A Critical Reading of U.S. Political Culture and History, from Hiroshima to Ukraine.
Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American takes place in French-occupied Indochina, modern-day Vietnam, during the French war of occupation and before the U.S. invasion. In one scene, a British war correspondent named Fowler finds himself stranded with Pyle – a wide-eyed American CIA agent – in a Vietnamese watchtower after their car runs out of fuel on a return trip to Saigon. Fowler sees in Pyle the folly of American idealism and jabs that ‘you and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.’
‘They don’t want communism,’ retorts Pyle, referring to the two Vietnamese soldiers sitting petrified on the other side of the tower, and perhaps to the entire population of Indochinese colonial subjects.
‘They want enough rice,’ explains Fowler, with the metaphoric maturity of a dying imperial power. ‘They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.’
The metaphor of Pyle serving to represent the United States couldn’t be clearer. An upper-class kid from Boston who read one too many books on Democracy finds himself stumbling into a conflict halfway across the world, attempting to impose his ideas on a people who never asked for him or his absurd conceptions of freedom. Like that of the U.S., Pyle’s nominal innocence, his striving to make a better world, is wholly misguided. And like those of his country, Pyle’s adventure causes much more harm than good.
Just as Pyle could not see the falseness of his ideas, many of us are now living in a simulated reality in which the world’s political order is, and for the foreseeable future will be, dictated by the United States, where morality and democracy are being brought to disparate places thanks to American ingenuity and values. It is true that the U.S. still runs the show in many matters, but the unshakeable faith (by those in the U.S. and Europe) in American superiority is completely unfounded. A new, multipolar world order threatens to break out at any moment. The America of yesterday is gone, and good riddance!
The rise of American imperial domination after World War II was always based on a false premise that America had something to offer the world besides continued war. The idea of an all-powerful, democracy-loving United States not only obscures a brutal reality but continues to distort our mental image of great power politics. China and Russia must fail, because for them to succeed is for America to fail, and that is inconceivable. It’s as if the old saying defining our neoliberal era – that we’d sooner imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism – has morphed into an unjustly, profoundly optimistic vision of American ideology. And since the leadership classes of the U.S. and Europe can’t see the world in any other way, they are leading us down the path towards nuclear destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of WWII were gift-wrapped with the image of a smiling Uncle Sam. Now, his teeth are blackened, dirtied by the wars and financial exploitation he exported around the world, and the very weapons which gave him power might be used again because he simply can’t see how weak and deluded he’s become.
In the immediate years following the mass murder of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American leadership and the white-controlled mass media were almost entirely uncritical of U.S. foreign policy and the launching of an imperial agenda. As John Fousek writes in To Lead the Free World, magazines such as Time and Life disseminated the idea that ‘America’s democratic values, particularly individual freedom and justice under law, made U.S. world leadership possible, desirable, and necessary, because these values reflected universal human aspirations.’ To President Truman and his administration, the Four Freedoms which stood in stark contrast to the fascist regimes defeated in WWII should be spread across the world, on U.S. terms: freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. In the immediate postwar years, Americans had already developed a distinct desire to make the world in their image.
Tellingly, the Four Freedoms were reduced to three by 1947. In a speech at Baylor University which paved the way for the Truman Doctrine’s introduction, the president maintained the freedoms of worship and speech. I quote here again from Fousek:
‘But freedom from fear and freedom from want, with their socialistic overtones, were now replaced with freedom of enterprise…In this manner, Truman conflated freedom and capitalism, a conflation with deep roots in U.S. political culture, no doubt, but one which now served as an explicit underpinning of U.S. foreign policy…The belief that all freedom depended on freedom of enterprise would serve as perhaps the most potent rationale for global anticommunism.’
Here, the game is given away: the goal of the United States’ foreign policy after WWII was not to contain Communism and help Democracy proliferate, but to shape a world amenable to U.S. business interests. This was not a ‘war’ between two superpowers, as we are taught to believe, but rather a case of U.S. financial and military imperialism. Walter White, the renowned leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) critiqued the Truman Doctrine: ‘Having failed miserably to assure democratic elections in Mississippi and Georgia,’ White said, ‘we will have set out to assure them all over the world outside of the United States.’ Even more to the point, ongoing lynchings of black people across the southern United States were condemned by the white press, according to Fousek, not for their inherent despicableness but because they provided Russia with propaganda ammunition.
President Truman, speaking at an NAACP rally, opined that ‘freedom is not an easy lesson to teach, nor an easy cause to sell’ to those who may be tempted ‘by totalitarian regimes, unless we can prove the superiority of democracy.’
Today, that superiority has failed to be proven, that lesson failed to be taught, and that cause remains on the shelf, unopened, waiting to be purchased. It sits there because the product being sold by America was defective. We espouse democracy and freedom in rhetorical form, yet at home and abroad we use coercion, violence, and subjugation as a means to solve our problems.
The militarist aspect of United States imperialism should go without saying, but we so often forget this in today’s world of rampant U.S. propaganda. A short list is impossible: Invasions of Korea, Vietnam, and countless West Asian countries; the funding of terrorist organisations across the world, including narco-trafficking regimes in Central America; the attempted and successful assassinations of democratically elected leaders across the Global South who aimed to break free of the ‘free world,’ and of John F. Kennedy, the one Cold War president whose aim with Russia was diplomacy, not escalation; the aiding of genocidal campaigns in East Timor, Palestine, and elsewhere; the decades-long illegal embargo on Cuba and concomitant hostage-taking of the United Nations with its veto power. The list of crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Americans in the name of Freedom of Enterprise is seemingly endless.
The scope of the criminal enterprise does not end here, though. As former Wall Street analyst and renowned economist Michael Hudson has written, U.S. financial exploitation of the rest of the world over the past century took on the form of a ‘Super Imperialism’ (1972). The first globalised bureaucracy, in the form of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, came into being after the war, leading to countless debt crises in the Global South under the guise of ‘U.S. aid’ to these poor nations. Hudson writes:
'U.S. aid strategy thus has been designed to further America's foreign policies, whether or not these coincided with the real needs of the borrowing countries. Viewed in its broadest outlines, U.S. foreign aid has provided short-term resources to recipients in exchange for long-term strategic, military, and economic gains to the donor.'
I intentionally drag you through this cesspool of historical grievances not to scare or bore, but to prompt you to think about what this all means today. The War in Ukraine provides an example of the perniciousness of both the military and financial imperialism of the United States, and how the two fuse together. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year said that American aims in Ukraine are simply to weaken Russia militarily, and the U.S. is willing to support the war effort in a ‘fight to the last Ukrainian’ in order to achieve these goals, according to policymakers and the mass media. NATO artillery being sent to Kyiv must be replaced, in the U.S. and Europe, by weapons from American arms dealers, and the Zelensky government is selling off state assets to Wall Street firms like Blackrock. Like countless other poor countries, Ukraine is being drained of life – metaphorically and quite literally – by a U.S. hell-bent on continued imperialism. This is not to endorse or discount the role of Russian militarism in the conflict, but to show that U.S. involvement is hypocritical and dangerous, particularly when we consider that Zelensky’s government itself was close to an agreement in April of 2022 before – according to multiple sources, including the former PM of Israel – Washington intervened to keep the bullets flying.
We think we are fighting for freedom and democracy, but all we are doing is, in the words of U.S. international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, simply leading Ukraine down the primrose path towards destruction. In doing so, we are escalating tensions with a major nuclear adversary to the point where our annihilation appears closer than at any time since Truman issued the Anola Gay to drop 64 kilos of enriched uranium on an already-defeated Imperial Japan.
Nearly seventy years after the publishing of The Quiet American, Greene’s warning to the United States is just as prescient. After emerging from the ‘Cold War’ as a victor, the U.S. saw nothing standing in its way of achieving total global dominance. The post-war hope of ‘One World’ helmed by American ideals of freedom could now finally be achieved, the so-called ‘End of History’ with an earth unencumbered by Communism. Of course, that’s not exactly how the story panned out. Millions of people have died, and continue to suffer, in West Asia under the boot of American militarism. Countries that do not abide by the proposed neoliberal economic model are shunned from the international community and hit with sanctions designed to harm the most vulnerable.
It has become even more obvious in recent years that this period of U.S. hegemony is ever so slowly coming to a halt. And it couldn’t come soon enough.