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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