France's "civilizing mission" in the world loses much of its glamor when set against the racism, exploitation and violence that were an integral art of her colonial empire. "Good-natured" Italians killed "rebels" of all ages and both sexes in the 1920s in Libya. The same crimes stain the record of the other European colonial powers, from England to small and civilized Belgium, whose King Leopold imposed an unprecedented reign of terror in the Congo.
Americans are not uncomfortable with this sordid reality -- when it is applied to Europe. For many, indeed, it further enhances the contrast between the Old World's colonial past and the anticolonial traditions of the United States. Americans, however, are far less aware of the dark undertones of their own history, and a complacent historiography has long lulled them into a reassuring conviction of moral superiority.
But in recent years a "revisionist" school has cast a more penetrating look at the American tradition. Drinnon's Facing West belongs to this school. It is not a pleasant acount, but rather one filled with lurid detail. sThroughout the book, Drinnon presents us with repeated instances of racism, hypocristy, violence and massacres, and his superb style adds to the effectiveness of the story. More disturbingly, the facts are historically accurate. This masterly book deals with the relations of white Americans with "lesser breeds." It consists of three parts -- distinct, yet, as the author persuasively argues, bound by a common theme. The first half of Facing West covers white Americans relations with the American Indian -- from the Puritans' arrival through the next two centuries. We then follow the American eagle on its flight towards the conquest of the Philippines in 1898, and finally land in Vietnam in the 1950s.
Facing West is not a history book in the traditional sense, but rather belongs to the history of ideas. It is a series of essays, each centered on a different white American personality. The scene opens with the Puritan leader John Endicott, and the curtain falls, 300 years later, with General Edward Lansdale of Vietnam fame. In between, many actors pass across the stage -- Thomas Jefferson and Henry Adams, men who both occupy an exalted place in the American pantheon, and others whom only a few still remember, such as the writers William Gilmore Simms, Mary Austin and Colonel Thomas McKenney, the self-styled friend of the Indians.
Drinnon lets the protagonists speak for themselves, quoting them at length -- both the words which were for public consumption and those which appeared in personal letters and confidential documents. Whenever appropriate, he compares their rhetoric with their deeds; he also places the actors within their historical context, and in doing so shows a mastery of secondary sources.
The results are deflating for the natinal ego. The Puritans are no longer freedom-loving immigrants fleeing from the shackles of Old Europe -- they are the agressors, far more their Indian neighbors, and their violence, intolerance and bigotry surpass by far that of the red man. Jefferson was not cruel; he certainly did not share Endicott's view that the Indians were vermin. But the sage of Monticello had feet of clay. Recently several historians (most notably John Chester Miller in The Wolf by the Ears ) have shown that Jefferson was, at the very best, inconsistent and opportunistic in his opposition to slavery. Drinnon provides the best analysis to date of the inconsistency and flaws that marred Jefferson's idealized record with regard to the Indians.
And so the story continues beyond Jefferson through another century of white-Indian relations. At best, ethnocentrism and greeed were tempered by a recognition of the Indians' humanity (albeit as children, rather than men). More often, their humanity was vehemently denied. For the Indians, the overall result was one of extreme racism and unrestrained violence.
american history books stress, often with a wealth of details, Spanish atrocities in Cuba in the late 1890s; however, they suddently become discreet when dealing with the U.S. represssion in the Philippines shortly thereafter. In a brilliant essay on Professor Dean Worcester, Drinnon focuses on one of the intellectuals who helped assess the "natives" racial characteristics and provided "scientific" support for the politicians' foregone conclusion that the Philippines would be blessed by American rule. Drinnon also shows the indiscriminate and save nature of the "pacification" of the islands. In the words of an American officer, "Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog" . . .
For Drinnon, both in the Philippines as in Vietnam several decades later, "massacres were at least as American as the timeworn assertions that they were foreign abnormalities." As he cogently argues, "The massacres at My Lai and all the forgotten My Khes in Vietnam has a basic continuity with those of Moros on Jolo and of Filipinos on Samar at the turn of the century, and of Native Americans on the mainland earlier -- all the Wounded Knees, Sand Creeks, and Bad Axes. That linkage of atrocities over time and space reveals underlying themes and fundamental patterns of the national history that lawmakers, generals, and so many of their compatriots were eager to forget."
In Vietnam too, ethnocentrism ("the accumulated racial arrogance of three centuries") blinded American policymakers and their representatives in the field at every step. After less than a month in the country, Lansdale wanted to explain to Diem how to deal with the Vietnamese people. Lansdale "not only knew no Vietnamese, but or no French and next to nothing about Indochina's history and cultures." The same bigotry had led one of America's greatest intellectuals, Henry Adams, to write after two months in Samoa: "What I don't know about Samoa is hardly worth the bite of a mosquito."
Two minor criticisms may be made against this excellent book. The white American experience with "inferior races" was shaped to a great degree by contact with black Americans and Hispanics, especially Mexicans. It is easy enough to understand why blacks find no place in Facing West : white Americans did not need to subdue them in their westward advance -- they had arrived in chains. However, this consideration does not apply to the Mexicans' case, and Drinnon does not explain his failure to include them in the book.
Although as a rule Drinnon adheres to the highest standards of objectivity, in rare instances he is too harsh. While he justly stresses the racism and expansionist ambitions of John Quincy Adams, he fails to add that by the end of his life Adams recanted. His growing abhorrence for the extreme form of racism that characterized his country led the former president to oppose territorial conquests which he began to equate with the spread of slavery -- thus setting a far higher moral exaple than Jefferson.
But these are modest obections to a superior book, equally as fascinating for the scholar as the layman. A superb and eminently readable 100 page bibliographical essay enriches the narrative. The only danger is that many readers may be repelled by the unpleasantness of the truth, told with extreme lucidity and biting sarcasm toward the hypocrisy of traditional apologists. While Drinnon in no way claims that the American experience was worse than that of the colonial nations of Europe, he certainly demonstrates the hollowness of the "hereditary belief that the United States was fundamentally unlike and better than the European imperial powers."
Facing West is particularly timely. Although it may be true that the "national habit of self-deception [has been] . . . decisively revealed by the secret history of the Vietnam war," there are ominous signs that this lesson and the justified feelings of guilt that pervaded large sectors of American society are now fading.