The Curse of the American Cassandras
By ignoring their warnings, we have brought a foreign policy mentality of conquest and domination back home.
Few ancient curses were more heartrending than the one Apollo is said to have visited on Cassandra. He gave her the power to predict future disasters, but decreed that no one would believe her predictions. American history is full of Cassandras. Time and again, prophets have warned that our social and political fabric was fraying because of injustices we have perpetrated at home and abroad. They urged the United States to change course. Victims of Apollo’s curse, they were dismissed or outvoted.
The most obvious of our unheeded Cassandras are civil rights advocates who have warned that the United States will remain forever hobbled if it does not confront the legacy of its founding covenant with slavery. Others are soothsayers who foresaw that oligarchs would seize hold of our political system—that “malefactors of great wealth” would squeeze the essence out of our democratic institutions and turn them into servants of a “military-industrial complex.” None have proven more prescient, though, than those who warned that pursuing empire abroad would ultimately bring grief at home.
For nearly two centuries, Cassandras in the United States have warned that lording over the weak in faraway lands would serve as a rehearsal for doing the same at home. If we take every distant challenge as a threat, and respond with bristling shows of force, we condition ourselves to react the same way when our own people challenge official power. If we care little about “collateral damage” that results from our operations abroad, it’s logical not to care much about it at home either. American power has often been a knee on the neck of foreign countries.
In 1898 the United States had the chance to take control of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines. Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts, who like most Cassandras has since been lost to history, passionately warned Congress against succumbing to the imperial temptation. If the United States began projecting military power overseas, he warned, it would be “transformed from a Republic founded on the Declaration of Independence, guided by the counsels of Washington, the hope of the poor, the refuge of the oppressed, into a vulgar, commonplace empire founded on physical force, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and the other classes must forever obey.”
Another of that era’s now-forgotten Cassandras, the former senator and interior secretary Carl Schurz, warned Americans that if they began seizing foreign lands that they had promised to liberate, they would sacrifice their country’s moral authority. “What could our answer be,” he asked, “if the world would say of the American people that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, rapacious land-grabbers posing as unselfish champions of freedom and humanity, false pretenders who have proved the truth of all that has been said by their detractors as to their hypocrisy and greed, and whose word can never again be trusted?”
The United States ignored those warnings. It set out on a long century of seeking, often quite violently, to shape the fate of peoples around the world. The result has been much as the Cassandras predicted. Many people in other countries have indeed come to see the United States as a “commonplace empire” and an exemplar of “hypocrisy and greed…whose word cannot be trusted.”
After World War II, Americans were encouraged to believe that an “American century” was dawning, and that other nations would have to yield to our superior power and wisdom. Among the Cassandras who protested was Vice President Henry Wallace. “We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis,” Wallace insisted. “And we cannot perpetuate economic warfare without planting the seeds of military warfare.” As punishment for advocating cooperation with the Soviet Union, Wallace was dumped from the presidential ticket in 1944 and replaced by the more reliable Harry Truman. He was another victim of Apollo’s ancient curse.
Around the same time that the Democratic Party was cleansing itself of dissenters from the Cold War catechism, the Republicans were doing the same. In 1949 Senator Robert Taft, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination three times, voted against creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he called “an undertaking by the most powerful nation in the world to arm half the world against the other half.” He foresaw that “the building up of a great army around Russia” would divide the world “into two armed camps” and set off “an inevitable arms race.”
More than a century ago, one of the bitterest American Cassandras, Mark Twain, disgusted by our first wars of overseas conquest, wrote what today reads like an advance obituary for the United States. “It was impossible to save the great Republic,” Twain lamented. “She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work. Trampling on the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.”
America’s political system now seems less able than ever to address urgent concerns that grip millions of citizens. Governing institutions that were established in another age have proven unable to withstand assaults from faction and private interests. Our current political crisis is not an aberration or the result of a single election gone wrong. It is the product of forces that have been building in American society for generations. By ignoring our Cassandras, we have allowed our foreign-policy mentality of conquest and domination to shape our approach to our own people. Now the reaction is unfolding not just far away, but ever closer to home.
Stephen Kinzer served as a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times for more than 20 years, reporting from over 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of several books, including Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq in 2006. His latest, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, was published in 2019.