Brian Birdnow

Now, five-and –one-half years into the Obama Era, we confront rising anti-Americanism around the world and ponder: What went wrong? Perhaps the rest of the world has now found Secretary Kerry as dislikable as the American people found him in 2004. This proposition is obviously open to debate, but clearly anti-Americanism is not going to disappear anytime soon. While America has been a beacon and a symbol of hope to millions throughout our national history, the flip side of this optimistic representation has been a latent anti-Americanism that has taken different forms, but has existed since 1789.

In the early 1790s this impulse expressed itself as condescension for the real weakness of the United States of America. Gouverneur Morris, chief American diplomat abroad during this period recalled attending diplomatic receptions in various European capitals. When asked what nation he represented he said that his fellow diplomats and their families could barely contain their laughter and derision when he responded that he represented the USA. This early anti-Americanism was based on the supposition that America was a ridiculous country, constantly verging on anarchy at home, and commanding no respect abroad. Morris reflected on the fact that anti-Americanism existed then not as hatred, but more along the lines of mockery and pity.

As America grew stronger and more established the world developed a new anti-American stereotype, that of the illiterate and unsophisticated rube. The classic image of the American, circa 1830-1890 was that of a gangly hillbilly, usually barefooted and blithely unaware of his uncouth nature. This image was, in fact, a subtheme of the stage play “Our American Cousin” which President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and their guests attended at Ford’s Theater on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865. In any event, this anti-Americanism was also a comical commentary on the supposed ill manners and buffoonery of the average American citizen.

This characterization changed once again as American strength waxed toward the end of the nineteenth century. While astute observers such as King Edward VII of Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany spoke of their unease at the breathtaking development of American strength and power at the turn of the twentieth century the popular image of the American was that of the Nouveau Riche plutocrat intent on buying up the world. The anti-American popular press in Europe delighted in characterizing the American moneyed classes as simple parvenu rich men who eagerly married off their beautiful daughters to penniless Dukes, Counts, and lesser worthies, hoping to buy their way into respectability and social position. This brand of anti-Americanism was also based on ridicule, but was combined with the uneasy realization that America was strong and rich and growing more so every day.

Finally, after 1919, the anti-American impulse reached full flower. America was now the strongest and most powerful nation in the world. As such, we had earned the natural resentment that historically has followed the big kid on the block. We were the Romans of the twentieth century and all of the barbarians resented our wealth and power. Nothing could change this simple fact, as the British had found in the nineteenth century. Great power and strength bring resentment and envy, as Rudyard Kipling presciently noted in 1899.

Today the anti-American imperative is more complex. The jihadists hate us for our supposed paganism, although that is much more a question of which God we choose to worship. Much of the non-Muslim anti-Americanism is based on the idea that Americans are insular and unsophisticated, that we are rotted by luxury, and that our wealth and dedication to easy living is paired with an appalling lack of social conscience and concern for the welfare of the less fortunate. In short, anti-Americanism today dovetails nicely with the thinking of much of the American Left.

So, we can see that anti-Americanism is not a problem that developed out of a reckless cowboy in the White House. It has existed, in various incarnations, for over two centuries. No one should scoff at President Obama’s stated hope that he and his State Department might improve America’s image around the world. It is a laudable goal. It will, however, be a tall order, and one that cannot be accomplished by mere good intentions and grandiose, pompous fantasies.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.