In this important new book, Douglas Little explores the political and cultural turmoil that led U.S. policy makers to shift their attention from containing the “Red Threat” of international communism to combating the “Green Threat” of radical Islam after 1989. Little analyzes America’s confrontation with Islamic extremism through the traditional ideological framework of “us versus them” that has historically pitted the United States against Native Americans, Mexicans, Asian immigrants, Nazis, and the Soviets.
In the following excerpt from Us Versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat (pp. 15-17), Little outlines the history of “us versus them” thinking that has persisted from the United States’ founding to the modern conflict in the Middle East.
“Why do they hate us?” When George W. Bush posed this question during a televised address just nine days after the 9/11 attacks, most Americans thought they already knew the answer. Muslim extremists had destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 because they despised America’s Judeo-Christian religious tradition, because they envied America’s economic prosperity and political liberty, and because they resented America’s unmatched military power. Not only do “they hate our freedoms,” Bush intoned, “they want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries” and “drive Israel out of the Middle East.” Simply put, Bush told his listeners, “they stand against us, because we stand in their way.” This was a truth that millions of Americans held to be self-evident at the dawn of the new millennium, when their country’s good intentions and its desire to make the world a better place seemed only to evoke bitter recriminations and acts of unspeakable evil.
Yet although the source of the 9/11 attacks was quite novel and although both the scale and the location of the harm “they” inflicted on “us” were unprecedented, the notion of a virtuous America endangered by wicked and violent enemies was not new at all. Indeed, from the moment that John Winthrop and the Puritans dropped anchor in Massachusetts Bay in 1630 and vowed to build a “City Upon a Hill,” Americans have tended to view the world in terms of “us versus them.” In the beginning, it was Native Americans who mounted the most sinister challenge to Winthrop’s utopian experiment, with Wampanoags and Algonquians and later Seminoles and Sioux defending their turf and terrorizing white settlers. Then, during the nineteenth century, the anxiety generated by the Native American “red threat” would be exacerbated, first by a “black threat” triggered by bloody African slave revolts from the Caribbean to the U.S. South, and later by a “yellow peril” that materialized as hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants headed east across the Pacific to the United States.
Beyond these racial anxieties, Americans also recognized that foreign ideologies could pose grave existential perils. For decades after 1776, the Founding Fathers were haunted by the specter of European monarchism, whose proponents hoped to strangle the infant American republic. Before long, Europe would spawn even more dangerous “isms.” Fascism, symbolized by the brown-shirted Nazi thugs who began bullying German Jews during the 1920s, would metastasize into a genocidal “brown threat” after Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in 1917 sparked fears of an irrepressible global communist revolution, a new “red threat” quite different from the one that Winthrop had encountered. After 1945, the United States would find itself locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and wedded to the doctrine of containment to protect “us” from “them.” Ideological and racial anxieties soon intersected in frightening ways. Marxism-Leninism plus oriental despotism, for example, would transform Russia from a vital ally to a mortal threat. Likewise, the Chinese communist revolution would combine the worst aspects of the yellow peril with that of the red menace to make the People’s Republic of China the geopolitical bogeyman of the 1960s.
The us-versus-them dynamic that prolonged the Cold War confrontation with Moscow and Beijing would also influence Washington’s policies in the Middle East. Eager to preserve Western access to Persian Gulf oil, protect Israel, and prevent Soviet subversion, American policy makers embraced containment and placed themselves at odds with Arab nationalists like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, both of whom evoked unflattering comparisons with Hitler and Attila the Hun. To protect us and contain them, Washington resorted again and again to CIA covert action while bankrolling pro-American autocrats from North Africa to Central Asia. When Kremlin-backed Arab radicals like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) unleashed brutal violence against Israeli “pioneers,” U.S. policy makers quickly equated revolutionary nationalism with terrorism, in effect fusing two red threats—one Native American and the other Bolshevik—into a monstrous and barbarian new them eager figuratively to lift Uncle Sam’s scalp.
With the waning of the Cold War, most observers expected race and ideology to become much less important, undermining the traditional us-versus-them dichotomy and ushering in a less dangerous era marked by peace, stability, and globalization. Yet after Muslim radicals overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 and denounced his chief patron, the United States, as “the Great Satan,” resurgent Islam emerged inexorably as the new them, a green-colored reincarnation of the red, black, and yellow bogeymen of yesteryear. Until the glowering visage of the Ayatollah Khomeini became a staple feature of the nightly news, Islam had remained largely invisible to the average American, who was saturated in secularism. For their part, Cold Warriors from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan typically assumed that Islam could serve as a highly effective religious antidote to the atheism preached by the godless Kremlin. Prior to 1989, few in Washington possessed the expertise necessary to decipher the explosive mixture of religion and politics brewing throughout the Muslim world, and fewer still recognized that Islamic radicalism might eventually present a bigger challenge to American interests in the Middle East than Soviet subversion. Although communism had largely disappeared from America’s threat matrix by the twilight of the twentieth century, radical Islam would take its place early in the new millennium, evoking not-so-distant memories of other thems who had threatened us and our security.
From Us Versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat, by Douglas Little. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Douglas Little is the Robert and Virginia Scotland Professor of History and International Relations at Clark University. In addition to Us Versus Them, he is also author of American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945.
- Bush, “Address to the Nation,” 20 September 2001, Public Papers of the Presidents (PPP) Bush 2001, 2:1141–42.↩