Listener Call 2

The hosts take another call from a listener, asking about anti-Americanism and its relationship to US interventions overseas.

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PETER: We’ve got time for one more call today. Julia is on the line from Alexandria, Virginia. Julia, what have you got for us?

JULIA: I have a question regarding, was their time or is there an example where a not-friend– a country or a group of people that was hostile to the United States, maybe not an enemy– but their attitudes were transformed by a humanitarian invention, an intervention on our part so that opened up sort of doors or an avenue for the relation to become one of more understanding, or maybe more cooperation, or at least slightly less cold?

ED: Maybe this is just a warm memory from my dimly remembered childhood, but it would seem to me that actually the Marshall Plan, and the support for Germany with the airdrops and things like that might have converted a once bitter enemy into people who were pretty much on the American side. And I’m thinking of Germany. And the same thing is true of Japan, as well.

PETER: hosts, I would suggest that the transformation of attitudes really begins on the ground up, and it has more to do with American commerce and influence and the example of America. Often among the people in the 19th century, ordinary folk would look to America as a great land of opportunity. But in the 20th century, things like Coca Cola– American products, American movies, what we might call in the broader sense soft diplomacy, or unintentional diplomacy.

BRIAN: Soft drinks. Soft drink diplomacy, Peter.

PETER: Yeah, something like that has transformed attitudes. I think it’s very hard to neatly extricate something like an intended diplomatic initiative or humanitarian initiative, and to establish that it had any influence at all. I think it’s much too complicated to make those distinctions.

ED: I want to build on Peter’s excellent point about rock and roll diplomacy or Coca Cola diplomacy, because in the absence of that in the 19th century, I cannot think of any instance in which our putative efforts at humanitarian aid were not seen by either the recipients as transparent power grabs. I’m thinking about with American Indians, I’m thinking about with Mexico, I’m thinking about Latin America, I’m thinking about the Philippines. And in each of those things, almost never did people go, hey, thanks so much for sending us the blankets, or trying to import your institutions. And it suggests to me that until we have the soft diplomacy of mass culture and mass communication, that we’re not as effective.

BRIAN: Yeah, and I would just second your point by saying we did have something going for us in the 19th century, and that was that we were not a strong, governmental, colonial power. And to the extent people liked the United States outside of America, it was precisely because we were not the kind of visible, state-driven, colonial grasping power that so many European powers were. Julia, is something happening with your phone?

JULIA: No, it was a humanitarian intervention to my dog. [LAUGHTER] Otherwise, he’d start barking.

ED: All right.

PETER: Well, this crosses species now. We live in a humane society.

JULIA: Right, exactly. We provided him with food. But

ED: kidding around aside, I think that Peter and Brian are saying something important, is that people have liked Americans more than they’ve liked America.

JULIA: Do you think– in a lot of our humanitarian interventions, at least now, like when you look at going into Haiti– at least initially– or what happened after the tsunami, the Christmas tsunami, our military is really the force that logistically and, in a sense, physically has the resources to be able to come in and deal with that chaotic situation on the ground. Do you think that changes attitudes towards the American military, and therefore perhaps towards us as a country?

ED: That’s a great question, Julia. And I think that– I noticed this just the other day– that the latest ads for the United States military begin with great martial images of guys strapping on bulletproof vests and helmets and all this, and getting on the helicopters. And then when they’re on the ground, they’re carrying aid packages. They’re carrying boxes of food.

And I think that captures something important. The fact that our military can come in and do these very positive things just reminds people how quickly they could come in and do something else if they wanted to. It’s sort of a testimony to the omnipotence, really, of the American military.

So I think it comes both ways. People dressed in uniform– we all remember the pictures of our soldiers with children in Iraq and so forth. And you can see them doing kind things, but you can’t help but notice that we’re dressed for war. So it’s an interesting kind of tension there. So what it points to me is, what an awesome question, Julia.

BRIAN: Yeah. And I want to know where the question comes from, Julia. What is your stake in all of this?

JULIA: My stake in all of this is I’m a veteran. My husband is still active duty. In fact, he’s in Baghdad right now. So these issues surrounding how the military gets used are issues that are personal in a lot of ways, because it personally impacts me and my family. After 9/11, I had left the military by that time. I was no longer on active duty or in the reserves.

But this whole question of anti-Americanism was something that I was actually– I was struggling with it, sort of struggling with– I’d been an exchange student. I had traveled and lived in different places. And I really wanted to understand it.

BRIAN: Julia, could you share with us some first-hand experience about efforts at acts of kindness or humanitarian initiatives while on the ground, and the reaction to them?

JULIA: There was something. There’s a group called the Spirit of America. And it started out of– well, the inspiration was a sergeant in Afghanistan– he was a Special Forces guy– and he sent home to his wife, I need you send me some soccer balls and baseball mitts. And in this village that was near where his unit was, he taught the kids how to play baseball and how to play soccer.

And what he found was that the village started protecting the military from terrorist attacks. And that sparked this group called Spirit of America. And what they were doing was raising money so that these soldiers weren’t having to really fund it on their own, because like you said, it was an individual effort. It wasn’t an official policy.

Someone said, hey, we can provide school supplies, or we could provide soccer balls or sewing machines, and in a sense, it’ll make our lives easier as soldiers. But it also created these bonds between the two communities that were positive bonds.

PETER: And that was a bottom-up, people-to-people stuff. And I think that’s really crucial. It gets back to Ed’s point about America, sometimes when it represents sheer power and force. Of course, it’s going to generate hostile reaction.

Americans can relate differently, and I think that’s been the genius of the Peace Corps and other forms of soft diplomacy and intervention that kind of liberate the human possibilities of engagement. Well, Julia, you’ve really intervened in a very positive and constructive and inhumane way. And it was great to have your dog on the show. And great talking with you. Thanks for calling.

JULIA: OK, bye-bye.


BRIAN: And that is all the time we’ve got for today. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s show. You can post a comment at We’ve posted a ton of background reading about the history of humanitarianism there. You can also find links to our past shows, and subscribe to our free podcast.

PETER: Again, that’s We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nina Earnest, Jess Engebretson, Andrew Parsons, and Tony Field. Emily Charnock is our researcher and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities.