Poor Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam carrying the weight of the world

Psst! The Uncle is naked!

It has come to this: Uncle Sam has gone from being the kindly, generous uncle everyone liked to one not so much respected as feared and resented in the world. And while he marches proudly about, wrapped in the flag, declaiming about Liberty and Freedom and Justice, others snicker and point out that the Uncle has no clothes.

From the mid-19th century at least, American character has been imbued by the notion that the US, having been singularly blessed with its form of government, had an obligation to spread democracy wherever it could so that others might also enjoy the blessings and happiness of freedom and self-government. It was, in short, our "Manifest Destiny." Never mind that this might conflict with what other people wanted or thought their destiny was, the United States of America was obviously God's favored nation, and bringing Liberty and Democracy to others would be fulfilling God's will.

Columbia, the great American angel, dispelling the darkness of ignorance and barbarity in the west

Of course, high-falutin ideas are often used to justify base purposes, and so it was with Manifest Destiny. In the US expansion to the West, for example, Native Americans were displaced because they were thought not capable of democracy and thus had to be driven out to make way for the light of civilization. (see A Conversation With R. David Edmunds)

In recent years this same sense of Manifest Destiny seems to have reasserted itself with a born-again, messianic zeal. Echos of Manifest Destiny reverberate in the rhetoric of George W Bush. After making the decision to launch the Iraq war, Bush, as reported by Bob Woodward, walked the White House grounds praying:

I was praying for the strength to do the Lord's will.... I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible."

— Plan of Attack, p. 379

But let's be clear: Bush was not the first, nor will he probably be the last. The idea of spreading democracy to make the US more secure did not originate with the neo-cons. After all, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany in World War I so the world could be "made safe for democracy." However, it is equally clear that Bush has become particularly overt and strident in his Freedom, Democracy, and God rhetoric.

The impulse to be the missionary of democracy has resulted, no doubt, in a lot of good. But by arrogance and excess it has also led us to where the US is today: isolated from our traditional allies and distrusted widely by millions of people around the world.

So come on, Uncle Sam, practice what you preach! And get some clothes on!