American Exceptionalism: Doing Bad Things for “Good Reasons” – Peter Kuznick on Reality Asserts Itself (3/4)

Story Transcript

In part three of an interview with historian Peter Kuznick, Senior Editor Paul Jay continued the discussion of American exceptionalism in the context of U.S. American foreign policy post-World War II.

“One of the main principles or pillars of the American exceptionalist argument about post-World War II is Japan and Europe, that America didn’t colonize Japan or Europe,” says Jay.  “It helped Japan and Europe rebuild. They became independent countries. And this is an example of the sort of benign American power that when we conquer, we also help the people rebuild, and we don’t control them.”

“I think there’s an element of truth to that,” admits Kuznick. “The U.S. occupation of Japan was in some ways very repressive, but in other ways it was pretty progressive.”

“But beneath the veneer of America’s commitment to democracy and freedom and uplift,” says Kuznick, “is this real hard-nose, realistic policy which says: how are we going to keep 50 percent of the world’s wealth if we are 6 percent of the world population? And it’s not by idealism. It’s not by spreading democracy. It’s being very realistic and doing whatever we have to do to maintain that wealth and that position.

“And that means overthrowing governments.”


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

This is Reality Asserts Itself. We are continuing our series of discussions with Peter Kuznick, who now joins us in the studio.

Peter’s a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He is a cowriter of the Showtime series Untold History of the United States, which is now going to be coming out as we speak, paperback book and DVD and digital download, and with two new episodes, one on the Philippines and one on–what’s the second one?


JAY: Twenties and ’30s.

KUZNICK: –it covered the period from the 1890s through 1940. So the second episode, which I showed to my students for its world premiere yesterday, talks a lot about the dark side of the 1930s, about American business relations with the Nazis, with German business, going actually up to World War II, and then continuing in German hands during World War II, but with the profits accruing in blocked accounts, which the American companies got back after the war. And not only that, but IBM and General Motors sued the U.S. government for the bombing of their factories in Germany and were–actually got millions and millions, tens of millions of dollars in reparations from the U.S. government after the war. So that’s in this episode.

JAY: Alright. Well, we will be doing this. We’re going to get a copy of the segment soon, I hope, and then we’re going to interview Peter and perhaps Oliver about those two episodes.

But now we’re going to pick up where we left off. One of the ideas, central modern ideas, post-World War II ideas of American exceptionalism–and I’m positioning this thing, as I said before–America, Europe, and others, Russia, they do bad things for bad objectives, but America does bad things with good objectives, and somehow that explains bombing–dropping nuclear weapons on Japan. And you were there just a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So how are people there–what do they make of this idea of this America, the exceptional American city on the hill?

KUZNICK: Well, Japan was pretty amazing this year, ’cause Oliver joined me, and we spent 12 days–I was there with my students. If any of your viewers want to join us in Hiroshima and Nagasaki next year, I do this every year, I take students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Oliver joined me this year and we spent 12 days in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Okinawa. We were in Okinawa supporting the anti-base movement there.

The response in Japan is just fabulous to what we’re saying. We did public events every day, sometimes three a day, ranging from 400 people to 8,000 people. And even before we’d gone there, our Japanese book Untold History, in Japanese, had sold close to 50,000 copies before we went there. The response there from the media–we had up to 150 media following us at some of these places. Universally positive. Not a word of criticism or negativity.

And we were raising the same issue about Japanese falsification of their history hand-in-hand with American falsification of our history. The two histories are very similar in a lot of ways. But in Japan we have no problem convincing them about the wrongness of the atomic bombs. That’s pretty widely accepted in Japan.

What’s important there is to convince them to look equally critically at their own history, which they have a tendency not to do. And Prime Minister Abe, who is now in power, is one of the great falsifiers of Japanese history, trying to deny the Japanese treatment of the comfort women, the sex slaves, the Koreans and the other comfort women, trying to deny the Japanese Rape of Nanjing and the atrocities toward China. But he goes back to a history. His grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi, in the 1960s was one of the early great falsifiers, as was Kishi’s younger brother, Satō, who was prime minister when Okinawa reverted to Japan. So there’s a lot of history there.

JAY: And this is part of the American narrative is that the Japanese imperialists were so brutal, so vicious, it was such a terrible dictatorship that the–and the only way to end the war, and thus it’s okay to kill tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with nuclear weapons.

KUZNICK: Yeah. The idea, the narrative, as you know, is that we had to drop the bomb in order to avoid an invasion in which half a million to a million Americans would have been killed in the invasion and lots of Japanese. So it was really a humane thing. We did this not because we were bloodthirsty or cruel or militaristic. We did this to save lives. It’s a little twisted.

The reality, as Truman knew and others knew, was that the Soviet Union was about to come into the war, that the thing that the Japanese dreaded the most was the Soviet entry into the war, and that it was the Soviet entry and [incompr.] immediately [incompr.] for the Kwantung Army in Manchuria and then going toward the Japanese mainland. That’s what Prime Minister Suzuki said was the reason why they had to surrender immediately, not that–. The atomic bomb is a factor, but it was a factor–. The United States had already firebombed 100 Japanese cities. We’d wiped out 99 percent of the city of Toyama. We’d proven that we could wipe out Japanese cities. That didn’t change the equation, wiping out two more Japanese cities. In the Japanese militarists, it didn’t make the difference. But the Soviet invasion changed the whole equation. It undermined their diplomatic strategy and destroyed their military strategy. So we can go into a lot of detail, but we’ve done some of that.

JAY: And we’ll show that segment you’ll find when you watch our series with Peter on The Untold History. You’ll find a whole segment on [crosstalk]

KUZNICK: And then we get into–as you’re saying, into World War II.

JAY: Well, before you do that, let me–there’s another piece in this. One of the main principles or pillars of the American exceptionalist argument about post-World War II is Japan and Europe, that America didn’t colonize Japan or Europe. It helped Japan and Europe rebuild. They became independent countries. And this is an example of the sort of benign American power that when we conquer, we also help the people rebuild, and we don’t control them.

KUZNICK: I think there’s an element of truth to that. The U.S. occupation of Japan was in some ways very repressive, but in other ways it was pretty progressive. The United States instituted a peace constitution in Japan with Article 9, and Article 9 says that the Japanese are not allowed to have an offensive military force that goes overseas and commits aggression against anybody. The United States tried to get them to change that during the Korean War. We had imposed it under MacArthur, and then we decided we hated it because we wanted them to be on our side, to go out there in Korea and elsewhere. And the Japanese people resisted. And it’s now that Abe is really trying to get that to change. And in many ways they’ve effectively changed that.

But even in Europe we’ve got two kinds of policies. One is the repressive Cold War policy. The other is the Marshall Plan. And they’re both designed to stop the spread of communism, to contain communism. But there’s a positive way to relate to the world, and that’s through economic development.

The United States–you know, there’s a myth in the United States. The American people think that the United States spends 20 percent of its budget on foreign aid. What’s the reality? The reality is that the United States spends less on developmental foreign aid then any other advanced industrial country in the world. According to the OECD, the United States spends 0.2 percent, two-tenths of 1 percent of its gross domestic product on foreign aid. The average for advanced industrial countries is 0.47 percent. Sweden and other countries spend five times as high a percentage as we do. Even Ireland spends three times as much.

JAY: But if you go back to post-World War II and the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan, what was the choice? I mean, they’re not going to colonize Japan and Europe.

KUZNICK: But there was–no, no, there was another possibility.

JAY: A realistic–?

KUZNICK: Yes, there was a realistic possibility. And many people in the American government wanted to pursue a policy of pastoralization of Germany, of actually deindustrializing Germany, because Germany was considered to be so dangerous after the aggression in World War I, and now the aggression in World War II. American leaders–and for a while Roosevelt embraced this idea–wanted to actually cut the legs out from under Germany so it could never be aggressive again.

JAY: But for the commercial elite of America, who had been happy doing business with Hitler anyway, as your new segment’s going to show, General Motors was making–I mean, many people say he couldn’t have invaded Poland without General Motors. They’re up to their eyeballs in helping German industry get ready and wage war.


JAY: From the point of view of American capital, what other choice was there than to re-create another great big enormous market, another place to invest?

And number two (and this is another piece of history that gets–that you raise in your series but that gets eliminated in most narratives), the Soviet Union was wildly popular in Europe and in much of the world, and you needed to let, you know, these countries succeed. If you were seen as the sort of tyrannical exploiter of these countries, you were dealing with populations that would have become revolutionary.

KUZNICK: The Soviet Union was wildly popular for a while.

JAY: I’m talking right after the war [crosstalk]

KUZNICK: Right after the war. But then their efforts in Eastern Europe were so brutal, the mass rapes and other things that they did–they had been through–they liberated–the Soviet troops had liberated the concentration camps. They saw the horrors of Naziism. Their hatred toward the Germans really kind of almost is inexpressible, and they acted out in terrible ways. So the Soviets are going to undermine their own credibility with many of those populations, in Germany especially and other parts of Eastern Europe. But the Americans were not very popular either, and there was a lot of rape going on by the Americans, and the Brits and others as well.

So the American policy, we decided that Japan is going to be the fulcrum of our development in Asia, and Germany’s going to be the fulcrum of our development in Europe. So we want to build up those economies rather than tear them down was the decision.

JAY: And my point is this wasn’t an exception to American exceptionalism. It’s consistent. This was in the interests of America to do it. It wasn’t done because of some high ideals. It was the best choice for–.

KUZNICK: But it’s a wise policy.

JAY: It was, but–.

KUZNICK: It’s possible to have a wise policy that’s also in American interest, and this is one of those rare exceptions when that actually happens.

But if you look at the reality of postwar policy, George Kennan, who was the architect of our containment policy, wrote a secret memo in 1948. And this is one of the most startling documents I’ve come across, in which he says that we have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of the world’s population. I’m just going to read this, because I want to get this exact:

“… [W]e cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming…. We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization…. [W]e are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

So beneath the veneer of America’s commitment to democracy and freedom and uplift is this real hard-nose, realistic policy which says: how are we going to keep 50 percent of the world’s wealth if we are 6 percent of the world population? And it’s not by idealism. It’s not by spreading democracy. It’s being very realistic and doing whatever we have to do to maintain that wealth and that position.

And that means overthrowing governments. It was 1947 that we developed the CIA. We developed these counterrevolutionary operations as part of that. We start to send troops in behind the Iron Curtain during that time in the Ukraine and other places. We’ve got all these dirty tricks and operations going on under Allen Dulles later during the CIA. So the United States policy is going to be very, very realistic, hard-nosed.

The idealism that we sell to the American people: that we’re spreading freedom and democracy; this idea of exceptionalism, that the United States is different from all other countries. All other countries operate on the basis of greed or territorial acquisition or geopolitics; the United States operates only on the basis of spreading freedom, democracy, goodwill. We’re altruistic, we’re benevolent, nobody else is. So that’s why we have the right to do this.

But that’s this idea that comes out time and time again. Madeleine Albright as secretary of state says in 1998, she says, if we have to use force, it’s because we’re the United States. “We are the indispensable nation.” We stand taller and see farther than other countries. That’s Madeleine Albright. Hillary Clinton says, we’re the indispensable nation. Barack Obama says, we’re the indispensable nation. You can trace this in the thinking of leader after leader. And in some ways it goes back to Woodrow Wilson when he says after Versailles that at last the world will see that the United States is “the savior of the world.” Those were his words.

This is the idea that is very deeply ingrained in the American public. They grow up believing this. It seems outrageous to people around the rest of the world. Vladimir Putin mocked this two weeks ago. But to the American people, this is the air that they breathe. This is the water that they drink. This is the world that they grew up in. They don’t even question this assumption that the United States is different in this way.

But after we start losing wars in Vietnam, and then Iraq and Afghanistan, these horrible episodes, or even Libya, and these things backfire, then Americans get war weary. They decide, well, maybe we are the greatest thing in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to be intervening everywhere.

JAY: And then when something happens, they wonder, “Why do they hate us?”

KUZNICK: Why do they hate us?

JAY: It’s such a surprise. All we do is good, and then they hate us. They’re so ungrateful.

KUZNICK: Ungrateful, yeah. Yeah.

JAY: In the next–.

KUZNICK: And why is the 97 percent of the Pakistanis–are they opposed to American drone strikes? Why do they not like our infringing on their sovereignty? Can’t understand that. What’s wrong with those people?

JAY: In the next segment of the interview, we’re going to take up this question, does the United States stand between order and chaos. This is a quote I read in episode 1 which I’ll read again as we start the next episode. But there is this deeply ingrained feeling in the American identity. Not only does America do good, and if we do bad things sometimes, it’s only ’cause we’re trying to do good; but also that the world would fall apart, there would be chaos, there’d be nothing but war and destruction if America wasn’t there to play the policeman.

So join us for the next segment of our interview with Peter Kuznick on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News.


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