Americans are indeed exceptional people, i.e. they deviate from the “norm” and act quite differently from all other people in the world. They have a long tradition of doing so, from the early colonial days, through the American Revolution, the Civil War, WWII, and the Cold War and all the way to that fateful day of September 11, 2001. The fact that our President in Strasbourg, in April 2009, chose to answer a question about our “exceptionalism” by saying that “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” does not alter the situation. In fact, he failed to take notice of the most recent “exceptional” American event, his election!
COLONIAL DAYS AND THE REVOLUTION
Whether Americans are indeed “exceptional” people, i.e. different from others, can be established by examining their actions and general behavior throughout their history, especially during its most critical periods.
From the very beginning of the colonial days settlers in the American Continent had to provide for themselves, conquer the wilderness, and also find ways to interface with the native inhabitants, sometimes peacefully and cordially and sometimes not. But in any event, without attempting here to analyze and discuss the morality of the situation, the settlers had to actively pursue their interests on their own and in the process they developed a work ethic and a sense of total personal responsibility for their own survival and advancement. If they did not do something, it simply did not happen!
Then came the American Revolution of 1776 against England, their “Mother Country”. The issue was “taxation without representation”, i. e. they simply did not want to pay taxes to that far, very far back then, country and its king. The war was fought for several years and against very overwhelming odds, but eventually with the superb leadership of George Washington and some help from the French, the final surrender of the British came, in Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781 when British General Lord Cornwallis capitulated to the combined force of American Patriots, led by George Washington, and a contingent of the French army, led by Compte de Rochambeau. So, the Revolution was over, the British and many of their “loyalist colonials” went home to England and the Americans formed their own independent nation, the United States of America, and have been living happily thereafter. It’s worthy to note at the end of this revolution there were no recriminations, no imprisonments and no killings of the vanquished opponents. Compare this to the much-lauded French Revolution that had very noble beginnings with the assault on the Bastille but went astray and wild with the likes of Robespierre and the guillotine. They drowned France and most of Europe in blood and it concluded with the adventures of Napoleon. In America by contrast, General George Washington was eager to return to his farm and it was with some difficulty that he returned to the national scene at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to put the finishing touches to the new nation and was convinced to become the first President. King George III was amazed to hear that Washington refused to be named as the King if the United States of America (USA). How exceptional!
THE CIVIL WAR
Along with the Revolution of 1776, the Civil War is the most important and consequential event in the American History. While the Revolution established the Nation, it is the Civil War that “put the finishing touches on it” by abolishing the institution of slavery and kept the Nation together. Two monumental and very “exceptional” achievements!
The issue of slavery and the founding of the USA are constantly being debated and they will probably continue to be so for some time to come and we are not going to resolve them here. It is, however, universally accepted that if the issue of slavery had been pushed strongly there would not have been a USA as it happened. So, in a way it can be said that the Civil War was inevitable in order to resolve this “oddity” in the American Constitutional System. The Civil War lasted four years, April 1861 to April 1865. It is still the bloodiest war in US history. There were 630,000 persons, mostly men of course, killed in the war! Adjusting for the population it would be as if we lost about six and half million (6,500,000) men today! It was indeed a very viciously fought war with unprecedented carnage and destruction and yet when the Confederate General Robert E. Lee made the decision to surrender and bring the war to an end, it was as if nothing had happened! No executions, no concentration camps, no death marches, “how American and exceptional”!
President Lincoln and General Grant had made the decision that there should not be any recriminations or punishments following the surrender and above all the Union should be kept intact and see that all Confederate States to be still in the Union as if they had never seceded. After all there were still “our fellow citizens”. It is also to be noted that when General Lee did the very courageous act to go meet General Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse he did not know that he might not be arrested, tried and executed for treason on the spot. The situation was quite different. The meeting was very cordial and as a meeting of “old friends” with `amicable conversation with General Grant asking General Lee to keep his sword and in a short time he would send him a letter spelling out the terms of surrender. Meanwhile General Grant had ordered his troops to share their food with the Confederate soldiers who were near starvation.
Shortly after the Appomattox Courthouse meeting, General Grant sent the letter with the terms of “surrender” to General Lee. It basically said for the confederate soldiers to go to the designated place where “they would surrender their heavy weapons, such cannons, but they would be free to keep their personal side arms, rifles and horses and return to their farms, with the understanding that they would not use their arms against the USA again”! Furthermore General Grant had his soldiers saluting by presenting arms while the “vanquished” confederates were filing by during the surrender ceremonies! HOW MUCH MORE EXCEPTIONAL CAN YOU BE?
Perhaps, the penultimate exceptional event was one that took place some time later when a newly-freed black man showed up in the church services of the Episcopalian Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital City of the Confederacy. That event was noted by the white congregants but it did not cause much of a commotion, but when he decided to be the first one up to receive holly communion it “was indeed too much…” and everything froze up and not even the minister knew how to handle it. This situation continued until it was resolved by the leadership action of “a white man who arose from his pew, his gait erect, head up and eyes proud and walked quietly up the aisle to the channel rail and knelt next to the black man uttering ‘I shall partake holly communion with this man’”!
THIS WHITE MAN WAS GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE!!!
The rest of the congregation followed General Lee’s example and the services were concluded in a normal fashion.
Now is this “exceptional” or not? This is truly SUPER-AMERICAN!
NOTE: For more information on this, read the book “APRIL 1865, The Month that Saved America” by Jay Winnik, Harper Collins, 2001.
POST WWII TO SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
The end of WWI was inconclusive, primarily because French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and his cohorts were more interested in punishing and humiliating the Germans rather than assuring a lasting peace. So, twenty years later we had to fight the more vicious and destructive WWII, but this time America was “the big kid in the block” and hence the ensuing situation was totally different. No reprisals or economic demands against the general population of the defeated enemy countries. On the contrary the United States saw to it that the enemy countries of Germany and Japan were rebuilt and also formed democratic forms of government. Furthermore via new policies such as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and NATO the entire Western Europe was rehabilitated from the devastations of WWII and protected from the menacing threat of Stalin’s Communism. With the commitment of vast economic aid and a stern foreign policy world peace was kept and the Soviet-Communist Block collapsed in 1991 as it disintegrated into fifteen independent states. The USA, in the words of the then President George H. W. Bush, did not follow the advice of various sources to have a celebrating dance on the top of the Berlin Wall.
In the area civil rights the USA made more progress via the power of the courts than all the riots and demonstrations combined. A very exceptional success indeed.
Then came the fateful day of September 11, 2001 where in the midst of the prevailing chaos of the first few hours, a man named Ben Slinne, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) National Operations Manager on duty at its command center in Herndon, Virginia, gave the unprecedented order to ground all planes across the nation and redirect those already in the sky to the nearest airport. What makes the call — which, without direct order from the President and the bureaucracy above him, was his and his alone to make — all the more gutsy is that Sept. 11th, 2001, was Ben Sliney’s first day on the job as an FAA National Operations Manager.
This type of decision by such relatively “low level” operating person could not and would not happen in a European scene because they would be simply waiting for instructions from above. This, therefore, along with the actions of the few passengers on board United Airlines Flight No. 93 over Pennsylvania, can be classified as two super-exceptional events in the American society.
THE BENEFITS OF EXCEPTIONALISM
How does all this exceptionalism translate itself into the everyday life of the residents, not just the citizens, of the USA? In a synergistic combination with the basic freedoms incorporated into the founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, it has given birth to its free-market economic and business system that has enriched the daily life of its people as well as the people of the entire world. It is in the American system where food production has solved the hunger problem. Where hunger still exists is not because of the lack of available food but because of the problem of distribution, which is often handicapped by governmental interference and other special interests obstacles. On the technical innovation front and the industrial sector, American products have flooded the world. American business has permeated the world-wide pop culture (e.g., Disney, Coca-Cola) and American ingenuity has enabled humankind to map out new frontiers that at one point were thought to be only in the pages of fiction. In every major city of the world one sees the names of Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard as well as McDonalds Hamburgers, KFC, Starbucks and many others.
One needs to study the developments following the end of WWII and the return of the millions of soldiers to civilian life. Old World leaders, especially Stalin, were expecting massive unemployment and great upheavals. But they did not happen. The American system converted to a civilian peacetime economy, almost effortlessly, with new businesses being formed, e.g. Holiday Inns and other travel amenities as the National Interstate Highway System was developed. Then came the US Space Program that changed the world beyond recognition. And speaking of the Space Program we should take note of the spectacular success of the recent launching of the Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station by the totally privately funded enterprise SpaceX. That’s what the free-market system is best at and there’s more to come. As a good indicator of the dynamism of the “exceptional” US economic and free-market system is to simply look at the names of today’s top 100 US Companies. One will find that many of them did not exist 50 years ago.
THAT’S DUE TO THE UNOBSTRUCTED FREEDOM OF INNOVATION
Dr. V. E. “Bill” Haloulakos, Adjunct Professor of Engineering at West Coast University for 30 years and recipient of WCU’s highest award,
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Member of Board of Trustees.
Aerospace Science Consultant/Rocket Science Professor, an AIAA National Distinguished Lecturer
and the Distinguished Engineering Educator Award Winner