Ian Buruma says in this article in Prospect that the source of the bitterness between France and the US is that they are the two great missionary-revolutionary countries, the two great believers in universals, only they have different ‘universals’ (quite a paradoxical outcome). Both are idealist nations, both are the proud inheritors of institutions and values born in violent revolution, but the ideals and institutions and values are not the same ones. So we come to Liberty fries and Liberty toast and a deluge of Francophobe jokes on the Internet.
But it’s possible that Buruma overestimates US idealism at times.
Unless one believes, like Noam Chomsky, that the war was fought for the sake of corporate interests, that too was at least partly the result of American idealism. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson thought they were protecting Asian dominoes from falling to communist tyranny.
Well, that’s debatable. It’s debatable whether they really thought that at all, and how large a part the thought played in our ending up there, and how idealistic the thought was even if they really did think it. How much room did ideas about protection from tyranny have among other ideas about great power rivalry and ‘credibility’, along with thought-free zones of inadvertence and ratcheting effects (send just a few thousand troops to help the South Vietnamese, then send a few thousand more to help the first ones, then…)? And above all how much breathing room did they have among thoughts about domestic politics and the next election? There is a sobering conversation between Johnson and McGeorge Bundy in the summer of 1964, in Michael Beschloss’ book and tape Taking Charge, recordings and transcripts of Johnson’s phone conversations. Johnson expresses deep misgivings about sending young men, sons of people he knows, off to war, but then says he can’t possibly give the Republicans a chance to call him weak, and possibly lose the election.
And then there is the vexed question of how genuinely ‘idealistic’ the anti-communist stance really was. It can’t have been a purely idealistic opposition to totalitarianism or dictatorial rule, can it? Because if it had been, we wouldn’t have supported so many ferociously anti-communist but also just plain ferocious dictators, would we. Surely the anti-communism-trumps-everything policy had some roots whose idealism was at least debatable, such as hatred of atheism and secularism, and even more, hatred of economic egalitarianism. Communism was always hated and feared because it was a threat to profit and property rights and rich people. Some choose to see that as idealistic, but the matter is at least debatable. Ronald Reagan liked to get starry-eyed over the US as a place where someone can always get enormously rich. Other people are not so moved by a place that rejoices in by far the largest wealth and income gap in the industrialised world. Economic egalitarianism may be wrong-headed, foolish, an economic poison-pill, but I still find it hard to see devotion to markets and profits and vast inequality as idealistic.