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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 in the most direct possible way—by the massive use against them of America’s apparatus of violence for the supposed protection of the people whom it destroys, as in Vietnam.

There has been, so far as I know, no satisfactory study of the relation of America’s wealth and power to the economic, social, and political life of the rest of the world. Conventional, academic approaches to this question are normally concerned, consciously or unconsciously, with minimizing, or exorcising, the concept of America as an imperialist power. One can have so-called political “area studies” of places which are in fact under American indirect rule, and these area studies can simply ignore that fact, and write of Russian or Chinese attempts to find a foothold in countries which are misleadingly presented as genuinely independent. Scholarship of this kind is in fact a part of the phenomenon which it suppresses from view—a part of imperialism. It is a form of academic activity which still continues, but has had to be conducted with somewhat more subtlety and discretion in recent years, with the increasing consciousness of the degree to which the intellectual and academic communities have been manipulated by the great corporations, and by government agencies like the C.I.A. serving the same corporate interests.

Yet the task of analyzing American imperialism, its possibilities and limits—a task understandably neglected by the academies, at least so far as published work is concerned—has not been carried out by the left either. The left has always suffered from a tendency to let its agitation get mixed up with its analysis. It also suffers from its own curiously intense pieties: from a desire to see contemporary realities as much as possible through the eyes of certain past thinkers, and from pedantic rigidity about the modification of established categories. Today, particularly, it is affected for both good and evil by the greatest wave of youthful revolutionary romanticism that has been known since 1848, and by the forms of rhetoric to which that gives rise—including the competition between forms of black and white revolutionary rhetoric.

These tendencies, especially when combined with unconscious Americo-centrism are calculated to obscure the actual relations between America and the rest of the world. Young American revolutionaries see everything that happens in the world as an aspect of US imperialism and the fight against it. Here I want to refer to an important and influential manifesto, which many of you, no doubt, know—the pamphlet, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know How the Wind Blows.” The manifesto is remarkable in several ways, and I shall come back to it later. For the moment, I want to consider only its presentation of America’s place in the world, of which the core is the following:

…every other empire and petty dictator is in the long run dependent on US imperialism, which has unified, allied with, and defended all of the reactionary forces of the whole world. Thus, in considering every other force or phenomenon, from Soviet imperialism or Israeli imperialism to “workers’ struggle” in France or Czechoslovakia, we determine who are our friends and who are our enemies according to whether they help US imperialism or fight to defeat it.

Quoting Lin Piao and Che Guevara, the writers argue for the inevitability of “two, three, many Vietnams,” and of the over-extension of US imperialism, and thereby its destruction. Through this process, it is believed that the revolution in America itself will have been made by the people of the entire world.

This pamphlet, though its arguments are well presented and often acute in relation to what its authors know best—the present situation of this country’s youth—is not singled out here just as a specimen of socialist analysis; there are obviously many more sophisticated analyses in existence. Its impact is a double one: it represents the current, or more or less current, world view of many of the most serious, courageous, whole-hearted, and determined young people in this country, and it is distorted to the point of fantasy.

The United States is not the sole purveyor of oppression and aggression in the world, nor has it “unified” all other reactionary forces. Neither the Soviet Union, nor imperialist actions by the Soviet Government, are “dependent on US imperialism”—“in the long run” or otherwise. “The people of the entire world,” thrown en bloc by the manifesto into the struggle against American power, are not in fact united in any such struggle, and can be united only if the United States insists on making them so. There is no certainty, and no inevitability, about the idea of multiple Vietnams and over-extension of American power—although many potential future Vietnams exist in Thailand, the Philippines, Latin America, and elsewhere.

The bourgeoisie also learn from Marxism, as one of the most acute Marxists of the century, Antonio Gramsci, pointed out in The Modern Prince, and they also learn from an even more copious and relevant repertoire: that of their own mistakes. One Vietnam makes others rather less likely than not. The relations of interdependence or exploitation between the United States and the poor world are grossly overstated in the whole theory. If all of Africa were wiped out, the American economy would not be seriously shaken, and if all the United States were wiped out, populations of Africa would be neither much better nor much worse off, nor otherwise greatly affected by the news.

Lin Piao’s identification of the advanced countries with “the cities” of the Chinese revolution, to be starved into submission by the “countryside” of the underdeveloped world, is surely one of the least sound analogies ever to be widely quoted with affright or approval. These supposed “cities”—Canada, for example—are actually exporting grain in quantity to the supposed “countryside.” The unsoundness of this key analogy, coming from one of the key exponents of the revolutionary theory I have been discussing, spotlights the weakness of the theory generally and of its predictions of the inevitable.

It is not true at all, as the Weather-man manifesto claims, that the relative affluence existing in the United States is now dependent upon the labor and natural resources of the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the Bolivians, and the rest of the peoples of the third world. It would be true to say that this relative affluence was achieved in the past by the spoliation of other peoples, by the African slave trade and the genocide of the Red Indian, but it is not true that it depends now, to anything but a marginal extent, on the labor and resources of the third world. Nor is the margin decisive: the United States is not visibly worse off economically for the loss of China, and would be distinctly better off without Vietnam. America is neither dependent today on the third world nor capable of being revolutionized by anything that happens there—unless it is something America itself decides to do Those America who are counting on the revolution in America being made by the “people of the world” are counting on something that is not going to happen.

We determine,” says the manifesto, “who are our friends and who are our enemies according to whether they help US imperialism or help to defeat it”! We determine, or so the manifesto implies according to a predetermined system whether the Ibo or the Hausa, the Belfast Catholic or Protestant, the Moslem or the Hindu, the Arab or the Kurd, is friend or enemy—though not one of them, in relation to the struggles between the pairs, is giving a thought to “us” or to US imperialism, and though the hostilities between them antedate the coming into existence of the United States. This form of thought is almost a sub-variety of imperialism, a standing-on-its-head of the old “indirect aggression” theory. Just as, for the United States government, if a foreign State was friendly to the United States, the peoples oppressed by it were automatically suspected of communism and deserved what they got, so in this world-view, if a State is hostile or even judged to be potentially or “objectively” hostile to the United States, then peoples oppressed by it are enemies of the revolution, and deserve what they get.

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