January 11, 2004

Smiley's (Anti-American) People


"Americans are cowards," Evelyn Waugh sneered.

BATH, ENGLAND — Anyone can see what happened in Iraq. It was nothing more than a war of colonial conquest fought for oil, "dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty," and its authors were "a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America's post-9/11 psychopathy."

These words are spoken in John Le Carré's new novel "Absolute Friends'' (Little, Brown, 2004). And although it is usually philistine and unfair to blame a novelist for what his fictional creations say, in this case the speaker expressing those opinions is plainly a point-of-view character - there is a vein of anti-Americanism running through his novels from nearly 40 years ago - and the opinions are shared by plenty of Europeans, the English among them.

Maybe "anti-Americanism" is a dubious concept (the idea of being "un-American" still more so). It might suggest bigotry, by analogy with "anti-Semitism," when hating America, whatever else it may be, plainly cannot be a form of racism. The accusation is often invoked by American politicians for their own purposes. But if it means hostility to the administration of the day, then most Americans must themselves have been "anti-American'' at times - since it was almost a logical impossibility, for example, to have admired and supported both President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton.

All the same, anyone who lives in the Old World knows that we are talking about something that exists, though it takes different forms from country to country.

Leave aside the hang-ups of Germans about a country that helped defeat them twice in the past century, or of Spaniards about a nation which, in 1898, abruptly destroyed any lingering illusions of Spanish imperial greatness. The sourest version of all is French anti-Americanism. It is also the most irritating. As anyone knows who has ever had to listen to a Rive Gauche cafe intellectual saying (as though he had thought it up himself) that America is the first society ever to pass from barbarism to decadence without an intervening phase of civilization.

A large part of the European left spent a large part of the 20th century hating the United States not because it had economic inequality or Jim Crow but because it did not have show trials, labor camps and the other appurtenances of "actually existing socialism."

If not as virulent as that, English hostility is deeply rooted, for all the common heritage of language, law and political culture. Maybe it's appropriate that those fulminations about war-hungry fantasists appear in a novel, since English anti-Americanism - it might better be called Yank-baiting - has a long literary pedigree. From Dickens to Beerbohm to Waugh to Amis (Kingsley and Martin), English novelists have made fun of the Americans for their vulgarity, pomposity and other traits.

The Americans were supposed to take this in good humor: it is poignant that the greatest of presidents was assassinated while watching an English comedy called "Our American Cousin,'' which mocked the former colonials for their uncouth ways.

Two great novelists, despite their political differences, were united in this prejudice. And it went beyond baiting the raw and clumsy Yanks.

"Of course, the Americans are cowards," Evelyn Waugh cheerfully told Graham Greene. "They are almost all the descendants of wretches who deserted their legitimate monarchs for fear of military service." Our latest anti-American literati share the malice of Waugh and Greene without their sour wit (or genius).

One thing has changed since Lincoln's time. Then it was the English - and often the European - left that revered America as the land of the free. That great republic across the Atlantic had, more truly than France, built a society founded on liberty, equality and fraternity, or so radicals believed.

For the same reason, aristocratic conservatives sneered at America or even actively hated it. Lord Salisbury, the Tory prime minister in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, who is venerated to this day by the English species of neoconservatives, abhorred American democracy and ardently supported the South in the Civil War.

The crucial turning point came with World War II. It stimulated European anti-Americanism in various ways, some with profound consequences. There was no more extraordinary episode than Hitler's gratuitous decision to declare war on the United States after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Although he had no obligation to do so, he did it lightly. With his crazy racism, he believed that the Americans were a mongrel nation, enfeebled by Jewish and black blood, whose society and economy were incapable of waging a global war, to say the least a severe miscalculation. That was one illusion the British did not share, but for them, the emergence of the United States as the greatest power on earth was a bitter pill. Some took refuge in denial.

Winston Churchill hymned "the English-speaking peoples" and Anglo-American friendship in a way that glossed over the reality of profoundly different national interests. He also said that he had not become prime minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire, to which Franklin D. Roosevelt almost audibly replied that America was not fighting to preserve it.

For Churchill, Roosevelt's Lend-Lease program was an act of selfless generosity, but as reviewers of Conrad Black's new biography of Roosevelt have pointed out, and as John Maynard Keynes saw at the time, its financial terms were very stringent, stripping Great Britain of its currency reserves and all but destroying its exporting economy.

When several million G.I.'s sailed to England from 1942 to 1944, they were met with resentment. "Before the war there was no popular anti-American feeling in this country," George Orwell wrote. "It all dates from the arrival of the American troops," who made the British feel that their country "was now Occupied Territory."

For all that, there was little evidence of popular anti-American feeling in England then, or after the war either, up to this day. This is, among other things (as so often in our damp little island) a class question. Culturally, the British masses are much more friendly to America than what passes for our literary and academic intelligentsia. It is there, from Harold Pinter on the squawking left to Le Carré on the surly right, that the more frenzied expressions of hatred tend to come.

For decades after the war, the British struggled to come to terms with their changed status. In 1962, they were told a little patronizingly by Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state, that they had lost an empire without finding a role, and they genuinely didn't know whether to look across the ocean to America, or toward Europe.

This is still an acute dilemma, maybe without a final answer. Tony Blair's career demonstrates this. In its own way, so does the career of John Le Carré: a writer who has enjoyed much success in America despite an aversion to American power dating from his earliest books, who has no very subtle political understanding, but who all too accurately voices the bitterness of national impotence and decline.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Controversy of Zion" and "Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France."

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