Modern-Day American Imperialism: The Middle East and Beyond

[A Talk delivered at Boston University, March 17, 2009. Transcribed by Steve Lyne] 


I’ve been asked to talk about modern-day American imperialism. That’s a rather challenging task.  In fact, talking about American imperialism is rather like talking about triangular triangles.  The United States is the one country that exists, as far as I know, and ever has, that was founded as an empire explicitly.  According to the founding fathers, when the country was founded it was an “infant empire.”  That’s George Washington.  Modern-day American imperialism is just a later phase of a process that has continued from the very first moment without a break, going in a very steady line.  So, we are looking at one phase in a process that was initiated when the country was founded and has never changed. 


The model for the founding fathers that they borrowed from Britain was the Roman Empire.  They wanted to emulate it.  I’ll talk about that a little.  Even before the Revolution, these notions were very much alive.  Benjamin Franklin, 25 years before the Revolution, complained that the British were imposing limits on the expansion of the colonies.  He objected to this, borrowing from Machiavelli.  He admonished the British (I’m quoting him), “A prince that acquires new territories and removes the natives to give his people room will be remembered as the father of the nation.”  And George Washington agreed.  He wanted to be the father of the nation.  His view was that “the gradual extension of our settlement will as certainly cause the savage as the wolf to retire, both being beasts of prey, though they differ in shape.”  I’ll skip some contemporary analogs that you can think of.  Thomas Jefferson, the most forthcoming of the founding fathers, said, “We shall drive them [the savages] — We shall drive them with the beasts of the forests into the stony mountains,” and the country will ultimately be “free of blot or mixture”—meaning red or black.  It wasn’t quite achieved, but that was the goal.  Furthermore, Jefferson went on, “Our new nation will be the nest from which America, north and south, is to be peopled,” displacing not only the red men here but the Latin-speaking population to the south and anyone else who happened to be around. 


There was a deterrent to those glorious aims, mainly Britain.  Britain was the most powerful military force in the world at the time, and it did prevent the steps that the founding fathers attempted to take.  In particular, it blocked the invasion of Canada.  The first attempted invasion of Canada was before the Revolution, and there were several others later, but it was always blocked by British force, which is why Canada exists.  The United States did not actually recognize Canada’s existence until after the First World War.  Another goal that was blocked by British force was Cuba.  Again, the founding fathers regarded the taking over of Cuba as essential to the survival of the infant empire.  But the British fleet was in the way, and they were too powerful, just as the Russians blocked John F. Kennedy’s invasion.  However, they understood that sooner or later it would come.  The great grand strategist John Quincy Adams, the sort-of intellectual father of manifest destiny, pointed out in the 1820s that we just have to wait.  He said that Cuba will sooner or later fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, just as an apple falls from the tree.  What he meant is that over time the United States would become more powerful, Britain would become weaker, and the deterrent would be overcome, which in fact finally happened. 


And we should not ignore these early events.  They are very much related to current history.  That’s made very clear by scholarship on current affairs.   A major scholarly work on the Bush Doctrine (George W Bush doctrine), the preemptive war doctrine, is by John Lewis Gaddis, the most respected historian of the Cold War period.  It’s on the roots of the Bush Doctrine.  And he traces it right back to John Quincy Adams, who is his hero—the great grand strategist.  In particular, to Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida, which conquered Florida from the Spanish.  That was strongly approved by then Secretary of State Adams in a famous state paper in which he advocated the principle of preemptive war on the basis of the thesis that expansion is the path to security, as Gaddis puts it.  So if we want to be secure (after all, we want to defend ourselves), we have to expand–at that time expand into Florida.  We were being threatened by what were called runaway slaves and lawless Indians, who were in the way.  They were threatening us by their existence, by barring our expansion.  And as Gaddis points out, there’s a straight line from that to George Bush.  And now “expansion is the path to security” means we take over the world, we take over space, take over the galaxy.  There’s no limit to how much you have to expand to guarantee security, and that’s been the principle from the beginning. 


Gaddis is a good historian, and he cites the right sources on the so-called Seminole war, Jackson’s conquest of Florida.  But he doesn’t tell us what the sources say, and it’s worth looking at what they say.  They describe it as a war of murder and plunder and extermination, driving out the indigenous population.  There were pretexts made, but they were so flimsy that nobody paid much attention to them.  It was also the first executive war in violation of the Constitution, setting a precedent which has been followed ever since.  There was no Congressional authorization.  Adams lied through his teeth to Congress.  It’s all very familiar.  So Gaddis is correct: it is the model for the Bush Doctrine.  He approves of both of them, but that’s a moral judgment.  But his analysis is correct.  Yes, what is happening now traces right back to the wars of extermination and plunder and murder and lying and deceit and so on—the executive wars that John Quincy Adams was the great spokesman for. 


Adams, incidentally, later in his life regretted this.  After his own contributions were well in the past, he condemned the Mexican War as an executive war and a terrible precedent.  It wasn’t a precedent; he’d established the precedent.  And he also expressed remorse over the fate of what he called “that hapless race of Native Americans which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty.”  They knew what they were doing.  Contemporary history likes to prettify it, but if you read the descriptions and the observations by the people involved, they knew exactly what they were doing.  He expressed regret for it, but his own role was long past. 


Well, it’s commonly argued that American imperialism began in 1898.  That’s when the US did finally succeed in conquering Cuba, what’s called in the history books “liberating” Cuba—namely intervening in order to prevent Cuba from liberating itself from Spain, and turning it into a virtual colony as it remained until 1959, setting off hysteria in the United States which hasn’t ended yet.  Also, conquering and taking over Hawaii, which was stolen by force and guile from its population.  Puerto Rico, another colony.  Soon moving to the Philippines and liberating the Philippines.  Also liberating a couple of hundred thousand souls to heaven in the process.  And again, the reverberations of that extend right to the present: ample state terror, and the one corner of Asia that hasn’t undergone high development—something we’re not supposed to notice. 


But the belief that the imperial thrust started in 1898 is an example of what historians of empire call “the salt water fallacy,” the belief that you have an empire if you cross salt water.  In fact, if the Mississippi River were as wide as the Irish Sea, the imperial thrust would have started much earlier.  But that’s an irrelevance.  Expanding over settled territory is no different from expanding over the waters.  So, what happened in 1898 was just an extension of the process that began when the infant empire, as it saw itself, was first formed, in its first moments.  The extension to beyond was… Again, a lot of this starts in New England, with New England merchants who were very eager to take over the Pacific trade, the fabulous markets of China, which were always in their minds, which meant conquering the northwest so you can control the ports and so on, meant kicking the British out and others out, and so on.  It went on from right here.  The goal, as William Seward, who was Secretary of State in the 1860s, pointed out (a central figure in American imperialism) was that we have to gain command of the empire of the seas.  We conquer the continent.  We’re going to take it over.  The Monroe Doctrine was a declaration that we’ll take it over—everybody else keep out.  And the process of doing so continued through the nineteenth century and beyond until today.  But now we have to have command of the seas.  And that meant when the time was ripe, 70 years later, when the apple started to fall from the tree, given relative power, proceeding overseas to the overseas empire.  But it’s basically no different than the earlier steps.  The leading philosophical imperialist, Brooks Adams, pointed out (this is 1885; we were just on the verge of moving overseas extensively) that “all Asia must be reduced to our economic system, the Pacific must be turned into an inland sea” (just like the Caribbean had been).  And “there’s no reason,” he said, “why the United States should not become a greater seat of wealth and power than ever was England, Rome, or Constantinople.” 


Well, again there was a deterrent.  The European powers wanted a piece of the action in East Asia, and Japan by then was becoming a formidable force.  So it was necessary to explore more complex modes of gaining command of turning the Pacific into an inland sea and going on.  And that was lucidly explained by Woodrow Wilson, who is one of the most brutal and vicious interventionists in American history.  The probable permanent destruction of Haiti is one of his many accomplishments.  Those of you who study international relations theory or read about it know that there is a notion of Wilsonian idealism.  The fact that that notion can exist is a very interesting commentary on our intellectual culture and scholarly culture if you look at his actual actions.  Fine words are easy enough.  But these are some of his fine words which he was smart enough not to put into print.  He just wrote them for himself.  He said, “Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down … Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.”


 That’s 1907.  There’s a current version of that, a crude version by Thomas Friedman, who says that “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas” (meaning the US Air Force).  Well, that’s a crude version of Wilson’s point.  You’ve got to batter down the doors by force and threat, and no corner of the world must be left unused—no useful corner. 


There was a watershed in this process at the time of the Second World War.  At the time of the Second World War, the US already had by far the largest economy in the world and had for a long time, but it wasn’t a major player in world affairs.  Britain was the leading player, France second, the United States lagging.  It controlled the hemisphere and had made forays into the Pacific, but it was not the leading player.  However, during the war, the US planners understood that the war was going to end with the US the world dominant power.  However it turned out, other competitors were going to destroy themselves and each other, and the US would be left alone with incomparable security.  In fact, the US gained enormously from the war.  Industrial production virtually quadrupled.  The war ended the Depression—the New Deal measures hadn’t done so.  At the end of the war, the US had literally half of the world’s wealth (and competitors were either damaged or destroyed) and incomparable security.  It controlled the western hemisphere; it controlled both oceans; it controlled the opposite side of both oceans.  There’s nothing remotely like it in history.  And during the war, planners understood that something like that was going to turn out.  It was obvious from the nature of the war.  From 1939 to 1945, there were high level meetings, regular meetings, of the State Department (the State Department planners) and the Council on Foreign Relations (the sort-of main external nongovernmental input into foreign policy), and they laid careful plans for the world that they expected to emerge.  It was a world, they said, in which the United States will “hold unquestioned power” and will ensure “the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with US global designs.”  Incidentally, I’m not quoting NeoCons.  I’m quoting the Roosevelt administration, the peak of American Liberalism.



They called for what they called “an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy” for the United States and bar any exercise of sovereignty by anyone who would interfere with it.  And they would do this in a region that they called the “grand area.” Well, in the early part of the war, 1939 to 1943, the grand area was defined as the western hemisphere routinely, the former British Empire (which the US would take over), and the Far East.  That would be the grand area.  They assumed at the time that there would be a German-led world—the rest.  So there would be a non-German world (that’s us) and a German world.  As the Russians gradually ground down the Nazi armies after 1942, it became pretty clear that there wouldn’t be a German world.  So the grand area was expanded to be as much of the world as could be controlled— limitless.  That’s simply pursuing the old position that expansion is the path to security for the infant empire of 1736. 


These policies were laid down during the war, but then they were implemented right after the war.  In fact, now that we have available in the declassified record the planning documents of the late 1940s, it turns out they’re (not very surprisingly) very similar to the wartime planning.  One of the leading figures was George Kennan, who was head of the State Department policy planning staff.  He wrote one of his many important papers in 1948 (PPS23 if you want to look it up), in which he noted that the United States has half the world’s wealth but only 6% of its population, and our primary goal in foreign policy must be, as he put it, to “maintain this disparity.” He was referring specifically to Asia, but the principle was general.  And in order to do so, we must put aside all “vague and idealistic slogans” about democracy and human rights.  Those are for public propaganda, colleges, and so on.  But we must put those aside and keep to “straight power concepts. “ There’s no other way to maintain the disparity.  Then, in the same paper and elsewhere, he and his staff went through the world and assigned to each part of the world what would be what they called its function in the global system in which the US would have unchallenged power—unquestioned power.  So, Latin America and the Middle East: The Middle East obviously would provide the energy resources that we would control, gradually pushing out Britain—throwing out France immediately and pushing out Britain slowly over the years and turning it into a “junior partner,” as the British Foreign Office ruefully described their role at that time.  Latin America we simply control.  It’s “our little region over here, which has never bothered anyone,” as Secretary of War Stimson said while the US was violating the principles it was establishing by setting up a regional organization in violation of the UN Charter, and so on.  So, Latin America we keep, or at least we control. 


Southeast Asia would be—its function was to provide resources and raw materials to the former colonial powers.  Meanwhile, we would purchase them, too.  That would send dollars there, which the colonial powers would take, not the population.  And they could use those.  Britain, France, the Netherlands could use the dollars to purchase US manufactures. (It’s called a triangular trading arrangement), which would allow…   The US had the only really functioning industrial system in the world and had a huge excess of manufacturing products, and there was what was called a “dollar gap.”  The countries we wanted to sell it to didn’t have dollars—that’s Europe, basically.  So we had to provide them with dollars, and the function of Southeast Asia was to play a role in that.  Hence the support for French colonialism in recapturing its Indochinese colony, and so on.   There were various variations, but that’s the basic story. 


And so Kennan went through the world and assigned them a function each part.  When he got to Africa, he decided that the United States really didn’t have much interest in Africa at that time, and therefore we should hand it over to the Europeans to “exploit” (that’s his word)—to “exploit” for their reconstruction.  He indicated that it would also give them a kind of a psychological lift after the damage of the war and while we were taking over all of their domains.  Well, you could imagine a different relationship between Europe and Africa in the light of history, but that couldn’t even be considered.   I mean, it was too outlandish to discuss and still is.  So Africa was to be exploited by Europe for its reconstruction, with consequences we know. 


The US has since gotten into the act.  Well, that was Kennan.  He was removed from office soon after because he was considered too soft-hearted—not up to dealing with this harsh world.  And he was replaced with real tough guys: Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, and others.  There’s no time to go through it, but if you want an education on hysterical jingoist fanaticism, you really should read their documents.  If you study these issues, you’ve heard of at least NSC68, which is discussed by everyone but its rhetoric is omitted.  And you have to look at its rhetoric to see what’s going on in these crazed heads of the great thinkers.  And this is true of the whole National Security Council culture.  There’s a wonderful book on it that came out a couple of years ago by James Peck, a Sinologist, called Washington’s China.  It’s the first scholarly book to go through

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