Hating America: A History » Chapter 6-Cold War and Coca-Cola
COLD WAR AND COCA COLA, 1945-1990
When the twentieth century began, the United States was not a very important country. Even as late as 1940 that situation had not changed too much. Anti-Americans had raged for decades about the American threat and the possibility that its model might take over the world but such ideas remained largely speculative.
Equally, despite all the hatred generated against the United States, it had arguably done little to injure any other state in the world, at least outside of Latin America. European anti-Americanism at this point, until at least 1945, was clearly based not on policy but a view of the United States as having an inferior civilization, society, and culture.
But gradually the old anti-American nightmare of a powerful United States playing a strong international role began to appear as more than a fantasy. A major U.S. role in World War One seemed, ironically, only to increase anti-Americanism in France, the country its forces had fought and died to free. The new Soviet Union claimed the United States was the ultimate capitalist power and its inevitable enemy. The same could be said for German attitudes, which had far more to do with Nazism’s self-image and goals than with any anger over the conflict with the United States during World War One.
By the late 1940s, though, the U.S. role in the world was finally developing along the lines both pro- and anti-Americans had begun predicting as early as the 1790s. By 1945, the United States was now either the world’s most important country or, at least, one of two superpowers. That transformation had an enormous impact on anti-Americanism. While the traditional criticisms remained consistent, their importance increased alongside that of the target country. Now that the United States was so active in the world, its specific deeds or policies abroad could be cited as proofs of its bad nature, intentions, and actions.
For the first time in history, too, anti-Americanism really mattered in the world. Being so big was an incorrigible offense to many, especially since the United States was usurping Europe’s role. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee put it regarding America, “The giant’s sheer size is always getting the giant into trouble with people of normal stature.”
A growing American cultural and economic power made the alleged danger all the more immediate and threatening. No longer was it a wild fantasy YOU USE THIS SAME PHRASE IN ANOTHER CHAPTER to think the United States might be a model for the rest of the world. For others, when U.S. positions conflicted with those of their own country or faction, the ready made anti-American thesis could be pulled off the shelf as explanation or weapon.
The entire world had to view the United States in this context. As the Soviet Union’s main adversary, the United States was now central to the antagonisms of Moscow, Communist states or parties, and radical movements. It was now the United States, not England or France, that was the world’s chief “imperialist” power which must be discredited and defeated. Promoting anti-Americanism was a way to weaken the U.S. side in the global Cold War battle and to undermine its local friends. Those hating America would not side with her; and those hating the United States intensively enough might join either the Soviet camp or become neutral.
For its part, Western Europe and its peoples had to decide whether to support the United States, the USSR, or try to become a “third force.” Suddenly, the country so long decried as inferior became Europe’s leader; nations so long used to primacy had to take a back seat to the American upstart. While most states, except France, made this adjustment relatively easily, the power shift left lasting scars that would encourage more anti-Americanism in the future. It was understandably hard for Europeans to put their very survival in the hands of a country they often differed with about policy, style, and ideas.
The Third World underwent a parallel experience. Outside of Latin America, few peoples or countries previously had important interactions with the United States. Now U.S. decisions and actions would affect their fate. As they increased such relationships later, however, it would be hard for these countries, too, to understand an unfamiliar American society and strange U.S. system, with a history, institutions, and world view so different from their own.
Moreover, whatever the United States stood for or advocated would inevitably offend some and threaten others. And the more some people in any given country wanted to copy America or cooperate with it, the more others would be antagonized. As the United States sought allies among governments, oppositions might see America as their enemy as well. Whether the United States did or didn’t act, spoke or didn’t speak, gave help or did nothing could provoke resentment.
In 1957, the Paris-based American humorist Art Buchwald placed an ad in the London Times personal column saying he would like to hear from people who disliked Americans and their reasons why. He received over a hundred replies and concluded:
“If Americans would stop spending money, talking loudly in public places, telling the British who won the war, adopt a pro-colonial policy, back future British expeditions to Suez [a reference to the 1956 attack on Egypt], stop taking oil out of the Middle East, stop chewing gun, …move their air bases out of England, settle the desegregation problem in the South…put the American woman in her proper place, and not export Rock n’Roll [music], and speak correct English, the tension between the two countries might ease.”
Of course, there were far more than frivolous issues that led to controversy and friction. Many aspects of U.S. policy during the Cold War both abroad—notably support for Latin American or other dictators and the Vietnam war—and at home—especially the McCarthy era and civil rights—would draw foreign criticism.
Again, though, it is important to emphasize that mere criticism of a U.S. policy or aspect of American society did not in itself constitute anti-Americanism. Rather, anti-Americanism constituted a view in which particular objections became systemic. In the eyes of such people, the United States could do—or at least would do—nothing right. They portrayed it as bad or inevitably misbehaving, misrepresenting its policies, slandering its institutions, and distorting its motives. Or to put it most simply: the good make mistakes; the evil act deliberately or according to their nature.
It was in this spirit of questioning American motives and the country’s nature that anti-Americanism could be found. A good example of such thinking is provided by the British playwright Harold Pinter complained that from 1945 onward the United States:
“has exercised a sustained, systematic, remorseless, and quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good….[The United States has been] the most dangerous power the world has ever known.”
The origins of such a systematic response to the United States lay less in the details of U.S. behavior than in the accusers’ motives and misunderstandings. Moreover, their beliefs and claims rested firmly on two centuries of well-established anti-American traditions. As always, anti-Americanism—as distinct from criticism—arose from such factors as other nations’ ignorance, jealousy, class or partisan interest, ideology, and conflicting goals.
Of course, the second half of the twentieth century was also an era of great popularity for the United States in the world and at times anti-Americanism fell to relatively low levels. Following the end of World War II, there was a great deal of gratitude toward the United States among non-Communist Western Europeans. They appreciated the U.S. role in first helping save them from fascism and then giving so generously to rebuild their countries.
Clearly, too, it was harder to deny that the long-derided U.S. democratic and economic system had worked pretty well. In contrast to Europeans of earlier times, the Italian writer Luigi Barzini meant it as a complement when he explained in his big-selling 1953 book on America, “The United States has created the greatest organization for the production and distribution of goods in history.”
Finally, one could argue that at least part of the old predictions about the spread of the American model, or at least aspects of it, were becoming true. Western Europe was far more similar to the United States than it had been a half-century or century earlier. Since Europeans generally tended to adapt the things they preferred, most were comfortable with these changes. The left and intellectuals might worry that this was merely the beginning of a slide toward full-scale Americanization, but most people were less horrified or unsympathetic to the United States as the gap between their and American society narrowed.
For a time, anti-Americanism in Europe, outside of Communist circles and France at least, was in eclipse. While some resentment and grumbling resurfaced, these would remain minority viewpoints. In Germany and Italy, liberated from fascism and treated well by the United States, anti-Americanism was unacceptable among non-Communists. An exception was the novelist Hermann Hesse who told his colleague Thomas Mann, “In Germany the dangerous criminals and racketeers, the sadists and gangsters are no longer Nazis, nor do they speak German, they are Americans.”
But most of the defeated West Germans did not want or could not afford to slander America. Their own great power pretensions were shattered and they had made too many mistakes of their own to retain the old snobbish dismissal of American institutions. Not only was self-confidence in their own civilization’s superiority eroded but they knew that only U.S. willpower and forces saved them from Communist occupation.
In Britain, too, anti-Americanism was largely defused or driven underground by the close alliance between the two countries. Since 1945, the British debate has been over whether to look toward America or Europe, a division of loyalties not fully shared by any other Europeans
Even while England could be jealous of American success and sorrowful about the loss of empire, it was able to cope with this relative decline. Given its common language and “Anglo-Saxon” (as the French and Latin Americans put it) heritage, Britain was already close to America. Now it institutionalized a “special relationship” and “Atlantic alliance.” Britain could soften the blow of being junior partner by seeing itself as America’s tutor (playing Greece to America’s Rome, as some put it). In short, Britain’s attitude to the United States could be patronizing without being antagonistic or hostile.
Tired of a long post-war austerity, the British masses made no secret and saw no disgrace in wanting the gadgets and luxuries they knew were enjoyed by their American counterparts. For the left this posed a problem, though the difficulty was smaller since it was largely non-Communist and even non-Marxist. On the political side, the British left knew that pro-Soviet or neutralist sentiments on the Cold War were political suicide. But the United States could still be derided as a land of lynching and McCarthyism.
On the cultural front, it could criticize the Americans in the traditional terms as a people whose material goods only made their lives emptier. When the working class literary rebel Kenneth Tynan wrote a sarcastic letter in 1957 on how to be successful in British cultural life, one of his recommendations was “adopt a patronizing attitude to anything popular or American.”
The main British expert on America was Harold Laski, a London School of Economics professor and leading Labour party intellectual. Laski reflected the ambiguity of British attitudes which were more critical than anti-American. He had taught at Harvard in the 1920s and had many American friends, including Franklin Roosevelt. This love-hate relationship was shown by his 1949 book, American Democracy, which mixed a doctrinaire Marxist condemnation of the United States with affection as well. Some of his distortions were extreme. For example, he portrayed the north as treating the south like a colony and promoting racism among poor whites in order to keep the working class divided.
A few on the left diluted their vitriol more sparingly. The novelist J.B. Priestly was so antagonistic to U.S. mass culture that he was dubbed by journalists “the man who hates America.” His fellow writer Graham Greene held similar views. He wrote in 1967, “If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States I would certainly choose the Soviet Union.” He viewed America as a mindless consumer society based on an “eternal adolescence…to which morality means keeping Mother’s Day and looking after the kid sister’s purity.” It was useless to pretend “that with these allies it was ever possible to fight for civilization.”
These old cultural critiques were displaced to more exotic climes as American behavior in the Third World came under scrutiny. Green was perhaps the first European writer to focus on this issue which would assume tremendous importance in later years. In Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, set in South Vietnam, the American figure is an idealistic but greatly naïve young man determined to promote democracy but actually causing widespread bloodshed to innocent people. The book’s hero, a worldly wise but cynical British journalist, says of the Americans:
“I was tired of the whole pack of them with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their too wide cars, and their not quite latest guns….My conversation was full of the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics, and the beastliness of American children….Nothing that America could do was right.”
Others maintained the old aristocratic conservative strain of ridicule about America. “Of course, the Americans are cowards,” Evelyn Waugh cheerfully told Graham Greene. “They are almost all the descendants of wretches who deserted their legitimate monarchs for fear of military service.” But this kind of talk was mainly restricted to private social conversation and jokes.
As so often happened, anti-Americanism became more significant when it became caught up in local disputes, for example the Labour party’s factional battles of the 1950s. The party’s left-wing, led by Aneurin Bevan, criticized the United States because it did not want to follow so closely America’s Cold War leadership and saw that society as an unwelcome alternative to the socialist future the group wanted for Britain.
In the context of the British internal debate, to imitate America’s success meant to put more priority on making capitalism work than on promoting state ownership of industry. Thus, if the United States was highly regarded and became a model, traditional Labour party goals would be watered down into merely managing the existing society better rather than transforming it. This is precisely what the rival party faction, led by Hugh Gaitskell, wanted to do by moving Labour toward the political center. It would be better, he argued, to make Britain more like America which he saw as a place with greater social equality, no aristocracy and, in the words of Gaitskell’s chief intellectual ally Anthony Crosland, a “natural and unrestrained” atmosphere.
Gaitskell’s faction also favored a close alliance with the United States in the Cold War, a stance Bevan’s group saw as undermining Britain’s independence and the party’s leftist orientation. Of course, the more pro-American were the party’s moderates, the more incentive radicals had to bash the United States in order to discredit their foes and gain support for themselves. In response, Crosland complained in 1956 that anti-Americanism was a “left-wing neurosis, springing from a natural resentment at the transfer of world power from London to Washington, combined with the need to find some new and powerful scapegoat to replace the capitalists at home” whose power Labour had already diminished by promoting the “welfare state.”
George Orwell, the great British intellectual who never felt intimidated into conformity, agreed with this assessment and thought anti-Americanism was a marginal phenomenon. Those who advocated it were a minor, though vocal, mob. “I do not believe the mass of the people in this country are anti-American politically, and certainly not culturally.” In attacking the United States, the intellectuals were merely uttering their own group’s “parrot cry.” Indeed, as would so often happen regarding anti-Americanism, such people were “indifferent to mass opinion” but trembled at the orthodoxy of their peers.
Orwell was right about both the causes and limits of anti-Americanism in his country. Generally in Britain, anti-Americanism was usually voiced by a minority which knew it to be an unpopular idea. Even in the Labour party the moderate left maintained control. By 1961, the Bevin faction had been defeated and even moderated its own views. Future Labour prime ministers, like Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Tony Blair in the 1990s and early 2000s, were strongly pro-American in the Gaitskell tradition.
It was, of course, the Communist bloc, a state-sponsor of anti-Americanism, and the many in the West it influenced directly or indirectly that carried the banner of anti-Americanism in the post-war world. But there was one other country—France–where that attitude continued to be powerful despite the central role the United States played in its liberation and post-war reconstruction.
Ironically, France–unlike Britain and Germany–had never been at war with the United States. On the contrary, American troops had fought on French soil to protect that country in two world wars. Few issues had ever actually created friction between these two countries. Many anti-American attacks in France came from the Communists or others repeating Soviet propaganda. But this alone is not a sufficient explanation since the Communists were even more powerful in Italy without having an equivalent impact.
Yet France’s primacy as the world center of non-Communist anti-Americanism is easy to understand. The idea had a long, continuous history in that country, where it had always been mainly cultural and civilizational rather than policy-driven in origin. Only France, among Western industrialized states, still believed it should have global primacy. It was the sole such country that saw itself as a political and cultural rival to the United States
France also had a powerful class whose practical interests were well-served by anti-Americanism. The country’s intellectual circles, dominated by the left, were skeptical about the justness of the U.S. cause in the Cold War. In material terms, French cultural and intellectual producers were economic competitors of American products. They were especially horrified by a country whose system devalued the importance of intellectuals. If France became Americanized, the intellectual and culture-producing sectors would suffer the greatest loss of status and influence. One way to put it was that the United States was often seen by intellectuals in general, and especially French intellectuals, the way capitalists perceived the USSR: as a direct danger to their power, prestige, and way of life.
There were many other factors, too. France—unlike Britain–had a different language from America and a cuisine more worthy of a spirited defense against fast food than did England or Germany. It was dedicated to a policy of propping up a disproportionately large peasantry in order to preserve the country’s traditional character, making it vulnerable to the import of American food or technology that could displace these people. In short, France simultaneously felt culturally superior and better qualified to be a superpower yet threatened by an inferior American hegemony on both political and cultural grounds. As General Pierre Billotte, Charles de Gaulle’s wartime chief of staff, explained. “France has an inferiority complex,” But it also had a superiority complex toward America and the combination made for a great deal of antagonism.
Rather than diluting French anti-Americanism, as one might expect, the U.S. role in liberating France during War Two actually intensified it—as had happened with World War I. The need to be saved by the United States offended the country’s sense of greatness. As it declined from world power to supplicant for U.S help, the bitterness intensified.
At the same time, the French had rather ungrateful complaints about the way the United States had rescued it. De Gaulle and his colleagues felt the Americans had mistreated them during the war by making their Free French movement only minor partners and carving up Europe with the Soviets without consulting France. A decade later, explaining France’s withdrawal from NATO, de Gaulle added the criticism that it had taken too long for U.S. help to arrive in both world wars.
Even when the United States paid for France’s reconstruction with the Marshall plan, Communists said it—and many were convinced—that this was merely an American plot to dominate the country. Other left-wing parties were hostile, and center-right parties were suspicious.
As one study of French perceptions put it, this resentment at feeling overshadowed, undervalued, and ignored, was made all the worse by their actual need for U.S. help and protection. “If only the Americans hated the French and were open enemies, as the Germans once were, something could be done about it.” The U.S. government was aware of this problem. Between 1948 and 1952 it launched a massive cultural and informational campaign to improve its image there, with radio programs, films, libraries, cultural exchanges, and organizations to encourage mutual understanding. None of this solved the issue. Indeed, the McCarthy era in America convinced many Frenchmen that the mob mentality and low intellectual level they expected to find really was dominant. The United States was unfit, they believed, to lead the Free World, especially since France could do so better.
There were few practical consequences of French anti-Americanism during this era but the anti-American barrage was nevertheless deafening. It was an article of faith to many French intellectuals, for example, that South Korea had been encouraged by the United States to attack North Korea in 1950 rather than the other way around. No less an artist than Pablo Picasso did a painting entitled “Massacres in Korea” showing a squad of American soldiers murdering women and children.
Hubert Beuve-Méry, founder and director of Le Monde, the favorite newspaper of French intellectuals, wrote in 1944, one month before American soldiers laid down their lives for French freedom on Normandy’s beaches, “The Americans represent a real danger to France. A very different danger than the threat of Germany or than a Russian threat could be….The Americans can prevent us from making the necessary revolution and their materialism doesn’t even have the tragic greatness of the totalitarian materialism. If they retain a real cult for the idea of freedom, they do not feel the need to liberate themselves from the bondage their capitalism leads to.”
What came directly from Communist or fellow traveler writers, then, was often echoed by many or most other intellectuals a situation that did not really happen anywhere else in Europe. Thus, when American schools were accused of ignoring European culture and fearing science because it challenged religion, these ideas gained broad acceptance in France. After Irène Joliot-Curie, a physicist and leading Communist supporter, was detained overnight at Ellis Island when trying to enter the United States, she said Americans preferred fascism to communism because “fascism has more respect for money.” The leading Communist novelist Louis Aragon restated an old French anti-American theme: “The Yankee, more arrogant than the Nazi iconoclast substitutes the machine for the poet.” In Britain, Germany, or Italy, such statements would have been considered outrageous fringe opinions, while in France they were not atypical.
Still, American machines were also ridiculed. The Communist daily, L’Humanite´ ran articles in 1948 to prove to the French that Americans were not better off than they were despite having a collection of household technological gadgets. Headlines included, “One could starve with a telephone” and “Not everyone has a bathroom.” American refrigerators, the newspaper explained, were good only to make ice cubes for whiskey cocktails and not for storing food.
Similarly, a 1948 article in a Communist literary journal complained, “We here are sick to death of having Yankee superiority shoved down our throats. A state the size of Europe that isn’t capable of putting out even half the book-titles we publish in our [small] country….Is that the ideal, the model, the leader they want us to look up to?”
Perhaps the most absurd irony of all was that one of the greatest postwar promoters of anti-Americanism in France was the fellow traveling magazine Esprit, whose staff included former collaborators with the Nazis who were now “clearing” their credentials by moving close to the Communists. Incredibly, one of their accusations was that the United States had backed the collaborationist Vichy regime, which they had supported and the United States had opposed.
Not only was American society repugnant but it also threatened France directly. As an article in Esprit put it in 1948, ”The Russians are a long way away. What we see are tons of American [volumes] and American ideas and American propaganda in our bookstores.” According to Esprit in 1951, daily life in the United States was a constant attack on personal liberty because of advertising, the banality of conversation, and the sameness of life styles. People feared not buying the latest refrigerator or television because that was to be different and difference was “un-American.” As a result, the Americans suffered from “a sort of dictatorship without a dictator.”
Even as Soviet tanks were rolling into Budapest to crush the 1956 Hungarian rebellion, Esprit found the United States to be worse than the USSR. Asked the magazine, “What can one expect from this civilization that mocks and caricatures Western spiritual traditions and is propelling mankind into a horizontal existence, shorn of transcendence and depth?” According to a 1959 article, “American society is totalitarian; it is possibly the most totalitarian society in the world.”
Le Monde published a series of attacks on America by Pierre Emmanuel, a contributor also to Esprit, explaining that both the United States and USSR were totalitarian, “the one in power, the other in deed.” Europeans formed a third camp that would eventually triumph over America because they retained an “idea.” No matter how much Washington became the world’s power center, the “heart and brains will remain in Europe.” Every European who had been to the United States was appalled by its social conformity and the sight of its people being reduced to mere producers and consumers.
These kinds of statements, equating the United States with the USSR while hinting that the latter was less objectionable, continued to be common on the French left in later years. For example, Jean-Marie Benoist, a former French cultural attaché to England and professor at the prestigious College de France, writing in 1976, drew parallels between “the twin monolithic tyrannies of uniformity….Woodstock and the jean uniform on the side; the Gulags on the other.”
Possibly, Soviet concentration camps were worse, he suggested, but they were also the counterpart of how the propaganda of America (“Atlantic imperialism”) tried to control Europe. Viewing an American movie was thus portrayed as some type of rough equivalent for laboring in a Siberian mine at sub-zero temperatures.
While these two forms of totalitarianism were different in some ways they were “equally fearsome,” said Benoist. “The Eastern variety imprisons, persecutes and mortifies the body but at least does not destroy hope. Its Western counterpart ends up creating happy robots. It is an air-conditioned hell. It kills the soul.” And European intellectuals professed to consider the soul far more important to protect than the mere body, which was the supposed priority of American materialism.
Generally, the USSR might at most be criticized for specific policies but only the United States was subject to a systematic ridicule for its history and culture, inadequacy as a system, and mass culture. Ironically, this was left-wing criticism tinged with a reactionary aristocratic snobbishness since it was condemning any departure from high culture in order to cater to popular tastes. Yet this apparent paradox made sense since those claiming to speak in the French masses’ name were actually defending their own prerogatives as a self-perpetuating elite that looked down on the people and sought to ensure its continued control over the intellectual means of production.
Criticizing America also had a special role as one of the few issues on which French conservatives—both right-wing extremists and staunch nationalists–agreed with the left. During World War II, French collaborators with the Nazis spent more time denouncing U.S. society than did their German counterparts. They charged it was a country dominated by Jews. “The American abomination is the Jewish abomination,” as one of them put it. Precisely because it was a democracy, it was “a rotten nation, horribly powerless, unable to anticipate, to get organized, to vanquish.” Even American capitalism displeased them. The United States was merely, “The country of [monopolies] and gangsterism and the American is a vile profiteer who only respects money.”
When it came to the United States, de Gaulle, the scourge of traitorous collaborators, also held the traditional hostile beliefs of the French right. In 1934, as a young officer, he wrote of the American “social system, in which material profit is the motive of all activity and the basis of all hierarchy.” It is certain,” concluded Philippe Roger in his definitive history of French anti-Americanism, “that he feared Europe’s submission to the culture, the economy and the linguistic power of the United-States.”
On forming his own political party in 1947, de Gaulle, fearful of Communism, favored a strong alliance with the United States. But as early as 1952, he gave a speech charging that the United States collaborated with Germany against French interests. By 1954 his party was criticizing American society in terms like those of the left while also echoing the right-wing French accusations from the post-World War I era which de Gaulle had grown up hearing.
A decade later, in 1964, de Gaulle was still emphasizing the civilizational confrontation between the United States and France. He appealed to a visiting Arab journalist for an alliance of those living around the Mediterranean to create “an industrial civilization that does not follow the American model and in which man is not merely means but purpose and aim….” René Pleven, one of his closest comrades, said de Gaulle “was a man for whom history counted more than anything else.…But where the United States were concerned he was at a loss; he found no historical keys.” He did not think “it could be compared to that of ‘real’ nations.”
Similarly, U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Bohlen, who met de Gaulle many times, said that the French leader thought the United States, “lacked most of the attributes [he] felt were essential for a stable country.” It lacked a military tradition or unifying religious heritage, while its people were merely “immigrants from dozens of countries–in his eyes a somewhat messy collection of tribes that had come together to exploit a continent. He felt we were materialistic without a solid, civilizing tradition of, say, France. We were too powerful for our own good.”
Nevertheless, despite such factors, the overall levels of anti-Americanism in France or in Europe among the people as a whole during this era should not be overstated. Polls in the 1950s and 1960s showed overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward the United States in Britain, Germany, and Italy, while those friendly and hostile to the United States in France were near to being evenly divided A 1953 poll in France showed sixty-one percent were “sympathetic” to the United States while only eight percent expressed antipathy, five percent distrust, and one percent hatred. A 1955 poll found those positive about America in France to be 4 percent more ; a 1957 one showed the negatives as 3 percent greater. Yet even among the French elite, a 1964 poll found that eighty-seven percent saw the United States as a country which had common interests with France, almost the same as in other Western European states. In contrast, only five percent of those in the USSR dared make such a statement.
Publicly, though, it often seemed that the French intellectual and cultural elite did hate America. One of the most revealing accounts was Simone de Beauvoir, one of France’s more respected intellectuals and a leading figure in the emerging philosophy of existentialism. After a four-month-long trip to the United States in the late 1940s. she published her diary of the visit as a book. A key moment was her description of a meeting a New York Times editor:
“From the height of his own power and American power in general he throws me an ironic look: So France amuses itself with existentialism? Of course, he knows nothing about existentialism; his contempt is aimed at philosophy in general and more generally still at the presumptuousness of an economically impoverished country that claims to think.” But was perceiving such smug arrogance something out of the baggage de Beauvoir brought with her on the trip?
At any rate, she claims to prefer the “intimidating indifference” of those powerful in France to American flippancy. She detects hints that Americans know they are really inferior to Europe in their “restlessness, gum-chewing, and bold self-assurance.” Perhaps some of this attitude derives from her certainty that the American system is not good for her caste. “America,” she wrote, “is hard on intellectuals.” She feels that publishers and editors size up your mind in a critical and distasteful way, like an impresario asking a dancer to show her legs. They have contempt from the start for the produce they’re going to buy, as well as the public on whom they’ll foist their goods.”
Rather than fight to seize spiritual power in America, de Beauvoir complains, college students are paralyzed with “intellectual defeatism” because they believe the United States is “too huge a machine with too intricate gears” for them to conquer. America is simply too caught up in “the banality of daily life” in which “people amuse themselves with gadgets and, lacking real projects, they cultivate hobbies….Sports, movies, and comics all offer distractions. But in the end, people are always faced with what they wanted to escape: the arid basis of American life–boredom.”
One aspect of this misrepresentation is especially significant in such European assessments, a false comparison that has persisted for a century. The average French citizen does not sit around all day and discuss existentialism, literature, and the meaning of life. They are no less interested in sports, movies, and personal life than Americans. The pursuit of an elevated life of the spirit, sprinkled with “real projects,” is the life style of a relatively small elite. In that respect, there is not so much difference between France and the United States except when one misleadingly compares an intellectual elite in the former with average people in the latter country.
What is different between the two countries, though, is something of the greatest importance for French intellectuals. In their own country, they have a virtual monopoly on discourse. Intellectuals are featured on television, radio, and in the elite press as central figures, comparable perhaps to sports or musical stars in America. In the United States there has also been a degree of intellectual life and high culture that is proportionately probably about the same as in France. But it is far less central to the overall life of the nation.
The reason is that in America this high-level cultural and intellectual “product line” must compete with a more powerful popular culture represented by Hollywood, professional sports, pulp literature, and pop music. Intellectuals get far less respect or attention. Indeed, they are sometimes regarded with scorn as indicated by such negative epithets ranging from “egghead” in the 1950s to “nerd” in later decades. The problem is that in a free market, the intellectuals have a great deal of difficulty competing with cheaper items aimed at the least common denominator audience. Of course, these stereotypes on both sides of the Atlantic are easily exaggerated but they certainly do have some validity.
No doubt, the majority of the French people might welcome—and indeed have done so over time–such an alternative for themselves rather than being the intellectual elite’s captive audience. That is precisely what that group in France and elsewhere in Europe has feared: Once Europeans caught on to the alternatives they would be swept away by an American style mass, populist, lowest-common-denominator culture.
To this must be added one more small, but significant, point. French, and European, intellectuals or artists have always underestimated the impact of their own works and culture on American society. Not all the cultural transmission has been one-way. A few years after de Beauvoir’s visit, existentialism was all the rage among the American intelligentsia, just as French-produced post-modernism would be a few decades later. If the willingness of Americans to borrow from others was appreciated, their society would not be so derided by clichés about its narrow, provincial, and arrogant nature.
Other important aspects of French anti-American thinking were reflected in Andre´ Siegfried’s 1955 book, America at Mid-Century. Many of the points made there can be found in similar volumes written by French visitors to America a century earlier.
One key concept, so prevalent in European anti-American thinking yet so strange to the American discourse, was the view of the United States as a separate civilization from their own. Americans, however, have almost never viewed themselves as a distinctive civilization but rather as a Western one closely linked to Europe. The acceptance of this kinship limits the development of a sense of superiority or antagonism toward Europe so often attributed to Americans by Europeans.
Siegfried was more balanced than many of his contemporaries in viewing the United States. On the positive side, he is effusive about Americans’ energy. He finds it to be, “An astonishing country where everything is focused on the future!….Its psychology remains characteristic of a youth that we Europeans have lost. America [is] the embryo of a [distinct] civilization, which has faith in the possibility of changing the very rhythm of nature. One might also call it the great American adventure, the end of which is not in sight….”
Yet he worries that this new society represents the triumph of technical progress over Western civilization. It is anti-human because it tries to “dissociate” man “from nature.” Americans, he writes, are more interested in methods than in things for their own value. Universities care more for buildings than the humanities. The country “requires dosing with a large portion of classicism” because it “produces competent people but it does not guarantee that they should be cultured.” He seems surprised to discover that American companies actually preferred to hire people who had scientific and technical skills rather than a background in literature or philosophy.
Siegfried also suggested that the American emphasis on “high output” diminished “the critical spirit, which is by its very nature individualistic.” Culture is eclipsed by technical progress and equipment. As a result, “The individual acting alone and thinking alone is reduced to powerlessness. Mass man has triumphed over the anarchic individuals, for the necessities of modern production have so willed it….The man who really counts is the expert, before whom everyone must bow.”
Among other things, this analysis shows a failure to see how technological advances permit a higher degree of culture. Someone with a video recorder can watch any film in the world any time they want, while one who must go to a theatre is more dependent on mass tastes and limited selection. Improved printing technology and distribution lowered the cost of publishing; mass education raised literacy standards. Fine literature including the classics was now available to everyone. Of course, it could be argued that American society conditioned its citizens to prefer junk, but those reading that junk would probably have been reading nothing else otherwise, and while impossible to prove it seems accurate to say that a higher percentage of the overall American population actually read as good if not better quality fiction or non-fiction as do the general population of Britain, France or Germany.
Of course, there are many in America—especially in the 1950s—who would have agreed with the kind of critique offered by Siegfried and other French intellectuals. But there is a tiny but very significant difference. Americans condemned the “conformism” and “materialism” of the 1950s, as well as such phenomena as the power of Senator Joe McCarthy, as the results of an era. Anti-Americans outside the country portrayed them as core aspects of America’s essence, as typical and inevitable products of its society.
These stereotypes were taken to extremes. When Jean-Paul Sartre visited the United States in 1945 and 1946, he concluded that it is when an American is “showing the most conformism that he feels the freest.” According to Sartre, just as Americans worship conformity (“The American uses his mechanical bottle-opener, fridge or car at the same time as all other Americans and the same way they do”) they feel everyone in the world should behave and think exactly as they do.
Never quite out of sight in all these evaluations was a fear that the United States wanted to impose its system on France and would succeed in doing so, at least if not fought fiercely. This belief had been the mainstay of French anti-Americanism going back to the nineteenth century. While declaiming their own system’s superiority—and finding the United States inferior because it was different—they attributed such sentiments to the Americans, who did not go through life believing themselves better than the French. Equally, French anti-Americans often argued that the U.S. system was going to collapse yet were obsessed with a pessimistic expectation that their own system was doomed to be overwhelmed by Americanization. But why would this happen unless their own people—even if only because they were hypnotized by advertising—“betrayed” them and preferred American or American-style culture and customs?
The French vision was one of a competition between their own “civilizing mission” against the “anti-civilization” drive of the United States. The Americans were seen as the new savages, and not noble ones either. In this scheme of thinking, America took the place of those classical inferiors, the peoples of the Third World, whose cultures–in terms now held to be racist and imperialistic–were previously seen by Europeans as the epitome of what was backward and primitive. There was no country in the world that had imposed its culture, language, and world view on its colonies more than did France. And this is what French intellectuals expected America to do to its new “colonies” which might consist of the entire world.
But the trade goods of American culture were considered worthless and meaningless, plastic beads and trinkets intended to replace the priceless works of great artists. The perception, as two French scholars critical of anti-Americanism explained, was that the United States had nothing to export except “its lack of culture. [Americans] are condemned to cause all the cultures they touch to perish and to uproot all traditions. By exporting their way of life they end up killing the national soul everywhere since they themselves are the progeny of such murder.”
This was a powerful belief in France and among many European intellectuals which they helped spread to the rest of the world. Once that concept was accepted it was a simple matter to embrace Communist-style anti-American propaganda as accurately portraying the political aspects of this vandalism and brutality. If one thought so badly about the United States, it was easy to assume that all the charges against it were inevitably true.
For example, during the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for being Soviet spies on the American nuclear program—a charge history has shown to be accurate–Sartre wrote, “Don’t be surprised if from one end of Europe to the other we are shouting, ‘America is a mad dog!’ Let’s cut every tie that binds us to her lest she bite us and we go mad too.” When the United States defended South Korea (under UN auspices, no less) from the aggression of its northern Communist neighbor, de Beauvoir thought on seeing two American soldiers, “They were defenders of a country which was supporting dictatorship and corruption from one end of the globe to the other.”
Such political outrage was often based on cultural distaste, while cultural distaste in turn was often grounded in fear of conquest. When de Beauvoir in 1952 was so stirred to hatred by seeing those two American soldiers enter a hotel in France, she reflected that they looked as if they were members of an arrogant occupation force. True dictatorship and corruption was seen as being more closely related to the forces of American cultural invasion than to the USSR’s repressive tyranny.
As she mused in a 1960 book in trying to understand her own attitude toward the United States:
“We regarded America as the country where capitalist oppression had triumphed in the most vile fashion. We detested the exploitation, unemployment, racism and lynch-law there…Nonetheless, leaving aside its good or evil aspects, there was something gigantic and unfettered about life there that we found fascinating….Ironically, we were attracted by America whose government we condemned, whilst the USSR, the scene of an experiment we found admirable, left us cold.”
Yet this frank assessment about the mixed nature of attitudes toward the United States only seemed to show how dangerous was America’s attractiveness. Its ability to seduce people with freedom, success, hot music, trashy films or fast food–despite its horrible features–was one of its most frightening aspects of America, a subversive threat to hostile Europeans as it would later be to radical Islamists. To catch oneself falling under America’s spell was the moment it was imperative to rebel and reject the lure of Satan.
The spawn of Hollywood was particularly dangerous in this respect. The number of American films imported during six months of 1946 was 36. A year later, the number had risen to 338 for that same amount of time. In 1947 a Committee of Defense for the French Cinema was created to warn that spending money to see “the rubbishy American movies” would destroy France’s economy as well as its mind.”
Nevertheless, by the 1950s, American films were over 50 percent of all those distributed in France. Inevitably, most were of poor quality but they were certainly popular. One French cinema expert made this success sound like a foreign military invasion aided by local traitors: “With the complicity of some politicians and even newspapers…relying on the support of a bombproof distribution system, the Americans force their movies on us.”
Yet hidden away here is the obvious implication of such views: the real traitor was the average people ready to consume American products. They must be shamed into changing their behavior. Yet, after all, they were not being captured and marched, with guns at their backs, to the cinemas. They were simply exercising their own preferences. For French intellectuals who saw themselves as the generals in the army of culture, these people were deserters. But if French tastes were so elevated already, why would the masses want to see American films in the first place? Perhaps it was because the French and American masses were really no so different after all.
Another good example of this phenomenon was the battle over Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is a sweet soft drink which people around the world seem to like. As Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian-born intellectual who after embracing many different ideologies was at the moment pro-American and resident in London, pointed out in 1951, there was no coercion involved. “The United States do not rule Europe as the British ruled India; they waged no Opium War to force their revolting ‘Coke’ down our throats. Europe bought the whole package because Europe wanted it.”
But precisely because Coca-Cola had become a symbol of Americanization there was strong opposition to its introduction. The company expanded operations into Holland and Belgium in 1947, and then to Switzerland, Italy and France two years later. Local competitors tried to stop the drink from being sold. There were law suits and campaigns by Communist parties to portray the beverage as containing dangerous amounts of caffeine, poison, or addictive substances. The popular Italian Communist party newspaper warned it would turn children’s hair white while, more imaginatively, the small Austrian party said the local bottling plant could be transformed into a factory making atomic bombs.
In France, the Communists found an argument to appeal to every sector of French society. During a 1950 debate on the Coca-Cola menace in parliament, a Communist deputy laid it on the line: “We’ve seen successively the French cinema and French literature attacked. We’ve watched the struggle over our tractor industry. We’ve seen a whole series of our productive sectors, industrial, agricultural, and artistic, successively attacked without the public authorities defending them.” Perhaps he feared France being reduced to the same status as East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia by Moscow.
Warning that France might be “coca-colonized,” the Communist daily L’Humanité said the new drink would damage wine sales and worsen the trade deficit while the distribution system would double as an American espionage network. Not even the most sacrosanct French symbols were said to be safe. A rumor claimed that the company wanted to put a Coca-Cola ad on the front of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral.
Not to be outdone in patriotic rhetoric by the left, the right-wing Poujadist movement proclaimed that the rooster, symbol of France, would only sing “Cocorico” (the French equivalent of cock-a-doodle-do) “And not Coca-Cola!” A Catholic newspaper was equally defiant, “We must call a spade a spade and label Coca-Cola for what it is–the avant-garde of an offensive aimed at economic colonization against which we feel it’s our duty to struggle.” Le Monde, the icon of the French intellectuals, joined in and made it clear the issue was far broader than what people drank at lunch. One writer explained:
“Conquerors who have tried to assimilate other peoples have generally attacked their languages, their schools, and their religions. They were mistaken. The most vulnerable point is the national beverage. Wine is the most ancient feature of France. It precedes religion and language; it has survived all kinds of regimes. It has unified the nation.”
Le Monde put the issue clearly in terms of anti-Americanism: “What the French criticize is less Coca-Cola than its orchestration, less the drink itself, than the civilization–or, as they like to say, the style of life–of which it is the symbol.”
In 1950, parliament passed an anti-Coca-Cola bill which authorized the government, acting on scientific advice, to draw up new regulations for beverage companies. While Coca-Cola was never outlawed, fewer people drank coke in France than in any other country in Western Europe.
It is interesting to note how Americans treated the French national beverage differently by importing its wine while developing a massive industry of its own. Something few native-born Americans would have drunk in 1950 became extremely popular without either damaging America’s distinctiveness or persuading French intellectuals that the United States was a friendly and equally advanced civilization.
Another symbol of the Americanization threat became the chronic French hysteria about the Anglo-Saxonization of their language. René Étiemble, professor of comparative literature at the Sorbonne, wrote the 1964 book, Parlez-vous Franglais? that assesses the French language’s supposed corruption. With the adaptation of such words as the “twist” dance, “segregation,” and, of course “Coca-Cola,” he warns, the American way of life is “going to contaminate and botch what we have left of cuisine, wine, love, and original thoughts.” Another writer described “the scheme to homogenize [French] by means of Angloid pidgin.” And a third, in 1980, claimed that the contamination of French was part of an emerging universal pidgin English which was to communication what “fast food is to gastronomy.” Yet despite all this fear of an assault on the French language, less than three percent of new words in French come from English.
In France, it often seemed as if every event was analyzed regarding its relationship to the alleged American threat. After another writer exalted the upsurge of revolutionary fervor in France during 1968 as a European revolt against Americanization, Régis Debray—a political philosopher whose main claim to fame had been his wrong prediction that Cuban-style revolution would sweep Latin America and expel U.S. influence—explained that the radical upsurge was merely one final gasp before France surrendered to America, abandoning its great dreams of a just society, national community, and solidarity with the world’s exploited and oppressed.
When Disneyland opened a European theme park near Paris in 1992, intellectuals denounced it as the equivalent of a “cultural Chernobyl,” a reference to the defective Soviet nuclear reactor that spewed out large amounts of radioactive poison across the Ukrainian countryside. Yet the theme park proved very popular even with the French, as usual a fact which only proved for intellectuals the dangers such things posed to their way of life.
This feeling of being beleaguered and on the defensive reached the highest levels of French government. The idea that the United States was a threat, as presented in the best-selling 1967 book by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge, became a major issue in policy debates. Hubert Védrine, a French foreign minister under the socialist President François Mitterand coined the term “hyperpower” in the 1980s to describe US domination over a “unipolar world.”
In 1982, Michel Jobert, who held that same post under the conservative Gaullist President François Pompidou, saw Cobol, a computer language invented in the United States, as worse than the Soviet invasion of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Cobol, he explained, was “more insidious and more part of our daily life than the threat from the East.” Whereas the Soviets had been discredited by their attack on Afghanistan, the “Cobol coup” is taking place so quietly that those being taken over by the Americans were not even aware of it.
The next year, cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Chevénement, a Socialist who seven years later would resign from office to protest French participation in the first war against Saddam Hussein, raised a hysterical alarm, “Never since the Hundred Years’ War [which ended five hundred years earlier] have our people known such an identity crisis. Our language is threatened with extinction for the first time in history. America has become the last horizon of our young because we have not offered them a great democratic design.”
That last point was a critical one for understanding the growing anti-Americanism expressed in France beginning in the final years of the twentieth century. There was a strong belief among many that the young generation was becoming too Americanized. Customs, music, film and clothes, the internet, and many other things were cited as proof. One college professor explained that she feared her daughter was becoming Americanized because she had begun to make herself snacks rather than engaging only in formal meals. This sense of being in the midst of a losing battle was shared with movements in many parts of the Third World as well.
But despite these fears of subversion, there were not many signs of retreat among the anti-American forces. Indeed, they generally succeeded even in barring the use of the term “anti-Americanism” in the French media and universities. To talk of such a phenomenon was to suggest that there was some systematic bias against America which should be corrected. There was no such prejudice, ran the response, but merely an accurate recounting of that country’s genuine faults. Those criticizing anti-Americanism were often branded as American agents.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the leading French critic of anti-Americanism was Raymond Aron, who suggested his compatriots respected the USSR more for oppressing its intellectuals than the United States for ignoring them. In the 1970s the most popular dissenting interpretation was that of Jean- François Revel who claimed anti-Americanism was part of the European left’s larger effort to discredit liberalism by attacking its main model and champion. Misrepresenting the United-States as a repressive, unfair, racist, nearly fascist society was a way to say, “See what it looks like when liberalism is implemented!” Yet the fact that Revel’s books also sold well in France proved that many people were open to alternative points of view.
Despite all the bluster about French—or in other cases, European—superiority, the paranoid attitude so often evinced toward America represented a tremendous breakdown of confidence and a closing off of possibilities, the fearful rejection of change or considering alternatives that is the very essence of the reactionary world view. As the Frenchman Claude Roy wrote in his 1949 book on America, “Nothing is more ridiculous than the snails of the Old World who withdraw into their shells at the sight of the New World.”
Yet France, a society priding itself on its great history and even greater culture, trembled at any infusion of American culture because it assumed that there was no possibility of competing fairly. Instead of viewing such input as an inspiration for new forms of creativity, the wagons were circled to blot out images deemed too horrifying for French people to endure. By shutting itself off, France risked the danger of shutting itself down.
As a result, while France could easily have won any sneering contest, it lost the battles that truly counted. For example, France was the world’s first country to have a public internet, yet a reluctance to use such a demeaning medium and a demand that it set all the international standards resulted in the country lagging far behind in high-technology. Equally, while eager to assert the superiority of its language, France watched as English increasingly became the world’s common language. When a Japanese auto company merged with Renault, the company’s French executives had to learn English in order to communicate with the Japanese.
Typical of the ostrich defense—of putting one’s head firmly into the sand—an approach too often adopted by the French intelligentsia was the proposal of Claude Hagège, a respected professor of linguistic theory at the Collège de France that French primary schools should teach two foreign languages but neither of them would be English.
All this left for the French intellectuals was the hope that America might somehow decline, that its own people and the whole world might catch on to its sheer awfulness, that the contradictions detected in Paris would bring the edifice crashing down. One of the most famous of such exercises in wishful thinking was a 1968 book, L’Empire Américain by Claude Julien who, as Washington correspondent for Le Monde, was the French intellectual establishment’s expert on this issue.
America was vulnerable on two fronts, he explained. At home, presented as a paradise, consumer society actually was a hell of poverty, racism, injustice, unbearable tensions, hypocrisies, neuroses, and explosions of violence. Like European writers of the early nineteenth-century, he suggested that this unworkable system might soon implode, ridding the world of its unwelcome presence.
Then there was the international situation. Surely the world would rebel against America, perhaps with France as its leader? After all, Americans accounted for only six percent of world’s population but consumed a large portion of its resources. As the gap between rich and poor grew and the United States relied on dictators to protect its raw materials, the end might be near in a revolutionary maelstrom.
Such events did not happen, however, during Julien’s generation. Later, the American victory in the Cold War was a grave setback for these expectations. Later still, however, it seemed to some that the events of September 11, 2001 were a sign of some new heroic resistance, another round in the struggle which might succeed in overthrowing the beast from outside if not from within.
The idea of France reclaiming its glory and great power status as the champion of an anti-American coalition was not merely the fantasy of a few writers and intellectuals. It was also at times embraced by the country’s highest officials. At a UNESCO conference in Mexico in 1982, Minister of Culture Jack Lang declared cultural war on the United States. The dominance of American songs, films, and television, he claimed, represented an “immense empire of profit,” an empire against which must be waged “real cultural resistance, a real crusade against…this financial and intellectual imperialism which no longer grabs territory or, rarely, but grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living….We must act if tomorrow we don’t want to be nothing but the sandwichboard of the multinationals.”
For a group which portrayed itself as the world’s most brilliant and superior set of thinkers, however, it was amazing how consistently wrong the French intellectuals were about the United States. As a result of these misconceptions and contorted claims, they remained mystified about why that country was so successful.
In 1986, Jean Baudrillard, author of a widely read travelogue about America pondered this paradox as he considered its largest city:
“It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, Puritanism, and mental hygiene, poverty, and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe. Perhaps because the entire world continues to dream of New York, even as New York dominates and exploits it.”
There was, of course, anti-Americanism elsewhere in Europe, though compared to what went on in France it was rather an anemic affair during the Cold War. After all, there were few points of friction between the United States and Britain, Germany, or Italy. America was defending Europe from a Soviet threat that could not easily be dismissed. Communist parties dissented but were increasingly discredited. The far left in Western Europe railed against America periodically but was a marginal force. Negative sentiment existed, especially among intellectuals, but rarely had any major role
“Culturally, the British masses are much more friendly to America than what passes for our literary and academic intelligentsia. It is there, from Harold Pinter on the squawking left to Le Carré on the surly right that the more frenzied expressions of hatred tend to come,” as one British observer described it.
But the views of these opinion-forming groups, dispensed to the general public through books, newspapers, radio, television, educational institutions, and other routes, did have an effect on the thinking of far larger groups. And these long-term influences would erupt when changes or events triggered already existing attitudes.
For example, an in-depth 1988 study of the British public showed the continued existence of many traditional negative stereotypes among conservatives as well as leftists. “The Americans I meet tend to put me off…because they appear to be brash and shallow and loud,” said one affluent conservative. Added a left-of-center counterpart, Americans are “showmen…braggers,” people who always believed they were the best. “Gunboat diplomacy–it all ties in with their brash showmanship.” And American culture was junk. As one Manchester citizen summed up the United States, “It’s more of a racket than a society.”
Such cultural clichés shaped the interpretation of political actions. While accepting their country’s close alliance with the United States, the British tended to judge the United States more harshly than they did the USSR. In international affairs, it was seen as a “cowboy shooting from the hip.” As one well-heeled conservative put it, “I would trust the Russians to think things through and perhaps win a point because they’re stayed calm and steady and thought it through like a chess game” while the Americans tended to lose their temper and act less rationally.
Yet the specific cases used by interviewees to prove these views were in themselves revealing of an anti-American bias. Among these were the 1980 rescue attempt of American diplomats held hostage in Iran and a 1986 U.S. bombing raid on Libya following that country’s involvement in a terror attack on American soldiers in Germany. These were, though, defensive actions, and certainly nothing so different—and far less motivated by imperial self-interest–from the kinds of things Britain had done when it was the world’s leading power.
The most serious discrepancy was a tendency to see the United States and Soviet Union as morally equivalent, mirror images in following a selfish and ruthless policy. Expecting far less of the USSR, it was easy to take that country’s misdeeds for granted: since they were expected, they didn’t count. One might be quick to seek some positive attribute to balance matters somewhat, as well as to give hope that the Cold War might be kept peaceful and resolved quickly.
In contrast, the fact that the United States was an ally might make for harsher judgment of it. As leader of the West, the United States might drag these once-powerful countries in its wake, risking their futures by its adventurism. Those interviewed in the British study resented America as insensitive to their country’s suggestions and dismissive of their positions. Lingering resentments at old issues intensified this feeling. Respondents cited the United States’ “late” entry into World War II (forgetting its tremendous aid for Britain while ostensibly still neutral) or failure to support Britain during the 1956 Suez crisis (ironically, an anti-imperialist U.S. stance that ran counter to a common anti-American stereotype).
This last example is especially revealing and ironic. After all, however justified in strategic terms, the 1956 British and French invasion of Egypt was a prime example of the kinds of things over which they criticized the United States. On that occasion, rightly or wrongly, the American government had backed the leftist Egyptian regime as the victim of imperial machinations. France, where such criticisms of the United States were even more common, had engaged in far more international adventures, including many unilateral interventions to overthrow or preserve dictatorships in its former African colonies.
This question of evaluating what American culture or society proved about its foreign policy or how, in turn, such international behavior revealed an underlying pattern of U.S. methods and goals, was a critical element making anti-Americanism so distinctive. After all, despite decades of aggression, imperialism, and exploitation by Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Russia, no systematic doctrine of antagonism to those societies ever came into existence. Whatever they did—and did wrong—was not attributed mainly to the essence of their culture or character of their people.
There was also a new element in late twentieth century anti-Americanism that only became really salient after the Cold War’s end and Communism’s collapse. It still seemed far-out in 1983 when the British transsexual travel writer Jan Morris proclaimed:
“The reluctant and terrible conviction that the greatest threat to the peace of humanity is the United States.. I can no longer stomach America’s insidious meddling across the face of the world. Wherever I go I find myself more and more repelled by the apparently insatiable American urge to interfere in other people’s business.”
Yet Morris was prefiguring a new world view that would be fully launched against America in the 1990s, albeit one under construction since the time the United States was a little country huddled along the Atlantic seacoast. In the words of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, “Whenever there is hunger, wherever there is exploitative tyranny, whenever people are tortured and the masses left to rot under the weight of disease and starvation, the forces which hold the people stem from Washington.”
In short, the fifth and highest phase of anti-Americanism would be that the United States was responsible for virtually all the world’s problems and evils. For two centuries, both pro- and anti-Americans had been predicting that America would become the future of the human race, the model of civilization, and the greatest cultural and strategic power. Anti-Americans warned that one day the United States would threaten the world in its lust for conquest, exporting its malformed society and destructive culture. Now, at last by the 1990s, that moment would be at hand.
Whatever the injustices of the Vietnam war, it was not widely credible, even in France, to portray the United States as responsible for all the world’s ills as long as the USSR existed to take some of the blame and provide a rationale for much of what happened. Only when that rival bloc collapsed could America be believed to be the planet’s greatest villain, because now it really was the globe’s greatest power.