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The myth of the American frontier

From the Wild West to Trump’s border wall, the image of the frontier has enabled American imperialism.

“They rode on and the sun in the east flushed… a deeper run of colour like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.” 

Few writers have described the vanishing point of America’s territorial unfolding, and the violence it unleashed on indigenous peoples, as evocatively as Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian (1985). Set on the Texas-Mexico border in 1849-1850, McCarthy’s epic follows a group of scalp-hunters as they massacre Native Americans in a barbarous claiming of the land. Images of a crimson sun on the horizon, casting an “Evening Redness in the West”, dispel all illusions about the benevolence of empire, but rather invoke its bloody (and masculine) course, where, as Greg Grandin writes in The End of the Myth, “the endless sky meets endless hate”. 

Belief in the nation’s sacred mission and faith in the redemptive virtues of the frontier are the keystone mythologies of American history. Even before its independence in 1776, America was long thought of as a deathless continuum, unbounded by either geography or ethics. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes described British colonialism on the continent as being driven by an “insatiable appetite, or Bulimia, of enlarging dominion”. 

Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson later delivered soaring encomia to westward migration, identifying the frontier not only as a crucible of national regeneration, but as the condition of all natural and universal rights. Fellow Founder James Madison thought that inland expansion, far from breeding vice, as many Enlightenment theorists supposed, would actually dilute concentrations of power and factionalism that sundered other polities. Settlement and the taming of wilderness became the high romance of the American imaginary. The 19th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner described the frontier as “a magic fountain of youth in which America continually bathed and was rejuvenated”.

It was Turner who in 1893 gave the frontier its most radical and enduring formulation. In a paper titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, Turner detached the frontier from its associations with borders, and turned it into what Grandin calls “a sociology of vastness”. His paper subsequently became a vade mecum for historians and presidents, who cited its thesis “the way monks chant a creed”. For Turner, the frontier was where American ideals – property, virtue, individualism and freedom – crystallised in their sovereign form. It also served as a “gate of escape”, channelling pathologies such as racism, misogyny, nativism and economic inequality outwards, away from commercial and political centres. Drawing on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, Grandin writes how a “constant fleeing forward” via the frontier has “allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems”.

In an exquisite telling of American history, Grandin shows how the frontier became the master metaphor of New World republicanism, which prescribed and sanctified “the expansionist imperative” behind everything from the border to markets, politics, science, culture and even the psyche. During the space race in the 1960s, John F Kennedy called the moon a “new frontier” (harking back to the 19th century, when Cecil Rhodes yearned to “annex the planets”). Ronald Reagan regularly spoke of limitless economic growth. His successor, George HW Bush, said in 1989 that it was “the frontiers of the mind – scientific, geographic, cultural – that remain to be crossed”. Bill Clinton called Nafta “the moral equivalent of the frontier in the 19th century”. George Bush Jr promised to “extend the frontiers of freedom” through a war on terror.

Grandin describes – often in horrifying detail – the racial warfare and enslavement accompanying what he calls America’s “process of endless becoming”. In the early 19th century, future president Andrew Jackson kept the skulls of the Indians he killed as trophies, while his soldiers peeled strips of skin from their victims to use as bridle reins. Such violence wasn’t confined to the American continent. Far from triumphalist, Turner’s thesis was originally presented in a more apprehensive register: the country was running out of land to expand into. The historian Richard Hofstadter later noted that, “If, as [Turner] had said, American democracy was born of free land and gained new strength every time it touched a new frontier, might it not gradually lose strength after the disappearance of the last frontier, and ultimately die for lack of its distinctive nourishment?” The solution was simple: expansion into foreign lands. 

Grandin describes how empire at home bled into imperialism abroad. In 1901, Woodrow Wilson said that the chance to make war, and extend the horizon of American primacy, was “a new revolution”. The Spanish-American War of 1898, and the military campaigns in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua and Haiti, had “made new frontiers for ourselves beyond the seas”. Within these domains, American capital could be secured, as Wilson implored businessmen in 1916 to “go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America”.

Imperialism not only opened up markets for American goods. It also provided a nation recovering from civil war an outlet for all its residual angers and resentments. The war against Spain in 1898 allowed former Confederate soldiers to keep white supremacy alive in the carnage inflicted upon foreign “n*****s” (the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 was led by the veterans of 1898). Fighting abroad was an exercise in atonement, giving white southerners the chance to recover from the trauma of defeat in the Civil War, as they found unity with their former enemies from the north. 

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Here Grandin’s book might be read profitably alongside Daniel Immerwahr’s vivid, and sometimes quirky, retelling of American expansionism. The US “is clearly not a country that has kept its hands to itself”, he observes. By the end of the Second World War, it had secured territory in the Pacific, and occupied parts of Korea, Germany, Austria and all of Japan, so that areas under US jurisdiction included some 135 million people living outside the mainland. US power-projection was further boosted in the 1950s when the Korean War and the turn to warfare Keynesianism (in which governments raise spending to stimulate economic growth), led to a proliferation of the domestic security state, as well as a global complex of bases and loyal satrapies.

The originality of Immerwahr’s book, though, is not in the history of how the US acquired its overseas possessions (although he tells it well). Rather, it’s in his explanation of how Washington purposely avoided converting its occupations to annexations. The Philippines was granted independence (1946), Puerto Rico became a “commonwealth” (1952), while Hawaii and Alaska became states (1959). The US retains parts of its colonial empire, claiming ownership of numerous islands – Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Virgin Islands – and has about 800 military bases around the world, including Guantanamo Bay. But for the most part, Immerwahr shows how, in some unexpected ways, the world’s superpower has endeavoured to hide its imperium through globalisation rather than colonisation.

This was partly owing to nationalist and anti-colonial movements – often backed by Soviet money and materiel – that organised resistance campaigns throughout the global South. But the main reasons for the decline in formal colonialism were “empire-killing technologies” that “gave powerful countries ways to enjoy the benefits of empire without claiming populated territories”.  The development of synthetics substituted for strategic raw materials. Transportation and communication, enhanced by innovations in radio, cryptography, aviation and satellite technology, reduced the need for territorial control, as did advances in medicine and engineering. 

Immerwahr shows how standardisation allowed empires to reinforce their supremacy. If the British empire spread its imperial measurement system (feet, yards, gallons, pounds, tons), then the US strove even more to imprint faraway lands with parallel laws, norms, tastes, educational practices and institutions. Everything from techniques in nursing and farming, to the size of screw threads, the pitch of music (the US music industry depended on Europeans adopting a pure A440 tone rather than the slightly flatter “French pitch” of A435), and the adoption of English, all helped to project US power on a planetary scale.

Reading Immerwahr’s book in Hong Kong, it’s hard not to think of contemporary China and its more brazen and ersatz efforts to reassert a pan-Asian dominance. Like the US, it recognises the strategic value of small, seemingly insignificant atolls in the Pacific. It also sees the adoption of Mandarin (enforced on the mainland; disseminated via the Confucius Institute abroad), the redrawing of maps and the temptations offered by its knock-off Silicon Valley in the Pearl River Delta as key to its imperial fortunes. At the same time, the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative highlights what Immerwahr underplays in his account: the role of financial instruments, such as the Marshall Plan or the International Monetary Fund, in maintaining US imperialism. 

Immerwahr also overlooks the extent to which hiding empire is dependent on the manufacture of consent. During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, journalists and intellectuals attempted to conceal the true ambitions of Pax Americana. Writing for the New York Times Magazine in 2003, Michael Ignatieff described America’s empire as “a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known”.  Others, including Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hitchens and George Packer, laundered US imperial designs through its most exalted journals – the Atlantic, the New Yorker and the New Republic – as well as a spate of books whose titles included General William Odom’s America’s Inadvertent Empire (2004) and Ignatieff’s Empire Lite (2003). If there was such a thing as an American empire, they said, it was a reluctant one, eschewing traditional dominions and compelled by the exigencies of WMDs and Islamic terrorism. To hide empire was to also erase it from the national conscience.

Forever wars in the Middle East, a financial crisis in 2008, “followed by a perverse kind of recovery” and a deepening ecological crisis leads Grandin to conclude that Turner’s “gate of escape” has now slammed shut. Like a disturbing frieze running left to right, from the Republic’s genesis to its Trumpian nadir, his book shows how all the political passions that had once been directed outwards have now come home. “Trumpism is extremism turned inward, all-consuming and self-devouring.”

The racism, nativism and violent masculinity – all of it symbolised by the proposed border wall – that defines America’s political landscape isn’t an aberration, then, but merely the backwash of its self-declared exceptionalism. 

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America
Greg Grandin
Metropolitan Books, 384pp, £22.99

How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr
Bodley Head, 528pp, £25

Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order