Earning the Rockies (Kaplan, 2017) is a deceiving title. I thought it was going to be about environmentalism but, as it turns out, “earning the Rockies” was only a metaphor derived from the author’s childhood and from reading a story about American travel in Reader’s Digest. The story was of a family who stopped in Nebraska, on the Great Plains, for breakfast. With children complaining of the interminable ‘flatscape’ of the prairies, the father remarked that they should be patient with their journey because this was their way of eventually “earning the Rockies.” Having grown up in Colorado and experienced with travel by car back and forth to Illinois (my parents’ homeland) on several occasions in the 1950s and 1960s, I can remember all too well the long stretches of nothingness and then suddenly seeing the Rockies rise out of the prairie in majestic reward.
But Earning the Rockies isn’t really about the excitement of travel or the beauty of places like Colorado; it is about American exceptionalism and how U.S. citizens have been placed at the epicenter of the globe in the 21st century first by geography and then by economic and political prominence. This great and inherent advantage resulted from the fortuitous placement of the U.S.A. across an entire continent rich with frontiers to conquer and resources to acquire. Now that we are in the 21st century, Kaplan suggests that American citizens need to rediscover what is vital yet forgotten about U.S.A. history so that these rediscoveries might help us understand our place in the broader world.
I just read and reviewed Hamilton (Chernow, 2004), which established the perfect context for Earning the Rockies. The early days of the colonies were difficult, contested, and required unusual vision and courage. Kaplan picks up the story after the colonial days, with the formation of a Constitution and creation of checks and balances in government, to describe the settlement of the midwestern prairies. The prairie, with paltry resources compared to those of the East Coast, “ground up the differences of the various immigrant groups into one national culture and so provided the ballast for the leap that would be required in exploring and finally overcoming the geographical disruption of the Great American Desert and Rocky Mountains.”
Kaplan’s childhood travel across the U.S.A. was influential but his later travel as a journalist in the 1990s revealed a more diverse country struggling with economic, political, and environmental problems. The frontier ethos that emerges from these struggles is less contemplative or philosophical than just practical. As an example, he cites the separation of church and state in America not as some great idea but more as “a practical response to the fact that the rugged pioneer spirit of optimism and free thought begot different Protestant sects,” all of which had to be accommodated in order to keep the country together.
Besides the massive east to west landscape and temperate climate that blesses the U.S.A., other conditions have deepened its advantage. One of these is the availability of everything from small colleges to major universities all across the land, a critical resource in building vibrant civilization and a “deep bench” of human capacity. The infrastructure developed in the 20th century and America’s “warrior ethos” added to its preeminence throughout the world. Advantage is also found in the combination of crowded and competitive coastal cities and smaller Midwestern states, places requiring “heightened concentration on the people around you, rather than on yourself.”
Looking at the role the U.S.A. can play today, Kaplan recounted the benefits of an isolated intact continent with many resources but also natural barriers and obstacles that required ingenuity and persistence to tame. Turning to politics, Kaplan suggested that Trump was perceived as an apolitical answer to the dysfunctional political elite who presently seldom connect with their own people. Division between the red and blue states is not a surprise but, instead, an extension of Civil War era differences between the southern economic system based on plantations, vast staple crops, and slave labor versus the northern system of “small farms, free labor, and rising industrialism.” But America truly became exceptional when it survived WWII without the decimation experienced by both Europe and Asia and it roared forward as the unscathed victor of enhanced industrial might.
Kaplan portrays the foundation of America’s promise as its cartography, frontier spirit, and citizens who believe in working hard to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. By comparison to Europe, Russia, China, or India, the U.S.A. is blessed with many more human, natural, and moral resources, all of which add up to the stark reality that it is “fated to lead.” Because of this, “Neither unremitting humanitarianism nor neo-isolationism can be the basis of any responsible foreign policy.” Imperialistic perspectives and approaches should be avoided; in Kaplan’s view, the U.S.A. “must henceforth deploy the resources of a continent in order to negotiate a global situation of comparative anarchy.” One of the battlegrounds he suggested was most important is the Intermarium, the countries between the Baltic and Black Seas, which he believes will be contested between Russia and the West. In order to engage these contests, Kaplan urges a ‘particularism’ that “accepts the world as it is, with all of its cultural and ideological differences” and embraces multilateralism that keeps the U.S.A. from becoming endangered by “the illusions of its own leaders and elites.”