When I sat down to write this paper I actually believed momentarily that I could demonstrate its thesis in a mere 20 pages. As I sat writing furiously it quickly grew beyond the bounds that could be encompassed by a brief reading at the haw
When I sat down to write this paper I actually believed momentarily that I could demonstrate its thesis in a mere 20 pages. As I sat writing furiously it quickly grew beyond the bounds that could be encompassed by a brief reading at the HAW conference. Thus it is now a much longer work in progress that I hope to turn into a reasonably sized book in the near future. I welcome criticism of what is here so far, as well as helpful suggestions.
War and Empire Are and Always Have Been the American Way of Life
Paul L. Atwood, +
University of Massachusetts-Boston
Paul L. Atwood, University of Massachusetts Boston Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth…could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio…
…If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher
Abraham Lincoln, 1838
When President Bush announced the war on terror in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, a majority of American citizens, according to opinion polls, strongly supported the president’s invasion of Iraq based on their faith in the president’s mendacious assertions that Saddam Hussein’s regime was complicit in the atrocities, and was also planning more, thus leaving the nation no alternative. Despite all claims that Bush is departing radically from American tradition, there is nothing new about this. Presidents have deceived the American people time and again about justifications for war. Speaking of Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, the historian Thomas A. Bailey said that FDR was “like the doctor who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good”1 It has long been a central tenet of the American national ideology that warfare is an aberration from the normal pursuits of our democratic society. Accordingly, only the perfidy of evildoers compels us to take up the sword.
Though historians have known for a half-century that significant information indicating Japan’s plans to go to war with the U.S. was pouring into Washington throughout the fateful year 1941 as a result of U.S. possession of the code-breaking development “Magic,” as well as radio tracking stations around the Pacific rim, and American spies in Tokyo, the Japanese “sneak” attack on Pearl Harbor that initiated U.S. entry into World War II is still the quintessential paradigm employed to illustrate and justify such doctrine. Though lesser known, the popular expositions of the Mexican and the Spanish-American Wars, and World War I, and many other examples, also suit the creed. Leaders have consistently employed duplicity to lead the nation into war in order to carry out agendas radically different from the rhetorical ones employed to justify the wars.
As serious scholars know well, the real history of the nation is far removed from what James Loewen would call the “disneyfied” notions of American exceptionalism. An honest appraisal of the nation’s past obliges us to conclude that warfare and empire are and have always been the American way. The facts of history clearly contradict the national ideology. Are the ideals we instill in the nation’s public schools only fairy tales for children; or is the vaunted commitment to proclaimed American values something that can be salvaged?
The conquest and colonization of North America by the British, and French and Spanish, was the result of bitter competition between the Atlantic maritime nations for control of the newly discovered lands in the western hemisphere, as well as in Asia and Africa. Indeed, the origins of the 20th century’s global wars can be found in those conflicts five centuries ago. The stable global system that appeared to have taken shape by 1900 was the direct result of armed strife between European rivals over the previous centuries, who by the turn of the 20th century had wrested dominion over most of the arable land surface and peoples of the planet, with Britain the dominant player upon whose empire the “sun never set.” Having just reached a plateau of homeostasis in the late 19th century, this world system’s balance was severely upset by the growing power of arrivistes hungry for their “place in the sun,” Germany, Japan and the United States.
While the conquest of North America was the outgrowth of Europe’s economic and military expansion, once the nascent United States had thrown off British rule, the nation began to compete directly with the former “mother country” for hegemony in the western hemisphere, and then throughout the 20th century in the world at large. The Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823 to assert American predominance in the western hemisphere, has been progressively amplified ever since by succeeding administrations to encompass the entire planet. American military forces are deployed in over 140 nations, more than two-thirds of the states comprising the United Nations, on a scale that dwarfs anything ever seen in history. American arms patrol all the oceans and skies, including outer space, in what the Pentagon calls its intent to achieve “full-spectrum dominance” on a planetary scale. The only thing really new about all of this is the scale but even that was fully predictable after World War II.
Neo-Conservatives aver that their motives are altruistic and that they are performing a vital service for the world community by forcibly spreading "democracy" because no other nation is capable of defeating rogue states and dictatorships. Yet the most cursory examination of the self-serving economic boons being reaped by the the well-connected patrons of the Bush Administration give the lie to their claims of global benefaction. Numerous liberals also assert that the United States is not embarked upon an imperial mission, comparing the American present to the Greek, Roman and British past, and highlighting the obvious differences. Yet the American experiment was calculated to settle land already known to be inhabited by others, under circumstances that required the bloody conquest of those peoples and the annexation of their land. Once embarked upon nationhood the United States immediately began to wrest territory from the Spanish, French, British and other native peoples, and within little more than half a century conquered and took from Mexico approximately one-quarter of our present continental territory, an expansion unprecedented in history, and which dwarfed imperial Rome in scale. Private individuals known as filibusters, encouraged by politicians at home, even dreamt of annexing all of Mexico, and attempted to annex Nicaragua and Santo Domingo but were halted when the logistics of ruling over an immense non-white majority were realized.
So war and empire were the realities of the first two centuries of the American nation. At the dawn of the 20th century the U.S. emerged onto the world stage to compete with the great powers of Europe and Asia, employing methods that did not involve outright annexation, but which were calculated to assert dominance over the resources, labor, and markets of as much of the planet as could be managed for the benefit of the United States. That process, the process of neo-empire, continues now on a planetary scale.
But what has impelled these wars, and the establishment of this new form of empire? From the outset, the British colonists who forcibly took control of North America did so with the goal of enriching themselves as they could not hope to do in Europe. Profit was the primary motive, even among those who came as indentured servants, since a continent seemed ripe for their taking once such debts were paid. By the time of the American Revolution the colonies had developed to the point where they could challenge Britain itself for mastery, and retain the riches of the continent for themselves. Though both Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians had different plans for the expansion of the new nation, expansionism was the goal of both. A fusion of both approaches characterized the early Republic, which expanded across the continent ruthlessly, dislodging all who stood in the way, natives, Spanish, French, British, Mexicans. As we know, it was Hamilton's vision of an industrial-financial capitalism that prevailed. By the turn of the 20th Century the U.S. had arrived as an international great power and articulated its central foreign policy goal: the Open Door. In pursuit of markets, resources and access to cheap labor, the U.S. has used every method and stratagem, including outright military intervention, covert intervention, assassination, toppling governments, torture, propping up friendly dictatorships, all to achieve the overarching goal of opening markets for American goods and services on American terms, and gaining access to vital resources to maintain American production and profit.