America First

This text is based on a speech to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee banquet given in December.

I was a resident in the United States from 1965 to the early summer of this year, when I returned to Ireland to live, and I still hold—though not for much longer—the little green card of the resident alien.

Coming back here recently, I was told at the American Embassy in Dublin that I did not require a visa; I could come in on my little green card. When I presented myself at Immigration at Kennedy Airport, I had to explain why, though still technically a resident alien, I had become, as it were, more alien than resident. The officers who questioned me were gentle and polite, with an indefinable compound of the baffled, and compassionate, and the faintly alarmed in their manner. It reminded me of something which I could not for the moment place. Then I got it—I come from a Catholic country, and the manner of these Immigration officers reminded me, in its full range, of a sympathetic Catholic priest trying to find out why someone has stopped going to mass.

It also reminded me, this manner, of something else: of the demeanor of some of my American left-wing friends—of whom I have, I am glad to say, a great many—when I told them this spring that I was resigning from New York University and going back to Ireland to run in politics. Now the Immigration officers and these friends were very unlike in other ways. The Immigration officers were, I believe, patriotic Americans in a traditional and unquestioning way. My friends were all, in different ways, in revolt against the forces that dominate America today. The first group would sincerely regard the second as anti-American. Yet the two groups have more in common than they know. They are both in the grip of an Americocentrism of which they are not fully conscious. All members of the first group approve of foreigners loving America; some members of the second approve of foreigners hating America. The concept that there are many millions of foreigners who never think of America at all—and many who have never even heard of it—would strike most members of both groups as unlikely, suspect, and generally unsatisfactory.

It is true that people may be, and are, affected by American imperialism without knowing much, or perhaps anything, about either America or imperialism. Most people are affected in some way by American wealth and power; the whole population of the planet is affected by it in the broad sense that these things exist and are not shared, and that the knowledge of their existence is widely diffused by television and other means. Many are affected more directly, through the exploitation of the resources of their country by American capital and technology, and through the manipulation of their governments and their social and political life by agents of American corporations and of the American government. And some are affected…

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