A few thoughts on ‘anti-Americanism’

ALISTAIR GRAHAM responds to Alex Miles’ attack on left wing anti-Americanism.

I’m at something of a loss about how to respond to the article by Alex Miles (‘An Anti-Americanism of Fools’, Democratic Socialist, Winter 2006/07). While I would not want to disagree too much with the central thesis of his piece, I did wonder where it leaves us in terms of any critical response we may wish to make of American policies and actions, both past and present. Could we all be accused of being anti-American to some degree? Or am I over-reacting?

Of course, there are those on the left who suffer from a knee-jerk reaction to anything that emerges from any US administration. To condemn this attitude is fair enough. Of course, we should distance ourselves from ‘massacre denial’ views held by such writers as Noam Chomsky (hopefully, we have already distanced ourselves from George Galloway’s intemperate views).

But how do we react ourselves when faced with the impact of the Bush administration on global events, or, looking further back, the confrontational policies pursued when Reagan occupied the White House? Was it valid for us to march and demonstrate against US aggression in Vietnam a decade earlier? Or, indeed, to speak out against the paranoia of McCarthyite witch-hunting in the early 1950s?

For those of us who have been politically active for longer than I care to remember, there’s been a long record of demonstration against the activities of the American state. My own political awakening started with the Rosenberg trials when I was a teenager. Over the decades, these and other examples impinged on our political consciousness. They had their own urgency at the time. But they didn’t necessarily make us ‘anti-American’, nor did they prevent us being equally passionate and vocal about the Soviet invasion of Hungary, or our own failed adventure in Suez.

Of course, in the bulk of these examples, particularly in the case of Vietnam, opposition has inevitably been spearheaded by mass campaigns within the US itself. We may have voiced our opposition to the Vietnam conflict, and shouted slogans such as ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?’, but it was the courage an commitment of a generation of Americans that helped to make US action in Vietnam untenable.

Imperfect democracy

The USA is a democracy, and to deny it is irrational. Opposition within America to policies pursued by successive administrations is both natural and legitimate – and thank goodness for that. But like most democracies, it isn’t perfect. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that it has certain flaws, going back to the much-quoted preamble to the US constitution, which declares its aims to be ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Such words may sound fine, but implicitly they endorse a creed of individualism that has been ever-present in American history – if, at times, somewhat uneasy.

The concept that the USA had a ‘manifest destiny’ first emerged with the invasion of Canada in 1812. On that occasion the Americans lost. But the belief by successive administrations that the US had a justifiable hegemony over the American continent was repeated in the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, and in the war against Spain in 1898 that extended its influence to such places as Cuba and the Philippines.

I’m uncomfortably aware that I could be accused of taking an ‘I’m not an anti-American, but …’ position here. After all, it could justifiably be argued that the examples given above indicate a natural response by a growing power flexing its muscles and pursuing what it sees as its interests by delineating its own sphere of influence. And we Brits are in no position to start casting stones! After all, while Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘rough riders’ were in action in Cuba and the Philippines, we were engaged in our own imperialist adventure in the Boer republics of South Africa.

Fallible history

We should never ignore history, nor forget that it provides valuable lessons. For example, one newspaper article recently made an interesting comparison between the American invasion of the Philippines (which was followed by decades of resistance and conflict) and the invasion of Iraq. But neither should we regard history as an infallible guide to the follies of today. Events create their own set of circumstances.

What is important is that we recognise the nature of democracy in the United States of America, and acknowledge that there are political divisions, and that debate and political actions on that country’s policies can and do take place. It may be a cliché, but is it not right for us to identify that ‘other America’? By doing so, should we be charged with being anti-American? Today we all applaud the support given to the struggle against segregation in the 1960s. We acknowledge the role of those young Americans who declared ‘Hell, no, we won’t go!’ during the resistance to the Vietnam war. Today, I’m sure we identify with the ever-growing numbers in the USA who oppose Bush’s ocupation of Iraq, and we are taking action.

Incidentally, anti-Americanism is not new in certain sections of the left, even though the goal-posts have shifted. I can remember in my youth, members of the Young Communist League singing lustily, ‘Go home, Yankee; Yankee, go home. We don’t want you any more!’ Needless to say, I didn’t join in. And I do agree wholeheartedly with Alex Miles that proscribed thinking is damaging the left. Constructive dialogue is vital. Seeking common cause with those on the left in countries like the USA is also important.

Perhaps we could do with an in-depth analysis of American foreign policy, from an ILP perspective. But meanwhile, an open debate may be useful.