Those who study history hear differently. In his magnificently crafted address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on September 24th, Pope Francis raised an issue that commentators overlooked or, at best, misread: his acknowledgment that the European occupation of the Western Hemisphere was hard on indigenous peoples, followed by the observation that we can’t fairly judge the past by today’s criteria.
That sounded like a surprisingly forgiving and realistic take on the United States’ frontier experience. Or, perhaps, an apologia for the alleged “crimes” of Father Junipero Serra, the missionary to old northwest Mexico (now California) who was canonized by the Pope in the course of his visit.
It wasn’t merely—or fundamentally—about those subjects. It was the defensive statement of an Argentine patriot using the North American experience to excuse his own country’s violence toward native peoples (about which he is, nonetheless, correct that it’s wrong to judge another century’s acts by today’s moral statutes).
In the 19th century in the Western hemisphere, two states fought a protracted series of wars to subdue their frontiers, the United States and Argentina. Others, such as Chile or Canada, saw lesser violence, but the great wars of conquest were directed from Washington and Buenos Aires.
And the Argentine conquest appears to have been the crueler.
Settlers in the Spanish territory that became Argentina faced Indian threats from the beginning, but as the population swelled and expanded its territorial claims, the violence grew more frequent and extreme, with Indian raids on settlers similar to those experienced on the American frontier. Finally, in 1833, Juan Manuel de Rosas—a man of great vision and spectacular brutality who would rule Argentina as dictator—launched his “Desert Campaign,” which pushed back the frontier to Patagonia. Still, Indian raids continued, on and off, as did minor punitive expeditions, until the 1870s saw the years-long campaign, the “Conquest of the Desert,” that finally mastered all of Patagonia—which would become Argentina’s agricultural heartland, facilitating a turn-of-the-century economic boom.
Those wars saw a long list of massacres, atrocities, forced removals and the treatment of Argentina’s aboriginal peoples as animals, rather than humans.
When the Pope told Americans not to judge the past by today’s standards, we thought of our “Trail of Tears,” or of the last, murderous drives to contain our Indians on bleak reservations. But the Pope saw mounted troops in Argentine uniforms hunting down natives like game animals.
The Pope was correct about the folly of politically correct judgments about the past. But he was haunted by his ghosts, not by ours.