America against itself

About the author
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Among his books are A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007) and The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)
The United States's predicament is that one side of its dualist face has come to predominate. But bullying will not forever eclipse idealism, says Godfrey Hodgson.

Jan Morris spoke for many around the world in a piece in the Guardian on 14 February 2007 in which she admitted to disenchantment with what the United States has become. "[The] missionary instinct", she wrote, "which impelled Americans into so many noble policies, was to be perverted by power". And even, "[far] from being the most beloved country on earth, today the US is the most thoroughly detested".

No doubt there she exaggerated: think North Korea? And she was wrong to trace American exceptionalism back to Abraham Lincoln and his belief that America was "the last best hope": exceptionalism goes back a long way farther than that. But she has put her finger on something that puzzles and angers many Americans and distresses those of us who have loved what we thought America stood for.

There are, I think, two points to be made:

  • America has changed, hardened and mobilised since the cold war, and even more since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of the age of terror on 11 September 2001
  • America was always a tougher, more ruthless society than American patriots wanted to admit, less innocent, less free from the common failings of mankind than American exceptionalists claimed.

The path to militarisation

Paul Nitze, arch-cold warrior, and incidentally the mentor of Paul Wolfowitz, drafted NSC-68 in 1950, the call to arms that persuaded the Truman administration to quadruple defence expenditure and gird itself, in Dean Acheson's image, to stand at Armageddon and do battle against communism for the Lord.

What is less well known is that, in NSC-68, Nitze wrote "the resort to force, to compulsion, to the imposition of its will is therefore a difficult and dangerous act for a free society, which is warranted only in the face of even greater dangers. The necessity of the act must be clear and compelling; the act must commend itself to the overwhelming majority as an inescapable exception to the basic idea of freedom." Measure the distance between the arch-hawk's reluctant formulation, and the triumphalist acceptance in 2003 of America's right to start a pre-emptive, or preventive, or even a merely punitive war in Iraq.

That is not the only example of a certain coarsening of American attitudes in international relations. Woodrow Wilson, revered as a prophet by both the Clinton and George W Bush administrations, hesitated to commit America to war for months and even years after many of his friends and allies thought America's entry into the great war was inevitable. "There is such a thing", he pronounced in a speech after the torpedoing of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915, "as being too proud to fight".

Two days before the second world war broke out in Europe, President Franklin D Roosevelt lectured the belligerents about the "inhuman barbarism" of "the ruthless bombing from the air of civilians". To be sure, British bombers had already bombed villages in Iraq, and would destroy Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden from the air. Germans dive-bombers had already flattened Guernica, and would blitz Rotterdam and London, while the Japanese had indiscriminately bombed civilians in Shanghai and elsewhere. Yet it was Roosevelt who set in motion the machinery that led to the United States killing 100,000 civilians in one night in Tokyo, and then (just after his death) dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Before the cold war, the United States remained an essentially civilian society, albeit one that had raised huge armies to fight in the civil war and in the first and second world wars. But the cold war militarised American society in myriad ways. There was the draft and the GI bill, one of the most benevolent measures in American history, but one justified by war; for the first time the federal government subsidised universities through "defence" programmes. Intellectuals were terrified by what came to be known as McCarthyism, a wave of infringements of civil liberties ostensibly justified by fear of communism, but in practice often used to suppress radical or progressive or just unpopular thought.

There was the rise of what President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican military hero, warned his countrymen against: the "military-industrial complex". Interestingly, in the penultimate draft of that famous 1961 speech, Eisenhower warned against a "military-industrial-congressional" complex; political advisers persuaded him that to say that might upset members of Congress.

Interstate highways were defence highways, and gigantic investments in aviation, electronics and finally in computer and IT technology were justified on grounds of national security and funded by the Pentagon. Congressmen and senators fought like cats in a sack to bring defence plants, military and air bases and space stations to their districts and states. Even before "homeland security", a growing proportion of American workers need security passes to get into their places of work.

An old lady told me once in Washington that in the 1920s, if it began to rain when her father was driving along Pennsylvania Avenue, he would drive in through the White House gates, get out of the rain under the marquee outside the main entrance, get out and put up the hood. If you did that today, or at any time since the Kennedy assassination, you would be shot.

America is no longer a profoundly civilian society occasionally goaded into war, which is the way Americans used to see their country. It is a profoundly militarised society, one faction of whose leaders openly proclaim that they intend to maintain military supremacy over all comers for the 21st century.

Yet this militarisation is not just a horrible aberration provoked by outrage at al-Qaida's attacks on New York and Washington, or by the machinations of a few dozen neo-conservatives. There have always been two aspects of American society. As with the Roman god Janus, one face was for peace, the other for war.

America's two faces

Robert Kagan, he who so misunderstood European history as to say that Europeans were from Venus, not from Mars, has just published a remarkable history of the United States entitled Dangerous Nation. You do not have to agree with everything Kagan says to agree that there has always been an aggressive and bellicose strand in the American political personality.

The Americans did not conquer the lion's share of the north American continent in a fit of absent-mindedness, nor was it a question, as Israeli apologists like to say, of a people without land filling a land without people. From the Pequot war of 1636-37, when the godly folk of New England burned several hundred inhabitants of a native American village alive and celebrated the event with a thanksgiving, white Americans pushed the Indians relentlessly until the last tribes were conquered.

In the 1840s, while the halls of Congress echoed to cries of "Fifty-four forty or fight!" from politicos who wanted a third war with Britain to annex Canada. President James K Polk took advantage of a border incident to declare an aggressive war on Mexico. After an easy victory over an impoverished and divided Mexican republic, New York newspapers screamed for "all Mexico". But John C Calhoun warned against annexing so many non-white people, and the "empire of liberty" settled for only Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, part of Colorado and California.

The great theme of Henry James's novels was the contrast between the "innocence" of his American heroines and the corrupt Europeans they wanted to marry. But the fathers and grandfathers of those sensitive maidens had expropriated the Indians, dismembered Mexico and slaughtered the buffalo. They were the robber barons of the gilded age. They had many virtues, including brains, courage and energy. But innocent they were not.

Perhaps the best way of understanding what has happened in the United States over the past thirty years is that one side of a dualist tradition has come to predominate. Americans were always a contradictory people: godly and dangerous, peaceful and warlike, deeply convinced that their republican constitution, dedicated to the sovereignty of the people and the rule of law, was the "last best hope of earth", and yet contemptuous of foreigners and quick to seize whatever they wanted.

They were idealists. But they were also realists. As long as they needed allies, against the Axis and against communism, they were constrained to muffle their universal ambitions. Then, abruptly, the Soviet empire dissolved. There seemed no reason to restrain any longer their ancient contempt for Europe. After all, most Americans are descended from ancestors who left Europe because they had had a bad time there. And after the atrocities of 9/11 there seemed no need to bother overmuch with what Thomas Jefferson called "a decent respect for the opinion of mankind".

For a time, the harsh face of America appeared. The present attorney-general is a man who considers the Geneva conventions "quaint". The vice-president appears to see nothing wrong with the imposition of what is indistinguishable from torture. American agents kidnap Muslims and drag them off to sinister prisons. The president analyses the world into the conflict between "good guys" and "bad guys", as if the world of men were a school playground.

Jan Morris is wrong. The United States is much, much better than the unworthy government its people have twice - or at any rate once! - elected. But nor, on the other hand, will everything change overnight when President George W Bush leaves office. The United States will remain an indispensable, but also a dangerous nation. As Jefferson wrote to John Adams near the end of their lives, the United States will go on, "prospering and puzzled as before". And we should go on, as before, forever grateful for what the United States has done for us in so many ways, but forever wary of what it can become when idealism sours into bullying.