Hovering over the final section of President Bush’s State of Union speech was a ghostly shade that perceptive Latinas and Latinos recognized at once. The old cucuy (bogeyman) was none other than the spirit of Manifest Destiny, the ideology of racial and cultural superiority that guided the United States westward across the continent into Mexican territory, south into Central America and the Caribbean, across the Pacific, and beyond.
Writing in support of the annexation of Texas during the summer of 1845, politician John O’Sullivan invented the phrase “Manifest Destiny” to describe American expansionism. In an uncanny echo of recent statements by President Bush, O’Sullivan complained that other nations had raised questions about the emerging hegemony of the U.S. “for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny.”
O’Sullivan’s phrase was picked up by Republican congressman Robert Winthrop and others in their efforts to agitate for war against Mexico and the takeover of Mexico’s northern territories. According to O’Sullivan’s original concept, God had entrusted the U.S. with “the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.” Even the great poet Walt Whitman could not resist the imperial fever of the White Man’s burden: “We pant to see our country and its rule far-reaching only inasmuch as it will take off the shackles that prevent men the even chance of being happy and good.” Before the decade ended, the U.S. had conquered the entire Southwest and forced Mexico to accede to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed 155 years ago this week.
In its twenty-first century incarnation, Manifest Destiny has disguised its racist rhetoric but still wears proudly the garb of self-righteousness and arrogance. In his State of the Union speech, President Bush declared: “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.” The implication is clear enough. God gave liberty to humanity. The United States is the interpreter and agent of God’s will on earth.
The president also had this to say: “America is a strong nation and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.” Tell this to the Native Americans, the Puerto Ricans, the Filipinos, and the Central Americans. Tell it to the Mexicans who had populated the Southwest since the sixteenth century. Tell it to the vast majority of their descendents whose legal and economic rights have been denied systematically since 1848. Tell it to the families of hundreds of Mexican immigrants who have died at the militarized border simply because they sought a better life.
At the center of the president’s speech was one more telling phrase. Behind the hubris and the Christian providentialism sat a concept that should give pause not only to Latinos but to every person of good will around the world. Buried in the heart of the speech was a phrase that escaped the notice of the media talking heads. The president warned: “the ideology of power and domination has appeared again.” Iraq’s dictator, Bush suggested, was the incarnation of this ideology just as “Hitlerism, militarism and communism” had been in decades past. Millions around the world and in the U.S. immediately agreed that indeed the “ideology of power and domination” has raised its ugly head once again. But they understood what was really happening. They understood that the greatest purveyors of the “ideology of power and domination” today are named Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfiwitz, and Perle.
And the president added: “This nation fights reluctantly, because we know the cost, and we dread the days of mourning that always come.” But the ultraconservative hawks of the Bush administration dread the days of mourning only in the abstract because their family members will not be at risk. The real mourning will be done by thousands of innocent Iraquis and the families of American servicemen and women who will be sacrificed on the altar of Bush’s folly. If allowed to proceed forward, the course of action this administration has chosen means not only Permanent War but also Permanent Mourning. Permanent Mourning for millions of people at home and around the world.
Last Saturday Americans in the United States awoke to a new cause for mourning. Seven astronauts, we learned, had lost their lives in the crystal blue sky high above the Southwest. What a terrible irony that the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it hurtled over Texas, the breeding-ground for George W. Bush’s political career and the causis belli for one of the earliest episodes of Manifest Destiny.
Jorge Mariscal is a veteran of the U.S. war in Viet Nam and Director of the Chicano/a~Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.