At the end of last month, after Joe Biden had announced him as his choice for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken gave a speech that included a short version of a story that he had grown up with and has told many times before. After four years in a Nazi concentration camp, Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, escaped from a death march. In the woods somewhere in Bavaria, he came across an American tank, which turned out to be from the 761st Tank Battalion – an African-American unit that formed part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Blinken has said before that a black American soldier “lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom”. (Pisar tells the story himself here, though he does not say the soldier was black.) This time Blinken concluded by saying: “That’s who we are. That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.”
It is a moving story. But what is interesting is what Blinken leaves out – what he doesn’t say when he tells the story of his stepfather. To begin with, the army that liberated Samuel Pisar was still segregated – as, of course, was the South, where the majority of U.S. military bases were (many of which were and still are named after Confederate generals). As many African-Americans pointed out at the time, it was a Jim Crow army that was fighting for freedom in Europe. The story of the 761st Tank Battalion is an extraordinary one. But the reason it existed at all was because African-Americans were not permitted to serve alongside white Americans in regular combat units. In general, African-Americans were limited to doing “menial chores for whites”, as an African-American newspaper put it at the time.
The way African-Americans were treated in the U.S. military – what Ira Katznelson calls “a military version of white supremacy” – was part of a much wider system of disadvantage they faced in America at that time. Of course, until the mid-1960s, black Americans in the South did not have citizenship rights. What is perhaps less well known is that they were also to a large extent excluded from the New Deal. As Katznelson shows in his book When Affirmative Was White, Southern Democrats ensured that farmworkers and maids were excluded from social security and from legislation improving workers’ rights. After the war, black veterans were also prevented from benefiting from the G.I. Bill – especially, but not only, in the South. Katznelson argues that, as the lives of white Americans, including recent immigrants from Europe, were transformed, African-Americans were left behind.
Given all this, it feels to me as if Blinken is talking about an imaginary America rather than the real one. If one listened to the story about his stepfather without knowing the history, one might almost think that there was no racism in America and the U.S. military was perfectly integrated. The only thing that even hints at the reality are those two words “however imperfectly”. It also seems a little out of touch for Blinken to claim that the story of his stepfather embodies “what America represents to the world”. Some people in some parts of the world may see America like that. But rightly or wrongly, much of the world, particularly in non-white countries, sees the United States in a completely different way: not as a liberating power but as an imperial power.
I actually shared Blinken’s idealized view of America – like Blinken, for reasons that have to do with my own family’s history. My grandmother was liberated by the 82nd Airborne Division fighting alongside British troops in Operation Market Garden in Holland in World War II – a story I have written about elsewhere. Deeply influenced by this, I saw American power in something like the way as Blinken does. But for me this vision of America as a force for good was shattered by the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. Initially, I could not understand how it could have happened – it did not square with my idea of America. This forced me to go back and try to understand American history all over again in order to make sense of it. My idea of America is now much bleaker – but, I think, more realistic.
However, four years on from the election of Trump, many American diplomats like Blinken seem to continue to believe in the idealized America I once did. It is as if they want through their words to will a better America into existence. But by focusing on the positive moments in American history and claiming that this is America, they tend to obscure its darker currents. In another post, I wrote about how another U.S. diplomat, Dan Fried, idealized America in a similar way. In his retirement speech shortly after Trump was elected, he said that “The idea of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox”. Even as Fried implicitly criticised Trump, he seemed to me to confuse what America is with what he wanted it to be, and thus to whitewash American history – in particular the history of racism in America since the end of Civil War.
The usual response to this is that, while the reality of America always falls short of its ideals, the American story is nevertheless one of progress – which is itself driven by these ideals. If that is what Blinken had in mind, perhaps he should have said “This is who we could be” instead of “This is who we are”. But this teleological view of American history – often expressed through the idea that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice” – looks somewhat less convincing than it did before Trump. As David Blight – whose book Race and Reunion I have mentioned in previous posts – puts it in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: “It should be clear to all now that history does not end and is not necessarily going to any particular place or bending in an inevitable arc toward justice or anything else.”