Hating America: A History » Introduction
When writing a book, an author often has the sensation of being surrounded by that topic. In the case of anti-Americanism that experience was particularly strong. As the 21st century began it seemed as if the amount of criticism the United States was receiving around the world was matched only by the quantity of passionate debate about why this was happening.
Almost every day brought more evidence that anti-Americanism was an omnipresent global phenomenon. A Hollywood film star living in France likened his native country to a “dumb puppy.” A film, “Barcelona,” that just happened to be on television was about two Americans living amidst anti-Americanism in Spain during the 1980s. In Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, there were rumors that a U.S.-backed campaign to give polio injections was a plot to kill Muslims by spreading AIDS.
Yet as this project was being conceived the situation should have been the opposite. The United States had attained victory in the Cold War against communism, which had begun immediately after it had done the same thing in a war against fascism. Moreover, there had been the September 11, 2001, attack on America, the single most horrific terrorist attack in world history. Although the event itself showed the extent of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, the United States on September 12 should have been at the height of its global popularity, sympathized with, praised and appreciated around the world, whatever undertone of reasonable criticism also existed.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of September 11, although many in the world did sympathize with America, the response of others was that the United States somehow deserved it. That there could be such hatred after the death of so many of their fellow citizens was a shock to many Americans. The displays of hatred only increased as America sent troops to Afghanistan and then fought a war in Iraq.
Certainly, images of the American flag and effigies of its president being burned throughout the Middle East were disturbing, yet not new. But in Europe, which Americans considered their strategic ally and cultural partner, signs of this hatred were especially disturbing. The German chancellor used demagogic criticism of America to win an election, while one of his top aides likened the U.S. president to Hitler. In France, a book claiming that September 11 was a propaganda stunt by American intelligence agencies and the military-industrial complex to justify world conquest became a bestseller. Even in Britain, America’s closest friend, a former cabinet minister claimed the United States was planning to dominate space, cyberspace, and just about everything else.
Almost without exception, both the critics and those defending America viewed this outpouring of anti-Americanism as unprecedented, as the result of contemporary or at least recent events. But the tone of such rhetoric would not have been at all surprising for Americans living a century or two earlier. Only by understanding the historical development—and powerful continuity—of anti-Americanism can one comprehend it as a contemporary issue.
The American expatriate Henry James, who had little love for his native country once mused, “It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under value them.”
But given the historical evidence it was hard to see how Americans could feel otherwise. Indeed, even before it was a country, America was being harshly criticized. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin spent much time and creative energy trying to prove to Europeans that their country was not inevitably barbaric. There were many intellectual figures in Europe who could not resist the facile put-down of America: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American,” said the British author Samuel Johnson. The respected British historian Thomas Carlyle merely found Americans “the greatest bores ever seen in this world.” His German contemporary, Heinrich Heine mocked that “There are no princes or nobles there; all men are equal –equal dolts.”
The French statesman Georges Clemenceau said that “America is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization,” while Oscar Wilde, who would agree with Clemenceau on little else, declared, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Decades later the British writer George Bernard Shaw jeered: “The hundred percent American is ninety-nine percent idiots”
This book in no way seeks to suggest that all criticism of America constitutes anti-Americanism or is invalid. One reason why it is important to examine the history of this debate is to see what can be learned about the real defects of the United States, as well as ways to communicate its virtues better. Similarly, a study of those governments, classes, groups, ideologies, and individuals who have held anti-American views can be better understand by investigating the reasons for these attitudes.
In this book we have carefully defined anti-Americanism as being limited to having one or more of the following characteristics:
–An antagonism to the United States that is systemic, seeing it as completely and inevitably evil.
–A view that greatly exaggerates America’s shortcomings
–The deliberate misrepresentation of the nature or policies of the United States for political purposes.
–A misperception of American society, policies, or goals which falsely portrays them as ridiculous or malevolent
We have also restricted our discussion to anti-American views held by non-Americans (or in a few cases to Americans who lived abroad for so long as to become virtually part of this category.) Otherwise, the issues that must be dealt with more properly falls into the sphere of domestic political and partisan debate.
Of course, opposition to specific American actions or policies is easily understandable and may well be justifiable, but anti-Americanism as a whole is not. The reason for this conclusion is simply that the United States is not a terrible or evil society, whatever its shortcomings. It does not seek world domination and its citizens do not take pleasure in deliberately injuring others.
There are many occasions when decisions inevitably have drawbacks and bad effects. There are equally many times when mistakes are made. But here is where the line can be drawn between legitimate criticism and anti-Americanism.
One of our most important conclusions is that there has been a historical continuity and evolution of anti-Americanism, coinciding with the development of the United States, changes in other societies, and the world situation. We have detected five phases in this process:
The first phase (Chapter One) began in the 18th century, when America was a little-understood place whose society was still very under construction. At this time, criticism focused on the idea that it would be difficult or impossible to create any civilization there due to environmental conditions.
The second phase, from around 1800 to about 1880 (Chapter Two) was characterized by the idea that the United States was already demonstrably a failed society, ruined by democracy, equality, and other dangerous experiments. Its system was said to be so unworkable that no one elsewhere should view this new society as a model.
The third phase, from the 1880s to the 1930s, (Chapter Three) took place when America’s growing size, power, and economic might showed that it could no longer be described as a failure. Now, however, there was a growing fear abroad that the bad American model—populist democracy, mass culture, industrialization, and so on–might in the future take over the world and change the way of life of others in a dangerous and negative manner.
In this context, Chapter Four discusses how the twentieth-century’s two main counter-ideologies–Communism and fascism– dealt with the American challenge. Chapter Five deal with the specific forms of anti-Americanism taking place in Latin America.
By the fourth phase, from the end of World War Two in 1945 to the end of the Cold War by 1990 (Chapter Six), the fear of American domination was moved from the future to the present. The United States was supposedly in the process of taking over the world. During this phase, the Middle East (Chapter Seven) became increasingly conscious of the United States and anti-Americanism became an important phenomenon there.
Finally, in the current phase (Chapter Eight), anti-Americanism views the U.S. domination, both as a great power and as a terrible model for civilization (as the centerpiece of globalization, modernization, and Westernization), to be an established fact. That is why it is the most angry and widespread exemplification of anti-Americanism ever seen. Moreover, hatred was intensified by a new doctrine that America’s higher level of development was said to be at everyone else’s expense and, by the same token, the relative failure of others to duplicate this success was due to America’s sins.
Chapter Nine analyzes anti-Americanism in the early twenty-first century, also summing up the book’s main arguments and conclusions.
Finally, it is important to note the spirit in which this book is written. Our goal has been to produce a useful work of analysis and narration rather than one of preordained ideological content. Most of the conclusions were developed by the authors in the course of examining the evidence. There is nothing innately “liberal” or “conservative,” left or right, about the line of reasoning used in this book. Rather than take sides in an on-going partisan debate, the book tries to suggest the need for a totally new framework for understanding this vital issue.