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When America Was Considered a Rogue Nation

by Robert E. May on Apr 9, 2004

Robert E. May

Because we forget that the United States was once considered a rogue nation exporting terrorism, the nation’s senior officials risk making serious policy mistakes today.

The United States a rogue nation? Though it may be hard to believe, before the Civil War, people in Latin America, Western Europe, and even the faraway Hawaiian kingdom were convinced that the United States had become a base for terrorists.

No one then actually used the term “terrorism” for unauthorized attacks on other countries. Rather, these criminals were called “filibusters.” But like modern terrorists, U.S. filibusters operated in underground cells, used secret codes and wreaked havoc. They attacked Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua and Honduras and were suspected of planning attacks elsewhere.

How can American policy-makers benefit from studying filibustering? This all-but-forgotten chapter of the nation’s history suggests that the current “war on terrorism” will last longer than assumed. It also warns that the government and news media should exercise caution before accusing other nations of collaborating with terrorists.

American filibusters attacked other countries almost every year between the mid-1830s and 1860. The most notorious filibuster was William Walker, who invaded Mexico with a private army in 1853. In 1855 he attacked Nicaragua, soon gaining control of the country. The next year, he arranged his own election as Nicaragua’s president in a fixed vote. After losing power in 1857, he attacked Central America again, finally in 1860 suffering death at the hands of a Honduran firing squad.

Some filibusters were well-known figures. John Quitman, Mississippi governor in the 1830s and 1850s and a U.S. general in the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, organized an attack on Cuba. New York City’s John L. O’Sullivan, the editor remembered for coining the expansionist slogan “Manifest Destiny,” twice was prosecuted for participating in Cuba plots.

Unlike modern terrorists, the filibusters never intentionally massacred civilian populations. But Europeans and Latin Americans regarded them the way Americans view terrorists today — as ruthless murderers causing horrific destruction. Walker’s men burned parts of Granada and Nicaragua. Foreign diplomats repeatedly complained to the State Department that their countries were in a state of panic over American assaults.

Just as the U.S. news media suggest Saudi complicity in the attacks of September 2001, so foreign governments in the 1850s assumed that U.S. leaders secretly assisted filibusters. Just as some commentators today accuse Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s regime of half-hearted efforts against al-Qaida, so foreign critics in the 1850s believed American leaders were winking at filibusters. The Atlantic Monthly charged U.S. authorities with having “blind eyes and very slippery hands” regarding filibusters sailing to Nicaragua. And just as President Bush seeks an anti-terrorist international coalition today, so there were international alliances against U.S. filibusters in the 1850s.

It’s important to realize that despite accusations that the U.S. government tolerated filibustering, just the opposite was true. It was hardly in the national interest to foster filibustering, which brought the United States to the brink of war with powerful England and other nations. Additionally, filibustering caused foreign reprisals against American commercial interests abroad.

U.S. presidents issued proclamations threatening filibusters with jail. More important, the government deployed its military forces and demanded that port and border officials prosecute filibusters and seize their ships. One general confiscated a filibuster ship in San Francisco harbor, explaining that the president had ordered him to halt filibustering “by using my military force to the utmost of my power.”

Filibustering persisted not because of government collusion, but because of circumstances beyond federal control. The tiny U.S. army, for example, faced an impossible task in sealing off the lengthy, mostly shallow Rio Grande. Now Pakistani officials face similar difficulties on their border with Afghanistan. Popular sympathy with filibusters (like radical Muslim support for terrorists today) was the most important reason why pre-Civil War U.S. leaders were unable to stop them.

Especially in mid-Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coast ports, filibusters were considered heroes. There were even parades, fund-raisers, and stage plays in their honor. American supporters praised Walker (much as radical Muslims today laud Osama bin Laden), believing Walker an agent of America’s destiny to rule the hemisphere. Juries in filibuster cases refused to render guilty verdicts. A San Francisco jury took a mere eight minutes to acquit Walker for invading Mexico!

Evidence that U.S. presidents once tried but failed to prevent filibustering suggests that American commentators should hedge their bets that leaders of modern Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other allied states are covertly aiding terrorists. These nations, like the United States in the 1850s, have every reason to suppress terrorism. After all, radical Muslims see the incumbent regimes in their countries as obstacles to their goals of creating pure, anti-Western Muslim states.

That foreign states in the 1850s couldn’t see the anti-terrorist intentions of the relatively open, democratic U.S. government is instructive. Today the regimes we suspect of fostering terrorism are autocratic states whose policies are less open to international scrutiny than were those of the United States before the Civil War. Surely we’re equally capable of misreading them.

Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University, is author of "Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America" (2002) and a writer for the History News Service.