The USA: First World, Third World, or Western World?

The United States has always been somewhat ambiguous about whether its primary loyalty was to the European Western World or to the Western Hemisphere (i.e., the Americas).  

The Founders thought of themselves as upholding the rights of Englishmen, which they had been denied between 1763 and 1775 as colonists under the ‘enlightened’ Parliamentary despotism.  They also believed they were creating a new kind of state order, free of throne and altar – a Novus Ordo Seclorum, as the slogan on our money declares. [I remember showing an Egyptian once that we had a pyramid on our money, and they didn’t have any pyramids on theirs!]

After 1810, thanks to the Napoleonic wars, the Latin American countries began to savor the idea of becoming independent states, mostly republics.  Brazil, however, split off from the Portuguese colonial ‘empire’ in 1822, giving its ruler the title of Emperor.  But while ‘Portuguese America’ remained united as Brazil, ‘Spanish America’ had fragmented by 1825 into a series of republics based on the old Spanish colonial administrative divisions.  [Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spain until 1898].  The Spanish-American countries mostly tried to copy the presidential model the U.S. had pioneered, but their cultures made these difficult to maintain.  Ever since, they have gone back and forth between crony capitalist democracy and crony capitalist dictatorship, with only brief exceptions.   

To the north of the U.S. lay the bits of ‘British America’ that the United States had been unable to liberate, plus French Canada, which had remained loyal to the Crown because of enlightened British policy.  East and west of French Canada, Anglo-Americans settled – those who had rejected the American Revolution.  This vast area eventually became the nation of Canada, which, while culturally similar [in the English-speaking parts] to the U.S., adopted a British and European type of parliamentary government.   

During the period immediately after 1815 – the year of the final suppression and exile of Napoleon – there was a time of reaction in Europe against republican and democratic ideas.  The Continental heads of state even contemplated the reconquest of America’s upstart republics, for the sake of the Spanish crown.  Meanwhile, Britain and the U.S. enjoyed new trade opportunities caused by the removal of their nations from Iberian restrictions on trade.   

In 1823 British Secretary of State Canning issued the Canning Doctrine, and President Monroe of the United States issued the Monroe Doctrine.  [Monroe issued a separate doctrine because he wanted to aim it at Britain too!]  These both declared that Britain and the United States would not take kindly to any attempt by European nations to recolonize any part of the Americas.  The most immediate result was that Russia agreed to define the eastern border of Alaska, as it is today, and to confine itself to that and its Fort Ross enclave farther south.   

The Canning Doctrine had somewhat more clout than the Monroe Doctrine at first, because the British Navy was by far the larger.  Also, the cultural influence of Britain has always been much stronger than that of the U.S. in the southern part of South America, especially in Argentina.  U.S. meddling in Latin America has mostly been confined to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.   

By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the U.S. had made two brief incursions into Mexico during the Mexican civil wars of that decade, had ruled Puerto Rico, effectively dominated Cuba, occupied Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, and held Panama as a client state.  Richard Armour, in his 1953 satirical history, It All Started With Columbus, declared, “The chief purpose of the Monroe Doctrine was to protect the new republics in South America from Spain.  Shortly afterwards these republics decided they wanted to be protected from the United States.”

Of course, the entry of the U.S. into the Great War was a deep involvement in Europe.  Woodrow Wilson had, many suspect, been itching for it.  It was most popular in the ‘English’ regions of North America; East and South and not so much in the Midwest, where most people were of Continental descent.  Our involvement in the war was short [19 months] but fairly intense, and entailed something of a culture war domestically, against, particularly, the cultures of German descent.  [I wonder if Wilson’s loyalty, and FDR’s after him, was more to the Anglosphere than to the ‘Western World’ in general].  Afterwards the United States pulled back into its continental shell and signed a separate peace with Germany; this, rather than signing on to the Versailles Treaty or joining the new League of Nations.   

Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted the ‘Good Neighbor Policy’, and decided to treat Latin America with respect.  He allowed a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 in order to be able to enter the war on Britain’s side.  [In the Second World War, prejudice was mainly directed against the Japanese; the Americans of German descent were no longer perceived as a threat, and a German-surnamed general named Eisenhower even commanded the Allied liberation of Western Europe in 1944-45.  This was hardly noticed]. 

Roosevelt and Churchill had a difference of opinion about what should happen to the colonial empires after the war.  Churchill hoped the British Empire would be maintained or restored.  Roosevelt’s sympathies tended to lie with colonials in India and elsewhere, who desired independence, since he saw them as following America’s path to liberty.  Roosevelt was dead before the war was over, but under Truman the United States released its largest colony, the Philippines, in 1946.  This, before Britain abandoned its crown jewel, India [including Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh] the following year, and the Dutch let Indonesia go in 1949.   

By this time the Cold War had set in, and many non-Western nations – both new and old – claimed that they wanted no part of it.  The Bandung Conference of 1955 was spearheaded by Yugoslavia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and the soon-to-be independent Ghana.  But the People’s Republic of China – ‘Red China’ as it was called in those days – was represented, along with, and interestingly enough, both Vietnams.  [From 1954 to 1976, there were two Vietnams].  No Latin American nation was represented at the time.   

I know, from my years in elementary and junior high in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that American children were expected to learn the geography, economy, and culture of the Latin American nations before they turned their attention to Europe and Asia.  I can’t speak to earlier or later practices, but it was clear to me that Americans’ first loyalty, at that time, was to be [or so educators thought] to the ‘Western Hemisphere’, then to the ‘Free World’.  [Sometimes, as we later realized, this included friendly anti-Communist dictatorships].   

In 1961 Cuba, now under Castro, became the first Western Hemisphere state to join the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’.  This was not very convincing, as the very next year they allowed the Soviet Union to install nuclear missiles in their country, and Kennedy declared a blockade.  In fact, this was the only time in my childhood we ever did a nuclear bomb drill.  [For you young folks, it was settled by the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba and the United States removing its missiles from Turkey, where we had some at the time]. 

U.S. hawks, for understandable reasons, became rather skeptical about how ‘non-aligned’ this Non-Aligned Movement really was.  In any case, in 1970 Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad-Tobago joined the movement; in 1973 Chile and Peru; in 1976 Belize and Panama; in 1979 Bolivia, Grenada, and Nicaragua; in 1983 St. Lucia, Suriname, Bahamas, Barbados, and Ecuador.  And, since the end of the Cold War, many more countries have continued to join, though it’s not exactly clear what or who it was they’re non-aligned with.   

When I arrived at university in 1967, I found that many of my fellow freshmen had spent the previous ‘gap summer’ backpacking by rail around Europe.  [This was at a time when high school graduates – not including me – were a lot more independent and skilled in life than they are today]. 

The more adventurous travelers, such as surfers, might venture at least into Mexico.  But perhaps the generation of boomers, at least the white ones, figured that Europe was more interesting and safer than Latin America, or for that matter, the United States.  [Trying to go around the United States by rail pass and finding much of anything worth seeing was already laughable by that time].   

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