Patrick Gathara claims that the American State of Emergency “is based on the old colonial misconception that power confers moral superiority” (2019). So this essay seeks to question this claim and uncover how this concept of the state of emergency manifests itself in American consciousness. It will first contextualize and establish the concept of the American state of emergency from a constructivist framework. A case study of Lyndon B. Johnson’s rhetoric about Great Society and Vietnam and the colonial jeremiads of the Puritan fathers is then presented. The overall theme of Johnson’s speeches is examined through the lens of three recurring moral themes: the condemnation of social injustice, the affirmation of an exceptional discourse, and the emphasis on fault lines in history. This will demonstrate the enduring legacy of Puritan morality in American culture. The aim is to highlight the core elements and magnitude of the American state of emergency. In this context, this essay will ultimately seek to revise Gathara’s claims on the substratum of the American State of Emergency by considering them in the light of Johnson’s rhetoric about Vietnam and the Great Society and their parallels with the sermons of the Puritan Fathers. It is argued that while Gathara rightly traces the roots of the American State of Emergency back to colonial misunderstandings, it reverses the order in which power and moral superiority manifest in American consciousness. Indeed, both the Puritan Fathers and Johnson stressed that America’s continued prosperity depends on continued moral excellence: America is not morally superior because it is powerful, it is powerful because it is morally superior. Fittingly, this paper will conclude that the American State of Emergency is better understood as being fundamentally based on the colonial misconception that moral superiority confers power.
In his book “Democracy in America”, published in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville described the “extraordinaryness” of the USA without mentioning “superior” compared to the rest of the world. In doing so, he laid the foundation for the concept of the American state of emergency (Tocqueville, 1994). In what follows, this essay will primarily look at the American State of Emergency from a constructivist-cultural identity lens and examine the phenomenological perception Americans have of the extraordinary history of the United States, its role in the world, and the way that lens powers their home and foreign policy. It focuses on the underlying myths and the rhetoric used. Several authors in this context view the American state of emergency as an ideology, a cognitive scheme, or a perception (Hunt, 2009; Schafer, 1999; Lipset, 1996; Wilson, 1998). Taken together, the state of emergency affects the way Americans view their own country and the world. That way, it’s part of American identity.
In this context, it does not matter whether America is really unique. What matters is how Americans perceive their own country and traditions: “The United States is exceptional as long as Americans believe it is exceptional” (Restad, 2012). For our intentions and purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the underlying claims are true or false. According to Trevor McCrisken, there is a growing group of scholars who are realizing that the way decision-makers think and speak about America’s extraordinary identity has a major impact on US foreign policy (2003: 1-8). This point becomes clearer when we consider it in the context of Johnson’s rhetoric about Vietnam.
The background to America’s extraordinary identity can be roughly divided into two elements. On the one hand there is a political element, on the other hand a religious element. Some authors view these elements as myths (Walt, 2011), others as state-formed fantasies (Pease, 2009). The growth of these ideas is complex and may not be entirely separate from one another.
The first element is belief in a political state of emergency. An important aspect of this is the belief that Americans have the best constitution in the world, which also describes the most important American values (Migranyan, 2013). Hilde Restad points out the importance of these enlightened values: “The principles of the Enlightenment, which are expressed in her famous documents, have forged a nation of ideas” (2012). In other words, a national identity was built from a common ideology rather than a common history, as in the case of European nation-states. It follows that American identity is not determined by a person’s place of birth, but by the moral values to which a person has subscribed (Lipset, 1996: pp. 18-19). The interesting thing here is that this feeling of moral superiority takes precedence over any concept of power. Instead, it conveys a sense of exemplary moral duty to the rest of the world in the implicit assumption that American values are or should be universal values.
The second element is a religious myth. This myth revolves around the idea that America has a divinely determined role in the world. Sacvan Bercovitch traced the widespread use of morality in American politics back to the colonial days, when prominent Puritans were already preaching the exemplary role of young New England (1979: 10-11). Again, it’s important to note that these early colonial fathers already thought they were exceptional, not because they had power, but because they had a superior sense of morality. These Puritans saw their colony as a city on a hill and considered themselves a community of the elect. To get their message across, Puritan ministers often took a tripartite approach, first emphasizing the successes of the believers and then highlighting in detail how the church had recently fallen into moral decline. Finally, there was a call of hope to hold on to the original Articles of Faith. Only then would the Puritan colony last forever.
Bercovitch compared this approach to the fire and brimstone sermons of the biblical prophet Jeremiah and described this rhetorical strategy as the American Jeremiad. He also claimed that variations on this method were used in American politics well after the colonial era. For example, in March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson equated the American interest with that of the “fate of democracy” and asked his audience to join as if a priest were leading the prayer (1965a). Johnson’s community rallied that day over protests that got out of hand in Selma, Alabama, where local police cracked down on peaceful protesters from the Martin Luther King civil rights movement. From his pulpit in the House of Representatives, Johnson preached clear words: “There is no need to be proud of what happened in Selma” (1965a).
Still, Johnson called for confidence in American democracy. In his role as secular pastor, he proclaimed the nation’s unique mission: “To correct injustice, to do justice, to serve man.” And if Americans were to hold fast to these ideals again, the United States could leave the darkness behind it forever – a message the President summed up in the promise “We shall overcome” (1965a).
President Johnson’s so-called “We Shall Overcome” speech can be seen as a secular twist on the ancient Puritan jeremiad. Like his Puritan predecessors, the president praised the historic achievements of American society and described how moral abuses had become part of social reality and threatened American mission. Finally, following the example of 17th-century pastors, Johnson pledged moral restoration if core community ideals were again put into practice. Here we are again confronted with the primacy of morality over power and how the former informs the latter.
Johnson also stated that the Great Society employs such moral beliefs. The Great Society, officially launched in a campaign speech in Michigan in the spring of 1964, was strongly promoted by Johnson as a moral imperative and consisted of numerous reforms aimed at poverty reduction, social security and environmental law (1964). The intended end result was nothing less than the beginning of a “new world” in which moral and spiritual needs could be equated with the pursuit of material prosperity. In this way, not only was the Great Society sold as a package of policy measures, but Johnson presented his agenda as a starting point for a benevolent transformation of American society that would once again see the United States as a morally exemplary city on a hill (Johnson, 1964).
In addition, during his tenure, Johnson capitalized on the optimistic zeitgeist and proclaimed the 1960s generation as an extraordinary one in history. In his inaugural address of January 1965 he argued: “For every generation there is a fate” (1965b). While several generations were at the mercy of the unchanging course of history, the generation of the 1960s had a unique opportunity to make their own decisions. And during his speech to the Great Society at the University of Michigan, the President claimed that “for the first time in human history” a generation has the opportunity to shape its dream society: a society that is driven by the moral ideals of The Great Society would arise (1964).
Similar moralisms can be found in Johnson’s foreign rhetoric. When the president was forced to publicly justify his slowly escalating Vietnam policy in March 1965, he fell back on moral issues. He referred to the prevailing poverty in Southeast Asia and stressed the American obligation to do something about it. The speech also contained a pacifist message. The clatter of guns was nothing more than a “symbol of human error”. In contrast, moral milestones – like building dams, electrifying rural areas, or enabling quality education – were impressive and would underpin Johnson’s plans for Vietnam (Johnson, 1965c). In other words, the United States would not only use its military for geopolitical purposes, but also promote the moral improvement of an international war on poverty.
While his Great Society was supposed to transform American society, Johnson suggested that his Vietnam policy was the basis for a major metamorphosis in international politics. He argued that his generation dreamed of a world where conflicts were resolved exclusively by peaceful means, and expressed his hope for a “world without war” (1965c). In a speech to the United Nations, he further condemned historical practices of discrimination and human rights violations and urged his foreign colleagues to follow the American example to end this permanently (1965d).
Johnson’s claims are similar to the Puritan belief in the extraordinary and morally exemplary role of the American colony and how that moral exemplary role affects its role in the world. Like the Puritans aboard the Mayflower, the thirty-sixth President of the United States outlined utopian outlooks of fault lines with the “old” world, and like his Puritan predecessors, the President positioned the North American continent as the territory of the New World.
During our discussion of the American state of emergency in Lyndon B. Johnson’s rhetoric, we are constrained by a constructivist framework and confronted with how the identity actors ascribe a state (in this case Johnson and the Puritans to America) in a particular spatio-temporal context. informs about the broader identity of a state and regulates its domestic and foreign policy. The overarching morality and the accompanying state of emergency – both characteristic of national and foreign discourse in the United States – are equally rooted in the traditions of colonial New England. So Gathara is right to trace the roots of the American State of Emergency to colonial misunderstandings (2019). However, it reverses the order in which power and moral superiority manifest in American consciousness. Both the Puritan Fathers and Johnson stress that Americans’ continued prosperity depends on continued moral excellence. America’s perception of himself as morally exemplary, and how its power depends on that moral excellence, prompts him to examine elements of its domestic projects in its foreign policy, not because America, as Gathara’s statement implies, believes that its power superior to its self-image as morally justified and entitles it to project itself, but because as the moral beacon of the world it is its God-given duty to be mighty to ensure moral excellence in the rest of the world.
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Written to: Royal Holloway, University of London
Written for: Dr. Michelle Bentley
Date written: November 2020
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