the collateral damage of manifest destiny

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

I STUMBLED OVER THIS IMAGE on Face­book at about 5:00 AM this morning and my im­me­diate re­sponse was to type “this is the col­lat­eral damage of Man­i­fest Des­tiny” into the com­ment sec­tion of the other per­son’s page. Then I thought, “No! Wait” and in­stead I posted the image onto my Face­book page. Again I typed “this is the col­lat­eral damage of Man­i­fest Des­tiny” into the com­ments window and again stopped with a second “No! Wait.”

I posted it sans com­ment on the image or the ‘facts’ it spouted, which is un­usual for me. Well, it was 5:00 AM and I had been up all night and the last gallon of coffee was wearing off, so I guess I can for­give my­self for not doing a wee bit of re­search on the num­bers. But that’s not the point of this posting.

Man­i­fest Des­tiny was a widely held be­lief in the United States among the white men who were the decision-makers and scribes of the time. It main­tained that Amer­ican set­tlers were des­tined to ex­pand throughout the con­ti­nent, car­rying Eu­ro­pean civ­i­liza­tion ever west­ward, as it had mi­grated from the Old World to the New.

In­stead, you are reading it here—hopefully for the first time. When I have pub­lished this page on Neal Umphred Dot Com, I will check Google to see if anyone else has ever used that phrase be­fore. If not, I may have coined an in­ter­esting new phrase here. 1

So, below find:

1. The image that kicked this off (“100 mil­lion”) fol­lowed by “On Man­i­fest Des­tiny with cap­ital letters.”
2. A fa­mous 19th-century painting fol­lowed by “On man­i­fest des­tiny with lower case letters.”
3. An­other Face­book poster (“refugees”) with “On col­lat­eral damage.” 

The two sec­tions on Man­i­fest Des­tiny below were adapted lib­er­ally from Wikipedia en­tries. The final image is a Beach Boys album cover ac­com­pa­nied by a few ob­ser­va­tions on the music within the album. 2



When I posted this image on my Face­book page, I added, “50,000,000 is prob­ably more ac­cu­rate, but hey, who’s counting, right?” A friend com­mented, “50,000,000 may be right, counting Cen­tral and South America, but more re­cent es­ti­mates say that the pop­u­la­tion of the western hemi­sphere may only have been 20,000,000.” 3

On Manifest Destiny with capital letters

In the 19th cen­tury, Man­i­fest Des­tiny was a widely held be­lief in the United States among the white men who were the decision-makers and scribes of the time. It main­tained that Amer­ican set­tlers were des­tined to ex­pand throughout the con­ti­nent, car­rying Eu­ro­pean civ­i­liza­tion ever west­ward, as it had mi­grated from the Old World to the New.

Modern his­to­rians agree for the most part that there were three basic themes to Man­i­fest Destiny:

 These people and their institutions—mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant—had spe­cial virtues that other peo­ples did not share.

 These people had a mission—it was Amer­i­ca’s mission—to re­deem and re­make the west in the image of agrarian America.

 These people had an ir­re­sistible destiny—given them by the Old Tes­ta­ment God but one in the New Testament’s God’s name (and they ain’t the same critter)—to ac­com­plish this es­sen­tial duty.

These same his­to­rians also em­pha­size the fact that Man­i­fest Des­tiny was a con­tested con­cept: while most De­moc­rats en­dorsed the idea, many promi­nent Amer­i­cans re­jected it. The latter in­cluded Abraham Lin­coln and Ulysses S. Grant, and most mem­bers of the Whig Party.

Man­i­fest Des­tiny was born out of “a sense of mis­sion to re­deem the Old World by high ex­ample It was gen­er­ated by the po­ten­tial­i­ties of a new earth for building a new heaven.” News­paper editor/journalist John O’­Sul­livan coined the term Man­i­fest Des­tiny in 1845 to de­scribe that spirit. 4

But as a mo­ti­vating factor or as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for ac­tion, Man­i­fest Des­tiny did not enjoy wide­spread sup­port in the 19th cen­tury. “The thesis that it em­bodied na­tion­alism, found in much his­tor­ical writing, is backed by little real sup­porting evidence.” 


GastJohn AmericanProgress 1500

Amer­ican Progress (John Gast, 1872) is an al­le­gor­ical rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the mod­ern­iza­tion of the new west. Here Co­lumbia per­son­i­fies the United States, leading civ­i­liza­tion west­ward. She brings light from the East into the dark­ness of the West, with both tech­nology and lit­eracy, as she holds a school book in her flight—and it is not a Bible.

On John O’Sullivan’s manifest destiny

John O’­Sul­livan is an in­ter­esting and im­por­tant figure in the 19th cen­tury: in the De­mo­c­ratic Re­view (July–August 1845), he called on the US to admit the Re­public of Texas into the Union. Be­cause of con­cerns in the Senate over the ex­pan­sion of the number of slave states and the pos­si­bility of war with Mexico, Texas had long been a con­tro­ver­sial issue.

O’­Sul­livan ar­gued that the United States had a di­vine man­date to ex­pand throughout North America, writing of “our man­i­fest des­tiny to over­spread the con­ti­nent al­lotted by Prov­i­dence for the free de­vel­op­ment of our yearly mul­ti­plying millions.”

O’­Sul­li­van’s second use of the phrase be­came ex­tremely in­flu­en­tial. In the New York Morning News (De­cember 27, 1845), he ad­dressed the boundary dis­pute with Great Britain in the Oregon Country, he wrote:

“And that claim is by the right of our man­i­fest des­tiny to over­spread and to pos­sess the whole of the con­ti­nent which Prov­i­dence has given us for the de­vel­op­ment of the great ex­per­i­ment of lib­erty and fed­er­ated self-government en­trusted to us.”

O’­Sul­livan be­lieved that God (“Prov­i­dence”) had given the United States a mis­sion to spread re­pub­lican democ­racy (“the great ex­per­i­ment of lib­erty”) throughout North America. Be­cause Great Britain would not use Oregon for the pur­poses of spreading democ­racy, British claims to the ter­ri­tory could be dis­re­garded. O’­Sul­livan be­lieved that man­i­fest des­tiny was a moral ideal that su­per­seded other con­sid­er­a­tions, in­cluding in­ter­na­tional laws and agreements.

O’­Sul­li­van’s orig­inal con­cep­tion of man­i­fest des­tiny was not a call for ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion by force. He be­lieved that the ex­pan­sion of U.S.-style democ­racy was in­evitable, and would happen without mil­i­tary in­volve­ment as Anglo-Saxons em­i­grated to new regions.

O’­Sul­li­van’s phrase pro­vided a label for sen­ti­ments that had be­come par­tic­u­larly pop­ular during the 1840s, but the ideas them­selves were not new. O’­Sul­livan was not the orig­i­nator of the con­cept of man­i­fest des­tiny, but he was one of its fore­most advocates.



The first few times I read this, I read it as a warning against Eu­ro­pean white civilization—which is why it is a part of this ar­ticle. It wasn’t until I had pub­lished the ar­ticle that I re­al­ized that it was in­stead a rightwingnut warning against taking in the em­bat­tled women and chil­dren of war-torn Syria.

On collateral damage

Merriam-Webster de­fines col­lat­eral as “1a) ac­com­pa­nying as sec­ondary or sub­or­di­nate : con­comi­tant; 1b) in­di­rect.” I think we all know what damage means . . .

The USAF In­tel­li­gence Tar­geting Guide de­fines col­lat­eral damage as “un­in­ten­tional damage or in­ci­dental damage af­fecting fa­cil­i­ties, equip­ment, or per­sonnel, oc­cur­ring as a re­sult of mil­i­tary ac­tions di­rected against tar­geted enemy forces or fa­cil­i­ties. Such damage can occur to friendly, neu­tral, and even enemy forces.”

In mil­i­tary dou­ble­s­peak, col­lat­eral damage is used to de­scribe sit­u­a­tions where non-combatants are un­in­ten­tion­ally killed and/or non-combatant prop­erty dam­aged during at­tacks on le­git­i­mate ‘mil­i­tary tar­gets.’ 5

In Or­wellianese, col­lat­eral damage is a euphemism—the use of in­of­fen­sive words or terms to de­scribe of­fen­sive ac­tions or results—that de­hu­man­izes civil­ians (es­pe­cially women, chil­dren and old people) killed during ‘le­git­i­mate’ mil­i­tary operations.

As a eu­phemism, col­lat­eral damage is meant to re­duce the per­cep­tion of cul­pa­bility of the mil­i­tary and the gov­ern­ment in failing to pre­vent non-combatant casualties.

I as­so­ciate the term with Vietnam. I am in­cor­rect: the term was rarely used at the time of that ‘quag­mire’ (a eu­phemism). In fact, while re­searching the term and learning of my error, I came across this in­ter­esting bit:

“Para­dox­ical as it may sound, the Vietnam War marked the be­gin­ning of the mil­i­tary’s at­tempt to re­turn to its 1936 stan­dards and limit col­lat­eral damage. The in­fa­mous ‘free-fire zones,’ for ex­ample, were an at­tempt to lessen civilian ca­su­al­ties. Ex­cept in such zones, usu­ally es­tab­lished in sparsely pop­u­lated areas or in enemy-held ter­ri­tory, air strikes in Vietnam had to be cleared by local South Viet­namese of­fi­cials.” (Los An­geles Times)



1   Well, I typed “col­lat­eral damage of man­i­fest des­tiny” into Google and no re­sults showing those five words used as a phrase so it looks like I just coined me a new phrase that got zest appeal!

2   I call them posters; others call them memes, which ain’t what I un­der­stand memes to be!

3   As a re­sponse to my putting the “100 mil­lion” poster on my Face­book page, my friend Frank Daniels added this to the com­ments sec­tion: “50,000,000 mil­lion may be right, counting Cen­tral and South America, but more re­cent es­ti­mates say that the pop­u­la­tion of the western hemi­sphere may only have been 20,000,000. The number of deaths is ba­si­cally spec­u­la­tive, but that number in­cludes the dom­i­nant cause of death: dis­ease. Measles and smallpox—not spread deliberately—were re­spon­sible for most of the deaths. This was due to the fact that the dis­eases were un­known in the Amer­icas, and the na­tives had no re­sis­tance to them. No more than about 2,000,000 na­tives died be­tween 1492 and 1900 in North America.”

4  Fred­erick Merk, Man­i­fest Des­tiny and Mis­sion in Amer­ican His­tory (Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 1963).

5   Col­lat­eral damage is not syn­ony­mous with friendly fire, which is de­fined by Google as “weapon fire coming from one’s own side, es­pe­cially fire that causes ac­ci­dental in­jury or death to one’s own forces.”

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