- A Post-Exceptionalist Perspective on Early American History: American Wests, Global Wests, and Indian Wars by Carroll P. Kakel III
If many still imagine the United States to be exceptional, Carroll P. Kakel III seeks in this book to dispel that notion. Kakel, a research historian and lecturer at The Johns Hopkins University, frames the book as "a think piece" and a "synthetic history" (ix). This is thus not a work built on novel archival findings or the like. Rather, Kakel's argument rests in part on the research he did for his earlier books, the most recent being The Holocaust as Colonial Genocide: Hitler's 'Indian Wars' in the 'Wild [End Page 367] East', and on a voluminous secondary literature comprised primarily of historians and Indigenous studies scholars. The densely sourced monograph is thus well-suited to Palgrave's "Pivot" series, which the publisher introduced in 2012 to provide a venue for relatively short books. Indeed, it takes Kakel just over a hundred pages to make the case that the settler colonial past of the United States was unexceptional, albeit more impactful than other such national projects. "[E]arly America (both pre-and post-independence), is best understood as a supplanting society," he argues, "a society intent on a land grab of ancestral Indigenous homelands, and a society driven by a genocidal imperative to get rid of those who merely get in the way" (7).
Kakel spends roughly the first half of the book explaining how the process of supplanting Native communities occurred in the American context from 1607 until 1890—a process that he argues involved four stages: "conquest, dispossession, depopulation, and repopulation" (98). In addition to providing this condensed (but never simplistic) history of American expansion, Kakel takes his argument further. Not only was US expansion a phenomenon with precedent but it would also serve as a source of legitimacy for later settler colonial undertakings. The US experience, Kakel contends, influenced Japanese and German efforts at expansion in the twentieth century by way of the academics and political elites in those countries who used US expansion as "inspiration, legitimation, and model" for their own conquests (67). The "colonial methods" US military officials used in the so-called Indian Wars—and, as Kakel notes, in the Philippines—served as an unfortunate example for other states (73). An argument of such wide spacial and temporal scope could easily prove unwieldy, but Kakel deftly marshals his diverse sources in support of a coherent narrative. This is a valuable piece of literature that could promote stimulating discussions in undergraduate and graduate courses alike.
I approach this book as a scholar of International Relations, and to the extent that I have minor quibbles with this book, they might vary from those of American Indian Quarterly's model reader. That said, I think the most important issue to address here is definitional. First, Kakel provides at least two distinct definitions of exceptionalism. There is "the idea that America's historical development was different from that of other countries" (ix), and then there is "the idea that the United States is a chosen land with a special destiny and mission which set it [End Page 368] apart from the rest of the world" (2). If we focus on the first definition, I think Kakel succeeds in offering a useful corrective to the exceptionalist narrative. The second definition, however, posits a more metaphysical notion of American exceptionalism and may simply be unfalsifiable. Relatedly, Kakel seeks to provide a "post-exceptionalist" reading of early US history, something that he differentiates from an "anti-exceptionalist" reading (3; he draws on Paul Kramer's 2011 review essay, "Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World," when drawing this distinction). To complicate matters further, Kakel approvingly cites Daniel T. Rodgers's 2008 call for "a non-exceptionalist history of the United States" (5). The distinction—if there is meant to be one—between anti-, non-, and post-exceptionalist readings is unclear, which...