The Lesson from American Exceptionalism

In Americas War History

Yang Jung Mo

Dr. Florigs U.S. Foreign Politics Class

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

On December 9, 2009



Throughout the history, the U.S. has remained as the worlds new hegemonic superpower. In the consecutive triumphs of the wars it participated, the U.S. has been able to be proud of its role as an international police. The United States, in the process of engaging and winning the wars, has forged an extraordinarily special concept of American exceptionalism. As it is widely appealing to those both inside and outside the government, it has been used as a means of gathering public support for wars and of providing a framework to make foreign policies. In this research, we will take a close look at Americas war history and the use of the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. We will also analyze what has changed from the past and its lessons for the future of American foreign policy.

. The Meaning of American Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is a term used to describe the belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in the world, a nation that is not only unique but also superior.

There are two main strands of exceptionalism that influenced U.S. foreign policy: America as an exemplar nation and America as a missionary nation.

First, America as an exemplar nation to the world can be found in the expressions of city upon a hill,” “isolationism, and Fortress America. It means that U.S. stands as a role nation to other nations as the idealistic and purest nation that exists in the world. So the U.S. should be insulated from the outside world, often contemplated from the desires of power struggle. When U.S. pursued isolationism after WW, it can be said that U.S. policy was much more influenced by exemplar thoughts.

Second, America as a missionary nation to the world can be found in the expressions of manifest destiny,” “imperialism,” “internationalism,” “leader of the free world,” “modernization theory, and the new world order. When U.S. has participated in both WWand WW, then president used those terms as their rhetoric to justify their intentions. According to them, Americas intentions are always benign and it fights to serve and protect the world from the evils.

The belief of American exceptionalism has provided a very important cultural and intellectual framework in the conduct or making of U.S. foreign policy.

. Americas Wars and the Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism

The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

The American Revolutionary War began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen united former British colonies in North America, and concluded in a global war between several European great powers.

In 1776 the Americans formally declared their independence as a new nation the United States of America claiming sovereignty and rejecting on the basis of tyranny any allegiance to the British monarchy.

George Washington, the first President of the United States of America, served as the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.


He said, "It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no great distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence."

George Washington, Farewell Address, 17 September 1796


It showed what kind of view the leader of the American revolutionary war had about the United States of America at that time.

Mexican-American War (1846-1848)

The Mexican-American War was an armed conflict between the U.S. and Mexico in the wake of the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas. Mexico refused to recognize the secession and military victory by Texas in 1836. As the consequence of the war the territories of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico were given to the United States.

President Andrew Jackson

In 1843 Andrew Jackson famously described Americas new mission as extending the area of freedom. As more territory was added to the United States in the following decades, the severe controversy arose over whether or not extending the area of freedom also meant extending the institution of slavery.



The Spanish-American War (1898)

The SpanishAmerican War broke out between Spain and the United States between April and August 1898 over Cubas liberation. The war began when Spain rejected American demands for the Cuban independence. It strongly motivated strong expansionist sentiment across the United States to develop a plan for annexation of Spain's remaining overseas territories including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

President McKinley

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the United States invaded the Philippines, President McKinley said that the decision to take the Philippines came to him one night when he got down on his knees and prayed, and God told him to take the Philippines.

WW (1914-1918)

The United Stated originally pursued a policy of isolationism. But it led to increased tension between Germany and Britain. In 1915, a German U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania with 128 Americans abroad. President Woodrow Wilson vowed, America is too proud to fight" and demanded an end to attacks on passenger ships.

On 3 February 1917 President Wilson stood before Congress and announced the break in official relations with Germany. Finally the U.S. declared a war against Germany and entered into WW1.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt put pressure on President Wilson to fight with Germany.


Woodrow Wilson

He wrote: The United States is destined to set a responsible example to all the world of what free government is and can do for the maintenance of right standards, both national and international, (to be) the light of the world (and) to lead the world in the assertion of the rights of peoples and the rights of free nations.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt

In the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, he proclaimed: "It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such that are for their welfare."

He stressed that the United States felt an obligation to help protect the freedom of peoples in the Americas not only, as Monroe had declared, in the face of foreign aggression but also if their citizens faced internal threats to their freedom.

He said when extreme circumstances demanded it, the United States, as the chosen nation, had the "manifest duty" to protect the rights that it promoted if their survival was threatened abroad.

<Woodrow Wilson>      <Theodore Roosevelt>

WW (1939-1945)

World War II was a global military conflict which involved most of the world's nations, including all great powers, organized into two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. Over seventy million people, the majority civilians, were killed in the deadliest war.

The United States entered the war upon the attacks on Pearl Harbor by Japan.

In 1945 the war ended in a victory for the Allies. The Soviet Union and the United States subsequently emerged as the world's superpowers.

Harry S. Truman

President Harry S. Truman frequently referred to the United States as the greatest nation that the sun ever shone upon.

For Truman, the victory of World War II demonstrated the greatness of the United States and led him to think that the United States should bear the responsibility of ensuring peace and freedom in the postwar world. He thought that there is a fight between good and evil in the Cold War. He provided guiding principles for the policies in the Cold War era.

Vietnam War (1949-1975)

Dwight D. Eisenhower (First Inaugural Address, 20 January 1953)


"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty. [T]he energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve itand the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

John F. Kennedy (Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961)

Our [foreign] policy is designed to serve mankind."

The Iraq War (2003)


George W. Bush

While during the Cold War era American exceptionalists viewed the world occupied by the free democratic countries and the destructive totalitarian regimes, the Bush administration thought that there is a struggle between the free democratic country and the rogue states.


Here is a catch. Unlike the previous U.S. presidents, Bush used the ideology of American exceptionalism to the unacceptable limits so that he invented the concepts of a preventive war, axis of evils, rogue states etc.

He pursued ever more unilateral foreign policy, and regarded those countries that are against the U.S. as enemies.

President Bush even referred the Iraq war as a crusade to banish evils.



Sending Troops to Afghanistan (2009)

Remarks by President Obama in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan

And finally, we must draw on the strength of our values -- for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not.  That's why we must promote our values by living them at home -- which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom and justice and opportunity and respect for the dignity of all peoples.  That is who we are.  That is the source, the moral source, of Americas authority.

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs.  We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents.  We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies.  We have joined with others to develop architecture of institutions -- from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank -- that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes.  But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades -- a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination.  Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations.  We will not claim another nations resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.  What we have fought for -- what we continue to fight for -- is a better future for our children and grandchildren.  And we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.


You can see American exceptionalism in the underlined part of the speech. President Obama is stressing the role of America working for the freedom and peace of all peoples before sending troops to Afghanistan.


. Withering Effectiveness of American Exceptionalism

<The Comparative Effectiveness of American Exceptionalism >

From the American Revolutionary War to the Cold War, American exceptionalism was what Americans should be proud of. Because Americans have been very successful in serving not only their own interests but also the interests of the world by putting an end to the inhumane global wars.

But in Vietnam War, the United States was not successful even though it entered the war with Vietnam with their self-proclaimed good intentions. After the prolonged war with Vietnam turned out to be a total failure, Americas pride as a super-state was scarred.

However, Americans regained confidence in the early stages of Iraq War, and they supported for the Iraq War, believing that the U.S. can and should solve the problem there. As the war went on in Iraq and the presumably easy war did not seem to be finished, the faith in American exceptionalism was eroded little by little.

President Obama, a few days ago, made a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. He also commented on Americas commitment and leadership there. Whether this policy will be successful or not is not sure. But as the process of war is going on in Afghanistan, American exceptionalism will definitely lose its accountability at a much faster rate.




. The Lesson to Be Learned

As you can see from above, the effectiveness of American exceptionalism is eroding. The trough in the past must have been the Vietnam War. And the recent downturn would be the Iraq War.

But recently President Obama made a decision to send additional 35,000 troops to Afghanistan with what he claims is the commitment to secure peace and stability in the region. He, with no exception, summoned the idea of America serving the interests of all humankind, a missionary strand of American exceptionalism, to bring domestic and international support.

Unfortunately the world has changed a lot through the course of history. America should realize that the use of military force is not a panacea any longer. With the increased importance of economy and ideas, the absolute superiority of military might does not guarantee the victory of wars.

So far the U.S., in most cases, has been the winners in the wars it engaged. This is because the rhetoric of American exceptionalism has sounded tempting and promising before entering the wars and after finishing the wars. But if the U.S. loses the wars and this trend is becoming more and more common place, the burden for which the U.S. should be held accountable with their people will be accelerating.


But recently President Obama made a decision to send additional 35,000 troops to Afghanistan with what he claims is the commitment to secure peace and stability in the region. He, with no exception, summoned the idea of America serving the interests of all humankind, a missionary strand of American exceptionalism, to bring domestic and international support.

In accordance with his saying, President Obama, from now on, should be aware of the fact that America must take care of the domestic politics first, and then look around to the global affairs with a balanced view. America is not a super-duper almighty country. America cannot do everything. And there are so much complex problems to be solved. With the deadliest financial crisis since the Great Depression, now is the time for America to rethink the meaning of American exceptionalism and its political implications.


Key Words: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, President McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Theodor Roosevelt

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002

McCrisken, Trevor B. Exceptionalism