In that strange way the history of ideas swivels and turns, an old internal Communist argument is back – but as so often happens, the sides reversed. And few recognize its origins.
When Josef Stalin was wrapping up his enemies inside the Soviet Union and its appendage, the Comintern, the world Communist headquarters, he ran into an ideological problem with the miniscule American Communist Party. Stalin wanted to reconstitute the U.S. party with his own hacks. But as happens among Communists – even to today in Beijing – Stalin needed a “theoretical” issue to justify his actions. He seized on a heresy rampant inside the hugely unsuccessful 1930s American left: namely, without Europe’s ancient class structures and conflicts, the breathtaking exuberance for life and opportunities on this side of the Atlantic would block Marxist apparatchiks bringing on “the revolution”. That was the climatic event Kremlin leadership [even if Stalinists were increasingly skeptical themselves] preached would solve the world’s problems
The then American representative to “The Socialist Motherland”, Jay Lovestone, called it “American exceptionalism” in Party councils, an unpardonable sin.
Lovestone, an old American revolutionary despite his ideological transgressions, escaped Stalin’s goons. But it was by a hairsbreadth with help from a fellow American Communist then in Moscow, one Dr. Juluis Hammer, New York City physician, abortionist, ex-convict, who had befriended V.I. Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the radicals to power in 1917-22. . [Hammer would found a dynasty of billionaires prospering from their Moscow connections through the long line of Soviet dictators.]
Lovestone, briefly an “independent revolutionary”, blossomed into an exceedingly effective anti-Communist, first with the WWII Office of Strategic Services [OSS], later transformed into the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. Then working as international director for Mr. George Meaney, the old plumber who headed the AFL-CIO, Lovestone helped bring much of the European left into the anti-Soviet fold
American exceptionalism, as clever slogans are wont, metamorphosed over the decades. It has melded with the beliefs of religious reformers who originated some American colonies [the Pilgrims, Ann Hathaway, William Penn, George Lord Baltimore, etc.] They saw themselves as precursors of a new social order. Their phraseology often borrowed from Judeo-Christian thought, specifically Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Later, the American Republic Founders believed they were creating a new civilization on the western shores of the Atlantic, distinct from Europe’s old evils. When asked by a passerby the result of the secret conclave of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, the grand old wizard of American Revolution international politics, told her, “We have created a Republic, Madame, if you can keep it”.
The latest to use the concept, if not the slogan itself, was Pres. Ronald Reagan. In his 1989 farewell speech, he explained:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”
This recurring theme divides the U.S. polity today as perhaps no other intellectual current. Much of the self-anointed, sophisticated “political class” [European jargon recently brought to America in defiance of the Founders’ dream of citizen-politicians] denigrates the whole idea. Pres. Barack Obama, for example, recently said in France he believed only in American exceptionalism as a rationalization every nation state has for the importance of its own credo. Some of his most loyal political base has long argued American exceptionalism camouflages rampant chauvinism, xenophobia, arbitrary use of power for self-interest — even opportunism and greed.
That line of attack was enhanced when in the post-World War II world, American exceptionalism took on new meaning. With a Europe in ruins and even in recovery dependent on the U.S. defense umbrella to prevent Soviet domination, America’s economic aid was overwhelming. Its support was not only brute strength but set patterns for economic development and world order. Official U.S. aid and private investment outflows created the norm for industrial countries’ international relations. American-style multinationals replaced, then dwarfed old European trading companies outgrowths of European colonialism. The dollar became the international currency in which most values were expressed.
Battered and tarnished as the current U.S. economy may be, when the EC attempted to meet “the Greek crisis” — which could lead not only to the destruction of the Euro but “the European project” itself — it begged for help from the International Monetary fund. There, indirectly, the American taxpayer carries a disproportionate load — more evidence of the U.S.’s still special role in world affairs.
American exceptionalism lives!