“There is something in the American soul that wants to believe that it is facing disaster, that it has failed, that some corruption deep in its being will steal its success. I suspect that this has something to do with the familial recollections of immigrants.”
So says political analyst George Friedman in an April 16, 2016, “Geopolitical Futures” article entitled, “Journey to Europe: Thinking About Gagarin.”
America is a nation of immigrants. People who came here left their native lands in great part because they had failed. They were also optimists, believing they could make their lives better by risking everything to migrate to a new continent. In large part this nation of immigrants succeeded in their dreams, but we also retained a deep sense of inferiority, a feeling that disaster is just around the corner.
According to Friedman, Marxism beguiled European intellectuals at the end of World War II. They saw America’s bipolar tendencies as we emerged from the ashes of war as one of two great superpowers. Many despised America because they viewed us as unworthy to take the mantel of power from Europe. We, the “ugly Americans,” were too crass and vulgar to rule.
We took this scorn to heart and magnified it a hundred times. In 1957, the Soviets sent up the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, and launched Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, the first human to accomplish this feat. During this time our rockets were exploding on the launch pads or in mid-flight.
Americans searched for a scapegoat and, since we are a meritocracy, we blamed education for our failures. The Soviets must have a better education system, we reasoned. That’s why the Commies were beating us. Teachers and the American education system were blamed for the way we lagged behind the Soviets.
Massive transformations were enacted to change the way our children were taught. I know, I was a student during this time and remember the attempt to make us smarter by giving us “new math” – college-level courses with doctorate level terminology forced upon 14-year-olds.
“There was a massive transformation of education, which naturally changed nothing,” according to Friedman. Those were my sentiments at the time that I still hold.
President Dwight Eisenhower, being a World War II general, understood the real capacities of the Soviet military and was not frightened. Eisenhower saw the world through the eyes of a realist. He did not understand America’s inferiority complex.
For all his faults, President John Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower, understood.
“The United States had a fragile ego, and the Soviets had bruised it.” Kennedy knew that he must help America restore her self-confidence. He set the goal of going to the moon within the decade of the 1960s. Kennedy’s speech galvanized the nation to action, as the attack on Pearl Harbor did on Dec. 7, 1941.
Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in mid-1969, yet at the same time we were fighting and losing the war in Vietnam – our next failure and the renewal of our foreboding sense that we were in decline. The great accomplishment of going to the moon was overshadowed by our deepening sense of inadequacy over Vietnam.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and, with it, Marxist dogma. We emerged as the only superpower. We succeeded again, but the self-doubts remained.
We, in this current presidential election year, are feeling our historic self-doubt. That’s why some rally around the slogan, “Make America great again.” This is just a replay of our bipolar tendency to arrogance on one hand and self-doubt on the other. We listen because it is a part of our makeup and immigrant heritage. We Americans have fragile egos.
Hopefully, the majority of us can see reality through our national mood swings. The current fear and rejection of immigrants, which some advocate, is really a repeat of our own immigrant past with its dark self-doubts and overbright optimism.