There are episodes in American history and culture that offer a legitimate denial of American Exceptionalism and point to some real non-exceptional attributes and episodes in American history:
- Segregation following the Civil War – Jim Crow
- The KKK
- The modern day Civil Rights movement.
- The Indian wars
- Women’s rights
- Imperialistic adventures around the world
Much of this criticism of American Exceptionalism comes from the liberal left and from Democrats, so let’s examine the record.
The Democratic Party is the party of slavery; on this the historical record is abundant and clear. The Republican Party by contrast was founded in 1854 by anti-slavery activists primarily in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and thus allowing slavery to be expanded into the new territories of the United States. The Democratic Party’s culpability in the national sin of slavery is further compounded by the southern succession movement which drug the nation into a Civil War resulting in the death of some 620,000 to 750,000 soldiers.
And of course the war resulted in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment freeing the slaves. But my goodness, what a heavy price to pay!
Hardly an exceptional episode of American history, but what we see working here is the good (Exceptional) America driving out the bad (non-exceptional) America.
A Century of Segregation following the Civil War – Jim Crow:
The Democratic Party is also the party of Segregation and Jim Crow; on this the historical record again is abundant and clear.
After the Civil War, the nation entered into a long century of racial segregation with the freed blacks relegated to a degrading and dangerous second class citizenship.
The Reconstruction period of 1865-77 begun by President Lincoln was , after Lincoln’s assassination undercut by his successor Andrew Johnson , a Democrat, with his own Reconstruction policy. Johnson supported white supremacy in the South and favored pro-Union Southern political leaders who had aided the Confederacy once war had been declared. Southerners, with Johnson’s support, attempted to restore slavery in substance if not in name.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to the freed slaves, but its passage, pushed by Congressional Republicans, was strongly resisted by President Johnson and the Southern Democrats.
Likewise the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteeing the right of black men to vote, pushed by Congressional Republicans, was strongly resisted by Johnson and Sothern Democrats.
In 1875, the lame-duck Republican-controlled Congress, in a last-ditch effort to protect what remained of Reconstruction, managed to pass a civil-rights bill that sought to guarantee freedom of access, regardless of race, to the “full and equal enjoyment” of many public facilities. Citizens were given the right to sue for personal damages. Unfortunately this early Civil Rights Act of 1875 was rarely enforced, and was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.
The Hayes (Republican) – Tilden(Democrat) election of 1876 was very close and the Electoral College deadlock carried on for months and was finally broken when Southern Democrats agreed to support Hayes’ claim for the Presidency if he would support increased funding for Southern internal improvements and agree to end Reconstruction, thus guaranteeing home rule — meaning white control — in the South. Hayes became President and the Southern Democrats could reverse with impunity the gains that blacks had made during Reconstruction.
Hardly an exceptional episode of American history, but what we see working here is the good (Exceptional) America driving out the bad (non-exceptional) America.
The Klan was founded in 1866 and quickly spread to every state in the South and included mayors, judges and sheriffs; predominantly Democrats. The terror of the Klan was; a systematic murdering of black politicians and leaders; voter intimidation against blacks; black landowners driven off their rightfully owned property and other heinous acts of violence. Men, women, children, aged and crippled, were all victims of the Klan.
Between 1870 and 1871 the Republican Congress passed the Enforcement Acts — criminal codes that protected blacks’ right to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. But again, Democrats in the South resisted enforcement of these acts until President Grant, a Republican, sent federal troops to restore order to areas of the South where violence was raging at its worst.
The KKK endured well into the 20th century with perhaps the most notable member being Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Note well a quote written by Byrd in 1944 to segregationist Mississippi Senator Bilbo:
“I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
In fairness to Senator Byrd, he said, in 2005, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”
But what Byrd said in 1944 fully reflected the mindset of the Democrat Party up to that point and beyond.
The modern day Civil Rights movement: 1933-1964.
A calculation of 26 major civil rights votes from 1933 through the 1960’s civil rights era shows that Republicans favored civil rights in approximately 96% of the votes, whereas the Democrats opposed them in 80% of the votes! These facts are often intentionally overlooked by Democrats but this record is consistent with the two parties record in the era immediately following the Civil War and into the Reconstruction period.
A look at President Eisenhower’s Civil Rights record reveals:
“I believe as long as we allow conditions to exist that make for second-class citizens, we are making of ourselves less than first-class citizens.”
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
(Remarks at the United Negro College Fund luncheon, May 19, 1953)
Eisenhower was a product of his time and its attitudes regarding race. He was also aware of the discrimination and segregation that African Americans faced daily, and he viewed this racism as a most unfortunate and damaging aspect of our democratic society. In evaluating Eisenhower’s responses to civil rights questions, his actions speak louder than words. Many of his actions are consistent with his belief that federal institutions must be at the forefront of upholding the ideal of racial equality. As a result, he was able to achieve more toward making equal treatment a civil right for minority Americans than any of his presidential predecessors since Reconstruction.
Eisenhower favored a patient, constitutionalist approach that would avoid a violent disruption of Southern society. However, by the mid-1950s he realized that he would have no control over the pace of integration, and he responded with actions and proposed legislative initiatives to provide racial equality. He was not successful in getting sweeping reforms passed by Congress, but he did build a sturdy foundation upon which more comprehensive changes were made in the years following his presidency. Consider the following:
- Eisenhower appointed California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Warren molded a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down public school segregation. Eisenhower also appointed outstanding jurists such as Potter Stewart, William Brennan, John Marshall Harlan II, and Charles Evans Whittaker to the Warren court.
- Eisenhower was consistently careful to appoint to the southern districts federal judges who were solidly committed to equal rights, fighting southern senators to get them confirmed. When enforcement of future civil rights laws came before the district courts in the 1960s, they were upheld by progressive judges – Frank Johnson, Jr., and Elbert Parr Tuttle, for instance – appointed by Eisenhower years earlier. Eisenhower’s judicial appointments constitute a significant contribution to civil rights.
- Eisenhower achieved Congressional passage of the first civil rights legislation in the 82 years following Reconstruction. The Senate at first refused to pass the bill, which included both voting rights and a provision authorizing the Attorney General to protect all civil rights. Eventually, Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1957 without overall civil rights protection. This was a much weaker law than what Eisenhower had advocated. In 1960, Eisenhower was successful in getting Congress to pass additional voting rights legislation. These laws were the precedents for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
The Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas, realized that the bill and its journey through Congress could tear apart his party, whose southern block was anti-civil rights and northern members were more pro-civil rights. Southern senators occupied chairs of numerous important committees due to their long seniority. Johnson sent the bill to the judiciary committee, led by Senator James Eastland from Mississippi, who proceeded to change and alter the bill almost beyond recognition. Senator Richard Russell from Georgia had claimed the bill was an example of the Federal government wanting to impose its laws on states. Johnson sought recognition from civil rights advocates for passing the bill, while also receiving recognition from the mostly southern anti-civil rights Democrats for reducing it so much as to kill it.
- Eisenhower implemented the integration of the U.S. military forces. Although President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 (1948) to desegregate the military services, his administration had limited success in realizing it. As a life-long soldier, Dwight Eisenhower knew intimately the reality of racial intolerance in the military. As president, he commanded compliance from subordinates and was able to overcome the deeply rooted racial institutions in the military establishment. By October 30, 1954, the last racially segregated unit in the armed forces had been abolished, and all federally controlled schools for military dependent children had been desegregated.
- Eisenhower sent elements of the 101st Airborne Division to carry out the mandate of the U.S. Supreme Court, when Orval Faubus of Arkansas openly defied a federal court order to integrate Little Rock Central High, an all-white high school. This act, the first time since Reconstruction that federal troops were deployed to a former Confederate state, was condemned by many at the time, but it established that southern states could not use force to defeat the Constitution.
- Eisenhower was the first president to elevate an African-American to an executive level position in the White House. In July 1955, President Eisenhower appointed E. Frederic Morrow, a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Rutgers University Law School, as Administrative Officer for Special Projects.
- Eisenhower worked to achieve full integration in the nation’s capital from his first day in office until the end of his administration. The President approached this task from several different angles. He appointed pro-desegregation district government officials and directed the Justice Department to argue in favor of desegregation in the Supreme Court. One of the results of judicial actions he instigated was the Supreme Court’s Thompson decision which desegregated Washington restaurants. He personally cajoled, persuaded, and pressured local government administrators, motion picture moguls, and business men in meetings at the White House. By the time Eisenhower left Washington, the Capital of the United States was transformed from an entirely segregated to an almost fully integrated city.
- Eisenhower established the first comprehensive regulations prohibiting racial discrimination in the federal workforce. He established presidential committees that set standards and pressured governments agencies and businesses with government contracts to end racial discrimination in employment.
- Eisenhower was the first president since Reconstruction to meet personally in the White House with black civil rights leaders. He discussed national policy on civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Lester B. Granger.
Now take a look at the landmark 1964 Civil Rights bill:
Democrat Senators organized the record Senate filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Included among the organizers were several prominent and well known liberal Democrat standard bearers including:
- Robert Byrd, current senator from West Virginia
- J. William Fulbright, Arkansas senator and political mentor of Bill Clinton
- Albert Gore Sr., Tennessee senator, father and political mentor of Al Gore
- Sam Ervin, North Carolina senator
- Richard Russell, Georgia senator and later President Pro Tempore
Democrat opposition to the Civil Rights Act was substantial enough to literally split the party in two. A whopping 40% of the House Democrats VOTED AGAINST the Civil Rights Act, while 80% of Republicans SUPPORTED it. Republican support in the Senate was even higher. Similar trends occurred with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was supported by 82% of House Republicans and 94% of Senate Republicans. The same Democrat standard bearers took their normal racists stances, this time with Senator Fulbright leading the opposition effort.
Hardly an exceptional episode of American history, but again what we see working here is the good (Exceptional) America driving out the bad (non-exceptional) America.
The Indian wars:
This is an area of history which I confess much ignorance. Therefore I will not comment other than to concede that these wars are a large moral stain on the fabric of American history, and I have no knowledge of the good America banishing the bad America.
This also is an area of history which I confess much ignorance. Therefore I will not comment other than to concede that women’s suffrage was moral stain on the fabric of American history. However, the good America banished the bad America in this instance and as far as I can tell the effort was bi-partisan.
Imperialistic adventures around the world:
American Exceptionalism Deniers often point to the Vietnam War as an example of American arrogance and imperialistic adventures in places where we have no business being. In reality, the Vietnam War was in reality a campaign in a much larger world war against the aggressive expansionism of Communism.
In January 1973 the United States and South Vietnam won the Vietnam War culminating in the signing of the Paris Pease Accords. In this this treaty, the United States promised South Vietnam to provide it with all of the armaments it needs to defend itself against any future North Vietnamese aggression.
However, following Nixon’s resignation in November 1974 and the subsequent Democratic victory in Congress, funds to fulfill this promise and treaty obligation were cut off and North Vietnam invaded the South. South Vietnam surrendered in April 1975.
Following the fall of Saigon, more than a million South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps in the countryside. 250,000 are thought to have died there, victims of executions, torture, disease and malnutrition. Another 1 to 1.5 million fled between 1975-1982 braving the South China Sea in order to escape death and seek freedom elsewhere. It is estimated that between 50,000 to 200,000 died in that effort to escape. Of those who survived, most settled in the USA which accepted 823,000.
Cambodia was the other major victim of the American betrayal. Following the American withdrawal from the region the Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime, gained power and killed approximately two million people; roughly one-third of the population.
Another unintended consequence of the American withdrawal from the region was renewed Soviet aggression and mischief in places like Central America and Afghanistan.
Yes, war is hell and takes many casualties and Vietnam was no exception. But there are times when war is necessary else evil stampedes and tramples countries and people; I believe that Vietnam was a necessary campaign against a Communist threat that had already swallowed countless millions of lives since its beginnings in the 1920s and was threatening millions more.
Likewise the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq against Islam which will be this centuries Communism.