I first visited the U.S. when I was a young student. Curious about the country while having nothing much to do in Europe during the summer of 1974, I applied for the ICCP (International Camp Counselor Program). They were looking for foreign students who would be able to work with American kids in summer day camps, “providing leadership and delivering programs.” But it was also about giving young Americans a taste of a foreign culture. So I got the job in spite of my scarce outdoor skills and got an American visa only because I was not a member of the Communist Party.
Slovenia was part of socialist Yugoslavia back then, and both my parents fought the Germans during WWII. For them, to join the cause of building the new country after they fought the Germans was something natural–a logical choice. So it was for the majority of my parents’ generation. Party membership, on the other hand, had very little significance to the generations born after the war. For us, the Party was a kind of camouflage, a dress code of sorts, as obligatory as the Catholic Church’s request to cover our bodies before entering their shrines and, to our young minds, as not profound.
But both Church and the Party, in the time of my youth, would not bother you as long you did not get close to their property, so I was stunned when I realized, during my interview at the U.S. General Consulate, that the State Department cared more about the party ideology than my generation did, since they banned every Communist Party member from entering the U.S. Did I ask the official who interviewed me why this was so important? I cannot remember, but doubt it, because I just wanted to see the U.S. and have a good time.
And a good time it was! I arrived first in New York then worked as a counselor in Minneapolis for a couple of months, ending the trip by driving along the East Coast down to Key West, Florida just because I remembered Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall against the backdrop of Key Largo. America was full of encounters and adventures, a wonderful place to play and to enjoy. Besides, coming from Yugoslavia made me exotic, everyone considered me a new, socialist man emerging from behind the iron curtain. It was because I was an uncommon person to come across that while working in Minneapolis, I got interviewed a few times. I was asked questions about daily life in Yugoslavia and I remember trying to clarify some of the stereotypes white America had about white Europe. But I never got in trouble or was treated badly because I was from the communist world. Just a few times, I remember, I was reminded that we Europeans would all be little Hitlers if there had not been America, who came to save us.
That was a point on which I felt proud of my parents, while I tried to explain to my hosts that during the war there were many people and movements that fought heroically against the Nazis and Fascists, a fact, it seemed to me, equally if not more important than the brave conduct of the American army that helped to end the war in Europe. Those conversations did not lead to deeper discussions touching on unresolved historical issues from the period of colonialism and the aftermath of WWI, both the cause of the greatest global conflict to date, WWII, again started on European soil. I remember that those early American encounters were rather short cultural exchanges with the people I met in the area of Minneapolis, including the families I was staying with who belonged to a middle class that mostly disintegrated with the arrival of the new economy.
I also did meet quite a few down to earth folks of the kind that, I believe, still exists. Like the police chief in Savannah, Georgia, whom I met because he helped me find my lost passport. Or a totally bizarre and fairytale experience with the community members of Life Lab, of the University of Miami, who hosted me in their villa where they were researching the impact of psychedelic mushrooms on social interactions. I foggily recall conversations about the possibility of transforming Carlos Castaneda writings into a way of life as we visited other psychedelic communities on the outskirts of Miami. It was nuts. But for me, America was the country that was open to any possibility, an answer to the impossible of the old and culturally much more monolithic, dense Europe. It was America in the seventies, and we young Europeans felt like it was ours.
Living now in a completely different America for quite a few years, I too, like some fellow Americans, am trying to comprehend what is going on in this country. And as I looked back to the past, I became aware that the openness and frivolousness of the American way of life in the seventies were possible because of the strong and robust hardware that, in Marxist literature, was called economic infrastructure of the postwar U.S. As we can read in EH.net:
At a macroeconomic scale, the war not only decisively ended the Great Depression, but created the conditions for productive postwar collaboration between the federal government, private enterprise, and organized labor, the parties whose tripartite collaboration helped engender continued economic growth after the war. The U.S. emerged from the war not physically unscathed, but economically strengthened by wartime industrial expansion, which placed the United States at absolute and relative advantage over both its allies and its enemies.
Possessed of an economy which was larger and richer than any other in the world, American leaders were determined to make the United States the center of the postwar world economy. American aid to Europe ($13 billion via the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) or “Marshall Plan,” 1947-1951) and Japan ($1.8 billion, 1946-1952) furthered this goal by tying the economic reconstruction of West Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan to American import and export needs, among other factors. Even before the war ended, the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 determined key aspects of international economic affairs by establishing standards for currency convertibility and creating institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the precursor of the World Bank.
In brief, as economic historian Alan Milward writes, “the United States emerged in 1945 in an incomparably stronger position economically than in 1941″… By 1945 the foundations of the United States’ economic domination over the next quarter of a century had been secured”… [This] may have been the most influential consequence of the Second World War for the post-war world.”
In the aftermath of the Second World War, America was giving away all that money via the Marshall plan not only to reconstruct what was bombed but also to build new markets. In the eyes of the Europeans, America in the late 40’s and 50’s was the rich and generous Uncle Sam. We were not little Hitlers but America’s “cugini poveri,” as the Italians liked to say. But time has, somewhat, minimized these post-war disparities, and things are much different now. Although the U.S. remains the strongest economy in the world (though China is growing fast), Europe, with a population of more than 500 million and a combined economy of roughly $16 trillion, is the giant to watch. There is no doubt that a strong Europe could be a thorn in the flesh of many. Nobody demonstrates this better than the 45th president of the U.S. and his all-but-comrade Vladimir Putin. Today, 70 years after the Marshall plan that made America richer and Europe a safer place, the relationship between America and Europe has never been so disconnected, has never been so low.
After the insanity provoked by President Trump during his European tour, the calm and thoughtful German Chancellor Angela Merkel had enough. She was blunt and said that Europe can no longer rely on the United States and that is time to take its fate into its own hands. After President Trump announced the U.S. was quitting the Paris climate change accord, things are not improving. As it looks now, Europe might start to speak the language of Kant and Hegel again.
Not only. Besides showing his capacity as a formidable arm wrestler, the new French president Emmanuel Macron is, as the BBC described him, becoming a major Trump adversary in the international ring. The former axis between France and Germany (at the time of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl) that made Europe strong seems to be seeing a revival. Accidentally, even against his will, President Donald Trump has become a unifier of Europe. This, a topic spotted even in the American media that is, understandably, completely taken by the scandals created by their president, whose tendency is to “deconstruct” the already fragile structures upholding our increasingly globalized societies in favor of promoting cooperative human society. This must be the biggest difference between the America I first encountered and the one in which I now live.
When I first came to the U.S., I spent only a day in Washington D.C. It was a few weeks after President Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, his criminal corruption exposed. Now, I have been living in D.C. for the last nine months. Washington is a very livable city despite the White House’s ability to dictate the pulse of the place. It is the presence of overwhelming political power that sharpens people’s minds and their capacity to reflect on the systems by which they live. Today, almost every conversation in D.C. starts and ends with Donald Trump. It is never just a gossip. It’s also a concern, an effort to understand the significance of an ever-evolving, unprecedentedly unpredictable democracy. Their democracy, the one that elected the president. Above all, there’s an awareness that we are living in crucial times, unchartered territory.
Again, as in 1974, America is afraid that its country will plummet. And of course, it is not because of the Communists, Mexicans or Arabs. Nixon and Watergate were an American issue and Trump, too, appears to be a uniquely American problem with a strong possibility of international overspill. Similar to the way the conflict between Shias and Sunnis, inherent to the Muslim world, got internationalized and geo-politicized, the worldwide significance of the domestic issues in the Trumpian White House tick like a time bomb. This country, as during Watergate, is inching closer to the moment that this president will be forced to respond to many questions he is now, ignorantly rather than arrogantly, avoiding. The way I see it, this president’s only possibility of keeping himself in power is by some kind of overspill of a world conflict so desperate that the commander in chief can’t be replaced. This is not only mine but the fear of many.