The unlikely story behind the phrase 'American exceptionalism'

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The US and Russian presidents fail to see eye to eye on some major issues. They also have a difference of opinion on one particular phrase.

"Exceptional." It was one word toward the end of President Barack Obama's address to the American people on Tuesday night, used to rally support for a possible military strike in Syria.

"When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act," said Obama. "That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."

Two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent a paragraph in his New York Times opinion piece responding to Obama's use of the word: "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is 'what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional.'

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

American commentators and politicians were quick to respond. "History teaches us that a strong and engaged America is a source of good in the world," wrote Republican Senator Marco Rubio in the National Review.

"No nation has liberated more people or done more to raise living standards around the world through trade and charity than the United States. We remain a beacon of hope for people around the world."

Start Quote

That's what 'exceptionalism' meant - that the US got a pass on certainly laws of history”

End Quote Joshua Micah Marshall Talkingpointsmemo

"America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it attempts to be a force for good because it is exceptional," Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

But what is "American exceptionalism", and where did it come from? It depends on whom you ask.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes that "exceptional" doesn't mean better, it just means different: "Americans aren't better than others, but our American experience is unique - exceptional - and it has created the world's most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world."

Others have looked into the history books for the roots of the term, and the results may be surprising to Putin. Terrence McCoy of the Atlantic, in a March 2012 article, notes that the term was first used by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to describe unco-operative American communists.

Citing author Ted Morgan's biography of Jay Lovestone, A Covert Life, McCoy writes: "In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this 'heresy of American exceptionalism'."

Ronald Reagan Reagan's 'shining city' speech further popularised the phrase

Joshua Micah Marshall, editor of the website Talkingpointsmemo, acknowledges the Soviet origins of the term, but credits its spread with post-World War II American historians such as Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter, who were trying to understand America's recent economic and social successes: "How and why was it able to avoid all the bloodletting and conflict which beset Europe (obviously this was a particularly glaring contrast in the late 40s and early 50s). The key seemed to come down to the absence, or relative absence, of class conflict."

Marshall notes: "In this sense, these 1950s academic intellectuals agreed with those Communists having their obscure discussion in the 1920s. They just saw as a good thing what the Communists saw as a bad thing… That's what 'exceptionalism' meant - that the US got a pass on certain laws of history that applied to the rest of the world - as though a particular person got a pass on insecurity and sadness."

The term fell into disuse in the ensuing decades, but the concept returned to prominence with the rise of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. His references to America as a "shining city on a hill" - a nod to John Winthrop and the early Puritan settlers of Massachusetts - embraced the idea of America as a unique example of freedom and hope.

Now, "American exceptionalism" has become a regular talking point among conservative politicians and commentators, a product of American patriotism, faith in God and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

They howled when Obama said in a 2009 interview: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." (In the full quote, Obama endorsed American exceptionalism, but in his opponents' eyes, the damage was done.)

"What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you," Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told a South Carolina audience in 2011.

With Obama's recent use of the word, and Mr Putin's stern rebuke, "American exceptionalism" - whatever it means - is here to stay.

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