American exceptionalism brings about a range of thoughts and emotions among many theologians, ranging from a sense of unease to a level of hostility where colleagues take it upon themselves to make it their mission to debunk it at every turn in the classroom. These theologians seek to critique American exceptionalism, thinking that such an idea promotes an uncritical love of country, creates a false idol of the nation at the expense of God, and has generated over the history of the United States policies which have brought harm and oppression to nations both in this hemisphere and around the world. I have seen theologians take their anti-exceptionalism to such an extreme, that the United States is portrayed as an outlaw, criminal nation, where even wrongs done to our country are really our fault, and our most noble acts of foreign policy are cast into suspicion. These theologians are the mirror opposites of their counterparts, usually evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, who claim to be the heirs of the inventors of American exceptionalism, the Puritans.
The 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor last December 7th, and the U.S. declaration of war on December 8th, is an opportunity to take a new look at national exceptionalism in general and American exceptionalism in particular. We can begin by saying that national exceptionalism is not unique to the United States. All great nations, or any nations which aspire to greatness, possess a sense of exceptionalism. The varieties of American exceptionalism which have developed over two centuries focus on the United States possessing a mission. This sense of mission gave the United States a sense of purpose which drove its people to seek achievement on whatever the frontier was defined at the time, from homesteading past the Appalachian Mountains to the Apollo moon landings. This national sense of mission went beyond material success and national achievement. It possessed a moral vision, too. It evolved from the original Puritan English republican vision of developing a model commonwealth for the world to see and emulate, to a post-Second World War internationalist vision to democratize the world and save it from tyranny. The world was to be remade in our image, if not culturally, then politically. This exceptionalism differed from the French socio-cultural idea of grandeur. There the French, Francophones, and Francophiles view France as possessing many of the benchmarks of refined living and human civilization. Even geographically small countries can and do develop their own kinds of exceptionalism. Jamaica, for example, has long possessed what scholars of the Caribbean identify as a “big island” mentality, where their people, as a country, aspire to punch above their weight among the nations of the world. (It is a major motivation for Jamaica’s support of Olympic-level track and field.) Therefore, national exceptionalism served and continues to be a great motivator for a country’s people to aspire to excellence and develop those qualities which make their nation distinct from their neighbors, qualities worthy of respect and emulation.
Japan’s exceptionalism, developed since the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, united the nation under an emperor who was, until the post-war American occupation, viewed as a living god. A Confucian ethic knit the Japanese into a familial, honor-based culture, based on ordered relationships which produced social harmony. Under their god-king, occupying the land of the rising sun, the Japanese saw themselves as a unique, superior race, even when compared to neighboring Asian peoples with whom they, historically, hold much in common. This socio-cultural exceptionalism served Japan well in the 19th century, when newly industrialized European empires and the United States began to colonize whole Asian countries and parts of China. Beginning with the Meiji Restoration, Japan was able to industrialize its economy and (to a degree) modernize its society on its own terms and at its own pace. This era of Japanese history was not imposed by a foreign power. It helped, too, that Europe and the United States had little interest to colonize Japan, focusing on China and other parts of Asia, instead. However, the main reason Japan did not suffer foreign domination was due to the internal strength developed by its people.
Unfortunately, this exceptionalism also led Japan to attempt to dominate Asia as a sphere of influence. Motives included what Kenneth Henshall ironically called an anti-imperialist imperialism, where Japan thought its domination would keep out foreign (defined as non-Asian) powers. Moreover, Japan’s utter lack of natural resources led it to strike out beyond its home islands to secure those resources and the sea lanes needed to ship them home. When Japan attacked the United States without warning, it had already been at war for two years against the Republic of China. The Second Sino Japanese War, which began in 1937, continued Japan’s push into Asia which began with their seizure of Korea and Taiwan from China in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. There, Japan sought to secure natural resources and replace China as the dominant power of Asia. What hit the United States that Sunday morning in 1941 was part of Japan’s push into south Asia to secure more natural resources and push out what the Japanese saw as a foreign presence in their sphere of influence: the Dutch East Indies (with its valuable oil reserves), the French in Indochina, the British in Borneo, Burma, Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore, and the United States in the Philippines. The Japanese saw the United States Pacific Fleet as a threat to their push south, a force that could cut the Home Islands off from their supply lines.
Japanese exceptionalism was viewed by its Asian neighbors with, at best, a mixed attitude. On the one hand, the ability of an Asian nation to defeat European forces in actual combat impressed nationalists in the colonies to aspire to national independence from their respective empires. On the other hand, the Japanese generally were not seen by other Asians as a force for liberation. Nationalist forces like the Viet Minh, who had been fighting French colonial rule, or the Chinese Communists and Nationalists who were fighting a civil war, or Philippine guerilla units who descended from those who resisted U.S. occupation shortly after the Spanish-American war, and others, all turned to fight the Japanese. Japanese exceptionalism contained a thick element of racial superiority over their Asian neighbors, which helped motivate war crimes like the Rape of Nanking or the Korean “comfort women”. The Japanese sense of honor that helped drive exceptionalism also drove atrocities against Allied soldiers who surrendered and European and American civilians who were interred, the Bataan Death March and the prison camps being just two examples.
Given their respective attitudes of national exceptionalism, perhaps it was a matter of time before the United States and Japan, two energetic and creative nations with a powerful sense of national purpose and adventure, would fight a major war. Japan picked a fight with a country whose exceptionalism led it to a level of great achievement. In a mere 165 years, the United States grew from a collection of sparsely populated colonies on the Atlantic seaboard to a continental, industrial global power with international reach. It developed a national culture melded from the different immigrant groups. We forget that despite the lack of enfranchisement of slaves, women, and indentured servants, in 1789 the United States had the broadest political enfranchisement of people of any country on Earth. Moreover, this exceptionalism carried a self-critical dimension. A Civil War fought primarily over the moral licitness of slavery, women’s suffrage, and national arguments over the rights and enfranchisement of minorities, the rights of the disabled, immigrants, and labor, all marked a country which continuously asked itself whether it was living up to its founding ideals. This self-criticism carried into debates about foreign policy. Compared to empires like Britain, France, and Japan, the United States was a reluctant global power. For every Rudyard Kipling who encouraged the United States to take on “the white man’s burden,” there were critics who argued that aspirations to empire compromised the American republican ideal. By 1941, when the Japanese armed forces invaded the Philippines, the United States had long decided on a policy of “tutelage” which would lead to that Commonwealth’s independence; a timetable which the Second World War accelerated.
But American exceptionalism carried a cost. It began with the First Nations, who were either pushed to the margins or driven to extinction by the settlement of the frontier. (The protest over the construction of an oil pipeline over Sioux treaty lands is the latest legacy of that aspect of U.S. history.) We’ve had recurring struggles over nativism on ethnic and religious grounds. We repeat the sad phenomenon where the newest immigrants face resistance from more established Americans who fear for the racial or cultural purity of the nation, or the new arrivals’ political allegiance to their new national home. The American original sin of race did not end with the abolition of slavery following the Civil War. The reassertion of a racial hierarchy during Reconstruction, (one which the Second World War did its share to challenge with many returning veterans rejecting and challenging racism), nonetheless translated to the oppression of African-Americans, Chinese laborers, the apartheid of the Indian reservation system, and the internal deportation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. (On this last point, this incarceration happened despite lack of evidence of treasonable activity on the part of Japanese-Americans, and the fact that the most decorated U.S. Army unit was a segregated unit of Japanese-Americans who were deployed to fight in Europe.) This racism appeared in anti-Japanese propaganda, and likely played a role with the military tactics employed against Japan.
The United States’ war against Japan, driven by Japan’s honor code of fighting to the death instead of surrender, an American thirst for justice and revenge for Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and their military’s atrocities visited on Americans and Filipinos after Bataan and Corregidor, all had the marks of a blood feud. The sense of racial supremacy on both sides helped drive the combat. The aforementioned Japanese treatment of prisoners of war and interred civilians, the American firebombing and atomic attacks on Japanese cities, the bitter island-to-island combat, the Japanese suicide attacks on U.S. forces, all of that makes me marvel that the United States and Japan reconciled at all, and developed the relationship they possess today. Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the first by a sitting U.S. president, and Shinzo Abe’s pending visit to Pearl Harbor, the first by a sitting Japanese prime minister, makes me marvel at this relationship all the more.
This relationship is a direct result of the United States, despite having the moral upper hand throughout the war, not allowing that to translate into revenge when it occupied Japan following its surrender in 1946. (The morality of American warfare in the Pacific was marred by acts like the firebombing Japanese cities, which Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay admitted rose to the level of a war crime.) Compared to other military occupations throughout history, the United States occupation of Japan was enlightened and sophisticated. The occupation was a work of cooperation between Americans and Japanese, which picked up on movements toward liberal democracy which had emerged under the Meiji Restoration but got suppressed by Japanese military rule. No doubt, the U.S. command led by General Douglas MacArthur was driven by practical considerations. The consequences of the revanchist Treaty of Versailles as a catalyst for war, the need to have Japan as a Cold War ally against the Soviet Union, and the fact that the United States needed Japanese cooperation for the occupation to work at all, all played a role.
Idealism played a role for the United States, too, however, which paradoxically championed positive aspects of American exceptionalism while rejecting its negative aspects. American exceptionalism motivated MacArthur’s philosophy that the United States behave as liberators and not as conquerors. The fact that Japan quickly emerged to be not a colony of the United States, but a major global economic rival of our country attests to the fruits of that policy. (An aside: those who point to our overseas bases in Japan as evidence of empire need to understand that their presence exists due to a treaty of mutual defense, a product of our insistence that Japan disarm down to the level of a defense force. The Japanese pay the United States for our protective military presence, first against the Soviet Union, and now against China. And, as happened in the Philippines, Japan can ask the United States to leave.) Japan benefited from the presence of American leaders who looked past the racism of American exceptionalism, and learned to respect the Japanese people and their culture both before and after the war. General MacArthur’s direct knowledge of the Far East contributed to his governance of Japan as Supreme Allied Commander. Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, visited Japan’s historic capital of Kyoto before the war. He ordered the Army Air Force not to bomb that city, both for its cultural patrimony, and to help establish goodwill with the Japanese after the war. General Bonner Fellers, who had a Quaker background, played an instrumental role on MacArthur’s staff in making policy decisions which led to a successful occupation. Then there were the daily encounters between American servicemen and the Japanese people, which conscientized many Americans to transcend the parochialism of racism and open themselves up to a larger international and more cosmopolitan vision.
Exceptionalism can and does lead nations to achieve great things and commit great sins. It is a major and necessary driver of a nation’s people to reach for more. On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, perhaps theology, instead of engaging in a blanket rejection of this human and historical force, ask itself how we can work to harness and direct a nation’s people’s spirit to do great things, without succumbing to the temptation to dominate the other.
Ramón Luzárraga is Division Chair of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.