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  • America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism
  • Jason Edward Black
America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. By Anatol Lieven. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; pp xii + 268. $30.00 cloth.

Amy Kaplan recently articulated a perspective of U.S. nationalism that situates "tension" as the crucible of America's imperialist tradition. With an eye towards the past two and one-quarter centuries she wrote that "while the United States strove to nationalize and domesticate foreign territories and peoples, annexation threatened to incorporate non-white foreign subjects into the republic in a way that was perceived to undermine the nation as domestic space." As the United States marched forward on the North American continent and spread its influence beyond its cradling oceans, it concomitantly sought to bring new cultures into the American enterprise. Though this practice tended to emphasize order and structure, Kaplan claims that to open America's national doors also invited chaos. In the United States, this "anarchy of empire" was managed by controlling immigration flow, citizenship status, undesirable enclaves, enemy groups, and non-Western European identity.

In America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, Anatol Lieven traces the roots of this formation of America as a nation in tension over the definitions of its borders, citizenry, and identity. While at once lauding its welcoming society with, for instance, the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal ("Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / . . . I lift my lamp beside the open door"), America has also tended to close ranks and—in the rhetoric of anxiety, fear, suspicion, and defensiveness—pass legislation like the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the despicably named Operation Wetback of 1954. One might easily understand Lieven, then, when he writes, "while America keeps a splendid and welcoming house, it also keeps a family of demons in its cellar" (1).

Lieven's book argues that American nationalism simultaneously coalesces around these two competing strands or "two souls" of self-conceptualization. In the first conception ("American Creed") the United States views itself inclusively and as a near-messianic force of democratic fortitude throughout the world. As the world's unparalleled and model democracy, America is able to enact its power based on this chauvinistic creed rooted in an exceptionalism begun, perhaps, with the Puritan errand and secularized by Manifest Destiny. Lieven claims that the interventionist paths of the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary, and the Bush Doctrine can be linked to this creed. Much like interventionism's doppelganger, neutrality, the second conception of U.S. nationalism ("American Antithesis") isolates America based on a fear of loosening its borders and weakening its stock through international cooperation and cultural diversity. While the American Creed supports inclusion, American Antithesis excludes the [End Page 173] "other" from U.S. protection, benevolence, and borders. Such exclusion comes from America's defensiveness in the face of adversity. So, for instance, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States acted guardedly by instituting Executive Order 9066, thereby removing from the polity folks of Japanese descent. The song remains the same, writes Lieven, when we consider that the Bush administration has operated defensively to: tighten the borders with increased security measures (that is, new Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Naturalization Services measures), purify the internal populace (that is, through the U.S.A. Patriot Act), and motivate a war against an Iraqi enemy by transferring "the anger Americans felt after 9/11 to targets which had nothing to do with the attack" (90).

America Right or Wrong proceeds, first, by defining and contextualizing the American Creed with examples from history. Lieven performs an exhaustive nationalist archaeology of sorts by locating the creed in the ideologies of expansion and intervention from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Citing the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas, and the Polk legacy of westward movement through to the United States' involvement in the colonization of the Philippines and the American policies of containment and Vietnamization, Lieven roots the creed in a spirit of benevolence that so vitally enshrouds the past and present American nation...


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