Hating America: A History » Chapter 4-America as a Horrible Fate
AMERICA AS A HORRIBLE FATE.
While earlier nineteenth-century anti-Americanism had ridiculed that country as a failure and unattractive model, by the 1880s its success and potential power was undeniable. Anti-Americanism adjusted to these changes using the same basic critique but now recoiling in horror at the prospect of America’s being the model for the future of humanity and in particular their own societies.
This was an era which combined the dynamic of rapid growth and change through industrialization with terrible social problems. Economic booms alternated with busts, levels of corruption reached their highest and city slums proliferated. New immigrants poured into the country, changing its face as they underwent the throes of adjustment to a very different society. Workers were often exploited; farmers had to cope with many hard times.
Europeans, like Americans, observed all these developments. Yet while there was much to criticize, a fair assessment would have taken into account three factors. There was much positive as well as negative in what was happening in America during that era. Equally, there was much evidence of the hard work being taken to make things better and the transitory nature of many problems. Finally, equal, sometimes parallel, and often worse difficulties were being suffered in Europe. Many foreign observers noted these relatively positive features of contemporary America.
At the same time, though, there was a strong factor of anti-Americanism in the evaluation of more than a few Europeans, applying earlier prejudices about the United States to the new situation. There were two aspects of this critique. First, the American social, cultural, and political system was portrayed as terrible in its own right, as the embodiment of soulless industrialization and all-powerful capitalism. Europeans feared that this model would spread to their own and other countries. Second, there was a belief that United States was becoming more powerful and thus posed a direct threat of imposing its control and transforming them in its despicable image.
Both left- and right-wing ideologues gave such warnings, with their ideas soon being taken up by mass movements. Beyond avoiding the danger of imitating America, they sought to use its alleged threat and bad example to mobilize supporters for their own plans to revolutionize society. Thus, for both communists and fascists, the United States was a prime competitor—first as a rival model for organizing society; later as a great power that opposed their designs. The United States represented one potential future but they had a better alternative to offer. American democracy must be shown as a sham, its higher living standards exposed as a myth.
The far left and right each had its own particular emphasis. The extreme right argued that America had changed European society too much, while the leftists claimed that it had not gone far enough. Marxists said that America was racist while fascists insisted it was a mongrel society based on race-mixing. Rightists focused more often on America as a threat to their tradition, society, and culture. Leftists wanted to portray America as a false utopia, not a paradise for the common man but a hell dominated by a ruthless ruling class whose apparent success only strengthened its real oppressiveness.
Yet in ridiculing its democratic pretensions and questioning its economic successes, the political spectrum’s two extremes also shared a surprising amount in common regarding their critique of the United States. Each saw the United States as a real direct threat to its global triumph. Both used similar themes—sometimes in virtually identical words—built on previous European anti-Americanism of both the aristocratic and romantic varieties.
Precisely because America was attractive to the earlier nineteenth-century European left and to so many liberals and reformers, radicals were all the more determined to destroy any such “illusions.” Take Russia, for example. The Decemberist reformers of the 1820s, whose coup attempt against the czar failed, based much of their proposed constitution on that of America. Leaders of the following generation of Russian oppositionists thought in similar terms. Michael Bakunin, the great theorist of anarchism, saw the United States as the “classic land of political liberty” while his liberal counterpart Alexander Herzen believed the United States the only country that might become the ideal state for promoting human welfare.
In contrast, the arch-opponent of Russian liberals and leftists, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his 1871 novel, The Devils, retells the familiar tale of America being so horrible as to turn a revolutionary into a reactionary. The character closest to Dostoyevsky’s political standpoint is a Russian who went to America to discover how American workers live and concluded that it was there that men “live under the worst possible social conditions.” When a Russian liberal laughingly responds that their own country better fit that description, the conservative protagonist claimed workers in America are routinely beaten, robbed, and cheated at every turn. Two years there taught him that Russians—not Americans—were the people destined to “regenerate and save the world.”
Ironically, it was the reactionary Russian view of America rather than the progressive one that would prevail under the Soviet regime. But until the Communist takeover in 1917, Russian liberals and socialists continued to see the United States in a positive light.
Karl Marx, too, had many good things to say about the United States, albeit because he saw it as being a step ahead of contemporary Europe rather than as the embodiment of his own ideal society. After Lincoln’s 1864 re-election, Marx even wrote the president: “From the commencement of the [Civil War] the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” America was the place that “the idea of [a] great Democratic Republic had first sprung up…the [Bill of Rights] was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century.” The South’s secession was nothing more than “a crusade of property against labor” and the interests of European workers required that the Union would win.
Remarkably, Marx added, “The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes.” He called Lincoln, the “single-minded son of the working class” who would lead his country through the “struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”
Yet such attitudes did not always characterize the main cultural figures of the left, nor its politicians as they neared power. Even Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, who came with her lover, Edward Aveling, to the United States in 1886 to raise money for the cause, was not enchanted. They wrote a book entitled The Working-Class Movement in America but didn’t find much of one, claiming nevertheless that capitalist exploitation had created greater extremes of wealth and poverty than in Europe. They especially sought to debunk the romantic image of the quintessentially American figure of the free-spirited cowboy, portraying him simply as a low-paid proletarian “as much at the mercy of the capitalist” as any factory slave.
The younger Marx’s writing tried to deal with the central problem that the United States posed for Marxists. Their doctrine claimed that the workers’ impoverishment, inability to escape from servitude, and absence of any better alternative system would inevitably force the proletariat to wage a socialist revolution. Thus, the idea that America could provide a better future for its workers must be quashed. Many immigrants to the United States discovered that they could dramatically improve their personal conditions there and change classes in a way impossible in contemporary Europe. Eventually, American workers achieved heights of prosperity unimagined in the old country. Many Europeans suspected that this was so and that they should thus emigrate or seek to install a similar system at home. The left, like the ruling establishment, needed to convince them otherwise.
Ironically, another source for the future left’s style of anti-Americanism was the same kind of anti-industrialization, anti-modernist romanticism that was supposedly alien to its ideology but which had so long prevailed among European artists. The novelist Maxim Gorky, whose admirer Lenin would soon begin the task of modernizing and industrializing Russia, expressed well the notions that would come to dominate Western pro-Communist circles and those in the Soviet Union.
Gorky’s 1906 book, The City of the Yellow Devil, was an anti-ode to New York, a place “lacking in any desire to be beautiful” whose buildings “tower gloomily and drearily….The city seems like a vast jaw, with uneven black teeth. It breathes clouds of black smoke into the sky and puffs like a glutton suffering from his obesity….The street is a slippery, greedy throat, in the depths of which float dark bits of the city’s food–living people.” Each resident is a victim as the city “strangles him, sucks his blood and brain, devours his muscles and nerves, and grows and grows….Inner freedom, the freedom of the spirit does not shine in these people’s eyes.”
And yet even Gorky admits that these people are not miserable but rather “tragically satisfied with themselves.” Like later European cultural critics, Gorky had to find a way to explain why Americans were not unhappy given the alleged awfulness of their lives. And he uses a rationale employed by many such successors: they are kept happy only since they “buy rubbish they do not need and watch shows that only dull their wits.”
This argument required, however, the self-proclaimed tribunes of the people to ignore the expressed preferences of the American masses who generally supported their democratic system while rejecting the left’s ideology and proposed solution. This analysis of Americans as paralyzed by false consciousness failed to understand the blessings of stability, relative prosperity, and future opportunity which at least seemed within reach.
Gorky’s writings also show how much of the European left’s condescension to America was in reality based on a snobbishness and European chauvinism shared with their reactionary counterparts. In a letter he wrote while visiting America in 1906, Gorky declared, “Everything beautiful comes from Europe.” Long after the Communist revolution in Russia he told an American magazine that the United States “is the most deformed civilization on our planet.” For whatever Europe’s faults, these had been “magnified to monstrous proportions” there.
Once the Soviet Union had been established, Communist views of the United States were no longer a matter of individual choice but were determined by the regime’s policy. The USSR was the first country to impose mandatory anti-Americanism on its citizens and all aspects of its educational and media system. Since the USSR was to be the masses’ hope and humanity’s future it must be made clear to all citizens and followers in the Communist movement that the United States could not play that role. And if the new Soviet regime needed imported American technology or products—as many other radical rulers would in the future—this made discrediting America even more urgent. No one could be allowed to think that America’s scientific or technical achievements were proof of that system’s superiority.
As Soviet leaders focused on the threat of America’s international power, they ordered propagandists, journalists, and cultural workers to emphasize the failings of America as a society. According to Lenin, who wanted to counter the appeal of Wilson’s advocacy of freedom for other nations, the United States embodied “the most rabid imperialism” and “the most shameless oppression and suppression of weak and small nationalities.” Democracy in America “provided the most perfect mask for the most horrible policies.” While President Wilson saw World War I as a battle to promote democracy and end future conflicts, Lenin insisted that U.S. participation in the war was only due to “the interests of the New York Stock Exchange.” Lenin’s USSR thus saw America as also being engaged in a drive for world domination which only one side could win.
Lenin’s “Letter to American Workers” of August 1918 proclaimed that America was one of the worst countries in the world regarding the gap “between the handful of arrogant multimillionaires who wallow in filth and luxury and the millions of working people who constantly live on the verge of pauperism.” Rather than a country of relative democracy and equality, the United States was merely “the latest, capitalist stage of wage-slavery.”
Stalin, Lenin’s successor, viewed America as his main rival. As early as 1929, he highlighted America’s centrality as the great satan of global evil. “When a revolutionary crisis has developed” there, he said, “that will be the beginning of the end of all world capitalism.”
Thus, from the 1920s until the USSR’s collapse seventy years later, anti-American propaganda there–and from foreign Communist parties–was quite consistent since it derived from a centrally dictated political line based on Moscow’s interests. At times it focused on specific U.S. policies but the details never affected the overall message. Nothing positive could ever be said about the United States. Aside from direct clashes on the international stage, it was the existence of the United States as a visibly more successful alternative model for human society that made discrediting it so important for the Soviet Union’s masters.
Yet once one gets beyond the rhetorical flourishes about capitalism and frequent claims of America’s economic failure (by no means fantasies, of course, during the Great Depression of the 1930s) the content of most of that domestic critique was strikingly like pre-Soviet and non-Marxist European complaints. When degrading American culture and society, pro-Communist intellectuals and those influenced by them in the West often sounded like both their romantic or conservative anti-American ancestors. On these two issues as well as America’s role in the world, their claims were also virtually identical to those of their successors in the early twenty-first century.
In earlier years, however, the Communists’ two main themes were America as an economic failure and as a phony democracy. The United States was portrayed as a plutocracy ruled by a handful of ruthless monopolists who held the vast majority of the population imprisoned in poverty. Thus, a 1931 Soviet primer on its own economic progress contrasts the anarchy, waste, exploitation, and economic insecurity rampant in America with the USSR’s system: “In America the machine is not a helper to the worker…but an enemy. Every new machine, every new invention throws out upon the street thousands of workers.” But in Russia, “we build factories in order that there may be no poverty, no filth, no sickness, no unemployment, no exhausting labor.”
A Soviet engineer even authored a poem to explain this idea:
We have a plan
In America they work without a plan.
We have a seeding campaign.
In America they destroy crops.
We increase production.
In America they reduce production and increase unemployment
We make what is essential
In America hundreds of factories consume raw materials and energy in order to make what is altogether unnecessary.”
Thus, Soviet peasants starving from the disasters wrought by collectivization or urban workers facing terrible conditions could rest secure in the belief that their American counterparts were worse off. At the same time, of course, the Soviet regime controlled all the means of communication and information—down to letters from relatives abroad or conversations with visiting Americans—to ensure that only negative images rather than more balanced ones reached its people.
The state-approved image of the United States was presented by a 1938 textbook in which unemployed American workers, clad in shabby clothes and without coats, stamp their feet on the pavement to get warm, while a passing “elegantly dressed lady” offers half a bar of chocolate to one man as a way of alleviating starvation. American society consisted of millionaires swallowing up feebler folk and helpless proletarians. Yet a brighter future was already visible in the form of black and white workers uniting to bring a Communist revolution and, no doubt, raising America to the dizzy heights achieved by Stalin’s regime.
Social decadence was said to undercut any technological achievement that America could claim. The silhouette chosen for the cover of Alexander Hamadan’s American Silhouettes, published in 1936, was that of a hobo against the backdrop of a New York City skyline. In the 1930s, the truth of poverty and racial prejudice was bad enough but Soviet propagandists had to embellish it. Thus, the 1941 Soviet Handbook for Elementary School Teachers told them to instruct Soviet youth that their counterparts in the United States “are deprived of real knowledge,” taught only the essentials of reading, writing, and arithmetic “because in the opinion of the American bourgeoisie this is enough for the children of the toilers.” A 1934 novel has a Soviet thief dreamily comparing the advantages of forced labor on the White Sea-Baltic Canal to the far more terrible conditions of American prisons.
When the Soviets loosened up beyond the barest clichés about America, though, they quickly returned to all the usual European charges against the United States, as in the satirical travel book, Little Golden America, by the comic writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeni Petrov published in 1937, at the moment Ilf was dying of tuberculosis contracted on the trip. Like their Western European predecessors of a century earlier, they found American life annoyingly homogeneous and sadly “colorless and depersonalized.”
They also made fun of the rapid pace of life (“we were constantly racing somewhere at top speed”), the obsession with both religion and financial success (on examining the Bibles found in American hotel rooms they noted the pages referenced “for success in business” were “greasy” with use); the horrors of American cuisine (“quite tasteless”); and yet the gluttony of the people (Americans “do not eat; they fill up on food, just as an automobile is filled with gasoline.”) But while they were ostensibly condemning capitalism, they were actually arguing America’s inferiority to Europe.
Sounding precisely like the aristocratic travelers of the early nineteenth-century, the authors explain that Americans are simply unintellectual, lazy creatures who are inferior: “The average American, despite his outward show of activity, is really a passive person by nature. He must have everything presented to him in a finished form, like a spoiled husband.”
While Americans did have “many splendid and appealing traits,” including being good workers, neat, accurate, and honest, “They simply did not possess…curiosity.” Americans, the authors added, “cannot endure abstract conversations [but are] interested only in what is directly connected with his house, his automobile, or his nearest neighbors.” Mistaking pragmatism for a lack of intelligence or intellectual ability was a common European error about America.
Sounding like the romantics of a century earlier—and ironically at a time when Russian patriotism was still condemned in the USSR–they wrote that while Russians have a powerful love of their native land down to the level of its soil, an American only asks of his country to “let him alone,” and “not to interfere with his listening to the radio or going to the movies.” Since, of course, Soviet citizens’ slightest deviation from the party line would have landed them in a slave labor camp, perhaps being left alone by one’s government did not sound so bad.
Similarly, like earlier critics of America, many of their complaints resulted from the fact that a modernization process—despite all the Soviet talk of progress and industrialization—was simply not understood in Moscow or other places. At least the nineteenth-century aristocratic and romantic critics knew they did not want a mass society, even if it did provide a better life for the masses. But the leftist anti-Americans could never admit that.
Ilf and Petrov, for example, said that American food was of poor quality because it was more profitable to ship meat (frozen chickens) and produce (unripe tomatoes) longer distances than to grow fresher foods near cities. Yet any culinary loss was mitigated by the fact that this technique allowed for a much greater quantity of relatively better quality food and at far lower prices than would otherwise have been the case.
In other words, while American workers might eat imperfect tomatoes they did at least have—unlike in the USSR—tomatoes to eat at affordable prices. American farmers generally also made more money from this system. In contrast, seventy-five years after the Communist regime came to power, Russia still had a huge number of impoverished peasants who could not provide its workers a decent diet. For its city people, no tomatoes or chicken of any kind were on the menu.
Similarly, the authors concluded in orthodox Marxist fashion that while American technology and industry produce “ideal things which make life easier, social conditions do not let the American earn enough money to buy these things.” There is much talk about other mainstays of the anti-American social critique: the horrors of commercialism, advertising everywhere and the sale of products which consumers might not really need.
Yet despite the negative attributes of advertising which produced consumer demand, the production of a wide range of consumer goods did provide workers with the money to buy things. This was a central aspect of American success which Marxists mistakenly ignored because it contradicted their idea that the workers would be inevitably impoverished. Advertising might be annoying and demeaning but it also paid the bills for those on the automobile assembly lines. Only people who already had the necessities of life could think of buying frivolous things.
The American political system also had to be thoroughly discredited. It was not enough to please their masters for Ilf and Petrov to write—whatever they personally believed, of course, is another matter in all these cases—that American democracy was a sham. They had to insist that the system required its people be constrained and unhappy. Americans might be fooled into thinking they had a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness “but the possibility of actually enjoying [these things] is exceedingly dubious. This right is in too dangerous proximity with the money vaults of Wall Street.”
Ilf and Petrov predicted that America would soon collapse. It was “capable of feeding a billion people, but cannot feed its own population….It has everything needed to create a peaceful life for its people, yet…the entire population is in a state of unrest.” The end was, no doubt, near.
During World War II, when the United States was the Soviet Union’s ally and main supplier of aid, however, it was the USSR that was in danger of collapse and badly in need of all that American productivity which it had earlier ridiculed. Even then, though, the theme of Soviet propaganda was still anti-American, stressing the need to remember that America was not a real friend and there should be no gratitude for its help.In 1942, Stalin reminded his subjects that no Soviet citizen should ever forget that America was a capitalist country, and thus hostile and decadent.
As would be so often true at other places and times, the basis of anti-Americanism in the USSR was not a hurt or outraged response to U.S. policy but an attempt to benefit the sponsoring regime or movement. Not only did anti-Americanism mobilize the people around their own dictators but it discouraged them from seeing the very American achievements they might want to emulate at home. As Winston Churchill so wisely said in March 1949, the ”Kremlin fears the friendship of the West more than its enmity.”
Once the Cold War began, of course, these themes of suspicion and hostility were greatly simplified. The USSR, Communists, and their supporters insisted that one bloc led by the USSR represented everything good, and the other headed by the United States promoted everything bad. As so often happened, the only world power in history that did not seek global conquest was the one most often accused of that sin. Nevertheless, this claim was accepted by many Western and Third World intellectuals. Even such productive and well-intentioned policies as the rebuilding and democratic reform of Europe and Japan were portrayed as a cynical attempt to turn those countries into colonies. This at the same time as the USSR was unleashing a reign of terror and demanding total subservience in Eastern Europe where it was the dominant power.
In somewhat modified form, other anti-Americans simply put the two sides on an equal basis, accepting Soviet claims about the United States without necessarily liking the USSR. A good example of this was a letter written by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1956 to an American acquaintance in the midst of the Cold War:
“Mankind is divided into two classes: those who object to infringements to civil liberties in Russia, but not in the United States; and those who object to them in the United States, but not in Russia….The fundamental fallacy…is this: `A and B hate each other, therefore one is good and the other is bad.’ From the evidence of history, it seems much more likely that both are bad….”
Alongside the Soviet Union’s anti-American condemnations regarding U.S. foreign policy was its offensive against American culture, whose rising influence seemed to threaten bringing global political influence in its wake. It was the first battle in what would decades later become the struggle over “globalization.”
The Soviet state and the many parties, front groups, cultural organizations, and intellectuals it controlled or influenced, went on the offensive beginning in 1947 to block the advance of American culture. The effort had so much appeal to many European intellectuals because it blended perfectly with the older ideas they held regarding American culture as alien, inferior, and mass-oriented. An endless stream of articles, speeches, and resolutions warned against the subversive onslaught, which in the USSR itself extended to the dangers of American capitalist architecture, jazz, and ballroom dancing. In 1947, Soviet artists were mobilized for the most systematically coordinated anti-American campaign in history.
At times of more “normal” hostility, Soviet propaganda would sometimes distinguish between “progressive” and “reactionary” aspects of American culture, while at times of extreme hostility—as in the early Cold War years—all American writers, including non-Communist leftists, were seen as evil. If the socialist Upton Sinclair was merely a man without honor, and the independent leftist John Dos Passos, a renegade, Thornton Wilder was an outright fascist and John Steinbeck, a Wall Street lackey.
In an article, charmingly entitled, “Dealers in Spiritual Poison,” the USSR’s greatest film director, Serge Eisenstein, wrote that while he liked Americans personally, their movies—like “Going My Way” and “Anna and the King of Siam”—made attractive the poison of indifference and the delusions of class harmony in a sugar coating of patriotism, sentimentality and humor, a sure proof that bourgeois culture was opium for the masses.
Of course, Eisenstein’s own analysis requires analysis. Eisenstein had directed great films but his own talent had been stymied by Stalin and the system he had to uphold if he was to survive. Hollywood has been accused of many sins but executing directors or sending them to forced labor camps is not one of them. In addition, of course, he selected films that could be portrayed as mere froth. But even Hollywood could send worthwhile messages. “Going My Way” was a moving rendition of the spiritual comforts of religion and a plea for tolerance toward Catholics in a largely Protestant America, while the story of the tutor for the Thai king’s children might caricature Third World cultures but also taught respect for them and the belief that they could achieve progress.
Such products of American mass culture can be easily ridiculed—and far sillier examples are easily found. From the point of view of Soviet or Western European critics, however, even songs and dances transmitted American culture which, in turn, carried a set of values and attitudes toward life deemed objectionable. Moreover, the popularity of such products with the masses was the very point that made these books, films or songs so dangerous politically and so horrifying for people who, despite their leftist ideologies, were elitist and patriotic on cultural issues.
In general, then, the USSR portrayed American culture as a tool for world conquest. Thus, Soviet Music magazine warned that the American music industry was not only dominated by greedy capitalists (which was true) but that it also culturally deprived its listeners (which was arguable). “All attempts to engulf the world with the scanty products of the venal American muse are nothing but frontier ideological expansion of American imperialism, propaganda for reactionary-obscurantist misanthropic ideas,” it maintained.
The powerful international appeal of American culture made it the equivalent of the atomic bomb as a Cold War asset for gaining influence and winning admiration. Its power was enhanced by the fact that, unlike the atomic bomb, Soviet scientists could not discover–or steal–the secrets of duplicating it. After all, it was much easier to find rhymes for “love” than it was for “tractor.”
Rather than compete with far less attractive alternative cultural products, the USSR focused on warning about the American ones. In fulfilling the regime’s orders during this 1940s’ campaign, Konstantin Simonov wrote a play, “The Russian Question,” later made into a film. The story is about two naïve Soviet scientists, devoted to humanism and international scientific cooperation. American spies pretending to have similar ideas steal their medical breakthroughs and sell them to a large company for a big profit. When the Soviet scientists go on trial, one recants and is forgiven by Stalin, the other refuses and is only punished by losing his job.
Soviet writers over the following decades were urged to produce similar works. Viktor Konetskii in his 1977 novel about Soviet sailors shows them repelled by America’s “polluted environment” and domination by the Mafia. In a revival of the degeneracy theory, even American trees are dirty and shabby. The author was so enthusiastic that he described the German luxury car Mercedes-Benz as a cheap, poorly built American-made auto.
Analyses of American literature were also used to serve this purpose. In a 1980 meeting of the Union of Soviet Writers, for example, the literary critic Leonid Novichenko appealed to his colleagues to combat professionally “American imperialism’s aggressive militaristic designs.” One of many such studies concluded that Mario Puzo’s novel about the Mafia, The Godfather, showed that this criminal organization was just imitating other U.S. institutions, a form of fascism backed by the country’s government. A Soviet critic concluded that American novels proved the United States “is directed at the suppression and subjugation of the individual to the interests of the state [and] the anti-human interests of business and profits.”
Occasionally, as Soviet communism lost its self-confidence in the post-Stalin era, the picture of the United States was sometimes tempered—at least inside the ruling elite–by admissions of American success. After his 1959 visit to the United States, Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev told a top-level meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee, “In America, communism has already been built. There everyone lives well. Everyone has his home, car, bank savings, etc.” Subsequently, Khrushchev insisted on including the famous slogan “Catch up to and surpass America” in the 1961 party program.
In its international propaganda, however, there was no change from the 1930s up to the time when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviets perfected, for example, the art of systematic anti-American propaganda based on disinformation. An item of Western origin (perhaps planted originally by Soviet agents, inaccurately quoted, or from a marginal source) would provide “credible” evidence of some American misdeed. The United States was blamed for every dastardly act and the motives for its policies were portrayed as devious or disreputable.
The United States was said to be escalating the arms race, provoking conflict, introducing sinister new weapons, forcing allies to buy expensive weapons, using foreign aid as blackmail to gain concessions, and spreading lies about the USSR. It was constantly accused of interfering against progressive movements or subverting other countries. There were, of course, times these charges were true. But whatever wrongs the United States committed were greatly multiplied, deepened, and portrayed as more deliberate, while any good actions were ignored or distorted.
Whole fleets of completely false allegations were continually launched. One series of Soviet articles, “Bosses without Masks,” depicted America as controlled by money-hungry billionaires who engineered the assassination of President John Kennedy. Other campaigns charged that the AIDS disease was developed by the Pentagon as a “killer virus…in order to obtain military superiority.”
The United States was portrayed in the Cold War’s last decade as being as ugly in its policies at home as it was abroad. It was a vicious, exploitative society whose main features included high unemployment, racial discrimination, abject poverty and excessive wealth, demoralization and material deprivation among the poor, unaffordable education and health care, rampant crime, anti-social behavior involving drugs and pornography, mistreatment of workers, large numbers of political prisoners and no real democracy. To discourage defections, Soviet emigrants there were portrayed as miserable and unsuccessful, a tactic identical to that employed by Prussia two centuries earlier to reduce emigration or by Dostoyevsky a century before to defend the Czarist regime.
Despite its overlay of Marxist rhetoric—full of talk about “imperialism” and “capitalism”—the themes and complaints of official Soviet anti-Americanism continued to be quite close to that purveyed by far more conservative Europeans. For example, it was often claimed, as one anti-American book put it, “The important thing in America is money, regardless of how it was come by.” Despite fitting the Communist view of “capitalist” society, this statement reflects the consensus nineteenth-century anti-American view as well.
Geopolitical competition, largely fictional in earlier years but quite real during the Cold War, brought criticism of many specific American policies in the world, yet that sense of rivalry had also been a common theme in British, French, and German anti-American writings for decades.
The main difference between the USSR’s version and earlier anti-Americanism elsewhere was that the Soviet variety was officially dictated, not just the individual attempt of individuals to express themselves or inform fellow citizens. Moreover, these works had to be purely anti-American. Unlike in Western Europe, they could not be balanced by other, favorable accounts or even by minor positive statements within a largely critical work. Another distinction is that Soviet anti-Americanism was a product manufactured for export, to convince people in other countries to believe negative things about the United States in order to further the Soviet regime’s interests.
The goal, as a U.S. government study put it, was to show the United States as a “doomed, decadent, inherently evil society opposing all progressive change…to persuade others that it is not a model for their own countries.” This denial of the United States as being a good example for other countries was the oldest anti-American theme of all.
Of course, this propaganda ran up against a largely favorable view of the United States among many Europeans, especially the masses. Ironically, a great deal of positive sentiment and the diminution of anti-Americanism during the Cold War was due to the fact that Europeans saw the United States as defending them from the USSR’s aggression and an unpleasant future living in a Soviet-style state. Occasionally, even Soviet propaganda admitted that most people believed that people lived better in the United States. As one book written at the height of state-sponsored Soviet anti-Americanism put it: “The common conception of American life among Europeans [is a belief] that in the United States everyone lives in a state of economic security and confidence of the future [and] that American youth grows up carefree and happy.”
It is easy to laugh at the extremes of Communist propaganda about the United States or view it as totally ineffective. Nevertheless, it did have a tremendous agenda-setting influence on the European and Third World left, which meant a large proportion of the intellectual and cultural elite that shapes other people’s views. The main claims made by the Soviets, though also featured in earlier European anti-Americanism—that America was seeking global political and cultural domination; that America was responsible for most of the world’s ills—became far more widely accepted around the world a decade after the USSR’s collapse. This was the Soviet Union’s posthumous revenge on the Cold War’s victor. Obviously, U.S. foreign actions and domestic situations contributed to this perception but it was the way these events were interpreted and distorted that broadened hostility from specific complaints to a more general condemnation of the United States.
Another important feature of Soviet anti-Americanism was that it showed how useful a tool this was for a regime or for an opposition seeking to gain power. Anti-Americanism was a demagogic gold mine for mobilizing people behind a nationalist dictator or revolutionary cause. As a result, anti-Americanism was transformed from a matter of largely intellectual interest into being one of the world’s most important political tactics.
Fascism made a parallel, though less important, contribution to all these aspects of anti-Americanism. It, too, sought to offer Europe an alternative future to the “American” one feared by so many. Despite a greater emphasis on racism and antisemitism, the Nazis and their sympathizers drew many of their ideas from past European aristocratic and romantic anti-Americanism. For example, German fascist anti-Americanism focused on the usual claims that America was characterized by excessive materialism, a low cultural level, soulessness, degenerate pragmatism, and excessive power for women. In short, America represented everything negative in “modern” life and, even worse, was seeking to remake the world in its own dreadful image.
While fascist ideology in its explicit form was mostly discredited after 1945 and never had the global reach of its Soviet rival, it would be wrong to underestimate its lasting impact. Equally, despite fascism’s special features and defeat, its ideas about America—even if on no other issue—would echo in the later views of many in Europe and the Middle East who seem to be of a totally different political hue.
Although racialist thinking was common in nineteenth-century Europe, the originator of this doctrine as a systematic ideology was the Frenchman Arthur de Gobineau, who lived from 1816 to 1882. He applied this idea to the United States in his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Originally, Gobineau wrote, Anglo-Saxon Aryans had controlled America but the admission of so many immigrants, who Gobineau called, “a mixed assortment of the most degenerate races of olden-day Europe,” had destroyed the country. Among these inferior peoples, he included the Irish, Italians, and—ironically—lower-class Germans. “It is quite unimaginable that anything could result from such horrible confusion, but an incoherent juxtaposition of the most decadent kinds of people….”
America was not a new or young nation which created its own people, Gobineau wrote, but simply the refuge for Europe’s human dregs who took advantage of the greater freedom there to behave worse. Its ethnic eclecticism and rootless population ensured that it would be a violent, unstable society dominated by mob rule. This was almost word for word identical to an idea put forward by the French lawyer Simon Linguet a century earlier, as well as reflecting many other early critics of the United States. Albert Rosenberg, National Socialism’s official philosopher, would write similarly in 1933 that by giving rights to all—and especially by extending them to African-Americans after the Civil War—the United States doomed itself to be without a coherent people (volk) such as existed in Germany.
Yet while racialism seemed to be fascism’s most obvious contribution to the anti-American cause, it also developed a far more lasting, though less totally original idea. Gobineau argued that the United States was the unrestrained “monster” Europe created from its own modernist vision. True, Gobineau agreed with a thousand precursors that immigrants to America seeking “the temple of virtue and happiness were sorely disappointed.” But he also realized that America represented the logical development of potential European trends. It was, as one author summarized his work, Europe on fast forward.
As we have seen, this belief that the American example was actually transforming the world became the most important new development in late nineteenth-century anti-Americanism. The United States was not merely a joke or a disappointment but by its example and power actually threatened the way of life of everyone else. Like a classical monster America had three heads: it was a sinisterly successful example which invited imitation, a seductively attractive culture that indirectly spread its poison everywhere, and a powerful state that could take over other countries directly through military and economic means. The official optimism of Communism—which maintained its own victory was inevitable—prevented it from fully accepting the implications of this idea.
The gloomier conservatives were much more worried about this American danger because they were also readier to believe that the United States would succeed in ruining the world. Moeller van den Bruck, the German rightist who coined the phrase “Third Reich,” felt that the rise of America was transforming the West in the wrong direction. Such ideas would later influence a large portion of the left, as it lost its own faith in the triumph of socialism, and of the Third World, which had a better sense of its own weaknesses.
A clear and comprehensive sense of this menace was provided by the pro-fascist German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He warned that America represented humanity’s greatest crisis in that it represented alienation, a loss of authenticity, and an impediment to spiritual reawakening. In lectures given in 1935 and published in 1953, he claimed that America was rotting German society from within, reshaping its whole use of language and world view into a materialistic, alienated, inhuman one. Implicitly, this was a critique of American pragmatism which was said to restrict knowledge to mastering reality and turning people into objects.
Precisely like the German and French romantic critics of America a century earlier, Heidegger declared that American society rejects history and nationhood. It is the dictatorship of pragmatism, technology, and mass society, a monstrous nonbeing, thoughtlessly stumbling about and trying to annihilate what it cannot understand. America represents homelessness, uprootedness, and the absence of the poetic. In contrast, Germany was a rooted society with a coherent people, connected to the poetic in life. The historic confrontation between these two countries, he predicted, would be nothing less than a struggle over the soul of humanity.
This paralleled Soviet views on the subject. The communist-fascist debate was in no small part about which ideology and country—the USSR or Germany–was better able to provide an alternative future to the dreadful one offered by America.
Heidegger, like people of very different political views in other decades, defined America as the embodiment of the type of modern society that Europe—and in their own ways the Middle East and Latin America—wanted to reject. It is characterized by “dreary technological frenzy” and the “unrestricted organization of the average man.” There is too much change. It is a place where “a boxer is regarded as a nation’s great man; when mass meetings attended by millions are looked on as a triumph.”
Yet perhaps boxers didn’t make such bad heroes compared with the one Heidegger thought was Germany’s “great man” in 1935, Adolph Hitler. It was that dictator who addressed mass meetings attended by many thousands where he was heiled as the solution to Germany’s problems. And it was the Nazi regime Heidegger supported which carried out an “unrestricted organization of the average man” far beyond anything Americans could conceive. By 1953–or 2003–though, Heidegger’s anti-American sentiments could be passed off as rather mainstream European critiques of American consumer culture.
While aspects of Heidegger’s criticism come from romantic antecedents, others were transcriptions of nineteenth-century conservative complaints. Thus, it is not only the corruption of the masses but the devaluation of the elite that makes him disapprove America. In the United States, he wrote, “Intelligence no longer meant a wealth of talent…but only what could be learned by everyone, the practice of a routine, always associated with a certain amount of sweat and a certain amount of show.” The mediocre masses rule and enforce conformity, reveling in the destruction of everything creative. “This is the onslaught of what we call the demonic (in the sense of destructive evil.)”
Just as the Communists often called America fascist, Heidegger and other pro-fascists viewed America as being akin to the USSR. But to him, the United States was worse, more dangerous “because it appears in the form of a democratic middle class way of life mixed with Christianity.” Thus, while Communism could never win the allegiance of the masses and transform the world, America might succeed in doing so. Indeed, this idea that America was remaking the world in its image would be the basis of post-Communist, twenty-first century anti-Americanism.
Of course, German fascists did not forget to mix the hatred of America with the hatred of Jews, another feature of anti-Americanism that would reappear—and on the left no less—a half-century after the German Reich’s collapse. Who else but the Jews would prosper in and promote such a destructive, rootless, and even demonic society? And who else but the Jews would be the masterminds behind the U.S. drive for world conquest?
In his 1927 book, Jewish World Domination?, Otto Bonhard promoted a theory that America was merely a Jewish front. Alfred Graf Brockdorff said America was degenerating as a result of the Jews, who were best able to exploit the corruption engendered by its democratic institutions. In a best-selling book on the subject in the 1920s, the pro-Nazi Adolf Halfeld sounded identical to a leftist critic of America in tracing its ethos to a combination of “Puritan ethic” and “crafty business practices,” typified by “the preacher who is an entrepreneur” and “the businessman with God and ideals on his lips.” The apparent high morality of Wilson’s foreign policy was actually “world peace with Wall Street’s seal of approval.”
At the same time, Halfield added, America was a country dedicated to blind “efficiency” so that “everyone wears the same suit, boots, colors, and collars; they all read the same magazines and propaganda, which knows no limits.” The Jew, best able to adapt to a society so profoundly based on alienation and modernization was “the sum of all American civic virtues.”
Once in power, the Nazis would put this idea into even cruder terms, as in a 1943 declaration that behind everything in America stands the “grotesque face of the wandering Jew, who sees it as nothing less than a precursor to the implementation of his ancient and never-abandoned plans to rule the world.” Yet when Giselher Wirsing in his 1942 book about America, “Der maßlose Kontinent” (The Excessive Continent) wrote that “Uncle Sam has been transformed into Uncle Shylock,” he was only stealing a phrase employed as the title of a popular French book more than a decade earlier. The antisemitic element of anti-Americanism neither began nor ended with the German fascists.
Equally, there was much more to the fascist critique of America than hatred of the Jews. The same Nazi text that spoke of wandering Jews controlling the United States also accused America of imperialism in phrases indistinguishable from those of Marxists. The United States had “robbed other states of their rightful possessions with lies and deceptions, violence and war” and “murdered hundreds of thousands of Indians.” Wirsing, who spoke of Uncle Shylock, also said that America was ruled by a Puritan-Calvinistic plutocracy which sought world conquest out of greed. As many later Europeans would agree, he claimed Europe was only acting in self-defense in opposing American interests and ambitions.
The dangerous yet seductive decadence of American culture was another theme fascists shared with the Communists and other European anti-Americans. In a brochure on the evils of Americanism published in 1944 by the elite Nazi SS organization, jazz was seen as a Jewish weapon to level “all national and racial differences, as liberalism has done throughout the world.”
Another cultural theme taken from the nineteenth-century was the European attribution of American decadence to the belief that women were too powerful there. Alfred Rosenberg, Nazism’s official philosopher, said the “conspicuously low level of culture” was a “consequence of women’s rule in America.” Females were said to foster excessive materialism because they encouraged men to earn and spend money. The loss of masculinity was linked to the replacement of aristocratic by bourgeois values. Halfeld said that American men seriously believed that women have a “moral, aesthetic, and intellectual advantage.” The resulting system made American men weak and cowardly. It damaged their “creative intelligence” and offered a model that threatened to spread to the rest of the world with dangerous results.
Of course, the final authority on the German fascist view of America was Hitler himself and he had strong views on the subject. While earlier in his career he had admired American technological development and its supposed domination by Aryans, Hitler reversed these views very strongly. Like Stalin, he believed that the United States was on the verge of collapse in the 1930s, weakened by democracy and a loss of racial pride.
Most of his ideas seemed to be taken from a century of European anti-American stereotypes. “What is America,” Hitler told a friend, “but millionaires, beauty queens, stupid records and Hollywood.” Its corrosive appeal was so great that even Germans would succumb to America’s decadence if they lived there, “Transfer [a German] to Miami and you make a degenerate out of him–in other words–an American.” The idea of immigrant degeneration was, of course, the main theme of German anti-Americans a century earlier. Americans, Hitler continued, were spoiled and weakened by luxury, living “like sows though in a most luxurious sty,” under the grip of “the most grasping materialism,” and indifferent to “any of the loftiest expressions of the human spirit such as music.”
At a 1933 dinner party in his home, when a guest suggested he seek America’s friendship, Hitler responded that “a corrupt and outworn” American system was on its deathbed. It was American greed and materialism that had brought about their failure. He defined the problem in virtually Marxist terms, arguing, as Lenin had, that since the Civil War, “A moneyed clique…under the fiction of a democracy” ruled the country. As a result of the crisis of the Depression, Hitler, like Stalin, claimed that the United States was on the verge of revolution which, in his version, would result in German-Americans seizing power. The main difference was the Nazi substitution of race for class as their category of analysis.
At the dinner party, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels chimed in to agree with his boss:
“Nothing will be easier than to produce a bloody revolution in…America. No other country has so many social and racial tensions.…[It] is a medley of races. The ferment goes on under a cover of democracy, but it will not lead to a new form of freedom and leadership, but to a process of decay containing all the disintegrating forces of Europe.”
But whether or not America collapsed, Hitler thought that the United States would be no threat in a war because Americans were cowards and military incompetents who during World War I had “behaved like clumsy boys. They ran straight into the line of fire like young rabbits.” Even in the midst of World War Two, as U.S. military and industrial might was beginning to destroy his empire, Hitler did not acknowledge that mistake. In 1942 he called America, “a decayed country, with problems of race and social inequality, of no ideas….My feelings against America are those of hatred and repugnance.” It was “half-Judaized, half-Negrified….How can one expect a state like that to hold together–a state where 80 per cent of the revenue is drained away from the public purse–a country where everything is built on the dollar?”
This underestimation of America’s internal coherence and external strength was a mistake that not only Stalin and Hitler but many later dictators would also make, often to their own detriment. It is important to understand that whatever their different thoughts on the subject, Hitler’s and Stalin’s views on America was fairly typical of those conveyed by mainstream European anti-Americans for a century.
Of course, their disdain was focused on all Western democratic countries, yet the United States was portrayed as the worst, most extreme case of the malady to be combated. For example, Hitler could say—even as he made war on Britain and France, “I feel myself more akin to any European country, no matter which….I consider the British state very much superior [to America].” When his deputy, Martin Bormann, gave him a translated copy of a 1931 book satirizing the United States, Juan in America by the Scotsman Eric Linklater, Hitler said, “When one reads a book like this about them, one sees that they have the brains of a hen!” Sounding like a left-wing French intellectual, Hitler added of the Americans:
“I grant you that our standard of living is lower. But the German Reich has two hundred and seventy opera houses–a standard of cultural existence of which they…have no conception. They have clothes, food, cars and a badly constructed house–but with a refrigerator. This sort of thing does not impress us. I might, with as much reason, judge the cultural level of the sixteenth century by the appearance of [indoor bathrooms].”
His Italian fascist counterparts had strikingly similar views, seeing America as a machine-centered, urbanized society with lax moral attitudes and a low level of culture. During the 1930s, several of the 51 books on America published in Italy portrayed life there in the usual anti-American terms. People lived in hellish cities under the thumb of machines, a parody on European civilization. In 1938 and 1939, Emilio Cecchi, a leading journalist and sympathizer with Fascism, wrote a series of articles collected as Bitter America throwing in all the contradictory clichés about American life, simultaneously said to be Puritanical and conformist, but also pagan, individualistic and respecting no taboos; violent but putting security before anything else. Americans are compared in their behavior to sheep and machines.
Like Hitler and many other anti-Americans, Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini explained that he had great sympathy for America’s people but not for its government. “Under the guise of democracy it was really just a capitalistic oligarchy, a “plutocracy.” As for American culture, he criticized, “awful cocktails, feet on the tables [and] chewing gum.” Regarding U.S. foreign policy, it was the worst form of imperialism ever, not merely wanting to gain power over others but to change the existing societies into one that would lower “human intelligence and dignity all over the world.”
Communist and fascist anti-Americanisms were distinctive from earlier approaches by being so systematic and state-sponsored, while also being different from each other in certain emphases. Yet their definite continuity with historic European anti-American ideas and themes was remarkably strong.
Moreover, they posthumously helped shape the anti-American views held by many in Europe and the Third World into the twenty-first century. Communism and fascism saw America as the main external threat to their societies, as culturally subversive, a rival to their ambitions, and as the main alternative system they must battle for directing the world’s future. Later, European leftists and Middle Eastern Arab nationalists or Islamists would take over these basic concepts and copy that style of propaganda often without realizing it.
Originally, anti-American ideology had suggested that America could never produce an advanced society or that the United States had already failed. Later, it raised the alarm that this deplorable and degenerate country represented something threatening and evil. But now the transition had been made to the highest stage of anti-Americanism, that the United States was indeed responsible for most of the world’s evil and was trying to take it over entirely.