Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World (Random House, 2017).
“Who am I? Why am I here?” Vice Admiral (ret.) James Stockdale, asked those questions at the beginning of his opening statement in the 1992 vice presidential debate. It was said, in part, in self-deprecating jest, yet was misunderstood by the media and especially Saturday Night Live which used it to paint an unflattering caricature of an American hero who had a first-rate mind. Those questions have historically been the starting point for philosophers and even characters such as Jean Valjean in the musical version of Les Miserables.
“Who are we? What does it mean?” Those are the questions Robert Kaplan posed as he set out on his latest venture to discover America in his new book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World.
Kaplan’s last book, In Europe’s Shadow, gave readers a glimpse of his first assignments as a writer, but it is in his latest work that his readers can find an uncharacteristically personal history about a father who inspired his son’s wanderlust. As he has before, Kaplan heads west, this time exploring the work of early 20th century historian, of the West, Bernard DeVoto, best known for his continental trilogy about the emergence of a distinctly American nation.
In the spring of 2015, Kaplan began his journey from his home in Massachusetts. It is on the New Jersey Turnpike his journey and the narrative picks up steam. Kaplan paints a picture of each road and stop in a way no YouTube video or mapping app can convey. His powers of observation are again on display as he makes his way through cities and towns to gain an understanding of America and its geography. In William Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young king borrows a cloak the night before the Battle of Agincourt to disguise himself and wander around the encampment. Thus he is able to hear the unadulterated thoughts of his soldiers. The same is true of writers whose faces are not familiar and therefore hear the pulse of the people in a way actors and politicians cannot. That is the value someone like Kaplan brings as he listens to Americans along the way.
From the east coast, over the Appalachians, across middle America, and again over the Rockies, Kaplan recalls the great 19th century Manifest Destiny that drove Americans to the Pacific Coast.
What did he find?
“All politics is local” as the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say. Kaplan’s experience reveals this to be true even when it comes to foreign policy. In his travels, there was an odd paucity of discussion about the presidential election or foreign affairs. The average American on foreign policy, he argues, is the heir of President Andrew Jackson. They “believe in honor, literal faith in God, and military institutions.” From that, springs a suspicion about perfecting the world, but they will support relentlessly hunting down enemies.
Perhaps the heartland’s Jacksonian mentality is oddly foreign to the idealists and realists of Washington and New York. Arguably, these elites have spent so much time focused on the world beyond the ocean that they forgot to first ask the basic question: Who are we? Maybe this was why anti-elite waves emerged in both party’s presidential primaries. They might have better learned by simply listening. Kaplan describes the 2016 election as “a primal scream against the political elites for not connecting with the people on the ground.”
But if the elites may not have made the effort to understand Americans, it is also true that many Americans do not see the world. Europeans tend to be the best-travelled while fewer than half of Americans own a passport and those who do travel tend to stay within U.S. borders or – at best – journey briefly into Canada or Mexico. There are many reasons for this, to include cost and – more fundamentally – geography and distance. An individual in Brussels, for example, can be within a few hours’ car or train ride of a half dozen or so countries. Within a few hours of air travel, that individual can be in two dozen or more other countries. A three-hour flight from Chicago may find only one other country – Canada – in range. And there is a vast territory to explore in the United States itself.
It is ironic, however, that Kaplan finds the Jacksonian tradition alive today when his image will be replaced on the front of a $20 bill and his name has begun disappearing from Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Dinners – a political party that he largely founded. Nearly 200 years since a wave of populism swept Jackson into the presidency over the elites, Jackson still matters, particularly in Kaplan’s work. By the time Jackson was president, America had already declared the Monroe doctrine and its westward expansion was well underway. Rudiments of National Knowledge, a popular book at the beginning of Jackson’s second term, includes a map of the United States. Superimposed on it is an image of an eagle, its talons firmly planted in Florida, its wings spread high across the Midwest, and its head in New England, seemingly defiant to the old European order, protecting its domain. The eagle defies Europe. It postures as if to deny European countries access to the West. The eagle is protecting its expanding nest.
Having laid the groundwork with his American travels, Kaplan turns in the final third of his work to a broader world “that is more crowded, nervous and anxious than perhaps at any moment in history.” In terms of prose, this is perhaps his finest work. In terms of domestic and world views, it may well be his most significant. Navalists will be especially appreciative of his proper placement of America’s navy in the 21st century.
Before the great westward expansion, the oceans – shaped as they were by domestic and foreign coastlines – were part of America’s maritime destiny. Though Alexis de Tocqueville devoted many pages to the country’s military during Jackson’s presidency, he summarized the navy best: “America was born to rule the seas, as the Romans were to conquer the world.” Literary figures like James Fenimore Cooper were writing maritime novels and the first major naval history of the nation. Novelist Joseph C. Hart, in his 1834 Miriam Coffin, wrote that the country was “informed by a strident maritime nationalism. Supremacy on the ocean is America’s great national destiny.” Jackson himself wrote that the navy was the guarantor of commerce and would not only protect America’s “flourishing commerce in distant seas, but will enable [the country] to reach and annoy the enemy…meeting danger at a distance from home.”
Perhaps Kaplan has realized with Jackson and the geography that defines us in the greater world that in some ways America is going back from whence it came.
Kaplan has, with Earning the Rockies, renewed his own place as an author who can articulately, dispassionately, and objectively explain the world around us. Kaplan’s rational observations are oases in the desert of increasing hyper-partisanship and emotionalism.
Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy and writes the Connor Stark novels (Naval Institute Press.) He is completing his doctoral dissertation on Andrew Jackson’s Navy. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Navy. Twitter: @cgberube
Image: Thomas L. Hornbrook