Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World. Robert D. Kaplan, New York, NY: Random House, 2017.
Robert Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies sets him on a path as old as America—a path west, to the edge of the American Empire. Kaplan hitchhiked his way across the country as a teenager and crossed again as a journalist on assignment in his mid-thirties. Earning the Rockies records Kaplan’s third iteration of this same passage; this time he hopes to “...learn something about America’s place in the world by simply looking at the country…” around him.
I learned of this book when reading a profile of the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis while serving in Kabul last year. Secretary Mattis was reading it and I figured if he was, I probably should too. We read what others are reading, to understand how they think, what shapes their decisions. And, after a year abroad, it’s always good to reconnect with the heartland.
Kaplan, inspired by his father’s tales of life on the horse racing circuit during the Great Depression and oriented by Bernard DeVoto’s seminal text 1846: The Year of Decision, begins his journey to see the west his father explored and the America he inhabits today.
“One of the facts which define the United States is that its national and its imperial boundaries are the same.”
Regardless of what drove Americans west, it was the country’s geography—principally her river system—that facilitated the continental conquest and the consolidation of a nation-empire. Once across the Appalachians, pioneers found a robust drainage system that led them west to the Mississippi. Below the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers and above the Ohio River, St. Louis became an inland port and jumping off point for pioneers heading west to the Rockies and commercial captains floating south to the Gulf of Mexico.
After returning from Afghanistan, I drove the 15 hours from Washington DC to St. Louis non-stop, roughly paralleling Kaplan’s journey. Interstate 64 slices westward across America, bounding the Appalachians, crossing river after river, every one a Rubicon for early pioneers heading west.
Kaplan winds his way across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, where the flotsam of small towns swirl in the eddy of time’s wake. In 1940, Wheeling, West Virginia was a city of 61,000; Kaplan finds some of the survivors—28,000 citizens—outfitted in camouflage watching professional wrestling at gas stations. They are oblivious to the world beyond post-industrial Wheeling where the slag heap of America’s working class teeters on the verge of irrecoverable poverty. It is a Faulkneresque tale: the war on coal is over and coal country lies mortally wounded along Kaplan’s path. America’s city-states: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are rising in Wheeling’s place.
Kaplan begins to link the country’s foreign policy to its decaying small towns. America’s bustling and wealthy city-states are connected both intellectually and economically with each other, as well as the larger international liberal order, but they are increasingly disconnected from the geographical constructs of America. DeVoto saw this isolation too in his own work of the 1940s. He saw the Second World War coming. He saw America’s heartland secure, comfortable, looking inward, oblivious to the threats abroad. He also saw what was coming and knew the cost.
In Springfield, Illinois, Kaplan studies Lincoln’s desk. He considered the prairie, the rich loamy earth that yielded corn, which required powerful locomotives, whose design led to improved engines for American warships. Kaplan touches on the fatal weakness of the globalized half of America and it reaches your ears like a locomotive’s horn. “Uprooted from terrain, there is less to fight for, since the homeland means less than it used to. And by unmooring people from geographically rooted traditions, global culture makes them more susceptible to fashions and fads and eventually even to ideologies.”
I grew up here. I went to college 60 miles north of Springfield. Another 60 miles north, my grandfather turned the soil and grew corn and beans. He sent five children to college. He helped feed a nation. I feel rooted in that and yet drawn to a global culture. I believe America becomes the world. I also believe that being American must mean something to all of us.
Kaplan’s trip may be oriented by DeVoto, but it is also informed by Walter Russell Mead. By the time Kaplan reaches the Mississippi he has run out of Wilsonians, seen no Hamiltonians, and found no Jeffersonians. Instead, he prowls bars and diners full of Jacksonians—Americans who think little about their country’s foreign policy but “...who believe in honor, literal faith in God, and military institutions.” I read this and pause. I put the book down. I close my eyes and think of my drive to St. Louis.
The road winds around a hundred pastoral hilltops dotted with crosses, every one a Golgotha. At my 20 year high school reunion, a kid I went to school with, now a grown man and a high school teacher himself, stands before me and asks if I’ve ever killed anyone. I haven’t seen him in 20 years. He asks me this question like he might ask one of his students about a homework assignment. I clench the beer glass in my hand, thankful it is not a red plastic SOLO cup. The conversation ends with another schoolmate stating flatly, “Well thanks for serving buddy. I like my freedom; so you go over there and do whatever you need to.” The conversation betwixt those two lines is written in my journal. It shocks my Hamiltonian mind still.
Kaplan crosses the Mississippi. The plains roll ocean-like before him. The Mormon Trail marks the path west and Walter Prescott Webb’s book The Great Plains carries the narrative to the hundredth meridian of longitude where rainfall rarely rises above twenty inches. America’s quest was not to settle this land, but simply to survive and pass through it. And just as the coal and steel belt powered American industry, so too did this great desert shape America.
For here, slavery was not viable; the Louisiana Purchase effectively sealed the boundaries and the fate of the Confederacy before it was born. Behind western bound settlers came ranchers and cowboy culture. Kaplan finds stagecoach stops supplanted by monoculture towns spaced hundreds of miles apart where every hotel smells the same and restaurant choices are a slurry of corporate conglomerates. This America is both the same and different than the one William Least Heat Moon traveled in Blue Highways.
Americans are still westering; so too is the world.
At Mount Rushmore, Kaplan notes the influx of immigrants working in the local businesses. They are from Ukraine, India, and Nepal. They will become America. They are America, American. The parking lot is full of cars from across the country. Americans are still westering; so too is the world.
Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, all influenced by the Hudson River School, brought the American west to life. To stand before one of their paintings is to see the west and the Rockies as they were imagined, idealized a hundred and fifty years ago. In this we are reminded that our history as a country is but a brief moment in time.
I do not recall the first time I saw the Rockies as a child. There is something about seeing them as a young man that I will never forget. The feeling when the graveled road slips from sight and there is nothing but the alpine air, the terrain, and your intertwined fate to contend with. To sleep beneath the stars, in the Rockies, is to touch some primitive part of your American soul.
America did not just settle the west, it physically altered it with the Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Bonneville dams.
Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian guides Kaplan further west. Major John Wesley Powell’s exploits along the Colorado river evoke an emptiness reminiscent of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. Here, the world is so dry that public needs supplanted individual interests. America did not just settle the west, it physically altered it with the Hoover, Grand Coulee, and Bonneville dams. But even atop these monuments, from which previous generations saw the future, the dark moon of decline droops over the horizon.
We were on a transcontinental trip. We were unwestering: Monterey, California, to Washington, DC. We stood on the Hoover Dam and felt the wind blow up in our faces. In that moment, atop a structure built nearly a hundred years before, I could not help but believe that America could do anything. I wondered how long that would be true.
Kaplan can smell the Pacific before he sees it. In San Diego he sets his eyes upon a row of grey-hulled U.S. Navy warships. They are pointed west. America’s belief in, and pursuit of, a Manifest Destiny carried it to the Pacific and consolidated an empire into a nation. The Pacific was the only thing that stopped America’s territorial expansion. Kaplan’s description of the grey-hulls lined up is a physical and literary transition to America’s role in the world today.
“Geography is not where analysis of national power ends, but it is surely where it begins.”
Kaplan reminds us that America was spared the destruction suffered by Europe and Asia in the Second World War. With her infrastructure and industry intact and access to incomparable resources, America’s post-war destiny was to be the world's dominant power.
America’s ability to project power is what sets it apart from all other nations. This projection is manifest in America’s naval and air power. Without the Navy and the Air Force, the American Army is but a continental force. The Army does not secure the Global Commons; it is by sea and by air that America is still westering.
The consolidation of an empire into the nation we know today was not without its grievous historical moments. Kaplan acknowledges this and then makes a clear case that America’s position as the global hegemon is one of choice and that, objectively, no reasonable argument can be made that the world would be a better place should America abdicate her empire-like responsibilities.
Pragmatism must be America’s watchword, for neither isolationism nor unilateralism will work.
It was America’s good fortune—Manifest Destiny if you will—to rise on a temperate continent with abundant resources. Great Britain ceded its empire in part because it could trust and rely on the United States. America does not share this luxury. Pragmatism must be America’s watchword, for neither isolationism nor unilateralism will work. In the end, perhaps the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, said it best when addressing President Trump’s frustration over the expansive deployment of American forces around the world. “Unfortunately, sir, you have no choice.”
Kaplan is at the top of his game in these pages. It’s a beautiful drive to the coast, and Kaplan has a keen eye for details that even Paul Theroux would appreciate. Every scene is set with intimate details, yet we never meet an American by name. Instead, we come to know them as we know ourselves, in new and important ways.
This is an enjoyable read that illuminates great troubles with big ideas presented conversationally. It’s essential reading for Americans involved in our foreign policy—whether you’re drafting it, debating it, paying for it, or implementing it with a rifle in your hand.
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Header Image: Iler Stoe on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/eTah4Gpn6cM (accessed February 20, 2018).
 Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies, 11.
 Dexter Filkins, “James Mattis, a Warrior in Washington” The New Yorker, May 29, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/james-mattis-a-warrior-in-washington (accessed February 19, 2018).
 Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952). xxxi, 60.
 Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies, 80.
 Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies, 66.
 Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies, 132.
 Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan, “Trump’s favorite general: Can Mattis check an impulsive president and still retain his trust?” Washington Post Online, February 7, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/can-jim-mattis-check-an-impulsive-president-and-still-retain-his-trust/2018/02/07/289297a2-0814-11e8-8777-2a059f168dd2_story.html (accessed 15 February, 2018).