My Hometown

Fareed Zakaria and Eric Alterman

My Hometown

Fareed Zakaria and Eric Alterman

My Hometown
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 13 1998 1:16 PM

Fareed Zakaria and Eric Alterman

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Dear Mrs. Kirkpatrick, er, Mr. Zakaria,

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I am tempted to take offense at your latest response. Accusing someone who disagrees with you of "hating" America is, as I hardly need to tell you, the last refuge of scoundrels. Since you are not a scoundrel, my good man, I can only conclude that you are losing an argument on its merits and are reaching for desperate measures.

For the record, there is much about America I love and much I consider misguided, which is only natural, since it is such a big, confusing, contradictory place. There are many Americas, I hasten to add. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."  Just because I do not love the one that produced Dean Acheson--or Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy--for that matter, is hardly sufficient to justify your charges.

Why is it considered patriotic to love missiles and marching bands but not unions and social security? Are John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman, John Dewey, Izzy Stone, Irving Howe, Martin Luther King, John Updike, Philip Roth, Ed Doctorow, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen not Americans? What about Abe Lincoln? My guess is that you would be calling him names back in those days for opposing the Mexican-American war in 1848. Fareed, you have imbibed the drink of American triumphalism so thoroughly, you can sing the song of imperialism and call it altruism. (No wonder you are Slate's wine critic.)

It is you, not I, Fareed, who used the term "war-criminal" to apply to Acheson. (I keep a nasty word like that one in reserve for those who've truly earned it.) Basically, I think Acheson was a brilliant man who did some great things for Europe, but didn't really care about people he didn't think were important. Most of these unimportant people also didn't happen to be white. That's why he was so enamored with South Africa and Rhodesia, something which, apparently, leaves you speechless. That's also why he was perfectly happy to fight the Cold War down to the last Korean and Vietnamese. Perhaps this is the best America could have done in that time and place, given the country's own attitudes; if so, I submit it is you, not I, who are the anti-American.

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I don't see why Acheson could have stuck by the Constitution when the North Koreans attacked South Korea. I don't see why a strategically irrelevant nation--he said so himself--is more important than adhering to the document that had defined this nation's freedom for more than a century and a half. Don't tell me it was about resisting tyranny. The U.S. was, under Acheson and afterward, extremely comfortable with many varieties of tyranny, just so long as their leaders were not too friendly with the Commies. (Today we are quite comfortable with even the Chinese variety of Communist tyranny, though not, for reasons perhaps you could explain, the Cuban variety.) Even if you grant the importance of Korea, why keep fighting once you have beaten back the aggressors? Why keep killing American and Asian kids in what had then become a (failed) war of conquest? Is it un-American to ask that question?

On Vietnam, your argument is so weak I feel quite generous in putting it out of its misery. Which country, Fareed, refused to keep its word with regard to the 1954 Geneva agreements calling for free elections to unite that nation because, according to our own president, Eisenhower, the other side would win a majority of 80 percent? You say North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam? Come now. North Vietnam never existed. The North/South divisions was undertaken by foreigners for administrative purposes, as Eisenhower also admitted, to prepare for elections that the U.S. would never allow to take place. And if Vietnam was such a noble cause, Fareed, why did the U.S. government feel a need to lie, over and over, to the American people, about its nature and progress? From the moment of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and the Americanization of the war effort, our government was involved in the purposeful deception of the American people in order to prosecute a war it did not even dare declare. Acheson supported that war until at least late 1967. You call that statesmanship? You call that greatness? You call asking the government to tell the truth about its wars to the sons and daughters who must fight them anti-Americanism? For shame, my good man.

I repeat, I would be thrilled to play the game you propose and imagine a world in which the United States, having defeated Hitler and helped to get Europe back on its feet, turned its energies inward towards improving itself, rather than attempting to reorder societies we never understood. I suspect that millions of families who lost their lives to America's misguided hubris would like to have their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers back, too. I, personally, would love to have grown up in a country where no one was attacked for disloyalty because they desired civil rights for black people or the right to organize for workers. I would like to live in a country that invested in education the way it invests in nuclear weapons; one that led the world not in arms sales or violent murder but in reducing infant mortality. I would like to live in a country, in short, that did not tell itself lies about its own virtue and then accuse as anti-American, those who asked uncomfortable questions.

And by the way, have you seen There's Something About Mary? It's a great movie. It may not be Truffaut or Renoir, but it's thoroughly American, and I love it.

Born in the USA,

Eric Alterman

Fareed Zakaria, Slate's wine columnist, is also managing editor of Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor of Newsweek. Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and the author of Who Speaks for America? This week they discuss Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, by James Chace.