A Wall and a Frontier
In the article “How Not to Build a ‘Great, Great Wall”, one of the creators of The American Empire Project and a professor of history at New York University, Greg Grandin, gives some rather interesting details about Donald Trump’s proposal that a wall be built on the southern border, a subject that is being widely discussed both in America and in Mexico.
He points out that the very first mention of a wall appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on 10 March 1911, which quotes a statement by US President Taft regarding the Mexican Revolution and the need for America to protect itself with a “wall of 20,000 soldiers”, as well as be ready to invade Mexico in the event of President Diaz’ death or any other “untoward circumstance”.
Meanwhile, the revolution in Mexico was showing no signs of abating, and private oil companies in Texas began building a wall using their own money. Later, in April 1917, Woodrow Wilson passed an immigration act stipulating literacy tests, entrance taxes, and quota restrictions. These only applied to Mexicans, however.
Throughout the 20th century, the Mexican problem was a constant presence on the US government’s agenda. In the late 1960s, President Nixon launched Operation Intercept, which resulted in three weeks of chaos on the border due to transport delays. In fact, it had a far-reaching strategic objective: to force the Mexican government into following America’s political will.
During the Reagan presidency, there was a sharp increase in the number of US border patrols at the Mexican border.
In March 1989, George Bush Sr’s suggestion that a wall be built was interpreted by his opponents as nothing other than an “inverted Berlin Wall” and the plan had to be abandoned.
A significant militarisation of the US–Mexico border took place under the Democrats. Bill Clinton gave the relevant orders immediately after Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the White House administration shrewdly using the word “fence” rather than “wall”.
Nothing was different but the name, however; an actual physical barrier stretching for hundreds of kilometres already existed in the 1990s. And manning this barrier were intelligence services, sheriffs, police officers, border guards, staff from numerous departments and voluntary paramilitary groups – every one of them there to catch migrants trying to enter the US from Mexico.
So Trump’s initiative is nothing new. It has been repeatedly suggested and implemented in various forms by both the Democrats and the Republicans. Trump’s opponents among the Democrats are being hypocrites when they accuse him of using harsh and unforgivable measures against the “poor” illegal immigrants.
Greg Grandin recently published a book entitled: The end of the Myth. From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. The title uses the word “frontier”, which is one of the prevailing myths surrounding the creation of the US that, along with the notions of being God’s chosen people and Protestant ideology, makes Americans believe in their own superiority over the rest of the world. Primarily, this complex geopolitical concept, which relates to the development of America’s western territories by European settlers, involves brutal physical violence, but it also involves legal casuistry.
A prime example is the Terra Nullius law, which was used in the British colonies. Since the Native Indians were hunters and gatherers, it never occurred to them to build fences and so they were simply robbed of their heritage. Those who disagreed with the Terra Nullius law (the concept is dusted off every now and again by Anglo-Saxon political philosophers to apply to various modern-day situations such as cyperspace or the oceans) were simply wiped out. The English settlers, who already felt that they owned the new territory and were making themselves into a new people later known as Yankees, didn’t care about the role they had played, either directly or indirectly (more died from diseases bought in than from armed conflict), in the slaughter of Native Indians. They both believed and proclaimed that they were doing God’s work. “The Hand of God was eminently seen in thinning the Indians to make room for the English,” said the governor of Carolina, John Archdale, at the end of the 17th century.
The pioneers of the frontier – Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Pecos Bill and others – have become heroes of American history. They have entered into folklore and are the quintessence of opportunism, dishonesty, vulgarity, cold-blooded cruelty and cunning. Even today, they remain as popular as Santa Claus. At the same time, the men have fantastic strength and health; they can swallow lightning or lasso a tornado. Even their personal belongings have distinctive names: Crockett’s rifle was called “Old Betsy” and Fink’s was “Bang All”.
But does the current White House administration’s obsession with the wall suggest a certain paradigm shift in strategic thinking? If we take into account the statement on the withdrawal of troops from Syria and their possible early withdrawal from Afghanistan, then we can conclude that Trump prefers a policy of moderate isolationism or selective engagement. It is too early to make such a conclusion, however. First, US troops might be replaced by private military companies also from America, but the level of political responsibility will be completely different. Second, the reinforcement and creation of new barriers like the wall on the Mexican border does not automatically mean that US expansion will be slowed down or stopped. The wall operates in one direction – against the countries of Latin America. But given the results of a number of presidential elections in these countries, it is reasonable to talk about an increase in American influence. For Brazil and Argentina, the two main giants of the region, at any rate. There is still the rebellious Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the socialist Republic of Cuba, Evo Morales in Bolivia (whose term in office is coming to an end), and the Mexican populist López Obrador.
Greg Grandin writes that borders and walls are a symbol of domination and exploitation, but the same could be said of the “frontier” in all its forms. US companies or multinational corporations with American interests provide their services worldwide while selectively blocking some countries, imposing sanctions on others, denying access, and carrying out other preventive measures.
The Internet was also declared to be a frontier of the American empire, and the Missile Defense Review recently signed by Trump points to an additional frontier in space, reviving the idea of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars.
Ultimately, will these measures help the US if the country loses all understanding of its role and the nature of threats, occasionally mistaking the strange fantasies of small political groups for real threats?
Steven Metz is quite right when he says: “It is hard to imagine how the U.S. can help maintain global security if it is torn apart by questions about its identity and the very meaning of national security. Ultimately the questions about Trump’s wall are not really about increasing security but about how, or whether, Americans adapt to the broad changes underway in the world and within their own borders.”