Americans are generally ignorant of how our geography has shaped our thinking and our nation. In our history, we have only had one major invasion – the War of 1812. We have weak neighbors to our north and south and vast oceans that buffer us from foreigners to our east and west.
Due to these geographic blessings, Americans with white European backgrounds have developed the attitude during 240 years that life would get progressively better with time – an attitude most of the rest of the world envies as it wonders at our arrogance.
Our geography has caused us to believe that we are a special people, destined for greatness. This belief has created an attitude of mania on one hand and arrogance on the other, according to an Aug. 25, 2011, article from Stratfor called, “The Geopolitics of the United States, Part 2: American Identity and Threats of Tomorrow.”
But what happens when things don’t go right? What happens when other parts of the world reach out and touch us in ways we can’t control? The answer from the author of the Stratfor article is that our mania turns to depression and our arrogance melts into panic. And, because we are a large, physically secure and economically vibrant nation, when we act, the world changes.
One overreaction came as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It’s an event that is still very much on our minds 75 years later. We felt it was Japanese betrayal. We declared total war. Three-and-a-half years later Japan lay in ruins, two of its major cities incinerated by newly-developed nuclear weapons.
After the war we occupied Japan for seven years, rewriting their constitution. We turned the country back into a democracy that agreed to let the U.S. defend them in case of attack, a policy that continues to this day. At no time was control of the U.S. mainland threatened by World War II.
We have forgotten that we actually provoked the Japanese attack by cutting off their trade to East Asia and imposing an oil boycott. We had previously been supplying 90 percent of their oil.
The panic and overreaction to the 1957 Soviet launching of Sputnik, the world’s first orbiting satellite is another example. At that time, the U.S. led the USSR in chemistry, technology and metallurgy. This launching panicked America and, as a result, we reshaped our educational system and our industries.
We panicked again because of our defeat in Vietnam. As a result, we retooled our military by adding information technology into our weapons systems, despite the fact that our nation was not threatened by the war. According to Stratfor, “This paranoia was the true source of satellite communications and precision-guided weapons.”
We panicked again in the 1980s, this time not for military reasons but for economic causes. Japan was increasing its productivity and we were afraid that this country would overtake us to become the No. 1 economic power.
I remember being in Japan in 1986 and asking a high-level Japanese businessman when he thought Japan would become the leading power in the world. He looked at me incredulously and said, “Never: Japan is half the U.S. population and one-tenth the size of the U.S.” I was surprised by his answer because I had bought into America’s paranoia.
Because of American panic over Japan, Wall Street reconstructed itself, which laid the foundation for the growth surge in America in the 1990s. Meanwhile, Japan went into an economic slump from which it has not yet recovered.
According to Strafor, our panic and overreaction during World War II led to the U.S. domination of Western Europe and of the world’s oceans. The fear engendered by Sputnik caused the military and economic build-up that helped us win the Cold War. From the defeat in Vietnam, we developed technology where the U.S. military can now bomb a site half a world away. The economic threat from Japan caused American business to become leaner and meaner, helping engender Japan’s economic stagnation.
Truly, the United States has become an economic and military empire, the likes of which the world has never seen. Yet we Americans, while proud of our unique place in history, are blind to the fact that it was our geographic isolation and abundance of natural resources that have made us the nation we are today. Our thinking shaped by our geography has made us take for granted the peace and security we have enjoyed. And when world events rattle us, the world shakes in response.