There are two prongs to the famous "frontier thesis" which reporter Terry Pristin looks at in her piece on historians of the American West ("Taming of the Wild West Is Rewritten by Scholars," Part A, Nov. 14). On the one hand, the man who came up with this thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner, related American democracy to the "safety valve" function of the frontier. So long as there was lots of land on the other side of the border, and you were willing to destroy any Indian nation that stood in your way, losers in the "settled areas" could move west, get land of their own and become part of the self-supporting, self-governing mainstream.
This was the historical part of the thesis. Turner used it to explain how the nation had managed to flourish up to 1890, expanding in the course of three centuries from one edge of the continent to the other.
Turner's second point was more threatening, and perhaps more relevant. To make it possible for you to afford your special version of democracy, he warned us, you have had to take over this entire land mass. The question now is, where are you going to expand next?
Teddy Roosevelt in Panama and the Philippines, Woodrow Wilson in Vera Cruz, Haiti and Flanders, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan in Nicaragua and Grenada, each had his own answer to Turner's challenge. George Bush's upcoming grab for Middle Eastern oil is in the same brutal tradition.