The release of The Man in the High Castle, a streaming film series produced by Amazon and based very loosely on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, is an occasion for us to examine the myths of empire – that is, the narratives that are woven around actual historical events, which are rarely accurate, and which are designed to buttress the prevailing political order.
We can do this by examining, first, the differences between Dick’s version, as presented in the original novel, and the Amazon film version, which deviates considerably from Dick’s vision. The novel, like the film version, is an alternate history – a “what if” story – that portrays a world in which the Axis Powers won World War II. In the novel, as in the film, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is assassinated, and subsequent US Presidents John Nance Garner (FDR’s anti-New Deal Vice President) and “isolationist” Sen. John W. Bricker allow the Nazis and the Japanese to achieve military superiority, which ends in their joint assault on the US and the division of the US into occupied territories, with the East Coast controlled by the Nazis and the West Coast occupied by Japan. The same scenario unfolds in the film, although without references to either Garner or Bricker
The key difference is in the plot device that moves the novel – and the film – forward: the existence of a subversive text that is banned in both spheres of occupied America, entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In the film, this isn’t a text but a movie, made by the mysterious Man in the High Castle and distributed by the Resistance, an underground movement seeking to liberate America from both the Japanese and the Nazis. What it consists of is left deliberately vague, but what it purportedly depicts is a world in which the alternate history premise is reversed: the US wins the war, and its value to the Resistance is that it shows a world worth fighting for, one in which American power is restored and its enemies vanquished.
In Dick’s novel, however, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a novel, one in which Roosevelt isn’t assassinated but instead turns into a constitutionalist who doesn’t run for four terms but instead limits his reign to two. He also strengthens America’s defenses and the Axis never even sets foot on US territory. In a plot twist that is hard for this Old Right “isolationist” to take, Rexford Tugwell – the far-left architect of the New Deal’s most authoritarian aspects – is elected President in 1940, and the US and Britain together defeat the Axis. However, all is not rosy in this alternate historical stream: instead of rising to become the world’s superpower, the US loses out to its former allies, the British, who, colluding with Stalin’s Russia, are engaged in a cold war with the United States. The Brits take up the racist ideology of the fallen Germans, while the US goes in the opposite direction, outlawing racial segregation. The resulting war results in a British victory.
Dick’s original version would never be allowed on American television: the political realities of our time forbid it. Empires are founded on mythologies – narratives in which historical events are interpreted in a way that justifies the status quo, and crowds out any dissenting version, consigning the truth – if such there is – to the margins.
The film reinforces the central myth of the post-World War II order: that the “Greatest Generation” defeated a worldwide movement that would have destroyed everything that makes life worth living, and in doing so created a new world order in which Liberty and Justice For All is rightly enforced by an Anglo-American global hegemony. As the story goes: this was the only alternative to a world ruled by Hitlerian monsters, who are lurking still in the shadows and may yet leap out and impose a Satanic regime on us all.
In Dick’s novel-within-a-novel, however, the Anglo-American alliance is our ultimate undoing, and this was the key element – or one of the key elements – of the old “isolationist” critique of Roosevelt’s eagerness to drag us into the European war. America, they averred, would become like the empires of Europe – the British, the French, etc. – and lose its very soul in the struggle. Better to shore up our own defenses on the North American continent, uphold the Monroe Doctrine by disallowing any German penetration, and create a Fortress America. Why, the “isolationists” argued, should we haul Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire, when they were in fact an imperialist power just like the Germans, the Japanese, and the Italians – lording it over India, penetrating every corner of the world, and seeking global hegemony just as Hitler sought mastery over Europe? The British, after all, justified their empire by claiming they were undertaking what Rudyard Kipling – the poet laureate of British imperialism – celebrated as the “white man’s burden.” This, in Dick’s view, was just a less stern reflection of Nazi racialism, and would have ultimately led to the same brutalities.
It’s where Dick’s novel and the film version merge – their vision of postwar internecine conflict between Hitler’s successors – that we might be able to glean some version of the truth. That is, by challenging and deconstructing the mythology of the “Greatest Generation,” the official narrative that depicts World War II as a noble crusade to make the world safe for liberal-democratic modernity, we can create a counter-narrative in the form of an alternate history of our own.
In both the book and the film a developing struggle for power among Hitler’s would-be successors takes place. In the book, Hitler is incapacitated by syphilis and Martin Bormann takes his place, with Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich vying to topple Bormann. Heydrich wants to retain Hitler’s policy of détente with Japan, while Goebbels plots war. In the Amazon version, Heydrich is the villain who wants war with Japan and plots to assassinate an aging pro-détente Hitler.
These differences are irrelevant, however, to developing our own alternate history, because both versions underscore the underlying reality: that the Third Reich was inherently unstable and couldn’t have lasted beyond Hitler’s lifetime. The very basis of the National Socialist system, the leader principle, did not provide for a successor, or any procedure for anointing one. Perhaps the struggle for the succession would have broken out even before Hitler’s demise, as the film suggests.
In any case, the Nazi empire was inherently unstable. Even if they had succeeded in conquering Europe, their empire couldn’t have lasted. And the charge lodged against the “isolationists” by both Dick and the producers of the film – that they opposed arming American defenses and basically sympathized with the Axis powers – is nonsensical. The America First Committee, the massive anti-interventionist movement that opposed US entry into the war, advocated building “impregnable defenses” in order to guard the United States from any possible threat. And intimations by Roosevelt that the Nazis were intent on crossing the Atlantic, colonizing South America, and threatening the US – demonstrated by a forged map provided by British intelligence – were a lie.
Alternate histories aren’t just an amusing pastime, or a sub-genre of speculative fiction: they are a way of constructing a counter-narrative to the received wisdom. And in constructing such a “what if” scenario, it is possible to challenge the mythology that justifies America’s involvement in the war and its subsequent evolution into an Americanized version of the British empire.
Imagine a world in which the “isolationists” won the debate and the US stayed aloof from the war. Borrowing from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, let us posit that Roosevelt abjures a third term and Republican Senator Robert A. Taft defeats Henry Wallace, the Communist-backed Democratic nominee who is agitating for US entry into the war on the side of Britain and the Soviet Union. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union ends in disaster, just as it did in real life, and the overextended Nazis sue for peace. The British, for their part, have held off the Nazis and the United Kingdom is still free – although the Irish have taken the opportunity to depart from the Empire’s persistent embrace. The internecine struggles within the Nazi hierarchy depicted in both versions of The Man in the High Castle erupt, and a civil war breaks out in the Third Reich, which collapses as the Resistance in France and throughout Europe rises up to take advantage of the ensuring chaos.
Fast forward to 1962, the year Dick’s novel was published: The Soviet Union, having never extended its empire into Eastern Europe, was effectively crippled if not completely destroyed by the struggle with Nazi Germany: it is confined to the steppes of Eurasia, and is already undergoing the economic and political collapse that was delayed by the cold war in our time continuum. The United States, having avoided the war, and the deaths of so many of its citizens, instead utilized those human and material resources to create a society of unparalleled prosperity. And having also avoided two terms of life under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it has also avoided the centralization of political and economic authority imposed by the New Deal: our old Republic is not only intact, it is flourishing. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were never interned. Instead of fighting a cold war with the Soviet Union lasting half a century, the United States abjured the temptations of empire, pursuing instead a foreign policy of entangling alliances with none and free trade with all. The twin fevers of fascism and communism have passed like a bad dream, and the world has woken up to a new era of peace and freedom.
That’s my version of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – although, perhaps, my title would be The Grasshopper Jumps High.
A Special Note: Many thanks to Casey Given and Students for Liberty for inviting me to be the keynote speaker at the Northern California SFL conference, held last Saturday. I had a great time and I am thrilled to see that the libertarian youth are so engaged, thoughtful, and energized.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.