Is Perry Anderson’s revisionist history of the Cold War credible?by David Allen / December 11, 2013 / Leave a comment
In the latest issue of the New Left Review, Perry Anderson has written 60,000 words on the topic of world domination. Of course, “world domination” sounds a bit passé nowadays, a bit cartoonish. Anderson instead casts the United States as a “planetary power” that has secured and spread capitalism across the globe. Its success, he suggests, is already beginning to haunt it.
As a leader of Marxist New Left, Anderson’s focus is unsurprisingly on capital. For him, the thousands of historians who have dug through archives only to write histories of American foreign policy that focus on politics, ideology, and external threat have missed the point. Instead, he thinks we should have been investigating how the United States has furthered the interests of capital. Where many historians have seen the United States acting defensively, Anderson sees a “grand strategy” concocted by America’s elite to build an empire that would make the word safe for free markets.
Anderson’s story goes as follows. Before Woodrow Wilson became president, the United States increased its influence across the Pacific and south into Latin America through its businessmen. Although they were supported by the State Department’s policy of the Open Door (the negotiation of free trade rights which the United States could exploit), bankers and industrialists mostly led this expansion on their own initiative. But Wilson, Anderson writes, provoked a “convulsive turn,” fusing “religion, capitalism, democracy, peace and the might of the United States” into an ideology of empire to justify entry into the First World War, and afterwards to lead the world.
Wilson’s plans for the League of Nations were rejected and in the 1920s Americans returned to their pre-war ways. After the Depression brought home the perils of international financial markets, Pearl Harbor offered Franklin Roosevelt a chance to turn this traditional expansion from below into an empire of command, securing by military might. His planners, writes Anderson, had two aims: “the world must be made safe for capitalism at large; and within the world of capitalism, the United States should reign supreme.”