Happy birthday, America—really happy birthday.
As an immigrant, I can say that with an authenticity and sincerity I would not have if I had been born on this blessed piece of real estate with its spirit of possibility. I came here because I am of the last generation that was, perhaps globally, pro-American.
Yes, after World War II, the United States was admired the world over. I grew up in Africa where American education, American technology and American goods–from cars to radios–were venerated.
When Coca-Cola was introduced into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), there was practically a national holiday. The company’s employees–with the blessing of the authorities and government departments—flooded the schools with vending machines. This was not because local soft drinks were not refreshing. No, it was a kind of homage to the United States: We wanted a sip of the American magic. As a colony, we wanted less of London and more of New York. We believed Americans were invincible. In our eyes Americans were superior because they had smarter government, better laws and more entrepreneurial people.
Of course, in that faraway place, we idealized all things American and sometimes we were wishfully wrong. For example, we believed that the United States had solved its race problems (hardly in the 1950s) and that the more we followed America and broke with our mother country, Britain, the better. It was the American example that led Prime Minister Ian Smith to unilaterally–and disastrously, as it turned out–declare independence from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965.
In 1959, I moved to Britain where there was a much greater sense of competition across the Atlantic, more resentment of America climbing as Britain was sinking. Also, there was resentment of America’s abandonment of the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956. It was a period of adjustment.
It was also a wrenching time in European intellectual life. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, both followed by brutal Soviet repression, undermined European intellectuals’ faith in communism; but they did not switch to untrammeled support of capitalism. Wary of the politics of the right, they were looking for kindness, gentleness and an indigenous way forward.
Europeans wanted a future that would allow for their historical experiences, but would not sweep them into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union or the United States. That way forward was democratic socialism, embraced by all European political parties except the extreme nationalistic ones of the right and the communists, who are still found on the extreme left in France, Italy and other countries.
As Europe moved into its democratic socialist future, anti-Americanism grew. It was based on economic resentment, fear of U.S. foreign policy and anger over the difficulty of penetrating the U.S. market. Appreciation of American sacrifice in World War II was laced with resentment that America did not join the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Some blame for anti-Americanism lies with the European newspapers of the time. They seized on crime; the oddities of American life (like the shoe-shaped house); the size of American automobiles; and, of course, the cavorting of Hollywood stars. While American media portrayed Europe as Disneyland for grownups, Europeans were led to believe that American life was brutal and freakish.
Serious chroniclers like Alastair Cooke–an Englishman who dedicated a good part of his life telling Britain, on the BBC and in The Manchester Guardian, that America was a wondrous place–failed to arrest the rising tide of anti-Americanism.
That had to come later, after the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. None of our carping European friends could pull off such an historical first in their own countries.
No matter what you think of the man, Obama’s election as the first African-American president is a very American triumph. The world has applauded the system that could produce this result and the people who made it possible. Only in America. Happy birthday. –For North Star Writers Group