Democracy Lab

How the Wizard of Oz Explains America’s Foreign Policy

A few thoughts on saving the Munchkins, defeating tyranny, and the politics of America's favorite fairytale.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the great American movies of all time. The Wizard of Oz debuted in Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on Aug. 15, 1939, going on to become one of the nation's -- and the world's -- great cultural lodestones. Over the years, The Wizard of Oz has been endlessly quoted, parodied, and rehashed like few other films. It's endured because it's a great piece of filmmaking driven by an engaging story, bravado performances, and ecstatic songs. Like many fairytales, though, Oz also tells us quite a lot about the very grownup problems of the era that gave birth to it -- in ways that are oddly relevant to our present-day predicaments.

Even today many fans don't know that Frank Baum, the author of the novel on which the film is based, incorporated a lot of contemporary politics into his story. He wrote the book during the Populist era, when monetary policy (of all things) happened to be the hot issue of the day.

The American historian Henry Littlefield analyzed the entire novel in this light. In his reading, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, which was defended by the privileged interests of the time as the essential principle of "sound money" -- one that was strongly opposed by the middle-class Populists (many of them farmers) who sought economic salvation in an expansionist policy championed most famously by Democratic presidential aspirant William Jennings Bryan and exemplified by a new monetary standard incorporating silver. (Dorothy's shoes in the original novel are made of silver, not rubies. The creators of the movie chose the ruby slippers because they knew they'd look better in Technicolor, which they wanted to show off to its most powerful effect.)

The Yellow Brick Road leads to the Emerald City, which stands for the alluring but ultimately false promise of the gold-backed dollar. Dorothy, in this allegory, is the everyday American, energetic and somewhat naïve, who only achieves full political consciousness when she allies herself with farmers, industrial workers, and the hesitant yet powerful patriotic spirit that finally comes of age in the Spanish-American War. (We'll leave it up to you to figure out which characters are which.)

There's still some controversy among scholars about whether Baum really intended his book to be read this way; I suspect he saw it above all else as an engaging fable for kids, though that didn't preclude working in some contemporary politics for the grown-ups. (To me, the parallels between the politics of his day and his novel are just a bit too conspicuous to be dismissed entirely.) To a certain extent, of course, all fairytales can be read as allegories, since they operate on the level of archetype. (Just look at all the fun psychoanalysts have had with the stories of the Brothers Grimm.)

The movie version continues to live on in the imagination of its audiences partly because it stands a bit outside of time and space; there's something ageless about it. Gone with the Wind, the Hollywood blockbuster that premiered at the same time (and ended up beating Oz out at the box office), seems, by contrast, painfully dated. Even so, when I watch Oz today, I still can't help being struck how much, and how richly, it reflects the moment of its making.

Principal photography for Oz started in October 1938, just at the end of the Sudeten Crisis, when Britain and France had decided to avert all-out war by appeasing Hitler's demands for territorial concessions from Czechoslovakia. At the beginning of that month, Nazi Germany had already started annexing the Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia that was home to a majority of ethnic Germans. This meant the destruction of the most successful of the new European states born from the aftermath of World War I; Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, thought it was a price the Czechs ought to be willing to pay for "peace in our time." No one really asked the Czechs what they thought. By the time The Wizard of Oz was finished, Hitler had absorbed the rest of their country into the Third Reich, and a new world war seemed inevitable.

Most Americans knew this, but they didn't want to get involved. The preferred foreign policy of voters at the time was isolationism, which wanted to see the United States stay as far away from grubby European power struggles as possible. Most Americans undoubtedly sympathized with Chamberlain when he dismissed the Czech crisis as "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." Central Europe seemed, in those days, unfathomably exotic to Americans in particular -- which is perhaps why the makers of The Wizard of Oz chose it as the template for the fantasy land in which most of the film takes place. (I've never heard anyone who worked on the movie's production design state this explicitly, but it seems pretty obvious from the costumes worn by the Munchkins and other denizens of Oz.)

Perhaps the biggest difference between Baum's original novel and its Hollywood retelling is the role of the Wicked Witch. She's a minor character in Baum's book, but the writers at MGM decided to give her a much more prominent role in order to create dramatic tension. In the film, she's a huge and ominous presence that draws much of its force from images that were ghosting around in people's heads at the time. She presides over an army of lockstep automatons who operate out of a castle that seems to have been designed by some of the same people who did the visuals for the Nazi Party rallies, especially their notorious torchlight processions. This is Baum's gentle children's tale translated into the dark and frightening world of the late 1930s.

Dorothy, with a bit of help from her friends, ultimately succeeds in dismantling tyranny. But it's not something that she's eager to do. First she has to unveil the feckless Wizard, a louche fraud who's basically a good guy but doesn't quite have the strength to do the right thing on his own. (Probably a fair summary of how many Americans viewed Great Britain in 1939.) When the appeal is made to her best moral instincts, Dorothy steps up to the plate and does what's expected of her -- but she's not in it because she wants power for herself. She's in it because she knows she has to do the right thing. What she wants most of all, of course, is to go back to Kansas. A proper American can never really be at home in a place like Oz, with its complicated power struggles, its Technicolor seductions, and its weird ethnic conflicts.

I'm not claiming that this is the only possible reading of the movie; great works of art allow for multiple interpretations that often happily co-exist. At its most obvious level, Oz is a profoundly American story about the adventure of personal self-discovery, about finding that magical strength that lies within (preferably with a bit of help from your friends -- especially if they happen to be a manic robot, a man of grass, and an emasculated carnivore). But precisely because The Wizard of Oz is such an American story, and also because it's so deeply steeped in its times, the movie has managed to capture something of the ambivalence with which Americans viewed their own country's place in the world at the time -- and still do today.

The 21st-century United States is deeply entangled in global affairs, yet many Americans, exhausted by the recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, are increasingly reluctant to embark in armed crusades beyond their borders. Even today, as President Obama reluctantly deploys military force to defend an embattled minority in the mountains of Iraq, it's still possible to feel that deep tension between the American urge to defend high moral principles around the world even while longing to avoid the sort of foreign involvements that George Washington warned about in his farewell address.

We want to help those people in their funny costumes, since ultimately they're just like us. Sometimes doing the right thing means taking journeys into weird foreign realms, perhaps even offing a couple of bad guys along the way. But really, in the end, there's no place like home.

Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Democracy Lab

9 Things to Avoid When Creating Your Own Caliphate

If you want to rule for 1,000 years, don't touch my daughters or my cigarettes.

Dear Abu:

First of all, do you mind if I call you Abu? Look, nothing personal, but I understand that your name is a bit of a crock; apparently you weren't even born in Baghdad. And as for that new title of "caliph" that you've given yourself -- well, who am I to stop you from shooting for the stars? But look here: A little humility wouldn't hurt.

I've just taken another glance at the video of you earlier this month, when you topped off the success of your jihadi army's latest military campaign by taking to the pulpit of the Grand Mosque in Mosul to proclaim the creation of a new caliphate. Yeah, I get that the "Islamic State in Syria and Iraq" was a little bit of a mouthful. But isn't proclaiming the "Islamic State" as a worldwide caliphate getting a bit ahead of yourself?

The history of past attempts to create Islamic states is not particularly inspiring. The Iranian revolutionaries managed to do it, but they, of course, are Shiites -- whom you don't even really consider to be Muslims. The Saudis and some of the other Gulf Arab states try to live by strict fundamentalist rules, but they're all monarchies, which you don't like, either. (Only God should rule over humankind, amiright?) The kind of system you're trying to set up now is closer to the ones established by the Afghan Taliban or Ansar Dine, the North African jihadists who imposed their version of sharia on northern Mali for a year starting in 2012 -- essentially a military dictatorship founded on a superstrict interpretation of Islamic law. In some situations, such as the civil war in Syria (or pre-Taliban Afghanistan), this form of government might actually look better than the alternative of bloody anarchy. But so far it doesn't look like a recipe for enduring stability.

You aren't even the first one to claim the founding of a new caliphate since the original one ended back in 1924. Muslims in India and Africa have declared their own caliphates at various moments over the past 150 years only to see those attempts end in ignominious failure. More recently, nascent Islamic states have foundered on their striking urge to offer safe havens to terrorists, which has ended up putting them in the cross-hairs of well-armed Western governments. I think you're aware of this dismal track record. Otherwise, I don't think you would have made that appeal to Muslim professionals to contribute urgently needed professional expertise. You know you'll have a big challenge ahead if you're going to prove to a skeptical world that you can govern.

I'm not a Muslim (as I think you probably guessed from my name), but my travels around the Islamic world have given me opportunities to sample the views of people who have lived under these experiments in extreme Islamic rule -- and what I've heard is mostly a lot of complaining. So if you're really determined to push ahead with those plans for building an Islamic state, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind:

1. You might want to think twice about wearing a Rolex. One of the major reputational advantages that puritanical jihadists enjoy around the Muslim world is the perception that they're idealists, resistant to worldly temptations. By wearing a flashy watch during your speech in Mosul (see photo above), you've given a gift to your enemies. If people begin to get the impression that you're just as corrupt and blinged out as the rulers in Baghdad, you'll have a hard time getting traction.

2. Don't ban music. Afghans and Malians have treasured musical traditions. But their respective Islamist adventurers decided to prohibit music as "un-Islamic" (a highly debatable interpretation of the holy texts -- though I know you could care less what I think on the matter). Needless to say, the prohibitions tended to be deeply unpopular and made the jihadists look like ignorant outsiders.

Of course, your supporters have been sending death threats to a Kurdish pop artist over her new video. Way to make friends and influence people.

3. Think twice about punishing girls for alleged immodesty. Soon after they took power in northern Mali, the jihadists sent patrols around Timbuktu to detain any young women seen outside their homes wearing anything other than full head-to-toe hijab. That really didn't go over well. Halle Ousmane Cissé, the mayor of Timbuktu, told me how he had complained to the Ansar Dine leaders: "I told them, 'You want to change our religion into another religion. You throw our wives and daughters into our houses and beat them in front of us. And then you want us to love you?'"

Predictably, you and your buddies have started doing the same thing in the territory under your control. Maybe Sunni Iraqis will appreciate your efforts to enforce puritan morality. But I wonder. Nobody ever likes the Vice and Virtue Police.

4. Don't vandalize ancient cultural relics. The jihadists who ruled in Timbuktu decided that some of the items in the city's famed collection of ancient manuscripts didn't conform to "proper" Islamic teachings, so they tried to destroy them. Locals took that as a serious insult to their own cultural traditions. (It also helped to destroy Timbuktu's reputation as a tourist destination, one of the main pillars of the local economy.) The Taliban notoriously destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, which probably blotted the group's international reputation more than any other thing they did in the pre-9/11 period.

Now you seem to be on the same track, if your appalling destruction of the Tomb of Jonah in Mosul is any indication. According to the latest reports, some Mosul citizens are even banding together to defend the city's monuments against your onslaught. Don't you guys ever learn?

5. Try not to include too many foreigners in your army. Most Syrians and Iraqis consider themselves to be Syrians and Iraqis just as much as they do Muslims. One reason the Iraqi tribes rose up against al Qaeda in the 2006 Anbar Awakening was because they resented the foreign jihadists telling them how to live. (The American occupiers, though irritating enough, didn't presume to marry local women or impose their own religious doctrine on the population -- which made them the lesser evil in the eyes of tribal leaders, who ended up taking their side against the jihadists.) Likewise, residents of Timbuktu found it equally hard to bond with the non-African, non-Arabic-speaking jihadists who were part of the Ansar Dine contingent that took over the city. Some reporting from Syria suggests that you're already having problems with this -- like that story about Omar the Chechen, a big, bloodthirsty dude from Russia. You might want to get a handle on this.

6. Don't alienate local notables. That's another big lesson from the Iraqi tribal revolt against al Qaeda, when influential tribal leaders finally decided they'd had enough of you guys lording it over them. Modern-day Islamists don't tolerate possible challenges to their power. But such attitudes invariably inspire a backlash from local elites that your enemies can exploit. In Afghanistan, even the leaders of one of the country's biggest Pashtun tribes turned their backs on the Taliban and sided with the Americans. Now it looks like some of the sheikhs in northern Iraq are already tiring of their alliance with you against the hated government in Baghdad. Good luck with that.

7. Don't prohibit little pleasures. The Taliban prohibited the fond Afghan pastime of kite flying. The Iranians crack down on TV satellite antennas -- with the predictable effect of making them even more desirable. And now you've decided you're going to ban smoking? Smart.

8. Don't spread disunity among Muslims. Islamist militias in Libya have made themselves unpopular (among other things) by blowing up the tombs of Sufi saints, who are denounced by ultraconservative Salafists as examples of "false Islam." Unfortunately for the Islamists, though, it just so happens that many Libyans feel more at home with the Sufi brand of Islam than with the sere and alien Salafism that 21st-century holy warriors want to ram down their throats. That's one of several factors that have persuaded them to vote against the Islamists whenever they've had a chance. Your own crew managed to earn a rebuke from al Qaeda itself for, in part, those attacks you staged on Shiite shrines in Iraq. Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Osama bin Laden's deputy, scolded you and your friends: "In the absence of popular support, the Islamic mujahid [holy warrior] movement will be crushed in the shadows." Exactly.

9. Don't declare yourself a caliph.

That's a highly polarizing move that will alienate many other Sunni Muslims. Sure, everyone wants to see the caliphate restored -- OK, not everyone -- but even zealots, as it turns out, have very different ideas about how to do that. So proclaiming a caliphate is a great way to anger people who might otherwise be on your side.

Oh, but wait. You already did that.

So where does this leave us? I have no doubt that there are many Muslims around the world who approve of the idea of an Islamic state. Most of them associate the idea with law and order, high standards of justice, and a strict moral code that all contrast sharply with the corruption and viciousness of most of the leaders who currently rule in the Islamic world. Yet most of those who claimed to make this dream a reality chose to impose it on subject populations by brute force -- usually inspiring chaos and mayhem in the process. By declaring a caliphate, you apparently thought you were going to rally the globe's Muslims around your cause even while demonstrating your resolve to rest of the world and deterring action against you. But your actions may actually have the opposite effects. (And yeah, your persecution of Mosul's indigenous Christians certainly hasn't helped your global PR effort.)

The gap between high Islamic ideals and what actually ends up happening in places like ISIS-controlled Iraq is wide. So, Abu, one final bit of advice: maybe you should actually try listening to what the people you're supposed to be ruling actually want. You might be surprised to hear what they have to say.

Francois Gatete/YouTube