What Every American Should Read
On Leaving America
Hans Magnus Enzensberger FEBRUARY 29, Protected content
Mr. Edwin D. Etherington,
Dear Mr. President,
I hereby ask you to accept my resignation as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University. At the same time, I wish to thank you, as best I can, for the hospitality which you have shown me during my stay here. The very least I owe to you, to the faculty, and to the students is an account of my reasons for leaving Wesleyan.
Let me begin with a few elementary considerations. I believe the class which rules the United States of America, and the government which implements its policies, to be the most dangerous body of men on earth. In one way or another, and to a different degree, this class is a threat to anybody who is not part of it. It is waging an undeclared war against more than a billion people; its weapons range from saturation bombing to the most delicate techniques of persuasion; its aim is to establish its political, economic, and military predominance over every other power in the world. Its mortal enemy is revolutionary change.
Many Americans are deeply troubled by the state of their nation. They reject the war which is being waged in their name against the people of Vietnam. They look for ways and means to end the latent civil war in the ghettos of American cities. But most of them still hold on to the idea that these crises are unfortunate accidents, due to faulty management and lack of understanding: tragical errors on the part of an otherwise peaceful, sane, and well-intentioned world power.
To this interpretation I cannot agree. The Vietnam war is not an isolated phenomenon. It is the most visible outcome and, at the same time, the bloodiest test case of a coherent international policy which applies to five continents. The ruling class of the United States has taken sides in the armed struggles of Guatemala and Indonesia, of Laos and Bolivia, of Korea and Colombia, of the Philippines and of Venezuela, of the Congo and of the Dominican Republic. This is not an exhaustive list. Many other countries are governed, with American support, by oppression, corruption, and starvation. Nobody can feel safe and secure any more, not in Europe, and not even in the United States itself.
There is nothing surprising and original about the simple truth I am stating here. I have no space to qualify and differentiate it in any scientific way. Others, many of them American scholars like Baran and Horowitz, Huberman and Sweezy, Zinn and Chomsky, have done so at great length. From what I could gather here, the academic community does not think much of their work. It has been called old-fashioned, boring, and rhetorical; the outgrowth of a paranoid imagination or simply communist propaganda. These defense mechanisms are part of the Western intellectual’s standard equipment. Since I have frequently met with them here, I take the liberty of examining them more closely.
The first argument is really a matter of semantics. Our society has seen fit to be permissive about the old taboos of language. Nobody is shocked any more by the ancient and indispensable four-letter-words. At the same time, a new crop of words has been banished, by common consent, from polite society: words like exploitation and imperialism. They have acquired a touch of obscenity. Political scientists have taken to paraphrases and circumlocution which sound like the neurotic euphemisms of the Victorians. Some sociologists have gone so far as to deny the very existence of a ruling class. Obviously, it is easier to abolish the word exploitation than the thing it designates; but then, to do away with the term is not to do away with the problem.
A second defense device is using psychology as a shield. I have been told that it is sick and paranoid to conceive of a powerful set of people who are a danger to the rest of the world. This amounts to saying that instead of listening to his arguments it is better to watch the patient. Now it is not an easy thing to defend yourself against amateur psychiatrists. I shall limit myself to a few essential points. I do not imagine a conspiracy, since there is no need for such a thing. A social class, and especially a ruling class, is not held together by secret bonds, but by common and glaringly evident self-interest. I do not fabricate monsters. Everybody knows that bank presidents, generals, and military industrialists do not look like comicstrip demons: they are well-mannered, nice gentlemen, possibly lovers of chamber music with a philanthropic bent of mind. There was no lack of such kind people even in the Germany of the Thirties. Their moral insanity does not derive from their individual character, but from their social function.
Finally, there is a political defense mechanism operating with the assertion that all of the things which I submit are just communist propaganda. I have no reason to fear this time-honored indictment. It is inaccurate, vague, and irrational. First of all, the word Communism, used as a singular, has become rather meaningless. It covers a wide variety of conflicting ideas; some of them are even mutually exclusive. Furthermore, my opinion of American foreign policy is shared by Greek liberals and Latin American archbishops, by Norwegian peasants and French industrialists: people who are not generally thought of as being in the vanguard of “Communism.”
The fact is that most Americans have no idea of what they and their country look like to the outside world. I have seen the glance that follows them: tourists in the streets of Mexico, soldiers on leave in Far Eastern cities, businessmen in Italy or Sweden. The same glance is cast on your embassies, your destroyers, your billboards all over the world. It is a terrible look, because it makes no distinctions and no allowances. I will tell you why I recognize this look. It is because I am a German. It is because I have felt it on myself.
If you try to analyze it, you will find a blend of distrust and resentment, fear and envy, contempt and outright hate. It hits your President, for whom there is hardly any capital left in the world where he can show his face in public; but it also hits the kind old lady across the aisle on the flight from Delhi to Benares. It is an indiscriminate, a manichaean look. I do not like it. I do not share your President’s belief in collective graft and in collective guilt. “Don’t forget,” he told his soldiers in Korea, “there are only Protected content of us in the world of three billion. They want what we’ve got, and we’re not going to give it to them.” Now it is perfectly true that we all take some share in the pillage of the Third World. Economists like Dobb and Bettelheim, Jalée and Robinson have shown ample evidence for the contention that the poor countries, which we are underdeveloping, subsidize our economies. But surely Mr. Johnson is overstating his case when he implies that the American people are but a single, solid corporate giant fighting for its loot. There is more to admire in America than meets Mr. Johnson’s eye. I find little in Europe that could compare with the fight put up by people in SNCC, SDS, and in Resist. And I may add that I resent the air of moral superiority which many Europeans nowadays affect with respect to the United States. They seem to regard it as a personal merit that their own empires have been shattered. This, of course, is hypocritical nonsense.
However, there is such a thing as a political responsibility for what your own country is doing to the rest of the world, as the Germans found out to their cost after both World Wars. In more than one way, the state of your Union reminds me of my own country’s state in the middle Thirties. Before you reject this comparison, I ask you to reflect that nobody had heard or thought of gas chambers at that time; that respectable statesmen visited Berlin and shook hands with the Chancellor of the Reich; and that most people refused to believe that Germany had set out to dominate the world. Of course, everybody could see that there was a lot of racial discrimination and persecution going on; the armament budget went up at an alarming rate; and there was a growing involvement in the war against the Spanish revolution.
But here my analogy breaks down. For not only do our present masters wield a destructive power of which the Nazis could never dream; they have also reached a degree of subtlety and sophistication unheard of in the crude old days. Verbal opposition is today in danger of becoming a harmless spectator sport, licensed, well-regulated and, up to a point, even encouraged by the powerful. The universities have become a favorite playground for this ambiguous game. Of course, only a dogmatic of the most abominable sort could argue that censorship and open repression would be preferable to the precarious and deceptive freedom which we are now enjoying. But, on the other hand, only a fool can ignore that this very freedom has created new alibis, pitfalls, and dilemmas for those who oppose the system. It took me three months to discover that the advantages which you gave me would end up by disarming me; that in accepting your invitation and your grant, I had lost my credibility; and that the mere fact of my being here on these terms would devalue whatever I might have to say. “To judge an intellectual it is not enough to examine his ideas: it is the relation between his ideas and his acts which counts.” This piece of advice, offered by Régis Debray, has some bearing on my present situation. To make it clear that I mean what I say, I have to put an end to it.
It is a necessary, but hardly a sufficient, thing to do. For it is one thing to study imperialism in comfort, and quite another thing to confront it where it shows a less benevolent face. I have just returned from a trip to Cuba. I saw the agents of the CIA in the airport of Mexico City taking pictures of every passenger leaving for Havana; I saw the silhouettes of American warships off the Cuban coast; I saw the traces of the American invasion at the Bay of Pigs; I saw the heritage of an imperialist economy and the scars it left on the body and on the mind of a small country; I saw the daily siege which forces the Cubans to import every single spoon they use from Czechoslovakia and every single gallon of gasoline from the Soviet Union, because the United States has been trying for seven years to starve them into surrender.
I have made up my mind to go to Cuba and to work there for a substantial period of time. This is hardly a sacrifice on my part; I just feel that I can learn more from the Cuban people and be of greater use to them than I could ever be to the students of Wesleyan University.
This letter is a meagre way of thanking you for your hospitality, and I very much regret that it is all I have to offer in return for three peaceful months. I realize, of course, that my case is, by itself, of no importance or interest to the outside world. However, the questions which it raises do not concern me alone. Let me therefore try to answer them, as best I can, in public.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
January 31, Protected content