Of Many Things

The Honorable John Hay, American statesman, author and diplomat, had a real knack for turning a phrase. He learned from the best. As assistant private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Hay spent more than three years watching one of history’s greatest wordsmiths in action. Mr. Hay, in fact, was present when the Great Man delivered his then-derided, now universally admired remarks at Gettysburg. (Hay later admitted that he had spent the previous night carousing on the Baltimore Pike and was hung over during the speech.)

It stands to reason, then, that John Hay would produce a memorable phrase or two of his own during the course of his storied career. The most famous of these gems is in a letter to Theodore Roosevelt, penned in 1898, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. Writing from London, where he was serving as U.S. ambassador, Mr. Hay was impressed by the speed and totality of the U.S. victory, telling Mr. Roosevelt that it had been “a splendid little war; begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave.”

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From a certain point of view the outcome was “splendid” indeed: the Americans had triumphed in just 10 weeks and with relatively few casualties. With a surfeit of new overseas possessions, the United States had stepped onto the global stage as its new leading man, democracy’s great protagonist, a light to the nations and, in another of the Great Man’s famous phrases, the “last best hope of Earth.”

Now one could easily dismiss such a facile and self-serving narrative, if it weren’t so omnipresent, even today. Indeed this turn-of-the-century tale is an early, indispensable chapter in the story of American exceptionalism, the persistent and pervasive notion that the United States has a sui generis mandate to lead the world. The kind of hubris that inspired Hay’s remark to Roosevelt, in other words, still informs our national self-understanding.

If you think I’m making this up, then pay close attention to what Andrew Bacevich writes in this issue: “Over the past decade,” Professor Bacevich says, “ambitions and vanities have led the United States badly astray, nowhere more than in the Islamic world.” In theological terms, those “ambitions and vanities” amount to a false messianism, in which the United States claims for itself a role previously reserved for God. Remember President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 claim that “we will rid the world of the evildoers”? American exceptionalism at its worst is not just idolatrous, it’s dangerous. It actually makes the world less safe. As Cathy Breen writes in this issue, our misadventure in Iraq not only failed to rid the world of evildoers, it unwittingly facilitated their expansion.

Patriotism, love of country, is a good thing. American exceptionalism, though, more often resembles lust, not love, dominance rather than self-gift. And it is not just a feature of right-wing politics; liberals are also susceptible to its self-serving charms. What we need then is a collective examination of conscience. We must honestly evaluate and re-envision America’s role in the world.

I’m not necessarily suggesting retreat. Isolationism is not only self-indulgent but impractical in a globalized world. On the contrary, I hope that America might assume a more robust presence in the world, albeit one that is humbler and more generous. With any luck and with a lot of soul searching, we will then realize anew those words that John Hay heard through his self-induced haze on a chilly November morn: “These dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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robert scavullo
3 years 9 months ago
John Hay's "splendid little war". Rudyard Kipling's "The white man's burden". Seems to me that Messrs Hay, Kipling, and us present day Americans should instead remember Proverbs 16:18, "Pride goeth before the fall."
Kevin McGrath
3 years 9 months ago
"the nation is founded upon a revolution with the ideas and notions of Liberty, Freedom, Individualism, Democracy..." But also on slavery and the displacement and repression of the native population of what became the United States, in a systematic denial of those ideas and notions. All human societies are flawed, and the United States is no exception. And surely we are all warned about the temptation of 'exceptionalism' in the Gospel: "The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector..."
Bruce Snowden
3 years 9 months ago
A great piece Fr. Malone, you yourself a man with "a knack for turning a phrase!" The last two paragraphs beginning with, "Patriotism is a good thing" and ending with, "that government of the people ..." ought to be reproduced as a framed, sellable display-gem of what it means to be truly American. It's all about true patriotism at its best, which Aquinas called "the greatest of the natural virtues" and it gives credence to the virtue of flag waving! Good job!
Vincent Gaitley
3 years 9 months ago
American exceptionalism does not refer to a national impulse to lead the world, nor does it refer to any sense of superiority. Rather it refers to the founding of the "New Republic" as an exception to world history since the nation is founded upon a revolution with the ideas and notions of Liberty, Freedom, Individualism, Democracy, Consent of the governed, Separation of Church-State, etc, as opposed to nations based upon race, ethnicity, religion, empire, language, etc. That recent pundits of both parties also get this wrong doesn't pardon the editor's misuse of the term. Look around the world, America--that is, the United States of America is exceptional. We are different. Thank God.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 9 months ago
We were different. I don't think we are so much any more. Our system is devolving into a plutocracy governing a duopoly of parties, which owe their allegiance to whoever funds their campaigns and negative advertising. The two parties are not really very different and it is hard for new ideas to get a toehold. Time to get rid of our false self-confidence. It's a surefire guarantor of decadence.
john andrechak
3 years 9 months ago
Mr. Gaitley, Despite your efforts you fail into the same trap of this exceptionalism myth, perhaps the worst of it, with this deification of the founding fathers and the charter document of this New Republic that incorporated a system of slavery more inhumane than that of the Romans! Look around the world America and you will see untoward bloodshed and suffering bestowed on it by this country, from the native population of this continent to the peoples of Mexico and the Philippines to that of Iran and Iraq.
Mary Keane
3 years 9 months ago
I agree. I sense that a lot of the drubbing of exceptionalism comes from those who are not mindful of the roots of that term. Moreover, it has been in vogue to wring one's hands about the United States for more than half a century now. At this time, it is easy to denounce exceptionalism, as there are entire bouquets of purported national mistakes and tragedies to pick from. These are almost uniformly attributed to white men of privilege. However, there are many too many to list here: visit the editorial pages of the New York Times for more than you will be able to countenance.
Louis Candell
3 years 9 months ago
Mr. Gaitley rightly points out the true meaning of "American exceptionalism". Unfortunately, too many Americans interpret this phrase in the same manner that Mr. Hay did.
john andrechak
3 years 9 months ago
Father Malone; Thank you for your writing! We certainly need a collective examination of conscience. We did go through such an effort in the seventies, with the revelation of our actions overseas; Vietnam, the Chilean coup, etc. Now however there are too many Americans who believe the Iraq War was due to Hussein's involvement in 9/11! An examination of conscience was be predicated by an understanding of the American role in our world, from the wars of conquest to the overthrow of foreign governments to our support of brutal regimes. ( a great primer regarding our nation would be Howard Zinn's "The People's History of the United States) I have no hope for that however. That greatest step towards this examination might be understanding that with the possible exception of WWII no US war was fought to "defend our freedoms" and that our Military, yes our "men and women in uniform" are not defending our freedom but serving to maintain global power at the expensive of any other human being or nation. "When I came to understand the role of my country in this world I did not know what to do, I still don't" Mark Rudd

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