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Henningsen: America's Double Vision

Soon after the Pilgrims landed, Plymouth’s William Bradford described a colony beset by dangers: What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men. . . [A]ll things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. Ten years later, John Winthrop sounded a different note, urging arriving Puritans to …consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

And therein emerged, within a 17th century decade, what historian Alan Brinkley identifies as America’s double-sided self-image. Either we’re an endangered Ark, precariously bearing freedom through stormy seas, or we’re a beacon to the world. One vision stresses what threatens us; the other what we believe we represent.

Throughout our history we regularly – often quickly - bounced from one of these contrasting images to the other, as we proclaimed America’s role in the world.

For example, a century ago Woodrow Wilson offered a fourteen-point plan for world order based on American ideals of free exchange of ideas, free trade, and self-determination. Barely three years later, Americans disillusioned by World War I abandoned Wilson’s vision to embrace two decades of isolation.

In 2002, the Bush administration expressed ideals akin to those of Winthrop and Wilson, proclaiming in its national security strategy that American values of freedom, democracy and free enterprise are ...right and true for every person, in every society.

But President Trump’s State of the Union message reflected the defensiveness of his administration’s earlier National Security Strategy Summary, which read in part: [F]ree men and women have created the most just and prosperous nation in history. Our generation is now charged with preserving and defending that precious inheritance.

How quickly we go from being the hope of the world to being an endangered species. And pity the larger world as it tries to make sense of such sudden shifts from one extreme to another.

Common sense suggests that we mingle the two: we believe we model important values and we believe those values are regularly attacked. A comprehensive national security policy should be a nuanced blend of both.

But apparently national security – like our contradictory self-image - isn’t conducive to nuance.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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