* A Project Gutenberg Canada Ebook *

This ebook is made available at no cost and with very few restrictions. These restrictions apply only if (1) you make a change in the ebook (other than alteration for different display devices), or (2) you are making commercial use of the ebook. If either of these conditions applies, please check gutenberg.ca/links/licence.html before proceeding.

This work is in the Canadian public domain, but may be under copyright in some countries. If you live outside Canada, check your country's copyright laws. If the book is under copyright in your country, do not download or redistribute this file.

Title: U.S.A.: The Aggressor Nation
Author: Pratt, Fletcher (1897-1956)
Date of first publication: December 1938
Edition used as base for this ebook: The American Mercury, December 1938 [New York: The American Mercury, Inc.] [first edition]
Date first posted: 14 July 2016
Date last updated: 14 July 2016
Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #1340

This ebook was produced by Al Haines

Publisher's Note: As part of the conversion of the book to its new digital format, we have made certain minor adjustments in its layout.


By Fletcher Pratt

One of the strangest of American national characteristics is the official horror with which we regard the use of violence in international disputes—when we ourselves have never shown the slightest sign of foregoing such means in attaining our own ends. Let any nation suggest to another that unregulated questions lie between them, and immediately its Washington embassy is bombarded with tons of letters and its New York consulate picketed by wild-eyed mobs. Let fighting break out in Ethiopia, China, or Spain, and our newspapers burst into printer's-ink indignation worthy of a second crucifixion. We "outlaw war" and describe ourselves as a race of pacifists—and so doing, turn our backs not only on our own history but on our obvious national emotional characteristics.

For, on its record, even on its recent record, the United States stands forth as the most successfully pugnacious, the most unreasonably violent power in the history of the world. A recent compilation shows that the bugles have blown us to battle something like 150 times since the foundation of the Republic, almost once for every year of our national existence. Only twice in all these conflicts have we been on the defensive, in the sense that territory indisputably the property of the United States has been invaded. In over 100 of the 150 cases our fighting men have entered territory indisputably belonging to the enemy, and, in well over 90 per cent of the wars, have made a dictated peace. The record is not equaled by the France of Louis XIV, by the Roman Empire, by the Mongols of Genghis Khan, or still less by the Germany of Herr Adolf Hitler.

Nor is this martial spirit confined to a prehistoric and slightly disreputable past. It rumbles beneath the increasing talk about building the Nicaragua canal now (if the Nicaraguans don't like the idea we'll beat their ears down); it speaks out clearly in the governmental announcement that American ships will sail the Yangtze whether there is a war going on there or not (just try to stop us!); and it produces such coincidences as that of August 7. On that date the press carried news of Secretary Hull's demand that Mexico arbitrate a question arising under her domestic laws. In parallel columns was a report of the monster mass meeting held by the American League for Peace and Democracy, at which a speaker was uproariously applauded for hoping "for the day when we can send guns, bombs, and airplanes against Fascism in any country". A few of the papers furnished the connecting link with editorials denouncing the present government of Mexico as in fact Fascist. The clash in terms is as sharp as that achieved by the British ministry which reported to Parliament that the frontiers of India were being pacified by "humane bombings".

A century or more ago this divergence between theory and practice did not exist. Henry Clay whipped the country toward the War of 1812 with speeches about the coming glorious conquest of Canada, without drawing a single cat-call from the gallery. Later, only a few hyper-acid anti-slavery men suggested that military renown and the acquisition of Western lands were inferior motives for fighting the Mexicans. That it is now necessary to preface an invitation to go beat somebody up by the assertion of a high and holy principle, and to re-examine the past for evidence of noble purposes that would have surprised the old land pirates—that this is necessary may be proof of an improvement in the international morality of Americans. But it is far more likely to demonstrate nothing save an improvement in the technique of self-hypnotism, or a change in standards of value from the concrete to the abstract. In Dan'l Boone's day it was glorious and moral to kill your neighbor for the sake of his garden, provided only that he had a brown skin. In our own it is becoming increasingly moral and glorious to kill him for the sake of his politics, provided only that he wears a brown shirt.

The question is not and cannot be wholly one of international morals; there are no morals in the acts of international politics, only points of view. The dangerous and disgraceful thing is to sneer at your neighbor for what you yourself do with no better reason. For one thing, it makes him hate and fear you to the point of inviting reprisal. (One wonders how much Franco-German friendship has been advanced by those posters with which France has been littered during the last three elections—"We have been invaded across the Rhine five times in a hundred years"—not mentioning the fact that four of these five invasions were the reflexes of initial French marches into Germany.) It makes him hate and fear you, does not do much good to your own moral fibre, sets you living in an unreal world, and subjects even honest actions to destructive criticism.

The world has come to regard Americans as its choicest race of hypocrites; and it has abundant justification for such a view. In the list of violent and dishonest acts of which we, the maiden-aunts of the globe, have accused the military dictatorships there is not one of which we ourselves are innocent. Our newspapers, our preachers, our Liberal weeklies, the whole Uplift interest, charge against Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, seven specific immoral acts, in various permutations:

1) Unilateral repudiation of treaties.

2) Dragooning of small neighbors by violence or the threat of it.

3) Warlike intervention in the affairs of neighboring nations, leading up to unprovoked aggressive war.

4) Undeclared war.

5) Irresponsible mob violence against peaceful citizens on the score of their race.

6) Officially countenanced violence (in peace) against same on the score of their beliefs.

7) Violence against non-combatants in war.

Let us see how many of these same charges can reasonably be brought against the U.S.A., and can be supported by the evidence of history.


On the day Hitler marched into the Rhineland in defiance of the Versailles treaty, for instance, Dorothy Thompson, a representative newspaper columnist, became so morally indignant that she was all for declaring war at once. We could never again sleep quietly in our beds, said she, while there remained in the world a power which thus violated its solemn engagements; and she was echoed with approval by dozens of other commentators. But if the one-sided repudiation of treaties had always in the past been made an excuse for general war we would have been the first to feel its edge. In 1869 the United States, as the result of arbitration, signed a number of instruments fixing our jurisdiction over coastal waters at three miles from shore. When Prohibition came in, long before the Rhineland question, we unilaterally tore up these scraps of paper, claimed twelve miles, sank ships, and shot men well outside the limits accorded us by treaty.

Nor is this any more than a mild case (involving the lives of just a few foreigners) of a practice which is one of the most persistent in our history. The whole of that great process known as the Winning of the West, never contemplated by our historians without unalloyed admiration, was conducted across the corpses of prostrate treaties. Two of the many instances may be given. First, the very treaty that established the independence of the colonies provided for the protection of the Indians within their lands in the Northwest Territory, and this was reinforced by treaties with the tribesmen themselves. Our people violated these treaties to make settlements on lands that did not belong to them, and our government violated them to make a straight-out war of invasion for the possession of those lands. The war, which ended in American victory, was closed with treaties assigning new boundaries and providing for the punishment of citizens of both parties who committed acts of aggression against individuals of the other race. It has been estimated that in the succeeding fifteen years some seventy-five Indians were murdered by whites. Not one of the murderers was ever brought to trial. The boundary treaties were violated as a matter of course; and the magnificent victory of Tippecanoe was won by an American army that marched into Indian lands at a time of peace. When it was over, the Indians' homes and crops were burned, their women and children turned out into the woods in the Winter. Second, the report of the Congressional committee which investigated the matter of the Georgia lands in 1822 makes very pretty reading for Americans who talk about the sanctity of international commitments. After complaining that the central government had permitted certain Indians to live on their own lands there, it continues: "The Government must abandon its policy of civilizing the Indians and keeping them on their lands and must negotiate such new treaties as may be necessary to extinguish all Indian title to land within Georgia." A commission was sent down to take care of the matter. It got a few minor chiefs drunk, persuaded them to affix their crosses to a document signing away all the Indian lands within the State and then sent troops to turn the rascals out. There was a nice little war, concluded in a satisfactory manner by the extermination of most of the Indians, at the conclusion of which the governor of Georgia reported without the slightest attempt at irony, that the Indians seemed "unable to understand the character of a treaty engagement".

Our treatment of the Indians has, however, been to some extent moralized by time. Notwithstanding the fact that an Indian's life and little possessions may be as valuable to him as Prof. Sigmund Freud's to that distinguished dream-doctor, civilization has never regarded itself as bound by its rules in dealing with barbarians. It is permissible to raise their cultural level, even while killing them in the effort—a sophistical argument which, though not doing our own honesty much good, may for the moment be accepted because so many of the Uplift boys do accept it. "I was for the Italians in Ethiopia; I am against the Italians in Spain," says Herbert Matthews, one of the best morality-howlers on the list; and the rage of our overnight moralists has not been so much directed against German actions in Tanganyika and Tsingtao, as against German action in Austria and Sudetenland. Well, suppose then we place the whole question on this basis. Suppose we eliminate the whole black and bloody story of the drive on the Indians, with its murders, bad faith, and debauchery (it is curious to hear descendants of the men who fed firewater to the braves complaining that the Japanese are in the opium business in Manchukuo). Suppose the American record be considered from the point of view of a Presbyterian dominie who feels that acts of war are not crimes unless visited upon peoples of approximately the same level of culture, although from an absolute ethical standpoint no such supposition is permissible. Suppose all this: and we come out of the comparison with more and weightier charges against us than any totalitarian power, more than all of them put together.

An Italian filibustering expedition entered Fiume, did it, in defiance of international treaties, and annexed the place to the mother country? So did American promoters engineer the formation of an independent Republic of Panama to "lease" us canal rights—with American warships riding offshore to see nothing went wrong and American bullets onshore killing off some of the local talent. So Soviet Russia compelled the Georgians of the Caucasus to join her under a constitution they disliked and distrusted? Just so did the other twelve original States dragoon Rhode Island into the Union. And Stalin puts the heat on racial minorities within the orbit of Russian power? Well, so do we on the Porto Ricans, so did we in the Philippines during three years of a bloody war. German Nazis helped their sister party in Austria till there was nothing for the unhappy country to do but to commit hara-kiri; and the same Nazis stirred up the men of their own race within Czechoslovak-Sudetenland to agitate for union with Germany. American editorial writers have been deeply shocked—"irresponsible violence", "power politics run mad", "national megalomania" are a few phrases from recent editorials on the subject—but one will search in vain for such language in the works by American historians which are used to condition the youth of the country for their part in the next great moral adventure by describing the glorious manner in which we acquired Texas and Hawaii. Says Prof. Muzzey:

Mexico had insulted our flag, plundered our commerce, imprisoned our citizens, lied to our representatives and spurned our envoys. To be sure we were a strong nation and Mexico a weak one, but weakness should not give immunity to continued and open insolence.

Read "Czechoslovakia" for "Mexico", transfer the possessive pronouns to Berlin, and this might be yesterday's release from Herr Goebbels' press bureau. What difference there is in the cases lies in favor of Germany. The Sudetens were made foreigners by a treaty in which they had no voice. The Americans groaning under a foreign yoke in Texas went there under their own power; received from the local government 175 acres each of free land apiece, with admission to all the privileges of citizens and exemption for six years from all their obligations, including taxes; and the lost brothers were reunited with the United States after a war which began with American troops being pushed farther into Mexico than their utmost claim.

The three cases of Panama, Texas, and the Spanish War are the most prominent of those in which we meddled in our neighbors' business and came out with our hands full of territorial profits. The morality of the last two was so bad that even our school historians have not always been able to gloss the matter over, and there has been an effort to place the affairs on another ground. "In a hundred years Spain had brought less than 3000 colonists into Texas," says one widely-used school history, "while in a single decade over 13,000 Americans crossed the borders." Now this is the dangerous argument that territorial grabs are the product of natural causes, which does not sound so very good when the Japanese use it to justify their sweep into the Asiatic mainland and toward the Indies.

The matter has some importance, for population pressure has been used as an argument by not a few of our holier-than-thou boys, who are willing to grant the Japanese case, provided they can use it as a platform to scold the other dictatorships for sabre-rattling not in the fulfillment of some inevitable national necessity but for prestige, as Italy cowed Greece (the Corfu incident) and the Nazis, Poland. Unfortunately, so far as we are concerned this is only another case of short memory. Twice within the last fifty years American fleets have been mobilized to force European powers to accept our arbitrament of differences between them and Latin American republics; thrice within twenty-five years European embassies have arrived for discussions with Caribbean nations to find the American Marines had landed and were doing the negotiating.


There remains one complaint against the international conduct of the dictator powers, perhaps the heaviest of all—that they make war in peace, by means of volunteers or actual expeditions into foreign countries. I am afraid that Americans are on very poor ground when they complain of this. There are statues all over the country to men who did exactly what Russians, Germans, and Italians in Spain are now condemned for doing; the names of a few are Steuben, Kosciusko, and Lafayette. In fact, if it were not for those foreign "volunteers"—our papers put the word in quotation marks when speaking of the Blackshirts in Spain—we should certainly celebrate the birthday of His Majesty, King George VI instead of the Fourth of July. Yet the French who came over here (by no means all of them willingly) and who are now treated with such universal respect in admiration, were doing just what the Black Arrows did in Spain—that is, they furnished a nucleus of trained soldiery to what was largely an armed mob; and they helped us in a revolt against a government far more legitimately installed, far less dangerous to its subjects, than the one against which Franco rose.

Nor is this the only case when foreign "volunteers" have made their appearance in American history. The very phrase "banana revolution", now so much a part of the language, is evidence of our national capacity for sending troops, money, and supplies to mix in other people's quarrels without a declaration of war. A brief and probably incomplete compilation shows that American armed forces have invaded nations below the Rio Grande eight times in a hundred years, always without any declaration of war and usually with considerable fighting as a result. The defense has been urged that the Monroe Doctrine has converted Latin America into a kind of United States game preserve where only we may go when there is shooting to be done. Ethically it has no more foundation than the reasons urged in justification of our robbing and murdering the Indians; but even if it had we are not exempt. American guns spilled foreign blood in Japan in 1869; in China on many occasions; in Africa, and even in Sumatra. In the 1850s there lived on the last-named island a sultan named Po Mahomet, who happened to dislike Americans, much as the Spanish Reds cherish an unfriendly view of Germans. An American ship came to his shores, just as the cruiser Deutschland recently appeared off the coast of Spain. As in the case of the Deutschland, several of the crew were killed; and just like the Germans, the Americans sent a powerful force to the nearest point of Po Mahomet's territory and shelled hell out of it. Here the analogy ends; the Germans steamed away from Almeria, but the Americans sent a landing party ashore which killed two hundred or more persons, burned the town, and blew up the forts. One case was a well-justified punitive expedition, we are told, the other an outrage on humanity. But wherein lies the difference?

Essentially the whole thing is a moral question. The acts themselves are Tweedledum and Tweedledee; there is no difference between Andrew Jackson invading Florida and Adolf Hitler invading Austria, between Boone and Badoglio, between Dole in Hawaii and Deihara in Manchuria. It is only when the motive, the morality of the motive, is considered that the comparison can be made to favor the United States. We may have taken territory and dragooned peoples, but we have done it to give them the priceless benefits of Democracy—this is the argument.

Now leaving aside the fact that, to an intelligent Fascist, Democracy does not appear as a benefit, have we conducted our internal affairs in a manner that gives us any ethical right to complain of the way in which the totalitarian States have conducted theirs? We have not. As many racial murders as the Nazis have had since they came into power, it is doubtful whether, all told, they equal the total of lynchings in the United States. We are told that Germany has a press censorship that keeps many such cases from making the papers; but what else have we while over large sections of the country "nigger murders ain't news" unless accompanied by circumstances of peculiar barbarity? The exclusion of Jews from schools, businesses, and professions except as dealing with their own race is exactly paralleled by our own treatment of our racial minorities—not only negroes, but the Orientals of the West as well.

Even leaving the race question out of it, it is doubtful if we stand on any better basis. It would be difficult to find more perfect examples of the mistreatment of minorities of the same name and race (certainly the Fascist drive against the Communists is no better) than what Americans did to American Tories in the years just following the Revolution, or to American Mormons in New York and Illinois. Our historians plead a certain amount of justification but, unfortunately for them, on exactly the same grounds the totalitarian powers use for their treatment of political minorities—namely that Tories and Mormons constituted enclaves within the State, psychologically out of step with it and by their internal unity dangerous to it. Not even the most frequent justification of our belligerent habits will stand up under examination—that Americans do their fighting in a more humane manner than other races. We are usually taught that this is so; that the two striking exceptions from the Civil War—Sheridan in the Shenandoah and Sherman in Georgia—were forced by sheer military necessity. Again this is an argument we do not recognize as valid on the lips of others (the Germans offered it for the unrestricted submarine campaign and we went to war to prove them wrong); and it fails to account for many other cases. There was no particular military necessity for the destruction of Chambersburg in the Civil War, and no necessity at all for the massacre, after they had surrendered, of a regiment of negro soldiers at Fort Pillow. It was a plain case of shooting prisoners, the thing all our pious pastors scream about when it happens in Spain. Retaliation—that is, sheer barbarity—was the only military necessity behind the trips of American bombing squadrons to lay explosive eggs on the unprotected cities of Stuttgart and Karlsruhe during every moonlight night of September and October, 1918. (Is it moral to bomb German women and children to death, but fiendish to do the same thing over Barcelona?) It was an enormously clever trick to try "bandits" during the Philippine Insurrection by court martial, shoot them, and bury the bodies with pigs, which to those Mohammedans meant eternal defilement. But it was a terroristic trick, just the type of trick peace societies here circulate petitions about. And, finally, the food blockade, which starves a whole population, fighters or non-combatants, is a pure American invention, developed during the Civil War and later applied with great success against Spaniards and Germans.

In short, by whatever route the question is approached, the result is the same. We have been guilty of everything we charge against those nations we happen to dislike at the moment, and of a few things they haven't yet thought of. Nor is there any sign that we are improving; if some whirl of population were to place three-and-a-half million Americans in the Mexican state of Chihuahua tomorrow, the papers would be full of stories of their oppression on the next day, and on the day after we would all be marching off under flying banners to force the cession of a district which was really American.

That, then, is the historical story of American national morality. In considering it we might bear in mind the fact that nobody loves a hypocrite. Some day we may have to pay the price of dishonesty. "I tremble for my country," said Thomas Jefferson once, "when I reflect that God is just."

[End of U.S.A.: The Aggressor Nation, by Fletcher Pratt]