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College Quarterly
Spring 2010 - Volume 13 Number 2
The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy
William Pfaff
New York: Walker, 2010
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Whenever I am tempted to speak intemperately of George W. Bush, Barack Obama or any leading politician in an advanced, developing or failed state, I caution myself by recalling events of a half-century ago. Harsh judgements, spitefully expressed, can come back to haunt us as much as effusive praise, naïvely heaped upon a head of state or other stalwart who is subsequently revealed to be a miscreant. We all make mistakes, occasionally humbling ones. Sometimes it’s because we misjudge character. Sometimes it’s because we change our minds about policy. Sometimes, it’s because we were just conflicted or confused.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, I was politically sentient, but unschooled. A member of the CSCND (Canadian Student Committee for Nuclear Disarmament) since 1959, I was also attracted to the incoming US President John F. Kennedy. When Cold War politics promptly landed us all in the “Cuban Missile Crisis” of 1962, the incongruities in my commitments became embarrassingly clear.

Nonetheless, even after I’d sorted out “which side” I was on, I remained drawn to the political thought of the ever-moderate Albert Camus, who famously got in trouble with both the “left” and the “right” when he tried to promote a compromise between the Europeans and the Arabs during Algeria’s blood-soaked war of independence. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I still saw political life through the lens of a moralist, and was ingenuously indifferent to the determinative effects of political economy. My thinking had not progressed much beyond the Sixth Commandment, and I applied it rigorously both to the question of capital punishment, local political violence and war. (I also understood “poverty” to be a great evil, but I was not yet sure that it was the consequence of disproportionate “wealth,” much less a system of production and distribution that made both inevitable—but that’s another story.) Convinced that eternal issues of right and wrong were of greater importance than temporary questions of how and why, I was a mass of contradictions. My mind was made of mush.

In time, I managed to extract myself from the murky waters of naïve moralism. Though I have never abandoned the belief that “good” (or at least “better”) is preferable to “evil” (or at least “worse”), I came to see “values” in a more realistic, relativistic context. Instead of being content to display satisfaction with the one and outrage at the other, I started to learn how to explain, and therefore better understand, both.

A crucial step in that educative process came when I read two books—neither on any formal syllabus. One was William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), and the other was The Politics of Hysteria: The Sources of Twentieth-Century Conflict (1964) by Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff. Williams, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and a major “revisionist” historian, was instrumental in my re-thinking the grand historical narrative that had dominated American historical thought since US history was first written. Despite (or because of) his influence, he never won the approval of the US intellectual élites for the simple reason that he dared to speak openly of the American Empire, a phenomenon tacitly applauded but publicly denied by American soldiers and citizens alike.

William Appleman Williams was famously slandered by liberal competitors such Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who accused him of being influenced by “communists” (at the time a Capitol offence that required no evidence in order to establish “guilt,” for the accusation was sufficient “proof” to justify the verdict). In the end, however, Williams helped introduce a critical perspective which brought economic elements into the explanation of historical events and has fared better than the legacy of “the best and the brightest” whose ideology led to the quagmire of Vietnam.

William Pfaff, best known as a Paris-based journalist, escaped such calumny. That was mainly because he had been a US infantryman in the Korean conflict, an editor of the lay-Catholic journal Commonweal, an executive of the Free Europe Committee (a CIA front organization which funneled money to dissidents in the Soviet bloc), an occasional lecturer at the U.S. Naval War College and the NATO Defense College in Rome, and an early member of the Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute. His résumé was utterly inconsistent with that of a radical populist and University of Wisconsin historian like Williams.

Perhaps it was their superficial differences that appealed to me. At the time, you see, I still hadn’t sorted out either a credible or a consistent ethical perspective, nor did I possess a particularly perceptive assessment of the political order. For example, I was not only more distressed by the 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic and the overthrow of Juan Bosch, its democratic leader, than I was by the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but I also considered the US Marine Corps’ occupation of Santo Domingo to be a more important event than the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that put the American forces in South-East Asia into full attack mode. Live and learn.

Since then, I have read many articles and a few of books by William Pfaff. Now in his eighty-first year, he is alive and well and living in Paris, and he remains a prolific writer. He seems to have lived and learned as well. Currently a syndicated columnist with the International Herald Tribune, a frequent essayist in The New Yorker and in The New York Review of Books, and the author of incisive critiques of both diplomatic and military policy, his work has never disappointed me, and I have come to rely on him as a source of penetrating insight and good practical sense. Over the decades, he has addressed a host of international issues in volumes such as Fear, Anger and Failure: A Chronicle of the Bush Administration’s War against Terror (2004), The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia (2004), and Barbarian Sentiments: America in the New Century (2000). Unlike some of the governments he now criticizes ever more thoroughly and deeply, his approach is nothing if not “reality-based.”

The Politics of Hysteria took on the perilous task of re-evaluating the whole of Western civilization. Schlesinger proclaimed it “shrewd and stimulating.” Written thirty years before Samuel Huntington declared a “clash of civilizations,” Stillman and Pfaff constructed a slimmer, but more satisfying analysis, one that I am confident will be more enduring. Rooted as it was in a comprehensive account of “the cultural and spiritual origins of Western civilization,” it had the perspective to identify and analyze the West’s “belief in a redemptive history as well as a zeal to dominate history.” Whether premised on bourgeois, Whig, Christian, Marxist or other historicist assumptions, Western theories draw on a blend of ancient notions of humanity having “dominion over the Earth” and the Enlightenment establishment of human reason as the proper mechanism to exercise that domination. Stillman and Pfaff undertook to question those notions at a time when the legacy of John Foster Dulles was evident in Washington and Werner von Braun guided the political agenda in Disneyland.

Schlesinger (and Walt Rostow, McGeorge Bundy and the rest of the Cambridge crowd) should have lived so long that they could read what Pfaff is saying now. In his new book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny, Pfaff stands back a little from the universal themes that dominated The Politics of Hysteria. He still understands the forest, but he is less a forester than an arborist. And the tree that focuses his attention is the mightiest in the woods—The United States of America.

Pfaff has always delivered prescient remarks. Three decades before the implosion of the Soviet Union, he observed that “Russia’s version of Communism … is proving to be an irrelevancy.” At the same time, and forty years before the words crept into the title of one of Gore Vidal’s more provocative books, he seconded Walter Lippman’s warning that American exceptionalism and messianism would commit the “United States to permanent crusade and, therefore, to permanent war.” Pfaff emerges, then, as a voice of unreceived wisdom. His clarity of foresight was already apparent in places like Saigon where, in 1962, he provided an early diagnosis America’s paranoid obsession with domino theory, an obsession that proved as delusional as Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” It also allowed him to see that the so-called “communist menace”’ was no more than a useful cover for hawkish American foreign policy professionals and their clients in the arms industries. He knew and said at the time that “Soviet Russia … could not long survive.” It didn’t, but Radical Islam came to the rescue and has provided a serviceable substitute.

In assessing his current work, it is important to understand that Pfaff’s scepticism goes deeper than disclosing such ideological nostrums as “the end of history” that reflected post-Soviet American triumphalism in the 1990s of any of the temporarily convenient rationales for the conflicts in what one wag calls the “Mid-Oil East.” Instead, he echoes critics like the Canadian scholar Arthur Kroker, who says that in the era of universal technological imperialism, ethics are set aside and history is declared redundant to ideological requirements. The very idea of “the good,” whether in individual acts or in national destinies, has been eclipsed or at least subsumed in a literally incredible mythology. As Pfaff makes clear, just as the antique American dream of dominating the Western Hemisphere is being challenged by South American progressives recently given some autonomy by the averting of the domineering American gaze and its recent concentration on Baghdad, Kabul and Tehran, so the boundless war on terror is slowly unraveling as explanations, justifications and prognostications regarding the fluid hostilities from Gaza to Pakistan change from crisis to crisis. The practical problems with permanent war, however, do not seem to alter the renewed ideological commitment to ideological universalism and the relentless and futile quest of global hegemony, now becoming tragic, when it does not descend into farce.

American militarism now covers what Pfaff calls a naïve American version of a fundamentally religious mission. In a sense this is nothing new. Even since Ben Franklin excused the genocide of American Indians as an example of the will of divine Providence, the American self-delusion has often been wrapped in the flag of redemptive transformation authorized by the Almighty. Whether expressed in the language of religion, the language of nationalism or the language of freedom, the fight against demonic totalitarianism fuels the material interests of a multidimensional domestic American power structure. No longer Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” (even in its original and expanded variation of a “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but now a “military-industrial-congressional-commercial-financial-ideological complex” with Wall Street, Walmart and the mass media and educational institutions all playing a proportionately larger part in the mix.

Pfaff treads lightly on economic interests, preferring to deconstruct elements of its psychological and ideological defence. So, he leads me back to where I started my personal journey—to moralism. He is not, however, satisfied to speak out against a smug, self-confident moralism that seeks to apply concepts of right and wrong to national initiatives, irrespective of the nation involved, but to the presumptuous, pompous, patronizing and unconscionably self-righteous ideology that has framed much of America’s policies toward the world at least since the days of Woodrow Wilson. He describes the fulfillment of the sentence meted out by George Santayana, the moral jurist who condemned those who failed to learn from history to repeat it. A world now suffering what one commentator was called the repetition of “interventionism, didactic and ignorant at once” is, according to Pfaff, now further despoiled by justifications of “pre-emptive war,” torture and the abandonment of the rule of law.

It does not help that President Bush’s cheering section (from the ever affable Tony Blair to Stephen Harper, the empathy-challenged Canadian prime minister) remains uncomprehending of the flaws in their assigned lyric and the stumbling choreography of their dance. The chorus may vary, but the tragic hero—now President Obama, the innocent champion of sweet liberty and simultaneously the powdermonkey for forces he can neither fathom nor reform—cannot be easily redeemed. A heart-felt confession and a plain-spoken allocution are in order, but any such acknowledgement will require recognition of the sins that flow from a civil religion. And that will require an elaborate course in therapy. William Pfaff, who knows his subject from the inside out, would be a fine therapist but the hero-penitent must first appreciate his position: reading The Irony of Manifest Destiny would be a good start.

Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at