This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
The empire ends with a pullout. Not, as many supposed a few years ago, from Iraq. There, as well as in Afghanistan, we are mulishly staying the course, come what may, trapped in the biggest of all the “too-big-to-fail” boondoggles. But from Detroit.
Of course, the real evacuation of the Motor City began decades ago, when Ford, General Motors and Chrysler started to move more and more of their operations out of the downtown area to harder to unionize rural areas and suburbs and, finally, overseas. Even as the economy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, fifty Detroit residents were already packing up and leaving their city every day. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Detroit could count tens of thousands of empty lots and over 15,000 abandoned homes. Stunning Beaux Arts and modernist buildings were left deserted to return to nature, their floors and roofs covered by switchgrass. They now serve as little more than ornate birdhouses.
In mythological terms, however, Detroit remains the ancestral birthplace of storied American capitalism. And looking back in the years to come, the sudden disintegration of the Big Three this year will surely be seen as a blow to American power comparable to the end of the Raj, Britain’s loss of India, that jewel in the imperial crown, in 1948. Forget the possession of a colony or the bomb, in the second half of the twentieth century, the real marker of a world power was the ability to make a precision V-8.
There have been dissections aplenty of what went wrong with the US auto industry, as well as fond reminiscences about Detroit’s salad days, about outsized tailfins and double-barrel carburetors. Last year, the iconic Clint Eastwood even put the iconic white auto worker to rest in his movie Gran Torino. Few of these post-mortems have conveyed, however, just how crucial Detroit was to US foreign policy–not just as the anchor of America’s high-tech, high-profit export economy, but as a confirmation of our sense of ourselves as the world’s premier power (although in linking Detroit’s demise to the blowback from President Nixon’s illegal war in Laos, Eastwood at least came closer than most).
Detroit not only supplied a continual stream of symbols of America’s cultural power but offered the organizational know-how necessary to run a vast industrial enterprise like a car company–or an empire. Pundits love to quote GM President “Engine” Charlie Wilson, who once famously said that he thought what was good for America “was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” It’s rarely noted, however, that Wilson made his remark at his Senate confirmation hearings to be Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of defense. At the Pentagon, Wilson would impose GM’s corporate bureaucratic model on the armed forces, modernizing them to fight the cold war.