Various observers attribute “empire” to several benchmark years and events in American history. For example, most historians of diplomacy and the twentieth century privilege the 1898 war against Spain, and others mark U.S. entrance to World War I as the beginning of American imperialism. Yet, still others note the transfer of western hegemony from Great Britain to the U.S.A. during World War Two, or certainly by the Suez crisis when the U.S. was in position to dictate terms to Western Europe. However, others accurately note that the United States acted imperially from its British founding in Virginia throughout its colonial and early national period. Through the antebellum period, and even during the Civil War, the United States continued to assert its ‘exceptional’ nature relative to other nations, especially its continental neighbors. Not until after extending contiguous settlement to the Pacific and consolidating the union through civil war did the nation become an empire. Acting imperially from 1607 to 1898 involved the same processes of subjugation, violence, and dispossession that the United States would employ globally in the twentieth century, yet before the war with Spain, United States’ imperialism was little more than a local affair, mainly internal, but occasionally involving its neighbors.
The earliest Anglo settlements certainly justified their appropriation of indigenous land out of a belief in the cultural superiority of English Protestants. Settlers systematically destroyed the natives who resisted, those who had survived the newly arrived pathogens. From the early 1600s until the late nineteenth century, colonial founders and then citizens of the newly emerged United States imposed their cultural, political, and religious structures on the indigenous population, decimating them wherever resistance appeared.1 Concurrent to the subjugation of the natives, the colonial and antebellum white Americans participated, directly as slaveholders, or indirectly as beneficiaries to a slave based economy, in the imperial cooptation of African labor. Slaves held in bondage by white Americans provided unpaid labor that strengthened the American economy at the expense of the African economy. Slaves were not uniquely transported to North America, certainly Caribbean and Latin American slave societies were equally complicit, possibly more so. However, the early colonial and antebellum periods of Anglo-American history, like the colonial periods of Latin American history, ultimately derive their economic and political independence from Europe on the land of the indigenous and the labor of the African with little by way of compensation to those people.2
During the nineteenth century, the United States rapidly expanded westward. Immediately following the establishment of a national government with the Articles of Confederation, the new nation drafted protocol for settling the ‘Old Northwest.’ Many of the original thirteen colonies possessed land claims to the Pacific, or closer to the Mississippi, by right of royal dispensation. The colonies released this land to the nation for future settlement, regardless of its native occupants. Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio joined the nation quickly from western land reserves.3 The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, subsequent exploration of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Columbia Rivers, and frequent border conflicts with British Canada before and during the War of 1812 also are direct evidence of the insatiable drive for national expansion. During the conflict with Britain, and for the following ten years, the United States waged war upon the natives and Spanish and British colonials of Florida, seeking to acquire the land that would later provide parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida all with an eye to Cuba. Filibusters and explorers pressed into the Spanish southwest, ultimately separating Texas from Mexico and precipitating another expansionist war.
The war with Mexico, instigated by the duplicity of an expansionist president, James K. Polk, demonstrated once again that the nation would not hesitate to use force and guile to secure an increase in land and power. Raids into Mexico on several fronts led to the annexation and acquisition of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and parts of Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana. American expansionists, always with an eye on mercantile opportunities, continued to justify American expansion with religious, racial, or cultural supremacy. Filibusters such as William Walker and Narciso Lopez adventured in Nicaragua, Cuba, and later the Sandwich Islands. Those islands, incorporated as Hawaii later in the century, shared with Cuba the long held territorial desire of American business and political elites. Even during the Civil War, governing officials like former Democratic Treasury Secretary Robert Walker and Lincoln’s Republican Secretary of State, William Seward, actively sought acquisition of Cuba and Alaska. Seward successfully purchased Alaska during the Johnson administration when most of the nation was concerned with reconciliation and reconstruction after years of war.4
Until the 1890s, however, this imperial behavior largely impacted only internal subjects of America like the natives and the slaves. Externally, it was a rare even when any world superpower even concerned itself with American expansion. France, Russia, Spain, and the Dutch rarely resisted any American growth into their territories. Most were content to liquidate their unprofitable holdings in the face of imminent American expansion anyways. Great Britain and Mexico resisted, out of protection of large territories directly bordering the U.S., yet both were largely ineffectual at halting ‘manifest destiny.’ Indeed, it is apparent that Great Britain’s attempts to check American expansion led Polk to grasp for more in his war with Mexico, regardless of Britain’s commitment to Mexico or independent Texas.5
This internal imperialism is significantly different from the acquisition of Cuba, the Philippines, and other territories in the war with Spain in 1898. For the first time, the United States waged war without the intent to annex and incorporate territories gained from the conflict. The United States sought what European imperialists previously acquired during their imperial expansions into Africa and Asia. European imperialists established or captured ports on the coasts of African and Asian territories in order to extract resources from indigenous populations often forced to work with little or no compensation by European military and mercenary forces. These ports also provided colonial markets for European manufactures. Colonized peoples were trapped by European use of force into inequitable working and trading arrangements with the goal of increasing European wealth.6
After the United States weathered their civil war and reconstruction, it became apparent to many political and commercial elites that any kind of global superpower status would depend upon mimicking European colonial patterns, yet aside from Latin America, where else could the United States play the imperial role? Challenging the legitimacy of Spanish possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines allowed the US to play the role of liberator, not conqueror. Yet very quickly, the people of the Philippines, like the Hawaiians, learned what U.S. hegemony entailed. In the Philippines, resistance severely undercut the commercial interests that led to U.S. annexation; and after brutal conflict, the United States begrudgingly acquiesced to independence. Like most de-colonial moments that would occur later in the twentieth century, the imperial power, in this case the U.S., only relinquished control over their colony to an independent government which would favor trade with their former emperor. Cuba, never governed directly within the U.S. territorial system, was instead entrusted to American educated and raised commercial elites that would manage the island as an effective commercial colony of the U.S. until the Castro revolution nearly 60 years later.7
Not unlike American conquest of pacific naval stations in Hawaii, or temporarily in the Philippines, the U.S. also actively acquired throughout the early twentieth century several smaller Pacific islands and secured port and base rights so that their commercial and military fleets would be secure to trade with continental Asia. In order to reduce expenses and quicken trade, the creation of the nation of Panama in order to construct the canal engaged America’s imperial attention at the turn of the century as well. Wall Street business interests in collusion with imperial politicians like Teddy Roosevelt personally secured the land necessary for the canal by staging a secession movement of the Panama isthmus from Venezuela. When American expansion and commerce desired that pass, there was little Venezuela could do to resist. The expropriation of land and labor of one nation by another is the textbook definition of imperialism.8
Over the next thirty years, the United States consolidated its economic growth and became one of the world’s strongest economies. Great Britain, the global hegemon of the day, feared economic expansion by Germany and the United States. Conflict between Great Britain and Germany became increasingly acute: the nations competed for control of territory in Africa, for industrial development, for economic supremacy on the continent, and in an expensive arms race. With a range of allies and a host of other disputes between a dozen nations, the two industrial European giants erupted into war in 1914. Despite global commercial connections, the U.S. hesitated to enter the conflict on either side. Sizeable German and Irish immigrant populations balked at aiding Britain, yet U.S. political and commercial interests shelved a century and a half of rivalry between the U.S. and Great Britain over North America. Protection and maintenance of free shipping lanes mandated military action to halt German submarine warfare. Following the devastation of the war, Europe relented to U.S. political brokerage and the American nation, after demonstrating its strength in 1898, appeared ready to join the superpower system in 1917.
World War II provided the opportunity for the United States to surpass other European powers. During that conflict, the European colonial powers lost their grip upon their African, Asian, Pacific and Caribbean holdings.9 War in Africa between the Allies and Axis involved tremendous numbers of colonial soldiers, an experience that directly led to demands for social and political equality by Indian, Kenyan, African-American, and Malaysian combatants. Imperial powers like Italy and Germany lost their territories, many of which transferred to British, French, or transnational stewardship.10 In Asia, France’s holdings in Indochina slipped away after Japanese “liberation” because France was unable economically or militarily to maintain their presence abroad; like Vietnam, the French would eventually lose Algeria as well. Not only did European imperialists lose their some of their holdings in the war, but they also were unable to rival the economic and military power of the U.S. America emerged from the conflict stronger because major battles were fought on other land and reconstruction did not consume finite post war resources. Also, the mobilization for the war and the reconstruction efforts such as the Marshall Plan primed the American economy by increasing productivity and employment; this resulted in a post-war spending boom, which facilitated the increased standard of living in the U.S. in the 50s.11 Dependent on U.S. aid, European imperialists were unable to re-secure colonies lost to Japan in Asia or to contain anti-colonial movements in Africa.12 The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II as rivals in a dual superpower system, a world completely altered from the multi-party rivalry that resulted in the first and second world wars.13
The United States was quick to replace western European imperialists in regions where Britain, France, or Germany previously maintained power. In occupied Japan and Germany, the U.S. imposed models of reconstruction that sought to implant American structures on previously enemy cultures and political structures. Cold War rivalry, emerging from shared occupation of Germany, led to U.S. and U.S.S.R. confrontations in the Middle East and Asia.14 The United States, cautious to maintain appearances of strength and credibility as well as to maintain the economic benefits of militarized society, confronted and precipitated regular conflicts with the U.S.S.R. over China, Egypt, Iran, Korea, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Angola, Taiwan, and ultimately Vietnam.
The U.S. entered Vietnam in an attempt to shore up NATO cold war ally, France, in their effort to contain de-colonization by the Vietnamese nationalists. Tired of colonization by China, France, and Japan, the Vietnamese sought to maintain national sovereignty following the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan. France resisted, initially with U.S. support, but eventually acquiesced and left. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. rivalry subsumed de-colonial negotiations, the proper responsibility of the Vietnamese and French. The cold war powers partitioned Vietnam, like Germany and Korea, and the United States began funneling escalating levels of advisors, arms, and soldiers into the south. Attempts to prop up a non-existent anti-communist state by the U.S. and similar, though more limited attempts by China and the U.S.S.R. in the north led to imperial destruction in Vietnam. In the south, the locus of most conflict, the U.S. imposed dictatorial regimes bent on “modernization,” a military-industrialization that left little for the Vietnamese themselves. In the south, the United States governed through proxy dictators but kept room to maneuver militarily against communists and nationalists. Like the U.S. involvement in World War II, political elites sought to maintain the economic progress and to stem any slide back to economic depression by military adventurism. Small and large conflicts in the third world provided the U.S. with necessary pretexts to maintain militarization despite the absence of any true existential threat.15
America’s withdrawal from Vietnam resulted in no real reduction in imperial adventures abroad. Elites certainly sought to avoid public dissent by reducing American casualties in foreign conflicts. Public resentment of Vietnam policy simply reoriented military and political elites into the use of economic pressure via the IMF or World Bank to secure desired economic reforms in third world nations. When necessary to elite goals, the U.S. would also covertly train, fund, and sponsor local military units like the Contras, the muhajadeen, or Israeli and South African mercenaries: others willing to fight and die with American aid. Often these destabilizing forces operated with agendas of their own, but U.S. military planners effectively co-opted their efforts in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Adventures abroad under CIA sponsorship flourished under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.16
These presidents also often sought highly public displays of American “credibility” and strength by besting much weaker opponents. In Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Haiti, these presidents utilized American military strength in order to display American power and to ensure imperial agendas. In many cases, operations with no chance of American casualties entailed massive aerial bombing and devastation in Iraq, Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia. It appears that only the events on September 11th altered American willingness to support missions that would entail large numbers of American casualties, and then only hesitantly willing with expectations that the conflicts were just and would be waged judiciously. The public appears lately to have determined that those two simple preconditions on the use of American lives are not being properly attended, and the public is rejecting a war with casualties. Speculatively, one questions whether or not air attacks like those undertaken by Clinton might not have elicited smaller protest by American citizens. Air attacks, like those in Dresden or Tokyo during World War II or on the eve of the second war in Iraq can clearly devastate densely populated areas without recourse to nuclear weapons, yet the current administration appears to need to demonstrate American military might in traditional ways: with soldiers in occupation.
Following September 11th, political and military observers surprisingly embraced the language of empire, attempting to turn a pejorative description of nations crazed with an insatiable appetite into something somehow noble.17 Empires disperse technology and cultural genius runs the argument. Rome, Britain: they taught uncivilized and backward colonial people how to follow Christ, hygienic standards, and Western political structures. Yes, some violence and brutality and a large dose of authoritarianism may have resulted from these empires, but the U.S. can be different. And even if its not, won’t the benefits justify the means?18 A disconcertingly large number of writers who embraced or justified occupation, torture, ‘westernization’, spreading democracy, and other imperial agendas thankfully appear to have been as short lived as America’s enthusiasm for war in Mesopotamia. Cooler heads appear to prevail as discussion now centers on diplomacy, respect of sovereignty, and disengagement from Iraq.19 With an imperial trajectory as long as that of the U.S., can anyone expect more than a brief reprieve from increasingly savage demonstrations of American exceptionalism?