America, Obama and the anti-colonial issue
The arrival of the documentary film "2016" in some 100 Florida theaters over the weekend is sure to re-ignite controversy surrounding President Obama's political philosophy. The film explores sensitive points about Obama's youthful intellectual exposure to anti-colonialist thought and outlines what America might look like if the president is re-elected. In so doing, it inadvertently uncovers a latent schizophrenia in the interpretation of U.S. history: our anti-colonial dilemma. How did it come to pass that the United States has become a symbol of neo-imperialism in so much of the world when we began our national existence as the first anti-imperialist nation ever? The ideals of 1776, uniquely expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have served as the pillars of all subsequent struggles for freedom. Even North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh was enamored of them! True, our small foray into imperialism in 1898 resulted in acquiring territories from Spain, notably the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Early on, the Philippines, judged unready for independence after the war, were promised freedom by 1944. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917.In contrast to this "colonial" record has been our periodic 20th century intervention in Latin American affairs. In our own hemisphere the schizophrenia of our anti-colonial dilemma surfaces. But the real watershed for passage of the United States from the champion of anti-colonialism to neo-imperialist power comes with the post-World War II changes that redefined the entire political profile of the planet. First, our European allies were all colonial powers, determined to hang on to empire even as their defeats in Africa and Asia spawned national independence movements. Second, the Cold War with the Soviet Union — which might have, at some point, turned nuclear-hot — meant we had to support our allies. The first turning point defining the American dilemma came with the Suez Crisis of 1956. Britain, France and Israel went to war against Nasser's Egypt when it sought to nationalize the Suez Canal. To the surprise of the French and British, their powerful NATO leader, the United States did not support them. A sea change had occurred in the diplomacy of the time. The Cold War merged with anti-colonialism as Soviet leader Khruschev began exploiting third-world (still mostly colonies) aspirations. Under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. launched its inaugural peace-keeping force and it, the Soviet Union and the United States forced an end to the war. Unfortunately for America, it was the Soviets, not the Americans, who filled the influence vacuum in the Middle East, supporting Egypt and Syria (still today) and, later, other states that left the Franco-British orbit. In Africa, after the Suez crisis, independence movements exploded. By 1960 18 former European colonies had gained freedom. In 1961, the third-world nonalignment movement, led by figures such as Nasser, Sukarno of Indonesia and Nkrumah of Ghana, became a major force in the U.N. and in world politics. America's certification as a neo-imperialist power came with the Congo Crisis of 1960. When, under serious pressure in its colony and from world opinion, Belgium granted the Congo independence in June 1960, the land was woefully unprepared for it. By July, the new nation was fragmenting. Leftist Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba asked for help from the U.N. and the Soviets. In the end, it seemed that the whole world took sides in this catastrophe: the Soviet Union, Cuba (which declared itself a communist state in 1961) China and Egypt. On the other side was Belgium and the United States — sans France and Britain. After the Congo crisis, there was no going back. We were tarred with the paint of imperialism — no sooner done in the Congo than involved in Vietnam. Ever since, it has been fashionable in many circles to view the United States as the neo-colonial imperialist power par excellence, even though international politics underwent another radical upheaval with the end of the Cold War in 1991. Now globalism came to the forefront of political thinking. There were no more colonies to be freed, but, oddly, anti-colonialism acquired a transposed definition and a new back-history. In some quarters, all European and American expansion in the world was deemed reprehensible, a genocide against the indigenous — especially in the New World. Furthermore, anti-colonialism has resurfaced in the global setting as a demand for reparations for past perceived injustices. Today, in new curriculums, movies and global propaganda, Americans are taught to be ashamed of the homeland. The United States must reject these positions, and the president must proudly and aggressively defend America's position as freedom's best friend. No nation is perfect. We have made errors, surely. All have. But we have nourished freedom far more than any other political system in history, and we try to be better still. And that helps all people everywhere.
Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences in New Jersey. His Ph.D. research focused on colonialism after WWII. Reach him at [email protected]