Without the Cold War, America, too, Lacks Definition

WILLIAM PFAFF

February 13, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- During the 42-odd years of the Cold War, the United States ceased to be the society it was when that era began. When people examine the anxieties and uncertainties provoked among Americans by the Cold War's end, and by the loss of the political certainties that governed American life during four decades, they are inclined to overlook how much has changed that had nothing to do with the Cold War.

The first and fundamental change is very simple. The United States was, in 1945, and remained until the 1960s, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant country it had been since the settlement of the North American colonies in the 17th century.

Quotas and social barriers directed against Jews began to come down immediately after World War II. Hitler had made both the genteel and the crude forms of prewar anti-Semitism and exclusion unsustainable. American Catholics had ceased during the war to be the immigrant working-class population they largely had been before.

Nonetheless, the general norms and values of early postwar American society remained those of the predominantly north European Protestant majority which had dominated the country since the start, providing its elites in both North and South, and making up that yeoman rural population that in most of the country had set the society's character as well as its educational (and patriotic) standards.

In 1960 the first Roman Catholic president, John Kennedy, was elected. He was in every respect except his religion a member of the dominant group

Yet his Catholicism was in the 1960 campaign still considered the most important potential obstacle

His victory, however, ended Protestant domination of the presidency and confirmed Catholics in their conviction that they were unqualifiedly, American.

The 1960s next saw the triumph of the civil-rights movement and a final end to the discriminatory legislation and officially condoned social and educational practices which since the end of slavery had still held Americans of African origin to an invidious and inferior place in American life.

So the United States could no longer be described as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. But what was it? Some called on it to become a ''multicultural'' nation. Yet nations presumably are social entities of some cultural coherence. Each possesses an identity. American legislation in the 1970s favored Asian and Latin American immigration. The melting pot was given a still more complicated mixture.

Moreover, to place pressure upon these new citizens to conform to established American norms was increasingly seen as an unacceptable attack upon the values with which they had arrived. As everyone -- natives and newcomers alike -- watched the same television and ate the same junk-food, it was possible ** to maintain the illusion of a common identity.

Crucially important at exactly this point in the American experience was the war in Vietnam and its aftermath. These produced a powerful repudiation by many young (and not so young) Americans of the governing white, Protestant ''establishment'' held responsible for putting the United States into a war which these people believed unjust and many of them thought criminal. For them, America had become ''Amerika.''

I would argue that immigration and the traumas of Vietnam (and Watergate, etc.) combined to produce in the contemporary United States a loss of certainty about what it is to be an American and, beyond that, a loss of confidence in whether it is a good thing to be an American. If this is true, it is a development of unprecedented significance.

From the very moment of the first explorations America was seen both by its settlers and by observers abroad as a place of signal opportunity and a source of hope. It was held a place where men could find a fulfillment denied them in the Old World of Europe. Contemporary Europeans believed this just as much as those who set out for the new land. America was vast, exotic. Its native people were perceived by Europeans as both marvelous and innocent -- uncorrupted by civilization.

This picture of America as a ''new Eden'' rapidly degenerated, as we all know, ending too often with the treatment of the ''Indians'' of these ''new Indies'' as vermin to be exterminated. The belief in America as land of all promise survived, however, and was decisively reinforced with the foundation of the new United States, the first true democracy, the place where Enlightenment beliefs were given reality.

The idea that the United States is the place where mankind jTC made a new start has been the animating conviction of American national life for more than two centuries. It was the driving force behind the great waves of immigration to the United States.

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