Winners and losers. Success and failure. Victory and defeat. As the United States strived to define its identity and sovereignty, it adopted a “victory culture”, typical of emerging powers throughout history. Unfortunately this “victory culture” essential to American history and politics, has evolved into a dangerous culture of triumphalism.
The ”victory culture" of American politics is rooted deeply into its history. The founders of the present day United States of America sought not only independence from the British, but victory against the British. This victory was not fully completed until extensive negotiations led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 3, 1783; which served not only as a formal acceptance of independence but more importantly the delineation of boundaries that would allow for American western expansion. A result of western expansion was the “Indian Wars”; a period of American history in which the “victory culture” began to take shape.
The “victory culture” began to take shape during this period given: 1) the new national government, having achieved national independence strived for sovereignty (through geographic expansion); which in turn, 2) defined a struggle not only against the colonial powers but more importantly, nature and the local indigenous populations in the West.
The “culture of victory” was cemented during and after the Spanish American War and the Mexican American War. During these two conflicts, the United States defined an expansionist policy known by the catch phrase of “Manifest Destiny” - the belief that the United States had a divinely inspired mission to expand, spreading its form of democracy and freedom. Advocates of “Manifest Destiny” believed that expansion was not only good, but that it was obvious ("manifest") and inevitable ("destiny").
The “closing of the American frontier” in 1980 defined the end of an era and the start of a new historical period; in which the victory culture would begin morphing into a dangerous culture of triumphalism.
The rise of communism and the Soviet Union, defined a new struggle for the United States – driven by ideological control as opposed to geographic gain. The road to victory was to be achieved through military, economic and political influence – as Teddy Roosevelt famous stated "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Vietnam was a prime example of how the “culture of victory” consumed and influenced military and political decisions. Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in the film Apocalypse Now provides a glimpse of this thinking when he states - “Napalm in the morning smells like victory".
The capitulation of communism defined a “New World Order” in which the United States found itself as the only legitimate superpower, its military and political might unmatched. The tragic events of 9/11, while providing the United States with an opportunity for introspection, cemented a “doctrine of triumphalism” under the Geroge W. Bush administration. When Republican Howard Dean, recently questioned the administrations’ “plans for victory” on Iraq he was blasted for sending the troops and people the wrong message. Surely the conditions and definition of victory should be defined by the people of Iraq (who are the recipients of this victory) and not the United States?
The most significant impact of the United States “doctrine of triumphalism” is an impaired ability to judge the value or morality of its own actions. It is a serious case of Dark Matter Politics when triumphalism blinds and keeps political leaders from adjusting their policies and learning from past mistakes.