The concept of the so-called “manifest destiny” is a complex one. On the one hand it is steeped in fairly explicit racism and a brutal advocacy of the notion that might makes right. It is, one might argue, a complicated perversion of Christian moralism which perverts the very notion of Christianity, much like Catholicism did, into a sense of entitlement and superiority which was blatantly used to exterminate and murder large numbers of people and entire cultures. But despite the inherent racism that ran through American society during its period of conquest (and, of course, still runs through it today), the notion of manifest destiny was not universally accepted.
Journalist John O’Sullivan first used the phrase Manifest Destiny in 1845 in an article in the New York Morning News. O’Sullivan was arguing that the States had a sort of divine right to conquer the Oregon Territory because of “our [American’s] manifest destiny to overspread and possess the whole of the continent which Providence was given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” O’Sullivan’s statement was not only aggressively expansionist but it relied on a nascent racism for its moral justification much like so-called idea of the “white-man’s burden” (a phrase that didn’t exist until another racist, Rudyard Kipling used it some fifty years later in connection with Anlgo-imperialism). The idea that the continent was “given to us for the development of the great experiment of liberty,” implies both that it did not really belong to the people that were there and that somehow our goals were noble (ie., liberatory) and, by extension, those who had had possession of the land lacked our noble, liberating spirit.
However, despite the fact that American society was deeply racist, some recognized the idea of the Manifest Destiny for what it was. Speaker of the House, Robert Winthrop was one of the few that recognized that the idea of Manifest Destiny was a simple justification for a self-interested and chauvinistic policy of expansion. But despite any Whig resistance to Manifest Destiny, the forces of capitalism and imperialism were irresistible to most whites who were either eager to use any justification to expand westward, no matter how specious, or they were straight-up racists who truly believed what they saw as their noble, god-governed cause.
Over the decades of westward expansion, any resistance that the settlers (ie., the conquerors) were faced with was slotted into the context of the racist and imperialist program of the manifest destiny. Thus Sitting Bull and his Lakota warriors at the Little Bighorn River could not be viewed as resistance fighters struggling for their land and the continued existence of their culture, but had to be seen as little more than “savages and killers” who had to be properly dealt with by “noble” men such as George Armstrong Custer. Similarly, Geronimo and his Apache force had to be portrayed as little more than cutthroats by military men such as General George Crook. In other words, rather than being seen as a brutal military expansion, the conquering of the West could be seen, through the eyes of the Manifest Destiny, as a moral and (importantly) a defensive operation.
Fast forward a century or so and the work of men like Custer and Crook is more or less complete. Genocide is, for all intents and purposes, finished and a matter of historical record. But the truths are fairly clear. In the midst of the Manifest Destiny and the Westward expansion, there were no real acts of defense on the part of the Cavalry. Of course individual soldiers shot at individual natives as each attempted to kill the other. However, while some battles might have been defensive, the war was not. When General Custer stood on Calhoun Hill on the ridge above the Little Bighorn River he was, at that point, shooting at Lakota warriors to save his own skin. But it was also an act of imperialism. And if we are to look back now, it is obviously absurd to say that Geronimo and his small band of Apaches were a threat to the existence of the United States. They were a threat, however, to US interests and to the program of the Manifest Destiny.
Obviously, those who are familiar with my blog know where I am going with this. I believe that in historical terms we can see the gradual theft of Palestinian land as genocide much like the conquering of the West. And political Zionism is not just a little like the principle of the Manifest Destiny. When David Ben-Gurion wrote to his son that “we must expel Arabs and take their places,” he was writing about his own notion of manifest destiny. And to call Israeli militarist expansion “defensive” is just as absurd as talking about Custard’s Seventh Cavalry a “defensive force.”
Today there are relatively small groups of Indigenous North Americans attempting to create a new culture for themselves out of the ashes of the past. With the exception of a handful of extremists, Native Americans don’t question the Right of the US or Canada, for example, to ‘exist.’ The argument is obviously absurd. Instead, they fight for justice as well as they can within a context of a sadly successful Manifest destiny. The battle for Israel’s Manifest Destiny goes on apace and each year the State of Israel takes a little bit more land and exterminates a few more Palestinians. When the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1971, it made little difference, in the same way that it would have made little difference if Sitting Bull had recognized the US’s right to exist in, say, 1876 (the year of the Battle of the Little Bighorn). The settlement of the Montana Territory would have gone on either way. And the characterization of the Native Americans as “savage” continued to be the order of the day for generations to come. Today there are groups of Palestinians who, much like Sitting Bull or Geronimo, continue to fight back against a brutal and much better armed occupying force. To call them religious fanatics is, of course, a deeply misleading political tactic on the part of Israel and its supporters much like it was misleading to call Sitting Bull a heathen, anti-Christian, savage with no respect for life. When someone is taking your land and destroying your culture, their religion is really immaterial. Religion might be used as a convenient rallying cry but what is really at stake is your land and your culture.
General George Armstrong Custer was a graduate of West Point and undoubtedly a brutal and racist man. Crazy Horse, who drove Custer up the bluffs where he was massacred, was, I am sure, a frighteningly brutal man. Custer was a “Christian” and Crazy Horse followed his own Indigenous Religion. But as these men live now only in books and memory, these issues seem strangely irrelevant today to the larger question of the conquering of the West. What we see now is a group of white conquerors pushing ever westward against an ever-dwindling group of Natives who fought back, sometimes savagely, for their land and culture. But in the midst of that historical war, the “spin” was different as the Whites held on to their notion of being noble defenders of the cause of civilization and liberty.
History is repeating itself and the spin-doctors are as busy as ever.