(This article is published in Salon.)
Ayn Rand is the patron saint of the libertarian Right. Her writings are quoted in a quasi-religious manner by American reactionaries, cited like Biblical codices that offer profound answers to all of life’s complex problems (namely, just “Free the Market”). Yet, despite her impeccable libertarian bona fides, Rand defended the colonization and genocide of what she called the “savage” Native Americans — one of the most authoritarian campaigns of death and suffering ever orchestrated.
“Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Ayn Rand proclaimed, “and it is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights.”
Rand made these remarks before the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on March 6, 1974, in a little-known Q&A session. Rand’s comments in this obscure Q&A are appearing in full for the first time, here in Salon.
“Philosophy: Who Needs It” remains one of Ayn Rand’s most popular and influential speeches. The capitalist superstar delivered the talk as a commencement address at West Point 41 years ago. In the definitive collection of Rand’s thoughts on philosophy, Philosophy: Who Needs It, the lecture was chosen as the lead and eponymous essay. This was the last book Rand worked on before she died; that this piece, ergo, was selected as the title and premise of her final work attests to its significance as a cornerstone of her entire worldview.
The Q&A session that followed this talk, however, has gone largely unremembered — and most conveniently for the fervent Rand aficionado, at that. For it is in this largely unknown Q&A that Rand enthusiastically defended the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
In the Q&A, a man asked Rand:
At the risk of stating an unpopular view, when you were speaking of America, I couldn’t help but think of the cultural genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Black men in this country, and the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II. How do you account for all of this in your view of America?
(A transcript of Ayn Rand’s full answer is included at the bottom of this article.)
Rand replied insisting that “the issue of racism, or even the persecution of a particular race, is as important as the persecution of individuals.” “If you are concerned with minorities, the smallest minority on Earth is an individual,” she added, before proceeding to blame racism and the mass internment of Japanese-Americans on “liberals.” “Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up,” Rand maintained. And those who defend “racist” affirmative action, she insisted, “are the ones who are institutionalizing racism today.”
Although the libertarian luminary expressed firm opposition to slavery, she rationalized it by saying “black slaves were sold into slavery, in many cases, by other black tribes.” She then, ahistorically, insisted that slavery “is something which only the United States of America abolished.”
Massive applause followed Rand’s comments, which clearly strongly resonated with the graduating class of the U.S. military. Rand’s most extreme and opprobrious remarks, nevertheless, were saved for her subsequent discussion of Native Americans.
“Savages” who deserved to be conquered
In a logical sleight of hand that would even confound and bewilder even Lewis Carroll, Ayn Rand proclaimed in the 1974 Q&A that it was in fact indigenous Americans who were the racists, not the white settlers who were ethnically cleansing them. The laissez-faire leader declared that Native Americans did not “have any right to live in a country merely because they were born here and acted and lived like savages.”
“Americans didn’t conquer” this land, Rand asserted, and “you are a racist if you object to that.” Since “the Indians did not have any property rights — they didn’t have the concept of property,” she said, “they didn’t have any rights to the land.”
If “a country does not protect rights,” Rand asked — referring specifically to property rights — “why should you respect the rights they do not have?” She took the thought to its logical conclusion, contending that anyone “has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in this country.”
Rand then blamed Native Americans for breaking the agreements they made with the Euro-American colonialists. The historical reality, though, was exactly the contrary: white settlers constantly broke the treaties they made with the indigenous, and regularly attacked them.
“Let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages, which they certainly were not,” Rand persisted. “What was it that they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their right to keep part of the earth untouched, unused, and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal?” she asked.
“Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said, “and it is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights.”
Rand’s rosy portrayal of the colonization of the modern-day Americas is in direct conflict with historical reality. In his book American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, American historian David Stannard estimates that approximately 95 percent of indigenous Americans died after the beginning of European settler colonialism. “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world,” writes Prof. Stannard. “Within no more than a handful of generations following their first encounters with Europeans, the vast majority of the Western Hemisphere’s native peoples had been exterminated.”
West Point appeared to express no concern with Rand’s extreme, white supremacist views, nevertheless. A West Point official offered final remarks after her speech, quipping: “Ms. Rand, you have certainly given us a delighted example of a major engagement in philosophy, in the wake of which you have left a long list of casualties” — to which the audience laughed and applauded. “And have tossed and gored several sacred cows,” he added. “I hope so,” Rand replied.
More than just seemingly condoning Rand’s comments, the U.S. Military Academy also admirably echoed Ayn Rand’s views. “Ms. Rand, in writing Atlas Shrugged,” the West Point official continued at the graduation ceremony, “made one remark that I thought was important to us when she said that the only proper purpose of a government is to protect Man’s rights, and the only proper functions of the government are the police, to protect our property at home; the law, to protect our rights and contracts; and the army, to protect us from foreign threats. And we appreciate your coming to the home of the Army tonight to address us.” More thunderous applause followed.
Tracking down the evidence
The book Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A includes Rand’s Manifest Destiny-esque defense of settler colonialism among some of the “best of her” public statements. Ayn Rand Answers was edited by philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, whom the Ayn Rand Institute describes as an “Objectivist scholar,” referring to the libertarian ideology created by Rand. ARI lists Prof. Mayhew as one of its Ayn Rand experts, and notes that he serves on the board of the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. The transcript included in Prof. Mayhew’s collection is full of errors, however, and reorders her remarks.
A recording of the West Point commencement address was available for free on the ARI website as early as April 2009. Up until around October 18, 2013, separate recordings of the speech and Q&A were still freely accessible. By October 22, nonetheless, ARI had removed the recordings from its website and put them up for sale.
Some copies of the 1974 recording have circulated the Internet, but in order to verify the quotes and authenticate the transcript, I ordered an official MP3 recording of the event from the Ayn Rand Institute eStore. (After all, I was working on a piece involving Ayn Rand, so I figured it was only natural that I had to buy something.) The quotes in this piece are directly transcribed from the official recording of Rand’s West Point speech and Q&A.
ARI created an entire course devoted to the single lecture in its online education program. ARI implores readers, “Come hear Rand enlighten and entertain the West Point cadets (laughter can be heard at various points in the audio).” The laughter often followed Rand’s most egregious remarks. Defending one of human history’s most horrific genocides can apparently be quite comical.
Ayn Rand speaking about racism, slavery, and Native Americans, at West Point in 1974 (TRANSCRIPT)
To begin with, there is much more to America than the issue of racism. I do not believe that the issue of racism, or even the persecution of a particular race, is as important as the persecution of individuals, because when you deprive individuals of rights, if you deprive any small group, all individuals lose their rights. Therefore, look at this fundamentally: If you are concerned with minorities, the smallest minority on Earth is an individual. If you do not respect individual rights, you will sacrifice or persecute all minorities, and then you get the same treatment given to a majority, which you can observe today in Soviet Russia.
But if you ask me well, now, should America have tolerated slavery? I would say certainly not. And why did they? Well, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, or the debates about the Constitution, the best theoreticians at the time wanted to abolish slavery right then and there—and they should have. The fact is that they compromised with other members of the debate and their compromise has caused this country a dreadful catastrophe which had to happen, and that is the Civil War. You could not have slavery existing in a country which proclaims the inalienable rights of Man. If you believe in the rights and the institution of slavery, it’s an enormous contradiction. It is to the honor of this country, which the haters of America never mention, that people died giving their lives in order to abolish slavery. There was that much strong philosophical feeling about it.
Certainly slavery was a contradiction. But before you criticize this country, remember that that is a remnant of the politics and the philosophies of Europe and of the rest of the world. The black slaves were sold into slavery, in many cases, by other black tribes. Slavery is something which only the United States of America abolished. Historically, there was no such concept as the right of the individual. The United States is based on that concept. So that so as long as men held to the American political philosophy, they had to come to the point, even of a civil war, but of eliminating the contradiction with which they could not live—namely, the institution of slavery.
Incidentally, if you study history following America’s example, slavery or serfdom was abolished in the whole civilized world during the 19th century. What abolished it? Not altruism. Not any kind of collectivism. Capitalism. The world of free trade could not coexist with slave labor. And countries like Russia, which was the most backward and had serfs liberated them, without any pressure from anyone, by economic necessity. Nobody could compete with America economically so long as they attempted to use slave labor. Now that was the liberating influence of America.
That’s in regard to the slavery of Black people. But as to the example of the Japanese people—you mean the labor camps in California? Well, that was certainly not put over by any sort of defender of capitalism or Americanism. That was done by the left-wing progressive liberal Democrats of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
[Massive applause follows, along with a minute in which the moderator asks Ayn Rand to respond to the point about the genocide of Native Americans. She continues.]
If you study reliable history, and not liberal, racist newspapers, racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up—racism in the sense of self-consciousness and separation about races. Yes, slavery existed as a very evil institution, and there certainly was prejudice against some minorities, including the Negroes after they were liberated. But those prejudices were dying out under the pressure of free economics, because racism, in the prejudicial sense, doesn’t pay. Then, if anyone wants to be a racist, he suffers, the workings of the system is against him.
Today, it is to everyone’s advantage to form some kind of ethnic collective. The people who share your viewpoint or from whose philosophy those catchphrases come, are the ones who are institutionalizing racism today. What about the quotas in employment? The quotas in education? And I hope to God—so I am not religious, but just to express my feeling—that the Supreme Court will rule against those quotas. But if you can understand the vicious contradiction and injustice of a state establishing racism by law. Whether it’s in favor of a minority or a majority doesn’t matter. It’s more offensive when it’s in the name of a minority because it can only be done in order to disarm and destroy the majority and the whole country. It can only create more racist divisions, and backlashes, and racist feelings.
If you are opposed to racism, you should support individualism. You cannot oppose racism on one hand and want collectivism on the other.
But now, as to the Indians, I don’t even care to discuss that kind of alleged complaints that they have against this country. I do believe with serious, scientific reasons the worst kind of movie that you have probably seen—worst from the Indian viewpoint—as to what they did to the white man.
I do not think that they have any right to live in a country merely because they were born here and acted and lived like savages. Americans didn’t conquer; Americans did not conquer that country.
Whoever is making sounds there, I think is hissing, he is right, but please be consistent: you are a racist if you object to that [laughter and applause]. You are that because you believe that anything can be given to Man by his biological birth or for biological reasons.
If you are born in a magnificent country which you don’t know what to do with, you believe that it is a property right; it is not. And, since the Indians did not have any property rights—they didn’t have the concept of property; they didn’t even have a settled, society, they were predominantly nomadic tribes; they were a primitive tribal culture, if you want to call it that—if so, they didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.
It would be wrong to attack any country which does respect—or try, for that matter, to respect—individual rights, because if they do, you are an aggressor and you are morally wrong to attack them. But if a country does not protect rights—if a given tribe is the slave of its own tribal chief—why should you respect the rights they do not have?
Or any country which has a dictatorship. Government—the citizens still have individual rights—but the country does not have any rights. Anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in this country and neither you nor a country nor anyone can have your cake and eat it too.
In other words, want respect for the rights of Indians, who, incidentally, for most cases of their tribal history, made agreements with the white man, and then when they had used up whichever they got through agreement of giving, selling certain territory, then came back and broke the agreement, and attacked white settlements.
I will go further. Let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages, which they certainly were not. What was it that they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their right to keep part of the earth untouched, unused, and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves about.
Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights.
I am, incidentally, in favor of Israel against the Arabs for the very same reason. There you have the same issue in reverse. Israel is not a good country politically; it’s a mixed economy, leaning strongly to socialism. But why do the Arabs resent it? Because it is a wedge of civilization—an industrial wedge—in part of a continent which is totally primitive and nomadic.
Israel is being attacked for being civilized, and being specifically a technological society. It’s for that very reason that they should be supported—that they are morally right because they represent the progress of Man’s mind, just as the white settlers of America represented the progress of the mind, not centuries of brute stagnation and superstition. They represented the banner of the mind and they were in the right.