“From Pocahontas to Elon Musk, the United States has always shaped our imagination”

FIGAROVOX/MAINTENANCE – In his latest book My American Chronicles, Historian André Kaspi offers a history of the United States through 20 key moments. According to him, this method highlights the greatness as well as the extravagance of the American nation.

André Kaspi is a historian, a recognized specialist in the United States, where he has assigned many references. He just published it My American Chroniclespublished by L’Observatoire, in January 2022, (384 p., 23€.)

FIGAROVOX. – You open your United States history book with an interest in the historical figure of Pocahontas. Why this choice?

Andre Kaspi. – I want to start with Pocahontas, to challenge the stereotype that the United States was founded only by the Pilgrim Fathers, who settled in Massachusetts. In fact, in the 17th century, there was both English colonization in the North of the United States, as we know it, but also in the South, in Virginia, as the story of Pocahontas reminds us. This story, partially mythologized, is in a way the counterweight to the story of the Pilgrim Fathers.

However, it is necessary to distinguish myth from reality when talking about Pocahontas, which is not obvious, due to the lack of sources. This story represents a somewhat reassuring view of colonization and relations between the English and the Indians. But, while there were indeed times of peace, as this Indian story suggests, there were also darker and more conflicting times. Moreover, historically, very quickly after the death of Pocahontas, relations with the Indians deteriorated significantly. There were conflicts over land ownership, commercial problems with the locals… The Indians quickly thought that the whites who came from Europe were invaders.

In the chapter on the Civil War, you write that this confrontation was the harbinger of the conflicts of the 20th century. What do you mean ? What does this battle tell us?

We must first look at the causes of conflict. This war was not only a fight against slavery, but also a fight by the States, in this case the South, against the political and social influence of Washington. Southern states wanted to maintain their independence, or at least their autonomy, socially, economically, and politically. They consider themselves as a unique whole. Therefore, there is a tension between centralization as desired by the central government, and the desire of the states to retain most of their power. This was the main driving force behind this war, and the victory of the Federals was decisive for the history of the country.

The Civil War was a mass war, an industrial war, with significant technical innovations, and it heralds the great confrontations of the 20th century.

André Kaspi

However, the true herald of the 20th century was not in the causes of war, but in the way it was conducted. This conflict marks the beginning of the war of movement, with all forces in the hands of the Federals and the Confederates. We see the will to use the masses to achieve victory on the battlefield. There was also, during the Civil War, the use of new weapons, which would forever change the art of war. We witnessed, for example, several tests of submarines, especially the famous CSS David. War has taken on new dimensions, sea conflicts are no longer limited to the surface but also to the deep. In short, it was a mass war, an industrial war, with innovations, which set it apart from other conflicts of the 19th century and heralded the great confrontations we would experience in the 20th century.

In this work, it is also a question of the ambivalent relationship that de Gaulle maintained with the United States. Indeed, although he praised “a 200-year friendship”, he was also cautious. Should we take inspiration from his geopolitical views on our current relationship with the United States?

We must not forget that the United States and Europe are part of the same world. However, their interests may differ. The American nation remains the greatest political, economic and military power, which is far from our case. So, if Europe and the United States may have common interests, they should not be placed on the same level.

As de Gaulle did, we must observe a fair distance. France should not separate from the United States, without giving up all the fashions that come from it. Care must be taken so that it does not lose its identity. There must be dialogue between the two, not as equal international actors, but as members of the same civilization.

Elon Musk symbolizes this ambivalence between incredible resources and, at the same time, the excesses of the American nation.

André Kaspi

You devoted several pages of praise to Elon Musk’s personality. Does this symbolize, for you, the rebirth of the United States and the “American dream”? Does he not also represent the excess and excess of the American nation?

It is clear that the projects of Elon Musk do not leave anyone indifferent. He is one of the richest men in the world, and is interested in all areas. He builds cars, rockets, neural chips, sets up satellite networks in Starlink, and his great ambition is to install a human colony on Mars. Elon Musk is a dreamer, yes, but only a dreamer can live again the American Dream. This is why I want to make a connection between the steelmaker Carnegie, who played a major role in the American economy at the end of the 19th century, and Musk who, today, is disrupting industrial relations, otherwise, thought patterns. . He managed, thanks to the Starlink satellite belt, to connect the entire Ukrainian territory, to deliver his help to Vladimir Zelensky. This businessman is part of a new and dynamic trend within American society, which is still called to play a central role in the world.

Musk has a thought beyond the industrial frame, and therefore inspires a reflection, which must however be nuanced. Like his country, he shows fascination and dread. It symbolizes this ambivalence between the incredible resources and at the same time the excesses of the American nation. Today’s Elon Musk brings extraordinary solutions and sources of inspiration, but we must not forget his transhumanist attitude. With him, imagination is in power, at worst and at best.

André Kaspi, My American Chronicles, ed. The Observatory, 2022, 384 p., €23. The Observatory

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