The Imperiled 'American': Visual Culture, Nationality and U.S. Foreign Policy

John D.H. Downing


This essay explores vital elements in the historical visual culture of the USA which the author argues help to explain both American cultural identity and, consequently, how the U.S. public’s mobilization for war seems to be an ongoing success story despite its partly countervailing tendency to insularity. The scare quotes the author has put around the word ‘American’ in the title are designed to open up the question of what the sense of being American, of having American nationality is, and what its sources are, especially in visual media. They are also in response to many Latin Americans’ ongoing irritation with the U.S. arrogation of “America” as a synecdoche to denote just one out of some 40 nations in the Americas, and thus as a constant reassertion of the Monroe Doctrine, affirming an expansive nationalism.

The title also echoes the title of a book published 50 years ago, The Frightened Giant. Written by Cedric Belfrage (1956), a British political activist who had lived some 30 years in the USA and was deported during the McCarthy period, it addressed a paradox. The paradox was that U.S. citizens at that time were heirs to the radical political tradition of challenge to authority within the American revolution, but were too scared to lay claim to it in case they too would be defined as Communists and suffer the negative fallout. The USA in Belfrage’s view was a giant that had tragically allowed itself to become scared of its own shadow.

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