Wednesday, December 10, 2014

426. Amerika was altijd al barbaars en oorlogszuchtig, met fraaie 'motieven'.

The Saker  breekt een lans voor de lessen van Prof. John Marciano.

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Course structure:
September 19: Some historical context on empires and the U.S.
Empire: Williams, “Empire as a Way of Life” (article)
October 17: Racism and imperialism: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “The Grid
of History: Cowboys and Indians”
November 21: Foster, “Kipling, ‘the White Man’s Burden,’ and U.S.
December 19: Williams, Empire as a Way of Life; Introduction.
Chapters 1–5
January 16: Williams, Empire as a Way of Life; Chapters 6–9
February 20: U.S. imperialism in the Americas: Grandin, Empire’s
Workshop, Introduction through Chapter 3
March 20: Grandin, Empire's Workshop, Chapters 4–6
April 17: The Brutal Reality of U.S. imperialism: Parenti, Against
Empire, Chapters 1–4
May 15: Parenti, Against Empire, Chapters 5–8
June 19: Summary reflections and a discussion of alternatives:
Grandin, Conclusion; Parenti, Against Empire, Chapter 11; Williams,
Empire as a Way of Life, Conclusion
I wish to begin our discussions with some comments on the dominant
view on empire or imperialism, using the words of leading political and
intellectual advocates. This will be followed by a brief critique of the
dominant view and a look at William Appleman Williams’s article:
“Empire as a Way of Life.”
The British historian Eric Hobsbawn writes that there are “few
things are more dangerous than empires pursuing their own interests
in the belief that they are doing humanity a favour.” In order to
understand these gifts that US empire-builders and propagandists
believe they have given to the world, we need to get some
appreciation of the dominant view we learned from schools, the mass
media and religious institutions.
One of the leading godfathers of the Empire was our 28th
president, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). “Sometimes people call me
an idealist,” Wilson once said, “Well that’s the way I know I am an
American. America … is the only idealistic nation in the world.” Political
theorist Ronald Steel, who is no neo-conservative apologist for the US
Empire, concurs. “America is an idealistic nation, … based on the belief
that the ‘self-evident truths’ of the Declaration of Independence should
be extended to unfortunate peoples wherever they may be.”
This view of “America” began long before Wilson, however. The
myth of “America” as God’s chosen people, the “New Israel,” began
with the invasion of the Americas by English colonists in the 17th
century. John Winthrop, one of the first leaders of the Massachusetts
Puritans, stated: “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us….
that men shall say of succeeding [settlements]: the Lord make it like
that of New England; for we must consider that we shall be as a city
upon the hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Historian Loren Baritz (Backfire) points out that “the myth of America
as a city on a hill implies that it is a moral example for the rest of the
world…. It means that we are a chosen people….” This dogmatic and
self-righteous nationalism resembles that of other countries. “Between
God’s country and Holy Russia there is not much of a choice. Between
ideas of moral superiority and racial superiority there is even less of a
choice, since one invariably leads to the other…. The glory of France,
dominion of Britain, power and racial purity of the Third Reich, the
satisfaction of thinking of oneself as the ‘cradle of civilization’… the
willingness to die for one’s uniquely favored country, has no national
Writing in 1967, Ronald Steel viewed “the moral inspiration of
America’s involvement in foreign wars [as] undeniable.” This was
surely found during the Cold War, when “the rhetoric of our …
diplomacy rest[ed] upon the indivisibility of freedom, the belief in selfdetermination,
the necessity for collective security, and the sanctity of
peaceful … as opposed to violent change.” These values were
particularly evident immediately after World War II during “the
decision to rebuild and defend Western Europe,” when “the US acted
with wisdom, humanity, and an enlightened conception of her own
Steel claims that we see ourselves “as the defenders of freedom
and democracy in the contest against tyranny, because we are, in
President Kennedy’s words, ‘by destiny rather than choice, the
watchman on the walls of world freedom.’” Our empire building has
“appealed to a deep-rooted instinct in our national character – an
instinct to help those less fortunate and permit them to emulate and
perhaps one day achieve the virtues of our own society….” It rested
“on the belief that it was America’s role to make the world a happier,
more orderly place, one more nearly reflecting our own image.”
For example, Steel asserts that in opposition “to the efforts of
France, Britain, and Holland to regain control of their Asian colonies
after WW II, we encouraged the efforts of such nationalists as … Nehru
[in India], Sukarno [in Indonesia], and Ho Chi Minh [in Vietnam] to
win the independence of their countries.” The US took over from the
“departed European [colonial] powers…. We did this with good
intentions, because we [believed] in self-determination for everybody
as a guiding moral principle….” This effort “found its roots in our most
basic and generous national instincts.”
The post-WW II view of the US as the “chosen” nation was also
articulated by the influential diplomat George Kennan, whose
important article on the Cold War in 1947 advanced “the belief that
leadership of the free world was … thrust upon the American people by
divine providence and the laws of both history and nature.” Kennan
told his readers that “’providence’ had “made their entire security as a
nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting
the responsibilities of moral and policy leadership that history plainly
intended them to bear” (quoted in Michael Hogan, A Cross of Iron).
The enthusiasm for lofty American principles has also shaped the
rhetoric of recent US presidents. Accepting the Republican nomination
in 1988, for example, George Bush I lauded “America as the leader, a
unique nation with a special role in the world. This has been called the
American century, because in it we were the dominant force for good
in the world…. Now we are on the verge of a new century, and what
country’s name will it bear? I say it will be another American century.”
Bush II has followed in his father’s rhetorical footsteps. “Our nation is
the greatest force for good in history.” He has praised the glories of
the US and the need to share these with the world: “The US will
promote moderation, tolerance, and the nonnegotiable demands of
human dignity – the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, and
respect for women, private property, free speech, and equal justice….
Humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to offer freedom’s triumph
over its age-old foes. The US welcomes its responsibility to lead in this
great mission.” Despite “its flaws, … our nation is chosen by God and
commissioned by history to be the model to the world of justice and
inclusion and diversity without division.”
Such sentiments are bi-partisan in nature, and were articulated by
Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright: “If we have to use
force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation”
(quoted in David Harvey, The New Imperialism).
Right after the 9/11 attacks, military historian Victor Davis
Hanson (An Autumn of War) argued that our war against terrorism
preserves Western civilization with “its uniquely tolerant and human
traditions of freedom, consensual government, disinterested inquiry
and religious and political tolerance.” When Hanson was growing up in
California in the 1940s and ‘50s, Americans “knew their country was
not merely different from others, but that it was clearly superior in its
rare democratic government, tolerance for religious differences, spirit
of liberty, and allowance for dissent….”
Scholars Ziauddin Sardar and Meryl Wyn Davies assert that
there is a “feel-good factor [in] such a reading of history…. The
American people are reassured that their nation is good, acting
disinterestedly and nobly according to its enduring values….”
Therefore, most Americans “believe that America has the right to be
imperialist. There is an inner fitness in America forged by its founding
principles that makes it the right nation to be pre-eminent…. If
America is the very idea of an ideal nation, then it follows that
American democracy has the right to be imperialist and express itself
through empire.”
Affirmations of US goodness from the 19th century are being
trotted out again, articulated by imperialist supporters such as Max
Boot, a former editor with the Wall Street Journal who writes a
syndicated column in the Los Angeles Times; and historians Niall
Ferguson of New York University and Michael Ignatieff, formerly
Director of the Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and now a
member of the Canadian parliament. John Bellamy Foster points out
that with these “representatives of the establishment openly espousing
imperialist ambitions, we shouldn’t be surprised at the repeated
attempts to bring back [Rudyard Kipling’s] ‘white man’s burden’
argument in one form or another.”
In his book, The Savage Wars of Peace, Boot lauds the war against the
Filipino people in the early 20th century and draws parallels with the
current war in Iraq. He asserts that we should be encouraged that “the
bulk of the people did not resist American occupation, as they surely
would have done if it had been nasty and brutal.” He calls the
Philippines war “one of the most successful counterinsurgencies
waged by a western army in modern times”; he claims by “the
standards of the day, the conduct of US soldiers was better than
average for colonial wars” (quoted in John Bellamy Foster, “Kipling,
‘the White Man’s Burden,’ and US Imperialism,” Monthly Review).
According to Boot, empire “has been given a bad rap.” The “world
today needs the US to provide ‘the sort of enlightened administration
once provided by self-confident Englishmen….” (Quoted in Anthony
Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal)
Niall Ferguson, who describes himself as “a fully paid-up member of
the neo-imperialist gang,” argues that “the US has – whether it admits
it or not – taken up some kind of global burden just as Rudyard Kipling
urged [a century ago]. It considers itself responsible … for spreading
the benefits of capitalism and democracy overseas. And just like the
British Empire before it, the American empire unfailingly acts in the
name of liberty, even when its own self-interest is manifestly
uppermost” (quoted in Arnove).
Antiwar activist and scholar Anthony Arnove also highlights the views
of some “writers and theorists [who] have argued that imperialism –
even colonialism – must be reinterpreted in a more positive light in the
aftermath of 9/11.” He cites Edward Rothstein of the New York Times
(9/7/02), who admits the word imperialism “still jangles with jingoistic
echoes…. Yet this idea is bound to change character…. After all,
instead of exploitation, imperialism is now being associated with
democratic reform, sometimes to the great satisfaction of its subjects.
Maybe even nineteenth-century imperialism will be reinterpreted and
invoked by example since many non-western nations developed
democratic institutions solely because of imperialist influence.
Imperialism’s exploitation often had a virtuous flip side.”
Arnove reviews some of the affirmations of empire put forth by
Ignatieff, one of the most “influential exponent[s] of the [imperialist]
school of thought who gives a liberal veneer to the rather crude
arguments of Boot and Ferguson.” Ignatieff argues that “[i]mperialism
used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But
imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes
politically incorrect. Nations sometimes fall, and when they do, only
outside help – imperialist power – can get them back on their feet.”
The burden of “being an imperial power, however, is more than being
the most powerful nation or the most hated one. It means enforcing
such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American
interest. It means laying down the rules America wants … while
exempting itself from other rules … that go against its interests. It also
means carrying out important functions in places America has
inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century.” Ignatieff claims
21st century imperialism is something new: “an empire lite, a global
hegemon whose grace notes are free markets, human rights, and
democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world
has ever known.”
As writer and activist Sidney Lens points out, the claims of US
benevolence are not new: “The US, like other nations, has formulated
a myth of morality to assuage its conscience and sustain its image.
The US, we are told, has always tried to avoid war; when it has been
forced to take the military road, it has seldom done so for motives of
gain or glory. On the contrary, the wars are fought only for such high
principles as freedom of the seas, the right of self-determination, and
to halt aggression. In thought, as in deed, the US … has been anti-war
[and] anti-imperialist….”
According to this “myth, the US has religiously respected the rights of
other peoples to determine their own destiny; it has always been
sympathetic to revolutions fighting for genuine independence; it has
always refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of other
nations…. More than any other great nation it has been guided by
selfless concern for the less fortunate.”
Howard Zinn’s comment on influential imperialist apologists such as
Ignatieff commences our critique of the dominant view that will be the
focus for the remainder of the course. Referring specifically to
Ignatieff, Zinn writes: “Only someone blind to the history of the United
States, its obsessive drive for control of oil, its endless expansion of
military bases around the world, its domination of other countries
through its enormous economic power, its violations of human rights
of millions of people, whether directly or by proxy governments, could
make [such a] statement” (Quoted in Sidney Lens, The Forging of the
American Empire).
Let’s return to the dominant view and raise some questions and
assertions we will later examine. Regarding Ronald Steel’s assertion
about “self-evident truths”: even a cursory investigation of US history
would show that when this statement was written these “truths” did
not extend to slaves and free Blacks, First Americans, women or the
poor; nor have they been extended to the countless nations and
people throughout the world who have been invaded by the US over
the centuries.
When Steel asserts that during the Cold War the thrust of US policies
was aimed at peaceful rather than violent change, he left out some
glaring exceptions, e.g., US initiated and supported violence against
Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), the Dominican Republic
(1965), Indonesia (1965) and Vietnam (ongoing when he published his
book). The idea that the US was committed to peaceful change during
the Cold War (or, I might add, before and after) is historically untrue.
Steel also lauds “the deep-rooted instinct” in our national character to
help others. When did this instinct arise in US history: during the
genocidal wars against the First Americans; while we enslaved Africans
and African Americans; when the we invaded Florida, Mexico, Cuba
and the Philippines?
Steel’s assertion that the US aided the struggle of Ho Chi Minh
and the Vietnamese for national independence is mind-boggling. It is
totally contradicted by the public record that reveals how, beginning
with the Truman administration, the US supported French efforts to
reclaim Vietnam after WW II. The truth is that after WW II the US
opposed Vietnamese independence at every step of the way.
Victor Davis Hanson’s uncritical praise for Western civilization’s unique
and wonderful virtues omits a few things, e.g., the Inquisition,
centuries of anti-Semitism and the European Holocaust of the 1930s
and 1940s, Western conquest and genocide in the Americas, slavery,
and imperialism.
Hanson remembers the 1940s and ‘50s in California with triple rosecolored
glasses: nationally it was a time of Apartheid terror in the
South against Blacks; in California it was a time of forced removal of
Japanese and Japanese-Americans to concentration camps, and a
white supremacy directed at Latinos and others of color in California
and especially Los Angeles – a southern racist city when it came to
oppressed minorities.
As for assertions about our god-given and honorable presence in the
world: scholar Robert Jensen argues that the present Bush’s “frequent
… invocation of a direct connection to god and truth – what we might
call the ‘pathology of the annointed’ – is a peculiar and particularly
dangerous feature of American history and the ‘greatest nation’
claims.” The story we have learned and now tell ourselves is that
“other nations through history have acted out of greed and selfinterest,
seeking territory, wealth, and power…. Then came the US,
touched by god, a shining city on the hill, whose leaders created the
first real democracy and went on to be a beacon of freedom for people
around the world. Unlike the rest of the world, we act out of a cause
nobler than greed; we are … the model of, and the vehicle for, peace,
freedom, and democracy in the world.”
Jensen asserts “this is a story that can only be believed … by
people sufficiently insulated from the reality of US actions abroad to
maintain such illusions. It is tempting to laugh at and dismiss [this
rhetoric], but the commonness of the chosen-by-god assertions – and
the lack of outrage or amusement at them – suggests that the claims
are taken seriously both by significant segments of the public and the
politicians” (Robert Jensen, Citizens of the Empire).
Max Boot’s claim about the conduct of US troops in the Philippines is
profoundly wrong, given the documented evidence of the barbaric and
racist actions of US troops in that war. The US invasion of the
Philippines was a precursor to the genocidal assault of the US in
Vietnam some 60 years later; the parallels between the two wars are
quite striking, especially the level of racist violence against
dehumanized “enemies.”
Sidney Lens reminds us that all these imperial acts have been
“valiantly camouflaged in the rhetoric of defense…. The … wars against
the Indians were a ‘defense’ against their rampages and violations of
treaties. The war against Mexico was a ‘defense’ of Texas…. In Korea
and Vietnam the US … was ‘defending’ helpless small powers against
communist aggression.” According to Lens, “the myth of morality
wears thin against [the record] of history…. Even a cursory look
suggests that American politics has been motivated not by lofty
[concern] for the needs of other peoples but by America’s own desire
for land, commerce, markets, spheres of influence, investments…. The
primary focus has not been moral, but imperial.”
And this imperialism, Stephen Lendman asserts, has “been in our DNA
since the early settlers confronted” the First Americans and
“slaughtered [millions] of them to seize their land and resources. We …
even put language in our sacred Declaration of Independence to give
us a birthright to do it,” calling “our native people ‘merciless Indian
savages’” [ZNet, 9/17/06].
Anthony Arnove’s critique of Richard Rothstein’s support for
imperialism goes to the heart of the issue. As Arnove states,
“Rothstein distills perfectly the logic of the white man’s burden in its
historical and contemporary form. Never mind the millions subjugated,
killed, starved, driven into forced labor, exposed to disease, abused,
denied their cultural heritage, exploited, robbed – imperialism was a
force for democracy and civilization. It brought ‘backward’ people in
the light of civilization.”
Arnove dissents from the “common refrain [made by] the defenders of
US Empire,” i.e., “… the US has [had] no territorial ambitions.” The
claim is demonstrably false. “The US conquered not only the lands of
the Native Americans, who were ethnically cleansed as the colonies
expanded westward, but also land from Mexico and Cuba….”
We will leave the final word in this critical review section to Sidney
Lens. With mountains of evidence and impeccable reasoning, Lens
correctly points out that “America the benevolent … does not exist and
has never existed. The US has pilfered large territories from helpless
or near helpless peoples; … it has violated hundreds of treaties and
understandings; it has committed war crimes; it has wielded a military
stick and a dollar carrot to forge an imperial empire such as [humans
have] never known before; it has intervened ruthlessly in the life of
dozens of nations….”
With the dominant view and this brief critique as background and
context, let’s look at some of the major assertions in William Appleman
Williams’s short article. We will return to his views in December and
Writing in 1980 Williams states, “we have only just begun our
confrontation with our imperial history, ethic and psychology.” Unlike
what Marx said about religion, his view is that “imperialism has been
the opiate of the American people.” When one looks objectively at US
history and the myths of God and patriotism, it is hard to dispute this
He wishes to enlighten us about our actual history as “an
imperial people who must now ‘order’ ourselves rather than policing
and saving the world…. We must leave that imperial incubator if we
are to become citizens of the real world.” Essentially we must end the
massive denial of our real history that has been hidden and/or ignored
in our schools, mass media and religious institutions – it is a denial
that is social in origin but has penetrated deeply into the psyches of
US citizens.
Williams wants us to think of “empire as a way of life,” a
pattern of “thought and action” that has developed over time but
which was present at the Founding in 1776; it is not some recent
phenomenon associated with a neo-con cabal in Washington. This
pattern is “habitual and institutionalized, [and] defines the thrust and
character of a culture and society. It is a … conception of the world
and how it works, and strategy for acting upon that outlook on a
routine basis as well as in times of crisis….”
He reminds us that our views about empire are based upon certain
foundational assumptions about human nature, people, nations,
morality, economics and politics. These assumptions shape the
parameters in which we define issues and address problems; they
influence our “understanding of causes and consequences, … options,
and range … of action.”
For example, most of us use the language of the nation state or the
national interest rather than that of social class when it comes to
empire: we think of the US doing this or that, not ruling elites. We
rarely assert that it is not simply the US invading another nation, but a
particular and powerful class of men who make these decisions and
claim to speak for the national interest or national security. I do mean
men, by the way, despite an occasional female apologist for US
violence abroad such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick under Reagan, Madeleine
Albright under Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice under Bush II.
Imperialism is hard and dirty man’s work, but killing poor people in the
Third World has increasingly become an equal opportunity and
multiethnic endeavor as those such as Rice and Colin Powell can now
cast their violent shadow across the globe.
When we talk about empire we must confront the issue of
power – the superior power of one group to exploit and violate
another. Williams asserts that there are two “associated … but
nevertheless different relationships” involved here. “One is the union
of initially separate but … related units of population under one central
authority…. The result is an empire governed as an imperial system.
The will, and power, of one element asserts its superiority” (as in the
creation of the US from the combination of the original thirteen
The other example cited by Williams is “the … forcible subjugation of
formerly independent peoples by a wholly external power, and their
subsequent rule by the imperial metropolis.” Examples here are US
attacks on First American nations and its seizure of part of Mexico in
the 1840s – both of which were “integrated into its imperial system.”
Williams tells us that “imperialism” is essentially a fundamental
“loss of sovereignty – control – over essential issues and decisions by
a largely agricultural society to an industrial metropolis.” The “superior
… power subjects an inferior [one] to its own preferences….” The basic
purpose of imperialism is for the dominant power, i.e., the ruling class
within that dominant power, to extract resources and economic surplus
from “the weaker” power. Its central goal is material exploitation, and
cultural hegemony, as it has been for centuries: US imperialism is no
Given the benefits that accrue to the dominant power in a
hierarchical and exploitive relationship, it is no surprise, as Williams
reminds us, that 20th century Americans have “liked empire for the
same reasons their ancestors favored it in the 18th and 19th. It
provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth, and other
benefits and satisfactions including a psychic sense of well-being and
power.” This ideological or psychic benefit is linked to the patriotic
appeals that influence most in the society.
Williams cites the English philosopher John Locke on the true nature of
empire: it “involves taking wealth and freedom away from others to
provide for your own welfare, pleasure, and power.” That’s what it has
always been about; all the assertions about freedom, democracy, and
concern for the unfortunate are ideological rationalizations.
The earliest rationalizations in the West centered on race and
Christianity – a process in which good Christian gentlemen engaged in
racist plunder against communities of color throughout the world. The
manifestation of this Christian racism received its ultimate blessing in
the US in the mid-19th century, under the term “Manifest Destiny.”
God – who of course was a White, Anglo-Saxon Male, gave US citizens
of English descent his blessings as they went about pillaging and
destroying the land, culture and people of the Americas – and engaged
in attacks upon the Irish, Chinese, Blacks and others.
Williams distinguishes between soft and hard imperialists;
however, it is a distinction that should not divert us from seeing these
as different strategies, two wings on the single predator aimed at the
same end: the racist exploitation of those whom Algerian author
Frantz Fanon called the “Wretched of the Earth.” The writer Joseph
Conrad discussed this process with regards to the genocidal terror
committed by King Leopold and the Belgians in Congo. In the Heart of
Darkness in 1902, he stated: “They were conquerors, and for that you
only want brute force…. They grabbed what they could get for the sake
of what was to be got. It was robbery with violence, … murder on a
great scale, and men going at it blind…. The conquest of the earth,
which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a
different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ours, is not a pretty
sight when you look into it too much.”
As a final thought on the nature of empire, I wish to close
tonight with the words of the Greek playwright Aeschylus, who crafted
“The Persians” more than 2400 years ago. One of the characters
reflects: “All those years we spent jubilant, seeing the trifling,
cowering world from the height of our shining saddles, brawling our
might across the earth as we forged an empire, I never questioned.
Surely we were doing the right thing…. It seemed so clear – our fate
was to rule. That’s what I thought at the time. But perhaps we were
merely deafened for years by the din of our own empire-building, the
shouts of battle, the clanging of swords, the cries of victory.”
EMPIRE COURSE, 10/17: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “The Grid of History:
Cowboys and Indians,” Monthly Review, July-August 2003
Those of you in the People’s History group may recall that we
discussed Dunbar-Ortiz’s arguments. However, the presence of new
members here and her critical arguments on US imperialism compel us
to revisit her reasoning. I will focus my comments on the first century
of US history.
Dunbar-Ortiz makes it clear that she has no patience with Senator
Byrd and others who lament about the state of our country because of
the invasion of Iraq – those who ignore the long history of US
aggression that actually began with the founding of the nation in 1776.
She is even critical of “anti-imperialists have been making the same
point as Byrd” who somehow erase US history in their “critiques of
[Bush’s] foreign policies. Continuity is hidden, and a small departure is
exaggerated” that allows this present regime to be seen as
dramatically different than others in its conduct of US foreign policy.
She argues that an accurate understanding of US history must
confront “the origins of white supremacy” as it has been “experienced
and institutionalized – and denied” – a force that is rooted in “prior
colonizing ventures of Christian crusades into Muslim-controlled areas,
and to the Calvinist-Protestant colonization of Ireland. These two
historical events are the Colonial “models for … the Western
hemisphere, and are the two strands that merge in the makeup of the
US”; they serve as the “foundations for an understanding of the
virulent racism that is the basis for the genocidal assault on the
original Americans by Europeans.”
I will stress one aspect of her critique of US imperialism and
discuss it in light of other supporting scholarship – emphasizing the
colonial and US crusade to destroy the First Americans. Dunbar-Ortiz
claims it is the “origin story” of the Ulster-Scots Calvinists who settled
and colonized Northern Ireland and were the majority of those who
settled the western lands beyond the Appalachian and Alleghany
Mountains that “became the origin story of the US.” This story is
essentially about “Pilgrims/settlers doing God’s will and forging the
Promised Land while being surrounded by savages, first the Irish in
Ulster and then the Native Americans in North America.”
It is “their sacrifice and blood shed” that make them the “true
inheritors of the land” – not the First Americans, African slaves, or
immigrants from other regions of the world. This “sacrifice and blood
shed” is essential to understanding what Dunbar-Ortiz calls the
“ideology of white supremacy” – an ideology that helped to neutralize
and undermine “the class antagonisms of landless here against the
She asks us to understand the intimate and essential link
between the English conquest of Northern Ireland in the early 1600s
and similar policies aimed at “exterminating Indians here in North
America [that] was foreshadowed by this English colonization of
Northern Ireland.” The Calvinist Protestants “were assured by
[religious leaders] that they had been chosen by God for salvation and
the title to the Irish lands. The native and Papist Irish were clearly not
destined for salvation. This process was repeated in the US against
Native Americans.”
According to Dunbar-Ortiz, therefore, “the founding of the US is
intimately tied to this [white supremacist] … settler-colonialist and
imperialist-aggressor state.” Thomas Jefferson spoke about the US as
an “‘empire for liberty’ and Andrew Jackson coined the phrase
‘extending the area of freedom’ to describe the process by which
slavery was introduced into Texas in violation of Mexican laws, to be
quickly followed by a slaveholder’s rebellion and US annexation.” The
term “freedom” was a code word or euphemism “for the continental
and worldwide expansion of the world’s leading slave power.”
Before becoming president in 1828, Jackson gained his early
fame as a fearless military leader who led wars against Indians in the
southeastern US. As president, he later was responsible for the forcedmarch
expulsion of First Americans from east of the Mississippi to the
Oklahoma territory – the infamous “Trail of Tears” that led to the
deaths of thousands.
Dunbar-Ortiz names “white supremacy [as] the working
rationalization and ideology of English theft of Native American lands,
and especially the justification for slavery.” She also unsettles us with
her claim that this white supremacist US origin myth “is itself closely
tied to the parallel Afrikaner origin myth in South Africa and
Apartheid.” When one considers the moral and political lessons we
learned about the glorious “founding” of the United States, how many
here can point to even one that compared our history to South
White supremacy is not only the core premise of US foreign
policies “from the origins to the present”; this supremacy and
imperialism are also “inseparable from the content of this origin story
and the definition of patriotism today. It began before the official
founding of the nation, and was not an accident or aberration in the
progression of democracy.” Her thesis is that “the US was
fundamentally imperialist and racist from the beginning, and
imperialism was not a divergence from a well-intentioned path.” We
didn’t just stray from wonderful premises and values: those premises
and values were profoundly flawed from the beginning.
Many citizens here seem to be shocked when they discover that the US
has had an imperial past from the founding and has “shown
expansionist tendencies since colonial days.” Dunbar-Ortiz even argues
that our “War for Independence was itself a war for expansion and
Thomas Jefferson nursed even grander plans for empire.” If we are to
understand the recent history of the US Empire, therefore, we must
understand its earliest roots and confront its most fundamental
conflict: the 250-year war against First Americans by Europeans and
It was during the era of Jackson’s presidency that that the
unique US origin myth was created, with James Fenimore Cooper’s
Last of the Mohicans as the official story. Cooper was “the great hero
of Walt Whitman who sang the song of manhood and the American
super-race through empire.” Many who love Whitman’s poetry do not
know that he enthusiastically supported the war against Mexico, a
conflict that “followed the already established US origin myth that had
frontier settlers replacing the native peoples … with a white
supremacist ideology that formed the core of US policies from its
origins to the present.”
These colonial and US polices were the one long conflict
between Europeans and Indians that began with the Pequod War in
1637 in what is now Massachusetts and Connecticut (both named after
First American nations) and ended some 250 years later in 1890 at
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, when hundreds of unarmed Lakota
Sioux, mostly women, children and old men, were massacred.
Among the prominent citizens supporting and even advocating
genocide against First Americans in the US was none other than L.
Frank Baum, the author of the much-beloved Wizard of Oz, who was
editor of the Aberdeen Pioneer in South Dakota at the time of
Wounded Knee. Before the massacre, he stated that “the nobility of
the redskin is extinguished and what few are left are a pack of whining
curs who lick the hand that smites them. The whites, by law of
conquest, by civilization, are masters of the American continent, and
the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total
annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”
After the massacre, Baum wrote that “we had better, in order to
protect our civilization, follow it up … and wipe these untamed and
untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Where was Dorothy
when the Lakota Sioux needed her?
When we examine actual – as opposed to fantastical – US
history, we are compelled to agree with historian Howard Zinn that its
record of “expansion is so long and odious that if you knew it you
could not possibly talk about kindly motives. Only a lack of that history
would allow people to believe that American power is going to be used
for good. That history goes back to the extermination of Indian tribes”
(Quoted in Howard Zinn, Original Zinn: Conversations with David
On October 12, 1992, the 500th commemoration of Columbus’s
invasion of the hemisphere, Russell Means of the American Indian
Movement seconded Zinn’s and Dunbar-Ortiz’s assessment of US-First
American history. “All my life, I’ve had to listen to rhetoric about the
US being a model of freedom and democracy, the most unique
enlightened and humanitarian country in history, a ‘nation of laws’
[that], unlike others, has never pursued policies of conquerors and
aggressors…. It’s the official ‘truth’…. taught to schoolchildren, and it’s
the line peddled to the general public….”
“The whole thing’s a lie, and it always has been. Leaving aside the
obvious points which could be raised to dispute it by blacks and
Chicanos and Asian immigrants right here in North America – not to
mention … Mexicans, … Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, Filipinos, …
Vietnamese, Cubans, [and] Iraqis – there’s a little matter of genocide
that’s got to be taken into account right here at home. I’m talking
about the genocide [that] has been perpetrated against American
Indians … that began the instant the first of Europe’s boat people
washed up on the beach of Turtle Island…. Against Indians, there’s not
a law the US hasn’t broken, not a crime against humanity it’s hasn’t
committed, and it’s still going on” (quoted in Ward Churchill, A Little
Matter of Genocide).
Other scholars have documented Dunbar-Ortiz’s argument
about empire and white supremacy. Nathan Huggins, for example,
suggests that his American historian colleagues “have conspired with
the founding fathers to create nationalist history … bound to the
founders’ ideals rather than their reality.” The end result is that “[the]
holy nation thus acquired a holy history. A conspiracy of myth, history,
and chauvinism served to create an ideology as the dominant history
motif against which all history would emanate.”
Huggins asserts that the essential American story “has been based on
a belief in the fulfillment, over time, of the enduring principles of the
founding fathers. Events or institutions that seemed to contradict
these principles (slavery or imperialism, for example) have been
understood as aberrations, as historical accidents….” The story we
learned is that the US has been good from the beginning, despite the
contradictions that have not been allowed to undermine the basic fine
intentions of our origins (Quoted in Marilyn Young, “Dangerous
History: Vietnam and the ‘Good War,’” in Edward Linenthal and Tom
Englehardt, History Wars).
In Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-hating and Empirebuilding,
Richard Drinnon develops his “theme of ‘Indian-hating,’” –
the actual history of “white hostility that for four centuries had
exterminated ‘savages’ who stood in the path of Anglo-American
expansion.” He asserts that the “massacres in Vietnam’s ‘Indian
country’ in the 1960s [were] consistent with those of Filipinos … at the
turn of the century and those with Indians on the continent earlier” –
such as at Wounded Knee.
“But the massacres at My Lai and all the forgotten My Khes in
Vietnam had a basic continuity with those of … Filipinos … at the turn
of [20th] century, and of Native Americans on the mainland earlier –
all the Wounded Knees [and] Sand Creeks. That linkage of atrocities
over time and space reveals underlying themes and fundamental
patterns of the national history that lawmakers, generals, and so many
of their compatriots were eager to forget.”
Drinnon asserts that dispossession of First Americans was “the
defining and enabling experience of the republic…. On one side were
the children of light, order, progress, philanthropy, freedom,
Americanization, modernization, forced urbanization…. On the other
side were the children of darkness, ‘savages’ who stood in the way of
the redemption and rationalization of the west….”
V.G. Kiernan (America The New Imperialism: From White Settlement
to World Hegemony) argues that the US was “never an Eden of primal
innocence.” During the Colonial period, rich merchants and ship
owners protected by the British flag imported molasses from the West
Indies that was made into rum; the profits were then used to purchase
slaves in Africa. “This triangular relationship linked New as well as Old
England with West Indian slavery from the 1640s” and was deeply
entrenched by the time the US was founded in 1776 – an historical
event that was built upon exploitation and slaving.
Expansion was on the US menu from the founding, and some
even wanted to expand into South America. One political figure wrote
in 1828, for example, that “the emancipation of Spanish America
would form … a new era in our political existence, would elevate us
from the rank of a second to that of a first-rate power, and would
place us at the head of one of the great divisions into which the
Christian world would be thrown by the effect of this immense
At the time of the War of Independence in the 1770s,
expansion in the North was blocked by the “Six Nations” of the
Iroquois Confederacy – whom the 19th century US anthropologist
Lewis Henry Morgan called “a vigorous and intelligent people…. they
have illustrated some of the highest virtues of mankind in their
relations with each other” (Morgan, Ancient Society). Some nations
within that Confederacy sided with the British during the War of
Independence and reprisals followed against the Cayuga, for example,
who made their home in and around what was my former home of
Ithaca in Central New York.
At that time General Washington ordered General Sullivan to destroy
all the Iroquois villages in what is now the Finger Lakes region of New
York State. These “search and destroy” missions were brutally carried
out, devastating what Morgan called “the North American Indian’s
finest civilization north of Mexico.”
The search and destroy campaign of the 1770s and 1780s was
continued by the greatest Indian killer in US history, Andrew Jackson,
who became president in 1828. Woodrow Wilson, himself an
imperialist and racist of the first rank, stated that Jackson’s notion of
Indians was “frankly that of the frontier soldier. They had no right, in
his eyes, to stand in the way of the white man.” Despite loud protests
from missionaries who worked and lived among the “Civilized Tribes”
(the Cherokee, for example), in 1830 Jackson pushed through the
Indian Removal Bill that authorized him to transport any Indians
beyond the Mississippi. Kiernan calls this “one of the blackest chapters
in American history,” marked by suffering akin to those of the “Middle
Passage” for slaves.
In a provocative thesis that lends support to Dunbar-Ortiz’s
assertion that white supremacy and genocide were essential to the
founding of the US, Joel Kovel argues that the assault on First
Americans came because they were the “object of the first ‘red scare’
and the primal communist of American history.” In US history to the
present, “Millions of innocents lie dead, whole societies have been laid
to waste, a vigorous labor movement has been castrated, and the
political culture of the US has been frozen in a retrograde position – all
for the sake of overcoming Communism.” Thus, attacks on “reds” or
“communists” with a small “c” are critical elements in the rise of
empire here over the past 230 years, and “anti-communism” has been
essential to consolidate this development.
Kovel reminds us that when English colonists arrived, First
Americans were already here. “This land was their land. Everything –
the beaches where Euro-Americans now vacation, the eastern forests,
the southern swamps, the endless plains, the high mounts, the blazing
desert, and the green Pacific coastlands – every inch was theirs.”
In order to take that land and destroy their base, “the trail of
repression that ended as anti-communism began as Indian hating: the
first Red Scare” targeted the first communists, and the anti-communist
wars against First Americans were ultimately about “about suppressing
opposition to capitalist rule” – starting in 1637 with the Pequod War in
what is now Connecticut.
The English colonists who came had a philosophical and
religious commitment to private property and ownership; they found
themselves in conflict with First Americans, whose “notions of
ownership were radically different from European notions.” They had
“a different mode of production, one involving collective ownership
rather than individual ownership of productive property. The Indians
rejected the conception that an individual could grow rich by exploiting
the forced labor of others, and the idea of treating things as
commodities that could be exchanged for money was profoundly alien
to them….”
Kovel, along with scholars Ward Churchill, Richard Drinnon and Richard
Slotkin, asserts that we cannot understand the fundamental historical
genesis and unfolding of US history, especially the nature of empire
and violence, without confronting, in the words of Herman Melville, the
“Indian hating [that] became so enduring a feature of the American
cultural landscape….” (Melville, Confidence Man). “The harsh truth is
this: that to build the city upon the hill (and later extend this into
liberal society) the native had to be kept locked into [the historical
position] of bestiality” and ultimately assaulted and destroyed (Red
Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of
Slotkin writes that for [Cotton] Mather and other influential
Puritan ministers of the Colonial period, “the Indian wars are one
phase of the control war between Satan and Christ. In the strategy of
that war Indian attacks, the ‘visitation’ of specters, devils, and witches
in 1692, and the growth of ‘heretical’ sects on the frontier are related
phenomena, are pieces in Satan’s grand design of conquest.”
Although the Founding Fathers were not caught up with the
devil as the Puritans of a century before, they still held similarly
ethnocentric and white supremacist views of First Americans. In a
letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The [English] have seduced the
greater part of the tribes within our neighbor, to take up the hatchet
against us, and the cruel massacres they have committed on the
women and children of our frontiers taken by surprise, will oblige us
now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats
beyond our reach.”
It is a shocking but profound realization, Slotkin writes, “that this
frankly genocidal proposition comes from the greatest and most
humane mind of early America…. Between Indian hunting and empire
building, a whole society had to grow capable of being directed to the
hunt.” Regardless of the “individual merits of any white or Indian,” all
here “were all caught up in” a fundamentally unjust relationship: “…
the settlers were there to expropriate the indigenous people and build
white society on the ruins of Indian society.” From this foundational
relationship and injustice have been built all subsequent US history
and imperialism, renewed generation after generation in Mexico, Cuba,
the Philippines, Central and South America, and Vietnam. Unless we
understand the genesis and ground rules of this history, therefore, we
cannot make sense of the contemporary US Empire.
According to Kovel, Herman Melville brilliantly represented this
“Indian-hating” society in his novel Moby Dick – as the ship Pequod.
“It is quite impossible to imagine its narrative – a mad sea captain
leading a motley crew on a doomed chase of vengeance across the
world’s oceans – coming from another nation…. Moby Dick’s excesses
are the excesses of America; and the peculiar gesture of American
anticommunism is prefigured in Melville’s portrayal of the persecutory
mind of Ahab.”
“Indian hating” in US history through the massacre at Wounded
Knee in 1890 was taught in our schools as Indian “removal,” not what
it truly was: a genocidal attack on indigenous people with a sacred
connection to nature who were destroyed by Christians who claimed to
speak for God and noble spiritual values. The fundamental beliefs of
Christianity, therefore, not just their more militant Puritan expression,
are central to this tragedy and to the subsequent development of US
imperialism, and must be a part of any critical understanding of US
The white supremacist views of Indians were put forth by
eminent American historians, who referred to native territories as
“empty space,” “wilderness,” “vast chaos,” “unopened land,” and
“virgin land.” Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard, arguably the most
famous US historian of the first half of the 20th century, dismissed
them as “pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of any hope
for the future”; they were “stone age savages.”
The imperial assault came despite a social life among Eastern
Indians that attracted admiration of European and US observers.
Scholars point out that the Iroquois Confederacy in what is now
upstate New York and Canada was directly or indirectly responsible for
the public meeting tradition, free speech, democracy, and “all those
things which got attached to the Bill of Rights.” The League influenced
the founding fathers and the US Constitution, e.g., in the Articles of
Confederation, but Iroquois social life was too radical even for the
most advanced framers of the Constitution. We did not have women
suffrage until 1920, though it was fundamental to Iroquois
government; we still have the capital punishment that the Iroquois
abolished; and concern for child welfare prominent among the Iroquois
did not truly arise until 20th century in the US. When one looks
honestly and objectively at US history and imperialism, therefore, it
becomes clear that the age-old assertions about who is barbaric and
who is civilized must be stood on their head.
As Howard Zinn reminds us, the Eurocentric view of history that
we learned in our schools is quite simply the colonizer’s model of the
world.” This model is built upon the foundation of white supremacy
that has formed the core of US foreign relations from the founding to
the present, beginning with First American nations. White supremacy
and imperialism, therefore, are inseparable from this origin story and
the definition of patriotism. They are the very lifeblood of the US state.
In Zinn’s People’s History we learned that the US-Mexican war was
also an example of manifest destiny and imperialism. Many believed
the war was for democracy and racial superiority, even though at the
time we were a slave society and Texas would end up as a slave state
– which can’t be reconciled with “democracy.” Political leaders believed
we were following God’s designs, and used religious ideas to justify
this imperialist and racist war of aggression, that the white Anglo-
Saxon race was destined to govern the inferior. Many white Americans
still see themselves as the chosen people, but can’t use same blatant
language as in 1848.
The abolitionists protested the war because it was “waged
solely for the … horrible purpose of extending and perpetuating …
slavery throughout … Mexico” which of course was the real reason, but
as with all wars it had to be given a patriotic God-like gloss to appeal
to the masses. One of the foremost abolitionists, Henry David Thoreau,
bitterly opposed the war, as reflected in his “Essay on Civil
Disobedience.” Another leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison,
argued that this was a war of “aggression, of invasion, of conquest….”
and urged the defeat of US forces in the war. Can one imagine any
major US figure arguing such a position today about Iraq? The war
also opposed by Frederick Douglass, the great African-American
abolitionist, who called it a “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous” conflict.
The “manifest destiny” ideology that shaped the war with
Mexico would emerge again some 60 years later during the imperial
assault on the Filipino people, when senators stated that the US should
“not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God,
of the civilizing of the world.” Public officials today articulate a similar
imperial arrogance, arguing that as with the Mexican war, God is on
our side.
During the debate over Hawaii in the late 19th century, one
senator challenged the basis of manifest destiny in forceful terms – a
manifest destiny that had shaped colonial and US imperial actions
toward other people since the Pequod War: “Throughout all recorded
time manifest destiny has been the murderer of men. It has
committed more crimes, done more to oppress and wrong the
inhabitants of the world than any other tribute…. Manifest destiny has
caused the strong to rob the weak and has reduced the weak to
slavery…. Manifest destiny is simply the cry of the strong in
justification of their plunder of the weak.”
During all your years of schooling, did a single teacher dare to raise
such a critique of US actions in the world? Do you recall a single mass
media commentator stating such a view? In order to move toward
such a critique, therefore, we must engage in a mental cleansing
process that will afford us the opportunity of challenging the Orwellian
conditioning we received from education and the mass media.
In this “de-conditioning” process, we might embrace the insights of
social theorist and writer Harry Magdoff, who is quoted at the end of
Dunbar-Ortiz’s article: “… citizens of an imperialist country who wish to
understand imperialism must first emancipate themselves from the
seemingly endless web of threads that bind them emotionally and
intellectually to the imperialist condition.”
I will begin tonight with a critical review of John Bellamy
Foster’s article, adding insights from some of his other articles in the
Monthly Review magazine. These will be complemented by reflections
from Noam Chomsky, America’s leading dissenting public intellectual;
journalist Stephen Kinzer; and the political economist Joseph
Schumpeter. I will then conclude with a brief comment on the US-Iraq
War from Immanuel Wallerstein, respected scholar on US foreign
relations, and link this to the recent congressional approval of the
“Iran Freedom Support Act.”
According to Foster, “the rhetoric of empire knows few bounds”
and the racist rhetoric of a century ago is being raised again. He writes
that US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led some to argue that
there is a link “between the ‘new’ imperialism of the 21st century and
the imperialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Some have
brought up Rudyard Kipling’s “famous poem about … ‘the white man’s
burden’ – a warning about the responsibilities of empire that was
[actually] directed … at the US with its new-found imperial
responsibilities in the Philippines.” They suggest that Kipling’s views
remain just “as relevant today as they were when the poem was
written in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.”
Foster reminds us that when the war with Spain ended the US would
not recognize the new and independent Philippines with its popular
nationalist movement led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The brutal US imperial
assault “provoked a conflict with the Filipino forces,” one part of “an
outright seizure of an overseas colonial empire … in response to a
perceived need of US business just recovering from an economic
downturn for new global markets.”
Despite the savagery of this imperial aggression, however, President
McKinley, future President Roosevelt and many powerful figures
supported it and “welcomed Kipling’s call for the US to engage in
‘savage wars’ beginning in the Philippines.” US forces killed at least
250,000 Filipinos, mostly civilians, a necessary response to counter
the deep support for the Filipino resistance. As with the US-Vietnam
War some 60 years later, American troops “engaged in genocidal
assaults on the native population including resettling the population in
concentration camps, extensive torture, mass hangings and
executions, and systematic raping of women and girls.”
The genocidal nature of US operations was clear; for example, General
Jacob Smith “ordered his troops to ‘kill and burn,’ to target ‘everything
over ten,” and to turn one of the Philippine islands into “‘a howling
wilderness.’” Eyewitness reports from US troops showed that
“wounded and captured Filipino combatants were summarily executed
on the spot.” For those knowledgeable with the documentary record in
Vietnam, all this has a familiar and horrific ring.
The war in the Philippines included the 1906 Moro massacre against
Muslim Filipinos – when some 900 civilians were slaughtered. Despite
this outrageous violation of international law, President Teddy
Roosevelt “commended his good friend” General Wood: “I congratulate
you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat
of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the
American flag.’”
When we know the actual record of US imperialism around the world
against people of color, we may finally confront the fact that US
behavior in the Philippines was not an aberration to otherwise noble
intentions and policies. From General Sullivan’s campaign against the
Cayuga in 1779, through Wounded Knee and Abu Ghraib, such
behavior has been as “American as Apple Pie.”
Foster tells us that Kipling’s writings touched many whites because
they seemed to evoke a transcendent and noble cause. The year his
poem appeared, 1899, marked the beginning of the Philippine-US war
and the Anglo-Boer war in South Africa. These were classic imperialist
wars and they generated anti-imperialist movements and radical
critiques in response. Given the horrendous US aggression against the
Filipinos, it is astounding it is “being presented as a model for the kind
of imperial role [and] rediscovered as the closest approximation in US
history to the problems the US is encountering in Iraq….”
Foster asserts that US imperialist apologists “see Kipling’s poem as an
attempt to stiffen the spine of the US ruling class of his day in
preparation for what he called ‘the savage wars of peace.’” Rather than
strengthening the US Empire today, however, Foster claims this “new
phase of imperialism – rationalized in the West by veiled and not-soveiled
racism,” will actually lead to “the [eventual] decline of the
American empire….” He urges us not to fall prey to historical amnesia,
that “Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ was a call for a joint exploitation of
the globe” by those whom the African-American scholar and activist
W.E.B. Dubois “was later to call ‘the white masters of the world’ in the
face of the ebbing of British fortunes.”
Foster’s critique of the US-Filipino War is supported by the scholarship
of Stephen Kinzer. In his book, Overthrow: America’s Century of
Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Kinzer points out that the brutal
assault in the Philippines set the stage for what followed in Vietnam 60
years later, exemplified by General Wheaton’s order to destroy “every
town and village within twelve miles … and their inhabitants killed”
after some of his men were ambushed by guerrilla forces. The nature
of this war was graphically illustrated by the Philadelphia Ledger: “….
Our men have been relentless: have killed to exterminate men,
women, children, prisoners and captives…. Our soldiers have pumped
salt water into men to ‘make them talk,’ have taken prisoners people
who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later
… stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one….” This
happened 67 years before the massacres of Vietnamese at My Lai and
Song My.
According to Kinzer, Teddy Roosevelt defended such massacres
and “the honor of the troops he loved” – asking his close friend and
ally [Senator] Henry Cabot Lodge to make the case for US troops in
the Senate. Lodge “admitted that ‘there had been cases of … rough
and cruel treatment applied to obtain information’”; however,
Americans “who lived ‘in sheltered homes far from the sounds and
trials of war’ … could not understand the challenge of bringing law to a
‘semi-civilized people with all the tendencies and characteristics of
Asiatics.’” Since these “semi-civilized” Asiatics did not massacre and
torture US troops, we must ask: who was barbaric and who was
It was in 1898 with the Cuban War of Independence, known
here as the Spanish-American War, that “the US definitely embraced
what … Lodge called the ‘large policy.’ Historians have given it various
names: expansionism, imperialism, Neo-colonialism.” This policy
provoked opposition from an “outspoken band of idealists [who]
denounced [it] ‘as a mean-spirited betrayal of the American tradition.’”
If we recall Dunbar-Ortiz’s analysis of imperialism, we would reject the
assertion that ideal traditions were being betrayed in the Philippines;
the war did not depart from the essential US tradition of conquest that
was in place at the Founding.
In an article on “US Military Bases and Empire,” Foster points out that
“Empires throughout history have relied on foreign military bases to
enforce their rule, and in this respect at least, Pax Americana is no
different that Pax Romana or Pax Brittanica.” After WW II, the US took
over Great Britain’s role as the imperialist enforcer, with “the most
extensive system of military bases the world had ever seen….” These
were cut back until the Korean War, then increased during that conflict
and yet again during the US-Vietnam War. It was only after Vietnam
that the total number of bases “began to fall once again.” Despite this
drop, the US, “like all empires … has been extremely reluctant to
relinquish any base” once established. Although the collapse of the
Soviet Union in the early 1990s created a “strong expectation … that
there would be a rapid cutback in US bases” and the US military
establishment – the so-called “peace dividend,” – it did not happen.
9/11 and the “War on Terrorism” brought “a rapid increase in
the number and geographic spread of US military bases.” For example,
Foster emphasizes the critical role of the major US naval base at Diego
Garcia in the Indian Ocean, established when a joint British/US effort
removed all residents from that island in the 1960s to make way for
the base – and then kept it secret for decades.
These US bases and military forces and US willingness to use them
abroad are critical to maintaining US hegemony around the world
because, in Foster’s words, “it would be impossible to keep many of
the more dependent economic territories … from breaking away. US
global, political, economic and financial power thus requires the
periodic exercise of military power,” the iron fist behind the velvet
glove. The US, therefore, is “the main enforcer of the [imperialist]
rules of the game” – an absolutely key point since the US and all
empires ultimately rest on a foundation of violence.
In an article on “U.S. Imperial Ambitions and Iraq,” Foster writes
about the recent historical roots of US imperialism, what he calls a
third phase that “emerged after WW II. During the war, the US …
developed a plan for gaining control of what it considered to be the
strategic centers of the world economy – an ambition that was then
only limited by the existence of the [Soviets]….”
Noam Chomsky has discussed the formation of this strategy, pointing
out that the fundamental premises for American foreign policy after
the war were developed “in the planning documents produced during
that conflict by the State Department planners and the Council on
Foreign Relations….” Since these planners “knew … that the war was
going to end with the US in a position of enormous global dominance,”
they worked on “grand area planning, … the area that … was
‘strategically necessary for world control.’” The “grand area” was that
area “of the world … [open] … to domination by the US.” These elite
planners worked from the premise that “the US economy [had] to
prosper without internal changes (a crucial point which comes through
in all of the discussions in this period), without any redistribution of
income or power or modification of structures.”
Chomsky asserts they “determined that the minimum area
strategically necessary for world control included the entire Western
hemisphere, the former British empire which they were in the process
of dismantling, and the Far East” – essentially a large part of the world
(Chomsky quoted in Foster).
Foster urges us to understand this worldwide US domination,
i.e., we must see that its “wars of … imperialist expansion, however
unjustified … always demand some kind of justification. Often this has
been accomplished through the doctrine of defensive war.” He cites
political economist Joseph Schumpeter’s 1919 essay, “The Sociology of
Imperialisms,” to show the obvious parallels between Rome “during its
years of greatest expansion” and recent US expansion. In
Schumpeter’s words: “There was no corner of the known world where
some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack.
If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and
if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented…. Rome was
always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors [and the] whole world
was pervaded by a host of enemies….”
Foster writes that “the pretense” about so-called “defensive
wars … did not die with the Roman empire”; it is now the “rationale for
the expansion of … American imperialism in the 20th [century]. The
targeted enemies of the US at present are … located in the Third
World, where the possibilities for outright expansion of US imperialism
are greatest.” In Foster’s article “Imperial America and War,” he agrees
with Soviet revolutionary Lenin: “imperialism was inherent in
capitalism from the beginning. Many of the features of contemporary
imperialism such as the development of the Western market, … the
extraction of surplus, [and] the securing of raw materials to bring back
to the mother country,” have been the basis of capitalism for more
than 500 years. “Imperialism, in the widest sense, had its sources in
the accumulation dynamics of [this] system,” especially in what writer
Pierre Jalee called “the pillage of the Third World.”
Our final article from Foster (“A Warning to Africa”) concludes
by urging us to reject the idea that this “latest US imperial thrust [is]
the work of a small cabal of neoconservatives [because] the reality is
one of broad concurrence within the US power structure on the
necessity of expanding the US Empire….”
The present White House “unilateral policy of building ‘empire on
American power alone’ has changed things” in form only by stripping
“away the empire’s hidden character and [reducing] its overall force by
relying less on vassal states…. But such an aggressive posture … is not
outside the historic range of US policy” that has been the hallmark of
both Democratic and Republican administrations. We are dealing with
a bipartisan foreign policy, an “imperial strategy [that] is less a
product of policies generated in Washington by this or that wing of the
ruling class, than an inevitable result of the power position that US
capitalism finds itself….”
In Overthrow, Kinzer also points out that over the past century
“the US repeatedly used its military power, and that of its clandestine
services, to overthrow governments that refused to protect American
interests.” We need to be more precise about what this “American” or
“national” interest is, however, given that it actually represents and
hides the particular “class” interests of the dominant elite rather than
the truly democratic interest of the nation.
Kinzer claims the US “cloaked its intervention in the rhetoric of
national security and liberation. In most cases, however, it acted
mainly for economic reasons – specifically, to establish, promote, and
defend the right of Americans to do business around the world without
interference.” He believes that the influence of economic power over
US foreign policy “has grown tremendously since the days when
ambitious planters in Hawaii realized that by bringing the islands into
the US, they would be able to send their sugar to markets on the
mainland without paying import duties.”
Kinzer is too general in his political economy analysis, however: it is
not “economic power” in the abstract that is the influencing factor, but
the concrete and relentless capitalist search for profit that is the key
issue here.
Kinzer writes that “[these corporate businessmen] … might not
have been able to do so if they and the President who cooperated with
them had candidly presented their cases to the American people.”
There must be massive lying, therefore, at the top of the political
system in addition to hegemonic brainwashing in schools and media to
get citizens to accept the sordid realities of our imperial foreign policy.
Kinzer claims the real development of US imperialism began in
the 19th century, led by “a handful of visionary writers and
intellectuals.” We should ask why these ideas took hold in this
particular historical period, rather than another; and what are the
relationships between dominant ideas, class relations, wealth and
powerful institutions. The domination of some ideas over others does
not explain itself; therefore, we have to go to the roots, to the political
and economic conditions, to explain why some become dominant in
any particular historical epoch.
In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner, a leading US intellectual, published
a provocative essay on expansion. He “concluded that there was no
longer a frontier in the US [and this] left the country with a stark
choice. It could either declare itself satisfied with its present size,
something it had never done before, or seek territories beyond North
America.” We know what choice Turner and powerful corporate and
political officials made. “For nearly three centuries,” he stated, “the
dominant fact in American life has been expansion…. The demands for
a vigorous foreign policy … are indications that the movement will
According to Kinzer, one man took these demands and turned them
into action: Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, director of the Naval War
College. He “urged that [the US] not only speedily build a canal across
Central America but also establish bases in the Caribbean, the Pacific,
and wherever else it wished to trade….” Mahan proclaimed, “Americans
must now begin to look outward…. The growing production of the
country demands it.” This growing productive base was the real
foundation that shaped the fundamental ideological changes. As Kinzer
points out, however, the great productive explosion and new wealth in
the US economy in the last quarter of the 19th century “enriched only
a few thousand Captains of Industry. Conditions for most ordinary
people were steadily deteriorating.”
This growing class divide and increasing class conflict it created,
therefore, caused “many business and policy leaders [to] quickly
[conclude] that the only way the American economy could expand
quickly enough to deal with these threats … was to find new markets
abroad.” Kinzer does not confront this historical phenomenon as
directly as Foster, who argues that the fundamental and underlying
reasons for the rise of US imperialism are found in the underlying
dynamics of an increasingly productive capitalist system that must
expand or die.
In Kinzer’s narrative, the “first wave of American ‘regime
change’ operations, which lasted from 1893 to 1911,” revolved around
“the search for resources, markets, and commercial opportunities” –
even though Roosevelt, Lodge, and … Mahan “were moved by what
they considered to be the transcendent imperatives of history.” These
transcendent imperatives, however, would not have garnered the
ruling class support had they not produced profit for the elite and its
The transcendent “missionary instinct” expressed by Roosevelt
and Lodge “was already deeply ingrained in the American psyche.”
From John Winthrop’s proclaimed “dream of a ‘city upon the hill’ to
which the world would look for inspiration, Americans have considered
themselves a special people.” The “Americans” referred to here,
however, are not First Americans but white English settlers of means.
By the end of the 19th century many US leaders “came to believe they
had a duty to civilize needy savages and rescue exploited masses from
oppression.” This duty, however, did not extend to ending the
exploitation of blacks, First Americans, Latinos and working people
here at home.
This American concern “was often mixed with racism,” an
essential ingredient of a US paternalism that has always been laced
with white supremacy. Many Americans “considered Latin Americans
and Pacific Islanders to be ‘colored’ natives in need of guidance from
whites. In a nation whose black population was systematically
repressed, and where racial prejudice was widespread, this view
helped many … accept the need for the US to dominate foreign
While “the rhetoric of imperialism would be heavily tinged with
racism,” Kinzer tells us “that anti-imperialists also used racist
arguments.” Many did not want the US to “seize foreign territories
because doing so would increase the number of nonwhite people
within its borders.” It is surprising that he should find this fact
interesting, given that both imperialists and anti-imperialists of that
era started from the same premise of white supremacy when it came
to people of color around the world and within the US.
For Kinzer, the “shattering events of 1898 established the US as a
world power,” and “it began to flex its newfound policy muscle.” The
first region targeted was the Caribbean Basin, and a key issue was the
building of an inter-ocean canal and control of the region. “The
inevitable effect of our building the canal,” Secretary of War Elihu Root
asserted in 1906, “must be to require us to police the surrounding
As with the rest of the world, the last two decades of the 19th century
of brought economic crises to the US, as it suffered through
“depressions or financial panics in the mid-1870s, mid-1880s, and
early 1890s.” Many leaders believed that overseas expansion was the
answer to “this destructive cycle.” By supporting what was termed the
“open door” policy, “the US managed to export many of its social
problems.” The key to social problems was in the nature of the
capitalist system at home, however, the root cause of imperialism
abroad. Exploitation and racism began here, not in the Philippines or
Controlling markets abroad “put Americans to work, but it distorted
the economies of poor countries in ways that greatly increased their
poverty” – an inevitable result of capitalist exploitation simply not
grasped by liberal critics of US foreign policy such as Kinzer. It is not
an accidental by-product of an otherwise benevolent foreign policy and
therefore can’t be changed by simply tinkering with the margins of our
political and economic system.
Kinzer tells us correctly that American corporations “accumulated vast
sugar and fruit plantations in the Pacific, Central America, and the
Caribbean, [and] they forced countless small farmers off their land.”
This process was deepened as other American corporations “flooded
these countries with manufactured goods [and] prevented the
development of local industry.” This process is a necessary result of an
US economic imperialism that is lamented by liberal critics of our
foreign policy, but such lamentations cannot do justice to the actual
historical exploitation of the Third World.
“The first American ‘regime change’ operations” had a great
impact on the nation and the world. “The scandal over torture and
murder in the Philippines,” Kinzer suggests, “might have led Americans
to rethink their country’s worldwide ambitions, but it did not. Instead,
they came to accept the idea that their soldiers might have to commit
atrocities in order to subdue insurgents and win wars.” Actually, they
were led to accept the idea by ruling elites and their educational,
media and political apologists, just as today.
Although there were “loud protests” over US abuses in the Philippines,
“in the end, those protests faded away” – just like Abu Gharib. They
“were drowned out by voices [which] insisted that any abuses must
have been aberrations and that to dwell on them would show
weakness and a lack of patriotism.” When it comes to slaughtering
people of color around the world, therefore, nothing changes.
I would like to close by taking Foster’s anti-imperialist analysis
to the present moment and the US-Iraq War. International relations
scholar Immanuel Wallerstein, who has argued that the US is in
economic and political decline and can only mask this reality by
military aggression abroad (The Decline of American Power), asserts in
a recent essay that “It is probably, not certainly, the case that the US
will be forced to withdraw from Iraq before the presidential election in
This withdrawal must be put “in the context of wars the US has fought
since 1945…. The most important … in terms of its … impact, …
economic cost, and … emotional involvement of the American people –
was Vietnam.” The US lost that war, and it produced “a deep cleavage
in the American people – about ‘who’ lost the war, and whether the
war could have been ‘won,’ had other policies prevailed.“
Wallerstein believes this “Vietnam syndrome has never been
healed [and the] withdrawal from Iraq will … be even more traumatic
than the flight from Saigon in 1975.” Two such defeats “will be
devastating and [will show] … the real limits of US power.” The nation
will have “only two possibilities at that point.” One is “a … profound
soul-searching which would lead the US to reevaluate its self-image,
its sense of what is possible in the world-system now and in the
future, and what kind of values it really believes in….”
Regarding this first possibility: I will argue in this course that there is a
Mt. Everest of evidence based on 230 years of US history which
reveals that such a fundamental reevaluation of our values as a people
and nation has never happened. To think that we will engage in such
soul-searching after an entire history of avoiding it would be to
succumb to a profound and tragic error.
Wallerstein tells us “there is a second possibility”: the US would be
“overcome with deep anger about the ‘loss’ of its primacy,” look for
“scapegoats … and eventually move” to gut the US Constitution “and
the liberties it presumes to defend.” This occurred in Germany after
WW I. He believes that it would be “a grievous disaster if the US
moves to any significant degree in this direction.” Ultimately, in his
words, “It is what the US thinks about itself and does about itself that
matters, not only for the US but also for the rest of the world”
(“Foreign Policy Blindness,” Agence Global, 2006).
To test Wallerstein’s thesis on the direction the country will take
regarding war and imperialism and the imperial presidency, we need
go no further than the “Iran Freedom Support Act” passed by Congress
in September, and Representative John Conyers’ dramatic reversal
regarding the impeachment of President Bush.
The “Iran Freedom Support Act” is remarkably similar to the arrogant
and imperialist Iraq Liberation Act passed under Clinton in 1998.
Fortney Pete Stark is the only Congressional representative from
California to oppose this bill. The House approved it 397-21 with nearly
every liberal Democrat voting for it; the Senate passed it unanimously,
with every liberal Democrat, e.g., Biden, Boxer, Clinton, Feinstein,
Kennedy, and Kerry, voting yea.
The imperial presidency has grown dramatically since 1945,
under both Democrats and Republicans. It has perhaps reached a new
and staggering height under the current Bush administration, with
outrageous and egregious assaults on the Constitution. In December
2005, Conyers, one of the House of Representatives’ most liberal
members for nearly 40 years and former chair of the House Judiciary
Committee who has fought some fine battles on behalf of
constitutional principles and oppressed racial minorities, issued an
eloquent and powerful “Constitution in Crisis” statement on the
imperial presidency, focusing especially on issues of war and foreign
policy. It was a detailed list of impeachable offenses committed by
Bush and other high-ranking US officials.
With the recent Democratic victory in the House and Senate,
and the return of Conyers to his former chairmanship this coming
January, many citizens expected him to call for hearings on
impeachment. But shortly after the election, Conyers stated: “I have
agreed with Speaker-to-be Pelosi that impeachment is off the table.
Instead, we agree that oversight, accountability and checks and
balances [that] have been sorely lacking for the last six years must
occur…. I firmly believe that we have brought these matters to the
attention of the American people and the mainstream media, and that
their verdict was reflected in the elections on November 7.”
Conyers’ disavowal of his earlier view on impeachment and the
recent vote on Iran should put to rest any illusions that there will be a
serious reevaluation of the US Empire and imperialist aggression.
Those who cling to the hope that a Democratic majority in Congress
will lead to a reduction or end of US violence against the Third World
need to reexamine the bitter lessons of our history.
In the post-WW II era alone, the staggering record of aggression by
Democratic presidents against poor people of color abroad (Truman,
Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton) ought to teach us that “savage
wars of peace” are not a Republican monopoly. US imperial
interventions against sovereign countries have tied Democrats and
Republicans in a “brotherhood” of empire. It is a “blood” brotherhood
that will not be changed by remaining in a state of denial about our
nation’s true history.
December 2006: William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life,
1980 (Introduction and Chapters 1-5)
My comments on William Appleman Williams’s Empire as a Way of Life
will begin with a critical review of Andrew Bacevich’s Introduction and
some of Williams’s major arguments from chapters 1-5. I will also
share critical reflections on empire from historians Charles Beard, J.A.
Hobson, and V.G. Kiernan, and the English filmmaker and writer Felix
The examination of Williams will emphasize the fundamental
premises that shaped the Founding of the nation, particularly the
views of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. These two Founders
help set in motion a basic structure of empire that has remained intact
for two centuries.
Andrew Bacevich, who wrote the introduction to this new edition, is a
Vietnam veteran who has taught at West Point. He currently is
Professor of International Relations at Boston University and author of
two fine books on U.S. foreign policy: American Empire and The New
American Militarism.
Bacevich argues that Williams’s “influence has endured for one simple
reason”: US foreign policy “has vindicated” his views on the nature of
government and empire, even though Williams was “denounced” by
the Cold War apologists for venturing outside acceptable bounds in his
criticisms of US policy. As long as you stay within these bounds you
can make tough methodological criticisms (i.e., things are not
working), but you cannot question the fundamental premises of the
policy itself, e.g., present the kind of critique that Noam Chomsky
does. This will not do and will insure you will be ignored or attacked in
the New York Times.
Williams’s crime was to “suggest in the midst of the Cold War that the
US entertained imperial aspirations and that US foreign policy … had
aimed at building and consolidating an American empire….” This major
assertion, Bacevich points out, has stood the test of time.
The fundamental question that Williams raised, is whether this nation
is even “possible without empire.” Since it has been always relied “on
expansion – especially economic expansion,” can it “learn to live within
its own means.” The short answer is no, as the radical political
economy analysis of Foster and others in this course show. The
inherent nature of modern capitalism propels it inexorably toward
expansion and growth; it cannot live within its means and any attempt
to produce political reforms designed to accomplish this are doomed to
In Bacevich’s view, “Williams subscribed to his own version of
American exceptionalism” – what I believe is a weakness within
Williams’s fine and powerful critique of US policies. All views of
American exceptionalism are built on a fundamentally flawed premise,
i.e., the history of this country is different than others in terms of
economic and political issues. And we must tie this lack of
exceptionalism to the fact that capitalism is incapable of self-restraint
– like a shark it must keep moving or die. It can’t be self-sustaining
and frugal for that undermines the very nature of a political economy
built upon relentless expansion.
One of Williams’s basic arguments is that unlike the time when he
wrote this book (1980), the notion of empire “was common in the
vocabulary of the Americans who made the revolution against Great
Britain” and then produced the US Constitution. These men “knew the
ideas, language and reality of empire from their study of the classic
literature about Greece and Rome (and about politics in general); they
used the word regularly in their talk about England; and they came
increasingly to employ it in speaking of their own condition, policies
and aspirations. It became, indeed, synonymous with the realization of
their dream.”
The brutal honesty of the early Founders diminished as the
country grew, and the ideological justifications for imperialism glossed
over reality with such phrases as “‘extending the area of freedom’ and
‘saving the world for democracy’’’ – even as the US “destroyed the
cultures of the First Americans, conquered half of Mexico, and
relentlessly expanded [its] power around the world. Empire became so
intrinsically our American way of life that we rationalized and
suppressed the nature of our means in the euphoria of our enjoyment
of the ends.”
Williams’s major arguments represent first and foremost a
social and historical analysis that stresses patterns that become
“habitual and institutionalized” and define the essential “character of a
culture and society” – not psychological or individual explanations that
seek to explain large historical events by focusing on micro and
idiosyncratic tendencies of major leaders.
Therefore, we have to look at the basic assumptions that “each
society holds in common [about] … about reality, [as] those
assumptions guide and set limits upon its members – their awareness
and perception, … understanding of causes and consequences, …
options, and range … of action.”
These assumptions are based on hierarchical and unequal class
relationships. The imperialism of the Founding was similar to what
English historian J.A. Hobson argued a century ago about the “new
imperialism” of his era (Imperialism: A Study); it is particularly
relevant to our contemporary understanding of US foreign policy. He
stated: “Although … [empire] has been bad business for the nation, it
has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within
the nation.” So when we hear that we fight to defend and preserve our
“national interest,” simply ask “whose national interest” and what is
the “direct economic outcome of imperialism.”
Williams argues that it is absolutely critical to understand the nature
and importance of empire in the Founding, “because from the
beginning” this “way of life effectively closed off other ways of dealing
with the reality that Americans encountered.” Once this fundamental
premise or foundation was laid, subsequent US history was very
predictable, right down to our imperial ventures in Afghanistan and
From the Founding, this fundamental structure was dominated from
the start by those Williams called important people, “because they are,
in or out of government, the human beings who order the priorities
and relationships in terms of a system. They integrate the parts into a
whole.” Despite 220 years of different administrations, Democratic or
Republican, the policy has been systemic and constant, not haphazard
or ill conceived. The Founders who formed the nation and created the
empire gave serious and intelligent attention to governing a people,
and their views are absolutely critical and relevant to the present.
While Williams tells us that 20th century Americans “liked
empire for the same reasons their ancestors favored it … [because it]
provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth, and other
benefits and satisfactions including a psychic sense of well-being and
power,” we must keep in mind that the material benefits of empire do
not benefit all equally; most wealth goes to the ruling elites even
though all citizens may share in the ideological benefits that accrue
from nationalist and patriotic appeals.
Williams forthrightly tells us that from the Founding, as a nation
we have from the beginning had alternatives to empire, as “various
minorities (and occasionally pluralities) have from time to time argued
and agitated for a non-imperialist outlook.” We must agree with
Williams, however, that the US “was born and bred of the British
Empire,” such so that the Founders “sought … to coordinate – even to
plan – their efforts to realize their desired goals. They were in truth
concerned to create a system through a conscious effort to integrate
disparate elements into a purposeful pattern.” This was not some dark
and mysterious conspiracy but a development based on planning and a
relentless attention to class interests.
As we discussed in our first class, Williams agrees with John
Locke’s definition of empire: “a way of life [that] involves taking
wealth and freedom away from others to provide for your own welfare,
pleasure, and power.” We have returned to this quote since it
brilliantly captures the essence of the empire project that we seek to
examine. Thus, the basic issue was and remains “the control of wealth
and the liberty of some to do as they choose….” It’s essentially about
constructing a social order based on the fundamental fact of “having
more than one needs.” This is why we must focus on the beginning of
the US and the confident and articulate Founders who created the
ground rules upon which have been built subsequent centuries of
imperial aggression throughout the world.
Williams believes we have to understand “the bricks from which
they built the important foundation. [John] Winthrop’s faith in America
as a City on the Hill and then as another Israel was echoed in the
remark of [Puritan leader] Jonathan Edwards ‘that God might in
[America] begin a new world in a spiritual respect.’” Williams reminds
us that Founder and later President John Adams believed “the colonial
era … was only the opening of a grand scheme and design in
providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation
of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” This sentiment was
rephrased slightly by his son, John Quincy Adams, who described the
US as “a nation, coextensive with the North America continent,
destined by God and nature to be the most populous and powerful
people ever combined under one social compact.”
Such views have been the dominant perspective since the Founding,
rephrased generation after generation with rare dissent by
conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Whatever
tough criticism you may hear today with regard to the handling of the
empire by the Bush regime, you will not find one influential political
figure that will challenge the foundational premises of empire. This
dominant view was restated after the 9/11 attacks, for example, by
historian Victor Davis Hanson, who assured us that our “country was
not merely different than others, but … was clearly superior with its
rare democratic government, tolerance for religious differences, spirit
of liberty, and allowance for dissent….”
William Bennett, moral philosopher and former Secretary of Education,
has restated John Adams’s grand view of America, asserting the basic
truth that we live in a “self-governing society [that stands for] freedom
and self-government.” Bennett believes that “nowhere else has
freedom flourished as it has in America…. Even with its faults, America
remains the best nation on earth.... A fair reading of our history will
reveal, once again, that we truly are ‘the Last, best hope of Earth’”
(Quoted in John Marciano, “9/11 and Civic Literacy,” in Wayne Nelles,
ed., Comparative Education, Terrorism and Human Security: From
Critical Pedagogy to Peacebuilding?).
Of all influential Founders, James Madison was arguably the
most important in terms of nation and empire, and we need to listen
to Williams and devote some careful attention to him. “Both in the
mind of Madison and in its nature” the Constitution reflected the
premise of “imperial government at home and abroad.” Madison was
of course not alone in his advocacy of nationhood based on class
principles and imperialism based on expansion, first against American
Indians and then onward to the Caribbean, Canada, Latin America and
the rest of the world.
While all the Founders were “impressively literate and
knowledgeable about history and political theory…” it was Madison who
presented the strongest case “that empire was essential for freedom.”
This international class view complemented his view of domestic
government, found in his arguments on the nature of society and
rulers in Federalist Paper #10, in the view of many the most important
political essay ever written in this nation.
In this essay, Madison was honest and blunt about the nature
of government and social classes: “The most common and durable
source of factions has been the various and unequal distributions of
property. Those who hold and those who are without property have
ever formed distinct interests in society…. The regulation of these
various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern
legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary
and ordinary operations of the government.” Historian Charles Beard
called this “a masterly statement of the theory of economic
determinism in politics” – the truth but a view that cost Beard dearly.
It is this class nature of political economy and government that was
the essential foundation for empire. It is here where we must begin to
understand US expansionism since 1789.
Alongside Madison was the other major architect of empire, Thomas
Jefferson. For Williams, “Jeffersonian democracy … was a creature of
imperial expansion. He, perhaps even more than Madison, established
it as a way of life, and most Americans embraced it because it gave
them personal and social rewards.” Building an empire “generated
even larger visions” and allowed the US to “give the law of our
hemisphere.” In truth, however, Jefferson, Madison and other
Founders made and unmade that law by signing and then breaking
innumerable treaties and other agreements with First Americans, and
by extending slavery as an integral part of their empire.
Williams reminds us that citizens here “came very quickly to
view themselves as having discovered the ultimate solution to
mankind’s long search for the proper way to organize society” (he
means white citizens of Western and Northern European backgrounds).
Jefferson took this view when he stated that America was “the world’s
best hope.” One is staggered, however, by the depth of denial about
what “America” of that time truly represented in this comment by one
of the most brilliant Founders. Jefferson asserted a reality that totally
erased the class, gender and racial inequalities that marked the US at
that time.
Beard challenged the class nature of the Founders’ views
decades ago in his controversial and groundbreaking book on the
origins of the nation: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of
the United States. Beard demolished the notion that the Founding was
a simple tale of “‘the working out of a higher will than that of man.’
There is to be observed in the history of the struggle for the
Constitution, in historian George Bancroft’s words, ‘the movement of
the divine power which gives unity to the universe, and order and
connection to events.’”
How can one oppose the founding Constitution that forms the
basis of empire itself, therefore, when all of this has been divinely
ordained – the same ideological mystification that present US rulers
use as their justification for imperial assaults around the world.
Of course, the critical view that Beard and other historians have
presented, i.e., “the hypothesis that economic elements are the chief
factors in the development of political institutions,” has rarely been
used to examine the governmental and imperial development of the
US. Aside from the critiques of such scholars as Noam Chomsky,
Michael Parenti, and Howard Zinn, Beard’s thesis has been ignored
and/or attacked for its economic determinism. He was castigated for
daring to suggest that class interests were the fundamental concerns
of the Founders in Philadelphia who debated and created the
Constitution. Despite Beard’s critique, the mainstream view articulated
by Bancroft in the 19th century and repeated each generation since,
has remained the dominant perspective that has shaped our education
on the empire.
Williams recognizes that capitalism with its fundamental
“principles of private property” and class system is challenged by the
“ideas and ideals of community”; therefore, these “ideas and ideals”
are only possible “through empire that provides a surplus of property.”
But of course this means an appropriation of the surplus by some, and
the progression of US history proves that more and more wealthproducing
“property” has ended up in fewer and fewer hands.
Critical to the nature of empire, in Williams’s view, was the
ideological support represented by Adam Smith’s views on political
economy. Often referred to as the founding guru of modern capitalism,
Smith “repeatedly underscored the important of the state in expanding
the marketplace. His entire system was predicated on unending
growth – upon empire…. He wholly agreed with … the necessity of
expansion.” Williams asks us to “remember the words Smith used to
define the purpose” of his political economy system: “… the prosperity
… the splendor, and … the duration of the empire.”
By the early decades of the 19th century, it goes without saying
that President Andrew Jackson accepted empire, as his aggression
against First Americans led inexorably to what Williams calls “the
ultimate magic phrase, ‘manifest destiny,’” created by editor John L.
O’Sullivan. For O’Sullivan, America was “the beginning of a new
history… which separates us from the past and connects us with the
future only. Who will, what can, set limits to our onward march?” Our
mission is “to smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and
oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will….” This is
America, the grand exception to the age-old tradition of greed and
power among states. If only it were true. One of the most difficult
things to accept is that we are like many other empires, e.g., Rome,
Spain, and England. As they, we have not risen above the brutal and
criminal realities of aggression.
Williams’s analysis of US history perhaps reaches its grandest
moment with his insistence that we end the denial about our true
history, and confront finally the reality that “the history of the US is
not the story of … anti-imperialist heretics. It is the account of the
power of empire as a way of life, as a way of avoiding the fundamental
challenge of creating a humane and equitable community or culture.”
This quote cannot be emphasized too strongly, for it points to the
essential nature of the government and ourselves as a people: coming
to grips with what is truly at stake – then and now. Despite the reality
of our imperial history, leaders and intellectuals can tell us with a
straight face that we still need to go forth in the world spreading
democracy, as if a nation built upon genocide, expansion and slavery,
upon empire as a fundamental way of life, can possibly spread
anything but misery wherever it goes. The basic message we were
taught – that we go forth to do good for others – must be confronted
and ripped out by the roots if we ever hope to build a genuine
democracy and foreign policy that respects the “decent opinions” of
Beginning with the eloquent and articulate rhetoric of our Founders,
we heard the grand defenses of empire from the ruling classes – in the
words of J.A. Hobson, the “noble phrases, expressive of their desire to
extend the area of civilization, to establish good government, promote
Christianity, extirpate slavery, and elevate the lower races.” Sound
The English filmmaker and writer Felix Greene presents a powerful
anti-imperialist critique in his book, The Enemy: What Every American
Needs to Know About Imperialism. He points out that “the US was the
first nation to be founded openly on the right … of revolution; on the
proposition that a people may legitimately abolish their existing
government, if necessary by force, and institute a new one. The
principles propounded by the American colonists were at the time …
explosive…. Other principles were adopted that … struck the ruling
classes of Europe as terrifyingly subversive….” But this grand vision
and threat carried within it a “fatal flaw: a society built on the principle
of human equality could not at the same time be a slave society [nor]
could it condone the ruthless massacre of … indigenous Indian
peoples; nor is human equality possible while the means of production
remain in private hands.”
It is the private control of the means of production that we
must ultimately confront, for it forms the foundation upon which
empire is built: it leads inexorably to the “economic exploitation of
other peoples buttressed by military and political domination.”
Greene reminds us that the basic aim of imperialism “is to
make the maximum profits, to exploit, to dominate…. Imperialism of
necessity involves the defense of the social order out of which it
developed.” This is a key point often missed by critics of the means
and results of imperialism that do not examine its essence or inherent
He continues: “Of necessity it must accept a series of assumptions
about people and their relationships to each other.” Within the very
core “of capitalism … there lies the assumption that it is normal,
natural and right for individuals of one class to reap … wealth at the
expense of those who actually produced [it].” If it acceptable “for one
group to … exploit others within their own country, then it is clearly
normal, natural and right for this class to search for ways in which it
can enrich itself by exploiting people abroad as well.” These brilliant
and penetrating insights are absolutely essential if we are understand
the links between the inherent nature of the internal capitalist system
and empire and exploitation abroad.
“An empire can only be administered by a people who feel
supremely certain that they are right, benevolent and just,” Greene
asserts. “Our intentions are good, that’s what matters. We mean well,
for at heart we are a generous people.” We must keep this insight in
mind when we hear that our leaders have generous and fine intentions
toward the people of Iraq – so much so that the US must stay there to
help them on the road to democracy and safety.
Greene critiques the benevolent argument the Founders made
about America, that from the beginning we were “made to feel that the
very survival of civilization in some way [depended]” on what we did.
This self-righteous sense and “identification of [America’s] interests
with the interests of the world, is explained and justified with all kinds
of mystic talk about the nation’s ‘destiny,’ that it was in some way
ordained….” We deserved “this role because of [our] quite exceptional
qualities. And [through] a process well known to psychology,
[Americans’] own unrecognized hostilities and aggression are
projected upon others.” The notion that we are aggressive, cruel and
exploitive was thought to be “ludicrous … until Vietnam.”
In his book America The New Imperialism: From White
Settlement to World Hegemony, the Scottish historian V.G. Kiernan
complements Greene’s critique of empire and American exceptionalism
and benevolence. He states that the US was “never an Eden of primal
innocence, it had been rearing a crop of rich merchants and ship
owners, whose eyes were often turned towards overseas [endeavors].
These were men born with an imperial spoon in their mouth.”
The calls for empire continued in the mid-19th century.
“Heavenly trumpets were sounding in the West as well as the South”
and during the Mexican War one congressman – speaking for many –
called on Americans “to press on to the Pacific and fulfill ‘the destiny
of the Anglo Saxon race,’ mindful of ‘that high position which
Providence … had assigned them.’ … By marching forward America
would prove herself worthy of the divine favor.”
Of all the providential designs, the most heinous was directed
against First Americans and the worst of that was against the
Cherokee – resulting in the infamous “Trail of Tears” that we have
discussed. “Their language was now a written one, and in 1827 they
adopted a constitution on the US model and claimed sovereign status;
but [in] 1838 they were deported to Oklahoma, the abode assigned to
the ‘Five [Civilized] Tribes.’”
Kiernan tells us that before Andrew Jackson retired from the
presidency, he wrote the Cherokee “a letter exhorting them to see it
was all for the best.” In what must go down as one of the clearest
expressions of the empire/imperialist mentality, Jackson stated:
“Circumstances that cannot be controlled and which are beyond the
reach of human laws render it impossible that you can flourish in the
midst of a civilized community.” Alongside patently ignorant and racist
southern whites, the Cherokee were the model of a cultured, refined
and civilized people.
A fundamental part of empire and “manifest destiny” at midcentury
was the institution of slavery, illegal in Mexico. Kiernan tells us
that during the 1830s as “the abolitionist campaign was getting under
way,” the South became “all the more anxious to enlarge its sphere of
influence.” Slavery soon complicated the “debates about how much
Mexican territory was to be annexed. Between spreading civilization
and spreading slavery there was an all too visible discrepancy, and it
was generally feared by the anti-slavery party that any more lands
taken from Mexico would, like Texas, be fresh breeding grounds of the
In the end we must come to realize that the structure of and desire for
empire transcends borders, governments, and so-called democratic
ideals. And that its foundational principles were set in motion by the
very forces and figures that brought the US into being as the “last best
hope of earth.”
The discussion of the 2nd half of William Appleman Williams’s
Empire as a Way of Life will include insights from Chalmers Johnson’s,
Sorrows of Empire; Felix Greene’s powerful critique of US imperialism
from The Enemy; and Noam Chomsky’s analysis of Cold War policies in
Towards a New Cold War, among others. I will concentrate on the WW
II and Cold War empire policies of liberal Democratic presidents: FDR,
Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.
Williams argues that the “process of transforming the realities of
expansion, conquest and intervention into pious rhetoric about virtue,
wealth and democracy reached its culmination during the decades
after WW II.” Critical to “our imperial self-deception, our surrender to
doctrine,” was National Security Council Document 68 of 1950 in which
the US “asserted the unique right and responsibility to impose [its]
chosen ‘order among nations’ so that ‘our free society can flourish.’”
The NSC 68 authors presented the Cold War as the “fulfillment or
destruction not only of this republic but of civilization itself.” NSC 68
was, in Williams’s view, “the defining historical document of the Cold
War era.” Released in April 1950, its primary authors were two key
members of the capitalist ruling class: Paul Nitze, former investment
banker and head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department;
and Robert Lovett, investment banker who had been appointed
Assistant Secretary of Defense.
A key premise of NSC 68 was that other countries were to complement
American “objectives.” This meant building a global world order
“harmonious with [US] fundamental national purposes, a world
environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.”
Translated in plain English, this meant a world in which US interests as
defined by our ruling elite prevail.
The authors advocated a new world order to replace that which existed
prior to WW II, and they recognized that “even if there were no Soviet
Union we could face the great problem … [that] the absence of order
among nations is becoming less and less tolerable.” Order in the
interest of ruling elites has been fundamental to the nature of empire;
and after WW II, the real fear has been revolutionary nationalism and
independence in the Third World, not the USSR. Williams believes that
NSC 68 is “one of the truly … imperial documents in the long tradition
of Western European expansion around the world.” He is right, and it
is critical to understanding US imperialism after WW II. “It provides
the benchmark for American foreign policies from April 1950 … to our
own time.”
Noam Chomsky’s critical analysis of NSC 68 is found in his book,
Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan.
He points to the serious problems facing the US economy after WW II
as the context for this document and its proposed policies. These
problems included the fear of another depression, and a special
concern about “an independent course in Western Europe….” One critic
called the latter a “nightmare for U.S. policymakers.” These fueled
NSC 68’s call for a “vast … militarization of the economy,” and the
need for a “rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and
military strength of the free world.” The “free world,” of course, is that
part of the world open to penetration and control by US corporations.
The “freedom” the document advocated would allow the US
governmental and corporate class to dominate the economic and
political systems of other nations. It had nothing to do with our
common-sense notion of freedom.
Chomsky continues: “… the exaggeration of the Soviet threat
[reached] almost hysterical proportions” even though the authors
simultaneously recognized fundamental Soviet economic and military
“weakness” – a contradiction that is never explained by mainstream
apologists of US imperialism. The document sought to “overcome US
domestic economic problems by the familiar device of military
Keynesianism” – what FDR used to end the Great Depression – with
special attention, in one analyst’s words, to overcoming “Western
Europe’s tendency to pursue an independent economic course by
binding Western Europe to the US with military ties.” This independent
economic development might close off opportunities to US capitalism.
NSC urged the US “to foster a world environment in which the
American [i.e., capitalist] system can survive and flourish….” This
would not be difficult given US moral leadership in the world: “The
essential tolerance of our world outlook, our generous and constructive
impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international
relations are assets of potentially enormous influence….” Chomsky
adds: “… or, we might add, would be so, if we could only somehow
overcome the blindness of Latin Americans and others who, in their
absurd and obtuse delusions, fail to perceive these fundamental
elements of US policies and action.”
According to Chomsky, NSC 68 “was a proposal awaiting the
opportune moment for enactment” – that was provided by the Korean
War. Its language was similar “to that of the … ‘Resurgent America’
program of the Reagan Administration, both in the manipulation of the
alleged Soviet drive for ‘world domination’ and in the real domestic
and international goals concealed by Cold War imagery and rhetoric.”
A decade later, the Kennedy Administration moved to use “similar
rhetoric and programs” and their affinity “to the Reagan programs of
militarization and international confrontation and aggressiveness [is]
Let’s return to Williams’s discussion of the “benevolent and progressive
policeman” who is part of “the self-image of empire.” The real
challenge to US benevolence, he asserts, has always been “the threat
to the capitalist system posed by revolutionary nationalism [because]
any contracting out of the global marketplace threatened both the
theory and practice of capitalism.” The fundamental target after WW
II, therefore, was not the former Soviet Union but Third World
movements that would take those nations out of the global capitalist
Williams’s discussion of FDR’s presidency is critical to his thesis on
empire, and a needed corrective to the largely positive view many
liberals and leftists have of the New Deal. While it is true that the
Great Depression left a deep “psychological impact” in the US, Williams
is right that “FDR’s New Deal did not generate peacetime recovery [as]
the economy was revived only through WW II.” The massive state
subsidies generated by the war ended the Great Depression – not New
Deal reforms.
In Williams’s view, Roosevelt actually strengthened the imperialist
state: he “steadily increased military spending” and “reinforced the …
power of the giant corporations,” as power “became ever more
consolidated and centralized.” And WW II “was a grand illusion
predicated upon a failure to comprehend the full meaning of the Great
Depression, and grounded in the belief that the US could reap the
rewards of empire without paying the costs … and without admitting
that it was an empire.”
The centralization of power and imperialism that unfolded under FDR
continued under Harry Truman – often portrayed as a liberal, anticorporate,
political figure. “Effective political power [was] more
narrowly concentrated in the alliance of economic giants and the
government that had been created during the depression and the
war,” leaving citizens “reduced to saying yes or no to choices defined
and presented by others.”
Truman was a Wilsonian in his imperial foreign policies who believed
“the US had to be aggressive in getting exports and raw materials
(and relevant financial arrangements)” in order to insure prosperity at
home. He and his advisers were hard liners during the Cold War and
not “responsive to any indications that the Soviets were interested” in
a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Williams’s argument here – that
the US was a major force in starting and deepening the Cold War – is
the thesis put forth by historian D.F. Fleming in his seminal twovolume
history of the period.
Williams believes the Korean War finally brought “the empire … to bay”
– causing Eisenhower to confront “the essential truth” about its
ultimate costs. Ike “clearly understood” the inherent dangers of
imperial policies; and in his 1961 farewell address, “he spoke candidly
and forcefully about the military-industrial complex that … had become
the axis of the American political economy.” This complex is vastly
more powerful today.
Eisenhower’s concern was ignored, however, when Kennedy and the
“Best and Brightest” empire managers took over. Williams views them
as “militant advocates of the global imperial way of life [who] quickly
reasserted their power and policy [of] policing the world in the name
of benevolent progress.” The New Frontier gang “perfectly expressed
the psychopathology of the empire at bay and its consequences.” We
will examine Kennedy’s militarist and imperialist views when we get to
Grandin’s book.
The “rhetoric [became] more apocalyptic” and Kennedy “began a
massive military build-up in the spirit of NSC 68.” Even though “the US
enjoyed a massive superiority in strategic weapons,” he “publicly
goaded, even insulted, the Soviet Union by gloating about its gross
inferiority.” In the early stage of the Kennedy presidency, the USSR
had 4 operational nuclear missiles; the US had some 20,000 nuclear
warheads and 300 missiles.
These and other facts ought to put to rest the lies used by Kennedy
and his advisers that Eisenhower and Nixon had allowed the US to fall
dangerously behind the Soviets in nuclear capability. Kennedy’s
actions, according to Williams, “scared the Russians” and “very
probably … led to the confrontation in 1962 over Russian missiles in
Cuba.” I believe Williams’s assertion is wrong: the true context for the
Cuban missile crisis was to be found in the terrorist acts against Cuba
by the US that eventually forced the USSR to arm that nation against
an invasion from the imperial giant to the north.
Williams sympathizes with President Johnson’s “brave … and in the
end tragic – effort to rescue the … contradiction in the imperial way of
life…. He tried to make major improvements in the quality of life for
the poor” and also “secure the frontier in Indochina.” He couldn’t do
both “because … the dynamics of empire … left him no room for
maneuver.” US imperialism does not leave room for “guns and butter”:
each time that choice has been decided in favor of militarism that left
domestic human needs to wither on the vine.
Williams asks whether “the idea and reality of America is possible
without empire.” The short answer is no: capitalist USA and empire go
hand in hand. We cannot end one without ending the other. He
continues: “Are … we unable … to share the world … on an equitable
basis?” Again, no: There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell given that
this system feeds on endless growth and expansion and is built on a
foundation of inequality. He asks yet another profound question: “Is it
possible to create and sustain a democratic culture without conquering
or otherwise controlling and wasting a grossly inequitable share of
social space and resources?” Again the answer is no: it cannot be done
within the structural realities of a capitalist and imperialist system.
I would like to begin our critical look at Williams with some insights
from Chalmers Johnson’s fine book, The Sorrows of Empire. Johnson,
Professor Emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, a Japan
scholar, and former CIA consultant during the Vietnam War, offers a
powerful analysis of the origins and true costs of our empire.
Johnson’s first major assertion is that “most Americans do not
recognize – or do not want to recognize – that the US dominates the
world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, they are
often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe.
They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on
every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new [form] of
An important aspect of this empire is “that the CIA has evolved into
the president’s private army to be used for secret projects … (as, for
example, in Nicaragua and Afghanistan during the 1980s).” Johnson
fears that as this militarism, “arrogance of power, and … euphemisms
required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s
democratic structure of government and distort its cultural and basic
values,” the republic will be destroyed.
The US empire has grown to the point where it staggers the
imagination: it “supports [a] military-industrial complex, university
research and development contracts, petrochemical refineries and
distributors, innumerable foreign [countries] with whom it has treaties,
… multi-national corporations and the cheap labor they use to make
their products, investment banks, … and speculators of all varieties,
and advocates of ‘globalization’ – the catch word that really means
forcing all nations to open themselves up to American exploitation and
American-style capitalism.”
Despite this complex and long imperialist history, Johnson claims we
have “a long-standing … urge to find euphemisms … that soften and
disguise the US version….” Teddy Roosevelt, for example, “professed
to be not an imperialist but an ‘expansionist.’ Arguing for the
annexation of the Philippines, he said, ‘there is not an imperialist in the
country…. Expansion? Yes…. Expansion has been the law of our
nation’s growth.’” Just reread Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s fine article on
US imperialism to see the historical evidence for this “law.”
In his discussion of the links between the Cold War and empire,
Johnson claims that the former allowed the US to grab a number of
lands that were “defended or liberated during WW II. … In 1953, for
example, the US … secretly forced part of the indigenous population of
Greenland, … a Danish colony since 1721, to move – it gave them four
days’ notice and threatened to bulldoze their homes – to make way for
a vast expansion of Thule Air Force Base, … 234,002 acres disguised
since WW II as a ‘weather station.’” Despite “protests by the Inuit of
Greenland and numerous lawsuits filed in the Danish Supreme Court,”
the US remains in control of this base.
For Johnson, the liberal Woodrow Wilson “remains the godfather of
those contemporary ideologists who justify American imperial power in
terms of exporting democracy.” Wilson stated the “world must be
made safe for democracy.” America, he explained, must fight “for the
rights and liberties of small nations for a universal dominion of right by
such a concert of free persons as shall bring peace and safety to all
nations and make the world itself at last free.” According to Wilson,
these were pursuits “we have always carried nearest to our hearts.”
Grandin details the historical record of Wilson’s relentless imperialist
aggression in Latin America, revealing the utter bankruptcy of the
latter’s claims that he was concerned about the fate of small nations.
Beginning with the Korean War, Johnson tells us, the empire became
institutionalized as “huge military expenses fundamentally altered the
political economy” of the country. Staggering levels of military
spending “became a normal feature of ‘civilization’ and all members of
congress, regardless of political affiliation, tried to attract [military]
contracts to their districts. Regions such as Southern California
became dependent on [military] expenditures.” By 2002, “it was
estimated that the Pentagon funneled nearly a quarter of its research
and development funds to companies in California” alone – a subsidy
to major corporations and the rich that would have caused a
catastrophic collapse of the state’s economy had it been removed.
The empire with its Pentagon capitalism turned Japan and Korea “into
political satellites in the late 1940s,” and paid off client regimes “to
keep them docile and loyal” – essentially this means paying off the
ruling elites in those nations to keep their citizens in line. “We have
taught state terrorism to thousands of Latin American military and
political officials at the Army’s School of the Americas” and “utilized
the CIA and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to bring about
‘regime changes’ via coups, assassinations, or economic
destabilizations and have bombed or invaded countries that have
openly broken with or oppose our hegemony.”
In pursuing these imperialist policies, Johnson argues, “the most
powerful tool of the [Pentagon] in promoting its image and protecting
its interest from public scrutiny is official secrecy – the so-called black
programs paid for through the ‘black budget.’” This systematic effort
to “confuse” and spread disinformation began during WW II “with the
Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.” Since the beginning of
the Cold War, the Pentagon has become “addicted to a black-budget
way of life…. All funds for the CIA were (and still are) secretly
contained in the [War Department’s] public budget under camouflaged
names. As the president, the Pentagon, and the CIA create new
intelligence agencies, the black budget expands exponentially.”
For example: “In 1952, President Truman signed a still-secret …
charter creating the NSA [National Security Agency]; in 1960,
President Eisenhower set up the even more secret National
Reconnaissance Office, which runs our spy satellites; in 1961,
President Kennedy launched the Defense Intelligence Agency, the
personal intelligence organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the
Secretary of [War]; and in 1996, President Clinton combined several
agencies into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The budgets
of all these ever-proliferating agencies are all unpublished” and have
not been challenged by either party since the creation of the National
Security State in 1947.
Despite the realities of imperialist aggression since WW II, built upon a
massive foundation of taxpayer funds for overt and covert policies, the
essential nature of the entire empire project must be hidden from US
citizens. Johnson points out that “history tells us that an expansionist
nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to
consolidate its gains. It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak
is in their own best interest, or their own fault, or the result of
ineluctable processes beyond human control, or a consequence of the
spread of civilization, or in accord with scientific laws – anything but
deliberate aggression by a hyper-power.”
While we can see the blatant imperialism of George W. Bush in
Afghanistan and Iraq, Bill Clinton “camouflaged his policies by carrying
them out under the banner of ‘globalization.’ The main agents of this
imperialism were Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin,
and his deputy [and former] President of Harvard Lawrence Summers.
The US ruled the world but did so in a carefully masked way that
produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated
Johnson asserts that globalization policies must be seen within the
context of an “imperialism [that] cannot exist without a powerful
military apparatus for subduing and policing the peoples who stand in
its way and an economic system for financing an expensive and largely
unproductive military establishment.” He believes we need “to
examine the elaborate ideology of ‘neoliberalism’ that has obscured
America’s international endeavors before the triumph of unilateral
militarism and to reveal how militarism has displaced and discredited
America’s economic leaders…. It is in this economic sphere that the
overstretched American Empire will probably first begin to unravel.”
This is scholar Immanuel Wallerstein’s major argument: the US
Empire is in decline because of serious economic contradictions that
must be masked with unilateral and belligerent militarism.
Johnson makes a critical point about the connection between empire
abroad and the destruction of democracy at home: “Although tyranny,
because it needs no conscience, may successfully rule over foreign
peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national
institutions of its own people.” This will first begin with “a state of
perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans.”
It will be followed by “a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as
the presidency fully eclipses congress and is itself transformed from an
‘executive branch’ of government into something more like a
[Pentagon] presidency. Third, an already well-shredded principle of
truthfulness will be increasingly displaced by a system of propaganda,
disinformation, and a glorification of war, power, and the military
legions. Last, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic
resources into ever more grandiose military projects and short-change
the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens.”
I would argue that anyone who has studied the US Empire carefully
would have to agree with Johnson’s accurate and chilling analysis.
From the creation of the National Security State in 1947, the levels of
lying, secrecy and presidential power have continued to grow, aided by
compliant and silent legislative and judicial branches. There are no
checks on the endless war promoted by the empire, save for those
that emerge from the people themselves – as we learned from the USVietnam
War and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We cannot
count on our elected officials to mount any substantive challenge to
the endless imperialist wars organized and promoted by Democratic
and Republican presidents.
As fine as Johnson’s analysis of empire is, we must go deeper
yet to link US imperialist aggression to the very premises and policies
of 21st century corporate capitalism. In his introductory essay in his
edited book, The New Imperialists, Colin Mooers cautions us not to see
the most recent US imperialist actions under the current Bush regime
“solely in terms of a reaction to [9/11], or, more sinisterly, as the preplanned
goal of bellicose neoconservatives.” It is true that this regime
“is more willing to resort to large-scale military interventions” than
previous administrations.
“However, to see this as a fundamental change in the nature of US
imperialism would be an exaggeration. The USA has a long and
unbroken history of imperialist conquest stretching back more than
two centuries…. While America is still the preeminent military power on
the planet, its superiority in firepower vastly exceeds its economic
supremacy. It is this imbalance between its economic and its military
might that helps account for the shift to a more aggressive military
posture. Thus, the drive … toward a more coercive orientation in
international relationships is intended to send a message not only to
so-called ‘rogue’ regimes and ‘failed’ states, but also to its major
economic competitors.”
Mooers believes we need to understand the move to the “new
imperialism” is linked to “the deep structural shifts in global capitalism
that have occurred over the past two decades” – shifts that are to be
found in the neo-liberal policies that truly emerged under Reagan and
his successors who attempted “to address a persistent [problem] for
capitalism, … its tendency toward overcapacity and over-accumulation
– an issue which is particularly acute for the US economy. Driving this
process was the need to locate new sites of capitalist accumulation and
new markets for commodities.” As discussed in Williams, this problem
first emerged in the late 19th century and was clearly recognized by all
the influential corporate and political figures of that time.
Mooers believes we need to understand this latest and very belligerent
phase of imperialism, therefore, in light of the goal of exporting and
entrenching “capitalist social-property relationships throughout the
world; it is about the universality of capitalism. And just as in earlier
phases of capitalism, state military power has been central to the
imposition of this new stage of primitive accumulation and enclosure.”
His conclusion is accurate and distressing: we, and especially the
victims of US imperialism, face a “more or less permanent state of
warfare – war without end.” This is necessary for the US because its
competitive struggle to dominate the global economy “requires military
action without end, in purpose or time.”
In an another essay in Mooers’s volume that complements and
supports his thesis, historian Ellen Meiksins Wood (“Democracy as
Ideology of Empire”) argues that the “fully developed capitalist empire,
which depends above all on economic imperialism, is basically the
story of US imperialism.” Militarism is necessary in order to “police the
global system to make it safe for the movements of capital.”
Therefore, the first and most important “objective of this new empire
… is free access for capitalism and US capitalism in particular, to
anywhere in the world – what is euphemistically called openness.” This
“free access” to people and the earth has been obtained by the most
violent means, in order that exploitation by US ruling elite interests
will continue.
In a previous class I shared some insights from Felix Greene’s book,
The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism; I
wish to add some of his other reflections to our discussion of Williams
and empire.
Greene, writing in the early 1970s, argued that the US had “become
the new world colossus, the inheritor of inconceivable wealth and
power.” But, he asked, “power to what ends? And where does the
wealth go? Who controls this immense and complicated system? … And
is the US using its new and extraordinary position to ameliorate
poverty and injustices of the world, or are we seeing only the latest of
the long line of imperialists out only for themselves.” Given the
historical record, the answers to his questions are quite clear.
Greene argues that the maintenance of imperialism became especially
critical after WW II. In his view, therefore, the US had to confront a
number of “immediate imperatives” in order to save this system: (1) it
might be “left as an isolated island in a world gone ‘socialist’” and thus
capitalism “could not survive as an island in a non-capitalist world.”
Therefore, the first “survival imperative” for US rulers was “to keep the
existing capitalist world capitalist.” (2) “Because of profits made during
WW II, huge amounts of capital were accumulated in the hands of US
corporations. Capital cannot remain idle and will always go where it
makes the largest profit.” Therefore, it was imperative the US “invest
surplus capital abroad where the largest profits could be made.”
(3) Because of “wartime expansion … and the rapidity with which
American industry reconverted its factories to civilian production, there
was a growing unused industrial capacity.” Therefore, another
imperative was to “find markets overseas for American goods.” (4) In
order to compete in the world market, “it was necessary to obtain the
prodigious amounts of raw materials … at the lowest possible cost.”
Thus, an imperative was “to secure control over the sources of raw
materials.” 5. Of course, in order to have “access to the sources of raw
materials and control over them” the US had to have “the capability
physically to control those countries that supply them,” thus
necessitating “the establishment of a global network of unchallenged
military power.”
From the voluminous historical record, including D.F. Fleming’s
excellent history of the Cold War that he traces back to the US-led
invasion of the newly founded Soviet Union in 1918, we know exactly
what US ruling elites did to deal with each of the imperatives listed
Greene concludes his critique of US imperialism with a profound
question: “Why are the poor countries of the world still so poor?” It
strikes to the core of the imperialist dilemma that few in the US wish
to confront: “Foreign investment has not helped the undeveloped
countries because it is not intended to help them. It is intended to
make profits for investors – which is a very difference thing.” He
concludes with what he calls “one of the grotesque paradoxes of our
world”: “The backward countries are really enormously rich. It is
indeed because of their wealth that they are colonized.”
We shall leave the final word on empire tonight to the eminent British
historian Arnold Toynbee. Writing in the 1970s, he stated: “America
today is the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in
defense of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for.
Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign
communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor … have
always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s
policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness for
the greatest number.”
Tonight I will stress Grandin’s discussion of US imperialism in
Latin America after World War II – with a few comments about FDR’s
“Good Neighbor” policy and Woodrow Wilson, the “godfather” of 20th
century US imperialism.
Preparing this lecture was emotionally difficult for a number of
reasons: my anguish and rage over the genocidal levels of Nazi-like
terror in Central America, and the friends who were victims of US
imperialism in Chile. The US-supported coup on September 11, 1973 –
a 9/11 that few here in the US remember – led to the murder, torture
and disappearances of thousands of Chileans, and the forced exile of
hundreds of thousands more. One of those exiled was Orlando Letelier,
an Allende minister who came to the US and became active in the
opposition to the Pinochet regime – so much so that Pinochet ordered
his assassination.
Letelier was killed in a car bombing on Embassy Row in Washington –
planned by CIA agent Michael Townley and executed by anti-Castro
Cuban exiles on September 21, 1976. With him that morning were
Michael Moffitt – a dear friend and student at the college where I
taught, and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, his wife. I attended their wedding
that previous May, and returned in September for Ronni’s funeral.
Michael was injured but survived.
And now to Grandin, who writes that prior to WW II, the US “had sent
gunboats into Latin American ports over six thousand times,” invaded
a number of countries, “fought protracted guerrilla wars” in others,
“annexed Puerto Rico, and taken [part] of Columbia to create both
[Panama] and the Panama Canal.” But “decades of mounting Latin
American anti-imperialist resistance, including armed resistance”
forced a brief improvement under FDR who “promised that … the US
would be a good neighbor.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz criticizes Grandin’s view of this “soft
imperialism” under FDR (Monthly Review, January 2007). “The Good
Neighbor” policy was an extension of imperialism by other means, and
the poor continued to suffer “while the rulers got richer.” She regrets
that Grandin apparently believes “that soft imperialism is acceptable,”
echoing William Appleman Williams’s argument about “empire as a
way of life” that is “so deeply ingrained that its absence entirely is
unimaginable.” Grandin’s analysis of this period, in her view, does not
confront “imperialism as an extension of and inherent to capitalism….
the present global crisis does not exist because the system is not
working; it exists because that’s the way the system works.”
Although Grandin rightly “dates US imperialism in Latin America
to the founding of the US,” Dunbar-Ortiz faults him for not discussing
“the conquest and colonization of the indigenous communities and
nations on the North American continent.” He should have “provided
some context” for this early history by sharing Williams’s list of US
military “interventions and occupations” in Empire as a Way of Life.
These include “the first of several Barbary wars followed with the war
against Tripoli, 1801-05” that is etched into the Marine anthem, “From
the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.” The US also “invaded
Spanish Mexico” in 1806; “seized Spanish western Florida (1810);
attacked Spanish east Florida (1812); … and took Pensacola, Florida
These US attacks reveal that the Empire existed prior to the Spanish-
American War that many historians mark as the beginning the “The
Age of Imperialism” and “the protection of American interests.”
Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us that “those ‘interests’ were commercial and
economic, that is, capitalistic. Exporting capitalism is how the system
works, and that’s called imperialism; it’s not a dysfunction.”
Despite her critical comments, she lauds Grandin’s analysis of
how Latin America informs us about “post 9-11 US foreign policy. [He]
does this extremely well…. Indeed, [his] conclusion … is a tour de
force, showing that the present policy would be impossible were it not
for US practices in Latin America, particularly the Reagan
administration’s practice and lessons learned in Central America.”
This “soft imperialist” period under FDR was short-lived, and as the
Cold War began “security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited
by [the US]” unleashed “a reign of bloody terror … from which the
region has yet to recover.” This truth is backed by indisputable
historical evidence that has been buried under decades of lies from
government officials and apologies from mass media pundits.
After WW II, Grandin claims the US undermined its own “Good
Neighbor” policies by opposing those who struggled for democracy and
reform governments that threatened US hegemony. It was the ruling
elites here that were threatened, since the public was not asked for its
views and mostly fell into line behind the emerging Cold War anticommunist
view. The US ruling class opposed reform and the labor
militancy in the region. This class “demanded protection” from the US
government, therefore, and deepened its links with “Latin America’s
landed class, Catholic Church, and military [which] took advantage of
the US’s new Cold War policy to launch a continental
counterrevolution” against democratic struggles and reform
This imperialist effort was aided by the formation of the CIA in
1947; its first major act in Latin America was the overthrow in 1954 of
Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz who was simply “trying to
implement a New Deal-style economic program to modernize and
humanize [that country’s] brutal plantation economy.” But even this
modest reform was too much for the rich there and their corporate and
political sponsors here. This coup, however, was followed by a defeat
for US hegemony in 1959 with the Cuban Revolution. The events in
these two countries, according to Grandin, “[polarized] politics
throughout the hemisphere and inflamed a generation of activists” who
would later challenge US imperialism in Chile, El Salvador and
John F. Kennedy dramatically increased US imperialism in Latin
America, something that liberal admirers of the late president refuse to
acknowledge. He “campaigned in the 1960 presidential election as a
committed militarist” and promised “to establish a new foundation on
which to ensure the continuance of American power in such changing
times.” He attempted to maintain US hegemony throughout the
hemisphere in the face of powerful movements for radical change. The
key was to appear to support the ideals of these movements while at
the same time deepening US militarism against them.
Despite his image as an “idealist,” it was during Kennedy’s era
that national security states in Latin America “strengthened and in
some cases created by the US … began to transform themselves into
command centers of the region’s death-squad system [which]
executed hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans and tortured tens
of thousands more.” This is an absolutely critical point: the real – as
opposed to the fantasy – Kennedy helped lay the groundwork for later
genocidal levels of violence throughout the region.
Historian Richard Walton has analyzed Kennedy’s foreign
policies in Latin America in Cold War and Counterrevolution. Walton
argues that the context for Kennedy’s aggression in Latin America and
his terrorist acts against Cuba are to be found in Cold War efforts to
increase US military superiority over the Soviet Union. Immediately
after his inauguration in 1961, Kennedy moved to increase US military
strength across the board, including a dramatic jump in the nuclear
missile program. This was barely two weeks after Eisenhower warned
us about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” in his
farewell address.
JFK asked for huge increases in military spending despite “intelligence
studies that revealed” there was no “missile gap” with the Soviet
Union. Walton asserts Kennedy shared the view of other US
presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt, i.e., “… the US has the unique
right to intervene by force of arms in the domestic affairs of other
nations.” This arrogant view became a cardinal tenet of US policy after
WW II under both Democrats and Republicans. The US reserved this
right for itself but was quick to condemn any nation acting in a similar
manner, e.g., condemning Soviet actions in Hungary in 1956 and
Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Kennedy was obsessed with Fidel Castro and the Cuban
revolution, approving Operation Mongoose that included assassination
attempts against Fidel and terrorist attacks against that nation. To
undermine Cuban influence in Latin America, Kennedy combined
violence with the rhetoric of democratic concern, e.g., the Alliance for
Progress. The rhetoric, however, was aimed here at home against US
citizens, since he never intended to attack deep-seated social and
economic injustices abroad. His imperialist, class-based policies were
continued by Johnson and Nixon, and culminated in the genocidal USsupported
death squad regimes under President Reagan.
Kennedy was so obsessed with Castro he advocated actions that were
even criticized by then Vice President Nixon, who stated: “… Senator
Kennedy’s policies and recommendations for the handling of the Castro
regime are probably the most dangerously irresponsible
recommendations that he’s made…. We have … treaties with Latin
America … in which we’ve agreed not to intervene in the internal
affairs of any other American country…. The Charter of the United
Nations … also [provides] that there shall be no intervention in the
internal affairs of another…. if we were to follow [his] recommendation
… we would lose all of our friends in Latin America [and] probably be
condemned in the UN.” Nixon’s response to Kennedy’s assertions was
totally disingenuous, of course, given that Eisenhower already
approved a CIA plan to overthrow Castro’s government at that time.
Kennedy supported the invasion of Cuba in April 1961, proving,
in Walton’s view, that “he was prepared to violate the territorial
integrity of a sovereign state [and] violate … international law,” as well
as an American pledge “not to intervene in the domestic affairs of
hemisphere states.” In a public statement shortly after the invasion,
Kennedy lied about US involvement. “Any unilateral American
intervention, in the absence of an external attack upon ourselves or an
ally, would have been contrary to our traditions and to our
international obligations.” He made this statement before major US
newspaper editors: not one confronted him on this egregious distortion
of the truth, in keeping with the mass media’s lapdog tradition of
supporting US aggression.
Walton writes that this was an “extraordinary statement. No
only was the invasion planned by the US, but the US recruited, paid
and trained” an exile force that had “American military equipment [and
were] trained by American military men…. The warplanes were
American, flown by Americans.… American ships carried the invaders,
and American naval units accompanied them. Americans were killed in
the operation. To claim that America did not intervene was to lie and
be caught in a lie.”
But these lies and the blatant violation of both international and
US law did not arouse public protest, as polls revealed almost 80%
supported Kennedy’s action – proving once again that brainwashed
citizens can be led to give their allegiance to political demagogues and
outrageous imperialist policies.
Walton challenges the so-called “crowning” achievement of
Kennedy’s administration: JFK’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis in
the fall of 1962. Although it has been called Kennedy’s “greatest
triumph,” Walton profoundly disagrees: “… [Kennedy’s] decision to go
to the brink of nuclear war was irresponsible and reckless to a
supreme degree…. [He] … consciously risked nuclear catastrophe….” I
totally agree with Walton’s harsh indictment of Kennedy: JFK’s
terrorist policies against Cuba culminating with the Bay of Pigs
invasion were “the major cause of the Cuban missile crisis. It
convinced Castro and Khrushchev that Cuba was in serious danger
from the US.” And evidence supports the wisdom of that perception.
When one looks objectively at JFK’s record of infamy in Latin
America: the numerous assassination attempts on Castro’s life and
hundreds of terrorist acts against Cubans (which went far beyond
Kennedy’s era and have killed more people in that nation in the last 47
years than the number of US citizens killed in 9/11), the Bay of Pigs
invasion, the missile crisis, US efforts to destabilize the government in
the British Guiana (now Guyana), the refusal to support the elected
Dominican leader Juan Bosch when he was overthrown by a military
coup in September 1963, and national security state violence
throughout Latin America, they reveal a violent leader who was a
supporter of entrenched class rule in Latin America.
In their analysis of contemporary US imperialism, writers and
activists John Bellamy Foster and Robert Mcchesney (Pox Americana)
also place the recent history of US aggression in Latin America in the
context of the Kennedy era. In a June, 1963 speech, Kennedy declared
that the US sought peace in the world, “not a Pax Americana enforced
on the world by American weapons of war.” He dismissed as “wholly
baseless and incredible” – as Marxist propaganda – the charge that the
US was engaged in imperialism in Latin America and elsewhere. The
facts prove otherwise. Including his administration and continuing to
the present, covert and outright US imperialist actions in Latin America
attacked Cuba, British Guiana, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Chile,
Argentina, Grenada, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti
and Venezuela.
Foster and McChesney contend that we must look to underlying
capitalist profit motives as the foundation for imperialism in Latin
America. Its aim “has always been to open up investment
opportunities to US corporations and allow [them] to gain preferential
access to crucial natural resources.” The empire must, therefore,
oppose “all attempts to change the status quo in the periphery of the
system – if not in the center as well. For these reasons militarism and
imperialism are inseparable for US capitalism, as they are for
capitalism as a whole.”
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon continued Kennedy’s policies; and
Nixon was president when the US helped to overthrow the
democratically elected Allende government in Chile in 1973. US
terrorism in Latin America, however, reached new and genocidal levels
under Ronald Reagan. But this shift did not begin abruptly with
Reagan, however, and Grandin critiques Jimmy Carter’s administration
as the transition stage to the horrendous Reagan policies: “… a
number of [Carter’s] actual policies facilitated the rearming of the Cold
War that his successor would execute in full. It was Carter, not
Reagan, who began to increase the military budget at the expense of
domestic social services. It was Carter who first proposed the creation
of a Rapid Deployment Force” that was “designed, according to his
NSC adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, to strike … against brewing trouble.
It was Carter who initiated support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan
six months prior to Moscow’s 1979 invasion…. It was also Carter who
began America’s more active military engagement in the Persian Gulf.”
The full flowering of imperialist aggression in the hemisphere,
however, came in Central America with Reagan and his advisers’
advocacy for US-supported death squad regimes and the Contras.
Although these US-supported forces were mad-dog killers, Reagan
lauded them all, even going so far as to call the Contras the “moral
equivalents of America’s founding fathers.” He “[patronized] brutal
executioners and torturers” to the point where “mass slaughter
became a crucial instrument of US foreign policy.”
Grandin forces us to see the nature and levels of violence that
formed the new imperialism in Central America. The terror in
Guatemala was staggering as perhaps 100,000 Mayan peasants were
slaughtered by an army that had been trained by the US and Israel:
“… troops murdered children by beating them on rocks or throwing
them in rivers as their parents watched…. They gutted living victims,
amputated genitalia, arms, and legs, committed mass rapes, and
buried victims alive.” These were the “freedom fighters” lauded by
Reagan and his supporters; in truth they were brothers to the Nazi SS
that slaughtered Jews and others along the Eastern front in WW II.
El Salvador was more of the same, and the terror there unfolded when
the US-supported regime “responded” to the cries for reform by
increasing “death-squad executions [that] united and radicalized the
opposition.” Officials in the Carter administration were informed about
these death-squad massacres, but there was little outrage from our
“patron saint” of human rights or his advisers.
Kennedy’s policies had helped lay the foundation for what ultimately
became the death-squad regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. Even
though “there was not even a whiff of rural insurrection” in El Salvador
in the early 1960s, this did not stop
“agents from the State Department, Green Berets, CIA and USAID
[that] organized … groups that would become the backbone of that
country’s death-squad system” – led by soldiers who were often
trained by the US at Fort Benning, Georgia. A Pentagon report stated
that it was “precisely the young, aggressive, US-trained officers … who
are the most intoxicated by the extreme right’s vision and … who
commit many of the worst atrocities.”
In Guatemala, Grandin tells us, the bloodshed was even worse. After
the CIA overthrew Arbenz in 1954, Washington promised that it would
turn the country into a “showcase for democracy” but instead “created
a laboratory of repression.” In the early 1980s the military devastated
indigenous areas, turning them into “a slaughterhouse.” When US aid
was partly cut to these death squad regimes and the Contras in
Nicaragua, Argentina and Israel stepped in with training and weapons.
It may seem shocking that Israel joined anti-Semitic Argentine
generals in funding and organizing this genocide – something that
should be remembered the next time Israeli officials and their
supporters in the US lecture us about terrorism. Despite full knowledge
of the genocidal nature of what was happening in Guatemala,
however, Reagan continued “to laud” a regime whose troops “were
engaged in large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children.”
The same butchery was pursued in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas
that had taken power in a genuine people’s revolution in 1979,
overthrowing the criminal Somoza family that had been supported by
the US since the “Good Neighbor” days under FDR. Oliver North and
William Casey, head of the CIA, led the US terrorist efforts. They
organized and “presided over” an “elaborate transnational support
network designed to bypass congressional and public scrutiny. [The
network] included nations such as Saudi Arabia and Israel,
“conservative religious’ leaders and organizations, “private security
firms and arms merchants, … mercenaries, … ex-agents” of SAVAK,
the Shah of Iran’s secret police” and international drug dealers.
Grandin tells us there was “ample evidence … that the CIA employed
… dealers as middlemen, using their planes to ship arms to the
Contras in exchange for easy access to American markets.” All these
people and groups were evidently part of the “moral” leaders and
“freedom fighters” Reagan talked about.
Official US reports, however, proved that the Contras committed
“atrocities” that included “hundreds of civilian murders, mutilations,
tortures, and rapes” [actually there were thousands] of which “CIA
superiors were well aware.” The Agency stated that the Contras killed
“civilians and Sandinista officials … as well as heads of cooperatives,
nurses, doctors, and judges…. By the end of the war, 30,000 civilians
had been killed, the overwhelming majority at the hands of” this USsponsored
and supported terrorist group. Despite our moral revulsion
over this terror, we must understand it was absolutely necessary to
maintain US imperial hegemony; otherwise, US-backed Contras and
death-squad regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador would have been
overthrown along with their US patrons who ruled those nations for
Others have seconded Grandin’s arguments. In 1982, for example,
writer and Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez discussed the
human cost of US-sponsored terror in Latin America in his acceptance
speech. Since the early 1970s, he said, the continent had “not had a
moment’s rest.” There were “five wars and seventeen military coups;
there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out in God’s name
the first Latin American genocide of our time…. [This was General Rios
Montt in Guatamala, Reagan’s favorite]…. Those missing because of
repression number nearly 120,000….”
Because people “tried to change this state of affairs, nearly 200,000
women and men have died throughout the continent, and over
100,000 have lost their lives in … Nicaragua, El Salvador and
Guatemala…. 1 million … have fled Chile, … 10% of its population….
Uruguay, a tiny nation of 2.5 million inhabitants [that] considers itself
this continent’s most civilized country, has lost to exile one out of
every five citizens.” These horrific crimes against humanity that were
punishable by death at Nuremberg were all carried out with US
financial, ideological and military assistance.
In his history of US imperial relations with Latin America, scholar Juan
Gonzalez (A Harvest of Empire) reminds us that the violent repression
in the 1960s-1980s had deep historical roots going back to the earliest
assaults by whites throughout Spanish colonies. And the policies
carried out by Kennedy, Reagan, et al. were linked to the racist
militarism of that “godfather” of imperialism, Woodrow Wilson. When
he became president in 1912, US corporations owned hundreds of
plants in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, and “millions of
peasants [had been] forced from their lands.” Even though they did
not freely choose it, Puerto Ricans “[became] US citizens in 1917 when
Congress passed an act making them so, over the unanimous protests
of their house of delegates there.” This was the year the US entered
WW I, an abject history lesson that revealed the utter bankruptcy of
Wilson’s proclaimed ideals about “self-determination” that were never
meant to apply to people of color throughout the world.
One of Wilson’s “idealistic” efforts on behalf of selfdetermination
occurred in 1916 when the US invaded the Dominican
Republic, “dissolved its legislature, imposed martial law and press
censorship, and jailed hundreds of opponents. The occupation would
last eight years [and] prompted widespread protests against the US
throughout Latin America, created deep bitterness in the Dominican
population, and radically altered every sphere of Dominican society.”
Lyndon Johnson followed Wilson’s example in May 1965 when he sent
marines there to block the election of progressive candidate Juan
Bosch – the very same month Johnson was escalating the war in
Noam Chomsky, our leading intellectual dissident, has argued
that all this terror in Latin America must be understood as part of a
larger effort by the US to retain its global domination after WW II. In
Hegemony or Survival, he points out that grasping US efforts during
the Cold War “means understanding that foreign policy flows from an
institutional framework of domestic power, which remains fairly stable.
Economic decision-making in the US is highly centralized … [and] it is
only natural that state policy should seek to construct a world system
open to US economic penetration and political control tolerating no
rivals or threats.” US imperialism in pursuit of this grand strategy,
therefore, has always been aimed at Third World nationalist and
radical movements in places like Latin America – not the former Soviet
He develops this argument in his book World Orders Old and
New, asserting that US imperialism has sought to maintain the
worldwide class division between North and South, which is far more
important than the East-West, Cold War conflict: “… the conventional
picture of the Cold War … does not withstand scrutiny, and never has.”
A much “more realistic understanding of the Cold War [can be
obtained] by adopting a longer-range perspective, viewing it as a
particular phase in the five-hundred-year European conquest of the
world – the history of aggression, subversion, terror, and domination
now termed the ‘North-South confrontation.’”
The evidence for this North-South imperialist thesis, Chomsky
points out, is “spelled out with particular lucidity in US planning
documents, and illustrated in practice with much consistency.” In
these documents, “independent nationalism” and especially “radical
nationalism” cannot be tolerated. Latin America, for example, is “to
provide services for the rich, offering cheap labor, resources, markets,
opportunities for investment and (lately) export of pollution, along with
other amenities (havens for drug money laundering and other
unregulated financial operations, tourism, and so on).” If “ultranationalism”
arises and “appears successful in terms that might be
meaningful for poor people elsewhere” then it must be opposed by the
US as “a … heinous crime; the culprit, is then termed a ‘virus’ that
might spread ‘infection’ elsewhere, a ‘rotten apple’ that might ‘spoil
the barrel,’ like Arbenz’s Guatemala, Allende’s Chile, Sandinista
Nicaragua, and a host of others.”
Chomsky points out that the fundamental issues “are
occasionally expressed with some clarity, as when Henry Kissinger
warned that the ‘contagious example’ of Allende’s Chile might ‘infect’
not only Latin America” but also other areas of the world. Regarding
Nicaragua, Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz “[voiced] the
real fear” about the Sandinistas’ impact on anti-imperialist struggles
throughout Latin America. If they “succeed in consolidating their
power,” then “all the countries in Latin America … will see radical
forces emboldened to exploit these problems.” In order to crush this
possibility in Central America, Grandin shows us how US-supported
death squad regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador and Contra
terrorists in Nicaragua resorted to genocidal levels of violence.
Chomsky has called Nicaragua “a particularly revealing case”
that shows how “torturing [the country] is a ritual going back to 1854,
when the US Navy destroyed a coastal town to avenge an alleged
insult to US officials and the millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt…. It has
therefore long been our established right … without a second thought
through the final savagery of our client Somoza, who slaughtered tens
of thousands with our aid and approval (disguised with much conceit)
when the desperate population finally arose. The refusal of the new
government [i.e., the Sandinistas] to genuflect in the proper manner
aroused sheer frenzy” especially among US leaders and mass media
Scholars James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer support Grandin’s
overall thesis by addressing the economic basis of US imperialism in
Latin America (Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of
Neo-liberal Capitalism). They argue that US imperialist aggression
“takes many forms but pursues similar goals: conquest of markets,
penetration of competitors and protection of home markets.” This
aggression has been masked in recent decades, however, under the
guise of “globalization” – a process that actually “grew out of the
barrel of a gun – a gun wielded, pointed and fired by the imperial
This assertion must be true, because it was articulated by arguably the
most influential US journalist and apologist for globalization, Thomas
Friedman of the New York Times. He offered up this relationship
between the capitalist market, globalization and imperialism: “The
hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.
McDonald’s cannot flourish with McDonnell Douglas, the designer of
the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon
Valley’s technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine
Corps” (Friedman, The Olive Tree and the Lexus, p. 373).
Petras and Veltmeyer assert that “whatever form” imperialism
takes, “it entails the projection of state power in its various forms
(economic, political and military) … to advance … class or ‘national’
interests and subordinate other countries to these interests.” Policies
to support the terrorist US imperial state, therefore, are taken both
“both directly” (through the State Department and the Pentagon) and
“indirectly (via control over financial institutions such as the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund)….” This imperialist process,
however, “is not a policy, a conspiracy or a product of any single
administration, but a structural reality with political determinants and
an economic basis.”
The authors caution us, however, not to see imperialism as a one-way
process. “While European and US empire-builders have exploited …
Latin America for most of the past half millennium, it is also true that
Latin American popular movements and national and socialist regimes
have managed to significantly modify or transform their relations with
the imperial states at different conjunctures. Imperialism is based on
class and state relations that by nature imply a process of conflict,
confrontation, conquest, revolution, counterrevolution and
This “empire-building” was aided by “military coups in Brazil
(1964), Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), and civilian
military coups in Uruguay (1972) and Peru (1993) [that] created the
political framework and international agreements with international
financial institutions that halted and reversed the national
industrializing project of the [region], opening up Latin America to
eventual conquest by US and European interests.” This imperialist
process in the 1990s alone led to “$585 billion in interest payments
and profits [being] remitted to the centre of the empire, the vast bulk
of it to US home offices.” It is this foundation of violent accumulation
in Latin America that must be understood clearly and completely if we
are develop a reasonable and objective understanding of “the new
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (Open Veins of Latin America)
has defined this brutal accumulation process in Latin America with his
usual eloquent and powerful language: “Our defeat was always implicit
in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty
by nourishing the prosperity of others – the empire and their native
overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into
scrap metal and food into poison.” He goes on to write that “the
strength of the imperialist system as a whole rests on the necessary
inequality of its parts”; therefore, it would be foolish to expect the
imperialists to provide a solution to the oppression they have
produced. As a 19th century Guatemalan foreign minister once stated:
“It would be strange if the remedy should come from the US, the same
place which brings us the disease.”
Samir Amin, Director of the Third World Forum in Senegal, has also
added his harsh judgment about the “new” and “old” US imperialism in
Latin America. In Empire of Chaos, he writes: “The intervention of the
North in the affairs of the South is – in all its aspects … negative.
Never have the armies of the North brought peace, prosperity, or
democracy to the peoples of … Latin America. In the future … as in the
past … they can only bring … further servitude, the exploitation of their
labor, the expropriation of their riches, and the denial of their rights.”
The essence of Galeano’s and Amin’s views and US imperialism was
also captured 178 years ago by the Venezuelan general and liberator
Simon Bolivar – who fought for the independence from Spain of a
number of Latin American nations: “… The United States,” he said,
“seemed predestined by Providence to rain down misery on the
Americas in the name of liberty….”
Grandin writes that the new imperialism that became
entrenched in the Reagan years reflected a US desire “to overcome the
factionalism and disenchantment that had plagued [the US] since the
1960s.” When looked at from the perspective of widening democracy
and civic involvement, however, I would argue that these antiestablishment
movements were healthy challenges to our ruling class
and political system.
It was Vietnam War, Grandin asserts, that led to a “deep
skepticism [that] shattered the governing consensus that had held
sway for the first two decades after World War II. In what seemed a
remarkably short period of time, the institutional pillars of society –
universities, churches, newspapers, movies, Congress, and the
judiciary – that had previously buttressed government legitimacy
began to lean against it, advancing what some conservative critics
came to deride as a permanent ‘adversary culture.’”
Grandin, however, inflates institutional dissent and the so-called
“adversarial culture”: it was dissenters within those institutions who
went against the dominant consensus. Influential officials did not
oppose imperialism; and not one board of trustees of any major
university condemned US policies, even after the May 1970 killings of
students at Kent State University in Ohio.
Despite tactical criticisms about US policy during the Vietnam War, no
major US media outlet opposed it in principle; their so-called
opposition came after the Tet offensive in early 1968 made it clear the
US could not win. The judiciary refused to confront the war even
though it violated the US Constitution, the UN Charter and Nuremberg
Charter. Grandin’s analysis, therefore, exaggerates the nature and
depth of anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment in the US during that
era and into the 1980s.
He states that the lingering “Vietnam syndrome” among the US public
was countered under Reagan with “an extensive propaganda campaign
against dissidents at home that opposed imperialist attacks on Central
America.” This included an attack on the “adversarial press” that has
not really been adversarial about imperialism in Central and South
America. The propaganda effort also “had to tame a presumptuous
Congress, and make inroads on college campuses” and this was done
with a “sophisticated and centralized ‘public diplomacy’ campaign that
deployed tactics drawn from both the PR world and the intelligence
The White House also “either loosened or circumvented restrictions
placed on domestic law-and-order tactics that the FBI and other
intelligence agencies had used to intimidate the antiwar movement in
the 1960s…. Finally, and most consequentially, [it] built … grassroots
support to counter what seemed a permanently entrenched antiimperialist
opposition.” This propaganda assault coordinated “the work
of the NSC [National Security Council] with PR firms, psychological
warfare specialists, and New Right activists, intellectuals and pressure
groups…. The office also worked closely with conservative cadres …
who … raised millions … mostly through front organizations….”
The terrorist attacks in Central America were critical in
establishing the basis for what Grandin calls the “The Third Conquest
of Latin America” that continues under the present Bush regime.
Although he recognizes that “the promotion of capitalism has long
been a concern of American foreign policy, … the kind of capitalism
advanced by the Bush doctrine is innovative, at least in its arrogant
disregard for history. It is a militarized and moralized version that
under the banner of free trade, free markets, and free enterprise often
makes its money through naked dispossession.” As Noam Chomsky
and others have argued, however, the banner of “free markets” is
government and mass media spin for public consumption; not one of
its proponents would put it in practice.
This “third conquest” follows Spanish conquistadores, US corporations
and “multinational banks, the US Treasury Department, and the
International Monetary Fund.” It has continued under G.W. Bush, and
“promoted not reform capitalism but raw capitalism….” Grandin links
this economic imperialism in Latin America to the “free-market
absolutism now being imposed on Iraq [and] indispensable to
understanding the power of the new imperialism…. In important ways
the road to Iraq passes through Latin America, starting first in Chile.”
These “free market” policies in Chile and elsewhere, of course, could
not have succeeded without national security state violence against
progressive forces.
In Grandin’s view the fundamental shift in Latin America began
in 1973, “when the US was hit with the twin blows of the sharply rising
oil prices and a 17-month recession….” This “led to a sharpened sense
of class consciousness and unity of action among corporate leaders …
[who] now rapidly increase[ed] their funding of [right-wing
organizations] dedicated to the dismantling of economic regulations
and social entitlements.” Tragically for progressive forces, this
dominant elite class-consciousness was not matched by a similar rise
among the middle and lower classes, as ruling class hegemony
prevailed against a public that was uninformed, confused, and
In Latin America, the US ruling class set out to crush “third world
economic nationalism, which was increasingly identified as an obstacle
to economic recovery.” In 1974, retired general Maxwell Taylor
expressed this view when he stated that the US “was threatened by a
‘turbulent and disorderly’ third world.” We were the “leading affluent
‘have’ power,” and thus should “expect to have to fight for our
national valuables against envious ‘have-nots.’” Taylor’s blunt class
consciousness contrasted dramatically with the lack of such classconsciousness
and activism on the part of public.
Gradin states that the synthesis of “the goals of corporate
America with the passion and ideas of a nationalist backlash created a
perfect storm of resurgent US expansionism … that would force on the
rest of the world the kind of economic regime first institutionalized in
Chile.” This effort was carefully orchestrated and nurtured by powerful
multinational corporate and political groups.
He is on the mark when he claims that “Reagan’s policies halted
and then began the reversal of what some economists had identified
as a dangerous trend – namely, the democratization of wealth brought
about by union power, a progressive corporate and personal income
tax code, education spending, low unemployment, and social welfare
programs.” They were dangerous to the degree that they challenged
the US ruling class power. Therefore, a systematic effort was
undertaken in the 1970s to curb “the democratic distemper” of the
movements that arose in the US in the 1960s to challenge domestic
and imperial US power.
The challenge to US policies and the counterattack discussed in
Grandin actually emerged under President Carter. As discussed by V.G.
Kiernan in his America: The New Imperialism, it was Samuel
Huntington, Democrat, Harvard Professor and former Pentagon advisor
during the Vietnam War, who diagnosed “a democratic distemper” and
“a crisis of democracy” caused by “previously passive or unorganized
groups in the population” who have “now embarked on concerted
efforts to reestablish their claims to opportunities … and privileges,
which they had not considered themselves entitled to before.” Upset at
the public’s willingness to challenge “the legitimacy of hierarchy,
coercion, discipline, secrecy, and deception … which are, in some
measure, inescapable attributes of the process of government,”
Huntington concluded on an elitist note: “…. the effective operation of
a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy
and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.”
Huntington’s views were part of the Crisis of Democracy report
for the Trilateral Commission, a body founded by David Rockefeller in
1972 that would later supply the heart of the leadership of the Carter
administration. The aim was to use the power and propaganda of the
US government and the corporate mass media to neutralize and
marginalize those infected with this “democratic distemper” so that
they would not disrupt the genocidal US attack on Central and South
Grandin asserts that progressive reforms in Latin America had
to be attacked because they brought increased equality and “produced
new social groups demanding increased political and social democracy,
demands to which the region’s ruling classes, under the cover of the
Cold War and with tech support provided by the Pentagon responded
with wholesale slaughter.” A similar effort to crush dissidents occurred
here, though in a much less violent way.
The new imperial policies devastated the poor throughout South
America, but in Central America “the situation was much worse.”
According to Grandin, the economic devastation “that began a quarter
century ago has actually accelerated…. 60 percent of the inhabitants of
Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – roughly
20,000,000 people – live below the poverty level, a situation that has
grown worse since the wars ended…. Panama fares no better, plagued
as it is by corruption, violence, high unemployment, and severe
This human catastrophe, however, is an acceptable price to pay for the
US ruling class and its apologists, far better than those periods when
the poor organized militant and armed struggles. As long as the
oppressed don’t threaten their own ruling elites and US protectors, we
will hear little to nothing about conditions in the region.
But US ruling circles are worried again by the rising social-democratic
movements in Latin America, most personified by Hugo Chavez in
Venezuela. This hopeful movement is countered, Grandin reports, by
many among the poor who “seek remedy through more vengeful
outlets, such as right-wing nationalism, religious fundamentalism, or
street-gang brutality. Most likely, they join the ranks of the forgotten,
victims or perpetuators of [staggering levels of] violence….”
Grandin reminds us that when Venezuelan president Hugo
Chavez “began to criticize the IMF model, the White House openly
backed the plotters who attempted to depose him in spring 2002. And
after 9/11, the Bush administration added critics of neoliberalism to its
growing list of hemispheric security concerns.” “Radical populism” was
increasingly considered to be an “emerging threat,” and Chavez and
Evo Morales of Bolivia were singled out as potential terrorists who took
advantage of “deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic
reforms to deliver expected goods and services.”Despite these horrific
conditions, the US does very little to alleviate “the poverty that even
the Pentagon admits fuels the war and the drug trade.” Given the
premises of imperialism, however, the US government can’t alleviate
these problems because it created them: it’s the criminal. Without
fundamental social and economic change here at home, therefore, we
cannot expect any genuine US effort to help end desperation in Latin
So we face an intractable dilemma with no good solution for
rulers here: the US “promotes an economic model that produces not
development and stability but desolation and crisis. As such, the US is
once again relying on hard power to protect its interests against the
resurgence of a new, continent-wide democratic left.” US interests, of
course, are the interests of the dominant elite that covers itself with
the mantle of the national interest, not the broad democratic interests
of the governed here.
Grandin’s final point is absolutely critical if we are to grasp the truth
about US imperialism: “The most important lesson taught by the
history of the US in Latin America [is that] democracy, social and
economic justice, and political liberalization have never been achieved
through an embrace of empire but rather through resistance to its
command.” This assertion seconds the insight of Samir Amin, whom I
quoted last time: “The intervention of the North in the affairs of the
South is – in all its aspects … negative. Never have the armies of the
North brought peace, prosperity, or democracy to the peoples of …
Latin America. In the future … as in the past … they can only bring …
further servitude, the exploitation of their labor, the expropriation of
their riches, and the denial of their rights.” Therefore, the only
democratic option is the one Grandin and Amin lay out: resistance to
the commands of the imperialists.
A number of scholars have seconded the thesis put forth in Grandin’s
book. Tariq Ali’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope argues that US
imperialism in Latin America has created a situation where “The real
crime is to challenge the certainties of the new order, to disregard the
‘Forbidden’ signs of the [Western consensus].” To Ali, “the choices are
clear. Either one pushes for US imperial policies or one attempts to
create an altogether different programme which prioritises not market
values but human needs.” The latter is underway in various areas of
South America that “is on the march again, offering hope to a world
either deep in the neo-liberal torpor or suffering daily from the military
and economic depredations of the New Order.” This is the resistance to
the commands of the rich and powerful forces that created and
sustained imperialism – the end of Grandin’s analysis in Chapter 6.
In The Culture of Terrorism, Noam Chomsky discusses the USsupported
genocidal and imperial violence against Central America.
This assault must be placed within the larger context of overall US
foreign policy: “The central – and not very surprising – conclusion that
emerges from the documentary and historical record is that US
international and security policy, rooted in the structure of power in
the domestic society, has as its primary goal the preservation of what
we might call ‘the Fifth Freedom,’ understood crudely but with a fair
degree of accuracy as the freedom to rob, to exploit and to dominate,
to undertake any course of action to ensure that existing privilege is
protected and advanced. This guiding principle was overlooked when
[FDR] announced the Four Freedoms that the US and its allies would
uphold in the conflict with fascism: freedom of speech, freedom of
worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” Chomsky
harshly criticizes the mass media and leading intellectuals that “largely
accepted and internalized the basic framework of government doctrine
throughout….” This is the doctrine that Grandin explains in great detail
in Empire’s Workshop.
In Chomsky’s view, Reagan’s “activist” foreign policy assaults
against Central America were “at an extreme of the [political]
spectrum” but within the framework of general US principles that have
included “intervention, subversion, aggression, international terrorism,
and general … lawlessness….” The staggering levels of violence during
these years were “generally supported by elite opinion across the
political spectrum, apart from tactical disagreements.” And they were
policies “initiated by the liberal Carter administration, including the
military build-up which largely follows its projections, the dismantling
of the welfare state, the terrorist slaughter in El Salvador, and so on.
There are differences, but they are within a general tendency that has
won wide agreement. The Democratic opposition has broadly
supported these policies, even the attack against Nicaragua” – all part
of the bi-partisan empire thesis we will examine shortly.
The “self-image of American elites,” Chomsky writes, reveals
the US as “a lawless and violent state and must remain so,
independently of such nonsense as international law, the World Court,
the UN, or other international institutions…. US international terrorism
is ‘scandalous’ only if it infringes upon the prerogatives of the powerful
or carries a potential cost to elite interests.” Therefore, “the successful
use of terrorism is not considered a scandal. On the contrary, it is
welcomed and applauded.”
Key to understanding US imperialism in Latin America, in
Chomsky’s view, is getting to the historical and institutional roots of
exploitation and violence. This means rejecting the thesis that
problems are basically the result of “the failings of incompetent
individuals, not traced to their institutional roots…. And crucially the
nobility of US intentions must be protected from any challenge.” Thus,
although Reagan’s policies were “foolish, incompetent, out of control,”
the US always moves abroad with fine intentions: it makes mistakes
but never commits crimes.
Chomsky doesn’t just condemn the obvious butchery of the
Reagan administration in Central America, but challenges liberals when
he takes on Mr. Human Rights, Jimmy Carter. “Carter’s Human Rights
Administration,” for example, “strongly supported both Somoza and
the Shah. Congressional legislation, reflecting popular dissidence from
the late 1960s, placed constraints on direct aid to Somoza, so the
Carter administration was compelled to rely on Israel to provide arms
and advisers while Somoza’s National Guard killed some 40-50,000
people in its final paroxysm of violence.”
The fundamental premise for US elite support of such brutal
right-wing gangsters throughout the world, in Chomsky’s view, stems
from the “broad agreement that the US cannot tolerate any threat to
the rule of the brutal and regressive elements that prevent the
establishment of ‘nationalistic regimes’ that are responsive to the
needs and concerns of their own populations, the guiding policy
principle laid down in secret planning documents; the traditional US
hostility to democracy and human rights remains without challenge.”
We discussed Felix Greene’s analysis of US imperialism in a previous
class, and it is perfectly applicable to Latin America (The Enemy: What
Every American Should Know About Imperialism). His basic thesis,
similar to that made by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, is that we
are dealing with poor countries that are “enormously rich.” Thus it
becomes clear: “It is because of their wealth that they are colonized.”
Greene shares data on Latin America that support this
assertion: “It has more cultivable, high yield tropical soil than any
other continent, at least three times as much agricultural land, per
capita, as Asia, the biggest reserves of timber in the world. Buried in it
are … vast reserves” of minerals embracing “virtually every metal …
and every industrial chemical known to man. With its oil and
hydroelectric power it constitutes one of the greatest untapped
reservoirs of energy.” He asks a fundamental question that can only be
addressed if one has an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist perspective:
“How it is that nations with such rich resources, supplying such vast
quantities of the world’s essential materials, remain so appallingly
In his scholarly work on US imperialism, the economic historian and
sociologist Andre Gunder Frank critiques the “dependency” process
that keeps the imperial center intact and powerful, and the exploited
areas such as Latin America poor. “The metropolis expropriates
economic surplus from its satellites and appropriates it for [its] own
economic development. The satellites remain underdeveloped for lack
of access to their own surplus…. One and the same historical process
of expansion and development throughout the world generated – and
continues to generate – both economic development and structural
underdevelopment.” These processes are but sides of the same coin:
you cannot have one without the other as misery feeds wealth and
vice versa.
We simply need to move back from Grandin’s discussion of
imperialism and its natural by-product: poverty, to a Newsweek story
30 years ago that was cited in Greene, to see how nothing has
changed: “Just a few hours by jet from New York … live more than 200
million people in the vast reaches of Latin America and it is doubtful
whether one-tenth of them know what it is like to go to bed with a full
stomach. The great cities glitter opulently … but beyond the glitter and
in the hinterland are odious and despondent slums where … Indian
children scrounge for scraps and handouts while their parents labor for
wages of twenty cents a day or less.” The Newsweek article
concludes: “This is the wasteland of the Western hemisphere, a land of
misery whose poverty is as stark as any in the world.”
Newsweek was and remains an eminently mainstream media source:
since then, tens of millions of peasants have been forced off the land
in Latin America to become the truly destitute and marginal in its
growing mega cities. And these are home to a staggering level of
poverty that has helped to feed the wealth of the US elite and its Latin
Another scholar who supports Grandin’s analysis is Robert
Jensen of the University of Texas. In an article on “The Bi-Partisan
Empire” for ZNET, Jensen claims rightly that “Illegal and immoral U.S.
aggression is, and always has been, a bipartisan affair. Democrats and
liberals are responsible for their share of the death, destruction, and
misery caused by U.S. empire building along with Republicans and
Although he admits that the current Bush regime and the
neocons “are a problem, they are not the problem. Sweep this
particular gang of thugs and thieves out of office, and … what? A
kinder and gentler imperial policy designed by Democrats is still an
imperial policy, and imperial policies always have the same result: The
suffering of millions—others that are, too often, invisible to us—in
support of policies that protect our affluence.”
His arguments about the imperialist policies of the so-called
opposition party, the Democrats, make liberals uncomfortable. But
these arguments must be confronted, for his essential charge is
absolutely true: “The political elites of the United States of America are
united in their acceptance of [empire]…. Whatever their particular
policy proposals, they all lie about the nature of the system that has
produced U.S. power and affluence. They all invoke mythical notions of
the fundamental decency of the United States. And because of that,
they all are part of the problem” which is inherent to empire: “… no
imperial nation-state has ever had any fundamental decency. The rich
First World nations of this world got rich through violence and theft.”
Jensen also has the audacity to challenge Jimmy Carter’s
human rights policies in Central America. “A concern for human rights
[was not in] evidence in Carter’s policy toward El Salvador,” as
witnessed by his response to the “letter that Archbishop Oscar Romero
wrote to Carter, pleading with him to support human rights by ending
U.S. funding and arms transfers” to the death squad government that
was supported by the US. Romero wrote that “your government’s
contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression
inflicted on the organized people….” Carter ignored Romero’s appeal,
however, and continued to support the “brutal military dictatorship
that put guns in the hands of death squads, including one that would
assassinate Romero a month later.”
Lest we think that Carter’s support of genocidal levels of
violence in El Salvador is an aberration in US policy, the activist and
writer Arundhati Roy provides a brief synopsis of our imperialist
aggression throughout the world. “Since the Second World War, the
US has been at war with or attacked, among other countries, Korea,
Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El
Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia,
Afghanistan. This list should also include the US government’s covert
operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has
engineered, and the dictators it has armed and supported.”
Since WW II no country’s record of violence and aggression
comes even close to that of the US; therefore, one must marvel at the
ability of the propaganda machine here that can bury this truth and
convince US citizens that we only go abroad to defend ourselves from
attack and extend freedom and democracy. The brilliance of this
propaganda effort is Orwellian in its reach and accomplishment.
V.G. Kiernan’s work on America The New Imperialism also
complements Grandin’s insights about the US role in Latin America. He
is especially critical of what he terms the Reagan-Bush era of
“militarized neo-liberalism,” and cites the comment of Michael Ledeen,
“one of the [neoconservative] movement’s most admired figures,” to
reveal the underlying truth of US policy: Speaking in the early 1990s,
Ledeen stated: “Every ten years or so the US needs to pick up some
crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show that we
mean business.” This is the unvarnished core truth and foundation of
imperial attacks in Latin America and elsewhere – minus the usual spin
about democracy and human rights. Ledeen’s refreshing honesty
should jar us from our naïve belief that we live in a nation that has
even the faintest concern for decency; shattering such a belief is the
first step in educating ourselves to the horrible reality of US policies in
the global South.
In my book on education and imperialism (Civic Illiteracy and
Education: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of American Youth), I
cite the work of historian and activist Michael Parenti, who argues that
to understand political power in the US – the foundation for
imperialism in Latin America – we must confront the fact that “almost
all social institutions existing in the society … are under plutocratic
control, ruled by non-elected, self-selected, self-perpetuating groups
of affluent corporate representatives who are answerable to no one but
themselves.” [He continues]: the dominant elite “justifies military
intervention” on the grounds that it is defending “democracy from
communism.” Actually, it is “defending the capitalist world from social
change – even if that change be peaceful, orderly, and democratic.”
In his book American Empire, scholar and Vietnam veteran
Andrew Bacevich critiques the myth that US involvement in Latin
America and elsewhere has come about through some unforeseen
occurrence. “Some nations achieve greatness,” observed historian
Ernest May; “the US had greatness thrust upon it.” Bacevich states
that this view “encapsulates the story of America’s rise to power the
way Americans themselves prefer to tell it.” This is the myth of
“America” as the City on the Hill, the exception to great power
aggression, a nation with noble designs that often blunders in its effort
to do good throughout the world.
In this view of May and others – the view all of us in this room
have been raised on – “the US – unlike other nations – achieved
preeminence not by consciously seeking it but simply as an unintended
consequence of actions taken either in self-defense or on behalf of
others.” Bacevich writes that “in practice the myth of the ‘reluctant
superpower’ – Americans asserting themselves only under duress and
then always for the noblest purposes – reigns today as the master
narrative explaining (and justifying) the nation’s exercise of global
power.” Although he writes about the current wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, his critique of this myth holds for Grandin’s thesis on US
wars in Central America during the Reagan era and other imperialist
assaults throughout Latin America.
Supposedly we savaged Central and South America for the best
of intentions and to defend ourselves against tyranny, a thesis Grandin
shows to be totally false. The tragedy is that many US citizens have
bought the propaganda about noble intentions put forth by the rulers
in Washington and passed on uncritically by the mainstream media;
far too few, even those critical of particular US actions, e.g., in El
Salvador in the 1980s, see the whole picture of imperialism to reject
the entire basis of our policies in the Americas.
Bacevich’s point about the bi-partisan nature of this myth and
practice bears repeating: “… both parties and virtually the entire
foreign policy elite tacitly share a common vision and conform in
practice to a strategic consensus of long standing.” If we take Grandin
and other critical scholars’ work to heart, rejecting this consensus is a
necessary condition to any hope of ending US imperialism.
Bacevich also discusses the scholarship of historian Charles
Beard, author of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the
United States and other works, and draws the links between Beard’s
critique of US imperial policies abroad and that of William Appleman
Williams. Beard’s thesis was that “Foreign policy derived from
domestic policy. Its primary purpose was to advance commercial
interests.” Once we understand the fundamental basis of US
imperialism as designed to support and defend class or commercial
interests, it is quite easy to understand the radical critique of US
motives put forth by Grandin, Chomsky, Parenti, et al. US policy has
nothing to do with democracy, freedom, and decency in our common
sense understanding of those terms, but acts to defend capitalist
interests that need the muscle of the US military and government to
back them up around the world.
Beard’s understanding of the US empire is similar to Williams’s:
“American leaders chose intervention abroad in order to dodge
politically difficult decisions at home – decisions that might call into
question the constitutional framework that guaranteed the privileges of
the propertied classes.” Bacevich writes that Beard’s “own
interpretation of American statecraft derived from his belief in two
controlling maxims: that foreign and domestic policy ‘were parts of the
same thing’ and that ‘nations are governed by their interests as their
statesmen conceive these interests.’ In the case of the US – whose
chief business, after all, was business – economic considerations
ranked foremost among the factors determining how policymakers
defined those interests.”
Following Williams’s arguments, Beard asserts that
“Industrialists, bankers and farmers – and their advocates in
Washington – had long since concluded that the domestic market
alone would not satisfy their own – that is, class interests – or the
nation’s requirements.” The dominant elite that controls US domestic
and imperial policy links its narrow class interests as the “national
security” with talk of grander and nobler designs. All of this ideological
spin is necessary to get us to support the kinds of genocidal policies
that Grandin describes in Empire’s Workshop. Bacevich tells us that
“Viewed in this light, exporting economic surpluses – the ‘industrialist
way of escape’ – constituted the overriding national interests. It was
not simply a matter of making money … but of preserving longstanding
arrangements for allocating power and privilege within
American society.”
In the pursuit to maintain these “arrangements,” the US ruling
class has attempted to crush any and all resistance throughout Latin
America – with particularly horrendous results in Central America. No
president or influential leader in US history has ever mounted a
principled challenge to this fundamental imperial policy.
Michael Parenti, Against Empire
Parenti asserts that imperialism “has been the most powerful force in
world history” for the past 500 years. The first “victims of Western
European imperialism were other Europeans,” e.g., the Irish and
Eastern Europeans, whom we now call Slavs. Parenti tells us that “so
frequently and prolonged was the enslavement of Eastern Europeans
that ‘Slav’ became synonymous with servitude.”
Over the past 500 years, however, European and US
imperialism have primarily exploited the Third World – “a source of
raw material and slaves [and] a market for manufactured goods.” This
market now includes “capital, in the form of machinery, technology,
investments, and loans.” The new imperialism “differs from earlier
empires in the way it systematically accumulates capital through the
organized exploitation of labor and the penetration of overseas
The key to modern imperialism is capitalist expansion. As part
of his critique of capitalism, Parenti challenges the prevailing view of
imperialism and Third World poverty, often called “underdevelopment,”
arguing that it is often looked at “as an original historic condition.” This
is not the case, as “the [Third World has] long produced great
treasures … and other natural resources.” The truth is that the Third
World “is rich. Only its people are poor – and it is because of the
pillage they have endured.” This analysis is similar to others we have
cited in this course, e.g., Samir Amin, Eduardo Galeano and Felix
The rape of the Third World has been justified by “self-serving
imperialist theories,” e.g., “people in tropical lands are slothful and do
not work as hard as [those in] the temperate zone.” This is not true,
Parenti argues, as “[people] of warm climates [built] … magnificent
civilizations well before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. And
today they often work long, hard hours for meager sums.” He
challenges ethno-centric theories by citing Europe’s social ills during
the height of its colonial domination, pointing out that it “was ‘ahead’
in such things as … social inequality and poverty … mistreatment of
women and children; and frequency of famine, slavery, prostitution,
piracy, religious massacre, and inquisitional torture.”
The ultimate basis of European domination, according to
Parenti, has rested on its “advantage in navigation and armaments.
Muskets and cannons, Gatling guns and gunboats, and today missiles,
helicopter gunships, and fighter bombers have been the deciding
factor when West meets East and North meets South.”
His critique of “underdevelopment” asks us to see it as the
result of “social relations that [have] been forcefully imposed on
countries. With the advent of the Western colonizers, the peoples of
the Third World were actually set back in their development…. British
imperialism in India provides an instructive example.” He points to a
truth hidden by our schooling and mass media indoctrination: the
Third World is not ‘“underdeveloped’ but overexploited…. Imperialism
has created … ‘maldevelopment’” because “wealth is transferred from
Third World peoples to [US] economic elites … by direct plunder, … the
expropriation of natural resources” and other forms of exploitation.
Parenti details the Third World imperialism that has resulted in
oppression; nations have “concentrated on exporting a few raw
materials or labor-intensive commodities” and poor nations find
themselves “in acute competition with other impoverished nations….
Attempts by Third World countries to overcome their vulnerability by
forming trade cartels are usually unsuccessful.” This imperialist
inequality is deepened because in “many poor countries over half the
manufacturing assets are owned or controlled by foreign companies.”
Compounding this inequality is that large portions of “the earnings of
indebted nations [go] to servicing the debt…. ”
US and European imperialism have always been backed by
“unspeakable repression and state terror”; thus, “there have been few
if any peaceable colonizations.” I would maintain there has never been
a single peaceable colonial venture anywhere in the world.
Imperialism, therefore, is not a “natural” historical phenomenon
because it must rely repeatedly “upon armed coercion and repression.”
Empires “do not emerge … ‘in a fit of absentmindedness,’ as was said
of the British Empire…. They are built upon the sword, the whip, and
the gun.” This truth has almost never been examined in our schools
and mass media; therefore, most here don’t have a clue about what
the US has actually done to the Third World – to those it just wishes to
This terror is not some arbitrary or irrational process, but is
used to further a larger “process of extermination and repression in
defense” of class interests. It is an eminently rational undertaking to
“safeguard private overseas interests.” It is not mindless or stupid, but
quite reasonable given the fundamental nature of the US capitalist
Parenti bluntly answers a question that has troubled some US
citizens for generations: “Why has a professedly peace-loving,
democratic nation found it necessary to use so much violence and
repression against so many people in so many places.” Because the
ultimate goal of US policy is a quest “to make the world safe for the
Fortune 500 and its global system of capital accumulation.” Those who
move toward some kind of “economic independence or any sort of
populist redistributive politics” will face US “intervention or invasion.”
The evidence for this assertion is overwhelming.
In order to get citizens to support such imperialist aggression,
US ruling elites must convince the rest of us that we share “a common
interest with the giant multinationals….” But “on almost every issue,”
Parenti claims, “the people are not in the same boat with the big
companies.” I would say every issue. Despite this fact, many here
have been convinced of a common interest in what is one of the
greatest triumphs of class-based propaganda in history.
Parenti disagrees with “the … Popular Imperialism” view of
William Appleman Williams in Empire as a Way of Life, asserting that
historically “ordinary Americans usually have opposed intervention or
given only lukewarm support.” Parenti believes “the American people”
are not the prime “motivating force of the war policy. They do not
sweep their leaders into war on a tide of popular hysteria. It is the
other way around. Their leaders take them for a ride and bring out the
worst in them.” Although I question this interpretation of Williams, this
is an important point: against their objective interests, brainwashed
citizens end up supporting imperialism as a result of propaganda
organized and disseminated by the CIA, mass media, US governmentfunded
agencies and the AFL-CIO.
In his discussion of “Empire and Democracy,” Parenti sounds like
Chalmers Johnson – “strong empire” must bring about a “weak
democracy.” Johnson argues it is destroying democracy. And linked to
this destruction is the economic ruin and bankruptcy facing the country
from its imperialism abroad. According to Parenti, “between 1948 and
1994, the federal government spent almost $11 trillion on its military –
more than the cumulative monetary value of all human-made wealth
in the US.”
The figure is now much greater. According to the Center for Defense
Information, total military spending from 1946 through 2008 [this last
year is an estimate] is some $21.6 trillion dollars. The CDI figure
covers just official Pentagon spending; it does not include “black box”
funds for the CIA and NSA, interest on the debt related to militarism or
funds for veterans benefits, all of which would add a few more trillions
to the total. The $21 trillion plus figure is about $72,000 per capita:
$2.5 trillion for California, $288 billion for Los Angeles, and $6.2 billion
for Santa Monica.
Parenti is right, therefore, to ascribe “most of our domestic
woes … to military spending.” As he states, “The cost of building one
aircraft carrier could feel several million of the poorest, hungriest
children in America for ten years.” The huge amounts spent on the
military mean that Americans “must endure the neglect of
environmental needs, … decay of our cities, [and] the deterioration of
our transportation, education, and health care systems.”
Another aspect of Empire – also a theme in Johnson’s book – is
that it “concentrates power in the hands of the few and robs the
populace of effective self-rule.” The empirical historical data to prove
this assertion are overwhelming, especially when it comes to the
growth of the “imperial presidency” since the end of WW II. The US
imperial state has been involved in hundreds of overt and covert acts
of aggression around the world in the last 60 years; not one has been
declared by Congress as mandated by our Constitution.
Parenti’s conclusion may depress readers: US imperialism “has
been remarkably successful in undermining popular revolutions and
buttressing conservative capitalist regimes in every region of the
world.” Thus, US imperialism is not “stupid” and mistake-prone but
actually “remarkably successful and brutal in the service of elite
economic interests.” An analysis of the historical record reveals that
the US ruling class has never consciously pursued a policy that put
lofty ideals and common people’s interest ahead of greed and power:
not once, not ever.
A number of scholars have provided supporting evidence for
Parenti’s assertions on imperialism. In his work, Imperial Delusions,
political theorist Carl Boggs argues that “the US … has evolved into
something of an outlaw, rogue state – the kind of fearsome entity
conjured up by its own incessant propaganda.” This “rogue state”
status, however, has been obscured by Orwellian language as officials
and media pundits apply “the term ‘defense’ to the massive, and
clearly strategic US global presence….” We continually read about the
“Defense” Department, rather than the “War” Department – the
accurate name that was changed by the 1947 National Security Act.
Boggs claims that US actions throughout the world have
nothing to do with “defense” and everything to do with “terror.” Since
the US has a long history of “warfare against foreign countries … it
would be impossible to arrive at a definition of terrorism that excludes
[its] behavior.” What little critical understanding of the US system of
military terror we have, in his view, owes a great deal to the work on
“the Pentagon system” by sociologist C. Wright Mills. His “classic
Power Elite (1956)” anticipated “the dangers of US militarism,” as it
“stood virtually alone in its uncompromising critique of the US war
economy” that enabled citizens to gain a real understanding of how US
foreign policy is shaped.
What Mills “saw in the 1950s was … a military-industrial complex that
few others were able to see – then or later.” Many US citizens recall
Eisenhower’s statement in his farewell address about the dangers of
the “military-industrial complex,” but few are aware of Mills’s far more
powerful critique of the Pentagon. It was Mills who first foresaw how
the “war economy, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and an aggressive
foreign policy converged within the same matrix of development [and]
logic. Since WW II the US military has provided an international shield
for Western corporations and financial institutions, more global than
ever.” Despite the propaganda about free enterprise, it has been
“Military Keynesian … that has furnished a major stimulus for dominant
economic growth on a foundation of scientific and technical innovations
wedded to enormous corporate profits.” As Noam Chomsky observes,
“it is difficult to imagine a system better designed for the benefit of the
privileged few than the military system.”
A fundamental fact of US history – that the “most established,
most powerful liberal democracy in the world also has the longest and
most brutal record of militarism among all nations” – has been hidden
by the “public and intellectual failure to confront the actualities of US
military power and the empire it supports….” Despite myths to the
contrary, “the actual history is one of conquest and dominion, …
genocidal wars against Indian tribes, the theft of land from Mexico and
Spain, and the invasion of Russia after WW I, followed by a succession
of bloody military interventions in Korea, Central America, the
Caribbean, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans, not to mention countless
proxy wars, covert acts, and other interventions waged in scores of
nations.” One can only avoid this actual history by psychological denial
and/or outright lying – produced by a compliant educational system
and mass media that disarm the public from any substantive
understanding and critique of this reality.
Boggs asserts that US “nationalism has always been
ethnocentric, messianic, and arrogant, tied as it has been to an ethos
of expansion and conquest…. Beneath high-sounding ideals has been
the mundane actuality of a ruthless, manipulative [system] that, when
practiced by other nations, has been scornfully attacked…. The dark
side of US foreign and military policy is [not] a function of mistakes
and miscalculations, but has been integral to the development process
itself.” The combination of the “ethos … of conquest, domination and
violence” has allowed the US to evolve into “an outlaw country, the
rogue state of all rogue states, intent on transforming the process of
globalization into the building blocks of empire and military
domination.” Tough assertions: all true.
Eqbal Ahmad was one of the world’s foremost scholars of
imperialism. In a series of essays (Carollee Bengelsdorf, et al., The
Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad), he laid out a brilliant critique of US
terror in the Third World. In “The Lessons of Vietnam,” he wrote about
the “incredible perceptible gap between our need for social
transformation and America’s insistence on stability, between our
impatience for change and America’s obsession with order, our move
toward revolution and America’s belief in the plausibility of achieving
reforms under the robber barons of the world, our longing for absolute
national sovereignty and America’s preference for pliable allies, our
desire to see our national soil free of foreign occupation and America’s
need for military bases.” These truths were impossible for most US
citizens to see at the time (1965).
In his “Notes on American intervention in the Third World,”
Ahmad states that at one point “America symbolized [possibility and
promises because] Americans … had declared their unequivocal
commitment to the right of self-determination, had asserted as
inalienable the people’s right to revolution and charged them with the
duty to exercise that right.” A “belief in an anti-imperialist America
was part” of the mythology he learned growing up in Pakistan.
But this idealist picture of US policies was eventually shattered,
however, when he and others began to examine “the realities of
American foreign policy [that] stood in sharp contrast to the myths we
had nourished” – the actions of the US government and major
corporations that “flagrantly [betrayed] principles embodied in the
Declaration of Independence” and were “antinationalist, opposed to
revolutions, supportive of dictatorships and fascists, and violently
interventionist….” People in Pakistan and elsewhere final woke up
when they realized that America was “a status-quo-seeking,
interventionist monolith” and the “war in Vietnam [that] laid to rest
the Third World’s myths and illusions….”
Ahmad pays his respects to those “American historians and
economists,” e.g., William Appleman Williams, Paul Baran, Harry
Magdoff and Gabriel Kolko, who helped him and others find “the
[roots] of American foreign policy … in monopoly capitalism and
identify it as a policy in the service of corporations rather than of the
public at large.” US imperialism, as these and other writers have
argued, is in the very bloodstream of the capitalist system; it is
inherent to its very nature, not some accidental byproduct.
Ahmad claims that US imperialism “feeds on what Edward Burns has
described as America’s ‘extraordinary’ conception of mission. It is a
product, at least in part, of a deeply and popularly held belief in the
uniqueness of America and its perfection as a political model…. Since
1945, no president, secretary of state, or secretary of defense … has
failed to reproduce and exploit this theme.” Despite the naïve belief of
many liberals, no future president of this imperialist system will fail to
reproduce it as well.
In his discussion of the “Cold War from the standpoint of its victims,”
Ahmad forces us to confront the actual toll of US imperialism from the
end of WW II to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He points out that
during this so-called “Cold War,” more than 20 million people “died,
countless millions were wounded, and more than a hundred million
were rendered refugees by what have been variously described as …
limited … and covert wars….” Virtually all of these victims were people
of color in the Third World, the expendable ones on the receiving end
of a massive growth in the arms race, resulting in “high-tech weapons,
except the big one, [being] tested on human beings in the real-life
battle fields of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq.”
Some 12 million people died in wars fought in these countries.
Drawing from the work of the eminent scholar and activist
Edward Said, Ahmad tells us “the history of the past four centuries is a
history of barely recognized holocausts. For the peoples and nations
under assault, those belittled wars were always ‘systemic’ and often
total wars that had profound historical consequences” – though most
US citizens barely noticed the slaughter except when the body bags
came home from Korea and Vietnam.
In his fine work, The New Imperialism, David Harvey analyzes
the political economy of the US Empire. He points out that we know a
great deal about US military imperialism abroad: “… much is both
known and documented from official or quasi-official sources. And
what a … despicable, and deeply distressing record it is. Liquidation
can come by a variety of means. The economic power to dominate …
can be used with equally destructive effect as physical force.” The
annual death toll in the Third World from economic power is far
greater than all the wars combined.
Harvey gives us a brief history lesson in US imperialism since
the 1940s, stating that “two cardinal principles of international
strategic practices had been defined during [WW II], and these
remained set in stone thereafter: the social order in the US should
remain stable (no radical redistribution of wealth or power and no
challenge to elite and/or capitalist class control would be tolerated),
and there should be a continuous expansion” of capitalism to “ensure
domestic … tranquility.” The US “used its own military power, covert
operations, and all manner of economic pressure to ensure the
creation or continuation of friendly governments. To this end it was
prepared to support the overthrow of democratically elected
governments and to engage directly or indirectly in … liquidating those
considered opposed to US interests.”
The key to this imperialist process is one fundamental fact: In any
“conflict between democracy … and order and stability built upon
propertied interests,” the US ruling class always chooses the latter.
The movements that arose to challenge capitalist imperialism “were
frequently crushed with ferocious violence … by state powers acting in
the name of ‘order and stability.’ Client states supported militarily or in
some instances with … forces trained by … the US … took the lead in …
repressions and liquidations to ruthlessly check activist movements
challenging” capitalism and imperialism.
Militaristic imperialism was absolutely necessary in order to
ensure that “the benefits [of the global] system were … highly
concentrated among a restricted class of multinational CEOs [and]
financiers…. This class looked, as always, to the US to protect its asset
values and the rights of property and ownership.” It “paid little heed to
place-bound or national loyalties or traditions. It could be multi-racial,
multi-ethnic, multicultural and cosmopolitan.”
In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn discusses the
political economy of the US coming out of WW II that helped to shape
post-war imperialism. The ruling elites needed a permanent war
economy to keep the capitalist system going, as they greatly feared a
repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s. They realized that the
state had to subsidize private capital in order to avoid another
economic catastrophe.
The term "permanent war economy” was uttered by Charles Wilson,
CEO of General Electric, who warned that after the war the US had to
keep the war economy it had in WW II, with the economic system
mainly run by corporate executives and geared to military production
and profit. Noam Chomsky also argues that after WW II, most
economists and business leaders expected a depression unless there
could be massive government aid of the kind that during the war years
finally overcame the Great Depression. Of course business leaders
understood that social spending could also avert a market collapse like
the 1930s, but it has a downside. It tends to have a democratizing and
redistributive effect whereas military spending is a gift to the corporate
elite that keeps on giving.
Business leaders were also aware that high-tech industry could not
survive in a competitive free enterprise economy and that government
“must be the savior” for their companies. Therefore, virtually the
entire “new economy” has relied heavily on the military cover to
socialize risk and cost and keep profit private, often after many
decades. In essence, the permanent war economy has an economic
and purely military function and one cannot understand the true
nature of imperialism apart from it.
The context for Zinn’s insights on WW II and the Cold War
actually goes back to the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and efforts to
destroy the USSR and any nation or movement that attempted to
challenge capitalist hegemony in the world. Writer and former US
State Department official William Blum (Killing Hope: US Military and
CIA Interventions Since WW II) argues that the root of the present
imperialist struggle lies with “the war that began with the Russian
Revolution in 1917 and the Red Scare of the 1920s continued through
the Mccarthyism of the 1950s to the Reagan crusade against the ‘Evil
Empire’ in the 1980s.”
For more than 70 years until the fall of the USSR, “people here [were]
subjected to a relentless anti-communist indoctrination – imbibed with
their mother’s milk and spelled out in their schoolbooks. Daily
newspapers told them about it, ministers [found] sermons in it,
politicians [were] elected with it.”
The emerging form of imperialism that took new forms in the 1940s
and beyond, according to Blum, undermined “the remarkable
international goodwill and credibility enjoyed by the US at the close of
WW II [that was] dissipated country by country, intervention by
intervention. The opportunity to build the war-ravaged world anew, to
lay the foundations for peace, prosperity and justice, collapsed under
the awful weight of anti-communism.”
He asks us to ponder a profound dilemma: “What did the victims of US
anti-communism in the Third World do to bring US intervention which
has brought down upon them the wrath … of the world’s most powerful
nation?” He argues “it has been … ‘self-determination’: the desire,
born of perceived need and principle, to pursue a path of development
independent of US foreign policy objections. Most commonly, this has
been manifested in (a) the ambition to free themselves from economic
and political subservience to the US; (b) their refusal to be a pawn in
the Cold War; or (c) the attempt to alter or replace a government
which held to neither of these aspirations.” This worldwide struggle of
the victims of imperialism lies at the root of fanatical US efforts to
maintain its worldwide Empire.
In an article for the website ZNET (“Imperialism 101 – The US
Addiction to War, Mayhem and Madness,” 9/17/06), Stephen Lendman
asserts “there is no longer a dispute that the US pursues an imperial
agenda…. Expansion and militarism have always been in our DNA since
the early settlers confronted the nation’s original inhabitants and then
over the next few hundred years slaughtered [millions] of them to
seize their land and resources.” Our Declaration of Independence
“referred to ‘merciless Indian savages’ and thus gave the colonial
Americans a moral justification to remove them….” Therefore, “in our
imperial wisdom, we came, stole and conquered ‘for their own
Lendman jumps ahead in this imperialist lesson to Theodore
Roosevelt, one of the nation’s most belligerent and racist imperialists.
During his presidency, Roosevelt’s aggression extended the US Empire
“to the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Guam, the Dominican Republic, Puerto
Rico and the Canal Zone part of Columbia that broke away to become
the new nation of Panama.” This venture was cooked up by Roosevelt
and other US officials, and was a blatantly illegal and imperialist
Woodrow Wilson, who even beat Roosevelt as an imperialist
and racist, managed to mystify citizens around the world with his call
for the “right to self-determination.” This deep concern included “the
military occupation of Nicaragua, Haiti (beginning 20 oppressive years)
and the Dominican Republic” and the invasion of Mexico. In 1916,
Wilson was “reelected on a platform promise to keep the US out of the
war in Europe that began in 1914.” According to Lendman, Wilson
“had to promise that as the US public overwhelmingly wanted nothing
to do with it. But he no sooner was reelected than he began making
plans to get it into it…. Once in the war, he managed to control most
public anti-war sentiment with the help of the … Espionage and
Sedition Acts that allowed no criticism of the government, the armed
forces or the war effort.”
Whether it was Roosevelt, Wilson, or later presidents, Lendman
claims, “at the heart” of US imperialism “is the pursuit of wealth and
power and a system of governance beholden to capital, now more than
ever dominated by giant predatory corporations….” Parenti would
agree with Lendman’s following assertion: “… it’s more true that the
flag goes where commerce directs it to secure new markets and a
corporate friendly environment once they’ve been opened for business.
That’s how imperialism works and why war is an effective geopolitical
way to pursue it. War … is just geopolitics by other means, and
powerful capital-controlled countries like the US use it freely because it
works so well most often.”
Lendman claims that there hasn’t been much of a “problem
[convincing citizens to support imperialist policies] as time and again
the public is willing to swallow most any reasons government officials
tell them (reinforced … by the corporate media trumpeting them like
gospel) to get them to go along with the schemes they have in mind,
no matter how outrageous they are.” As with Parenti, Lendman
believes US imperialism has been quite successful: “… the
scaremongering scam has been used so often … with the same or
similar language that later proved false, you’d think the public by now
would have caught on. But you’d be wrong. Up to now, it’s worked like
a charm every time proving you can fool most people all the time.”
University of Texas scholar and activist Robert Jensen, whose insights
we examined in this course (Citizens of the Empire), also complements
Parenti’s critique of empire. Jensen believes that Americans need “to
come to terms with a harsh reality: in the post-WW II world, a primary
function of the US military has been to kill mostly nonwhite people in
the Third World to extend and deepen American power.” Therefore, he
opposes both “nationalism and patriotism…. It is time … to sweep
away the notion [patriotism] and acknowledge it as morally, politically,
and intellectually bankrupt.” His critique of the link between
imperialism and patriotism, therefore, is one that forces progressives
to reexamine their fundamental beliefs about the nation and its
He too asks a simple question that is almost never addressed
by our nation’s educational institutions and mass media: “Why is it
that our political culture, the highest expression of the ideals of
freedom and democracy, has routinely gone around the world
overthrowing democratically elected governments, supporting brutal
dictators, funding and training proxy terrorist armies, and unleashing
brutal attacks on civilians when we go to war?” I think Parenti’s
analysis in Against Empire provides a cogent and truthful answer to
Jensen’s anguished question.
Jensen claims that in “the US … patriots not only can get by
without knowing much about the wider world but are systematically
encouraged not to think independently or critically and institutionally
to accept a mythology of the US as a benevolent, misunderstood giant
as it lumbers around the world trying to do good.” It is this
fundamental proposition – the US is a force for good in the world –
that must be analyzed objectively, confronted and ripped out by the
roots if we are to end the imperialist terror that this government has
unleashed around the globe.
Michael Parenti, Against Empire, Part II (May 15)
Let me begin tonight by repeating an important conclusion from the
first half of Michael Parenti’s Against Empire: US imperialism is not
“stupid” and mistake-prone but “remarkably successful and brutal in
the service of elite economic interests.”
Parenti begins the second half by examining the “contrived” reasons
used to support imperialism, e.g., “defending democracy,” “protecting
US interests,” “fulfilling our responsibilities as world leader” and
“containing the threat of Soviet global conquest.” Another important
pretext is that our “survival is threatened by an evil adversary” who is
demonized. Once the leading “demon” was Joe Stalin, whose name
was always raised whenever people challenged elite policies. This
would lead “the cold warriors in Washington … [to raise] specter of
Stalin.” After Stalin came “populist nationalist leaders of the Third
World,” such as Nasser of Egypt, Qaddafi of Libya and Panama’s
Noriega. Finally, there was Saddam Hussein, demonized “as the White
House and the media revved up their propaganda war against Iraq [in
1991].” Saddam was called the “Butcher of Baghdad” and a “beast.”
We now know that Hussein’s best “beast” days occurred while he was
on the US payroll, but our media pundits and politicians did not bring
up this earlier US support after he became enemy #1 in 1990.
These “demonized adversaries” were often accused of “terrorism”
against the US or allies. At the same time, Parenti states, “real rightwing
terrorist acts … and hate crimes within the US by home-grown
right-wing groups … have caused hardly a ripple of concern in
Washington.” Using the “terrorism card” has always worked. “By
portraying itself as a champion against terror, the US national security
state deflects attention from its own international terror network….”
According to Parenti, the US has invented various stories over the
years to defend its imperialism and terrorism, a propaganda effort that
essentially began in 1917 with the Russian Revolution. US
“disinformation” about that event laid the foundation for all future US
propaganda about anti-imperialist struggles and movements. When
the US and its capitalist allies invaded the USSR shortly after its
revolution in 1917, citizens were told it was necessary to “prevent the
Bolshevik government from aiding the Germans.” Then President
Wilson said that invading troops “were needed to reestablish order and
prevent atrocities.” The truth, Parenti writes, is that “the
interventionists and their White Guard allies were causing most of the
disorder and committing most of the atrocities.” Finally, Wilson
“admitted the real reason: he could not abide the Bolsheviks.” They
were “insufferable,” Parenti argues, because they were “avowedly anti-
capitalist” and “a dangerous example to common people….”
Parenti also critiques the official propaganda for 1991 Gulf War,
showing “how lies and war go hand in hand.” The first lie was “US
forces were needed in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia from an
impending Iraqi invasion.” Then Bush asserted he wanted to “[protect]
human rights in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East.” A third
story held that the US “was upholding the [UN] commitment to
defend member states against aggression.” Then Bush claimed “he
was trying to prevent Saddam from monopolizing ‘all the world’s great
oil reserves.’” Then the White House trotted out the Weapons of Mass
Destruction threat “immediately after opinion polls showed that
Americans” were worried that Iraq might be “developing a nuclear
capability.” Bush I and Clinton milked this WMD fabrication throughout
the 1990s, and Bush II took it to fantastical heights as part of the
current attack on Iraq.
According to Parenti, false explanations were needed to get US
citizens to support the 1991 invasion. The actual and “compelling”
considerations for war, however, included Hussein’s effort to stop the
Kuwaiti “slant drilling into his oil reserves”… and as a “promotional
event for the military-industrial complex….” The “quick and easy
victory was a promotional event for intervention itself, a cure for the
‘Vietnam syndrome’ (that is, the public’s unwillingness to commit US
forces to violent conflicts abroad).”
Parenti also examines the links between the “War on Drugs” and
empire. This “war” did not arise through misguided policies but from
the national security state’s role in the drug trade. He gives us a brief
history lesson on the CIA-Drug War connection, including the use of
mafia thugs to attack communist-led unions in Europe in the late
1940s. In return, they “were given a free hand in the transport of
heroin, much of which ended up in the US.” Its policy “is less
concerned with fighting a war against drugs than [with supporting] the
empire’s eternal war for social control at home and abroad.” The “War
on Drugs,” therefore, is a key part of the imperialist project.
Parenti also critiques those who deny US imperialist motives
and claim this nation has “intervened in other countries for a number
of worthy causes, such as discouraging weapons proliferations [and]
carrying out humanitarian missions….” These apologists tell us that
“the US is a force for peace …” but the truth is that “US arms
manufacturers and the Pentagon have given us” and the Third World a
fantastic array of WMDs. The US also has “thousands of strategic and
tactical missiles armed with … nuclear warheads.” In a huge double
standard, it claims to be “opposed to nuclear buildups” but has
engaged in a campaign that is “applied in a politically selective way
against countries it has wanted to destabilize….” On the other hand, it
has supported the development of nuclear weapons for those countries
“whose policies are congruent with those of the US global empire….”
According to Parenti, US actions abroad do not flow from a
“humanitarian” impulse. He points out that most US missions abroad
are actually used “to bolster conservative regimes, build
infrastructures that assist big investors … [and] lend an aura of
legitimacy to counter-insurgency programs….” For example, he
profoundly disagrees that US support for the mujahideen in
Afghanistan was “a good intervention….” The real “destabilizer … was
… the US national security state. [Even before] Soviet troops entered
[that] country,” Carter provided assistance to the rebel tribes against a
Kabul government that had attempted “a social revolution that
included programs in land reform, literacy, housing and public health.”
Carter and Reagan spent billions through the CIA to support
“privileged landowners and mujahideen tribesmen,” helped by Saudi
Arabia. The US backed “opium traffickers” who would eventually
provide “about half the heroin consumed in the US and were the
biggest exporters of opium.” The intervention was similar to past
actions in other Third World countries, to prevent “egalitarian social
US/CIA interventions in Laos, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador
and Haiti are also discussed to make Parenti’s point about US
hypocrisy and violence around the world. He asks us to ponder a
fundamental question: “Why has the US never supported social
revolutionary forces against right-wing governments?” Given his
documentation, the answer is simple and challenges the thesis that US
foreign policies are quite complex. Actually, they are not, and one
would be hard-pressed to name a single foreign intervention that
contradicts Parenti’s assertion on this issue.
The underlying nature of our “dual [political] system” that
shapes particular imperial policies is analyzed. He states there is a
public mythical system that we are all “taught in the schools” and the
actual one of “coercive state power that [protects] the dominant …
interests of finance capital.” This latter system, which “is not taught in
the schools nor discussed in the press,” reveals the contradictions
between the government and state. “The government deals with
visible officeholders, pressure group politics, special interests and
popular demands…. The state has little if anything to do with popular
rule [and] is the ultimate instrument of class power.” The coercive
institutions of the state, e.g., the CIA, NSA and the FBI – exist simply
to preserve “existing class relations….”
The executive branch – the key institution within the state
when it comes to empire, is also addressed. Within this branch “is the
most virulent purveyor of state power: the national security state” that
comprises the most critical “military and intelligence agencies, of which
the CIA is the key unit.” Presidents who have supported the national
security state have simply violated “democratic governance with
impunity.” Although Parenti specifically addresses the lawlessness of
the Reagan administration, all US presidents have broken international
and domestic laws on behalf of imperial policies.
While there have been some dissenting critics of specific US
policies, e.g., wars in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq, Parenti tells
us that “critics of the national security state are a minority within
Congress.” Although there are a small number in the House of
Representatives who have opposed the US-Iraq War by actually voting
against funding (but no senator), not one of these representatives has
challenged the premises and practices of the Empire itself. Within the
government, therefore, one cannot find the critique of imperialism
presented by Williams, Grandin or Parenti.
In the end, Parenti’s critique of empire rests upon his analysis
of capitalism. We cannot understand the nature of this empire,
therefore, unless we first understand the basic premises and practices
of our political economy system. Its purpose, in his view, “is not to
build democracy, or help working people, or save the environment….
Its goal is to convert nature into commodities and commodities into
capital, to invest and accumulate, transmuting every part of the world
into its own image for its own realization.” This is the social reality we
must confront.
A number of scholars have supported Parenti’s basic arguments,
including Andrew Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson. I wish to first raise
and revisit Bacevich’s assertions about the US Empire and US
militarism from his American Empire and The New American Militarism.
We begin with his New American Militarism and a quote from one of
the premier US imperialists of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson: “We
do not of deliberate choice undertake these new tasks [US imperial
role abroad] which shall transform us…. All the world knows the
surprising circumstances [which have been] thrust … upon us … as if
part of a great preconceived plan.” This is merely a particular example
of the general spin that US presidents have given to imperialist
ventures. More recently, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright put it this way: “If we have to use force, it is because we are
America. We are the indispensable nation.” Although Albright was an
architect and apologist of US imperialism, her rhetorical flourishes
convinced even progressive citizens that somehow “we” are different,
the exception to big-power aggression.
Bacevich argues that Clinton and Albright were “explicit in this
point: the US [was] the ‘indispensable nation’ endowed by providence
with unique responsibilities and obligations. Republican leaders
employed different language but endorsed the sentiment…. Except
among a crabbed minority on the far right and far left, a concept of
the US shaping a new global order in its own image evoked more
satisfaction than complaint.” In this course, you are being subjected to
comments by a member of the “crabbed minority” of the “far left.”
The notion of an accidental empire doesn’t cut it with Bacevich,
however, given that “those who chart America’s course do so with a
clearly defined purpose in mind. That purpose is to preserve and,
where both feasible and conducive to US interests, to expand an
American imperium. Central to this strategy is a commitment to global
openness,” that is, “the creation of an open and integrated
international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism
with the US as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms.”
In American Empire, Bacevich also critiques the myth of the
“reluctant superpower” that somehow just stumbled into a position of
greatness and leadership. “Some nations achieve greatness,” observed
historian Ernest May; “the US had greatness thrust upon it.” Bacevich
states that this view embraces “the story of America’s rise to power
the way Americans themselves prefer to tell it.” This is the myth of
“America” as the City on the Hill, the exception to great power
aggression, a nation with noble designs that often blunders in its effort
to do good throughout the world. In this view, “the US – unlike other
nations – achieved preeminence not by consciously seeking it but
simply as an unintended consequence of actions taken either in selfdefense
or on behalf of others.”
According to Bacevich, “in practice the myth of the ‘reluctant
superpower’ … reigns today as the master narrative explaining (and
justifying) the nation’s exercise of global power.” And his point about
its bi-partisan nature bears repeating: “… both parties and virtually the
entire foreign policy elite tacitly share a common vision and conform in
practice to a strategic consensus of long standing.” We must keep this
in mind whenever we hear assertions of substantive differences
between the two parties on foreign policy.
As you may recall, in an earlier class we discussed Bacevich’s
laudatory views on the anti-imperialist critique of historians Charles
Beard and William Appleman Williams. Their critique warrants another
visit. Beard’s thesis was that the primary purpose of US foreign policy
“was to advance” capitalist class interests. Once we understand this
basic purpose, it is easy to understand the radical critique of US
motives put forth by Grandin, Chomsky, Parenti, et al. Beard’s analysis
of the US empire is similar to Williams’s: “American leaders chose
intervention abroad in order to dodge politically difficult decisions at
home – decisions that might call into question” the power and privilege
of “the propertied classes.” In order to maintain this fundamental
maxim, therefore, Beard pointed out that the dominant elements “and
their advocates in Washington – had long since concluded that the
domestic market alone would not satisfy their own [class interests] or
the nation’s requirements.”
The dominant elite thus needed to link its narrow class interests to the
“national security” with talk of grander and nobler designs. All of this
ideological spin is necessary to get us to support the kinds of genocidal
policies that Grandin describes in Empire’s Workshop. “Viewed in this
light,” Bacevich writes, “exporting economic surpluses – the
‘industrialist way of escape’ – constituted the overriding national
interest. It was not simply a matter of making money … but of
preserving long-standing arrangements for allocating power and
privilege within American society.”
Bacevich also discusses Williams’s ongoing anti-imperialist influence. It
“has endured for one simple reason”: US foreign policy “has
vindicated” his views on the nature of government and empire, even
though Williams was “denounced” by the Cold War apologists for
venturing outside acceptable bounds in his criticisms of US policy.
Those who stay within these bounds can make tough methodological
criticisms, e.g., as we now see with liberal and Democratic criticism of
the present US-Iraq War, but the fundamental premises of the conflict
or US foreign policy itself are beyond the pale and cannot be
For Bacevich, Williams’s crime was to “suggest in the midst of the Cold
War that the US entertained imperial aspirations and that US foreign
policy … had aimed at building and consolidating an American
empire….” This major critique has stood the test of time, and has
shaped the radical analysis of US imperialism consistently rejected by
liberals and conservatives. Williams asked whether this nation is even
“possible without empire” since it had always relied “on expansion –
especially economic expansion….” The short answer is no, as the
critique of John Bellamy Foster and others in this course shows.
Capitalism’s nature propels it inexorably toward expansion and
growth; it cannot live within its means and political reforms designed
to accomplish this are doomed to failure.
I will close tonight with some reflections by Chalmers Johnson, taken
from his trilogy on empire and republic: Blowback, Sorrows of Empire
and the just released Nemesis: The Last Days of the American
Republic. I will revisit some arguments made previously in this course,
as well as adding new material from two of these books. Johnson, a
scholar in the history and politics of East Asia, and former CIA
consultant during the US-Vietnam War, offers a powerful analysis of
the origins and true costs of our empire.
In his first book, Blowback, Johnson “set out to explain how
exactly our government came to be so hated around the world. As a
CIA term of tradecraft, ‘blowback’ does not just mean retaliation for
things our government has done to, and in, foreign countries. It refers
specifically to retaliation for illegal operations carried out abroad that
were kept totally secret from the American public.” This is a key point
that Parenti also emphasizes: secrecy is necessary for imperialism
given that the truth about what is done in our name might arouse
public protest that could block aggression abroad. These illegal
operations include “the clandestine overthrow of governments … the
training of foreign militaries in the techniques of state terrorism, the
rigging of elections in foreign countries [and] torture or assassination
of selected foreigners.”
Johnson reminds us that because “these actions were, at least
originally,” secret meant that when retaliation does come – as it did …
on [9/11] – the American public is incapable of putting the events in
context. Not surprisingly, then, Americans tend to support speedy acts
of revenge…. These moments of lashing out, of course, only prepare
the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.”
After Blowback, Johnson commenced “research on the network of 737
military bases maintained around the world (according to the
Pentagon’s own 2005 official inventory). Not including the Iraq and
Afghanistan conflicts, we now station over half a million US troops,
spies, contractors, dependents, and others on military bases located in
more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial
regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us
in.” This research led to the second book in his trilogy: Sorrows of
Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.
“As our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq turned into major
fiascoes,” Johnson writes, “discrediting our military leadership, ruining
our public finances, and bringing death and destruction to hundreds of
thousands of civilians in those countries, I continued to ponder the
issue of empire.” It became clear to him that the Bush administration
was “claiming, and actively assuming, powers specifically denied to a
president by our Constitution.” It also “became clear … that Congress
had almost completely abdicated its responsibilities to balance the
power of the executive branch. Despite the Democratic sweep in the
2006 election [I would call it a minor mid-course correction], it
remains to be seen whether these tendencies can, in the long run, be
controlled, let alone reversed.”
Johnson’s lament raises an extremely critical point, especially for those
who continue to believe that if we only elect enough Democrats and
liberals and “take our country back,” the imperial presidency and
policies of empire can be fundamentally changed. I hope that our
journey through US imperial history has disabused people of this
Continuing with his analysis in Sorrows, Johnson argues that the US
empire is so huge that “it staggers the imagination”: it “supports [a]
military-industrial complex, university research and development
contracts, petrochemical refineries and distributors, innumerable
foreign [countries] … multi-national corporations … investment banks
… and advocates of ‘globalization’ – the catch word that really means
forcing all nations to open themselves up to American exploitation and
American-style capitalism.”
For Johnson, the liberal Woodrow Wilson “remains the
godfather of those contemporary ideologists who justify American
imperial power in terms of exporting democracy.” Wilson stated the
'93world must be made safe for democracy.” America, he explained,
must fight “for the rights and liberties of small nations for a universal
dominion of right by such a concert of free persons as shall bring
peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
According to Wilson, these were pursuits “we have always carried
nearest to our hearts.” Author Greg Grandin In Empire’s Workshop and
other scholars in this course have detailed the record of Wilson’s
relentless imperialist aggression in Latin America and elsewhere,
revealing the utter bankruptcy of claims that he was concerned about
the fate of small nations.
In pursuing imperialist policies, Johnson argues, “the most
powerful tool of the [Pentagon] in promoting its image and protecting
its interest from public scrutiny is official secrecy….” Since the
beginning of the Cold War, the Pentagon has become “addicted to a
black-budget way of life…. All funds for the CIA were (and still are)
secretly contained in the [War Department’s] public budget under
camouflaged names. As the president, the Pentagon, and the CIA
create new intelligence agencies, the black budget expands
Despite an imperialist aggression since WW II built upon the
foundation of unlimited taxpayer funds for overt and covert policies,
the essential nature of the empire project must be hidden from US
citizens. Johnson points out that “history tells us that an expansionist
nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to
consolidate its gains. It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak
is in their own best interest, or their own fault, or the result of
ineluctable processes beyond human control, or a consequence of the
spread of civilization, or in accord with scientific laws – anything but
deliberate aggression by a hyper-power.”
Arguing that even globalization policies must be seen within an
imperialist context that “cannot exist without a powerful military
apparatus for subduing and policing the peoples who stand in its way
and an economic system for financing an expensive and largely
unproductive military establishment,” Johnson believes we need “to
examine the elaborate ideology of ‘neoliberalism’ that has obscured
America’s international endeavors before the triumph of unilateral
militarism and to reveal how militarism has displaced and discredited
America’s economic leaders.”
In his analysis, Johnson links the dominance of empire abroad and the
imperial presidency to the destruction of democracy at home:
“Although tyranny … may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can
stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of
its own people.” This will first begin with “a state of perpetual war,
leading to more terrorism against Americans.” It will be followed by “a
loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully
eclipses congress and is itself transformed … into something more like
a [Pentagon] presidency.” Complementing the above, “an already wellshredded
principle of truthfulness will be increasingly displaced by a
system of propaganda, disinformation, and a glorification of war,
power, and the military legions.” Finally, “there will be bankruptcy, as
we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military
projects and short-change the education, health, and safety of our
fellow citizens.”
Johnson’s scholarship on empire finally brought him to
Nemesis: “In Greek mythology, the goddess of retribution, who
punishes human transgression of the natural, right order of things and
the arrogance that causes it.” She is an eminently appropriate goddess
given the boundless arrogance of US imperialists. Johnson states that
he “no longer doubted that maintaining our empire abroad … would
eventually undercut, or simply skirt, what was left of our domestic
democracy and that might, in the end, produce a military dictatorship
or – far more likely – its civilian equivalent.”
The synthesis of “huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, an
ever growing economic dependence on the military-industrial complex
and the making of weaponry, and ruinous military expenses as well as
a vast, bloated [military] budget, not to speak of the creation of a
whole second Defense Department (known as the Department of
Homeland Security) has been destroying our republican structure in
favor of an imperial presidency.”
Johnson’s definition of “republican structure” embraces “the separation
of powers and the elaborate checks and balances that the founders of
our country wrote into the Constitution as the main bulwarks against
dictatorship and tyranny….” Of course, that republicanism did not
include their own tyranny visited upon Original Americans, slaves and
the poor who did not gain a thing from these “elaborate checks and
Johnson’s conclusion in Nemesis is blunt and uncompromising:
“We are on the brink of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping
our empire. Once a nation starts down this path, the dynamics that
apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting
of local and global forces opposed to imperialism, and in the end
As a form of government, imperialism does not seek nor require the
consent of the governed. It is a pure form of tyranny. The American
attempt to combine domestic democracy with such tyrannical control
over foreigners is hopelessly contradictory and hypocritical. A country
can be democratic or it can be imperialistic, but it cannot be both.”
Johnson believes that our political system has “failed to prevent
this combination from developing – and may not be capable of
correcting it.” And in his view, Congress and the Judiciary “have
become so servile in the presence of the imperial presidency that they
have largely lost the ability to respond in a principled and independent
manner. Even in the present moment of congressional stirring, there
seems to be a deep sense of helplessness.”
Although he is not confident US citizens will choose “democracy
over empire,” he hopes that “our imperial venture will end not with a
nuclear bang but a financial whimper.” It appears highly unlikely that
“any President (or Congress) from either party [will] begin the task of
dismantling the military-industrial complex, ending the pall of ‘national
security’ secrecy and the ‘black budgets’ that make public oversight of
what our government does impossible, and bringing the president’s
secret army, the CIA, under democratic control.” He concludes this last
book by stating that Nemesis “is already a visitor in our country,
simply biding her time before she makes her presence known.”
I would argue that all of us would be well served to study
Johnson’s accurate and chilling analysis. From the creation of the
National Security State in 1947, lying, secrecy and presidential power
have grown, aided by compliant and silent legislators, judges, media
pundits, corporate executives and influential intellectuals. There are no
effective checks on these promoters of empire, save for those that
emerge from the people themselves – as we have learned from the
US-Vietnam War and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We cannot count on elected officials to mount any real challenge to the
relentless violence put forth by imperial Democratic and Republican
presidents and their congressional enablers. Therefore, there is no
progressive solution to be found within the premises and parameters
of our one-party, two-wing electoral system, e.g., there’s not a
snowball’s chance in hell that a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will
challenge the premises and practices of the national security state and
Anti-war activist Bruce Gagnon’s May 7th Counterpunch commentary
captured my thoughts on mainstream politics and the systemic nature
of empire. His critique of an editorial on the US-Iraq War in his local
Portland, Maine newspaper complements what I have argued about
the nature of US imperialism, and liberal and Democratic support for
it. The “editor explained why the paper … had decided to come out
against the war in Iraq after long supporting Bush's shameful and
illegal occupation.” He stated that the paper had “not renounced [its]
belief in American exceptionalism…. I've withdrawn my support for the
war for pragmatic reasons, not because my underlying worldview has
changed. I believe we should use our strength as the world's only
military superpower with great caution, but I do believe we should use
it.... Our nation has a unique role in the world, and with it come
unique responsibilities and unique privilege." Again, we see the ageold
appeal to the US as a special nation.
“In other words,” Gagnon responds, the editor “supports U.S.
[Empire] and all that comes with it. The … killing [and] … domination
of cultures [are] acceptable,” but he is "withdrawing" his support
primarily because "this war has been mismanaged by [Bush] to the
point where turning things around is impossible.” The slaughter is
simply not working out the way “we” expected it would.
Gagnon is correct to assert that this “is largely the Democratic Party
position as well. The war is not necessarily bad [and] the U.S. has the
right and responsibility to take out anyone that we decide should be
eliminated, but it must be handled well so that world opinion and the
American people do not turn against the policy.” The lesson to be
drawn from his bitter condemnation of his local editor and Democrats
is clear: had the war actually ended after the first 100 hours with a
crushing victory for “our troops,” silence and collaboration would have
been the order of the day and the Empire would have marched on.
Make no mistake about that.
I will close this course tonight with a brief summary from the last
chapters in Williams, Grandin and Parenti, and reflections from other
scholars – reviewing some again given the nature of their arguments
and this being our last session.
In Williams’s last chapter, “Notes on freedom without empire,” he
asserts that “… [A critical approach to history] begins with an honest
reading of what we find in the mirror of our history, and proceeds as a
continuous dialogue about how to be leaders (and to promote the
common welfare) without being imperialist.” A fundamental issue
facing us is whether we can transcend the decades of propaganda to
which we have been subjected and come up with an honest and
objective reading of US history that is not overwhelmed by our
subjective conditioning and beliefs.
Williams believed that citizens here lacked “any idea of
community beyond a system presided over by the US as a benevolent
policeman.” A minimal understanding of actual US history, however,
reveals it has never been a benevolent policeman but always violent to
the point of genocide. The evidence supporting this thesis is easily
found in the historical record.
According to Williams, “empire is expensive. It costs a very
great deal of money. It kills a great number of human beings. It
confines and progressively throttles spontaneity and imagination. It
substitutes paranoid togetherness for community.” The human,
economic and ecological costs are clearly linked rather than being
separate entities; they have been staggering, especially for the victims
of US actions in the Third World but also for those in this nation.
The dilemma we face, Williams argues, is that this empire will
continue to destroy this and other nations “until we Americans
confront the truth of our imperial way of life.” If the past is any
indication of the coming future, our long history as a nation state
clearly suggests we will not confront the truth: the ideologies of god
and country are simply too powerful.
Williams pleads that we need to “turn away from empire and
begin to create a community. At the very least we must break free of
the paranoia that defined all our problems as caused by external evil.”
The key to understanding empire is that it begins at home and is
inherent to capitalism: it is not to be found in the nature of the old
“Evil Empire,” terrorism or revolutionary movements abroad.
In his final chapter, “Iraq Is Not Arabic for Latin America,” Greg
Grandin connects the current US-Iraq War with US wars in Central
America in the 1980s, beginning with his comments about US officials
and pundits who have been involved in and defended both imperialist
assaults. He mentions “Elliott Abrams – the man who in the 1980s so
twisted the concept of human rights that it could justify the homicidal
activities of the Contras and the Salvadoran military – being appointed
by Bush [II] to lead a global crusade for democracy.” Grandin also
discusses “accusations that John Negroponte’s involvement in the
cover-up of hundreds of executions while he was ambassador to
Honduras [in the 1980s] made him unfit to serve as intelligence
czar….” The accusations against Negroponte are all true, and if justice
prevailed he would be in prison having been convicted as an accessory
to murder.
Grandin points out that our violent history “does nothing to douse the
maddened zeal with which these new imperialists embrace the idea
that the US has not only the right but the ability to order the world.”
This self-righteous zeal goes back to the “City on the Hill” and the
English colonist invaders who came here in the 17th century; its form
has changed but the essential worldview remains.
For example, Senator Trent Lott reflected this worldview when he
defended the 1998 “Iraqi Liberation Act” that became official policy
after being “passed unanimously by the Senate.” This is another fact
of history that Democrats and liberals wish to drop down the memory
hole. Lott reminded colleagues “of the success of the Reagan Doctrine
and US patronage of the … Contras” by stating that “we supported
freedom fighters in … Latin America willing to fight and die for a
democratic future.” The imperialist links between the policies in
Central America and Iraq are quite powerful; therefore, those
challenging such policies had better understand these connections, lest
amnesia force us into understanding one war at a time that is totally
separate from any other imperialist venture.
The militarist and murderous political officials and intellectuals
who urge violence against the poor around the world – then in Central
America and now in Iraq and Afghanistan – are the core agents of a
neo-fascist imperialism. They have brought death and devastation to
millions abroad, but not one has had to face a 21st century Nuremberg
The possibility that their policies will lead us to an actual fascist state
has been raised by Naomi Wolf’a provocative article: “Fascist America,
in 10 easy steps,” The Guardian of London, April 24, 2007. She
argues, “If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a
blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint
has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less
terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and
arduous to create and sustain a democracy – but history shows that
closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to
take [certain] steps.
She goes on to argue, “if you are willing to look, that each of
these … steps has already been initiated today in the US by the Bush
administration which has used time-tested tactics to close down an
open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable – …
that it can happen here. And … we are further along than we realize.”
These steps include invoking “a terrifying and external enemy,”
creating “a gulag,” setting up “an internal surveillance system,”
harassing “citizens’ groups” that dissent from official policy, engaging
“in arbitrary detention and release,” targeting “key individuals,”
controlling “the press,” equating “dissent [with] treason,” and
suspending “the rule of law.”
She concludes on a very sober note: “As Americans turn away
quite leisurely, keeping tuned to Internet shopping and American Idol,
the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded…. in a context
in which we are ‘at war’ in a ‘long war’ – a war without end.”
Let’s return to Grandin, who asks us to recall recent history
from the 1980s, arguing that “all of … Bush’s abuses of power [today]
… have their most immediate antecedents in Reagan’s Central America
policy, which in retrospect has to be understood as the first battle in
the New Right’s crusade to roll back restrictions placed on the imperial
presidency in wake of Vietnam, Watergate, COINTELPRO, and other
scandals of the 1970s.” We must also not forget that these regressive
efforts could not have succeeded without the active and/or silent
support of Democrats and liberals.
Grandin also reminds us of a fact that influences Parenti’s work.
“[The US’s] privileged position within the world’s global financial
system … demands an aggressive foreign policy. On this fact, neither
political party disagrees.” This is an absolutely vital point that cannot
be overstated: leading Democrats have no qualms about exploiting the
poor in Latin America or engaging in aggression there or the Middle
Concluding on a powerful point, Grandin states: “Like any
empire before it, the US will not tilt too far in favor of democracy at
the expense of stability…. The precarious misery generated by freemarket
absolutism will predictably lead to challenges to [US] interests
and authority – and, just as predictably, they will have to be dealt
with, as they were in Latin America, with an increasingly heavy hand.
Talk of the ‘Salvador option’ [i.e., death squad regimes], in other
words, is not an indication of the failure of Washington’s imperial
policy but an admission of its essence.” Therefore, what Hans shared
with us last time bears repeating: progressive struggles underway in
Latin America clearly challenge US imperial interests. As citizens we
will have to decide whether to support these struggles – or the empire.
In this epic conflict, there is no middle ground, no neutral and safe
Michael Parenti concludes his book by agreeing with the Progressive
magazine’s blunt assessment of post-WW II US foreign policy: “The
legacy for the US is tragic: a permanently militarized conception of
national security; agencies of covert action and undemocratic secrecy,
prone to violation of individual rights and police-state tactics
incompatible with democracy; a huge inefficient bureaucracy;
militarization of foreign policy; redirection of resources away from
humanitarian ends” (quoted in Robin Andersen, A Century of Media, A
Century of War). It is not a pretty picture, merely a truthful one, and
the starting point for anyone who is serious about understanding this
nation’s foreign policy.
To close my comments this evening, I wish to revisit and add
the views of some scholars who complement the insights of Grandin,
Parenti and Williams. But first we need to be reminded that these
scholars all challenge the dominant elite view of US international policy
found in our schools and mass media, captured by the present George
II, who has proclaimed “our nation [as] the greatest force for good in
history.” He has praised the glories of the US and the need to share
these with the world: Despite “its flaws, … our nation is chosen by God
and commissioned by history to be the model to the world of justice
and inclusion and diversity without division.”
This arrogant, triumphant and uncritical view of the US mission
in the world was contested by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who bluntly
linked “the founding of the US … to [a white supremacist] … settlercolonialist
and imperialist-aggressor state.”
Dunbar-Ortiz named “white supremacy [as] the working rationalization
and ideology of English theft of Native American lands, and especially
the justification for slavery.” She also unsettled us with her claim that
this white supremacist US origin myth “is itself closely tied to the
parallel Afrikaner origin myth in South Africa and Apartheid.”
White supremacy is not only the core premise of US domestic and
international policy “from the origins to the present,” it and
imperialism are also “inseparable from the content of this origin story
and the definition of patriotism today. It began before the official
founding of the nation, and was not an accident or aberration in the
progression of democracy.” Dunbar-Ortiz’s thesis is that “the US [has
been] fundamentally imperialist and racist from the beginning, and
imperialism was not a divergence from a well-intentioned path.” We
didn’t just stray from the wonderful “City on the Hill”: that City was
fundamentally and profoundly rotten from the beginning.
In the “unlearning” process against empire that we must go
through as citizens, we might well consider the insights of social
theorist and writer Harry Magdoff, who was quoted at the end of
Dunbar-Ortiz’s article: “… citizens of an imperialist country who wish to
understand imperialism must first emancipate themselves from the
seemingly endless web of threads that bind them emotionally and
intellectually to the imperialist condition.”
I also shared the views of scholar and filmmaker Felix Greene, who
wrote that the need for violence grows out of the basic aim of
imperialism: “… to make the maximum profits, to exploit, to
dominate…. Imperialism of necessity involves the defense of the social
order out of which it developed.” This is a key point often missed by
critics of the means and results of imperialism that do not examine its
essence or inherent qualities. Such insights are absolutely essential if
we are to understand the links between the nature of the capitalist
system internally, and empire and exploitation abroad.
Noam Chomsky, our leading intellectual dissident, asserted in
his book World Orders Old and New that US imperialism has sought to
maintain the worldwide class division between North and South, which
is far more important than the East-West, Cold War conflict. A much
“more realistic understanding of the Cold War [can be obtained] by
adopting a longer-range perspective, viewing it as a particular phase in
the five-hundred-year European conquest of the world – the history of
aggression, subversion, terror, and domination now termed the ‘North-
South confrontation.’”
In The Culture of Terrorism, Chomsky discusses US-supported
genocidal and imperial violence against Central America that must be
placed within the larger context of overall US foreign policy: “The
central – and not very surprising – conclusion that emerges from the
documentary and historical record is that US international and security
policy, rooted in the structure of power in the domestic society, has as
its primary goal the preservation of what we might call ‘the Fifth
Freedom,’ understood crudely but with a fair degree of accuracy as the
freedom to rob, to exploit and to dominate, to undertake any course of
action to ensure that existing privilege is protected and advanced.”
The “self-image of American elites,” Chomsky writes, reveals the US as
“a lawless and violent state and must remain so, independently of such
nonsense as international law, the World Court, the UN, or other
international institutions…. US international terrorism is ‘scandalous’
only if it infringes upon the prerogatives of the powerful or carries a
potential cost to elite interests.” Therefore, “the successful use of
terrorism is not considered a scandal. On the contrary, it is welcomed
and applauded.”
The activist and writer Arundhati Roy provided us with a brief
summary of our actual imperialist aggression throughout the world.
“Since the Second World War, the US has been at war with or
attacked, among other countries, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Laos,
Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama,
Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan. This list should also
include the US government’s covert operations in Africa, Asia, and
Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has
armed and supported.” This is why we are hated throughout the Third
In a provocative article that addresses the issues we have examined in
this course, Phyllis Bennis and Robert Jensen ask: “What Comes After
Withdrawal? Moving Beyond Anti-War Politics.”
They contend that as citizens we “must challenge the US Empire. The
US troop withdrawal and reparations [in Iraq] should be accompanied
by a declaration of a major change in US foreign policy, especially in
Iraq and the Middle East. We need a new foreign policy based on
justice, relying on international law and the UN, rather than the
assertion of might-makes-right.”
They also remind us – uncomfortably for those who still harbor
illusions about the more liberal wing of our one-party corporate system
– that such a vision must move “beyond the mendacity of the Bush
administration, to recognize that similar dreams of conquest and
domination have animated every administration, albeit in different
forms. From the darling of the anti-communist liberal elite (John F.
Kennedy) and the champion of so-called ‘assertive multilateralism’ (Bill
Clinton), to the crude Republican realist (Richard Nixon) and the
patron saint of the conservative right (Ronald Reagan), US empire in
the post-World War II era has been a distinctly bi-partisan effort.”
They urge us “to transcend this ugly history … through an
honest dialogue and promise of a sea change in US policy…. Such
empires are typically brought down from outside with great violence.
But we have another option, as citizens of that empire who understand
how this pathology of power damages our country as well as the
world. Imagine what would be possible if we – ordinary citizens of this
latest empire – could build a movement that gave politicians no choice
but to do the right thing.” This is a utopian vision that should guide our
thoughts and actions.
Bennis and Jensen have written a passionate and fine article. However,
at the same time we must heed the lessons of the past: a powerful
anti-imperialist movement able to stop and destroy the empire has not
arisen in our 218-year history, not even during the Vietnam War. We
cannot afford to be naïve about such prospects now. While we can’t
predict the future, we do know what has happened in the past: no
such movement has pushed government officials to oppose individual
wars let alone the empire that creates and sustains them.
Therefore, we need to be clear about the nature of this empire and the
task we face if we wish to dismantle it. The historian Arnold Toynbee
addressed this issue in the 1970s: “America today is the leader of a
world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in defense of vested
interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently
supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell
under her sway; and, since the poor … have always and everywhere
been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s policy made for
inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness for the greatest
If we are to challenge the premises and practices of this empire, we
must first have a clear understanding of its utterly brutal and historic
role. For those on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum, that
means ultimately confronting the imperialist actions of the Democratic
Party. In the post-WW II era alone, the staggering record of violence
against the Third World by Democratic presidents (Truman, Kennedy,
Johnson, Carter and Clinton) ought to teach us that “savage wars of
peace” are not a Republican monopoly. US imperial interventions
against sovereign countries have tied Democrats and Republicans in a
“brotherhood” of empire. It is a “blood brotherhood” that will not be
changed by remaining in a state of denial about our government’s true
Lest we think that these assertions are too harsh, we can ponder the
words of Ralph Peters, former US Army Intelligence Officer (2003):
“We are entering a new American century, in which we will become
wealthier, culturally more lethal, and increasingly powerful. We will
excite hatreds without precedent…. The de facto role of the US armed
forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy [that means safe
for the ruling elites who control it] and open to our cultural assaults.
To these ends we will do a fair amount of killing.”
This is the ruthless system we face, the same one that prompted the
words of historian Gabriel Kolko after the US invasion of Vietnam.
Reflecting upon the truths found in The Pentagon Papers about that
war, he wrote the following: the Papers were a “singularly
overwhelming indictment of how devious, incorrigible, and beyond the
pale of human values America’s rulers were throughout this epic event
in U.S. history.” The Republican neo-cons who now run the empire are
no different than their Democratic brothers were during that genocidal
Vietnam conflict; today, as then, they are “beyond the pale of human
values.” To forget this truth is to consign the world’s poor to a future
of unrelenting terror and tragedy, and to play our role as “good
Americans” in that tragedy.
In order to challenge the passive roles we are asked to play as “good
Americans” to continue the US Empire, we need a long range view of
history, perhaps that provided by the English historian Eric Hobsbawm.
In his Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), he stated:
“Living for over 80 years of the 20th century has been a natural lesson
in the mutability of political power, empires and institutions. I have
seen the total disappearance of the European empires, not least the
greatest of all, the British Empire, never larger and more powerful
than in my childhood, when it pioneered the strategy of keeping order
in places like Kurdistan and Afghanistan by aerial bombardment. I
have seen great world powers relegated to minor divisions, the end of
a German Empire that expected to last a thousand years, and of a
revolutionary power that expected to last forever. I am unlikely to see
the end of the ‘American century,’ but it is a safe bet that some
readers of this book will.” It is our power to help bring about the end
of that century.

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