Academic journal article The Historian

Empire and Amnesia

Academic journal article The Historian

Empire and Amnesia

Article excerpt

IN LATE APRIL 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld formally released me from the burden of unrealistic expectations I had labored under for two decades.

"We don't seek empires," Secretary Rumsfeld said, responding to the particular question of American involvement in Iraq, but expanding the zone of his commentary to the big patterns of American history. "We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." (1)

For years, I was an easily diagnosed--though not easily cured--sufferer from a condition we might call "delusions of efficacy" in the matter of communication between the academic world and the general public. This was the faith I followed: if professors would write and speak clearly, reject jargon and pretension, and harness their ideas to engaging stories, then Americans would welcome this opportunity for collective self-knowledge.

I began from a premise that still makes some sense: if a society does not know its history, its degree of affliction equals that of a person with a disabled memory; amnesia is bad news for an individual, and comparably bad news for a nation.

But as Secretary Rumsfeld's remark indicates, the cure for collective amnesia awaits further research. And there is every reason to think that I am not going to play the part of Louis Pasteur or Jonas Salk in this particular breakthrough.

For twenty-five years, I have thought of the United States's westward expansion as a variation within the larger story of the movement of Europeans into South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia. Of course, the kind of empire-building in which the imperial power extends itself across an ocean and produces, eventually, "decolonized" nation-states does differ significantly from the kind of empire-building in which one nation-state extends its power over contiguous land and permanently incorporates the new territory as states or reservations. But on the ground level, in daily practice, the similarities of the process, in all its varying venues, may still outweigh the differences.

The exact definition of the word "imperialism" will never be a subject of general agreement. (2) But, even allowing for a certain changeability of meaning, the practices of westward-moving white Americans certainly seem to qualify for the category. The intrusion of outsiders into the territory of indigenous people; the exercise of various kinds of power, including military force, to subordinate the indigenous people; the transfer of ownership of land and natural resources from the original residents to the invaders; the creation of political, social, and cultural structures (tribal governments, boarding schools, syncretized religions) to contain the new set of human relations brought into being by imperialism; the romanticizing and mythologizing of both the pioneers who drove this whole process and the safely defeated natives: in these ways and more, the history of the American West counters Secretary Rumsfeld's assertion of innocence. (3)

"We" (not the English language's most precise pronoun) have sought empires. We have been imperialistic. And there is some small possibility that a more widely distributed awareness of this history could have a salutary effect on our national decision-making, both in domestic and foreign policy.

Yet, after many plucky and persistent efforts to persuade the American people to refuse the amnesia and to reckon with historical reality, I got over my delusions of efficacy, and shifted to a different approach.

Did I recant?


Am I worried about what will become of a nation in which some of the most powerful office-holders believe in a version of history that affirms national vanity and champions amnesia?

Of course.

But did I decide that I would like to find a more rewarding line of activity than trying to persuade the American people to tolerate a historical interpretation to which they have a deep and lasting allergy? …

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