After I sent out my Responsa to my review of Nguyen’s book, I received another comment on the original review. The individual had read the book and believed that, instead of the extensive examination on Nguyen’s rhetorical comments on American culture, I should have attended to the two scenes that bracket the book, the American desertion of Vietnam at the beginning of the novel and the Communist interrogation of our hero at the end to reveal something about actual behaviour of both the US and Vietnam rather than just one character’s personal depictions of a culture. Branding America as imperialist is insufficient since that is not what the novel describes. What is depicted is America’s abandonment not its involvement in and conduct of the war. Further, the Vietnamese at the end seems far more ruthless than America ever behaved in Vietnam, so to see the worst traits of Vietnamese simply as imitations of or influences by American culture seems misplaced.
The comment is relevant; focusing on the brackets seems a good idea. Since it ties in with the war that I so unalterably opposed when I grew into my political maturity, it was even closer to me heart and mind even than the issue of refugees. But I cannot begin with America’s war in Vietnam and the abandonment of the country. This blog will zero in on the formation of my view of America even before I became an anti-Vietnam War activist in the sixties.
Let me tell you my starting point that is really my end point. Three of my six children are now American citizens. Some of my grandchildren raised in the United States do not think of themselves as dual citizens; they are Americans period. Further, I love the US – its geography, its energy, its vitality, its creativity, its p. I love the warmth, the friendliness and the generosity of Americans. But I do not love American militarism and American imperialism that Nguyen skewers so strongly in his book.
That perspective goes deep. I was indoctrinated to be anti-American in high school. Not because the US hung Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, though I unfairly judged that to be a witch trial at the time. My education of American history was slim, but I did learn about the War of 1812. The bottom line was simple. The US saw its manifest destiny as including Canada. It was the first war the Americans lost. It was the second war after the War of Independence in which America won the peace.
Britain was involved in the imperative of finishing off Napoleon, a victory that would set the foundation for the largest empire ever known. (I do not know if it really was.) So even though the Canadians with their Six Nations allies beat the Americans, in the 1814 peace deal, America set the precedent as Britain surrendered the forts it held running from Detroit to the Mississippi in return for securing the US as a trading partner. The precedent was also set for a division between British North America and the US along the 49th parallel. At the same time, Britain had sold out its First Nations allies that had been so crucial to the American defeat. At least this was the version of the War of 1812 that I was taught and that I retained. Americans were land hungry. Americans were ruthless Yankee bargainers.
Of course, this was not the “truth.” I would learn of a much more nuanced narrative when I began reading |Canadian history on my own, but it was usually at the further expense of British honour rather than Canadian glory. The general impression of Americans remained. Whatever the causes, whatever the history of the British blockade in response to Napoleon’s (the Berlin Decree) and the effort to recapture British sailors who had deserted and enlisted in the American navy, whatever the record of Britain even impressing American sailors and forcing them to serve the British navy, however the boarding of the Chesapeake by the Brits to recapture deserters that roused the nationalism and anti-British feelings across the US, the war with Canada was initiated by President James Madison and his cohort of war hawks in Congress to seize Upper Canada and guarantee the expansion of America to the Pacific. This was undertaken even though a very large number of Americans opposed the war.
We used to ride our bikes to Fort York at the foot of Bathurst Street when we were kids. We learned that the Americans had sacked Fort York, not once but twice. However, the American invading forces had been defeated in between at Fort Detroit and again defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Unfortunately, a Canadian hero, the Governor of Upper Canada, Major-General Sir Isaac |Brock, died. Americans were once again defeated at Beaver Dams, largely because of First Nations forces and because of a Canadian heroine Laura Secord, who alerted the British army, the Canadian militias and the main striking force of First Nations.
In these battles, two American armies were lost. The effort to capture Montreal also failed.
However, given the feckless support of Britain, Tecumseh’s Confederacy was defeated and one of the greatest warriors killed. Further, to the consternation of the Brits so proud of their naval power, the British navy was defeated on Lake Erie, though the story on the Atlantic was much different. Washington was burned. Maine was controlled by the British and New York was under threat, but a hapless British general lost that opportunity.
The war left a residue that set the stage for America’s rise in the nineteenth century. Britain had betrayed its First Nation allies and the defeat of the Tecumseh confederacy opened the west, at least in the northern US, to American expansion. The Treaty of Ghent restored the territories gained by the British to the Americans. Perhaps more significantly, the aftermath of the war in the Battle of Louisiana with the British secured the reputation of Andrew Jackson who would feed off populism to become president and ethnically cleanse the Eastern and Central United States of its native population.
I am now in Mexico. My eldest son, a Latin American historian at Princeton, several years ago gave me a volume by Enrique Krauze, Mexico – Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810-1996. What I know of Mexican history I absorbed from this volume.
Mexico and Canada are currently bargaining with the U.S. over NAFTA. It is not the first time. Mexico became independent in 1821, Canada not until 1867. Britain continued to negotiate with the US through the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1845, though Britain legally shared the territory north of the Columbia River, known as the Oregon territory, with the US, Britain, with its First Nation allies, exercised de facto control. At the same time, Mexico included what is now California, Nevada Utah, Arizona New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Mexico was fighting a war in Texas with American expansionists; the American Congress had passed legislation to annex Texas in 1845. American westward expansion had been stymied behind the Arkansas River that cut through the south-west of Kansas and the southern border of Oklahoma.
President James Knox Polk was the warrior president of the United States who, through lies and manipulation, initiated the war with Mexico. But his success depended in good part on whether he could bluff and defeat Britain in peace talks. Through skillful negotiations and deceit (I am not sure whether he was as mendacious as Donald Trump, but the two belong in the same camp), he managed to separate Great Britain from Mexico. In return for peace with the US, Britain ceded the territory that is now Oregon and Washington State and abandoned Mexico to its own fate. The 49th parallel became the major dividing line between Canada and the US. The 54:40 American hawks, who dreamed of expanding the US up to the border with Russia in Alaska, thought Polk had betrayed them.
Polk had greater ambitions. With Britain out of the way, facing a dispirited, economically weak and divided Mexico with a political system that mixed “monarchical” leadership with populism, with a relatively smaller population, most of whom were Amero-Indian and resentful of |Mexico City, Polk seized the opportunity open for American expansion in the south-west. He knew that American power, backed up by its initial industrial might, its far superior armaments and its much better communications and transportation systems, could defeat a politically divided Mexico. Even its allied ruling elite were divided. General Santa Anna was a despot. Lucas Alamán, his political partner, was not. He wanted a republican state governed by the rule of law. His proposal, to cede Texas that had declared independence in 1836 to prevent a larger war that he foresaw Mexico was bound to lose, was rejected.
The Americans invaded Texas in 1947. The excoriations thrown at him by John Quincy Adams had no effect. Neither did the denunciations of the young Abe Lincoln or his demand that Polk provide evidence that Mexico had invaded the US. Mexico was blockaded at sea. Though the people of Mexico were united and rallied against the American invaders, they were no military match, though the Mexicans put up a far more spirited defence that Polk had expected. Though their sacrifices had been enormous, they eventually lost. The American flag in September of 1847 flew over the National Palace. Nine days after the peace treaty was signed in 1848, Americans struck gold in California.
Victory arrived, but not without the Mexicans resorting to guerilla warfare. The US responded, as imperialists do, with war crimes, with beating civilians wans hanging alleged insurrectionist leaders in public squares. The precedent of atrocities was multiplied in the destruction of the Comanche Empire that followed. Americans set a precedent for genocide in the nineteenth century. This does not mean that all Americans misbehaved. A number were generous to the civilians, for America is by and large constituted by a generous people. After the war, Mexicans in the territories ceded to the US were offered citizenship and freedom of worship in spite of the pervasive racism of America, particularly coming from its militaristic side. Blacks were not the only victims. First Nations were treated even worse.
America is a divided nation. It always has been from the time it expelled the United Empire Loyalists. Those who threatened the empire were evicted or forced to submit or both. The US ended the nineteenth century with the ten-week Spanish-American War, the long occupation of Cuba, the acquisition of Puerto Rico and Guam and the reduction of the Philippines to a satrap.