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Empire as a Way of Life, Part 1

Chris | 13.03.2007 00:09 | Analysis | History | Terror War | Sheffield | World

The current imperial slaughter in the Middle East, justified by the "Global War on Terror", that has resulted in at least 600,000 deaths in Iraq, is nothing new — the U.S. Empire has a long and sordid history of genocidal mass murder.

The history of the US imperialism and Empire is the subject of a series of ten monthly seminars from Dr John Marciano, "Empire as a Way of Life". Attached is a recording of the first of these seminars and the text upon which it was based. The first 6 of these seminars have taken place and the intention is to have the whole series published on this site; the last 4 will take place between now and June.

This seminar, recorded on 19th September 2006 by the L.A. Sound Posse, runs for 40 minutes and includes the discussion following. It has been made available under a Creative Commons license. If this recording is broadcast please let the L.A. Sound Posse know. This recording was originally made available on the A-Infos Radio Project site.

The following text has been reproduced here with the kind permission of Dr John Marciano and he can be contacted at He introduced this series of seminars in the following way:

A fundamental purpose of our meetings is to understand the systemic nature of the U.S. Empire and the economic and military imperialism that is its lifeblood. The historian William Appleman Williams argues that empire became "a way of life" in the U.S., a "combination of patterns of thought and action that, as it becomes habitual and institutionalized, defines the thrust and character of a culture and society." This "way of life" has convinced many U.S. "Americans" they have a right or "manifest destiny" to impose their political and economic policies upon others.

Dr John Marciano is Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Cortland, where he taught courses on social and historical foundations of education and class, gender and race.

Empire Course: Opening Lecture: “Empire as a Way of Life”

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 boundary.”

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 self-determination, 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 institutions.”

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 rose-colored 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 self-interest, 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 January.

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 claim.

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 colonies).

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 exception.

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.”



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