Anti-Americanism, understood as habitual aversion to all things American as opposed to impartial criticism, started in the eighteenth century with the gloomy narratives of natural scientists.
THE THEME OF DEGENERATION
The Dutch scholar Cornelius de Pauw (1739–1799) sounded the alarm in 1768: America's unhealthy climate produced poisonous plants and degenerated animal species. As for the indigenous inhabitants, de Pauw's harsh description of them as lazy, dim-witted, and cowardly calls to mind the philosopher Thomas Hobbes's (1588–1679) "nasty, brutish and short" existence in the state of nature rather than the lofty image of the noble savage.
With the successful outcome of the American Revolutionary War, however, concerns about nature or indigenous peoples faded in favor of the exciting image of a society modeled upon European enlightened ideas. In 1777 the French philosopher Condorcet (1743–1794) merged de Pauw's gloom with enthusiasm for the American experiment and declared that the discovery of America had been a disaster to which the 1776 revolution brought the remedy. Thenceforth, anti-Americanism became a discourse aimed exclusively at social and political developments in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, it cast the theme of decay into the frame of disappointment and found the Americans guilty of lowering the potentially uplifting pursuit of happiness to the vulgar level of the vacuous pursuit of profits. Disillusionment, like familiarity, breeds contempt; disdain for the "Yankee" prompted large sections of the European public to back a presumably polished and debonair Confederate South in the American Civil War, despite "the peculiar institution" of slavery. After the victory of the Union, a disturbing appetite for domination came to complement vulgarity and greed as distinctive features of the American character, now entirely assimilated to the Yankee. Derision turned to fear.
SOCIALIST DISINTEGRATION AND MONSTROUS CAPITALISM
The somehow snobbish disparagement of American low-brow pursuits merged with a new brand of left-wing anti-Americanism born out of frustration with the downward spiral of socialism in America. Countering pervasive anti-Yankee prejudices, philosophers Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) insisted that, as the most advanced capitalist country in the world, the United States had to be seen as a laboratory for socialism, the next stage of social development. Consequently, that American socialism evolved in "prodigious zigzags" (Engels) rather than in a neat upward progression paralleling capitalist development mystified all European socialists.
Many made the journey to the United States to decipher the riddle formulated in 1906 by the German sociologist Werner Sombart (1863–1941): "Why is there no socialism in America?" The answers combined disinterest in abstract thinking, an intellectual deficiency deemed characteristic of the American mind, with the narrow policies of bread and butter pursued by trade unions at the expense of the loftier goal of defeating capitalism. As in the case of Enlightenment ideals, America's failure to live up to its role of successful laboratory for a new social order bred disappointment and contempt. The American worker, the French writer Urbain Gohier (1862–1951) concluded, grew fat, a bourgeois in all but name ("well fed, well clothed and … even clean") while the robust tactics of the American unions illustrated obtuse materialism, not revolutionary foresight.
On the other hand, European readers were entertained with rags-to-riches sagas of American robber-barons uninhibited by the traditional norms of European patriarchal capitalism. The rapid soar from obscurity to dizzying heights and of individuals like the Vanderbilts and the Hearsts, the worrisome reports on the merciless nature of American capitalism, of risky financial speculations, and cut-throat competition, led to the image of the American capitalist as evil incarnate. Writers of all stripes excoriated the "trust system," run by coarse-mannered billionaires who managed to corrupt even capitalism itself. Turning Marx's theory of progress on its head, American capitalism dragged society backwards into a grotesque form of technologized feudalism instead of pushing it forward. In short, everything in the United States grew into a monstrous aberration, and that included American idealism.
After the decisive American intervention in World War I, the United States became the senior partner among the diplomatic delegations who gathered at Versailles to decide the fate of post war Europe. Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) presented a program for reshaping European geography and political arrangements on the basis of democratic reform and the right of each people to self-determination. Wilson's blueprint, the famous fourteen points, as well as his conviction that Europe's best hope for the future was to follow America's lead, inspired anxiety and contempt, the opposite of the reaction he expected. At best, European leaders and opinion makers marveled at Wilson's naiveté and self-assurance. At worst, his forceful idealism seemed just another example of the American aptitude for distortion, this time applied to European politics. Furthermore, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) curtly diagnosed the American president with paranoia. By extension, the entire American society came into focus as a huge mad-house, for the famed analyst declared that in any other country such an individual would have been institutionalized. Echoing Freud, the French nationalist writer Charles Maurras (1868–1952) warned Europeans against a superpower where money talks and lunatics become presidents. At stake was again degeneration but in its modern form, psychopathology. "America went from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization" quipped France's president Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) in a one-liner that captured perfectly the tone of anti-American sentiments.
In the 1930s cupidity, authoritarianism, and degeneration combined seamlessly to add an anti-Semitic note, whereby Uncle Sam morphed into Uncle Shylock, Shakespeare's eponymous Jewish usurer, and the United States an "abomination" where Jews and Yankees reigned together.
The ugly American and the ugly American state, as the most glaring examples of the misdeeds of capitalism, naturally took their place in the Soviet anticapitalist discourse. The Soviet Union also portrayed the United States as the sole aggressor during the Cold War, in view of its well-established reputation for "Yankee" belligerence and domineering impulses.
Soviet propaganda resonated with the soaring unofficial anti-Americanism in Western Europe, where governments were closely allied with the United States. Communist, socialist, and fellow-traveler organizations in the West shared the ideological beliefs of the Soviet government, and therefore propagated the same images of the United States as a desolate land ravaged by capitalism. Considering the postwar political alignments, the Western European Left also had the task of eliminating American influence on the continent. The American presence was felt especially through the Marshall Plan, a comprehensive program of targeted investments, run by American economic advisers, aimed at rebuilding the European economies on the basis of free market policies. Such policies, coupled with the requirement that countries who accepted the program implement multiparty democracy, made the Soviet Union and its satellites reject this and any American aid. Self-righteous campaigns against the Marshall Plan, especially in France, claimed to unmask the evils hidden behind the benign facade of friendly assistance. According to these critics, the main program of American aid only sugarcoated the wholesale takeover of Europe by American moguls and had to be regarded as nothing but a Trojan horse of the worst kind of capitalism.
The Marshall Plan also came under attack from the Right for stifling national creativity, market forces included, in favor of American models of development. At stake was the very soul of Europe, from authentically civilized lifestyles to intellectual sophistication, all of which risked succumbing to the mind-numbing onslaught of American mass culture. Writers of all persuasions relished sharing with their readers nightmarish images of the artificial and dull world created by technology and productivity, incidentally the chief issues raised by the Marshall Plan. The novelist Georges Bernanos (1888–1948) proposed, only half-jokingly, that "the civilization of machines" be put on trial at Nuremberg. Imprisoned in an industrialized universe obsessed with efficiency, comfort, and high-tech gadgets, the United States presented the sad spectacle of technologically altered humanity. This particular form of degeneration affected all aspects of American life, from the acquiescent conformism that passed for democracy to the characterless art amassed in large but uninspiring museums, as French author Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) suggested. This train of thought culminated with the call issued by famed French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) to cut all ties with Europe after the execution of convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg: "Beware, America has the rabies! Let's cut all ties which attach us to her, lest we shall be in turn bitten and infected ourselves" (Libération, June 22 1953).
Even when acknowledged, American prosperity with its corollary, American optimism, was to be dreaded as an indication of intellectual degradation. From all perspectives the United States came across as an "abomination" and a menace to the civilized world. This agreement of principle, often expressed in the media, gave anti-Americanism a mass audience and created the popular images of Americans as rich, naive, but authoritarian and violence-prone ignoramuses who were now largely taken for granted. On the academic side, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard furthered the analysis of degenerated humanity steeped in technological efficiency by arguing that the United States had achieved the supreme act of distortion: it had counterfeited reality itself and had itself become a "simulacrum."
America's status as supreme imperialist power is another outcome of the ideological battles of the Cold War. Having practiced its greedy, self-interested policies on the defenseless countries of Latin America, with the known results of economic backwardness and political tyranny, the United States felt ready to take on the rest of the world after emerging victorious from World War II. The next victim was Europe, as explained by the leftwing discourse, fortified by antimaterialistic and nationalistic brands of anti-Americanism coming from other ideological quarters. By the 1950s it became a cliché that, under the guise of liberation, the "Yankees" had reduced the entire segment of Europe in the American zone of influence to the humiliating status of colony.
Coming in the midst of anticolonial movements, this reading of the postwar settlement turned the United States into a common universal foe. That the imperial powers in the third world were in fact various European countries mattered less than the urgency of resisting, together, American imperial designs. In this view, what it could not conquer militarily the United States was poised to control deviously by flooding the entire world with various American gadgets, foodstuffs, or movies.
Interestingly, accusations of imperialism grew stronger when the United States took resolute anti-imperialist positions, as it did during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. The United States was then suspected of lording over both Europe and the third world through the system, perfected in the aftermath of World War II, of disguising instruments of dependence into the appearance of support. The Vietnam War brought additional arguments to this line of thinking and made anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism interchangeable concepts all over the world.
The end of the Cold War left the United States the sole superpower. The familiar themes of degeneration, greed, aggressiveness, and, more recently, imperialism combined with fear of the nations's unmatched military power put an American face on globalization. Well-publicized attacks against McDonald's outlets in France, similar to the anti-Coca-Cola campaigns of the 1950s, merely adapt the themes of the anti-American discourse of the Cold War to contemporary concerns.
It is not just that American-dominated multinational companies, reminiscent of the prewar "trust system," control the economy and corrupt the politics of the entire planet; American consumer goods suffocate other cultures, distort natural lifestyles, and pervert local tastes, going as far as endangering the health of hapless consumers everywhere. In short, American movies make people stupid and American foods make people sick; consequently, Americanization does not mean just American domination, it means regressing to the dismal level of American cultural degeneration and social absurdity.
Such anxieties are only exacerbated by the exceptional diversity and de facto multiculturalism of contemporary American society, which appears to many as the reality for the future. Aggressive, aloof, and self-assertive in spite of being "a world in itself" as many worried observers note, the United States is failing once more in its role as laboratory for the future order of things.
The belief that with the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States only got its comeuppance was expressed in most parts of the world, from Arab countries, where large segments of the public received the news with unconcealed glee, to university halls in Western Europe, where somber conferences on the roots of terrorism invariably found these roots in America. The conspiracy theory blaming the whole event on secret American and Israeli machinations found sympathetic audiences in France, Germany, and the Arab world.
The 2003 American invasion of Iraq raised the anti-American discourse to yet unattained heights. Publishers churned out work after work updating the essential American characteristics of greed, violence, obtuseness, and, less damning but no less dangerous, dimwitted naiveteé while vast popular demonstrations across all continents designated the United States as a danger to all humanity.
André Glucksman, a rare opponent, distilled this pervasive mindset into an axiomatic formula: "there is no evil but the evil caused by America," a conviction, it should be added, more or less openly linked with America's support for Israel. Glucksman and a few other writers (Jean-François Revel from the French Academy, for instance) detect a psychological factor in the gleeful diabolization of the United States. With the collapse of the balance of fear established by the Cold War, in the face of the perplexing threat of terrorism and imminent destabilization, it is reassuring to draw all anxieties back to the superpower of the times. The well-rehearsed patterns of anticapitalism and anti-imperialism, reinforced by time-honored cultural stereotypes, provide a certain level of comfort every time they help to rationalize the current global angst as a function of that familiar evil, America.
Judging by these developments, anti-Americanism will continue to be part of both the intellectual and the popular discourse for many years to come, although not at the same level of intensity everywhere. Unlike criticism leveled at given American policies, anti-Americanism is an emotional discourse, activated by American policies, but disinclined to discern fact from stereotype. As such, anti-Americanism is more reflective of the societies that produce it than of American realities. That France is one of the main producers of anti-American literature while such literature is quite rare in Italy and practically absent in Poland, for instance, reflects certain particularities of these countries' political and cultural identity.
Anti-Americanism relies and will most likely continue to rely on the recurrent themes of degeneration, greed, and aggressiveness, sometimes with surprising results. Thus French author Emmanuel Todd argued in After the Empire (2003) that the United States has in fact collapsed already and is waging wars out of fear that its impotence might come to light. Put into perspective, this argument brings the theme of degeneration to its logical conclusion. Degeneration, the ill that de Pauw had already detected in America's natural environment, has successively consumed the American character, humanity, and very reality, and will ultimately destroy its self-aggrandizing power. Despondency in the face of America's panoply of evils can thus be alleviated by the knowledge that the United States will in the end succumb to the very poison with which it has infected the whole world.
Berman, Russell A. Anti-Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Problem. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2004.
Revel, Jean-François. L'obsession anti-américaine: Son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconséquences. Paris: Plon, 2003. Translated by Diarmid Cammell as Anti-Americanism (San Francisco: Encounter, 2003).
Roger, Philippe. L'ennemi américain: Généalogie de l'antiaméricanisme français. Paris: Seuil, 2002.