We’re Here Because the US Was There

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I shared my August 2022 essay They Hate US ‘Cause They Ain’t US! with a number of friends and colleagues in the US, including some recent Vietnamese immigrants, with a request that they react to my favorite reader comment:

I seldom write answers to the many great articles I read on these websites. But you inspired me to make an exception.

By sheer coincidence, you published your article on the 62nd anniversary of the day I became a citizen of the USA. I’ve witnessed pretty much what you have described in your essay. I’ve seen the decline of the country from 1955 to 2022, a decline so severe I would not have imagined possible when I was a teenager about to enter high school.

My family immigrated from Switzerland because my father was an unhappy laborer there.  He believed in the dream of America, the ‘land of 1000 opportunities.’ And dragged us here. I must tell you that I actually lived the so-called American dream and am grateful for my life. Thankfully, I figured out how this country functioned early on, and prepared for it by making reasonable decisions.

But by the eighties, I knew America was a fraud. In those 65 years, the US has sunk to where Switzerland used to be when we left in 1955. In the meantime, the Swiss have built the most prosperous nation in Europe. I could go back, but it’s a challenge at my age of 82. But I’m looking into it.

Thank you for writing your truthful essay.

I wanted to know if they agreed with the reader’s scathing assessment of the US as a “fraud.” (On a brighter, note, I also asked them what they like about the US, excluding its lofty ideals.) The comparison story of Switzerland’s rise and the USA’s simultaneous decline could apply to any number of countries. It is a nasty reality that most US Americans choose not to confront.

As if on cue, I received the same comment from several of my respondents, all of whom are well-educated and -traveled. The gist was that the US, a “nation of immigrants,” is still a magnet for people from around the world. Many risk life and limb to get there, thereby inadvertently proving one of my points.

For example:

It’s maybe a sad reality that the only potent counterpoint I could offer, as devil’s advocacy, is that if the US is so horrible a place, and so unfree, then how do we explain the still steady tide of immigrants to the country, to say nothing of those who are literally willing to risk their lives to get here? In other words, yes the US compares unfavorably to, say, Denmark, Finland and Canada. But it appears we’re pretty damn attractive to folks in countries where, were they to publish an article like yours, they might be killed.

It’s worth noting that I never said that the US was unfree, only that “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are only available to those who can afford them,” a reference to the cost of freedom to and freedom from and damning indictment of the myth of endless opportunity.

In a time of steady but sure domestic and global decline measured by a wide range of qualitative and statistical indicators, some US Americans, at least those who have rejected the commonly held view of their country as the “greatest nation on earth,” are looking for some measure of consolation, a salve, or a silver lining. Yes, the societal situation is dire, but one redeeming feature is that people still want to come here. That counts for something doesn’t it?, or so they think.

It’s a perfectly valid point. So why is the US so “damn attractive”? Hint: It’s probably not so they can publish articles like mine without fear of retribution. There are at least two possible explanations.

The Enduring Spell of the American Dream

First, reality has yet to catch up with and overwrite cultural mythology beyond the borders of the US, not to mention within them. This is the result of Hollywood’s now waning global influence and a steady stream of US government propaganda. While the US may no longer be viewed as a place where the streets are paved with gold, the dominant perception is still of a land of opportunity. Bad news travels slowly, in this case.

Consider the usual push and pull factors that predate the founding of the USA. Many of my ancestors arrived over 150 years before a nascent British Colonial America became the United States of America. Some escaped religious persecution only to persecute others whose beliefs diverged from theirs. In a cruel twist of fate, some became the victims of that intolerance. Both “saints.”

Others, referred to as strangers, left their homelands for decidedly secular reasons. (Mayflower passengers consisted of both.) This featured abundant economic opportunity that derived from plentiful and fertile lands appropriated, by hook and by crook, from Native Americans who had lived in the settler-colonizers’ New World for millennia.

For those white males who got in on the ground floor, who are my great-grandfathers, the world was their oyster. They had land, seemingly infinite room for (westward) expansion, wave after wave of immigration of those who would form the lower social classes of the fledgling society, cheap labor to be exploited. Perhaps best and most profitable of all, they had the legal right to own other human beings whose unpaid work would drive economic growth and generate untold wealth before that party officially ended in 1863.

The origins of the US political and economic elite, essentially a transplantation of key features of British social class structure, date back to the founding of the colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and others that quickly followed.

Immigrants and Refugees

Secondly, many immigrants are in the US because of the actions of the US government, not by choice. In a 2010 article aptly entitled House Slave Syndrome the poet and writer Linh Dinh wrote that many immigrants are in the US because of the effect of US policy in their home countries. As the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen put it, “we are here because you are (were) there.”

It’s no coincidence that both writers view themselves as refugees, not immigrants. The former is defined simply as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” Without the US war in Vietnam there wouldn’t be over 2 million Vietnamese Americans in the US.

In his 2005 Nobel address British playwright Harold Pinter summed up US foreign policy thus:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

In effect, victims of US-sponsored overseas violence end up living next door to their victimizers. Think of all of the immigrants from Latin America and what the US has done in and to many of those countries for the past century. A partial list includes Argentina (1976), Brazil (1964), Bolivia (1944, 1963, 1971), Chile (1973), Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras (1963) Guatemala (1953), and Nicaragua, Paraguay. That disgraceful trend continues in 2022 with no end in sight.

Since nearly 25% of all immigrants in the US are residing there illegally, can you guess which countries they’re from? It’s the social class difference between those who enter the country through a port of entry (even if it is on a non-immigrant visa, which is often the case) and their fellow citizens who ford rivers and crawl through tunnels to escape a personal and societal hell.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It was none other than McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who said long after the last shot was fired and bomb dropped in the US War in Vietnam, “We ought not to ever be in a position where we are deciding, or undertaking to decide, or even trying to influence the internal power structure” of another country. In the Fulbright hearings on the war in 1966, US diplomat and historian George Kennanasserted, “Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country.”

Imagine how different the world and the state of US immigration would be if US leaders followed this sage advice from people whose thinking evolved.

A Mixed Picture

This is not to say that many immigrants who end up in the US for this reason do not have a better life or are not successful, as they or their adopted homeland define success. The point is, for most, their lives would have been better on many levels if they hadn’t been forced to emigrate.

As Linh Dinh wrote, “A recent article declares, ‘Tired of war, thousands of Iraqis want to go to U.S.’ What it fails to mention is who triggered all the bloodshed. Who made conditions in Iraq so intolerable that these people must flee? You know who. Over and over again, the U.S. has instigated mayhem or carnage overseas, generating thousands if not millions of refugees, many of whom longing to escape, paradoxically, it seems, to the source of their suffering. You beat and humiliate me, so can I move in?” According to the Brown University Watson Institute’s Costs of War project, 9.2 million Iraqis were internally displaced or refugees abroad, as of 2021, all because of a war based on lies.

For many, the uprooting and relocation from their home country to the geopolitical source of their suffering is akin to going from the fire into the frying pan.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.