In The Best and The Brightest, David Halberstam tells the story of a lunch between two Kennedy administration officials and the sociologist David Riesman in 1961. The Kennedy men boasted that their administration was both escalating and regulating the cold war. They were getting tough on communist movements in places like Vietnam while nonetheless managing conflicts so they did not spiral out of control. The phrase they kept using was “limited war.”
As the lunch wore on, Riesman grew increasingly agitated. Finally, he asked the officials an odd question: Had they ever been to Utah? For Riesman, Utah was a metaphor for America as it actually was, a country that seethed with “tensions and angers just below the surface,” which was covered by “a thin fabric… so easy to rend.” He considered the Kennedy men frighteningly naïve about what an escalating cold war might unleash inside the United States.
Riesman realized something fundamental: That when America makes another country its enemy, it usually makes enemies of some group of Americans as well. During World War I, the Governor of Iowa outlawed speaking German in public. Some towns banned the playing of Beethoven and Brahms. In his book, Over Here: The First World War and American Society, the historian David M. Kennedy tells the story of Robert Prager, a young German American in St. Louis in 1918 who was stripped naked, tied up with an American flag and then lynched in front of a mob of 500 people. At trial, the lawyer representing the ringleaders called it “patriotic murder,” and a jury took only twenty-five minutes to acquit.
During World War II, the primary American victims were Japanese. An official of the American Legion warned a House of Representatives Committee that unless the US impounded Japanese-American fishing boats they might aid the Japanese navy. A former FBI agent accused Japanese-American farmers of spraying crops with arsenic to poison white Americans. In its 1943 decision upholding a special curfew on Japanese-Americans, the Supreme Court noted that “large numbers of children of Japanese parentage are sent to Japanese language schools” that “are generally believed to be sources of Japanese nationalistic propaganda, cultivating allegiance to Japan.” And, of course, 127,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps.
Even when geopolitical conflicts don’t degenerate into war, they can still spark a hunt for enemies within. During the red scare of the 1950s, hundreds of New York City schoolteachers were forced from their jobs for their alleged communist ties. In 1982, amidst growing fears that Japan was outcompeting the United States, two white autoworkers in Detroit beat a Chinese-American named Vincent Chen to death because they thought he was Japanese. The “war on terror” sparked a surge in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism and violence that has still not fully subsided even as the number of US troops deployed to majority-Muslim countries has declined. It’s still common to hear Republican politicians like Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel (you can look him up in the dictionary under the heading “shanda”) declare last week that the US was built on “Judeo-Christian values” and not “radical Muslim values.”
All of which brings us to the current, horrifying, surge in violence against Asian Americans. While it’s difficult to ascertain the motive for every attack, it is no coincidence that violence is rising at the same time that, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who consider China our “greatest enemy” has doubled over the last year.
Obviously, Donald Trump bears some of the blame. By using language like “Kung Flu,” he linked COVID not just to the Chinese government but to Chinese people. Other prominent Republicans continue to suggest that Chinese civilization itself constitutes a threat. Last December, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted that, “China has a 5,000-year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change.” Depressingly, she has not been censured by her colleagues.
But avoiding this blatant racism isn’t enough. While politicians should, of course, distinguish between the Chinese government and Chinese people, it’s worth remembering that George W. Bush tried, at least rhetorically, to distinguish groups like Al Qaeda from American Muslims. Six days after 9/11, he even visited a mosque. However, by hyping the danger of jihadist terror—and linking it to regimes like Iraq’s, which posed no threat to the US—he fomented panic, which took a terrible toll on American Muslims (and those perceived as Muslim) nonetheless.
The lesson for today is that if America’s leaders are serious about combatting anti-Asian violence, they must do more than condemn it. They must stop exaggerating the danger that the Chinese government poses. Reasonable people can disagree about how the US should respond to China’s rise. But when Marco Rubio claims that China poses an “existential” threat to the US or Representative Rob Wittman says “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States” or Mike Pompeo alleges that Beijing is seeking to “brainwash our people” they’re not just making hawkish arguments. They’re sowing paranoia.
When government’s grow paranoid, they hurt people. In recent years, the FBI has recklessly targeted Chinese and Chinese-American academics, often merely for failing to adequately disclose collaborations with Chinese institutions that their American employers once promoted. In 2019, the President of MIT reported that, “Faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”
When ordinary Americans grow paranoid, some of them lash out at the targets of their fear. As the historian Russell Jeung recently told the Washington Post, “When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who look Chinese.”
There’s nothing wrong with American politicians worrying about China’s economic and military ambitions. There’s nothing wrong with American politicians noting that China sometimes bullies its neighbors. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with American politicians speaking up for people in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and other places who are suffering terribly under Beijing’s brutal rule. But if American politicians talk only about China’s power and belligerence without also reminding Americans that Beijing’s military budget is a fraction of America’s, that China has good relations with major democracies, and that China has waged far fewer wars in recent decades than has the United States, they will be contributing to the kind of hysterical fear that over the last century has victimized vulnerable Americans again and again.
What worried David Riesman wasn’t that his lunchmates from the Kennedy administration didn’t understand Vietnam. It was they didn’t understand America. Let’s hope their successors do.
No Newsletter Next Week
We will be holding a special Zoom call this Friday, at our normal time, Noon EST, for paid subscribers. Our guest will be the immensely knowledgeable Israeli commentator and political consultant Dahlia Scheindlin. I can’t think of anyone better to analyze the Israeli elections two days after they conclude.
There will be no newsletter next Monday on account of the Passover holiday.
For more on anti-China rhetoric and the impact on Asian Americans, read Jessica J. Lee at Responsible Statecraft.
On Tuesday, March 23, I’m speaking (via Zoom, of course) at Virginia Commonwealth University about Israel, the Biden administration and American Jews.
Later that afternoon, my Jewish Currents colleagues Josh Leifer, Elisheva Goldberg and I are hosting a live conversation about the Israeli elections with a number of Israeli and Palestinian commentators. (Yes, you should subscribe to Currents).
On March 31, I’ll be talking with the journalist Said Arikat about equality in Israel-Palestine at the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development.
Later that afternoon, I’ll be discussing the Iran nuclear deal with Trita Parsi, Barbara Slavin, and Kelsey Davenport.
Other than that, I’ll be doing a lot of reclining.
See you Friday,