“[Coca-Cola] is the opiate of the running dogs of revanchist capitalism.” – Mao’s little red book “Democracy is not Coca-Cola”, with the whole world having to drink from the US product, quipped Foreign Minister Wang Yi, explaining that all countries must follow a path of development that suits their own national conditions and the needs of their own people. Wang is probably right. But since he is thinking of American democracy and the American empire, the story of the world’s most famous soft drink actually is intimately linked to both. In some sense, American democracy is or was Coca-Cola. At least Mao Zedong seemed to have thought so. “Apparently some of our friends overseas have difficulty distinguishing between the United States and Coca-Cola. Perhaps we should not complain too much about this,” wrote a company executive in 1950 to a colleague, quoted in Mark Pendergrast’s 1993 For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. While Coca-Cola did not play the same nefarious and violent role that the United Fruit Company did in American foreign policy, the history of its international corporate success was part and parcel of the axis of the US military, government and business. This axis is the recurrent theme without which it is impossible to understand modern US history. Despite dark day at Capitol, promise of US democracy burns bright During World War II, Coke was a must-have drink for American soldiers, who in turn helped spread its taste everywhere they went. But that would not have been possible except for two key decisions. One was the patriotic offer of Coke president Robert Woodruff that American GIs should have the drink for free whenever possible, but must not be made to pay more than 5 US cents per bottle. Another was made by his close friend and golf buddy, Dwight Eisenhower, himself a Coke addict. After some friendly lobbying, the supreme allied commander ordered in 1943 that where the transportation of essential military cargo was not affected, Coke machines and equipment for bottling, washing and capping should be shipped to supply the soft drink to the troops. Army chief of staff George C Marshall then worked out the executive details by classifying Coke under “Articles of necessity and convenience” for US troops. His famous Marshall Plan, the reconstruction project that helped rebuild war-torn Europe after the end of hostilities, also provided US corporations such as Coca-Cola preferential access to the European market. In 1945, Coca-Cola already owned 64 international bottling plants that had provided the drink to US combat troops, paid for mostly by the US government. Eisenhower, the man who would later decry “the military-industrial complex”, personally engineered one of the first close relationships between the military and the private sector. The “Bretton Woods” system of fixed international exchange rates created two post-war institutions. The International Monetary Fund was more of a European affair, but the Americans ran the World Bank. The bank’s long-serving and powerful head, Eugene Black, was chief disbursement officer of the US Army in Italy during the war, and worked closely with Coca-Cola. As the bank expanded development projects across Latin America, Black hired Mladin Zarubica, a legendary Coke executive, to survey the economies of target countries. Zarubica took the opportunity to collect data and look for business opportunities not only for the World Bank, but also Coke and one of its major financiers, Citibank. His surveys were pivotal to Coke’s expansion in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Then, there was India, China and the rest of Asia. Unfortunately, Mao and his merry band of communists took over China and nationalised all of Coke’s plants. Its plant in Hong Kong, restored as a colony to the British, was the only one left on Chinese soil. It became a symbol of American capitalism against the “bamboo curtain”. For Mao and his followers, of course, the Coke’s red English and Chinese logo stood for degenerate Western capitalism. The fatal blind spots of American democracy In 1950, writing in People’s Daily , minister of culture Shen Dehong – also known by his pen name Mao Dun – warned that Coke was as dangerous as the US military in spreading American civilisation. And Chinese communist writers liked to pun on the term “Coca-colonisation”. But more than two decades later, the American government would again come to the rescue of Coca-Cola. In the early 1960s, Richard Nixon worked as a highly paid lawyer and globe-hopping promoter of rival Pepsi, whose advertising executives helped run Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968. To the chagrin of Coke executives, Pepsi most likely had benefited from Nixon’s influence as president to win an exclusive distribution contract within the Soviet Union. But it was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that would eventually open doors for Coke. At the same time as the US State Department formally normalised diplomatic relations with China in 1978, Coke secured its own contract with Beijing, marking its triumphant return as the first US corporation allowed to operate in the newly opening communist China. Of course, this is just a piecemeal account of Coke and the US government. Pendergrast’s book provides the full history, starting from its unregulated use of cocaine in the drink from the late 19th century, along with what he claimed was its modern secret recipe.