The empire ends with a pull out. Not, as many supposed a few years ago, from Iraq. There, as well as in Afghanistan, we are mulishly staying the course, come what may, trapped in the biggest of all the “too-big-to-fail” boondoggles. But from Detroit.
Of course, the real evacuation of the Motor City began decades ago, when Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler started to move more and more of their operations out of the downtown area to harder to unionize rural areas and suburbs, and, finally, overseas. Even as the economy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, 50 Detroit residents were already packing up and leaving their city every day. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Detroit could count tens of thousands of empty lots and over 15,000 abandoned homes. Stunning Beaux Arts and modernist buildings were left deserted to return to nature, their floors and roofs covered by switchgrass. They now serve as little more than ornate bird houses.
In mythological terms, however, Detroit remains the ancestral birthplace of storied American capitalism. And looking back in the years to come, the sudden disintegration of the Big Three this year will surely be seen as a blow to American power comparable to the end of the Raj, Britain’s loss of India, that jewel in the imperial crown, in 1948. Forget the possession of a colony or the bomb, in the second half of the twentieth century, the real marker of a world power was the ability to make a precision V-8.
There have been dissections aplenty of what went wrong with the U.S. auto industry, as well as fond reminiscences about Detroit’s salad days, about outsized tailfins and double-barrel carburetors. Last year, the iconic Clint Eastwood even put the iconic white auto worker to rest in his movie Gran Torino. Few of these postmortems have conveyed, however, just how crucial Detroit was to U.S. foreign policy — not just as the anchor of America’s high-tech, high-profit export economy, but as a confirmation of our sense of ourselves as the world’s premier power (although in linking Detroit’s demise to the blowback from President Nixon’s illegal war in Laos, Eastwood at least came closer than most).
Detroit not only supplied a continual stream of symbols of America’s cultural power, but offered the organizational know-how necessary to run a vast industrial enterprise like a car company — or an empire. Pundits love to quote GM President “Engine” Charlie Wilson, who once famously said that he thought what was good for America “was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” It’s rarely noted, however, that Wilson made his remark at his Senate confirmation hearings to be Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense. At the Pentagon, Wilson would impose GM’s corporate bureaucratic model on the armed forces, modernizing them to fight the Cold War.
After GM, it was Ford’s turn to take the reins, with John F. Kennedy tapping its CEO Robert McNamara and his “whiz kids” to ready American troops for a “long twilight struggle, year in and year out.” McNamara used Ford’s integrated “systems management” approach to wage “mechanized, dehumanizing slaughter,” as historian Gabriel Kolko once put it, from the skies over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Perhaps, then, we should think of the ruins of Detroit as our Roman Forum. Just as Rome’s triumphal arches still remind us of its bygone imperial victories in Mesopotamia, Persia, and elsewhere, so Motown’s dilapidated buildings today invoke America’s fast slipping supremacy.
Among the most imposing is Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory, shuttered since the late 1950s. Dubbed the Crystal Palace for its floor to ceiling glass walls, it was here that Ford perfected assembly-line production, building up to 9,000 Model Ts a day — a million by 1915 — catapulting the United States light-years ahead of industrial Europe.
It was also here that Ford first paid his workers five dollars a day, creating one of the fastest growing and most prosperous working-class neighborhoods in all of America, filled with fine arts-and-crafts style homes. Today, Highland Park looks like a war zone, its streets covered with shattered glass and lined with burnt-out houses. More than 30% of its population lives in poverty, and you don’t want to know the unemployment numbers (more than 20%) or the median yearly income (less than $20,000).
There is one reminder that it wasn’t always so…
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Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and author of a number of books, most recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan 2009). Check out a TomDispatch audio interview with Grandin about Henry Ford’s strange adventure in the Amazon by clicking here.
Copyright 2009 Greg Grandin