The United States is often criticized for its brutal policies and actions toward other people and nations – and toward its own citizens. Recently a Rutgers University professor asserted that the US is more brutal than ISIS. Posters on the social media site Quora had a field day with the question, “What are the most tragic or brutal things the US government has done?” (One of these writers slangs the United States for “ignoring the enslavement of 10-12 million Africans from the 15th to the 19th century,” setting aside the fact that the US only came into existence in the late 18th Century.)
This is all at odds with the evidence of American history. It seems to me the US has tended to be pretty soft and half-hearted about war. It has never completed a conquest on its own soil, and has finished enemies overseas only when allies (particularly Russia in WWII) insisted on it.
The US has fought four enemies on its own soil: the British, various Indian nations, Mexico, and the southern Confederacy. I’m not arguing here about which wars were justified. I’m not saying the US was right or wrong about any particular war. My starting point is that the wars happened. I’m arguing that the US pulled up short of a ruthless total victory in each case.
Consider the Confederacy.
By 1865 the economic, diplomatic and military viability of the Confederacy was gone. So the war ended . . . when? The popular moment – Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 – was decidedly not the end. Nor was Joe Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina on April 26. Other Confederate armies stacked their weapons in Alabama on May 4 and in New Orleans on May 26, 1865. There is a proclamation, dated August 20, 1866 and signed by President Johnson, asserting the war to be over.
The Confederate states were reintegrated into the United States. Henry Wirz, the camp commander of the pestilential prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia was executed. But he was buried with the words “hero” and “martyr” on his gravestone.
The fighting didn’t stop for years. Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 book, Redemption, tells of campaigns of terror and persecution of black people by the defeated rebels in Mississippi through the late 1860s and 1870s. These campaigns of terror were often done by organized, permanent military forces. Elsewhere, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who might have been hanged for the excesses the guerilla troops under his command perpetrated during the war, remained free. I’ll let a blogger called The War Nerd make the case for what ought to have been done with Forrest:
[B]y the time of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest was guilty of murder several hundred times over. He was kill-able. He was the most eminently kill-able man who ever lived. He deserved death many times over. But he was allowed to return to civilian life, which for him meant becoming the First Grand Wizard of the KKK. Forrest’s survival after the war was a disaster on any level you want; legal, moral, political. Nathan Bedford Forrest should have graced a gallows in the spring of 1865, and that should have been clear at the time to any resolute Union government.
I’ve had conversations with a lot of people about this topic, and they all say things like, “People were tired of war and just wanted it to be over” or “The mercy that Grant showed to Lee is evidence of the greatness of the US spirit!” But perhaps growing tired of war when the objectives of war are still yet un-achieved, and showing magnanimity to a still puissant enemy, are both proofs of the softness I’ve posited at the top of this post. Maybe it was a mistake to let Forrest, Bob Lee, and the various southern governors go free.
You might ask, isn’t the country better off now than it would be if it had held vindictive and drawn out war crimes trials? The War Nerd has the answer to that:
it’s clear that the policy the Union actually pursued—not hanging any Southern officers except the miserable wretch who commanded Andersonville POW camp—failed miserably. A decade after we defeated the Confederacy at the cost of 300,000 loyal Union soldiers’ lives, the same planter oligarchy was running the South again, terrorizing the Freedmen and women who were our only loyal allies during the war, making sure black people never got a chance to vote, running them off their farms, doing their best to recreate slavery without the name. And it might have been possible to prevent that disaster by hanging key ex-Confederate officers in the spring of 1865. All the leaders of the post-war terrorist fascist gangs that disenfranchised African-Americans in the South were former Confederate officers. If we’d thinned their ranks in an intelligent way, Reconstruction might have been something other than a grotesque and bloody farce.
The Confederate flag remains ubiquitous throughout the US today. It continues to be an inspiration to the likes of Dylann Roof. Is this not the same kind of grotesque and bloody farce, extended a century longer?
US war with the British and Mexicans can be dealt with quickly. The US never finished off the British because England was vastly more powerful. and America was lucky to get away with negotiated peace treaties after the Revolution and the War of 1812, and lucky to have France on our side both times. I think the half-heartedness of the Mexican War was due to the immoral nature of that episode. I think the Mexican War was trumped up by President Polk to acquire new land. Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, was firmly against war against Mexico. The link is to a resolution Lincoln introduced. He also gave a long speech on the subject, which is one of his best.
Now, to the Indians. There are many distinct nations of indigenous American people, and it’s best to speak about them distinctly. (I think the term “native American” is bogus, but to call an Iroquois an Iroquois does him honor.) Let’s take the case of the Cherokee.
University of Delaware professor Marvin Whitaker, in a paper called, A Despotically ‘Benevolent’ Policy: The Cherokee Indian Genocide, insists that the US perpetrated genocide on the Cherokee:
The very fact that the U.S. Government and some scholars continue to deny any “genocide” has taken place against the Cherokee Indians or the American Indians in general leads credence to the fact that we are in the final stage of the Cherokee Indian Genocide: Denial.
Of Andrew Jackson, president during the period in question, Daily Beast writer Arthur Chu says,
The deservedly single biggest issue that gets brought up regarding [Jackson’s] term is the minor matter of masterminding a genocide. The Trail of Tears is one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history, with its explicit end the eventual annihilation of the Five Civilized Tribes as peoples in the name of “progress.”
Whitaker’s article “proves” that the removal of the Cherokee was a genocide by bending the meaning of genocide to include what happened to the Cherokee. Arthur Chu is a liar and a lightweight. Calling the Trail of Tears “one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history” is ignorant.
Andrew Jackson doesn’t belong on any honest list of brutal leaders. Joseph Stalin personally gave orders that resulted in 43 million dead. Mao Tse-tung killed 38 million. Adolf Hitler ranks third with 21 million. Then comes Chiang Kai-shek (10 million), Vladimir Lenin (4 million), Tojo Hideki (4 million), Pol Pot (2.4 million), Yahya Khan of Pakistan (1.5 million) and Josip Broz Tito (1.2 million). This list is based on a compilation that was made in 1987. If it were up to date, Saddam Hussein would be on it, too.
There are plenty of people who were responsible for more than a million deaths. The above list is just from the 20th Century. Hannibal killed 50,000 Romans in a single day (Wikipedia says 75,000!) at Cannae. The Aztec sacrifices were an orgy of blood that killed hundreds a day and went on for years.
The Trail of Tears was a badly administered government effort that intended to relocate the Cherokee (and other Southern tribes) where they could live without conflict with White men. It was undertaken at government expense as the best hope for preserving the Indian cultures. It wasn’t meant to kill the Cherokee at all, let alone to extirpate them. Anyway, here is what the Cherokee Nation says about itself today:
The Cherokee Nation is the federally-recognized government of the Cherokee people and has inherent sovereign status recognized by treaty and law. The seat of tribal government is the W.W. Keeler Complex near Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
With more than 317,000 citizens, over 8,000 employees and a variety of tribal enterprises ranging from aerospace and defense contracts to entertainment venues, Cherokee Nation’s economic impact in Oklahoma and surrounding areas is more than $1.5 billion annually. We are one of the largest employers in northeastern Oklahoma. We are the largest tribal nation in the United States.
Note that the official Cherokee Nation is not all Cherokees in America. It is only those who live in Oklahoma within that political organization. The most recent US Census finds more than 875-thousand people of Cherokee heritage throughout the country. So, today, nearly 200 years after the genocide, the Cherokee are an autonomous, industrialized, federally sponsored nation with a membership nearly 300 times larger than the number who died — and almost 60 times the size of the nation as it stood at the time. Is that consistent with “genocide?”
Need another example? Consider the Pequod tribe of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Here’s a bit from the on-line SparkNotes for Moby Dick:
[The ship was named Pequod] after a Native American tribe in Massachusetts that did not long survive the arrival of white men and thus memorializing an extinction, the Pequod is a symbol of doom. It is painted a gloomy black and covered in whale teeth and bones, literally bristling with the mementos of violent death. It is, in fact, marked for death. Adorned like a primitive coffin, the Pequod becomes one.
SparkNotes, which unsuspecting students read and believe, asserts that the Pequod tribe went extinct. But here’s what we know about the Pequod nation in 2015:
Today the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation owns one of the largest resort casinos in the world, Foxwoods Resort Casino, along with several other economic ventures including the Lake of Isles Golf Course, The Fox Tower, The Spa at Norwich Inn and Foxwoods Development Company dedicated to world-class resort development throughout the United States and Caribbean. Altogether, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation remains one of the State of Connecticut’s highest tax payers and largest employers.
These two examples don’t justify American policies toward all Indians, or toward any particular tribe. Certainly there was inhumane action and vicious episodes. But my point is that the rhetoric of “genocide” and “extermination” are inapt. In the case of the Confederacy, I’m prepared to argue that presidents Johnson and Grant, and the Congress they served with, were too soft and that the legacy of their softness remains a problem in America today.
Can’t we agree that the US is not, and has never been, especially ruthless? We don’t push wars to their bitter end. I think that is because Americans, for the most part, don’t like war. Yet we are in wars constantly because corporate profits and political careers depend on it.