During the first half of 1966, rifts in the Democratic Party began to develop over American involvement in Vietnam. By then, about 250,000 US troops were engaged in operations against the Communists in Vietnam as a result of Congress having granted President Lyndon Johnson a blank check in the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In televised hearings, speeches on the Senate floor, and public addresses in early 1966, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that if the war in Vietnam continued indefinitely without prospects for victory or negotiated peace, domestic divisions over the war would become dangerously pronounced. There was also grave risk of the war escalating into a general Asian war involving China.
On April 21, Fulbright spoke to the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on “The Arrogance of Power.” In this speech, he insisted that dissent against the government’s policies during the course of a war was not unpatriotic, but one of the purest expressions of patriotism. “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment,” he said. “Criticism . . . is more than a right—it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” Ultimately, Fulbright’s argument was moderate. Rather than advocating for a withdrawal from Vietnam, he underscored the necessity for serious reflection in the application of military power. That reflection must take place in government according to the pattern laid down in the Constitution—in the give and take of advice and consent which was supposed to occur between the legislative and executive branches of the government. Fulbright noted that as a first rate power, the United States is continually tempted to “confuse” its power “with virtue.” Furthermore, it is “particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations . . . to remake them in its own shining image.”
Less than a month later, Johnson responded to Fulbright with a speech of his own—“The Obligation of Power.” He delivered this speech to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, shortly after the completion of Robertson Hall at Princeton University on May 11. Johnson spoke of how Americans did not exercise power in a spirit of arrogance, but of “agony.” “We have used our power not willingly and recklessly ever but always reluctantly and with restraint,” said the president. “The United States of America has never sought to crush the autonomy of her neighbors.” (A strange statement, considering the events of 1846-1848, for example. But I digress.)
Johnson went on to insist that America was not a servant of its power, but the master of it. He warned against withdrawal from Southeast Asia, implying that doing so would not only send the message that America could not be trusted, but also that darker forces would enter and fill the vacuum left behind. Johnson said, “a great power influences the world just as surely when it withdraws its strength as when it exercises its strength.” In the Vietnam War, America was engaged in defending transcendent values—the triumph of right over might, the defense of the weak, and the championing of the principle of self-determination. It might be tempting to cut and run, but Johnson’s advice to dissenters against his foreign policy was to face reality such as it was. “That is all we expect from those who are troubled even as we are by the obligations of power the United States did not seek but from which the United States cannot escape,” Johnson said.
Both Fulbright and Johnson were calling on American exceptionalism, even though their appeals represented two distinct articulations of the idea. Fulbright said that “America is worthy of criticism,” and that its strength lay in diversity of cultures, nationalities, and points of view that were united “in an open, receptive, generous, and creative society.” Ultimately for Fulbright, it was precisely because of America’s greatness that the nation would be able to overcome the destructive allure of power.
In contrast, Johnson articulated a rigorously interventionist form of exceptionalism. He believed America was indispensable to freedom and justice in the world. “What nation has announced such limited objectives or such willingness to remove its military presence once those objectives are achieved? What nation has spent the lives of its sons and vast sums of its fortune to provide the people of a small thriving country the chance to elect the course that we might not ourselves choose?” Johnson asked.
Johnson’ brand of exceptionalism imagined a consistent (even inherent) judicious and humble exercise of power. Johnson’s America was innocent of the transgressions of empires past—even though it only takes a cursory look at American history to witness the emptiness of such a conception. Fulbright’s exceptionalism is celebratory of American ideals, but realistic enough to recognize that America is flawed, and vulnerable to great error. Fulbright identified one of the brilliant characteristics of American republicanism is the division of power in the national government, in order to check the willfulness of any one person or group of people in power. The Congress is to be a check on the President because it is human nature to become enamored with power for power’s sake while cloaking irresponsible uses of power in the rhetoric of innocence, good intentions, and patriotism.
I was reminded of this feud between Fulbright and Johnson after reading the transcript of Hillary Clinton’s remarks on August 31 before the national convention of the American Legion. Her statements on American exceptionalism were surprising to many. Most of us are used to Republicans giving harangues on exceptionalism. But here we had the Democratic presidential nominee criticizing her Republican opponent for not believing in American exceptionalism! I’m looking around now to see if any pigs have taken flight. Haven’t seen any yet, but Election Day is still many weeks away.
Clinton (I am not on a first-name basis with the lady, so I’ll confine myself to the more formal use of her last name here) claimed that her belief in American exceptionalism was her “one core belief that has guided and inspired [her] every step of the way” in her political career. Her exceptionalism is based on American ideals, determination, and grit. Diversity is central to her articulation of exceptionalism too, but Fulbright’s emphasis on unity arising from diversity is conspicuously absent from Clinton’s version. She noted what a blessing it is to be an American, and correctly observed that the reason so many people around the world clamor to get here is because they also recognize what a blessing being an American is. But the flip side of this blessed state is the responsibility that attends it.
This is where Clinton’s exceptionalism is so much like Johnson’s as he articulated it at Princeton in May 1966. She called America “the indispensable nation” with a “unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress.” Similar to Johnson, Clinton maintained, “our power comes with a responsibility to lead humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.” And what if America were to withdraw its hand? Clinton said, “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum” that other nations—whose motives are presumably not as righteous as America’s—will inevitably fill.
Clinton’s exceptionalism, at least as she articulated it to the American Legion the other day, is Johnsonian. There is little moral reflection in her understanding of the proper uses of American power aside from flowery rhetoric about peace and progress. Ironically, she seems to have scant appreciation for the limits of American power despite her many experiences with those limits since her political career began in the United States Senate in 2001. Furthermore, her brand of exceptionalism is defined by American innocence, just as Johnson’s was. This is perhaps the strangest part, because when she first began talking about exceptionalism, she cast it in terms set forth by Lincoln, Reagan, and Robert Kennedy. Reagan did see America as an innocent nation, but by no means did Lincoln or Kennedy. Clinton’s calling on these figures was great for the emotional appeal, but for historical, philosophical, and civil religious reasons, their articulations of exceptionalism do not belong in the same category.
So far, I’ve left Trump out of this analysis. Part of this is because Trump has distanced himself from the term “American exceptionalism” as Clinton rightly noted. But he still deserves mention. After all, his campaign slogan (in case you didn’t know) is “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s exceptionalism seems to be birthed out of a desire to recover a golden age long gone. This feature of exceptionalism is also prominent historically, along with innocence and responsibility.
All this goes to show at least one important truth that I have spent a great deal of energy trying to argue over the years: American exceptionalism is a complex and ambiguous concept. When the term is used in political discourse, it seems that everyone assumes that we are all talking about the same thing. And over the years, I have seen a lot of ink expended on the thesis that American exceptionalism is irrelevant, nobody takes it seriously anymore, and that millennials in particular see it as a dead issue.
But American exceptionalism is clearly not dead. Historically, it has taken various forms. Moreover, whatever form it has taken in whatever historical context, exceptionalism has always been multi-faceted. And when exceptionalism is called forth in today’s political discourse, its meaning depends on both the person using the term as well as its contextualization.
For example, many have accused President Obama of being ambivalent about exceptionalism. Such people usually refer to comments he made early in his presidency about Americans, Brits, and Greeks all believing in their exceptionalism. But those people have either misunderstood him, not listened to him, or are mischaracterizing him for political purposes. Obama has referenced exceptionalism quite frequently during his presidency. One of the most notable references was in his speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march in March 2015. In the context of Bloody Sunday, he said, “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” Self examination is central thread in Obama’s exceptionalism, but he is hardly the first American to recognize its importance. The American tradition of patriotic self examination goes back to the Puritans of the 17th century.
Obama certainly has embraced American exceptionalism during his presidency. It just isn’t Lyndon Johnson’s brand (or Clinton’s, at least as she articulated it in front of the American Legion). But it is consistent with an open, inclusive, idealistic exceptionalism espoused by Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps the first American president to put patriotism on a higher moral plane than a narrowly defined, temporal set of national interests.
American exceptionalism is not one “thing.” But it isn’t in the eye of the beholder either. Its parameters are definable, despite its complexity as a historical and contemporary national identity paradigm. While it has not always been called “exceptionalism,” the idea is alive and well. Always has been. Probably always will be.