Have you heard the one about the guy who was born on third base, but thinks he hit a triple? Could that illusion apply to Americans and their perception of how they became the world’s wealthiest, most powerful nation?
History is replete with nations, civilizations and cultures that have risen to a position of dominance and then declined, usually in a much shorter time span than that of their ascension. This process has been so consistent, so relentless and so inevitable that it has almost become an indisputable law of nature. Historians have a field day trying to identify the various factors that lead to the rise and fall of world powers, but there is little concurrence.
Although I can’t support my own theory with much objective data, it appears that after cultures reach their zenith, they start their decline when they begin to actually believe their national myths. Many begin to think there is something unique in their culture or national psyche that pre-ordains them to a privileged status in the world.
Irrespective of where they fall on the political spectrum, many Americans believe they have in some way replaced the Children of Israel as God’s chosen people. They think that due to some illusive, innate virtue Americans are predestined to pre-eminence. This belief traces back to colonial times and the sermons and writings of 18th-century theologians Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and others of like mind, and continues today with essentially the same basic tenets and mindset. But to me, our unique world position is attributable more to natural phenomena than providential intervention.
Primary in our privileged position is our geographical location. For most of our formative years we were isolated and insulated from European turmoil and interference in our affairs by 3,000 miles of ocean. An expensive, dangerous voyage of two months or more by sailing vessel was required to reach America’s shores. This, plus the fact of Great Britain’s preoccupation with unending European conflicts, left the American colonies pretty much on their own to experiment and develop their economies and political systems independently. Free markets and self-government in some form existed in every colony prior to 1776.
The fact of weak neighbors to the north and south has always worked to America’s advantage. Canada and Mexico have never posed a serious military threat, thereby precluding the expense and inherent political perils of maintaining a large professional military establishment; that is, until recently.
Although we lead the world in only a few natural resources, the U.S. possesses a greater variety in greater abundance than practically any other nation on the planet. This includes minerals, forests, suitable soils, moderate temperatures and adequate rainfall. We are as near to being self-sufficient as any country on the globe.
After the War of 1812, we enjoyed mostly good relations with Great Britain. In turn, we received what amounted to free security from the British Navy around the world. We only began to build our own modern, world-class naval fleet in the late 19th century when we made our first and only attempt at acquiring an empire. The resultant light tax burden from not having to maintain large military forces has allowed Americans to invest liberally in industry and commerce; that is, until recently.
Compared to the European powers, our losses in men and materiel in World War I were light, and every Allied nation was heavily in debt to the U.S. at the war’s end. Unfortunately, we squandered away this advantage, reverted to our traditional isolationism, and Europe returned to its devious ways.
Again due to geographical realities, in World War II neither Germany nor Japan had the naval or air capability to attack the U.S. mainland in force. Consequently, we were the only major power to emerge from the war with its industrial base and infrastructure intact, even enhanced. For this reason, we were able to dominate the world militarily, industrially and financially for almost two decades after the war without exerting ourselves too much. In fact, at no time in our history have we ever had to really hustle in the world; that is, until recently.
George B. Reed Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County, Tenn., school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-858-3501.