With its most recent installment, “Spectre,” the James Bond franchise has at last abandoned Ian Fleming’s book series as even a nominal source of movie plots. Fortunately, the franchise has largely abandoned another aspect of Fleming’s writing: his persistent, overt racism. A quick look at this map, compiled from quotes found in Fleming’s books, shows how heavily the author relied on racial, national and ethnic stereotypes in crafting Bond’s semifictional world.
This aspect of Bond’s history should be well known by now, having been addressed in scholarly works, “Saturday Night Live” skits and many recent articles about whether actor Idris Elba could be the first black Bond. But the enduring popularity of the franchise can also serve as an opportunity to remember the many ways in which racism was as prominent in Anglo-American Cold War foreign policy as in Ian Fleming’s spy novels.
So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks … Bond didn’t take to them.
Set in Istanbul, the novel “From Russia With Love” quickly establishes that Fleming really didn’t take to the Turks. The Turkish language, with its “broad vowels, quiet sibilants and modified u-sounds” was pleasant enough, but the Turks’ eyes were another story entirely. Variously described as “angry,” “cruel,” “untrusting” and “jealous,” these were eyes “that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to,” eyes “that had only lately come down from the mountains,” where they had been “trained for centuries to watch over sheep.”
Fleming’s obsession with Turkish eyes may be unique, but his descriptions (which seem to have disappeared from the Turkish translation of the novel) are uncomfortably close to those that occasionally turn up in British and American diplomatic correspondence from the same period. According to various cables, the Turk was “a proud man” and “a realistic soul,” “Oriental enough to enjoy standing on [his] honour against sordid economic considerations.” Even though U.S. officials usually took to the Turks quite enthusiastically, they still couched their political assessments, both positive and negative, in equally essentialist terms.
Evaluating Turkey’s potential contribution to NATO, for example, one diplomat noted that Turks were “a simple peasant folk” who took “satanic pleasure” in killing Russians. To understand the risk of a coup in Turkey, another wrote, it was important to recognize that “the stolid Turk very seldom blows up, but when he does, there is a major explosion.”
It’s like in the new African states where they pretend the cannibal stewpot in the chief’s hut was for cooking yams for the hungry children.
A growing body of literature has begun to explore how the racism of British and American statesmen shaped the postwar world they worked together to build in the 1950s. As the Bond books show, Cold War geopolitics often led U.S. policymakers to support European imperialism in the hopes of forestalling Soviet expansion in the third world.
Racist attitudes toward colonized peoples often made it easier for Western statesmen to work together to disenfranchise them. In seeking U.S. support for a coup in Iran, for example, the British played on orientalist stereotypes to suggest Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was shifty and unreliable. Racism often made third world leaders appear less capable of self-government or more susceptible to communist influence, thereby justifying U.S. intervention in support of authoritarian rule. Richard Nixon out-Fleminged Fleming on this count, infamously telling Donald Rumsfeld that Africans were “just out of the trees.”
The consequences of these views could be deadly. Historian Thomas Borstelmann offers a damning account of the Dwight Eisenhower administration’s support for the 1961 assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, arguing that the decision to kill someone White House officials described as a “crazy,” “ungrateful” “sorcerer” lusting after white women and property was nothing less than an “international lynching.”
‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great Negro criminal before,’ said Bond. ‘Pretty law-abiding chaps, on the whole, I should have thought.’
Prejudice has inspired some particularly destructive foreign policy. But the odd, even contradictory nature of some of these racist statements hints at a more complex relationship between bad ideas and bad policy, suggesting that these prejudices retained their power precisely because they were flexible enough to facilitate whatever conclusions policymakers wanted to draw from them.
If it seems strange that “Live and Let Die,” a novel built on lurid depictions of black violence and criminality, could begin with Bond describing the people of Harlem as “law-abiding chaps,” this sort of casual contradiction was often par for the course in diplomatic racism.
“The Muslims,” in one early British description, were “as remarkable for their toleration as for their contempt of unbelievers.” A century later, The New York Times could describe Saudi King Abdullah with paradoxical precision as “a typical Arab chieftain, simple and ceremonious, deferential and proud.” And in 1950s Ankara, newly arrived American diplomats learned that “Turks, being semi-Oriental, have certain similarities and dissimilarities to Americans.”
With self-contradictory stereotypes like these, there was no observation that couldn’t be couched in some kind of racialized language and no policy conclusion that couldn’t be justified with it.
To Bond, American cars were just beetle-shaped dodgems in which you motored along with one hand on the wheel, the radio full on and the power-operated windows closed to keep out the draughts.
For all their shared prejudice about the world’s peoples, British and American statesmen reserved some surprisingly critical language for each other as well. It’s easy to see how some of Bond’s thoughts on American cars, gamblers, retirees and millionaires could have reflected the particular anxiety felt by many in Britain as global power passed into American hands.
Even as the U.S. regularly compromised its anti-imperial principles to help preserve British power, British officials worried that behind the self-righteous rhetoric, Americans just wanted to steal Britain’s empire and thunder. Many critics today argue that through development aid and free market policies, Washington basically did steal Britain’s empire, creating its own self-serving global order; ironically, this was also a critique offered by old-fashioned British imperialists at the end of World War II. Historian William Roger Louis noted as early as 1977 that the “impression of American imperialism” was not “restricted to former colonial peoples and Cold War rivals.” Rather, “from the beginning of the postwar era, British and commonwealth statements above all perceived the irony of the American anti-colonial stance and simultaneous emergence of the United States as a global quasi-imperial power.”
Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.
For Americans, meanwhile, dwelling on the particularly retrograde nature of British imperialist attitudes — embodied so neatly by Bond — has helped make our approach to the world appear more enlightened by comparison. In 1951 the U.S. ambassador to Turkey wrote, with seeming satisfaction, a brief memo explaining the Turks’ “dislike and distrust” of Britain. Turks, he concluded, believed that the British “still have imperialist ambitions in the Middle East” and think of Turks and others as “colonials.”
Reading Fleming’s thoughts on the Turks, it’s not hard to understand why they might have felt that way about the British — but then, given the tone of the ambassador’s comments, it’s not impossible to understand how in time, many came to feel the same way about the United States too. Looking back at Fleming’s crude, anachronistic and often all-too-British racism should not be a cause for self-satisfaction, at least as long as prejudice persists in our foreign policy thinking today.
In their depictions of the Middle East, shows such as “Homeland” sometimes seem to have recalibrated an outdated worldview for a new set of geopolitical challenges. Critics of the Iran nuclear deal, meanwhile, have played on stereotypes of mad mullahs and savvy merchants to simultaneously portray Iranian leaders as crazed fanatics and shrewd chess masters.
Our stereotypes may have become slightly more subtle, both in our politics and our entertainment, but they remain as versatile and dangerous as ever.
The author wishes to thank Eric Gettig and Sean Singer for their assistance.