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Empire as a Way of Life, Part 3

Chris | 22.03.2007 21:24 | 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 third 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 21th November 2006 by the L.A. Sound Posse, runs for 36 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 This recording was originally made available on the A-Infos Radio Project site.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.

Previous parts of this series:

Empire Course: Foster, November 21

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-so-veiled 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 civilized?

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 continue…”

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 corporations.

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 countries.”

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 premises.”

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 Cuba.

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 2008.”

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.



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