A Short History of American Empire

A Short History of American Empire

Stephen Kinzer is one of the few mainstream voices reminding Americans of our imperial identity. In The True Flag, he takes us back to where he thinks it all began—1898, when the U.S. political class pushed off on the quest for global domination.

“What’s the point of having this superb military … if we can’t use it?” —Madeleine Albright (U.S. State Department / Flickr)

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire
by Stephen Kinzer
Henry Holt and Co., 2017, 304 pp.

Toward the end of his history of the domestic conflict over U.S. overseas expansion at the close of the nineteenth century, Stephen Kinzer notes that the winners permanently changed our political lexicon. “Imperialists” became openhearted, visionary “globalists” and “internationalists.” Anti-imperialists became crabby, reactionary “isolationists.” As applied to the United States, the words “empire” and “imperialism” virtually disappeared.

This muddling of the language has made it easier for Americans to misunderstand just what it is that we are doing out there in the world. Thus, in late 2013, at a time when Barack Obama’s foreign policy was widely criticized in the United States as too “soft,” a Gallup poll of around 65,000 people in sixty-five countries showed that the United States was considered the greatest threat to world peace (Pakistan was a distant second).

The story we tell ourselves, of course, is that we are the guardians of the peace, besieged by forces of evil that hate us because of our unique national virtues of freedom, tolerance, and democracy. The possibility that we are being attacked here—in San Bernardino, Orlando, or Boston—because we are bombing there—in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen—lies beyond the current intellectual capacity of our public discourse.

Yet, what word better than “empire” describes America’s role among nations? We have at least 800 acknowledged military installations around the world, the most extensive imperium in history. In 2016, U.S. Special Operations forces—commandos, Navy Seals, Green Berets—were deployed in 138 countries. In many foreign capitals, the most important figure is the U.S. ambassador. We are the globe’s biggest military spenders by far, and sell as many weapons of war as the rest of the world’s arms traffickers combined.

True, we haven’t won a war against a substantial military foe since 1945. But we haven’t had to. Once established, empires do not have to definitively win the wars on their periphery. Rather, the central task is to demonstrate their willingness and capacity to inflict murderous punishment on those who rebel. Since 2001, we have attacked fourteen different countries. Imperialism’s default foreign policy is limited, but endless, war.

Here at home, the authoritarian politics needed to accommodate empire are firmly in place among both the leaders and the led. Congress has long surrendered to the executive branch its constitutional duty to decide whether or not to go to war. At a time when the U.S. electorate holds virtually all other institutions in contempt, the military is revered. A study from Harvard and the University of Melbourne reports that the share of Americans who think that rule by the armed forces would be a “good” or “very good” thing rose from one in sixteen in 1995 to one in six in 2014.

With the election of Donald Trump, the misuse of language to obscure the reality of imperialism has reached new heights. But the practice extends beyond the mindless babble of our infantile president. After he sent missiles to bomb Syria, the front page of the New York Times referred to Trump—global capitalist, defender of dictators, and blustering champion of U.S. military expansion—as an “isolationist.”

Our foreign policy debates—hard power vs. soft power, realism vs. values, military vs. diplomacy, unilateralism vs. multilateralism—do not reflect opposing philosophical ideas on how Americans should relate to the world. They are disputes over the best way to reinforce our self-appointed role of policeman, jury, and judge of the global order. The Democratic cop may have a less belligerent personality than the Republican cop, but both will shoot to kill when their authority is threatened.

Stephen Kinzer, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, has long been one of the few voices reminding Americans of our imperial identity. Over the years he has written a series of accessible and fast-paced histories of the United States’ less-than-benign interventions in other countries’ domestic politics—including the violent overthrow of elected governments in Chile, Iran, and Guatemala.

In his latest, The True Flag, he takes us back to where he thinks it all began—the years 1898 to 1901, when the U.S. political class pushed us off on the quest for global domination.

Up to that point, U.S. foreign policy generally adhered to the Founding Fathers’ proscription against “entangling alliances.” As John Quincy Adams put it, Americans should not be tempted to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Otherwise, he feared, although America “might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Dictatress of North America was another matter. By the end of the American Revolution the thirteen colonies had already reached the Mississippi. Jefferson doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase. We subsequently took Florida from Spain, conquered roughly half of Mexico, and continued the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

But the geographic logic of Manifest Destiny ran out at the Pacific Ocean. The issue at the end of the nineteenth century was: do we keep going? The debate that followed focused on three successive questions. Should the United States annex Hawaii, whose native government had been overthrown five years earlier in a coup by American settlers reinforced by the U.S. Navy? Should we go to war against the decrepit Spanish Empire? Having won that war, should we renege on our promise to allow their former colonies—Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam—to rule themselves, and instead take them over as U.S. possessions?

Kinzer hangs much of his story on the combative tension between two outsized personalities of the times. Leading the imperialist cause (“yes” on all three of the above questions) was the irrepressible Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt believed that Americans’ destiny was to follow the European imperialists in shouldering what Rudyard Kipling had termed “the white man’s burden”: the duty to impose order and civilization on the lesser, darker breeds, disdained by Roosevelt as “pirates and headhunters.”

In step with Roosevelt’s racist rationale for expansion marched his personal infatuation with the manly, martial virtues upon which he believed America was built. “I should welcome almost any war,” he wrote in 1895, “for I think this country needs one.”

Roosevelt’s most prominent antagonist was Mark Twain, whose wit and satire made him the most popular American personality of the age. Like the founders of the Republic, Twain thought America’s role in the family of nations was to inspire others to democracy by perfecting it at home. He dismissed the “white man’s burden” as sheer hypocrisy, and sympathized with the efforts of people in Asia and Africa to free themselves from colonial rule. After a visit to Hawaii, he wrote that American white missionaries and traders were pursuing a “long, deliberate and infallible destruction” of its native people.

Kinzer presents the argument between Roosevelt and Twain as a struggle for America’s political soul: “These adversaries . . . were deliciously matched. Their views of life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart.” While Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of Christian charity, Twain pictured Christendom as “a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched in blood.”

The antagonism was personal as well as political. Roosevelt wanted to “skin Mark Twain alive.” Twain considered Roosevelt “clearly insane” and “the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War.”

Roosevelt’s partner in empire-building was another scion of the Eastern establishment, Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In another example of mislabeling, Lodge today is often referred to as an “isolationist” for his later opposition to U.S. membership in the League of Nations. But Lodge was no more of an isolationist than Trump. He opposed the League because he thought it would tie down the United States in its quest for global domination.

These two Republican Brahmins were joined by a Democrat, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose nationalist fervor was reinforced by the conviction that war sold newspapers. When the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, Hearst, along with fellow penny-press publisher Joseph Pulitzer, falsely blamed the Spanish. The episode illustrated the power of modern mass media to whip up patriotic hysteria in support of U.S. foreign interventions. Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 charge that the North Vietnamese had attacked an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin and George W. Bush’s 2002–2003 claim that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” are recent examples.

The anti-imperialist opposition was also a mixture of class and parties. It included robber baron Andrew Carnegie, labor leader Samuel Gompers, African-American educator Booker T. Washington, social worker and suffragette Jane Addams, ex-president Grover Cleveland, and the legendary Republican Speaker of the House Thomas Reed. It also included the populist three-time Democratic Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

Kinzer’s concentration on the stark contrast between the warrior bluster of Roosevelt and the humanitarian wit of Twain is understandable. But his own narrative suggests that two other characters in the drama may have represented political prototypes that better explain the enduring support of our policy class for the imperial project: the Republican Henry Cabot Lodge and the Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Lodge reflected the merger of military and economic interests that became the foundation of the “realist” conservative position on U.S. foreign policy. As the frontier closed, American businesspeople worried that they would run out of new markets, while Britain, France, and other European competitors were walling off colonies for their own commercial interests. Lodge argued that if the United States annexed the Philippines, its people “would have to buy our goods, and we should have so much additional market for our home manufactures.”

With the evolution of the global corporation, today’s colonialism is more sophisticated. The American empire does not require the direct ownership of colonies. It is much easier and efficient to control other nations by providing bribes, contracts, and weapons to their business and military elites. Still, our military power secures the deals. As a German businessman once said to me, “Never forget, that when General Electric walks in the door here, the Sixth Fleet walks behind it.”

Bryan, perhaps the greatest orator of his time, was an early opponent of colonialism. A speech he gave in 1898 in Omaha against the expansionist agenda turned the anti-imperialist movement from a largely East Coast collection of intellectuals and reformers into a national grassroots campaign. “Is our national character so weak,” he mocked, “that we cannot withstand the temptation to appropriate the first piece of land that comes within our reach?” To annex Spain’s former colonies would add “hypocrisy to greed.”

At one point Bryan even contemplated a formal alliance with his archenemy, the robber baron Andrew Carnegie, against the Treaty of Paris—the deal whereby the United States took control of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. “If the richest man in America could unite with the champion of debt-ridden farmers and downtrodden immigrants,” writes Kinzer, “they might together slay the imperialist beast.” But in the end, economic class divisions proved too great. Carnegie—a gold standard man—demanded that Bryan back off his “free silver” crusade. Bryan refused. They went their own ways.

Bryan’s loyalty to populist economics was understandable. Much less so was his subsequent betrayal of the anti-imperialist cause. The climactic moment of the national debate came with the U.S. Senate vote on ratification of the Paris Treaty. Bryan had influence over enough Senate Democrats to defeat it. But a few days before the vote he suddenly announced his support. His defection made the difference. The treaty passed the Senate by one vote.

Bryan later said he had decided that the Treaty was necessary so the United States could teach the former colonies about the institutions of democracy—what we now call “nation-building.” As Kinzer points out, “This was somewhere between naïve and delusional.”

The Republican administration of William McKinley—firmly in the grip of the Roosevelt-Lodge-Hearst confederation—had no intention of bringing either democracy or freedom to these colonies. Indeed, the American takeover was followed by the U.S. Army’s brutal suppression of independence movements in Cuba and, especially in the Philippines, which involved massacre, torture, and horrendous devastation of the countryside. Bryan should have known something like that was coming. Kinzer speculates that Bryan feared that killing the treaty would have cost him support in the 1900 election, which in any case he lost to McKinley and his new running mate, Teddy Roosevelt.

With that election, the bipartisan character of American imperialism congealed. A decade and a half later, Woodrow Wilson brought the United States to the world stage as a full partner in the European-American business of empire. The equally racist Wilson built Roosevelt’s case for the white man’s burden into a messianic vision of America as savior of a sinful world. He presented himself as a reluctant warrior, selling U.S. entry into the First World War as necessary to “make the world safe for Democracy.” In democracy’s name, Wilson criminalized public opposition to the war, arrested thousands, and crushed the domestic socialist movement. To Roosevelt, those who opposed war were sissies. To Wilson, they were traitors.

As became the pattern ever since, Bryan-like claims that the war was being pursued for humanitarian reasons obscured the Lodge-like realities of greed. Urging Wilson on were the Wall Street bankers who had made huge loans to Britain and France that could only be paid back by reparations from a totally defeated Germany. As the novelist John Dos Passos quipped, the war was not so much to make the world safe for democracy, as to make it safe for J.P. Morgan’s loans.

Whether you view Wilson as an idealist or a cynic, his intervention clearly set in motion the dominoes—the Treaty of Versailles, the economic immiseration of Germany, the revanchist reaction and the rise of Hitler—that led to the Second World War. As historian and Dissent editor Michael Kazin has observed, without America’s entry into the First World War, “the next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred.”

Even if the treaty of Paris had been defeated, of course, it is highly likely that the American policy class would have found another path to global empire. The profit-seeking itch of capitalism, the intoxicating self-righteousness of missionary Christianity, and the masculine appeal of war was too powerful a combination for twentieth-century Americans to resist.

So, empire became its own justification. Might made right, which then rationalized more might. As Bill Clinton’s UN ambassador and, later, Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, famously asked General Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

But empires do not last forever. Already, ours shows signs of overreach. The American model of client colonialism depends on the capacity of Washington to bribe and subsidize enough of the world’s politicians and generals to keep them loyal. But U.S. economic power is eroding. In an increasing number of places, it is the Chinese, not the Americans, who now have the cash.

That our country needs to adjust to a multipolar world has become a cliché among foreign policy pundits. But our bipartisan policy class—fiercely protective of its unipolar privileges—has shown little interest in backing away from its global commitments. The Democratic foreign policy team of Obama-Clinton-Kerry differed with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team on operational grounds. But from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea, they maintained, and arguably extended, U.S. military obligations.

Trump, despite his querulousness about Europe’s insufficient dues to NATO and his admiration for Putin and other shady characters, represents a continuation of the commitment to world hegemony of his predecessors. He has already backed off the protectionist promises he made to working-class voters, and wants to expand foreign arms sales to create “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He is increasing the already bloated defense budget and has loosened the civilian leash on the Pentagon’s power to initiate military action. The danger of a Trump presidency is from the opposite of “isolationism”—an expansion of U.S. aggression around the world.

As the Romans learned, if you build an empire, sooner or later you’ll get a paranoid crackpot for emperor.

But we live on hope. So it is not impossible that having Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button might force a revival of the kind of serious national debate on the United States’ role in the world that we stopped having over a century ago. As Kinzer suggests, we might start by at least using language that accurately describes what we are now doing.

Kinzer’s book helps explain how we got into this mess. The question now is: how do we get out?


Jeff Faux was the founder and is now Distinguished Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. He is the author of, among other books, The Global Class War (Wiley, 2006).


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