In his long career as foreign correspondent, Robert Kaplan has pursued stories in places as remote as Yemen and Outer Mongolia. In “Earning the Rockies,” he visits a place almost as remote to many Americans: these United States. Flyover country, the heartland, the land of the deplorables: Mr. Kaplan isn’t the only journalist to be seized with a desire to see the America that sent Donald Trump to the White House. But he reaches uncommon conclusions about what he has seen and what it means for our relations with the rest of the world.
For his journey, Mr. Kaplan has several guides. The first is Bernard DeVoto, the historian and columnist for Harper’s from the mid-1930s through the 1950s who composed an almost “cinematic rendition” of how the American West was won, from the early fur trappers to the Transcontinental Railroad. What DeVoto (1897-1955) may have lacked in attention to the displacement of Native Americans, Mr. Kaplan says, he made up for in his vigorous writing and narrative skill. “Alas, in post-Vietnam War academic circles,” Mr. Kaplan writes, “the tendency to reduce American history to the crimes of slavery and ‘genocide’ has simply left no room for DeVoto’s vivid, solidly researched, full-bodied re-creation of the nineteenth-century American West.” What DeVoto grasped forms the theme of Mr. Kaplan’s own book: that “America’s greatness, ultimately, is based on it being a nation, an empire, and a continent rolled into one.”
Another guide is the historian Walter Prescott Webb (1888-1963), who in the 1930s showed a similar sensitivity to the interaction of nationhood and geography. He viewed the Great Plains as “the key to unlocking the mystery of everything America was and was to become,” symbolized by the resourceful cowboy and by the region’s vast distances, bridged by wagon train, river barge, telegraph and railroad. Mr. Kaplan identifies one of Webb’s heirs in the novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner (1909-93), a writer who reveled in the natural glories of the American West.
Mr. Kaplan’s last guide is his own father, a truck driver who taught him the basics of American history and whose routes Mr. Kaplan follows, logging the long miles from Pennsylvania and West Virginia through the Ohio River Valley to the Midwest and Great Plains and across the Rockies. About this America Mr. Kaplan feels some ambivalence. Like “a mouse on a treadmill,” he passes the same franchises and strip malls in one town after another, meeting people who defy the cultural norms of Harvard and Tribeca. “American flags and . . . churches are ever-present,” he writes. At a gas-station lunch counter he watches the local folk gathering to dandle a newborn baby. “Nearly everyone looks poor and unhealthy,” he observes, “but they are dignified.” They talk “almost in unison about the miracle of life. . . . You have a good day, more than one of them says to me.”
This is what Mr. Kaplan means by “earning the Rockies”—getting to know non-elite America firsthand. Lest such a project sound like condescension, Mr. Kaplan observes that it is this part of the country—not Washington, New York or Los Angeles—that is ultimately “fated to lead.” Without the heartland, he suggests, the coastal elite is only precariously perched, an arrangement that is not uncommon in littoral nations.
Geography, Mr. Kaplan explains, has blessed the Midwest and Western states with a richness of forests and agricultural lands and a cornucopia of iron, coal, gold and hydrocarbon deposits, not to mention “more miles of navigable inland waterways than the rest of the world combined.” The river network cinches the interior together like laces on a shoe, and the Mississippi River connects America’s heartland to the Atlantic world and to the harbors along the Eastern coastline. Meanwhile, railroads and highways weave Americans into a patchwork quilt, an assemblage more enduring than the multiculturalists’ tapestry of grievance and identity. “Americans are a great people not only because of their democracy and their Protestant creed (uniting faith in one god with hard work, which all non-Protestant immigrants unconsciously adopt),” Mr. Kaplan writes, “but also because of where they happen to live.”
There are perils in this kind of geographic determinism. Russia, for example, has many of the same natural gifts, including inland river networks and its own frontier epic, but the results are very different. And one wonders how tattered that Protestant work ethic has become, even among Protestants. But the author’s point is a good one: America is formed, in part, by a geographic setting that is both sanctuary and watchtower. “Geographic bounty,” he writes, “has allowed the United States to both dominate the Western Hemisphere and help determine events in the Eastern Hemisphere.” Europe, Asia and Africa are now dotted with nations that are not as naturally blessed as ours but that profess the same faith in democratic values, and they are tied to us by commerce or culture or both.
Many of these nations, Mr. Kaplan notes, occupy outposts on a Eurasian landmass dominated by Russia and China—and, to a lesser degree, Iran. Without the U.S., he argues, they might not have survived the past century. He is referring to America’s role in two world wars, its superpower role during the Cold War, and, yes, its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ordeal of the post-9/11 wars, Mr. Kaplan concedes, has soured Americans’ broad sense of being fated to lead. He worries that it will bring on a new isolationism, that we will not realize that a U.S.-led global order is as important to our future as it is to the nations bordering, say, the South China Sea or the Baltic. “Because our geography works to a degree that the geographies of other continents do not, we as a people are freighted with responsibilities both moral and amoral,” he writes, meaning that our calculations involve both self-interest and the interests of others.
Whether the people that Mr. Kaplan met in that heartland gas station would feel the same way is hard to say. But if they can be convinced that who they are, and what they have to give, is what the world still needs, then American leadership may well flourish, even in this new and uncertain era.