This piece is not going to be a trashing of the United States of America, despite the image above. Hell, this is my home, and I certainly love my country. I’m not talking in the blind, nationalistic sense either, an angry rah-rah, we’re number one chant, more trying to convince myself than stating a verifiable fact. But I love America nonetheless, perhaps even more because of all of her flaws.
Still a comparatively new nation, especially when contrasted with the European and Asian empires, the rise of the United States as a world power happened remarkably fast, my country finally coming into its own at the conclusion of World War II, emerging as the single most powerful nation in the world. We were awash in riches, had developed the greatest technological advances in the history of the world, and saw a population boom that established a wealthy middle class that believed it could change the world.
But let us step back. This is about American influence on elsewhere, both positive and negative, and it is a rather dense story. We begin at the start of the Revolutionary war of 1775-1783, when a wealthy colony had finally had enough of outside colonial rule. Let’s focus on 1775:
The Battle of Bunker Hill. Perhaps people elsewhere know nothing about this, one of the major early battles of the Revolutionary War.(as well as most citizens of the United States today, having forgotten our history and sweeping it into a sinking ash of nothingness). This was a one day conflict featuring three charges, swoops of traditional warfare on the side of the British, getting gunned down savagely by the guerrillas and experienced soldiers until the Colonial army ran out of ammunition, and were forced to retreat, giving the British the ground.
While this may have been a nominal victory for the British, at least in the aims of the war, the Americans killed two times as many British soldiers, and decimated nearly half the entire battalion of 2,200 men. The Colonial survivors of the battle fled to Nova Scotia–French territory in Canada. They were generously resupplied, then set free to cause more havoc. The fact that these presumably backwoods illiterates went toe-to-toe with the celebrated British army proved to the world that even the strongest nation was vulnerable. Since the colonies were the crown jewel of Britain’s wide possessions, the idea that it could fall changed everything.
France was the closest ally at the time with the upstarts in America. When the United States actually won the war, and gained their independence, it seemed as though the whole world exploded with revolutionary fervor. Of course the American Revolution was far from the first revolution in history, the many regional and civil wars of the past certainly qualifying as separate factions battled for control of a portion of land and political dominance, but the US war was the first modern example of revolution, the same model that still exists to this very day. Take Iraq, Syria, Venezuela–the entire Arab Spring. The French Revolution, Haitian Revolution–even the Russian revolution was inspired by what happened between Britain and its colonies. After America won, the other colonies of the empire started revolting, leading us into a world of constant and never-ending warfare, based upon the firm convictions of warring individuals of what constitutes freedom
Alexis de Tocqueville made some important and increasingly relevant observations about the United States in the days before our Civil War.
De Tocqueville was an active politician and diplomat for the French government up until the European revolutions of 1848. He was also a noted historian and political scientist, publishing his masterpiece, Democracy in America (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451528124&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used) in 1835.
Here are a few quotes:
The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.
I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.
Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.
There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.
These ideas about the character of the American nation are chillingly accurate, and even more apparent in these days when de Tocqueville’s warnings seem to be bearing fruit. But let us look elsewhere and into other times for a brief overview:
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been a force for both much good and tremendous evil over its relatively brief history. Take 1951 when an idealistic Socialist was freely elected in Guatemala to be their president. This was that nation’s second effort at Democracy, and the new president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, was certainly not in thrall to the Soviet Union. But that didn’t matter to the CIA and its leader Allan Dulles, brother to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Then Vice-President Richard Nixon was also deeply troubled, while President Eisenhower listened to his staff’s suggestions on what to do. It was Harry Truman who initially gave the CIA permission to undertake operations in 1952. Eisenhower’s okay came after the Dulles brothers convinced him that Guatemala was not merely a socialist nation, with its Utopian optimism of universal suffrage, land reforms and a minimum wage, but was in fact another Communist invader. They invoked the Monroe Doctrine, stating that the US was responsible for protecting the Western Hemisphere. They even had a man ready to take over, Carlos Castilla Armas, a ravenous wannabe dictator–the very first that the US backed and promoted, a continuing refrain ever since.
The CIA started a massive propaganda campaign (one modeled after the brilliant fear inducing innovations of Adolph Hitler), dropping leaflets from airplanes, forming a radio station called Voice of Liberation, and telling the nervous citizens, fearing another revolution (in 1944 forces toppled the then dictator Jorge Ubico), about the brutalities of Communism, comparing Arbenz to Stalin, warning the people that they were being tricked and lied to by a godless cult, and that they needed to support Armas, because he was the only path to freedom.
The truth was that the whole coup was about American money. The largest and most profitable business in Guatemala was the United Fruit Company, the chief exporter of bananas and other fruits to the world. Arbenz, upon claiming office, made it his goal to eliminate the unfair labor practices this foreign conglomerate was imposing on the desperate people of his nation, and the shareholders at United Fruit did not like this (both Dulles brothers, as well as the former dictator Ubico, were on the board of the company.) So they eliminated the threat, Eisenhower offering US warplanes to Armas, leading to the rapid resignation of Arbenz. The CIA called off their assassination plans and allowed the former government to flee, a rare act of compassion that would not be repeated in the future.
The Cuban Revolution paints a different picture of the influence of the United States on the radicalization of the world. Still puffed full of their success in the earlier 1950s, having helped overthrow Egypt, Iran, Guatemala, the Philippines, Italy, Syria, Laos, Indonesia, Lebanon and Iraq (which eventually helped to install Saddam Hussein as the dictator for life), the CIA lazily and arrogantly plotted the same old, same old operation, only this time they did not count on the sincerity of the Cuban revolutionary forces. And Cuba was the first one of these Western islands to actually be backed by the Soviet Union. It was here that the Cold War almost melted and caught on fire. The idea of a nuclear stalemate went mainstream, and bomb shelters started being built all over the world. There were expectation of nuclear annihilation every day.
Eventually these actions led to wars–Korea, Vietnam, the secret wars within nearby nations, and finally, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ravaging of Central America, where all of those propped up strong men who were moderately loyal to the US decided that they wanted everything for themselves. It was easy to topple these thugs, withdrawing military support, making dirty deals with radicals of a different political stripe, and still profiting over weapon sales and trades for drugs, giving the world, finally, an idea of the deep corruption that can rot the core of Democracy.
Democracy is hollow, ultimately. We the citizens feel a sense of power, electing whomever we want, but then we are almost instantly made aware of the arrogance and inadequacies of all our elected leaders. De Tocqueville was right, “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.” And we inflict this upon the world, the power hungry taking over, and not just those who believe themselves born to lead. As the comic books say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We should mention the Iranian Revolution of 1979, an event that I believe actually lit the fuse of what will eventually become World War III.
Welcome to theocracy. Iran had probably been the most liberal nation in the middle east. Led for the previous thirty five years by the US installed Shah, a dictator in a lighter sense, not really caring about the people at all, even to the point of not bothering to suppress them too severely. The Shah was a lightweight, and he was despised by the growing fundamentalist religious population. Looking back on America (regardless of their name for the modern United States: “The Great Satan,”) the revolutionary ideals were still valid. Perhaps modelling this uprising more on the Soviet Union (who had been their chief oppressors, alongside the US, both nations greedy for oil), the populist revolutionaries soon overtook everything in the nation, imprisoning, executing and exiling anyone outside of their singular faith. There were fatwas issued, holy death sentences against individuals painted as criminals, heretics and blasphemers (all considered to be the same thing.)
The strength of this religious revival reflected another parallel in American culture. There was a drastic rise of evangelical Christians, really beginning after the foundation of Israel in 1947, but radicalizing itself alongside the “Reagan Revolution,” a conservative movement more about people grown older and sick and tired of annoying, useless hippies, than an actual belief in anything. Those now exiled from their former lives turned frequently to ‘born again’ religion, declaring that they had suddenly found all the answers to everything they would ever need to know.
In Iran the radicals were far more violent, not merely proselytizing on television for millions of dollars, but imposing new morality laws on the population, demanding women cover themselves, insisting on the heavy beards for men in the thousand degree summer, and absolute obedience to these newly placed dictates under penalty of death.
I remember being seven years old, during the Iranian hostage crisis. My parents had taken me to the zoo that day, a bright, sunny day still filled with the hope of my early youth. I remember laughing with my mother, father and brother as we watched a fat man walking by with his family, his children roughly the same age as us. He was wearing a sky blue t-shirt with a picture of Mickey Mouse, an angry look on his face, his middle finger extended. The caption read: “Hey Iran!”
Briefly I remember my parents complaining about gas shortages and both of them condemning President Jimmy Carter for screwing up the world and allowing these terrible things everywhere in the world to happen (see the earlier piece in Elsewhere 2 on Genocide for more details on just some of the horror.) I remember feeling the anger growing among people–among the children in school, certainly their parents. I felt, if did not believe in the Conservative Revolution in America before it finally triumphed with the election of Ronald Reagan.
America’s revolutionary history has done more to the world than perhaps any other event over the past two hundred fifty years. We can of course point to the French Revolution, and the far more drastic consequences of that brutal failure, along with its own influence on leading Europe into two hundred years of non-stop warfare, but even this was inspired by the newly United States. Without this lone clean success (no revolution is clean; but the US Revolution remains the only one with its reputation still mostly intact), what different inspiration might have provoked the overthrow of nations? What terrible thing?
Yet we still hear the drumbeat today, more like a human palpitation and a yearning for constant change. America has destroyed our attention span. It is America, the former engine of the world, that has seemingly outstayed its welcome as our own revolution starts turning against ourselves, breaking up into smaller and smaller factions, dis-uniting the states, and causing the whole world to glare at itself in the mirror, understanding that the whole idea of unity is a thing of the forgotten past. If remembered at all, it is certainly no longer with glory.