeavor where Theodore Roosevelt was intimately involved from start to finish, gave the United States its first colonial possessions. America was taking its first thunderous steps onto the world stage at a very critical moment in time.
Across the Atlantic ocean, a system of alliances that had maintained a general peace in Europe was beginning to fall apart. Obligations between allies caused open war to develop between the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire against the Entente of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. Theodore Roosevelt, a wholehearted believer in the virtue of war, wanted the United States to join immediately on the side of the Entente. However, he lost his bid for a third term when his protege and incumbent president William Taft refused to step aside, leading to the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Woodrow Wilson was a very complex character. Devoutly religious but absolutely self-assured, internationalist but racist, Wilson believed that the war in Europe was no place for American soldiers. However, it was certainly an acceptable place for American equipment. The arsenal of the United States of America became the arsenal for Democracy as Wilson allowed the supplying of British and French armies with much-needed munitions by private companies to prevent the monarchist Central Powers from dominating the continent. This lead to three important developments - it prolonged the war, it put the Central Powers at a disadvantage with their reduced industrial capacity, and it led to an enormous amount of money going to America. Imagine a vacuum sucking up every government dollar in London and Paris and depositing it in New York banks, and you wouldn't be far off. The Great War was a war that Great Britain and France refused to lose because of all the lives lost already, and the United States profited immensely from that.
As the war dragged on, Germany grew desperate. With its food supply dwindling, its population outnumbered immensely by the global empires of Britain and France, and the need to prop up the chronically under-performing Austro-Hungarians, Germany saw blockading Britain as the only viable path to victory. They couldn't do it with their surface fleet as the British Navy was without equal, but they could do it with submarines. These U-Boats would fire at any ship they thought could help Britain in the war effort, which turned out to be most of them. Germany warned Americans to not board ships heading to Britain, which Wilson rebuffed, stating Americans had the right to travel anywhere. At least 135 Americans agreed with Wilson, and they joined the dead when the civilian cruise-liner Lusitania was sunk. The Germans claimed there were munitions on board, the British and Americans denied, and when the wreck was found and searched decades after, it was found that there was most certainly munitions on board. Regardless, it was a turning point in the attitudes of many Americans against the Germans, notable because of the large German and (anti-British) Irish population of the United States.
The United States eventually joined the war effort in full force in 1917, almost in tandem with the collapse of the Russian monarchy and war effort. American soldiers in the Expeditionary Force made many of the same mistakes that Continental soldiers made in 1914, but adapted quickly and were praised for bravery on multiple occasions. The burden of loss for Americans was much lesser than for the British, French or Germans, but it was still a grievous experience for many that were sent there. The ancient problem of "Soldier's Heart" emerged with furious vigor on the Western Front, then known as shell shock. What we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder was poorly understood at best, and dozens were put to death for cowardice after being broken mentally by incessant artillery fire and weeks of expecting death while being surrounded by human waste and wasted humans that have been laying in the sun for three years.
The horrors of industrialized war did not reach American shores, though. And perhaps it was this physical and emotional distance that encouraged the American public to reject the League of Nations that was championed by Wilson to make sure such a war would never happen again. The League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, was to act as an arbitrating force for disputes between members, but without the United States, it lost a good amount of prestige and ability to follow up its judgments with force.
Free of foreign obligations, awash in cash, and drunk on victory, the United States was the centerpiece of the Roaring Twenties. An American Renaissance if there ever was one, the booming entertainment industry bathed the world in American film, music, and fashion. The New York Stock Exchange became the centerpiece of world finance, achievements in flight captured public imagination, and it seemed that nothing would disrupt this golden age.
But that's not how history works.