Alan Moore sets Watchmen’s main storyline in 1985, though it frequently flashes back as early as the 1940s. Set in a fictionalized version of the real world, the story takes place in the context of 20th-century America’s defining moments, such as the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the Cold War, all instances in which the United States government began to show signs of its own corruption, hubris, and war-mongering. Though some events in the book happen slightly differently than they did historically, Moore’s depiction of the United States closely parallels reality, and thus it both sheds light on and criticizes the current state of the U.S. Though the U.S. and its government claim the moral high ground in the novel, Moore depicts the country as power-hungry and corrupt, suggesting that loyalty to such a government is despicable.
Moore depicts the American government of the novel as corrupt and hawkish, concerned more with its own power than the lives of its citizens, and this depiction implicitly critiques the real-life government as well. When the physicist Jon Osterman falls into a testing chamber and becomes a superhuman, the American government immediately uses him to gather power for itself. Although Jon’s superhuman intelligence could benefit all of humanity through new technology, the government’s first impulse is to use him as a weapon to dominate its opponents. The government names him Dr. Manhattan to evoke the memory of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, signifying that Dr. Manhattan is the new ultimate weapon. Dr. Manhattan establishes American dominance, but this does not lead to peace. When the Russians offer to negotiate a peace treaty if America agrees not to use Dr. Manhattan as a weapon—thus leveling the playing field—the American government refuses, suggesting that the government cares more about maintaining dominance than establishing peace. The American government not only gathers power over its enemies, but also over its own people. At a party of high-ranking government figures, politicians laugh appreciatively when Edward Blake (the Comedian) implies that he was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as the recent assassination of two journalists, Woodward and Bernstein, who were about to uncover the Watergate scandal. Additionally, rather than be impeached for this scandal, President Nixon amends the Constitution and serves five consecutive terms. Such actions imply that the U.S. government uses underhanded means—even assassination—to maintain control and pursue its own objectives, over and against its own people.
Furthermore, Moore’s damning depiction of the American government suggests that patriotism and loyalty to such a power are despicable, rather than noble. Although Blake is an attempted rapist and a murderer, he embodies the American spirit. His hero costume bears a star on one shoulder and stripes on another, evoking the image of the American flag. Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) writes in his memoir that the government grooms Blake into a “patriotic symbol.” The fact that such a murderous, maniacal figure is heralded as the embodiment of American values further condemns the American government and suggests that allegiance to such a power signifies approval of violence, corruption, and war-mongering, rather than nobility or virtue. Watchmen argues that such conduct subverts the American dream itself. One night, Blake and Daniel Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl) set out to disperse protesters who are criticizing the government and its use of vigilantes. Blake gleefully shoots protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, badly injuring some. Daniel watches, disturbed, but does not stop Blake. When Daniel reflects on the violence and asks, “What happened to the American dream?” Blake replies, “It came true. You’re looking at it.” Blake’s response suggests that American ideals of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity have been subverted by the government and its supporters by exercising power and controlling American citizens. The nobler ideal of the United States that might once have existed is now obsolete, so pledging loyalty to that ideal is misguided.
Although Watchmen takes place in a fictional universe, Alan Moore’s critical depiction of the American government extends to the real world, charging that it’s become corrupt, war-mongering, and set on cementing its own power at the expense of all else.
American Corruption and Patriotism ThemeTracker
American Corruption and Patriotism Quotes in Watchmen
They explain that the name [Dr. Manhattan] has been chosen for the ominous associations it will raise in America’s enemies. They’re shaping me into something gaudy and lethal… It’s all getting out of my hands.
It is the oldest ironies that are still the most satisfying: man, when preparing for bloody war, will orate loudly and most eloquently in the name of peace.