“From Pocahontas to Elon Musk, America has always shaped our imagination”

FIGAROVOX/MAINTENANCE – In your last book My American Chronicles, Historian André Kaspi offers a history of the United States through 20 key moments. According to him, this approach highlights both the greatness and the excesses of the American nation.

André Kaspi is a historian, a recognized specialist in the United States, to whom he dedicated numerous reference works. he just posted My American ChroniclesPublished by L’Observatoire, in January 2022, (384 p., €23.)

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

André Kasp. – I wanted to start with Pocahontas, to challenge the stereotype that America was only founded by the Pilgrim Fathers, who settled in Massachusetts. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, there was English colonization both in the North of the United States, as we well know, and 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 very reassuring view of colonization and relations between the English and the Indians. But while there have been peaceful times, as this Indian’s story suggests, there have also been darker and more conflicted eras. Also, historically, very quickly after Pocahontas’ death, relations with the Indians deteriorated very sharply. There were rivalries for land ownership, commercial difficulties with the locals… The Indians soon considered that the whites coming from Europe were invaders.

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

We must first look at the causes of conflict. This war is not only a struggle against slavery, but also a resistance by states, in this case the South, against Washington’s political and social influence. Southern states want to maintain their independence, or at least their autonomy, socially, economically and politically. They consider themselves a distinct whole. There is therefore a tension between the centralization desired by the central government and the desire of the states to retain most of their power. It was the main driving force of this war, and the victory of the Federals was decisive for the history of the country.

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

Andre Kaspi

However, what truly heralds the 20th century is not the reasons for war, but the way to wage it. This conflict marks the beginning of the war of movement, with all forces in the hands of the Federals and the Confederates. We found the will to use the masses to achieve victory on the battlefield. There is also, during the Civil War, the use of new weapons, which will forever change the art of war. We have witnessed, for example, several submarine tests, namely the famous CSS David. War gained new dimensions, naval conflicts were no longer limited to the surface but also to the depths. In short, it was a mass war, an industrial war, with innovations, which differentiates it from other conflicts of the 19th century and heralds the great confrontations that we will experience in the 20th century.

In this work, it is also about the ambivalent relationship that de Gaulle maintained with the United States. Indeed, while he praised “a friendship spanning 200 years”, he was also very cautious. Should we draw inspiration from his geopolitical vision in our current relations with the United States?

We must not forget that the United States and Europe are part of the same world. However, your interests may differ. The American nation remains the greatest power politically, economically and militarily, which is far from being the case for us. Therefore, if Europe and the United States can have common interests, they should not be placed on the same level.

As De Gaulle did, we must observe a reasonable distance. France must not disassociate itself from the United States without giving in to all the fashions that come from there. Care must be taken that it does not lose its identity. There must be a dialogue between the two, not as equal international actors, but as members of the same civilization.

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

Andre Kaspi

You dedicate a few complimentary pages to Elon Musk’s personality. Does it symbolize, for you, the rebirth of the United States and the “American dream”? Does he not also represent the excesses and excesses of the American nation?

It is obvious that Elon Musk’s projects do not leave indifferent. He is one of the richest men in the world and is interested in all areas. He produces cars, rockets, neural chips, sets up satellite networks with Starlink and his great ambition is to install a human colony on Mars. Elon Musk is a dreamer, yes, but only a dreamer can revive the american dream. That’s why I wanted to make a connection between Carnegie Steel, which played a pivotal role in the American economy in the late 19th century, and Musk, who, today, is disrupting industrial relations just as much, if not more, than patterns of thought. He managed, thanks to the Starlink satellite belt, to connect the entire Ukrainian territory in order to bring his help to Vladimir Zelensky. This entrepreneur is part of a new and dynamic trend in American society, which is still called upon to play a central role in the world.

Musk has a thought that goes far beyond the industrial framework, and therefore inspires reflection, which however must be nuanced. Like his country, he exerts fascination and dread. He symbolizes this ambivalence between the incredible resources and at the same time the excesses of the American nation. Elon Musk today brings extraordinary solutions and is a source of inspiration, but we cannot forget his transhumanist tendency. With him, imagination is in power, at its worst and at its best.

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

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