America, Empire of Liberty

David Reynolds

Wilson was a swashbuckling cowboy figure given to bringing a high level of subjective judgment to his work on the foreign affairs committee, and who had already arranged massive US financial support for Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Captivated by the news item, Wilson immediately arranged for covert funding to be channelled to the resistance fighters, which he personally ensured grew to $750m a year — 57% of the CIA’s covert operations budget — and which was multiplied by donations from Saudi Arabia. This funding went on to build a Taliban-run state that actively helped spawn al-Qaida.

For us non-US citizens who have grown up in a world it has dominated, apparently reckless foreign policy decisions seem a recurrent theme. Sixty-five years of superpower omnipotence have had generations of newspaper readers around the world aghast at such policy disasters as post-war Iraq, Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and, until recently, virtually all of Central and South America — all of which ran in tandem with the unstoppable and irresistible genius of the USA’s cultural and economic power that so rapidly took over the world since 1945. So how could a country so powerful, so capable and so apparently concerned about ethical and Christian values — and which has done such good — repeatedly get things so wrong?

David Reynolds’ book goes to the heart of the matter and what he sees as the contradictions at the core of the US which have still enabled it to forge a powerful national identity and build a massive force of creativity and invention. The flaws in the Empire of Liberty, Reynolds argues, are the very features that have also created its strengths.

By 1783 and the war of independence, the North American colonies were already well established in terms of their economic viability, the stability of their borders and their emergent culture. The nascent country of 3.9 million, which included 700,000 slaves, had already formed a strong religious identity after attracting so many dissenters from Europe (a century later, by 1860, the US had almost as many Methodist chapels as post offices). But Reynolds argues the newly-created United States was a “reluctant union”. The revolution, he maintains, was really not very revolutionary at all and created democratic rights for white men exclusively. The triggers for independence were sparked as much by inept British military brutality as anything else, and the whole concept of government and centralised power was anathema to the founding fathers. The federal structure that emerged however, was critical to a country that had so many contradictions to resolve throughout its history.

This “rarely simple, often messy and sometimes appalling” history, which Reynolds chronologises, is ridden with crises, conflicts and mistakes. Any moment in US political history seems to have had an intractable, angry Congress and to be struggling with imminent disaster to such an extent that Obama’s current healthcare reform difficulties are unlikely to raise much of a mention in subsequent editions. But historically the distinction of the US over all the other empires it has overcome — British, French, Spanish, Japanese, Nazi and Soviet — has been this ability to absorb dissent and move on apparently stronger, something a more rigid power structure could never have sustained.

This is more than just democracy in action and coping with disagreement through debate and constitution — Reynolds sees contradictions that extend into the soul of the nation as being the factors which ultimately form it, politically, socially and culturally and which have forged its very identity. His thesis is that three themes — Empire, Liberty and Faith — have been the driving forces behind the rise of the US.

But all three are contradictions — an empire of democracy, which forces its will on other countries is paradoxical; for all the references to liberty in its constitution, the US tolerated slavery until the civil war and condoned institutionalised discrimination until well into the 1960s, while the religious zeal that has pervaded the US is completely absent from its constitution but in terms of political power has been almost exclusively Protestant rather than pluralistic — the first, and last, non-Protestant president was JF Kennedy in 1961.

Reynolds appears to be suggesting that the looseness in its federal structure and political traditions have enabled the US to absorb apparently contradictory values which has become the source of its strength by providing it with a moral ambiguity to justify all actions and by providing a sufficiently nebulous picture of itself so that it can be genuinely loved by citizens from so many ethnic, social and religious backgrounds. The outpourings of emotion at 9/11, or at Obama’s inauguration, shows that the US still packs an emotional punch for its citizens, even after an age that has seen its traditional power base transformed by changes in its ethnic makeup.

Reynolds is a professor of history at Cambridge, so an interpretative stance is par for the course. In fact readers will probably wish for more interpretation and less fact, as the author’s tendency to provide anecdotes to justify every observation leaves the reader fairly punch drunk after a few hundred pages — and there are 700 in this paperback edition. It’s a readable history, however, with a decent stock of interesting facts and anecdotes, and detailed enough to show the frailty of the extraordinary human achievement in creating such a massive economic and political power.

Of course after growing up in an era of US cultural dominance with every TV series from The Virginian to Mad Men beamed into every home in the country, we could all surprise ourselves with our knowledge of US history. But Reynolds’ chronology is good if largely unsurprising. He’s unusually damning of JFK, however, fairly simplistic in his picture of post-war Europe and skims though World War II.

But he’s very strong on the “rights revolution” of the 1960s and how this can be seen as part of a continuum of US history, and he has fine portraits of Jefferson, Wilson and Ronald Reagan (of whom Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill said: “I’ve known every president since Harry Truman, and there’s no question in my mind that Ronald Reagan was the worst”, and who is now the icon of Sarah Palin’s campaign).

But even by its own standards, the US is now facing into an era of unprecedented change. Racially, the nation’s white numerical dominance will end in the next few decades, which Reynolds points out will call into question the relevance of its history to date. Economically, it has changed from being an “empire of production to an empire of consumption” with US households now with a debt of $14 trillion, and a national debt of $12 trillion. The contradictions that have given it strength have also in recent years generated the fumbling that created the credit crisis and the Iraq war and its aftermath. Reynolds gives a damning assessment of the causes of that war. But while it will always be prone to errors, a US- dominated world remains preferable to any alternative.

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