America’s Favorite Reaction is Overreaction: Today vs Past

Today, we’re going to talk about multiple situations in US history and how it has translated into modern politics. This is mostly going to be a historically-focused article. Let’s start off with a quote:

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I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”         –Barry Goldwater (written by Karl Hess, his speechwriter)

This isn’t immediately relevant to the topic we’re discussing today (and Barry Goldwater lost in his election by a landslide) but it demonstrates the general idea of American exceptionalism and how Americans take from that the idea that they are the big brother of the world and if anything should threaten what America thinks the world should be, then all expedient action should be taken to right the “wrong” regardless of the circumstances of the others involved. It has been evident multiple times in US history where wrong information have been used to accomplish such an agenda and frankly, even if afterwards, the people decide that what damage they inflicted was wrong, they pick and choose what benefits them.

We’ll start relatively recently: the end of the 19th century. The US and Spanish-controlled Cuba are in a tense situation. To make a long story short, citizens of the US thought that Cuba was being held under tyrannical rule (which was true to some extent but not to warrant the kind of reaction it did) and the newspapers at home, rivals as they are, try to outsell each other and they found that sensationalised news stories sold the most papers. So they started calling for US intervention in Cuba and wanted complete Cuban independence from Spain. Being the most widely-read newspapers in the country at the time, this created a lot of public pressure on policy makers. This prompted some questionable actions to be taken by gov’t officials that got questionable responses from Cuba and those questionable responses got blown up further by the newspapers (Hearst’s Journal and Pulitzer’s World).

Then, a US-sent warship (the USS Maine) docked at Havana, Cuba got blown up (the warship was sent in response to “rumours” that Spain would try something in Cuba so it didn’t need to be in Havana anyway) and even though there was no solid evidence that the Spaniards were responsible for it (and not only was it not proven, it was also highly unlikely), the newspapers called for revenge and whipped the public up into a war-ready frenzy. Calling the then-President McKinley and any other pacifists cowards and unpatriotic, these newspapers succeeded in starting one of the most pointless conflicts in US history. The war lasted for fewer than six months and Spain, who fought the war to save face more than to actually retain Cuba, was in no way a worthy adversary. The United States didn’t get anything from the war besides a messy Cuban situation and other territorial acquisitions that would prove to be a pain in the butt later on. There was literally no point in the waging the Spanish-American War besides the pride of two newspaper tycoons competing over daily sales and the public ate up the stories and caused this war.

For the full story:

Timeline

Full Breakdown

Then, there is the Red Scare and McCarthyism that occurred during and post-WWII. I can go on and on about how illogical the irrational fear of Communism is. I could go on about the Japanese internment camps (which, although isn’t driven by anti-Communist sentiment, is still a product of fearmongering) and how there was no reason why they existed (especially since the Japanese-Americans in Hawaii weren’t sent to them even though they were in Hawaii where Pearl Harbor was). As for McCarthyism, it was all because of a vague statement about outdated information on a piece of paper that wasn’t even released to the public. That’s the whole premise of McCarthyism. A single piece of paper. Once again, private ambitions played out to much larger consequences in the country. McCarthy and Nixon, both insecure and ambitious, fed these fears to acquire and keep power and the result was a decade-long witch hunt.

For the whole story:

McCarthyism

Although this next example isn’t as obvious as the previous ones, here’s another example of the country swayed by an influential man’s words. LBJ, though I do have some affection for him as a president, was a man desperate to leave behind a legacy. He inherited the Vietnam War but he didn’t care one squick about it. He wanted out but he couldn’t do that gracefully if he just withdrew troops from Vietnam. As his first term wore on and the situation in Vietnam grew stickier and stickier, Johnson needed a way to show that he wasn’t weak. With the election drawing closer, Johnson also needed the people to have a favourable opinion of him.

His opportunity came when, on a dark night, US ships patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin sent out signals saying that they were under attack and that the ship’s sonar had picked up multiple torpedoes in the water. Presuming that they had been attacked, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution under Johnson’s direction. This basically beefed up Johnson’s power as Commander-in-Chief and the war in Vietnam was summarily escalated. If you look at public opinion before and after the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the passing of the Resolution, then you see an increase in the level of approval for Johnson for his “restrained” handling of the crisis. The thing is, the incident was heavily misconstrued and the analysts in charge of interpreting the signals from the ships didn’t have a full picture of what was going on before a report was compiled to be sent to the President. Not only that but due to some natural phenomena and the nature of how sonar works, the attacks might have not had even happened at all. And yet, thousands upon thousands of lives were lost because of it.

While the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution wasn’t caused by the general public, it is the same in the other cases where the decision was made in careful consideration of political gains and was unwarranted for the situation.

For more on the Gulf of Tonkin:

What Really Happened

Finally, there are plenty of examples today of people overreacting to threats real or imagined. The war on Iraq, for example, was completely unnecessary. Then, there are the various objections to programs that are beneficial to common citizens like Social Security, Planned Parenthood, Medicare, Medicaid, the various regulations and programs that come with the Affordable Care Act and even things like public education. People don’t really understand what they’re afraid of in these cases. If it’s about socialism leeching away individualism and capitalism, then we would have seen some sign of it since T. Roosevelt and Wilson first earned their nicknames as “progressive” presidents in the early 1900s. If the taxes are really too high to pay for these programs, then people wouldn’t be wishing for the ’50s because the taxes were even higher then. Then what is the cause of this overreaction? Part of it has to do with the concept of “other”, part of it has to do with the supreme confidence that Americans have that their way is the right way and should be the only way and part of it is the stubborn clinging to a past that was glorious for them and perhaps not to the rest of the world.

Sorry for the late post and the rather messy content. It’s now summer break and I’m having some problems transitioning so bear with me. If you guys have anything you’d like to share, leave a comment down below and I’ll see you with another round of APUSH help. (Hopefully, I’ll be able to get most of it up before school starts again in August).

I’ll talk to you later.

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