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Adam Smith described the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, opening up the Western Hemisphere and Asia to European conquest and setting the stage for the devastation of Africa as well, as "the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind." Writing in 1776, he understood very well the "essential contribution" of these achievements to the rapid development of Europe, and was no less aware that they were "ruinous and destructive" to the populations subjected to "the savage injustice of the Europeans," which brought "dreadful misfortunes." With "the superiority of force" the Europeans commanded, "they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries" that they reached.
The crucial role of Europe's mastery of the means and culture of violence is substantiated by contemporary scholarship. The inhabitants of Asia and the Western Hemisphere were "appalled by the all-destructive fury of European warfare," military historian Geoffrey Parker observes: "It was thanks to their military superiority, rather than to any social, moral or natural advantage, that the white peoples of the world managed to create and control" their "global hegemony," history's first. "Europe's incessant wars" were responsible for "stimulating military science and spirit to a point where Europe would be crushingly superior to the rest when they did meet," historian V.G. Kiernan comments aptly.3
These traditional features of European culture emerged with great clarity in the Indochina wars. There is a direct line of descent from the English colonists who carried out "the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union" by means "more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru" (Secretary of War Gen. Henry Knox, 1794), to the "ethnic cleansing" of the continent, to the murderous conquest of the Philippines and the rampages in the Caribbean region, to the onslaught against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.4
An indispensable feature of the "military science and spirit" in which European culture excelled, revealed once again in the Indochina wars, is the talent described by Alexis de Tocqueville as he watched the US Army driving Indians from their homes "in the middle of winter," with snow "frozen hard on the ground," a "solemn spectacle" of murder and degradation, "the triumphal march of civilization across the desert." He was particularly struck that the conquerors could deprive people of their rights and exterminate them "with singular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world." It was impossible to destroy people with "more respect for the laws of humanity," he wrote.
The more humane thought it advisable to make the savages "happy and useful" so as to save "the pain and expense of expelling or destroying them" (Jefferson's commissioners, preparing the next stage in the near-extermination of the Cherokees, continued under de Tocqueville's eyes, consummated by self-styled "philanthropists and humanitarians" half a century later). "We become in reality their benefactors" by expelling the natives from their homes, President Monroe explained as the groundwork was being laid for Jackson's Indian Removal Act. The perpetrators knew what they were doing, if they chose to know. Secretary of War Knox warned that "a future historian may mark the causes of this destruction of the human race in sable colors," looking askance at the genocidal practices of his countrymen. The "men of virtue" who ran the country also expressed occasional qualms. Well after he left power, John Quincy Adams became an outspoken critic of slavery and policy towards the indigenous population -- policies that he described as "among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement." He hoped that his belated stand might somehow aid "that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty." But the recantation by the intellectual father of Manifest Destiny and domination of the hemisphere had no effect on the extermination, which continued in full ruthlessness.5
Adams spoke from firsthand experience. One notable case, with long-term consequences reaching directly to Indochina, was the "exhibition of murder and plunder known as the First Seminole War, ...one part of the American policy aimed at removing or eliminating native Americans from the Southeast," as William Weeks describes General Andrew Jackson's "campaign of terror, devastation, and intimidation" against the Seminoles in 1818 in Spanish Florida, in his study of Adams's diplomacy. The Spanish Minister concluded that "the war against the Seminoles has been merely a pretext for General Jackson to fall, as a conqueror, upon the Spanish provinces...for the purposes of establishing there the dominion of this republic upon the odious basis of violence and bloodshed" -- "strong language from a diplomat," Weeks writes, "yet a painfully precise description of how the United States first came to control the province of Florida."
As Secretary of State, Adams had the task of justifying what General Jackson had achieved. So he did, using the opportunity to establish the doctrine of executive war without congressional approval that was extended to new dimensions in the Indochina wars. Adams presented the justification and novel doctrine in his "greatest state paper," as the noted contemporary historian Samuel Flagg Bemis calls it admiringly, a document that impressed Thomas Jefferson as being "among the ablest I have ever seen, both as to logic and style." This racist diatribe, full of extraordinary lies, was designed to "transform the officially unauthorized conquest of foreign territory [Florida] into a patriotic act of self-defense and the United States from aggressor into aggrieved victim," Weeks observes. He suggests that Adams may have been inspired by Tacitus, "his favorite historian," who caustically observed that "Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity." Steeped in the classical tradition, the founders of the Republic appreciated the sentiment.
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3 Kiernan, Lords, 156. 501, ch. 1.
4 See particularly Drinnon, Facing West. Knox cited by Horsman, Expansion, 64.
5 Ibid. 122, 64. On the Cherokees, see 501, ch. 9.3. Weeks, JQA, 193.