Ronald Wright's What is America? occupies a strange place: part well-researched history (there are well over 100 pages of endnotes, sources, etc.), part polemic, and, as the title suggest, part attempt to figure out why the United States makes the particular decisions it makes on the worldwide stage. Wright is a compelling read, largely due to an seemingly effortless writing style and the ongoing sense of concern he reveals on every page. However, this is not enough to make a flawless book, of which I'm still trying to assess it's true value several days after finishing it.
First, it must be noted that Wright's premise isn't particularly original. His primary argument is that the mythical history of the settlement of North and South America differs radically from the reality of that historical experience, and it is this dichotomy that has created polarizing mindsets alive in the United States today. The dark underbelly of the American experience has been continually exposed, including critiques from well known figures such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. America: the New Imperialism by V.G Kiernan makes a similar case of unveiling the reality behind the myth by stating that the seemingly imperial ambitions of American policy makers over the last 50 years have actually been a recurring trend from the birth of the nation.
Wright begins the book by writing of the original American experience, by which he means the pre-European discovery of America as a whole. I quickly realized that the America of the title is more than what is commonly understood today, and the whole of North, Central and South America are his initial subjects. The first overturning he makes is by describing the New World as a well-populated, settled, and civilized land, contrary to the empty, virgin land of plenty that is portrayed in the founding myth of what eventually turns into the main subject, the United States. He draws on eyewitness accounts, many of them European, that described people as far as the eye could see, large, imposing settlements, and riches everywhere. While the riches, certainly to the Spanish conquistador's who shipped so much gold and silver back home, are well-remembered, the rest seems conveniently ignored.
Wright has a tendency to portray the original Americans as inhabiting an idyllic world. This illusion is only once broken when a mention of Aztec sacrifice is made is passing. No in-depth description of their society is provided and they inadvertently come off as placeholders for the Europeans, of whom we get to know several personalities. He also fails to address some important issues, such as that if the Europeans had come in peace, the diseases that came with them, which he acknowledges paved the way for full appropriation, would still have had devastating consequences. The New World was going to change catastrophically regardless of intentions, but Wright makes the event seem almost like biological warfare from the very beginning (notwithstanding the smallpox ridden blankets given to the natives intended to cause sickness once the conscious effort to remove the people from the land was made).
Wright moves through the last 500 years showing the expansion of the settlers as one of regular brutality and oppression of the original inhabitants. He explains the influence of the Puritans on the American experience and he chronicles the expansion westward. He moves into modern times and writes of the emergence of the U.S. as a superpower following the two world wars.
Despite some reservations, the main argument he has remains valid: the myth doesn't match the reality. He argues it well and with much support. However, does this truly explain the rift that seems to exist in American society? A perusal of the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers leading up to the ratification of the U.S. constitution show signs of a different fissure and arguments have been put forward for this being of primary importance. What of the North-South divide?
Wright's book is important in that it continues to ask a valid question about a world superpower. In my opinion, those who hold power should be questioned as to their intentions. It re-engages us with the question of how history is manipulated or revised when needed. The emergence of the new Tea Party movement in the U.S. that is currently bending history by referencing a founding event but having nothing in common with its namesake reminds me that this twisting can be blatantly overt yet believed by many. However, despite the sincerity of the question Wright's book is far from a definitive answer , though he does present a well written summary of one line of thought.