The US Was Once Considered a Rogue Nation
Robert E. May
we forget that the United States was once considered a rogue nation
exporting terrorism, the nation's senior officials risk making serious
policy mistakes today.
United States a rogue nation? Though it may be hard to believe,
before the Civil War, people in Latin America, Western Europe, and
even the faraway Hawaiian kingdom were convinced that the United
States had become a base for terrorists.
one then actually used the term "terrorism" for unauthorized
attacks on other countries. Rather, these criminals were called
"filibusters." But like modern terrorists, U.S. filibusters
operated in underground cells, used secret codes and wreaked havoc.
They attacked Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras and were
suspected of planning attacks elsewhere.
can American policy-makers benefit from studying filibustering?
This all-but-forgotten chapter of the nation's history suggests
that the current "war on terrorism" will last longer than
assumed. It also warns that the government and news media should
exercise caution before accusing other nations of collaborating
filibusters attacked other countries almost every year between the
mid-1830s and 1860. The most notorious filibuster was William Walker,
who invaded Mexico with a private army in 1853. In 1855 he attacked
Nicaragua, soon gaining control of the country. The next year, he
arranged his own election as Nicaragua's president in a fixed vote.
After losing power in 1857, he attacked Central America again, finally
in 1860 suffering death at the hands of a Honduran firing squad.
filibusters were well-known figures. John Quitman, Mississippi governor
in the 1830s and 1850s and a U.S. general in the Mexican-American
War of the 1840s, organized an attack on Cuba. New York City's John
L. O'Sullivan, the editor remembered for coining the expansionist
slogan "Manifest Destiny," twice was prosecuted for participating
in plots against Cuba.
modern terrorists, the filibusters never intentionally massacred
civilian populations. But Europeans and Latin Americans regarded
them the way Americans view terrorists today as ruthless murderers
causing horrific destruction. Walker's men burned parts of Granada
and Nicaragua. Foreign diplomats repeatedly complained to the State
Department that their countries were in a state of panic over American
as the U.S. news media suggest Saudi complicity in the attacks of
September 2001, so foreign governments in the 1850s assumed that
U.S. leaders secretly assisted filibusters. Just as some commentators
today accuse Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's regime of half-hearted
efforts against al-Qaida, so foreign critics in the 1850s believed
American leaders were winking at filibusters. The Atlantic Monthly
charged U.S. authorities with having "blind eyes and very slippery
hands" regarding filibusters sailing to Nicaragua. And just
as President Bush seeks an anti-terrorist international coalition
today, so there were international alliances against U.S. filibusters
in the 1850s.
important to realize that despite accusations that the U.S. government
tolerated filibustering, just the opposite was true. It was hardly
in the national interest to foster filibustering, which brought
the United States to the brink of war with powerful England and
other nations. Additionally, filibustering caused foreign reprisals
against American commercial interests abroad.
presidents issued proclamations threatening filibusters with jail.
More important, the government deployed its military forces and
demanded that port and border officials prosecute filibusters and
seize their ships. One general confiscated a filibuster ship in
San Francisco harbor, explaining that the president had ordered
him to halt filibustering "by using my military force to the
utmost of my power."
persisted not because of government collusion, but because of circumstances
beyond federal control. The tiny U.S. army, for example, faced an
impossible task in sealing off the lengthy, mostly shallow Rio Grande.
Now Pakistani officials face similar difficulties on their border
with Afghanistan. Popular sympathy with filibusters (like radical
Muslim support for terrorists today) was the most important reason
why pre-Civil War U.S. leaders were unable to stop them.
in mid-Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coast ports, filibusters were
considered heroes. There were even parades, fundraisers, and stage
plays in their honor. American supporters praised Walker (much as
radical Muslims today laud Osama bin Laden), believing Walker an
agent of America's destiny to rule the hemisphere. Juries in filibuster
cases refused to render guilty verdicts. A San Francisco jury took
a mere eight minutes to acquit Walker for invading Mexico!
that U.S. presidents once tried but failed to prevent filibustering
suggests that American commentators should hedge their bets that
leaders of modern Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other allied states
are covertly aiding terrorists. These nations, like the United States
in the 1850s, have every reason to suppress terrorism. After all,
radical Muslims see the incumbent regimes in their countries as
obstacles to their goals of creating pure, anti-Western Muslim states.
foreign states in the 1850s couldn't see the anti-terrorist intentions
of the relatively open, democratic U.S. government is instructive.
Today the regimes we suspect of fostering terrorism are autocratic
states whose policies are less open to international scrutiny than
were those of the United States before the Civil War. Surely we're
equally capable of misreading them.
May, a professor of history at Purdue University, is author of Manifest
Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America
(2002) and a writer for the History
© 2004 History News Service