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

“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 approach highlights the grandeur as well as the excesses of the American nation.

André Kaspi is a historian, a recognized specialist in the United States, to which he has devoted numerous reference works. He just published My American Chroniclespublished by L’Observatoire, in January 2022, (384 p., 23€.)


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

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

However, it is necessary to distinguish the myth from the reality when talking about Pocahontas, which is not obvious, due to the lack of sources. This story represents a rather reassuring vision of colonization and relations between the English and the Indians. But, while there have indeed been times of peace, as the story of this Indian suggests, there have also been darker and conflicting eras. Moreover, historically, very quickly after the death of Pocahontas, relations with the Indians deteriorated very markedly. There were rivalries over land ownership, commercial difficulties with the locals… The Indians quickly considered that the whites who had come 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 conflict tell us?

We must first look at the causes of the conflict. This war is not only a fight against slavery, but also a resistance of the States, in this case of the South, against the political and social influence of Washington. Southern states want to retain their independence, or at least their autonomy, socially, economically, and politically. They consider themselves to be a distinct whole. There is therefore a tension between centralization as the central government wanted, and the states’ desire to retain most of their power. It 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 is a mass war, an industrial war, with significant technical innovations, and in this announces the great confrontations of the 20th century.

André Kaspi

However, what truly announces the 20th century is not in the reasons for the war, but in the way of waging it. This conflict marks the beginning of the war of movement, with all the forces in the hands of the Federals and the Confederates. We find the will to use 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 tests of submarines, in particular the famous CSS David. War took on 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 announces the great confrontations that we will 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 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, their interests may diverge. The American nation remains the greatest power politically, economically and militarily, which is far from our case. So, 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 fair distance. France must not detach 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 symbolizes this ambivalence between the incredible resources and, at the same time, the excesses of the American nation.

André Kaspi

You devote a few laudatory pages to the personality of Elon Musk. Does it symbolize, for you, the revival of the United States and of the “American dream”? Doesn’t he also represent the excessiveness and excesses of the American nation?

It is obvious that the projects of Elon Musk 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. This is why I wanted to make a connection between the steelmaker Carnegie, who played a capital role in the American economy at the end of the 19th century, and Musk who, today, is upsetting industrial relations as much, if not more, thought patterns. He managed, thanks to the Starlink satellite belt, to connect the whole of the Ukrainian territory, in order to bring his help to Vladimir Zelensky. This entrepreneur is part of a new and dynamic trend within 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 a reflection, which must however be nuanced. Like his country, he exerts fascination and dread. It 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 must not forget his transhumanist tendency. With him, the imagination is in power, in its worst and best.

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

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