Exceptions to American Exceptionalism

Humanity has made several leaps and bounds in development & progress over time. But nothing has been as significant as the leap humanity has made that began with the Gilded age of America (1870 to 1897). The first experimental flight flew in 1903. In less than a century, humanity landed itself on the moon. Additionally, within this same century, warfare changed tremendously too. Armoured cars, tanks, guns took over & replaced the traditional infantry, cavalry, swordsmen & other such elements of war. Fundamentally, humanity changed in more ways that can completely detach us from our own history as a race & species. Amidst all this hullabaloo, there was one country that seemed to be the epicenter for all the mentioned activity. That country is the United States of America. Quite conveniently, this was rounded off as the great experiment that worked & then was christened as “American exceptionalism”. This is an indication that there was something unique to the USA that allowed it to do this. There is an element of truth to this. Nothing is that easy to write or round off, but here goes.

It is true that the recorded peaceful transfer of power from one person to another happened in the American experiment. George Washington stepping down as the President of the USA without a coup d’etat to let John Adams succeed him as a President was something exceptional for its time. However, the American Constitution in itself is borrowed from other historic experiments that worked & failed. The bicameral structure of the legislature with two houses originated in the ancient Roman Republic, which was then exported to England. From there, it crossed the Atlantic with the immigrants who settled in America. When the nation was formed, it had to cut itself off from the commonwealth of the English monarchy & had no foreign ties or relations to boast of. The nation was poor & in debt to the bankers and financiers of Europe, predominantly in France & Netherlands. A question then comes up once we look at the history of the world through time until the 1900s. How did the USA go from being an estranged & indebted nation in poverty to being a superpower by early 1900s? Proud nationalist economists with liberty in their veins & arteries would say this was due to the exceptional culture of the USA where failure & experimentation was encouraged that caused such an ascendance. Culture of people & society matters, but it isn’t enough to cause such a rise from poverty. There have to be other factors involved. What could be accurate to say is that the USA took advantage of the situations that existed in the world so that this rise could be achieved & retained.

The USA is uniquely placed in the world, geographically speaking. It has oceans on both sides today, Pacific on the west & Atlantic on the east. These are long distances to be covered even by air. Europe & its peoples have been in multiple wars all the way from the start of when human history was recorded. Thucydides documented the Peloponnesian war, which ended four centuries before Christ was born. From then on, humanity has never stopped warring. Maritime peace was a luxury afforded only by stable civilizations. If one were to pick books published in the USA before the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbour, the second world war was called “The War in Europe”. While Americans were diligently penning down their declaration of Independence, England & France were just recovering from the lesser known world war of that time, The Seven Years’ War. The settlers on the Atlantic Coast, who were then calling themselves the citizens of New England, were unaffected by this war. None of their territories were the theatres of battles. The same applies to any other war. The times American lands were theatres of wars & battles are negligible when contrasted with the lands of Europe, Asia & Africa. The Revolutionary war, The war of 1812, wars to acquire Texas & California are the most significant wars American soldiers had to fight on & for American soil. Not to forget, the bloodiest war that the USA was involved in was with itself – the Civil War. Generally speaking, the geography of the USA allowed the nation to be distanced from bloody wars & the ensuing disruptions caused by war.

This allowed the USA to be seen as a land of peace for immigrants across the world. Brain drain into the USA has been a feature ever since the nation has been around. No one had to worry about invaders coming in to ravage their lands. American enterprise is not unique by itself. When the gilded age had come about in the USA, there was already one man on the other side of the world who had done much more than any American industrialist could have dreamt up. Jamsetji Nussserwanji Tata had achieved a lot more than Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller Sr, Thomas Edison, J P Morgan & Henry Ford combined. Yet, his contributions appear smaller over the course of time. If J N Tata was as exceptional, why wasn’t India at par with USA through the course of time? Even after gaining political Independence from the English rule, it took India a long time to catch up with the western world. Clearly, having industrialists or wealthy industrial families didn’t cause the same effect on India as they did in the USA. Encouraging entrepreneurship & property rights is necessary but it isn’t sufficient to cause a nation to grow. All the way up to the 1980s, USA was seen as the market to enter into, almost like the endgame of any brand across the world. Gaining an entry into the minds of the American consumers guaranteed success.

Up until & during the Civil War, records of Ulysses Grant (5 Star General of the Union Army & 18th POTUS) show that waterways & ferries were the dominant modes of transport within the USA to cover long distances up to 1865. This wasn’t an exception to the other parts of the world at that time. It was through the efforts of Commodore Vanderbilt that waterway transport developed & was later enveloped by the development of railroads between major urban centres of the USA. Vanderbilt effectively united the states of America by connecting them with cheap transport. On his back, the oil industry developed & so did the steel industry. This was a time of great exuberance in the post-civil war America where convergent businesses that leveraged off each other were operational. This was also the time when America saw the first great recession of the economy. Railroad bonds crashed in 1897, thus effectively concluding the Gilded age. Yet again, this is nothing exceptional. Europe was a similar melting pot during the Era of Enlightenment & the Renaissance. If this is so, what explains the meteoric rise of USA as a superpower?

A significant factor lies in the wars that ravaged Europe. Between 1914 & 1945, two big wars with Europe as the battleground drove Europe to becoming rubble. American products were being consumed in America & the nation was still growing, but it did that at a time when the other great forces of the world were battling each other to the depths of hell. America was not an exceptional nation until 1945. It was like any other country of that time. The era of American dominance started only after 1945. It has to also be noted that the major turnaround in the second world war wasn’t with the entry of USA into the war as historians would put it. It is with the failed attempt at warring with Russia by Adolf Hitler (Operation Barbarossa) that turned the tide around. United Kingdom was struggling to put up a fight against the rise of Nazism in Europe & Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. Russia’s entry into the war made it a war on two fronts for Germany. Else, had the non-aggression pact between Russia & Germany remained active, the second world war would’ve taken a drastically different turn. What also must be noted is American might is exaggerated beyond their abilities. America didn’t end the Nazi rule. It was the soviet Russians, who raped & pillaged German people mercilessly all the way till the Reichstag in Berlin. On the day Hitler was killed, it was the Red Flag of the USSR that flew high, not the star-spangled striped banner of Liberty.

The situations of the world consistently gave America a higher upside than the asymmetric downside. To put it in other words, it was humanity’s natural progression through history that gave America an exceptional platform. America made use of it in bouts & contributed to the world in many ways. One of the greatest contributions made by the USA is the development of semiconductors & junction transistors. The other contributions fade in the impact of this one contribution alone. It is safe to say that America gave the world the way to enter into the digital age with this one contribution alone. Yet, America is the exceptional nation in the history of humanity. It has been an exceptional nation till the time war was common & peacetime or maritime was a luxury. With trade between nations growing & wars becoming expensive for anyone on the whole, a driving factor of America becoming the nation it is today has ceased to exist. It is no surprise that other nations are slowly picking up & coming to the forefront. The distance from war has increased for every other nation, despite the Russia-Ukraine crisis going on as of this moment.

Favourable situations for trade & commerce make nations exceptional in that era; culture of the people alone or any other factor contributes to very little over time. Such arrogated claims of America being unique are misplaced & such myths must be dispelled with great force.

1 Comment

  1. Gopikrishna says:

    Very true. US was definitely blessed by its unique geographical location, which has enabled it to suffer less of war and strife. This has contributed a lot to its development in many sectors.
    Enjoyed reading this.


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