America’s Legacy of Westward Expansion

Robert D. Kaplan, noted for his personal travel stories that serve as a mode of social and political analysis, presents us with his most sentimental book yet. Taken from the inspiration of his father’s travels across America, he set aside the larger part of 2015 to journey through the American heartland from the northeast, across the American plains, and ending in San Diego

His story reflects on the nature of how America’s geography shapes its outlook and position in the world.

Kaplan travels west, rising in elevation across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains on to the utopian beauty of the Pacific Ocean. In a metaphysical sense he travels and evolves, reflecting the inevitable growth of America from a collection of Atlantic trading communities to a continental empire spanning from sea to sea. In this westward expansion, America rises above the “hatreds and constraints of the Old World,” as he quotes Henry David Thoreau: “Eastward I go only by force, but westward I go free…I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe.”

Thanks to its geographic location and immense space, Kaplan concludes America is naturally an empire and that it is uniquely so because it is a contained and isolated empire. However, unlike Germany or Russia, it possesses a very safe geography, isolated from the conflicts of Eurasia and buffered by oceans. America, both in a global and domestic sense is a paradox. A confused paradox at that, for America’s nature is to be fluid and ever-changing, unlike the nations of the Old World.

Objectively, he prefaces his trip by indicating that America already sits in a uniquely blessed place—in the temperate zone. Unlike Russia, riding atop the Eurasian land mass with no natural defenses and largely uninhabitable, America sits constrained in North America with almost an entirely habitable space.

The journey begins with Kaplan leaving the affluent and changing cosmopolitan western and central Pennsylvania, where he observes growing globalism as eroding Amish culture. A symptom of globalization and its effects on creating the “two Americas” divided by politics, economics, and of course, geography.

Most striking, as he moves deeper into the Rust Belt, are Kaplan’s observations on the destruction of the middle class in the heartland; something East Coast urban elites know little to nothing about:

“The middle class for a long time now has been slowly dissolving into a working class precariously on the verge of slipping into out-right poverty and also in the other direction into a smaller, upper-middle, global elite.”

Then he establishes the connection between this growing economic and social schism with the election of Donald Trump:

“The populist impulses apparent in the presidential campaign following my journey of early 2015 obviously emanate from the instability of their economic situation, suggesting the anger that resides just beneath the surface of their politeness.”

As Kaplan moves deep into the Great Plains, he is confronted with the psychological effects of America’s vastness. Unlike the East Coast, constrained by space, influenced by Anglo-Saxon high culture and tightly connected into the networks of globalization, the Great Plains stand as a massive, yet, often forgotten part of the American psychology.

Living in Nebraska and Wyoming, one gets a sense that there are no limits to existence. The Plains offers endless opportunities for profit, conquest, imagination, and a simultaneous gaze into the endless void of the past or visions of development into the future. Kaplan sees the conquest and settlement of the American West as key to American optimism and idealism on the global stage. Whereas, European nation-states, constrained by lack of space, resources, and never-ending conflicts with each other, reserve a strong sense of both the tragic and jaded realism; something of which Americans have almost no possession.

He is cautious, however, warning that both this immense space and lack of aesthetics, “is dangerous. Too much space can lead to delusions, to which America periodically falls victim. For the ultimate cause of American aggression—its belief in its own missionary values—rests on its conquest of space.”

Additionally, it cannot be overlooked, that the harshness of the Great Plains, both in its conquest and lifestyle produces hard men. It is no mistake, as Kaplan quotes Western historian Walter Prescott Webb, that Texas and Oklahoma created the cowboy and ranching culture and that the American heartland possesses strong reverence for the military. Both are a consequence of America’s legacy in the West. Brutal conquest, mixed with quasi-utopian visions of individuals living out Manifest Destiny. The lifestyle of the West makes Manifest Destiny both a collective and individual adventure.

Like many of Kaplan’s analyses, he ends with more questions than answers. After showing through America’s geography its natural progressive mentality, what could be her future in the 21st Century? “Technology has not negated geography. It has only made geography smaller and more claustrophobic,” he writes in the epilogue. Obviously, America’s messianic worldview has many positive expressions but can also lead to great and even dangerous delusions. He advises that America must always keep the core elements of geo-strategy in mind, that means and ends must be tied to each other and that even despite the romantic vastness of the American West, the United States must accept limits in its geopolitical aims. Just as America’s western settlers are deeply affected by their environment, so too are the peoples of other nations, and perhaps shrewd realism taking precedence over idealism in policy should not be forgotten.

Taylor Rose is a graduate of Liberty University with a B.A. in International Relations from the Helms School of Government. Fluent in English and German he has worked and studied throughout Europe specializing in American and European politics. He is a prolific writer and author of the book Return of the Right an analysis on the revival of Conservatism in the United States and Europe. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative on-line journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.