Here are two versions of American history:
One is that the nation came into being based on the principles of the Enlightenment, in which liberty was a supreme value. Rights like freedom of speech and religion were enshrined in its Bill of Rights. About 70 years after its founding, it was torn by a remarkably bloody war in which the idea that human slavery was acceptable was soundly defeated, and that abominable institution was ended. Thanks to its commitment to free enterprise, it expanded to both sides of the continent, providing unprecedented opportunities for prosperity and development. Great universities were established, and culture and science thrived.
During WWII, the US turned its mighty industrial power toward defeating the murderous regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. 417,000 Americans died in that war. Afterwards, the US took the lead in establishing international institutions (like the UN) designed to prevent war and spread freedom and prosperity throughout the world.
After the war, the US opposed the attempts of the Soviet Union to export its totalitarian communism. Ultimately, due to a great extent to US efforts, the USSR collapsed and numerous European countries that had become satellites obtained their freedom.
The Civil Rights movement brought about the end of segregation in the south, as well as other forms of institutionalized racism against African-Americans. Laws were passed guaranteeing voting rights, fair housing, forbidding discrimination in employment, etc. on the basis of race, sex, disability, etc.
The invention of the microprocessor and the development of the computer and communications industry, arguably producing an economic revolution as important as that of the steam engine, began in the US, and innovation continues here.
Another view is that the US was built, from the beginning, on exploitation. Its early economic development was based on slave labor, and since the beginning is has ripped through the natural resources of the continent in the most greedy way possible. Anything that stood in the way of expansion — like indigenous native Americans, who were slaughtered wholesale — was destroyed.
Even after the end of slavery, African Americans were exploited for their labor while being treated abominably. Other industrial workers were paid just enough to keep them alive, and attempts at unionization were met by bullets.
At the beginning of WWII, Japanese citizens were forced into internment camps. The US was the first nation to use atomic weapons, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. After the war, the US opposed indigenous liberation movements throughout the world, using military force to defend the colonialist world order in places like Vietnam.
The US continues to exploit and oppress third-world peoples, especially where there are important resources, like oil. Racism is inseparable from our culture.
In recent years, economic inequality has soared, and inflation-adjusted middle-class income has dropped since the 1960′s while a small group of super-rich have become astronomically wealthy. Despite its overall wealth, the US has a worse health care system than most other developed nations. Powerful interests prevent actions from being taken to reduce the emission of pollutants, greenhouse gases, etc., which foul the entire planet.
Neither of these stories is 100% correct and complete (but they are not ‘equally good’, either).
No nation is perfect, and they all have skeletons in their closets (just ask the Belgians about the Congo — and we won’t even bring up the British, upon whose exploitative empire the sun never set). But the US does have a commitment to such things as individual rights (as expressed in the Bill of Rights), equality of opportunity, social mobility, democracy, rule of law, etc. Many other nations — perhaps most of them — don’t even pay lip service to these ideals, much less exemplify them.
Where do you start? Do you accept the idea that the US is based on fundamentally sound principles and is an overall force for good in the world? That our job is to fix the problems, but continue on the same general path laid down by the Founding Fathers?
Or do you start with the second story — I’ll call it the ‘anti-American’ one — and conclude that our country is evil, responsible for most of the misery in the world, and must be destroyed or at least completely turned upside down to save it?