A specter is haunting America—the specter of anti-Americanism. More than three thousand newspaper articles have referred to anti-Americanism since September 2001.1 Their headlines read “Why the World Loves to Hate America,”“Anti-Americanism Is One ‘Ism’ that Thrives,”“An Irrational Hatred,” and “A Guide to Hating Uncle Sam,” along with the plaintive “Why Do They Hate Us?” Walter Russell Mead answered that question with two simple phrases: “American success [and] American power.” President George W. Bush memorably replied, “They hate us, because we're free.”2
Book publishers seem to favor titles that range in tone from Cassandra to Chicken Little: America against the World; America on Notice; Hating America: A History; Hating America: The New World Sport.3 A recent roundtable in the American Historical Review, with sophisticated analyses from Jessica Gienow-Hecht on Europe, Greg Grandin on Latin America, and others, showed that there is no consensus even on the meaning of the word. Is it an ideology, a cultural prejudice, a form of resistance, a threat?4
What is anti-Americanism, and what bearing does it have on U.S. foreign relations? Well, the mere uttering of a discouraging word should not in itself be enough to establish the speaker as anti-American. Otherwise, one would have to condemn as anti-American such diverse figures as Sinclair Lewis (the United States is “a force seeking to dominate the earth”), Henry James (“no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society”), Stendhal (“no opera!”), Talleyrand (“if I must stay here a year, I shall die”), Aldous Huxley (Americans “exist . . . on the lower animal levels”), and Anthony Eden (“they want to run the world”).5
The first generation of scholarly literature on anti-Americanism was characterized by unstated assumptions of American exceptionalism. Sociologists such as Paul Hollander and political scientists such as Stephen Haseler attribute anti-Americanism to psychological problems, a kind of neurosis rooted in “envy”6 of America's great wealth and power. Hollander calls it “an irrational dynamic . . . that springs from the need of human beings to explain and reduce responsibility for the misfortunes in their lives.”7 More recently, Andrei Markovits has dubbed anti-Americanism “a European lingua franca,” one closely tied to anti-Semitism.8 Russell Berman argues that because “the United States sets a higher moral standard . . . anti-Americanism is the expression of a desire to avoid the moral order.”9 America as scapegoat, criticism of America as misguided or malevolent: this, even when scholars acknowledge the imperfection of American society or the legitimacy of occasional complaint, is the conventional understanding of anti-Americanism.
So what is the meaning of this fuzzy concept? Is it mass resistance to U.S. policies? Is it a prejudice structurally comparable to racism or anti-Semitism? Is it an ideology comparable to other “isms” such as communism or fascism? When is a critique anti-American? My first answer is: less often than we think. Alarmist reports to the contrary, in surveys taken throughout the post-World War II period, positive views of the United States outranked negative views in nearly every year until 2003. When lower rankings (still positive but by smaller margins) occurred, they closely correlated with controversial U.S. policies such as the Vietnam War or the hawkish first administration of Ronald Reagan.10 Anti-Americanism in its most serious form as a prejudice with negative implications for the United States exists when there is a combination of blanket rejection of American society, hostility to American values (as understood by the speaker), and dislike of Americans. It brings a normative rejection of any U.S. policy because it is American, regardless of what the policy is. This can be found in certain cases, for example among some party-line Communists during the Cold War and some radical Islamists today. But it is not very common in most of the world, and never has been.
My goal is to call into question this oversimplified and overused term itself, to expose the assumptions behind it, and demonstrate its function in the making of U.S. policy. Specifically, anti-Americanism is a concept that was reified and spread throughout government, academia, and the media during the Cold War, when it was widely understood as an explanation for the source of opposition to U.S. policies abroad, and to be caused by irrational thinking by foreigners. In other words, anti-Americanism was thought to have causal power, and, because it was irrational, it was illegitimate. Therefore foreign opposition was not worth taking seriously. This was not so much a deliberate strategy as a latent thinking pattern that brought serious consequences, as I will show below.
To see why the binary categories of anti- and pro-American lead to logical fallacies, consider an example. Take the experience of West Germany during the 1960s in the era of the Vietnam War. On one side of the spectrum, you have the Christian Democratic establishment, old-style Germans who became reluctant Atlanticists: they wanted to be in NATO (although they did not want to pay as much for American troops as Americans would have liked), they chose Washington over Paris, and they supported the Vietnam War because, in the saying from those days, “Berlin is defended on the Mekong Delta.” To criticize the Vietnam War, they said, was anti-American, and that was against West Germany's own interests in the Cold War.11
On the other side, you have the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition, the student movement. Fiercely anti-war, these young Germans also admired aspects of American culture so much they adopted them as their own. They had grown up influenced by the Allies’ reeducation programs, and their culture was shaped by Hollywood and the Armed Forces Radio Network. They wore blue jeans and listened to rock & roll. They explicitly made connections to the American civil rights movement and the anti-war movement in the United States, adopting their tactics. They said, let's have “Ein Sit-In” or let's do “Ein Teach-In.” They sang “We Shall Overcome” and Bob Dylan songs in English. They abandoned the German romantic nationalism of Herder and Fichte for the social critique of David Riesman and the moral activism of Henry David Thoreau. They dismissed their parents’ generation as hopelessly tainted by nazism, and called for more democracy and more freedom in their own society.12
So who were the anti-Americans? The students who were the most Americanized generation in German history and wanted the United States to live up to its self-proclaimed values? Or the old German Right who were horrified at what they saw as the creeping Americanization of Germany's youth, the questioning of authority in universities and the family, the promiscuous sex, the so-called jungle rhythms of popular music? To be sure, some radical students called the United States “fascist” and chanted “USA–SA–SS,” but many more loved Americanization and hated the Vietnam War. The right wing hated Americanization, and supported the Vietnam War. So who was anti-American?
Pro- or anti-, with us or against us: this approach is clearly too schematic. Of course, anti-Americanism in the narrow sense of enduring prejudice does exist. Many people in this room have encountered it—I see our friends at the State Department table, some of you have put up with this for years—and like Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, we may be tempted to say that we know it when we see it. Yet the word does not mean merely a national prejudice like any others. We speak of anti-Americanism, but not of anti-Italianism or anti-Gallicism or anti-Brazilianism, because arguably more than any other country, “America” is not only a physical place but a place of the imagination. There are prejudices against every nation, and historical grievances against many, usually from their neighbors. But unusually, “America” as a concept has symbolic meaning in many parts of the world.
Even before the founding of the United States, “America” was a contested place in the European imagination, representing to some an earthly space for the mythical paradise in the west. Paradise is always to the west. The Elysian Fields, Eden, Atlantis, California, Boulder. . . . But to others, it was a dystopia. The Enlightenment philosophers Cornelius de Pauw and the Comte de Buffon believed no civilization could flourish in America's degenerate climate, that plants and animals would grow stunted, and human beings could not develop there. In the first recorded act of public diplomacy, anticipating the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) by a century and a half, Thomas Jefferson hired a team of hunters and sent a large crate to Paris containing the skin and bones of an elk, a moose, and a caribou to show that there were indeed very large animals in America.13 This is the first instance of a recurring pattern in which U.S. officials who wish to alter foreign opinion spend large sums on public information campaigns overseas that seem to have no impact whatsoever.
The nineteenth century saw the development of enduring tropes about America: the land of Mammon, obsessed by commerce and wealth, and later Moloch, ruled by the machine. In Latin America, the appropriation of the term “America” itself by the northern half of the hemisphere was contested, with José Martí writing defiantly of “Nuestra América,”“our America,” and José Enrique Rodó drawing on Shakespeare's Tempest to compare South America to a spiritual Ariel, guardian of Mediterranean culture, against the soulless, materialistic Caliban of the North.14 Discourse about “America” since the nineteenth century has often been linked to a conflict over a certain vision of modernity, which the new country seemed to embody: critiques of America in foreign lands were often stalking horses for internal political disputes about capitalism, technology, urbanization, racial mixing, the presence of women in the public sphere, and the like. Worst of all, for both Right and Left, the worldwide appeal of tasteless American culture seemed to threaten to impose this system on their own societies: America's present as the foreigner's future; anti-Americanism can be a position in a debate about one's own world and how it will change.15
This is still true today: thus we see disputes over social policy and market regulation abroad cast in terms of “the American model” or “American conditions”: amerikanische Verhältnisse, condizione americane, le modèle anglo-saxon, el modelo norteamericano. These debates are not actually about the United States. They are about the relationship of the government to the market. “American conditions” refer to low taxes, weak labor rights, privatization, and so on, the way “Rhenish capitalism” or “Scandinavian socialism” can be shorthand for other models.
So there is less anti-Americanism than we think, and often criticism of America is not about America at all. Some scholars such as Peter Katzenstein, Robert Keohane, Alan McPherson, and Andrew and Kristin Ross have done their best to bring the discussion down to earth through empirical research and critical thinking.16 They have shown us how nationalist politicians in places such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela can use anti-Americanism to mobilize their constituencies, especially when the United States responds with increased vehemence. But political instrumentalization is not an ideology either. McPherson has demonstrated that, over a century of Latin American history, hostility to the United States has “almost always been, and often primarily was, not an a priori ideology but a response to U.S. policy. The more U.S. policy offended, the more widespread, deep, and visceral anti-U.S. sentiment became.”17 Yet Hollander, Haseler, Berman, Jean-François Revel, and other so-called anti-anti-Americans, along with the current presidential administration and most of the media, argue that to speak ill of America is to be against first principles such as democracy, or freedom, or Western values.18 This does apply to some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European right-wing writing, and some contemporary, especially pro-Caliphate Islamist, discourse, a fairly marginal position too often conflated with far larger swaths of opinion. Studies of anti-Americanism that see a great deal of it everywhere and blame it on neurosis or anti-democratic tendencies are prisoners of their own unstated assumptions. They tend to be rooted in American exceptionalism, to subscribe to a universalist, diffusionist view in which to oppose its emulation is to engage in a perverse opposition to teleological progress. In the form articulated by Hollander, whose books are at the center of the still rather modest scholarly landscape, the “Americanism” he wishes to make immune from critique is politically obedient and culturally conservative. Scholars who begin from that place easily misread the phenomenon in which opposition to the United States abroad is based on geopolitical conflict or the apparent U.S. violation of its own stated ideals, through wars perceived as unjust, racial discrimination, and support for dictatorships.
So the pro- and anti- schema does not get us very far. We can see the same dilemma when it comes to individuals. As an example, consider these words from a well-known French writer: Vietnam is a “monstrous” war launched by an “imperial” power. America “was Puritan, but its cities abound in sex shops.” In the United States, “everything is reckoned in dollars and cents.”19
This would be dismissed as classic French whining and exaggeration, if this had come from the pen of a Sartre, a de Beauvoir, a Baudrillard, or a Duhamel, one of the reliable “anti-Americans.” But the author was none other than Raymond Aron, committed Atlanticist and America's favorite Frenchman since Lafayette. Meanwhile, the “anti-American” Jean-Paul Sartre infamously exclaimed after the execution of the Rosenbergs that “America has rabies,” but his critiques of the United States were inspired by American writers such as Upton Sinclair and Michael Harrington; he wrote that “the greatest literary development in France . . . was the discovery of Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway, . . . Steinbeck.”20 A jazz fan, he named his magazine Les Temps Modernes after Charlie Chaplin's Hollywood film Modern Times. He did not think to praise American society for fostering such creativity, but is the label “anti-American” suggesting an enduring prejudice and blanket hostility, the best way to understand Sartre's views? Is that why he condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary?21 Some U.S. officials, at least, were not sure what to make of him: when J. Edgar Hoover learned in 1964 that Sartre was critical of the United States, he reportedly fired off an order: “Find out who this Sartre is.”22
So Aron, the pro-American, makes classically anti-American comments, and Sartre, the anti-American, embraces central aspects of American culture. A conservative scholar might respond that of course we know who the anti-American is: Sartre, because he opposed U.S. policy in public, and actions speak louder than words. But that would be to strip anti-Americanism of all deeper meaning, reducing it merely to a synonym for opposition to U.S. policy. If that is true, we do not need any of the psychological explanations, or the conflict with modernity, to understand why people take anti-American positions. Because American exceptionalists want to discredit their opponents, they need to have anti-Americanism be an “ism,” both a deeply rooted and irrational condition, and one with explanatory power: it is not equal to opposition to U.S. policies—it is the cause of opposition to U.S. policies, in their argument.
Instead, recent research shows that anti-American sentiments have neither a necessary nor a sufficient connection to stances against any given U.S. policy. Rather than anti-Americanism causing negative responses to U.S. actions, we see U.S. actions sometimes generating increased negative views of the United States. In 2002, 64 percent of people surveyed in forty-four countries held a favorable view of the United States. Over the next three years, in tandem with the Iraq War, favorable ratings declined, precipitously in Muslim countries—although they came back up in Pakistan after the earthquake and Indonesia after the tsunami, responding to well-received U.S. relief efforts.23 The same trend can be seen in the late 1960s and early 1970s over Vietnam, and in the early 1980s over Reagan's policies in Central America and on nuclear rearmament. Ideologies and deep-seated prejudices do not rise and fall dramatically from month to month and year to year. Therefore, I argue, using anti-Americanism to explain the cause of opposition to U.S. policies does not just put the cart before the horse, it says the cart is the horse—it reverses causality.
There is no shortage of other “pro-Americans” who make classically anti-American remarks, like Max Horkheimer, who supported the Vietnam War while complaining about the shallowness of American society,24 or Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, a rare “pro-American” voice from Latin America, who nonetheless has attacked “gringo pragmatism” and opposed U.S. immigration policies,25 or the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, dubbed anti-American for objecting to the U.S. claim to represent the “Free World” during the Cold War. In an appeal to the citizens of the United States, he wrote, “Ask [the Latin Americans], if we believe in the free world of Franco, Salazar, Chiang Kai-Shek and Ngo Dinh Diem. . . . Try to see beyond the provincialism of the Cold War. Try to understand what we, the people of the underdeveloped, hungry, revolutionary world want. We do not want the destruction of the American people, whom we love for what its greatest men have brought to expression, its great politicians—Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt—and its great artists—Poe, Melville, Faulkner, Marian Anderson, O’Neill, Miller.” He ended with this plea: “Don't be provincial. Try to understand the diversity of the world.”26
This is what Fuentes planned to say in a debate on NBC television with a U.S. official in 1964. But the State Department denied him a visa, and Americans never heard it.27
Such voices are dismissed as anti-American and excluded even when they have distinctly philo-American sentiments and are urging that the United States be truer to its own best ideals. The label “anti-American,” it should be clear by now, is not an analytical category; it is a distorting lens and political weapon, a dismissal of both the criticism and the critic, and it is an obstacle to understanding what is going on in the world.
So how does all this relate to U.S. foreign policy, in a more traditional sense? What is to be gained by putting this concept under the microscope? Americanization and anti-Americanism have become a growing subfield of U.S. foreign relations history, with institutional studies on the USIA and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and sophisticated work on the reception of mass popular culture, Hollywood, and tourism abroad.28 I find that anti-Americanism also has an important, and not yet recognized, functional role in the making of U.S. policy.
One of its functions can be explained as an essential, missing element in scholarly models of policymaking. The bureaucratic politics model favored by Graham Allison and others takes the notion of “groupthink” from social psychology and applies it to groups of decision makers.29 The group shares unexamined assumptions and excludes divergent opinions, thus reinforcing conclusions that outsiders may question (such as “we must go to the brink of war over missiles in Cuba” or “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”). A belief in anti-Americanism as an explanation for unwelcome foreign opinion has helped to exclude divergent views at crucial moments in the Cold War.
Likewise, Melvyn Leffler promotes a national security theory in which U.S. policy is determined to defend a set of “core values.”30 Scholars such as Michael Hunt and Michael Latham have emphasized U.S. ideologies including opposition to revolution and faith in modernization.31 American exceptionalism is at the heart of many descriptions of the collective ideological presuppositions of those who reach positions of power in the United States. And a belief in anti-Americanism as the motor behind foreign opposition is the logical corollary of that exceptionalist stance: America is the purveyor of freedom and modernization; to oppose America is to oppose these public goods; ergo, to oppose U.S. policy is misguided and wrong.
To bring this down from an abstract level, I would like to offer a few necessarily brief examples from different regions of some of the most controversial episodes of the 1950s and 1960s to see why anti-Americanism as an analytical category must be called into question, and to see some of the serious consequences of its all too easy deployment in the past.
I will take us very rapidly from Guatemala to Cuba and Vietnam. In each case, one learns that well-informed foreigners opposed the plans and criticized the act of intervening in these countries. Their advice was dismissed as anti-American and therefore illegitimate. Only later, U.S. officials came to regret their actions, and spent much time trying to figure out just where they went wrong. I argue that the concept of anti-Americanism served to prevent U.S. officials from gaining access to better assessments of conditions on the ground, and from considering alternative policies that might have been more successful.
In 1954, the CIA organized a coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Jácobo Arbenz of Guatemala. The story of Arbenz and the United Fruit Company is well known, as is the debate over whether the Eisenhower administration was driven by close corporate ties or a genuine fear of communism.32 What can we learn about this that is new, when we take a transnational approach? Examining archives and newspapers abroad leads to a picture of an event with global significance, and is our first indication of a peculiar American perspective that diverged from something approaching world opinion.
Despite the Cold War framework usually applied to the event, Western European and Latin American governments knew about and opposed U.S. plans in advance. Well-informed European and Latin American agents and journalists in Central America reported from inside the training camps in Honduras that the rebels had American instructors and were paid in dollars, even though Guatemala posed no threat to its neighbors. British and German diplomats, who thought the Eisenhower administration was “hysterical” over Guatemala, tried to warn the United States against undertaking a coup.33 Meanwhile, the United States called an inter-American summit in Caracas to try to gain regional support against Guatemala. President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles celebrated their success, but archival records show that what actually happened at Caracas was a multinational effort to persuade the United States not to intervene in Guatemala, codified over U.S. objection into the final communiqué and then disregarded by the United States.34 Once the rebels crossed the border, France and Britain immediately moved to try to stop the invasion through the United Nations.35 But while these efforts were beginning, the Arbenz government fell.
“Freedom loving people everywhere have been heartened,” Vice President Richard Nixon would proclaim in a toast to rebel leader Carlos Castillo Armas,36 but in fact there was worldwide condemnation of the coup. An unprecedented wave of angry demonstrations in cities and legislatures across the region was attributed by Eisenhower officials to anti-Americanism, which they explained as the result of Latin Americans’ immaturity and irresponsibility.37 But Italian diplomats with long experience in the region were closer to the mark when they characterized the protests as “a true moral uprising against Washington's policy” shared by critics across the political spectrum.38 The world's press was critical with surprising unanimity, from Asia and Africa to Europe, in both Egypt and Israel, both India and Pakistan. West Germany's leading conservative paper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, editorialized on its front page that if the West were to support the invasion, it would lose its entire moral foundation for opposing Communist aggression.39
The Eisenhower administration responded the way the U.S. government typically responds to foreign complaint: with a public relations campaign, like Thomas Jefferson's box of bones, or the Bush administration's videos of happy American Muslims produced by Charlotte Beers and her friends on Madison Avenue. Declassified CIA documents show that the agency paid for articles in the world press from Denmark to Japan, from India to the Vatican. It was a waste of time. As the USIA reported, “American actions have an effect on foreign public opinion which far [over]shadows anything done by the Information Program. . . . Propaganda can never be better than policy.”40
So, was this unprecedented wave of “anti-American” sentiment the product of psychological immaturity, or resentment of American freedoms, or a conflict over modernity? Of course not. The critiques were almost universal, crossing world region, class position, and the political spectrum; they came from the most Atlanticist and pro-American of European sectors as well as from neutral nations just emerging from colonial status. What U.S. leaders saw as anti-Americanism was actually foreigners’ unhappiness that the United States had blatantly violated its own declared principles and the cardinal rule of the international system intended to reduce the incidence of war: no aggression across borders to change the internal political structure of sovereign states. Instead, the CIA coup in Guatemala became the model for similar attempts in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, in Guayana, Chile, and elsewhere.
Guatemala would be the scene of another example of the concept of anti-Americanism contributing to bad policy in a lesser-known incident that followed.
In 1963, Arbenz's democratic predecessor, Juan José Arévalo, was going to return from exile to Guatemala to run for president. By all accounts he would win in a landslide. But the Kennedy administration was concerned. There was a meeting at the White House, and when you listen to the tapes, you can hear John F. Kennedy ask his advisers: what is this fellow Arévalo, is he a Communist, a fellow traveler, or what? And they conclude: no, he is not a Communist, he has criticized Castro, he is a moderate reformer, but he is an anti-American. He wrote that book The Shark and the Sardines about U.S. power in the region, and he has to be stopped.41 Arthur Schlesinger reminded a friend at the State Department that Arévalo's critical books were “written at a time when you and I were also critical of U.S. policy in Latin America.”42 But that made no difference. The United States let the Guatemalan military know its strong opposition to Arévalo's return—the message was repeated at multiple levels—and a coup took place in March. The elections were cancelled, Arévalo remained in exile, the U.S. ambassador declared that the coup “achieved . . . our objective,”43 and the Guatemalans suffered through a string of military dictatorships that brought three decades of civil war and 200,000 civilian dead.
This was not a good outcome for the United States by any measure: it alienated countries throughout the region, fueled hostility, and made Guatemala an unstable country with a lousy investment climate. The faulty concept of anti-Americanism had led to bad analyses and bad outcomes.
I do not have time today to talk in detail about the intervention in Cuba, but it shows a similar pattern. Archival records show that the British, French, Germans, and even the Norwegians knew about the Bay of Pigs planning in advance, and all opposed the invasion. After its launch it drew criticism from as far afield as Japan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan—talk about your global village—and from Kennedy's closest allies in Latin America: Rómulo Betancourt of Venezuela, José Figueres of Costa Rica, Arturo Frondizi of Argentina, all considered the best hope for democratic reform, all strong supporters of the Alliance for Progress, and all horrified by the invasion attempt. In Europe, there was outrage and shock among Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, Tories and Labour. They were angry at the invasion, not at its failure.44 None of these groups was critical because it was anti-American; all were critical because the policy was a terrible idea, not to mention a violation of international law and a black eye in the Cold War. But there was very little learning. The overused concept of anti-Americanism does not explain the source of opposition. But it played a distorting role in U.S. perceptions of the world, contributing to unsuccessful policies that could have been avoided.
I will offer one more case because it is only fitting that a talk about anti-Americanism should end with France.
In 1963, as the United States grew more directly involved in Vietnam, French President Charles de Gaulle spoke out in favor of a peaceful settlement on the basis of Southeast Asian neutrality. Over the next few years, he would continue to oppose U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
American officials thought they knew why de Gaulle was opposed to the war, and they talked about it on tape. Here is what they said:
The French are “psychotic.”45
That is George Ball.
De Gaulle's “anti-Americanism” has become “a compulsive obsession.”46
That is Ambassador Charles Bohlen.
“They put out some pretty vicious stuff out of Paris every day. . . . I mean these bastards just live off the fat of the land and spit on us every chance they get.”47
That is President Kennedy.
For leading U.S. officials, friction arising in relations with France is largely a result of the character of “those damn French,” as Eisenhower called them.48 Franklin Roosevelt thought de Gaulle was “a nut,” and Dean Acheson found the French as a whole “mentally ill.”49 The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research agreed that de Gaulle's policies were the results of his anti-Americanism.50
Interestingly, we find very little trace of classic anti-American ideas and images of the kind that Philippe Roger has so marvelously brought together in his book,51 in the writings of French officials themselves. In their internal memorandums, classified correspondence, diaries, and memoirs, de Gaulle and his principal subordinates display almost none of this supposedly endemic and causal cultural prejudice. Put simply, American and French officials had different assumptions of how French foreign policy should be made. The French believed they should pursue French interests based on French analyses. Top American officials believed the French should understand that American and French interests were congruent, and they should therefore accept American leadership.
Yet if U.S. officials understood Gaullist opposition as irrational, some serious academic studies, too, have held de Gaulle's personality responsible for preventing France from taking more effective steps to discourage U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Marianna Sullivan's widely cited work argues that “it did not suit his political style to present his arguments against United States policy in Vietnam in private. . . . Instead, he launched a unilateral public attack on American policy in Southeast Asia.”52
De Gaulle's first public statement on Vietnam, a rather mild and ambiguous call for Vietnamese neutrality that made no mention of the United States, came in August 1963, and it incensed American officials and the public. When he continued to speak against the war, Americans launched a boycott of French goods, burned French flags, and poured French wine down the drain. Members of Congress gave speeches saying the bodies of dead American soldiers in Normandy should be dug up and brought home, because French soil was no longer fit as the last resting place of American heroes. This public dissent by a French leader against an American war effort was nothing less than a betrayal. If he had objections, why did he not state them privately? Clearly, it was an anti-American campaign.
What this view of the French president ignored is that by the time of the 1963 statement, de Gaulle had already been engaged for two and a half years in quiet diplomacy, going public with sharper criticism only when the Americans dismissed his advice and dangerously escalated the war.
The private warnings were numerous. In Paris, de Gaulle warned Kennedy personally on Indochina, citing France's own unhappy experience: “I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire.”53 De Gaulle passed the same warning to the U.S. ambassador in Paris: “Our own experience taught us,” de Gaulle said, “that . . . foreign intervention will fail. . . . I fear that you are getting bogged down in a vain enterprise from which it will become more and more difficult to extract yourselves.”54 Also in 1961, French Ambassador Hervé Alphand in Washington, under instructions, privately urged U.S. officials not to send combat troops to Vietnam.55
France wished to preserve its influence in Southeast Asia, and logically enough after eighty years of colonial rule, retained the best contacts in Indochina of any Western power. Seventeen thousand French citizens lived in South Vietnam. Vietnamese exiles in Paris were in close touch with Foreign Ministry officials at the Quai d’Orsay, and the records show French officials throughout the foreign-policy bureaucracy in agreement with de Gaulle's assessment on Indochina. And so the French continued their warnings. In May 1963, Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville tried once again to explain the French point of view to Kennedy: there could be no military solution in Vietnam, and the only path to peace would be the neutralization of Southeast Asia. Kennedy kept asking: but why do you always give your policies “an anti-American aspect?” Couve replied that what Kennedy saw as anti-Americanism was either a divergence of interests or different views.56
All of these exchanges took place, privately and diplomatically, before de Gaulle ever made a public statement on Vietnam, and long before he attacked U.S. policy directly. As Fredrik Logevall has shown, important voices in the United States thought de Gaulle had a sensible idea.57 (Its logic was confirmed in an excellent recent article by Yuko Torikata in Diplomatic History.)58 But none of it made any difference to top U.S. officials, who consistently ascribed French policy to de Gaulle's anti-Americanism. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy urged the president simply to “ignore Nosey Charlie” on Vietnam.59 And so they did, and marched off into the worst American foreign-policy failure of the twentieth century.
There is, to be sure, a broader context, both of French national identity and a larger Gaullist strategy of diminishing French reliance on the United States. The two countries differed, sometimes with rancor, before and during de Gaulle's presidency, over Dien Bien Phu, Suez, Algeria, NATO, and the force de frappe. There were peaks in hostility in French opinion polls corresponding to these bilateral tensions—which makes my point. These spikes were not somehow a sudden and transitory change in the national culture, a surge in prejudice, or a swing in underlying ideology; the increased negative views of the United States among the French reflected differences over policy, rather than causing those differences. Whereas many American diplomats and some American diplomatic historians continue to explain de Gaulle's motives as rooted in anti-American convictions, this is not a common view among French experts immersed in the sources, who believe he—like predecessor governments of the Fourth Republic—was seeking to make the most out of France's diminished power. It would be hard to explain why a convinced anti-American would have responded to the Cuban missile crisis with unreserved, immediate support for the United States, and it is difficult to detect unremitting hostility in the figure of the man who was the first world leader to hasten to Washington when Kennedy was assassinated. De Gaulle did have an obsession, but it was not with America: he did not spend much time talking or writing about the United States, but he spent endless hours and oceans of ink on France. Whether French policies were generally wise or successful is another matter, but they were pursued by French governments intending to boost their country's standing rather than aiming primarily at causing damage to the United States.
So if Americans have asked “Was de Gaulle anti-American?,”60 I think we should be asking a different question: “Did the assumption that French policy came from anti-Americanism hinder U.S. officials from considering France's advice on Vietnam?” I will let the answer come not from me but from an impeccable source, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Here is what he said during his mea culpa tour in the 1990s:
I believe we should have explored the idea of a neutral solution [in Vietnam] with the French. It is true that de Gaulle was difficult to deal with. But . . . we didn't properly analyze the idea of a neutral solution. It wasn't taken seriously. It was simply rejected. And that, I believe, was a basic mistake—a failure of imagination.61
The imagination of top American officials failed in part because they could not conceive, then, of the possibility that Vietnamese Communists might be eager to avoid war and dependence on the Chinese, and might have traded neutrality for peace. The failure of the imagination McNamara refers to also came because it was not possible for Americans to conceive of the utility or good faith of foreign criticism, especially when it came from the French.
The pattern was repeated with striking parallels forty years later in 2002, when French President Jacques Chirac warned the United States against invading Iraq partly on the basis of French—and his own—experience fighting in Algeria.62 And Americans launched a boycott of French goods, burned French flags, and poured French wine and French warnings down the drain. Members of Congress gave speeches saying the bodies of dead American soldiers in Normandy should be dug up and brought home, because French soil was no longer fit as the last resting place of American heroes. The only innovation was Freedom Fries and Freedom Dressing, but the story was the same: ignore perfidious France. And so, today, more American soldiers are dying overseas, having been marched off into the worst American foreign-policy failure of the twenty-first century. We have been down this road before. If we had taken two French presidents seriously and assessed their positions on the merits, instead of assuming they were motivated by anti-Americanism, we might have avoided two quagmires. And that would have been good for America.
Explanations of foreign opposition to U.S. policies that assume foreigners hate us for our wealth and predominance need to account for the fact that this country was wealthy and powerful in the 1990s, so that cannot explain the explosion in negative views worldwide after 2002. A more likely variable is not the relatively constant fact of U.S. supremacy since 1945, but what had dramatically changed: the sudden and pronounced shift to unabashed unilateralism, preventive war, indefinite detention without trial, and defense of torture, all presented to the world by a singularly inarticulate and uncharismatic president. If history is any guide, as the policies change, so will the poll numbers. Meanwhile, it may be time to stop seeing an irrational anti-American behind every dissent—and to become more interested in the substance of the critiques and their causes. Not every criticism will be correct, and not every U.S. policy will be wrong. But as long as we think discouraging words are merely covers for foreigners’ envy of our wealth and freedom, or reflect irrationality or anti-democratic thinking, then, in the words of Carlos Fuentes, we will remain provincial. We will deny ourselves access to a richer history, to scholarship that interrogates rather than absorbs attitudes of American exceptionalism, and perhaps to policies more in accordance with our own interests, and with our own best ideals, which, after all, remain widely shared around the world.