The illusion of American omnipotence

>> Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Many years ago, in an illuminating essay, D. W. Brogan pointed to a state of mind which he called "the illusion of American omnipotence"--defined as "the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States can only exist because some Americans have been fools or knaves." The best illustration, he suggested, was our response to the Chinese Revolution, toward which Americans had neither historical awe nor historical curiosity, preferring to regard it as no more than a problem in our foreign and domestic policy. The oldest civilization in existence, comprising about a fifth of the human race, situated six thousand miles from the Pacific coast of the United States and having a contiguous frontier with Russia, had taken a turn--presumably for reasons deeply rooted in its history and geography, its traditions and problems--which was understandably very unwelcome to Americans. Instead of concluding that this was a response to massive strategic and economic realities largely beyond our control, millions of Americans were apparently convinced that this enormous country had been in our pocket, and had been lost or stolen only because of the mistakes (or treachery) of Roosevelt, Marshall, and Acheson, mistakes which could easily have been rectified by greater statesmen like Walter Judd or Senator Jenner. Roosevelt was anathematized for having "permitted" Russia to become a Pacific power at Yalta, although Russia had been a Pacific power before the United States existed. It was all too lightly assumed, Brogan prophetically remarked, that Russia had "taken over" China as she had taken over Poland. Moreover, the persistent faith that American intervention could have changed Chinese history was accompanied by the faith that this involved nothing more than the choice of a few sound alternative policies, without demanding of the American people the massive sacrifices necessary to sustain a major commitment in China.
--Richard Hofstadter, "Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics"


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