The critical importance of the Greater Caribbean to the Mississippi River system made it necessary for America to strategically dominate what might be called the American Mediterranean — for such is the geopolitical centrality of the Greater Caribbean to the entire Western Hemisphere. This process of domination began roughly with the Monroe Doctrine and was completed with the building of the Panama Canal. Having become the dominant hemispheric power, the United States was then in a position to help determine the balance of power in the other hemisphere — and that is what the history of the 20th century was all about. Fighting two world wars and the Cold War was about not letting any power or alliance of powers dominate the Old World to the extent that the United States dominated the New World.
But before controlling the Caribbean, Americans first had to settle a continent. The barrier to that was the Great Plains, or the Great American Desert, as it was called in the 19th century. For the well-watered Midwest with its rich farmland was but an extension of the East. Yet the Great American Desert was dry, achingly flat in large measure and water-starved compared with the Midwest. While the riverine eastern half of the continent was friendly to individualism, the western half required communalism, to properly apportion scarce water resources. Indeed, whereas Iowa is basically 100 percent arable, Utah with its cindery bleakness is only 3 percent arable. The Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West constituted the real discontinuities in American history, since they fundamentally altered Anglo-Saxon culture and created a distinctly American one.
This American culture was only in small measure that of the cowboy tradition, with its lonesome risk-taking. In much larger measure it was about supreme caution, the respecting of limits, and thinking tragically in order to avoid tragedy: that was the only psychology and strategy able to deal with a stupefyingly hostile and parched landscape. The very settlement of the American West taught pioneers, despite all their conquests, that they could not always have their way in the world. And that is precisely the message advanced by the three greatest interpreters of westward expansion: Walter Prescott Webb, Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner, all writing their most significant works in the middle decades of the 20th century, when the settlement of the West was much closer in time than it is now.
Another thing: The United States required the resources of an entire continent to defeat German and Japanese fascism, and later Soviet Communism. Without Manifest Destiny, there could have been no victory in World War II. But because settling that continent involved slavery and genocide against the indigenous inhabitants, American history is morally unresolvable. Thus, the only way to ultimately overcome our sins is to do good in the world. But doing good must be tempered by always thinking about what can go wrong in the process. These are all, deep down, the lessons of the interaction between Americans and their landscape.
ROBERT D. KAPLAN | Th New York Times