The Pentagon Papers and the U.S./World Attention Balance

In his fine recent book The American Civilizing Process, Stephen Mennell, a professor at University College Dublin, makes an interesting point about what I call the "attention balance" between the United States and the rest of the world:

A study of a Dutch refuge for battered women and of their violent partners is revealing.  These were marital relationships with a very unequal power balance, and the authors (Van Stouk and Wouters, 1987), found that the women took much more notice of their men than the men did of the women, and that the women were much more attuned to their men’s wishes and needs than the men were to theirs.  When the women were asked to give a character sketch of their partner, they could do so with considerable precision, nuance, and insight, while the men could not describe their wife’s except in terms of cliches applicable to women in general.  These men’s self-esteem depended mainly on what other men thought of them, in other words on their ranking within the established group….   It appears to be a general characteristic of established-outsider relations that the outsiders ‘understand’ the established better than the established do the outsiders….

Much the same, I would argue, goes for the grandest-scale established-outsider relation of all, between the U.S. superpower and the rest of the world.  Billions of educated people outside the USA known an immense amount about America, its constitution, its politics, its manners and culture; all these are extremely visible to the rest of the world.  But it is as if they were looking through a one-way mirror.  America’s huge power advantage seems to function something like a black hole in reverse: a mass of survey evidence suggests that Americans do not see out at all clearly, and tend to think about ‘the outside world’ if at all in stereotypical an indeed Manichaen terms. (As always, there are of course large numbers of Americans of whom this is not true: we are speaking of general tendencies and differences in averages between Americans and, in particular, Europeans). (pp. 311-12).

Mennell is not polemicizing about the U.S. as the ‘world’s wife-beater’ (as tempting as that analogy might sometimes be).  He’s talking about relations: the stronger party in a very unequal relationship will always want to gather and analyze evidence about the more-powerful party.  The converse generally isn’t true, because the powerful party will get its will no matter without having to understand, much less please, the weaker party.

I’ve had many experiences at home and abroad that confirm Mennell’s point, but I’ll describe only the most recent one here.

I was cleaning my apartment last Sunday and had German TV on just for distraction.  It was showing a docu-drama about Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND corporation official responsible for defense policy who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971.  We saw the whole story: Ellsberg starts his job with idealism, then gradually realizes that the U.S. military and government had been lying to the American people about the Vietnam War for years.  He agonizes over whether he should reveal the top-secret documents that show this (the Pentagon Papers).  We watch him do it, and see the New York Times debate whether to publish these secret documents.  The U.S. Supreme Court deliberate over whether the U.S. Constitution allows them to stop an American newspaper from publishing the papers (they ruled 6-3 that it did not).

As I half-watched this very long movie, something seemed not quite right.  First, the production design looked a little off.  It was obviously shot in the mid-1970s, but we saw almost no shots of the characters walking outside in American cities, and we didn’t see the brand names of anything.  Further, the shots inside churches and buildings were too claustrophobic.  No establishing shots inside or in front of courtrooms, the takes lasted much longer than they would in an American movie, and there were no people of color around at all, except for a very light-skinned guy playing Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Second, I didn’t recognize any of the actors.  Granted, you’re not going to get A-list celebrities for a made-for-TV docu-drama, but where were the B-list 1970s stars? Ben Gazzara, anyone? Suzanne Pleshette? Leslie Nielsen? David Carradine?  Not a single recognizable face.  Also, finally, the dubbing into German seemed damned good.  German dubbing is ordinarily done very well indeed,* but the lip-speech coordination here was perfect.

Then it dawned on me: this was a German production.  The credits confirmed it: the actors were German, and it was mostly shot in Hamburg.  The dubbing was so good because it wasn’t dubbing. Obviously, a lot of work went into this production — the debate among the New York Times editors over whether to publish the papers was detailed and convincing (except for how calm they all stayed), as was the U.S. Supreme Court conference, which even featured dueling quotations from Washington and Jefferson.  In retrospect, the reason for the slow pace became clear: a German audience needed to some aspects of American law and culture explained to them by background speeches in a way an American audience would not.

It was a little spooky to realize that I thought I had been watching an American production for all that time.  But I was also impressed by the fact that German television had put so much effort into recreating a then-recent event of American history.  In fact, I occasionally wondered whether it was a German movie while I watched it, but then immediately thought: "Who’s going to make a German movie about a complicated piece of American history that mostly involves government bureacrats and journalists arguing about a stack of paper?  And which doesn’t directly involve Germany, or any living German, at all?"

But that’s precisely what some Germans did.  And, after watching this movie, the average German viewer certainly had a better idea of the personalities and principles involved in the Pentagon Papers affair than 98% of all living Americans.**  You will rarely, if ever, see the United States paying that much attention to any other nation, with the possible exception of England.  Sure, there are plenty of costume dramas about European history, and World War II receives saturation coverage.  But the average level of knowledge of even intelligent Americans about recent European politics and history is negligible.  Can anyone imagine an American production team making a detailed, faithful political thriller about, say, the Spiegel Affair?

Consider this a data-point in favor of the Menell thesis.

* Let me note that I am a fanatical opponent of the German practice of dubbing almost all foreign-language movies.  So when I compliment German dubbing from a technical standpoint, it’s roughly equivalent to complimenting a vandal for defacing a painting with biodegradable acid.

** I should also add that I found the fact that German TV producers had made a movie about the Pentagon Papers moving.  This is the earnestness that, rightly understood, is one of the most endearing and admirable of German national character traits.  The movie itself was no more than competently acted and directed, and was certainly not a lavish production.  There was no music, no jump-cuts, no glitz.  However, the film was quite watchable, and more importantly, it actually provided a thorough, balanced, and respectful portrait of the issues involved in the Pentagon papers case.  It also didn’t shy away from complex legal issues: there was much accurate discussion, for instance, of whether the U.S. Government had satisfied the standard of "irreparable harm" required to justify the issuance of a temporary injunction against the newspapers.

3 thoughts on “The Pentagon Papers and the U.S./World Attention Balance

  1. Seems to me a pretty accurate observation. Though I’d like to stress that this attention imbalance is not as peculiar to the USA as Mennell seems to hint. Rather it is really a general phenomenon in any relationship of comparatively big vs. comparatively small.

    As an example, whenever I got to talk a little longer with a Dutch person, they all seemed to know the names of all relevant German political parties, their respective leaders, and their position on relevant questions.
    Then I would always try very hard to conceal the fact that about the only thing I know about politics in the Netherlands is the fact that their queen’s name is Beatrix.


  2. “Can anyone imagine an American production team making a detailed, faithful political thriller about, say, the Spiegel Affair”

    Well. I suppose not. Although Hollywood is not above making a movie about the Von Stauffenberg Plot. Not quite the same thing I suppose.,8599,1637564,00.html

    I’m not quite so sure that the Ellsberg affair lacked all action drama however. Didn’t it include a notorious break in to the office of Ellesburg’s psychiatrist, and couldn’t such a scene be dramatized rather well? So it’s perhaps not quite comparable to the Speigel case.


  3. @Junger Gott> Rather it is really a general phenomenon in any relationship of comparatively big vs. comparatively small.Totally mate, just like university folks, an easy contender for “grandest-scale established-outsider relation of all”. Similar to Americans and wife-beaters their idea of the people out there that do the real work consists only of <a href="cliches applicable to women workers in general. Their copious amounts of spare time give them the chance to solidify the very unequal power balance by writing blogs where they can keep swinging their verbal fists. Well I guess averting hypocrisy by reflecting on their very own situation before accusing others of x, y or z was never the hallmark of bullies.


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