Russian roots of American exceptionalism
September 17th, 2013
06:59 PM ET

Russian roots of American exceptionalism

By Jill Dougherty reporting from Valdai, Russia

Even as news was breaking of a shooting at Navy headquarters in Washington, a Russian lawmaker and talk-show host jumped on it to take a swipe at "American exceptionalism."

"A new shootout at Navy headquarters in Washington – a lone gunman and 7 corpses," Alexey Pushkov, head of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, Tweeted. "Nobody's even surprised anymore. A clear confirmation of American exceptionalism."

President Barack Obama mentioned the concept in his address to the nation on Syria last week.

"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. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional," Obama said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly took issue with that in his op-ed piece in the New York Times.

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," he wrote. "There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

It turns out, however, the quintessentially American expression, the phrase that's become the avatar of American neo-conservatives, actually began in Russia. The person who coined it was none other than Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin.

Monday, at a conference of Russian experts in Russia, Toby Gati, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, recounted the Soviet origins of the phrase to participants in the Valdai Discussion Club.

The term, Gati explained, was first used in 1929 "as American Marxists were trying to explain to the Soviet leadership why the United States would not go through a socialist stage and would not develop a Marxist society but would develop a system based on its own institutions and other principles."

Jay Lovestone, who became the general secretary of the U.S. Communist Party, wrote an essay in June of 1929 saying the nature of American capitalism was different and there would be no Communist Revolution.

Two years later, Stalin replied.

"He said did not agree with Jay Lovestone and he talked about the 'heresy of American exceptionalism,'" Gati said.

"And that, my friends, was the first time the phrase 'American exceptionalism' was used. It's the first time - but not the last time - that the phrase had to be explained to foreign leaders."

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Hey Ho

    Two phrases that could be best described America; "Land of opportunity & Land of the Free" . Here we try to make life better for everyone, Unlike Russian Government, "Oppress the many but benefit the few". If somehow it is hard for you to find and believe this reality....hey :(....America is Free, No one force you to stay here........Please move to where ever you think is better......Russia, China, IRan....etct..... GOOD LUCK.

    September 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  2. Alex279

    Actually, for those who want to look at the substance of the question Jill Dougherty wants to raise; it is simply manipulation of words.

    The concept of "American exceptionalism" as it was understood and debated back in 192x andf 193x is completely different and has nothing to do with "American exceptionalism" as it was mentioned by President Obama and responded by Putin.

    Back in 192x andf 193x, when most countries Europe was in messy economic and social situation, when communist ideas were popular as the response to powerty and injustice, and when Mussolini, and later Hirler and Franco ware on the raise, the idea of "American exceptionalism" was nothing more that just belief that American Society is immune to these processes because of various reasons, primariry better social mobility, lesser ballast, individualism, and, as the result, even Great Depression did not lead to self-organization into social movements, communist parties of more or less influence, and all other things so wide spead in Europe. Consonant to this is the idea of "American isolationism" so popular and widespread at that time (Dod not President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to trick Congress with lend-lease in order to get help to British and other allies going through?)

    "American exceptionalism" today is basically spirit of supremacy, and responsibility for the entire world, being world police, and meddle with other countries internal business leaving virtually nothing outside the scope.

    September 18, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  3. cheese

    America is "exceptional" in terms of having an exceptionally low quality of life in the developed world.

    While most developed countries strive for an advancement in social order, America strives to foment discord between different economic classes by pitting the uber-rich against everyone else in the country for no other reason than profit.

    What is truly "exceptional" about America is its EXCEPTIONAL GREED, in invading other countries purely for money, in its lawless bankers taking massive bonuses even in a face of mounting losses answerable to shareholders, and so on.

    So yes, America is truly exceptional. That is, exceptionally screwed.

    September 18, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  4. Ted Ward

    What makes America stand out as exceptional is Putin and what he represents.

    September 18, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  5. Rob S

    American exceptionalism is not new. It began in the 1840's and was called Manifest Destiny, an "ill-defined but keenly felt" set of principles that mandated America's expansion clear through to the West Coast. It was used to justify, among other things, the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico resulting from that action.

    September 18, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Reply
    • StanCalif

      We, the USA, strongly supports Israel's "claim" to their God given land. How can we even think of justifying this? Are we going to give back our country to the Native Americans we stole it from??? Sure, we bought Manhattan for some beads and trinkets (fair trade). We can legally keep Manhattan. The rest we simply stole. Israel's "claim" has no merit at all!
      Modern Israel was created by the UN after WW2, why? All of Europe, and Russia, desperately wanted to "clean house" and send all their Jews somewhere else! What better place than their "proclaimed" Holy Land. What right do the Jews have to this land? What right does the USA have to most of it's real estate? NONE!
      Proclaiming "rights" to land is no defense!

      September 18, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  6. manotick

    Instead of American exceptionalism, we in the rest of the world think of American losers!!

    September 18, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  7. Portland tony

    If American exceptionalism is measured by the efficiency of our government then Putin is right. Never before have so few done so much damage to the economic power of this nation than the parochial know nothing's in the House and Senate.

    September 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  8. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    September 18, 2013 at 4:45 am | Reply
    • Ted Ward

      Perhaps Iranians would have preferred to live under Stalin, instead.

      September 18, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  9. StanCalif

    Of course, what else would you expect Putin to say? He has won every election – any serious opponent suddenly "disappears", arrested on tax charges and sent to Siberia, shot dead on the street, or poisoned if residing out of the country! Did Obama resort to "eliminating" Romney or Hillary? No, they are both still alive!!! Putin can't comprehend this! His new attack on gays is Russia is further proof. No one challenges Putin (and lives to tell about it). Just another cruel dictator! But, this is exactly what the Russian people love about him!

    September 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Reply
    • *Bangash

      Stan no doubt being an American you must defend your side but ground realities are different and today Russian Putin has proved more efficient, influential and have very efficiently made Russia standing once again before the arrogance of USA. What we all saw at Navy yard just 2.6 miles away from the White House is a reaping what America has sown due to extraordinary reliance on weapon industries, making it the major source of income. Shooter in this tragedy had just two days back purchased weapon and two ammunition boxes in quite legal way like any other usual commodity. This shows why Americans are baby killers all over the world and even at home if we remember another tragic incident of shooting at school where little angels were killed. Contrary to this Russian have risen from the debris of their fallen empire with a new vision of pure commercialism making militarism the bad history of the past. Now it is up to you to decide who is best for his nation and rest of the world if you have eyes and see what America has done in Iraq Afghanistan Pakistan and now once again MIddle East. Difference is clear.

      September 18, 2013 at 9:25 am | Reply
      • StanCalif

        Putin certainly does not em brass "capitalism", how can you say this? China has and China is far ahead of Putin! Has China ever put one "boot on the ground" anywhere? No! China simply takes advantage of all the mistakes we and Russia continue to make. Does Russia send large container ships of merchandise anywhere? NO!
        Putin controls everything in Russia. His Gazprom is his pride and joy. Sure, he doesn't need nuclear weapons anymore to achieve his goals. Remember Lukoil? Lukoil was on its way to become a commercially successful private "capitalist" enterprise in Russia. Putin could not tolerate this, so he simply took it over! Putin personally controls who gets his gas at at what price! This is not "capitalism". Sure, his mandated prices to Europe is cheap today. What happens tomorrow? But any country is subject to Putin's whim. Ukraine is a prime example! Putin wants to take back Ukraine very seriously, so he charges Ukraine more for his gas than his European customers. Now, Ukraine is buying Russian gas from European countries at a lower price!
        No, Putin is no capitalist. He is just another dictator who makes sure he wins any elections. Oppose Putin and you wind up dead or sent to prison in Siberia! Just like Stalin (his hero) did! Putin is a bigger danger than anyone wants to admit!

        September 18, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • Portland tony

      Representative democracy doesn't necessarily mean that 51% majority of the people can exert their will over 49% of the minority and everybody will live in an eternal state of harmony!

      September 18, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  10. Alex279

    Jill, a ganman in Navy headquarters in Washington is breaking news only in USA. Russia has its own problems, in fact a lot of them, flooding in Far East for example. A diplomat was gunned down in Abkhazia a couple years ago together with his wife - that is a shock. Syria took some bit of attention. A gunman somewhere in the United States? They probably heard about briefly, but it happens more or less on regular basis in the United States - so people got used to hear about events like this. Of course, senseless shooting of children in a school brings a extraordinary sorrow. But the latest shooutout falls more or less into the line of just another crazy person unhappy after loosing his job. Some pundits took the event and use it to make a point. So what? Pundits are pundits everywhere.

    September 17, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Reply

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