"The creation of the United States of America is the central event of the past four hundred years." Thus does Walter A. McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania begin the first volume of his acclaimed new American history, Freedom Just Around the Corner (HarperCollins).
Not surprisingly, this central event has evoked a wide range of opinions. Tens of millions of immigrants have voted with their feet to slough off prior allegiances and join the boisterous experiment that makes "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" its official goal.
The result has been an astounding success. "We dominate every field of human endeavor from fashion to film to finance," writes American columnist Charles Krauthammer. "We rule the world culturally, economically, diplomatically and militarily as no one has since the Roman Empire." As one symbol of this dominance, the outside world is so affected by the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, polls are now taken of who non-Americans would vote for, if they could.
There is, of course, a dark side to this extraordinary success too, and it includes envy, fear, and resentment. In a wise, pungent, and (given its negative subject matter) enjoyable study, Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin review this other side in Hating America: A History (Oxford). In the book, they accomplish three main things.
First, they provide a host of nonsensical assessments of the United States going way back, some amusingly absurd, others vicious.
- Comte de Buffon, renowned French scientist (1749): The American "heart is frozen, their society cold, their empire cruel."
- Talleyrand, French politician (1790s): It is a country of "32 religions and only one dish … and even that [is] inedible."
- Alexis de Tocqueville, French social philosopher (1835): "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion."
- Sigmund Freud, Austrian psychiatrist (1930s): "America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake."
- George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright (1933): "An asylum for the sane would be empty in America."
- Henry Miller, American novelist (1945): America is "a fruit which rotted before it had a chance to ripen."
- Harold Pinter, British playwright (2001): The United States is "the most dangerous power the world has ever known."
Second, the Rubins trace the surprisingly variegated history of anti-Americanism, a play in five acts. In the eighteenth century, a widely credited "degeneration theory" argued for America's inherent inferiority. Animals and humans from Europe, it posited, dwindle in size and shrivel mentally in the New World's wastelands.
The period 1830-80 witnessed a focus on the alleged failure of the American experiment. Democracy had produced a miserable polity, society, and culture, one on the verge of collapse. The United States threatened as a bad example that might be emulated.
America's rise to power, 1880-1945, saw fears develop that the American model might dominate the world. Each American military victory – in 1898 (over Spain), 1918 (World War I), and 1945 (World War II) – caused this anxiety to take on new urgency.
America's stature as one of two superpowers during the Cold War, 1945-90, further enhanced those fears. Whereas the Soviet Union had limited appeal or influence beyond its military prowess, American hegemony threatened via such seemingly innocuous matters as fast food, movies, clothes, and computer programs.
The United States emerged in 1990 as the unique post-Cold War "hyperpower," fulfilling the worst nightmare of anti-Americans, who blamed it for all of the world's ills and engaged in unprecedented spasms of America-hatred.
Finally, the authors' catalogue of hundreds of pages of fury clarifies the motives behind anti-Americanism. From very early on, the spacious skies and amber waves of grain offered a freer, richer, and more tempting alternative, compelling those who stayed behind to rationalize their choice. (In domestic American terms, it's like justifying not having moved to California.) Anti-Americanism is the Doppelgänger (evil twin) of America's seductiveness and power.
To a limited degree, the hostile effort has succeeded. A sustained French campaign against Coca-Cola in the 1950s lowered consumption of that potable below anywhere elsewhere in Western Europe. Polls today show wide global disapproval of the United States.
Ultimately, however, the rants, shouts and insults fade away, defeated by America's serving as a benign force on the world stage and its accomplishments in enabling its citizenry's pursuit of happiness.