I felt compelled to re-organize America’s history in my mind. There has been a markedly distinctive threshold or tipping point between each stage, and it has provided me a lens through which, as uncertain as the future is, I see the next transition. Whether the next era is introduced beyond a precipice or a glide will be determined by intent, prowess, and as many culminating events seem to be, chance.
In this first stage, one so often ignored in traditional textbooks, a legion of First Nation cultures populated what the Europeans came to call ‘The New World’. Having crossed the frozen Bering Strait in pursuit of game, they spread throughout the landscape-developing ideas, practices, and sustenance methods that most efficiently suited their environment. Ranging from small nomadic tribes to large sedentary conglomerations, there is no fitting universal image of the Native American’s political structures, economy, religion, culture, or experience. What we can say is that, in the beginning, there was a harmony with what they had and what they did. But the story of the world’s history is one of increasing complexity, and even for the First Nation peoples, though they are popularly represented as peaceful and utopian, at the dawn of contact, in some places, there was war. Conflict between Native American tribes is one of the many reasons that Europeans were able to gain an irreversible foothold. The Spanish, the French, and the British, in the New World for slightly different reasons, founded the beginning of the end. The Native American story was one that began with misunderstandings, fear, and prejudice that tragically grew to exploitation, displacement, and death. Lots and lots of death.
As much as there might have been higher-minded souls in the era, the border between westward expanding British settlements and resentfully capitulating Native tribes succumbed to the corruptive forces inherent in our nature. For the Native, they were losing their spiritual identity, losing their cultural traditions, losing their pride, and losing their people. The white man wasn’t to be trusted-either because of directly experienced betrayal or because of what they’d heard of the fate of other tribes. At some point, even exodus was untenable for the First Nations. For the British, they saw wild men of the forest, they heard the jubilant celebrations of festive ritual, they saw naked bodies, they saw people bigger than them, stronger than them, faster than them, different looking than them, stranger sounding than them, and bare of the fundamentals of civilization recognized by European standards. Once there was altercation that led to violence, there could only be more violence. It culminated in our first tipping point: King Philips War.
King Philips War, ‘the First Indian War’, reflected the core, seemingly inevitable ugliness of the age: unstoppable English settlements from Connecticut to Massachusetts through Rhode Island and throughout, shaky political truces, uncomfortable drawing of boundaries, regrettable transgressions, reciprocal economic relationships that slowly grew to be not so reciprocal, purposeful mis-dealings, massive waves of migration from England, unrelenting waves of disease, the fearful misgivings stemming from an imbalance in weaponry, colonial lack of control over the frontiersman that so symbolically and disastrously represented the age by continually pushing into Native land, and English relationships with tribes who were enemies with one another-leading to a breakdown in good-spirit. The alliance of tribes under Metacom (King Philip) were destroyed, thousands of Natives and English were killed, and perhaps most importantly for what would become America, the British colonies, for the first time, felt a sense of collective identity that transcended the English crown-while at the same time, the crown began to see the English colonies as something potentially profitable for the state. New England lay bare, relatively speaking, for what would become the next stage in America’s history-a Revolution.
The colonies grew more populated, expanded westward, up and down, and at the birth of the 1700’s, were growing into something significant. As we know from grade school, the trespasses, usurpations, and exploitation of colonial property, rights, and government led to the stirrings of what became the necessity “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. They created new guards for their future security-pledging to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
By the 1800’s, the United States had been born, had cast off their owners, had crafted a Constitution, had adopted a Bill of Rights, and had the foundational structure for the taking of the Pacific and our next tipping point: Lewis and Clark proceed the Louisiana Purchase.
Forming of a Union
‘The West’ is as much a cultural perception as it is a physical place. This era was as much about the capturing of that physical place as it was about expanding into the idea of what the United States was meant to be. The former meant again throwing off the British, digging the Erie Canal, winning a war with Mexico, adding the states of the Pacific Coast, furnishing a transcontinental railroad, and moving people into open space. But the latter-expanding into the idea of the United States-meant confronting ourselves in the most vicious manner. In Thomas Jefferson’s dying letter to Roger Weightman in 1826, he wrote of the United States as a “signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves…all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.” Before the United States could assume its standing and grow into itself, it had to fight itself over the chains it had used to shackle an entire population of people in servitude. The Civil War meant suffering a terrible cost, but it meant that a nation founded on freedom could finally reconcile its most corruptive contradiction.
By the end of the 1800’s, the United States was a strong, blossoming union. That burgeoning strength led it to the next tipping point: The Spanish American War
Growth of Might
Manifest Destiny had been the cultural perception that Americans had a right to the lands between the coasts because of their exceptionalism. The Monroe Doctrine was a political and military perception that the government wanted to impose on Europe that this was their land, this was their side of the world, and that they weren’t to suffer British, French, or Spanish incursions into that sphere of influence anymore. The Spanish American War, centered around Cuban Independence, was a flexing of American naval muscle that won it not just a fleet of islands but also a sense of its strength as it had finally extinguished the luster of the Spanish Empire in the New World and stood poised, with fists raised and foot perched proudly atop the Latin American World, to repel the rest of the world, embrace its geographic gifts, and adopt the Roosevelt Corollary-the right to intercede in Latin America. The Hemisphere was America’s.
As the 20th century progressed, Europe descended into two systemic wars. The United States was happily insulated from the infrastructure devastation. While World War II pushed Europe to the limits of its endurance, America sat across the sea, building a military, building industrial power, and biding its time to throw the deciding punch. The War cost Europe everything it had to give, but the war launched the United States into the next era. It was now a superpower. World War II was our fourth tipping point.
The Unwieldy Thrust of Raw Power
There was no one left, save for the world’s other superpower: the Soviet Union. The world was divided by a line drawn in Germany. America, barely 50 years from having added Washington as a state, was ready to continue throwing punches. That’s the effect of landing a knockout punch without having suffered any bodily harm (not to dismiss the loss of American life, but as a statement on the country’s nearly untouched infrastructure), there’s no fear of making a mistake. While Western Europe tried to gather itself together and forge new institutions that might ensure it never happen again, America fought wars in Korea and Vietnam against the spread of another state’s influence. That’s the unwieldy thrust of raw power: even at the expense of a great cost-the thousands upon thousands of lost lives, the billions of lost dollars-the cost isn’t felt, by most, as anything beyond the remote and tragic images seen on TV. And so it was that America continued moving through the 20th century. There was the non-commital support of a Cuban Revolution and a consequent missile scare in Cuba, there was a fallen beloved president, we landed on that most mystical and ancient heavenly body, the moon, there was an oil crisis, there was a hockey team that made magic, and then the other superpower just died. We were alone. We could do anything we wanted to do. With such power, the Egyptians built the pyramids. With such power, the Romans built the future. So young, less than 200 years removed from having named itself, the United States had no such grand vision.
America went into Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina. America acted as it wanted to throughout the globe-expanding its hegemonic control over regions, the seas, and resources; not as a villain, but as all mighty empires do when there is a short-term impetus for action and no long-term concept of the weight of those actions. The very people that the United States had empowered with their money and their weapons during Russia’s war in Afghanistan were the people to have struck America so unexpectedly in the early hours of September 11th, 2001. Those people, terrorists because they had made the most vile of decisions about the value of innocent life, became the target of the most powerful of all the world’s history of empires. But that led to the last tipping point: The War in Afghanistan.
The 21st Century Empire: Shaken
The reason that the War in Afghanistan is the last tipping point, and not the attack of 9/11 itself, is because for the first time since America threw that knockout punch in World War II, the enemy didn’t fall down. I don’t mean that the enemies in Korea or Vietnam were defeated. What I mean is that save for the soldiers fighting the wars, the Koreans and the Vietnamese were not seen as mortal enemies. Despite the ambiguous conclusions to those conflicts, Americans had retained their perception of their state’s strength. And for good reason: Korea and Vietnam were only distantly important, and they were complex engagements in that America didn’t want to knockout their opponent but rather the person standing in support behind their opponent. Americans knew that a real war, one fought directly for the security of its citizens, would result in utter annihilation of the enemy. America had the most powerful conventional military of all time, inarguably. So America threw its punch and Americans watched it on TV, but the person responsible for the attack of 9/11 and the subject of so much American lust for vengeance, the symbolic representation of terrorism, continued to talk to Americans on TV. Afghanistan had been invaded, the Taliban had been removed, but like an ant pile, the enemies kept coming. More and more American soldiers were lost in the occupation of what Americans came to understand as an arbitrary political boundary that didn’t encapsulate the true foe.
Then George Bush the 2nd rushed into Iraq for larger strategic reasons but without proper foresight. Saddam was toppled and the country was occupied. Another enemy had been shocked and awed, but the real enemy, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, stood standing-like shadows-still talking to Americans on TV. And America, the 21st century Empire, conqueror of the First Nation, the British, the French, the Spanish, a wild western frontier, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union, was shaken.
As it is, Osama Bin Ladin has been killed, Saddam Hussein has been killed, countless other leaders of terrorist organizations have been killed, the organizations themselves have seen their funding dismantled, and for a short while American’s didn’t hear terrorists talking to them on TV. But then ISIS rose from calamity in Syria, and Americans saw terrorists killing Americans on TV. The shaken empire has to confront the newest enemy for the sake of its own psyche, but it must use the lessons it never learned from Afghanistan. It must understand the shadows, and in understanding the shadows, the extremists, it will understand that the more violently a light is shone, the more vivid the darkness.
At some point, a stability derived from a political solution will be accomplished. Either way, unless more powerful weaponry is attained, Americans will remain safe. The United States enjoys remarkable geographic insulation and predispositions, political stability (though its government is divided by hyper-partisanship), and cultural power. Its economy remains the most powerful in the world, and its military remains the most powerful in the world. But the world is a place of ever increasing complexity-interconnectivity and interdependency- in which addressing problems and challenges require understanding the multi-variable environment.
What’s the Next Tipping Point?
The United Nations was a child born of the lessons its parent had learned, but like all children, it was born to be just like its parents. For it to have grown into something special probably would have demanded a selfless hegemonic power to oversee the security of the world and inspire the construction, or at the least the beginning, of the transition from national sovereignty to supranational coordination. If American power is to wane, relatively speaking, and it is to be a multi-polar world-a world more competitive and therefore less likely to sacrifice for the sake of cooperation-an empowered United Nations would have been somewhat comforting for the United States and the world. But that cause and effect relationship will have to play out in the next era. What will be the threshold for that transition?
I see the next tipping point to be a landing on Mars. It would be a dramatic shock to the American psyche and America’s soft power if another power were to get there first. It will be representative of the meeting point between individual excellence and government sponsorship-a meeting place that America has been a master of for a century. Whichever state accomplishes that fusion of energies best and gets to Mars first will represent the champion of this technological epoch, and begin a new era not just for the United States but for humanity.