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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Fall of the American Empire

 In preparation for a big interview (you'll hear more when the time comes), I've been reviewing my own new book (see above), and have reached the period of the early Cold War, when the American government and the American people became accustomed to a worldwide role.  The biggest turning point in this process was the Korean War, which moved the emerging conflict with the USSR and its new Chinese ally from a mainly political front until a military one.  The Soviets, nearly all Americans believed, wanted to spread Communism all over the world, just as the Germans and Japanese had wanted to extend their domination in the Second World War. The North Korean attack--approved, we now know, by Stalin, although it was Kim Il-Sung's idea--proved that they would take advantage of any opportunity to do so by force.  West Germans and western Europeans shared that view, and immediately pushed for West German rearmament and a stronger NATO.  Simultaneously the Soviet explosion of an atomic weapon triggered a new race for hydrogen bombs.  The young historians who argue today the Cold War was a conscious conspiracy by US elites to extend American power have shut their eyes to the impact of the two world wars.  Yes, Truman and Eisenhower overreacted in certain circumstances, sometimes with tragic consequences, but their assumptions seemed quite reasonable at the time, not only to them but to the American people.   That was still true when Lyndon Johnson followed those assumptions into the Vietnam War, and even when Ronald Reagan revived them in the 1980s.

My book makes something else clear as well: a new consensus has infected the foreign policy elite of both parties since the fall of Communism in 1989.  That consensus holds that the United States is now the unique, indispensable world leader, capable of and responsible for the resolution of any crisis anywhere in the world.  That idea has been echoed again and again by every President from the first Bush through Joe Biden--with the notable exception of Donald Trump, who at this moment seems to have the best chance of anyone of winning the next presidential election.  That assumption led the first Bush into the Gulf War and Panama, Clinton into the Kosovo war and into Haiti, Bush II into his crusade in Central Asia and the Middle East, Obama into Libya and back into Iraq, and now, Biden into extensive support for Ukraine.  It could also lead us into war with Iran or with China over Taiwan at almost any moment.

It is now clear, however, that there is no longer any consensus among the broader public in support of this world role.  The Republican party no longer recognizes any need for the national security state as it has evolved or the policies which it supports.  Republican Senators blocked military promotions for months, and have left dozens of key diplomatic posts vacant rather than approve Biden's nominees.  House Republicans are blocking aid for Ukraine and Israel until they get their way on another fundamental national security issue, the control of our border and immigration.  The so-called progressive wing of the Democratic party has also turned against the assumptions of the national security state, not only with respect to Israel, but in the Ukraine war as well.  All this is bound to affect the attitudes of other nations, including allies, who must increasingly realize that they cannot depend on the word of the American president because the president no longer can count on the support of his nation overseas.  There are two big reasons, I think, why this has happened.

The first relates to the insularity of our foreign policy establishment.  From Biden on down, they are so convinced of their own righteousness that they see no need to make a big effort to justify what they are doing to the rest of the nation.  (The Democratic Party has the same problem with respect to domestic issues, including climate change and immigration.)  Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan all took to the airwaves regularly to explain major military and diplomatic initiatives and treat the public as a real partner in their enterprises.  Biden has not done this even once, relying, wrongly, on quick sound bites from the White House to maintain public support.  The prime time radio or television address, which played a critical role in US politics from FDR through Reagan, has fallen into disuse.  Partly, of course, that is because Americans are now so deluged with entertainment options that they are much less likely to listen to it--but we all pay the price for that in other ways.

The second reason relates to parallel developments in domestic politics.  Average Americans trusted FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan because they also believed, rightly or wrongly, that their policies were improving their own lives.  These presidents routinely linked their defense of freedom overseas to their efforts to build a stronger society at home.  After forty years of increasing inequality and political fragmentation, that bond too has been broken.  Both parties focus their appeals on particular constituencies--their bases--and not on the needs of the nation as a whole. 

Re-reading the speeches of George W. Bush, one sees clearly that he (and Karl Rove) wanted very badly to recreate the atmosphere of 1940-1 or of the early Cold War.  Like FDR and Truman, he spoke of an existential worldwide threat requiring a great campaign to overcome--but he exaggerated the threat, on the one hand, and chose strategies that only made things worse, on the other.  Obama stuck to the Bush game plan in Afghanistan and revived it in Libya and then Iraq, while presiding over a very slow recovery from the financial crisis.  The government has failed to restore our confidence because so little of what it has done has worked.  Now, in sharp contrast to Eisenhower in 1956-7 or Nixon and Kissinger in 1973, it is utterly failing to exert any real control over what is happening in the Middle East.  All this relates, as I have said many times, to a general collapse of authority throughout our society that began more than half a century ago.  We haven't hit bottom yet.


Schoons said...

What might real control by the government look like? Lois

Energyflow said...

Perhaps the attitudinal transition in this instance really does have to do with the passing away of those who fought in WWII,Korean War. The Vietnam veterans were not heroized, nor those from any other war. They were all cannon fodder for an elite. Since Reagan destroyed the Air traffic controllers union, signalling that the working class was fair game and that the gilded age was the goal, with its cynical plutocratic creation of banana republics abroad and impoverishment in sweat shops at home. The upper class hippies transitioned to yuppiedom in the 80s, imagining that union protections were beneath their educational skill level. The white colarization of the country therefore created a white collar sweat shop mentality. The big three auto companies, among others, destroyed the unions by moving factories abroad or to southern states which were poorer but more conservative. Winning the cold war meant hyperglobalization, a conservative's unipolar wet dream come true with endless profits and colonial military conquests. The gilded age with its focus on industrializing America and exploiting LatAm was turned into a global gold rush for the military industrial complex, CIA, hi-tech companies, general manufacturing. Prying America's cold dead hands off of this mother lode is the blowback response from the abused developing and excommunist countries, working together to form an allliance to resist the West. Although the WWII veterans who served from Kennedy to Bush Sr. had good reason to believe in preventing atheistic global domination, confiscation of private property, mass controls as under Stalin, their children, from Clinton on, were cynical carpetbaggers in Iraq for oil, in China,Asean, LatAm for cheap manufactures, in USA for indebted prolets. My generation, always distrustful of Boomer motives, cynically, cautiously attempt to steer us towards a safer world without sociopathic warlords and gold miner adventurers dominating the second century of American and global civilization. Juvenile civilizations, like early European democracy/ revolutions devolving into support of madmen( Napoleon, Hitler) or the Spanish, Netherlands, Portuguese, British colonizations rush are like what America has been doing using big companies and the DOD plus the petrodollar. Trust in America waned abroad with the bombing of yugoslavia, Iraq II and at home with the bank bailout in 2009. Slowly the worm has turned. Profligacy continues, national bankruptcy looms, severe moral decay, dissent, mutual hatred abound. To put a finger on one instance, occurence over 40 years is hard. It just seems that sense of a spoiled child taking a God given right to indulge based on a golden past predicting a perfect future was Greek tragedy like doomed to no good.

Energyflow said...

Your post from Saturday 23rd Dec. suddenly disappeared as I was struggling to form a coherent thought on it. I will leave a comment here which you can publish or delete. cont.

Of course your discussion centered on it all becoming just economic. Once the masses are involved this is inevitable. Quality falls into the sewer. The Roman language became the "Vulgate". Upper class people studying classics is one thing. My high school lit/English teacher was good at this, silent generation, as was my language teacher, who lived trilingually with his mexican/German wife and raised his daughters so, as I have raised my children. So I had perfect examples in high school which replaced the classic traditional college. In university I was in the 80s merely obsessed with corporate type training in accountancy, economics, programming, electrical engineering. University is now just job training. High school has gotten dumbed down. So what we are talking about has gotten lost and anyway, as I have said, screen time, alienation from community and nature has hindered our recreation of this in natural ways(love of nature producing works of poetry for the masses as was popular a century ago). Middle class youth worship black rap and hip hop as it is more natural for example.

Mike B. said...

As a former NWC student of yours I remember your discussions of how different generations influenced historic events. The world has changed dramatically in the last several decades and it strikes me that part of this story might be the failure of the baby boomer generation to adapt. Given your background with FDR, it made me think about how progressive or forward thinking people like FDR were in seeing and responding to a new post WWI world.