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.”
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.”