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Review of Richard Seymour, American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012)


Richard Seymour’s American Insurgents highlights the rich history of anti-imperialist activism within the United States, a vital aspect of US history largely omitted from standard history textbooks. The book combines inspiring stories of moral courage with a set of important lessons for present-day organizing efforts.

 

Seymour challenges conventional perceptions of antiwar and anti-imperialist movements on three counts: 1) the Democratic Party has never demonstrated a principled anti-imperialism, and, far from leading antiwar movements, has historically been just as imperialist as the Republican Party; 2) anti-imperialist sentiment has usually been strongest among the most oppressed sectors in US society, not among middle-class white youth; and 3) most anti-imperialist movements have been anything but “isolationist,” with many groups actively cultivating links of solidarity with overseas victims of US policy.

Each of these three arguments suggests an important lesson for current-day organizing: 1) reliance on the Democratic Party is a very poor strategy for anti-imperialist movements, and should never take the place of independent grassroots work; 2) activists’ energies are most productively spent on organizing the working class and communities of color; and 3) cultivating connections with oppressed populations overseas can greatly strengthen a movement, making outreach/protest efforts in the United States more effective and also enriching the perspective of US organizers—as Seymour argues, “it is when Americans have been most internationalist that their anti-imperialism has been most consistent, militant, and effective” (p. 10).

Bipartisan Consensus and Dangerous Alliances

One of the most striking features of US imperialism, from the founding of the country until now, has been its consistently bipartisan nature. As Seymour observes, “the combination of pragmatic social reform and imperialism was the foundation on which Cold War liberalism was erected” (p. 31). In fact, as many historians have shown, and as Seymour confirms, this combination also characterized liberal elite thought well prior to 1945. Throughout the nineteenth century there was virtual consensus among political elites that the United States should expand westward, seizing indigenous land and exterminating, imprisoning, or (at the most liberal end) assimilating indigenous populations. Political rivalries among leaders like John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson obscured fundamental agreement on the rights of the US government in relation to American Indians. Seymour argues that “the difference between Adams and Jackson could be seen as the difference between a poison and a pistol” (p. 35). The overseas expansion that began in earnest in the 1890s—starting with Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam—also enjoyed strong bipartisan support [1]. If politicians often differed on the proper means of expansion, few disagreed with the fundamental assumption that the United States should expand its control over foreign lands and peoples. Liberals and social reformers like William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson were crucial to this policy [2]. The liberal contribution to Cold War-era imperialism is hardly in doubt: the most-revered of Cold War liberals, John and Robert Kennedy, initiated the illegal bombing of South Vietnam, vastly increased the US military budget, and sought to overthrow the Cuban Revolution by unleashing “the terrors of the earth” on the Cuban people (among other accomplishments) [3]. The bipartisan commitment to US global dominance remains as strong as ever since the end of the Cold War, though preferred tactics vary.

Consequently, Seymour argues, reliance on liberal politicians has been a recurring pitfall of anti-imperialist movements. In the 1900 presidential election the Anti-Imperialist League decided to throw its support behind the Democrat and social reform candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had embraced the 1898 Treaty of Paris giving the US government control over Cuba, the Philippines, and other former Spanish territories. Bryan would participate in later imperialist ventures in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s own mild social reformism and 1916 campaign promise to keep the country out of World War I also co-opted much of organized labor and the left, whose opposition to the war was partially defused as a result (though there was still massive left resistance to the war, necessitating what Wilson called “the firm hand of stern repression”) [4]. Faith in subsequent Democratic presidents would likewise prove misplaced: Democrats led the United States into World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and directly enabled brutal repression in Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Haiti, Indonesia, Guatemala, Palestine, South Korea, the Philippines, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, Colombia, and many other countries. Seymour argues that one of the most important social movements of the 1980s, the antinuclear movement, experienced “a severe demoralization” as a “result of depending on the Democratic Party to implement antinuclear policies” (p. 159). In general, ties to the Democratic Party have had “profoundly demobilizing effects on antiwar movements” (p. 62). This realization should not stop leftists from trying to work alongside less radical forces to advance common goals, and nor does it mean that Democrats and Republicans are equally terrible on all issues. But Seymour makes a convincing case that anti-imperialist movements should maintain a strict independence from both major parties and avoid any illusion that politicians will deliver real policy change.

The opposite pitfall is reliance on right-wing bedfellows. In addition to placing faith in Bryan and the Democrats, the Anti-Imperialist League also accommodated Southern segregationist elites, many of whom opposed certain imperial ventures out of racist contempt for foreign peoples or to protect their own agricultural interests. The League tried hard to create a broad anti-imperialist coalition that transcended sectional and political divides, but in doing so compromised other principles and alienated much of the left. Seymour argues that the League consciously avoided “alliances with more radical forces” like socialists and anarchists, instead seeking “the support of southern racist elites to fight political battles within the legislature” (p. 71). Furthermore, the alliance with southern racists achieved little in the way of legislative gains. This story seems to offer a lesson for today’s left, which struggles over the appropriate response to Ron Paul and pseudo-libertarian forces on the right that critique US military imperialism while embracing racism, sexism, corporate power, inequality, and other evils. As Seymour notes, right-wing anti-imperialism has a long history in the United States, and Ron Paul is only the latest manifestation. Historical experience suggests that progressives are better off organizing the oppressed and strengthening the left rather than cozying up to unsavory groups (though in my view the working-class people who are drawn to those right-wing forces should not be dismissed by the left, for they have legitimate economic and political grievances).

More Fruitful Strategies

One of Seymour’s central arguments is that anti-imperialist sentiments have been most pronounced in the most oppressed sectors of US society, particularly among blacks and the working class. Recognizing this history is the first step toward building a powerful anti-imperialist movement, especially at a time when barriers of class, race, and culture continue to divide many middle-class white activists from working-class whites and communities of color.

African Americans have a rich history of opposition to US imperialism. Seymour describes the strong black opposition to the occupations of Cuba and Philippines, including the significant number of black soldiers who switched sides in the Philippines occupation. During the Korean War, which enjoyed broad support from US labor leaders and even the Socialist Party, black leftists like W.E.B. DuBois “were among the most inclined to be in public opposition to the war” (p. 121). The Vietnam War met with massive black opposition, a trend particularly apparent among the thousands of black soldiers who deserted or disobeyed orders in the field. Black civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were among the first voices of principled opposition to the war. One of many inspiring quotations that appear throughout the book is Muhammad Ali’s classic statement of refusal to the draft, worth quoting at length:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. (p. 136)

US workers of all races were also more likely to oppose the Vietnam War than middle- or upper-class people, as polls at the time demonstrated [5]. Common mythology notwithstanding, “opposition to the war was not concentrated among affluent college students” (p. 141). Working-class students played an important part in the antiwar movement, however, and were joined by other segments of the US working class. Soldiers, who were overwhelmingly of working-class origins, were arguably the most powerful source of resistance to the war apart from the Vietnamese themselves. Tens of thousands engaged in varying levels of resistance by refusing to be deployed, disobeying orders in the field, deserting, and even attacking their commanding officers, in addition to playing a prominent role in antiwar organizing back home. There is also a long and inspiring history of working-class resistance to other wars, often across racial lines and in the unlikeliest of places. In the 1917 Green Corn Rebellion in Oklahoma, hundreds of whites, blacks, and Indians were violently repressed for collectively resisting what they called “a rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” [6].

Seymour seems to suggest that successful anti-imperialist organizing must also embrace domestic struggles in the United States, illuminating the connections between oppression at home and imperialism abroad. At times the left has combined these spheres of struggle very well. In the 1930s, “left-wing antiracist struggles would segue repeatedly into anti-imperialist agitation around [the US occupation of] Haiti” (p. 94). The US Civil Rights Movement took inspiration from anticolonial movements in the Third World, and in turn laid much of the groundwork for the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with many organizations and activists participating in both movements. The need to bridge domestic struggles and anti-imperialist efforts is also strategically necessary given that such a small portion of the US population now serves in the military (less than one percent in the past decade), meaning that non-military families usually do not see overseas wars as their most pressing problem.

Seymour also argues that successful anti-imperialist organizing requires strong links of solidarity “with those in the flight path of US aggression” overseas (p. 207). He points to the solidarity work of the US left, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), with Mexican workers during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917, and to the international ties forged during the decades-long struggle against South African apartheid. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this internationalism was the movement against US intervention in Central America in the 1980s, which involved between 100,000 and 200,000 people engaging in bold acts of defiance of US aid to brutal regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala and US aggression against Nicaragua. Thousands of US citizens even traveled to Nicaragua to put themselves in the “flight path” of a potential US invasion. Much of the movement’s force came from personal connections developed as a result of participants’ interactions with Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in the United States and travelers’ interactions with Central Americans. Missionaries and volunteers who had lived in Central America were particularly important in bridging the international divide, which Seymour notes is a common pattern in the history of US anti-imperialism [7].

The last two decades have also witnessed important steps in this regard. Starting in 1995, the US-based group Voices in the Wilderness delivered food and medicine to Iraqis suffering under the brutal US/UN sanctions regime, for which it was targeted and fined by the US Treasury Department. Its successor, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, continues in this same spirit. US Labor Against the War formed prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and has forged direct links with the Iraqi labor movement; its educational campaigns have sought to place Iraqi workers’ voices at the center of the debate over the Iraq War, and the organization has expanded its focus in recent years to other sites of US military intervention as well. The Afghan Women’s Mission, founded in 2000, organizes humanitarian and political support for Afghan women, and works closely with the secular Afghan feminist and anti-militarist group the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Several US antiwar groups have also begun working with Afghans for Peace and the recently-formed Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (see photos). The International Solidarity Movement gathers volunteers from around the world to engage in nonviolent resistance to the occupation of Palestine. US groups like IFCO/Pastors for Peace and Witness for Peace have been defying US policy toward Cuba and other Latin American countries for decades by cultivating direct ties of solidarity with the victims.


Above: Suraia Sahar of Afghans for Peace addresses the crowd at the anti-NATO protest in Chicago on May 20, 2012. Standing next to Sahar are Saba and Samira, two fellow members of Afghans for Peace, and Mary Kirkland, the mother of a US soldier who committed suicide. These speeches were followed by a ceremony in which 45 US veterans threw their war medals in the direction of the NATO summit meeting a few blocks away. 

Above: Former Marine and Iraq War veteran Vincent Emanuele of Chesterton, Indiana, throws his war medals toward the site of the NATO meeting in Chicago on May 20, as members of Afghans for Peace look on.


These organizations receive surprisingly little attention in Seymour’s discussion of the recent past. One reason, perhaps, is that Seymour assumes that the resistance in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan is primarily an armed resistance. He argues that US antiwar forces “never found a way to relate to the anti-US insurgency in Iraq” (p. 217), and seems to suggest (following Alexander Cockburn) that activists should have developed greater solidarity with the armed resistance in Iraq. When Cockburn made this argument in 2007 he was criticized by those who pointed out that the Iraq insurgency was a complex mix of groups, many of whom were deeply misogynistic and fundamentalist, and some of whom employed terrorist tactics [8]. Yet both the argument and the critiques of it have tended to overlook the fact that the Iraqi resistance has always encompassed much more than just armed insurgents; it has also included nonviolent labor unions, secular women’s groups, non-fundamentalist religious people, clerics, communists, and many others. Many Iraqis condemned the US occupation while also condemning the misogyny, theocracy, and sectarianism of most of the armed groups. Revolutionary feminist organizations in Iran and Afghanistan have taken similar positions [9].

In my view the efforts of groups like Voices in the Wilderness, US Labor Against the War, and the Afghan Women’s Mission offer the most promising strategy, one that cultivates solidarity with the most oppressed sectors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Such an approach need not condemn all armed resistance to occupation (nor should it, for we have neither the legal nor moral right to do so), but it consciously prioritizes the voices of those who are “most” oppressed, particularly women, workers, and ethnic minorities [10]. Armed actors who do not target civilians may indeed merit our support in certain cases, but in the current era the most heroic and admirable (and most effective?) insurgents are often nonviolent ones. Publicizing these groups’ visions of justice has many advantages. It helps to humanize the populations subject to US imperialism and demonstrates that “backward” societies like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran are in fact full of articulate and thoughtful people who are more than capable of determining their own future, and who bitterly oppose US intervention.

Another minor quibble with the book is that there is relatively little attention devoted to war resisters within the US military, which to me is problematic for two reasons. First, there is an inspiring history of soldier dissent that deserves attention in its own right for the extraordinary examples of moral courage that it provides. Moreover, the story of GI dissenters’ collaboration with civilian activists, especially during the Vietnam War but also in other interventions (including Iraq and Afghanistan), refutes the common myth that the civilian-soldier relationship was, and is, one of mutual hostility [11]. Second, soldier dissent is also crucial to current struggles against US military intervention. By virtue of their key positions in the US military structure, soldiers possess a collective form of leverage that is much more powerful than the leverage of ordinary citizens. Because of the peculiar context of US political culture, returning veterans also enjoy a degree of credibility among most of the public that civilian protesters do not. Politicians and military commanders have long recognized this fact, and have taken extraordinary precautions to maintain obedience in the ranks and to silence or discredit antiwar veterans. More attention to how soldiers and their civilian allies have successfully organized against past wars would have further enriched what remains a powerful analysis.

American Insurgents is a fantastic synthesis of a rich but often-neglected history. It offers inspiring stories of past US anti-imperialists as well as important advice for present-day organizers. At a time when the US government and ruling class remain committed to global domination and roguishly disdainful of international law and opinion, the book merits close attention from readers living in the belly of the imperial beast.

Notes:

[1] Overseas US imperialism did not start in the 1890s: for instance, the US government took control of Alaska in 1867 and executed 103 overseas armed interventions between 1798 and 1895; between 1869 and 1897 the US government sent warships into Latin American waters 5,980 times. But the 1890s did mark an increased elite commitment to overseas expansion, including the acquisition of several formal colonies. Figures quoted in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, rev. ed. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995 [1980]), 290-91; William Appleman Williams, Empire As a Way of Life (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2007 [1980]), 117.

[2] William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1959); Williams, Empire As a Way of Life.

[3] Quote from Robert F. Kennedy’s biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., characterizing Kennedy’s desired strategy toward Cuba. See Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Mariner, 2002 [1978]), 480. This quote is often cited by Noam Chomsky. On the Kennedy administration see also Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston: South End Press, 1993).

 

[4] Wilson quoted in Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 133. On WWI-era repression see also William Preston, Jr., Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963); Zinn, A People’s History, 355-67.

 

[5] See James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 302-09.

 

[6] Seymour does not mention the Green Corn Rebellion, but it supports his argument. See Adam Hochschild, “The Untold War Story—Then and Now: Going Beyond the Tale of a Boy and His Horse,” TomDispatch, February 26, 2012; John Womack, Jr., and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “Dreams of Revolution: Oklahoma, 1917,” Monthly Review 62, no. 6 (2010): 42-56; William Cunningham, The Green Corn Rebellion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010 [1935]).

 

[7] The most detailed study of the movement, which offers support for these points, is Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

 

[8] Cockburn, “Support Their Troops?” Counterpunch.org, July 14-16, 2007; for a critique see Katha Pollitt, “2,4,6,8! This Beheading is Really Great!”TheNation.com, July 13, 2007 (a critique which, despite its merits, overlooks the diversity of aims and tactics within the armed insurgency and neglects nonviolent resistance altogether). For a useful analysis of the diversity within the armed insurgency as of early 2006—particularly the crucial tactical distinction between insurgents who attack military targets and those who employ terrorist attacks—see Michael Schwartz, “Contradictions of the Iraqi Resistance: Guerrilla War vs. Terrorism,” Against the Current 120 (January-February 2006).

[9] In Iraq the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq is probably the most prominent feminist anti-occupation group; see their website and the recent interview with their president, Yanar Mohammed: “Iraqi Women’s Activist Rebuffs U.S. Claims of a Freer Iraq: ‘This Is Not a Democratic Country,’” Democracy Now! December 16, 2011. See also the recent interview with a female Iraqi labor leader by Ali Issa, “On the Ground in Basra: An Interview with Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi,” Jadaliyya, May 2, 2012. For an Iranian feminist group’s prescriptions for international solidarity see Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, “Solidarity and Its Discontents,” Jadaliyya, February 19, 2012. On Afghanistan see the RAWA website.

 

 [10] Of course, deciding who is “most” oppressed is a tricky and dangerous exercise. But for solidarity activists there is no avoiding the dilemma: we often must choose whose voices to prioritize. 

 

[11] This myth has been cultivated by a flood of propaganda, especially since the 1970s. See Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: NYU Press, 1998). Accusations against antiwar protesters for “not supporting the troops” apparently date back to the US occupation of the Philippines (Seymour, p. 63). On GI dissent in the Vietnam era see David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance during the Vietnam War (Chicago: Haymarket, 2005 [1975]). On Iraq/Afghanistan see, among many other sources, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz, Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008); Dahr Jamail, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009); Buff Whitman-Bradley, Sarah Lazare, and Cynthia Whitman-Bradley, eds., About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War (Oakland: PM Press, 2011).

 

 

 

 

 

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