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America in Retreat by Michael Pembroke review – grisly history of a bully-boy nation

An account of covert coups and diplomatic bluster through the decades reveals a country in paranoid fear of decline

After the riot at the Capitol on 6 January, embarrassed American politicians lined up to declare: “This is not who we are.” Having read Michael Pembroke’s account of the country’s international thuggery in the last 70 years I’m inclined to reply: “Sorry, no, this is what you always were – loutish, lawless and violent by default.” Pembroke, an Australian jurist and an avowed conservative, quotes a Trump adviser who unforgettably sums up the arrogance of Washington policymakers. “We’re America, bitch,” snarls this unidentified apparatchik; lesser nations can just suck it up.

The British, wanting to look aristocratically nonchalant, claimed they acquired their empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. Americans hid their scheming behind sanctimonious cant about freedom and human rights: they dreamed up the United Nations but have consistently flouted its principles, no longer even pay it their annual dues and carry on regardless with their godly mission to Americanise the rest of the world, by force if necessary. During the Cold war, the Pentagon invoked a spurious communist menace to justify its exorbitant budget, amassing deluxe weaponry that existed mainly for show. There was no military need to atomise Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since the Japanese were edging towards surrender; the bombs were dropped, as one of President Truman’s cronies suggested, because the apocalyptic display would “make Russia more manageable in Europe”.

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