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“Death to America” has a message we should hear


The first time I heard crowds chanting “Death to America” was when I was a little kid in the 1950s, and Vice President Nixon was touring South America. (Actually, the chant was “Death to Nixon,” but it was close enough.)

Nixon’s 1958 “goodwill tour” resulted in anything but; he was almost killed by enraged crowds that surrounded his car. Oddly enough, the attacks took place in a country with which America today is again in dispute: Venezuela. The incident brought the two countries close to war; the Navy sent “fleet and Marine units to the region,” and while Nixon was uninjured, his reputation, already none too good, was further damaged. For Americans, it was a wakeup call that our country was not universally beloved, as we had been taught in school and supposed it to be.

“Death to America” in more modern times was resuscitated in the Iran Revolution of 1979, when Iranian students sieged the U.S. embassy and took 52 Americans hostage. Thanks to television, we were treated nightly to the sight and sound of thousands of [mainly] young, irate Iranians, chanting their familiar cry: Death to America!, and burning the U.S. flag. The Iranians have basically never stopped since, and, with Trump’s pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on that country, crowds are again mobilizing and chanting.

It’s shocking for Americans to hear foreigners say bad things about us. We tend to think of the U.S. as a benign country, always trying to do the right thing, helping foreigners when calamities strike, defending them against bad guys, and upholding universal values of peace, democracy and progress. Why would they be so ungrateful? Why wouldn’t everybody see us the way see ourselves?

Over the weekend, a new facet of “Death to America” emerged in Iran. Before, its implication had been “death” to ALL Americans: the people, the institutions, the nation itself. Which is why it was so easy for politicians in both parties to rally the American people against Iran. Presidents, Democratic and Republican, portrayed it as an existential threat, although Republicans have typically more bellicose (remember George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”?).

But what’s noteworthy about the weekend’s round of chanting was that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took the time to explain that it wasn’t America as a whole he wanted death for. “It means death to American leaders, who happen to be these people at this time,” he said, “these people” specifically being Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.

This is an important clarification from the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is signaling that his issue is not with America or the American people, but with three individuals who—let’s face it—are as unpopular with the American public as they are in Iran. The loathing of Trump by a majority of Americans is obvious and mounting. Pompeo is relatively unknown to the population beyond his being the current Secretary of State, but knowledgeable people understand that he’s the kind of neocon who led us into the catastrophe of the Iraq War, and a white nationalist who eggs on Trump’s worst instincts. As for Bolton, he’s an utter fool, described by the New York Times as “likely to lead the country into war.”

Well, some say, that’s the “fake news” leftwing New York Times. But even as firm a conservative bastion as the wonks at Foreign Policy magazine call Bolton a “national security threat.” His is a name Americans ought to be more aware of, and afraid of.

America has a long history of meddling in the affairs of other counties. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, sternly warned the American people to steer clear of foreign entanglements, the sole exception being if we were attacked. Referring to “the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” Washington described “foreign influence,” by which he meant political involvement, as “one of the most baneful foes of republican [i.e. small “r”] government”; and in words that ring down through the centuries, he warned his successors: “Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.”

Our first President did not mean that America should wall herself off from the rest of the world and turn isolationist. He valued “commercial relations” with other countries, but “with…as little political connection as possible.” Trade is good; political engagements are bad. “Here let us stop.”

Yet America did not stop. Iran, Argentina, Cuba, Egypt, Guatamala, Congo, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Grenada, Venezuela, and who knows how many others—all are countries in which the U.S. sponsored coups d’état, or otherwise sought to undermine.

The U.S. is hardly the only major power with a long record of overseas meddling. But no country has outdone America in this respect. Other countries, rightfully, resent us for it. When they say we are trying to impose our values upon them, they have it exactly right. Not all of our cultural values—commercialism, consumerism, anti-intellectualism, disregard for the environment, widespread criminality, horrendous wealth inequality, disrespect for the aged, homophobia, religious interference in government—are admirable. And not all of the values of foreign nations are odious, as American xenophobes tend to claim.

To heed Khomenei’s words is neither to support his regime nor to hate America. It is instead to rein in our meddling in other countries that pose little or no threat to us, and to diagnose our own ills which foreign countries do not wish to import.

  1. Unfortunately your story has a very weak basis in fact. This is NOT a “new facet”, rather a reiteration of official doctrine. The same pronouncement was made during the Obama administration:

    In 1979, “Death to America” was often accompanied by “Death to Carter.”

    However distasteful the current administration, you should understand that the Iranian leader’s words are meant only to sow further division, not act as a global warning. And you fell for it.

  2. My major point was to encourage Americans to think about the bad aspects of our culture (some of which I enumerated), and to understand that many nations do not want these negative things to infect their own cultures. But then, this would necessitate serious soul-searching, which is something that Americans–and particularly Republicans–are loathe to do.

  3. I wouldn’t worry about all this. The British empire in my opinion outdid the evil package of both the USA and the URSS/Russia (nowadays) when it comes to meddling, interfering, ruling, killing the dictator of the hour, putting another dictator in charge, killing the dictator and replacing him with “democracy”, etc and they (the UK) turned out just fine with a (much) brighter future now after the brexit.

  4. Dear Carlos, I hadn’t thought about that! I suppose a lot of it comes down to how we feel about America’s future: optimistic or pessimistic. I can’t help but be an optimist, despite the damage trump is doing to our institutions. Thanks for your comment.

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