Brunswick, Me.



Brunswick, Me.

Robert Jay Lifton, in “American Apocalypse” [Dec. 22], brilliantly articulates the psychic and political errors of our current policies–that omnipotence creates insecurity and that military occupation breeds precisely the terrorism it is meant to extirpate. In a Sophoclean or Shakespearean drama such hubris would bring disaster, as it may yet in the less tidy space of history. Is there not, though, a benefit? Our military overcommitment may force us to accept a diplomatic solution to the issue of North Korean nuclear arms, which we could have had two years ago had Bush not needed another rogue nation to fill out his “axis of evil.” Furthermore, the misadventure in Iraq may cause future leaders to hesitate in the face of “military solutions,” as did the debacle in Vietnam until recently. On the other hand, our overreaching this time will be more difficult to resolve than it was in Vietnam. There, at least, we always had someone with whom to negotiate “peace with honor.”


Vershire, Vt.

Like so many others, Robert Jay Lifton describes the “superpower syndrome” in most of its aspects but neglects to mention the economic advantages of a permanent war economy. Without the riches obtained from the cold war and now the “war on terror,” would there be need for an American Apocalypse? The fact that the Carlyle Group chose to concentrate its funds in defense companies and the revolving door between the Pentagon and the arms industry surely is an indicator of the reason for keeping the American people in a continuous state of fear. Until profit is taken out of war, we will never have a world at peace.


Poughkeepsie, NY

Robert Jay Lifton compares the “fanaticism” of the “Islamist zealots” with the “superpower syndrome” of the US “infinite war fever” leadership. “Superpower syndrome” is essentially a psychological interpretation, thus missing the political element: The drive to endless war and the use of military power to intimidate other nations while developing superpatriotism and loss of liberties at home–incarcerating people without charge or defense and creating an imaginary enemy, scapegoat and object of derision in Islam, as Hitler did the Jewish people–are all elements of fascism.



Robert Jay Lifton makes it sound as though George W. Bush’s foreign policy of an imperial America based on unilateral decisions and the abrogation of treaties that don’t suit him is an aberration. It is not. It is the continuation of a foreign policy started by Thomas Jefferson when he made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and that reached its peak in the 1840s during the Mexican War. This policy, Manifest Destiny, was endorsed by most of the clergy, who claimed that it was God’s will for the United States to spread Christianity; the business community, who wanted more sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured products; the Southern states, which wanted more slave states; and American jingoists. And the westward movement did not stop at the shores of California. But in those days weapons that could destroy civilization and the human species did not exist. Unfortunately, that is not true today, and our President either does not understand or does not care. He is trying to continue Manifest Destiny.

Zachary Winograd

North Haven, Conn.

Hats off for publishing commentaries that approach the sobering notion of American parallels with fascism. Many Americans see themselves as a superior “folk,” with character that transcends others’, a “manifest destiny” and a claim to special privileges. I am suspicious of Lifton’s phrase that “we can do better” using “our considerable power and influence in the world.” Perhaps there is in this another sobering notion: that the world does not need us. It does not need “our” arrogance, it does not need “our” power, it does not need “our” leadership, and the quicker we are able to confront all the fascist myths of “divine nationhood” the quicker we will be able to fight the growing menace of empire.



Cambridge, Mass.

Many Americans disapprove of the Bush Administration’s belligerent policies, but few are aware of its extremism, its totalism. I used the medical metaphor “superpower syndrome” as the title of my book to suggest that these extreme policies are psychologically of a piece: part of an overall constellation that includes a sense of omnipotence and aspiration toward what I call “fluid world control.” The approach is essentially psychological (or “psychohistorical”), as Arthur Pierson states, but is meant to shed light on political and military behavior and on the motivations behind that behavior. I believe that we need such an approach if we are to grasp the larger significance and radical threat posed by these policies. To invoke the term fascism can be tempting but does not capture the complexities of the American “syndrome.”

Valerie Mullen is right to stress the importance of corporate economic gain. It is precisely the ideology of world control that renders the war on terrorism and its economic arrangements “permanent.”

I also agree with Zachary Winograd’s observation that Bush Administration policies connect with prior US imperial impulses combining visionary ideology, economic interest and claim to divine purpose. But we underestimate our problem if we fail to recognize its new and special features. These have to do with an all-encompassing ideology and technology joined in an active project to remake the world. Bush has suggested the apocalyptic dimensions of that project in his repeated emphasis on eliminating evil, and its necessary military dominance was made clear in the National Security Strategy of September 2002. Nor have previous administrations had access to the kind of international communications technology that can encourage visions of world control. Added to this contemporary mix is the very real existence of globalized Islamist terrorism, which serves as a prod to American excess in an endless dynamic of mutual killing and apocalyptic danger. Overall, then, this Administration is indeed an aberration.

H.R. Coursen suggests that the consequences of our hubris might lead to some benefit, that military overcommitment could force us to engage in diplomacy and discourage future leaders from embarking on new “military solutions.” I would add that even our present leaders are capable of moments of pragmatism, of responding to realities that resist fantasies of world domination. But the pragmatism can be temporary and strategic. Consider the President’s stress in his State of the Union speech on diplomacy backed by “credibility,” meaning willingness to carry out threats to invade and force regime change. (The word has a special ring to veterans of the antinuclear movement, who well remember the principle of “deterrence with credibility,” meaning willingness under certain circumstances to blow up the world.)

Coursen is pointing to the vulnerability of the ostensibly omnipotent superpower, but he and the other letter-writers are undoubtedly aware of the intense political work that is necessary to remove from office those who so actively promote the superpower syndrome. Doing so requires calling forth alternative American traditions, which is what I mean when I say that “we can do better.” I understand C.W. Brown’s discomfort with the “we” in that statement or the equivalent “our,” given the frequency with which these identity pronouns are associated with US arrogance and even fascist-like myths of divine nationhood. The difficulty is that, whatever our opposition to its policies, he and I remain citizens of a particular nation-state that, even under the most restrained leadership, would “possess considerable power and influence in the world.” But if a wiser course is to be taken, the “we” must also mean we human beings, and the “our” must refer to our shared planet and universe.



Arthur Miller’s January 12/19 “A Visit With Castro” seemed to be a Rorschach blot onto which scores of readers projected their views on Castro, Cuba and the Revolution, both positive and negative.

–The Editors

Los Angeles

Heartiest congratulations to Arthur Miller for having grasped that Fidel Castro has overstayed his welcome. Even so, comparing the Cuban leader to Don Quixote, as Miller does, seems rather inconsiderate. When Castro’s regime imprisoned and executed dissidents last April, Harvard scholar Samantha Power observed with breathtaking simplicity that the regime’s actions had been “a criminal decapitation of civil society.” Poor old Quixote, the gracious embodiment of a failed idealism and misguided nobility, really should not be implicated in Castro’s sordid mess.


Santa Rosa, Calif.

I do not share Arthur Miller’s view that poverty in Cuba is solely the result of the US embargo or desertion by the Russians. Even Fidel admits that the regime has made mistakes, most notably in not reducing Cuba’s dependence on Soviet aid or doing more to diversify the economy in forty-five years. Today, the dependence on tourism has created a two-tier society, with those working in tourism having a much higher standard of living than professionals working for the government, an obvious contradiction of socialism.

On the other hand, last year Cuba’s economy grew more than the rest of Latin America’s, and all Cubans have free healthcare and education. When compared with other developing countries, Cuba’s performance over the past forty-five years is remarkable. Unfortunately, this has not included freedom of expression. But Cubans have not experienced the massacres or death squads of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador or Guatemala. When I visit Cuba, I am struck by the spirit of the people, despite the deprivations, and when I return via Mexico, I am shocked by its extremes of wealth and poverty.

I expected more of a condemnation of the repression of writers and artists in Cuba–especially the extreme punishments of Cuban dissidents last year–by Miller, a victim of and fighter against McCarthyism. But I also share his view that the embargo is an anachronism that has not only failed to dislodge Fidel but has helped to rally the people behind him and keep him in power.


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