Is the US a Civilized Nation?

The title of this piece may seem stupid to many. They would respond that obviously the US is civilized. After all, we have a highly developed society and culture which is a definition of civilized. In addition, as a sign of our culture, they proudly point to our museums, theaters, and symphonies that, along with our colleges and universities, are among the best in the world.

Adjectives found in other definitions of civilized are humane, ethical and reasonable. Antonyms include barbaric, savage, and inhumane. Many of us would likely agree with the following sentence:

A civilized society or country has a well developed system of government, culture, and way of life and that treats the people who live there fairly.

Definitions or use of civilized thus allow room for interpretations. For example, I would certainly agree that the US has a highly developed society and culture. However, our highly developed system of government has been badly corrupted to benefit the wealthy and powerful. As a result of this corruption, our government and economic system unethically prioritize profit for the few over the interests of the many. Hence I would argue that having a highly developed society and culture does not necessarily imply fairness, and thus it isn’t necessarily evidence that the US is civilized. In addition, unlike much of Western Europe, the US has not implemented many of the human rights identified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For more evidence of our inhumane behavior, would a civilized society accept or allow:

  • the genocide of American Indians or slavery;
  • a large number of people, including families with children, to be homeless;
  • a judicial system that is terribly biased against minorities and the poor;
  • education to be so expensive that many students will be encumbered with huge debts often requiring decades to pay off;
  • health insurance and pharmaceutical industries to make the cost of health care so expensive that many people cannot afford it;
  • some employers to pay workers less than what is necessary to provide the basics for their families;
  • some citizens being kept from voting based on their race;
  • the horrific abuse of refugees and immigrants;
  • industry to pollute the air, water and soil, threatening the health of people living nearby; and
  • the future of coming generations to be seriously harmed through our government’s inaction or our continuing a lifestyle that leads to a climate catastrophe?

When Europeans came to the American continents, they viewed the indigenous people as being savages. However, consider the following prophecy:

Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find money cannot be eaten.

Cree Prophecy

The indigenous peoples understood that environmental protection was essential, that the lust for money was extremely dangerous, and that we had to consider how our actions would impact the future. We are finally beginning to appreciate these facts as the climate catastrophe becomes more obvious to all.

In addition, the immoral war crimes we have committed against other nations, including the indigenous nations, displays a shameful level of savagery and barbarism. For example, according to J. Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb), Secretary of War Henry Stimson struggled with the moral issues raised by WWII and expressed dismay at the “appalling” lack of conscience and compassion ushered in by the war. Stimson stated that he was disturbed by the “complacency, the indifference, and the silence with which we greeted the mass bombings in Europe, and, above all, Japan.”

Army General Omar Bradley, the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated this point:

Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.1

Admiral Leahy, Chief of Staff to presidents Roosevelt and Truman, criticized the use of the atomic bomb:

It is my opinion that the use of the barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. … My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.2

Unfortunately, we have continued with these savage and barbaric policies in, for example, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. We have also imposed sanctions on a number of nations such as North Korea, Venezuela and Iran that don’t comply with our policies, and these cruel and brutal sanctions are crimes against humanity. This unnecessary and illegal killing by the US of untold numbers while devastating countries and populations that were not a threat to it were hardly acts of a civilized nation.

  1. Speech to Boston Chamber of Commerce, 1948. []
  2. I was there:  The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc ., 1950. []
Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics from the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston and was a Green Party candidate for Congress and also for governor of Colorado. Read other articles by Ron.