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Kevin McCarthy’s false claim that the U.S. never seized land through war is pernicious

Kevin McCarthy’s falsehoods about America never claiming territory through warfare must be called out.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wasn’t so good at being speaker of the House. It turns out his grasp of American history is equally unimpressive.

On Sunday McCarthy posted a video of his recent remarks at the Oxford Union defending the position that American intervention has been a force for good in the world. It turns out that a key premise for his case is completely false.

“In every single war that America has fought, we have never asked for land afterwards,” McCarthy boldly belts in the video. “Except for enough to bury the Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice for that freedom we went in for.”

McCarthy received raucous applause from his supporters in the audience. But he should’ve gotten a Bronx cheer.

McCarthy hails from a state that was a spoil of war.

The U.S. came into being through wars of invasion and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. And the U.S. government pursued policies of militant ethnic cleansing of Native Americans to expand its borders through the 19th century.

McCarthy hails from a state that was a spoil of war. The Mexican-American War, which was fought from 1846 to 1848, resulted in the U.S.’ claiming over half of Mexico’s territory, territory that makes up all or part of present-day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming — more than half a million square miles of land. That war was set in motion by a territorial dispute over Texas, which Mexico also relinquished claim to after losing the war.

The U.S.’ victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 resulted in its acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. (During this conflict the U.S. also claimed the independent state of Hawaii as a territory.)

The U.S. has also used the threat of war to acquire territory, such as when it used Gen. Andrew Jackson’s successful military operations seizing Spanish forts as a threat to compel Spain to surrender Florida to the U.S.

Karl Jacoby, a professor of American history at Columbia University, wrote in an email that “Mccarthy’s claim is so factually wrong that it would be funny if McCarthy were not in a position of such importance.”

“In his own odd way, McCarthy is recapitulating one of the central tenets of nineteenth century Manifest Destiny: that everyone wanted to be part of the US, so any US military action was not a hostile invasion but rather a liberation,” Jacoby wrote. “President Polk and others in the 1840s, for example, spoke of taking ‘bloodless possession’ of California and New Mexico rather than admit that the U.S. seized these territories by force.”

Correcting McCarthy’s falsehoods is not just a matter of getting the historical record right. It’s crucial to counter the way that many on the right — and some liberals — downplay or whitewash America’s history of expansionism and imperialism in order to foster a dangerous brand of American chauvinism. Fostering the illusion that the U.S. is an essentially benevolent international actor has helped justify war after war, based on the myth that the U.S. policy is not guided by geopolitical interests but by a uniquely virtuous moral compass. 

But the U.S., like every powerful state and empire the world has ever seen, has used war to advance its interests and secure resources — including seizing land. The more that Americans acknowledge that, the warier of war and more skeptical of the intoxicating effects of jingoism we’ll become.

“America is more than a country. America is an idea,” McCarthy said during his remarks. One of the original ideas that has shaped the arc of American history was Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans had a divine mandate for settler-colonialism. Rather than blind ourselves to the misdeeds and atrocities that idea has wrought, we should study it — and evolve beyond it.