“American Empire, Past Present and Future: The Uses of History”.
This address was delivered as part of the “So What?” public lecture series, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, 8 October 2008.
This is an exceedingly rash title; there is an old Soviet quip regarding Marxist historians; one version goes something like this: “how can historians predict the future when it’s so hard for them to predict the past?” Historians rightly steer sway from prediction (though I am not convinced our achievements in this regard are any worse than stock market analysts, economists, political pollsters, or football tipsters). But this series of lectures is entitled So What? It is deliberately set in the realm of contemporary significance; it refers to the application of our knowledge. What does the community, the government, care about what we do? Hence I will have a few words to say about the present and the future—but based on my knowledge of the two hundred plus years of the history of the American republic.
It is hard to answer the question “so what”, since history is a subject that is pursued ostensibly to understand the past, not how the present can make use of it; one cannot eat the knowledge of the past or wear it; it will not help replace your faulty heart valve, or cause carbon to be mysteriously sequestered. Those of us that love history know that in large part our subject derives its appeal from the fact that the past is different, in the words of the L.P. Hartley novel. Indeed, one of the uses of history, one of the ways of responding to the So What question is to show the false analogies that circulate in the media and among politicians; yes, we are bound to repeat our mistakes, — at least until we are liberated from the past. But to achieve this, we must understand the past, and have a better educated public than is usually shown in political debate. Misuses of the past are legion. One of these falsifications is the idea that the United States hasn’t had an empire, or that the US is fundamentally anti-colonial in its temper as a nation.
At the height of the current Iraq War, a well-known American official stated on television that Americans don’t do empire; like a waiter might say, no, we don’t do meat, because this is a vegetarian restaurant. I refer of course to that well known historian and philosopher Donald Rumsfeld. Though I swear I heard those exact words, they turned up in an official transcript in the following modified form: “We don’t seek empire.” “We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”
Whatever the exact wording, this is unmistakably an historical interpretation–of the type we see every day in political debate because these are irreducibly historical. And this one is a denial of empire. In this case, the problem of American exceptionalism stalks the comment as it does so much of American historiography. I have spent a good deal of my career in one way or another commenting on American exceptionalism, showing its logical and empirical deficiencies; but the existence of exceptionalism as a theme in American historiography and a motivating idea in public life is undeniable. For a lay audience the term is best understood by quoting any number of State of the Union or Independence Day addresses.
For instance, on Independence Day, 2004, George W. Bush proclaimed that ‘this Nation under God is still free, independent, and the best hope of mankind’. Bush also used American exceptionalism to justify American foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan because ‘America is a nation with a mission … we understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom.’ One could easily cite ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or Bill Clinton to show that this is not just a Republican party take on the past, though used for other purposes.
Under these doctrines, Europe has empires; the United States has an anti-colonial tradition stemming from the American Revolution. A prominent interpretation, slightly better informed than Rumsfeld’s, has been to concede that– yes: the acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 did occur, but as an aberration. The United States hastily acquired an island empire as a footnote to the European imperial expansion of the late nineteenth century, then worked earnestly to limit that empire. It quickly signalled its true anti-colonial intentions rooted in its own revolution from Britain, and its 19th century embrace of democracy.
Ignorance of the United States’ deeply entrenched imperial experiences from Rumsfeld and others indicates dishonesty, ignorance, or faulty reasoning, or some combination of all three.
The error starts with a legalistic definition of empire
That is, empire is defined as formal, political occupation of territory and control of peoples who are subjects, not potential or actual citizens. European empires are said to have had such arrangements routinely, and the United States has not. This in itself is erroneous as fact. It fully describes neither many European empires, nor the American case.
An approach that respects the variability and complexities of imperial forms in human history and change over time is better; but in addition, common sense cannot be discounted: if it walks like an empire, if it quacks like an empire, then it probably is, no matter what professions to the contrary. Historians are interested in the real world, and the record of American achievement is impossible to deny.
The United States is manifestly an empire because it has exerted power over other people; it has occupied other countries (repeatedly), changed their political regimes and fought wars that have given it the control of the territory of others, especially in 1848 and 1898. It has sought to influence other peoples indirectly as well. There can, of course, be arguments over what kind of an empire it is, or was. But we should really be beyond debates over whether it is, or is not. Unfortunately that is not the case.
That is why work on the topic is essential. It would be too tedious to go through all of the interventions. Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, are some of the countries that have been invaded, occupied, and indeed ruled, for varying periods; direct intervention for those places was particularly heavy from 1898 to 1934. But it was hardly unknown either before that or since.
The US Marine’s anthem includes the stirring phrase: “the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli” – the very words shows the sweeping extent of military ambition– it is not just the hapless Caribbean basin; the anthem recalled the triumphs of the wars of the Barbary coast in the 1800-1815 period (Tripoli), and the Mexican War (1848) — the Halls of Montezuma.
One can play superficial parlour games that make the past seem like the present, and show the US always to have been imperial in the same way.
I could tell you this: a president invades a country to retaliate against raids upon American territory– 2003? no, 1916- Gen. John J. Pershing’s campaign in northern Mexico against Pancho Villa.
lands troops to preserve US oil interests and advocates regime change– 2003 or 1991? no, 1914- Vera Cruz
invades a country to stop a brutal regime from killing hundreds of thousands of people. 2003? no – 1898 – the Spanish in Cuba
Fights protracted guerrilla war for years after proclaiming that war was “over” and mission accomplished, 2003? well yes, but also the war against the Philippine insurgents, 1899-1902 and in the southern Philippines until 1909 or, arguably, longer.
But these facile parallels aren’t enough. American empire has not always been the same or had the same political purchase–that is why it is so difficult to capture it as an essence- that is, to produce a kernel of essential truth from which everything else is an expression. Empire can only be understood and explained historically as a changing system. It has been a moving target and even historians have found it difficult to keep up with that.
Historians have divided American empire into 1) the continental to 1890s, including the wars against the Indians; 2) the formal or island empire acquired from 1898, Philippines, PR, Guam, Samoa, Hawaii initially, Cuba for a time, Guantánamo Bay forever; 3) the informal empire demanding foreign lands be open to American goods (the Open Door approach), and the economic coercion of dollar diplomacy that followed; 4) overlapping with this, the empire of mass consumption backed by discriminatory trade policies exported abroad since the 1920s that we call Fordism, as told so well in Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire; 5) the “empire by invitation” of the Marshall plan, the defence of free Europe in the Cold War etc.; 6) the current full-spectrum dominance of the post Cold war period.
My own work on empire has concentrated on the neglected role of missionaries and moral reform organizations such as the YMCA, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and others. My work deals with the way the United States sought to achieve moral hegemony from the late 19th century by using networks of power that Anglo-American missionary and moral reform communities had established, and how reformers that shaped those networks both utilised and criticised American power to influence a new kind of moral imperialism. The boundaries between private and public were very blurred in this system; and so too the boundaries between formal imperial take-overs and the exertion of influence. I have used the themes and methodologies of a transnational approach to history to identify, chart and explain the movement of people, institutions, and ideas across national boundaries, to show how other empires affected American colonialism, and how American colonialism affected moral reform policies for the mainland US. This work centers on the role of evangelical Christian reformers within the structures of Euro-American imperialism from the first flowering of transnational non-governmental American reform organizations in the 1880s, an era of proto-globalisation, to the coming of the League of Nations in the 1920s; on the interplay between imperialism and the struggling concept of “internationalism” that goes beyond nation; and how Christian evangelical involvement in these movements both obscured and shaped the rise of American power in this crucial era.
Other empires have claimed to have God on their side; in the American case there occurs an articulation and institutionalisation of such ideas as a current running deep into civil society; this process of institutionally integrating a religious mission with American expansionism does not however really go back to the founding of the republic; it is not inherently American, but a product of the encounter of the United States with the globalising world of European empires from the 1880s to 1917.
Many of you would possibly know of a present day equivalent of my topic that I must discuss, soft power; a notion of the American political scientist Joseph Nye, devised in 1990– hard power v. soft power. My own work is critical of this distinction. True, American policymakers were happy to use soft power instruments, contracting out tasks to the private voluntary sector, provided those instruments, notably missionaries, knew their place. US policy makers from Theodore Roosevelt and naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, to Elihu Root and Woodrow Wilson saw the US as a moral and Christian state, but only ways that incorporated soft into hard power. All of these men and their underlings made surprising use of Christian NGOs in support of their policies.
Nye has been forced by the critics to refine his notion of soft power. The boundaries between the two are indeed hard to define. e.g., where does economics stands. Are precipitate tariff changes in the late 19th century that destabilised Cuba, hard power, soft or neither? Is the American consumer oriented market economy something merely to be emulated, or does it inevitably impose itself on a wider world? The whole question of how the United States as a vast market and an industrial powerhouse structured the relations that the nation developed with the wider world deserves more attention in the study of global history.
Even with modification to specify when economics is hard power, and when it is soft, Nye’s concept does not work well. What is left out in Nye’s formulation is change over time; the issue is not whether hard power is used rather than soft power, but whether the use of hard power is a precondition or unspoken assumption for the use of soft power. When American empire is seen as an historical process, and not a thing, the interplay of soft and hard power is more readily apparent. George W. Bush has been urged to use more the soft power of diplomacy and alliance building since 2004, but the rubble left in Iraq by hard power is an impossible to ignore prelude for any so called soft power exertion. Impossible except among Americans. The recipients of hard power do not forget it. So the question becomes one of the way empire is remembered.
Documenting American empire has of course been done, on and off, by US historians for a century. The study of US imperialism is not new, even though the aspects I have just touched on have been neglected and subject to conceptual confusion. This process itself raises the question, So What? Books about American empire are commonplace today. Yet, Patricia Limerick and others have stated, even though American scholars have documented the existence of an American empire in clear, easily accessible and prize-winning work, they have failed to make an impact on the Donald Rumsfelds of this world, the Sarah Palins and million of others. Even where, as with the liberal Michael Ignatieff and conservatives Niall Ferguson and Max Boot, empire is seen as a good thing, sometimes to be embraced, in some cases as a means to humanitarian ends, Americans remain uncomfortable with the notion.
“So what” becomes tied here to the question of historical amnesia – a question perhaps more interesting and important than the question of empire itself. How come Americans have one of the most sophisticated historiographies and yet considerable ignorance of this central aspect of their own past. As the iconography of the nation’s capital shows, the memory of American empire is the memory of democratised military heroism; empire itself, including the role of those who resisted, is always marginalised. Across the country you will see few US memorials to the Philippine-American war; those that exist, have treated the American arrival as liberation, and distorted the course of events profoundly.
Part of the problem lies in textbooks that continue to ply the standard line I mentioned at the beginning, even though American historians have been more assiduous in trying to change curricula than our colleagues here have been; this is why I have spent so much of my scholarly career in studying the production of historical knowledge.
In addition, resistance to the truths of history defies any empirical revision that challenges identities deeply rooted in educational and family experience. Other nations, of course experience the same thing. As part of this forgetting, a material stake in empire encourages denial. Many Americans have benefited, in cheaper prices for primary products, for example coffee since the 1880s and oil, and in vast military induced industrial and technological development since 1950; a large number have an institutional loyalty to what they have fought for; witness the American legion; a staggering one in 10 residents in the state of Virginia is a veteran, taking veteran benefits; also economically companies far removed from warfare are beneficiaries. The deepness of these roots is shown by the following example from the critic Chalmers Johnson. “When the Defense Department ordered cruise missiles and depleted-uranium armor-piercing tank shells for the invasion of Iraq, it also needed 273,000 bottles of Native Tan sunblock.” These came from Sun Fun Products of Daytona Beach, Florida. Empire runs deep.
One theme in the process of memory’s erasure is the way American empire is blurred by the relationships of the market economy: among other things this involves American empire as an ecological system, or perhaps I should say un-ecological; certainly the ecological aspect is shared with other European and non-European empires as far back as Rome, but today taken further by its global dimension, its links to mass consumption, and its detachment from formal colonialism; Americans defined their national identity as involving the pursuit of liberty and freedom. In the 20th century, that has been increasingly interpreted as the freedom to consume. American freedom since the 1920s has been based upon the substitution of cheap resources for labour through prodigious use of energy—we speak of abundance as a shaping theme in American historiography, based on a rich frontier–but much of that abundance has been derived from other people–indeed, if Native Americans, Mexican Americans and the peoples of the Caribbean are included as foreigners—as they should be–this process goes back further. Richard Tucker has dealt with this theme in his book, Insatiable Appetite, the United States and the Degradation of the Tropical World.
This un-ecological empire has its roots in the 19th century transformation of the continental US; but also in the tentacles of expansion of American railroads reaching into Mexico from 1890 – for instance, the copper mines of the Phelps Dodge corporation that refashioned the landscapes of the Northern Mexico borderlands in the 1890s to 1910s; the links between the Texas Oil Co. and the White House in the Vera Cruz intervention in 1914; and so on; this ecological empire of resources is linked to the political and diplomatic empire in ways that have not been adequately understood either by environmental historians or diplomatic ones. This is a topic that will be of great importance in the future.
My view of the American empire’s amnesia here runs close to that of the remarkable Mark Boulos art installation, a dual film, All that is Solid Melts into Air, shown at the recent Sydney Biennale, on the commodification of oil from the Nigerian Delta– in a relationship structuring both human misery and resistance. European and American empire is expressed in the film as oil prices and stock market values, and the human and ecological impacts are erased in these abstractions; yet, on the margins, disadvantaged peoples fight back, and influence the centres of empire.
The unrelenting reproduction of social turbulence that Boulos portrays takes me to my final theme, the present and the future. Empire is about the future in a special way; it concerns the linkages of past, present and future. That dimension of time is a theme that has greatly interested J. M. Coetzee and the cultural critic Amy Kaplan. Building on the concept behind Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Kaplan argues perceptively that an empire must seek and exterminate its enemies on the periphery. In some sense the empire needs such an enemy to survive; it must think through the present to the future, to imagine the conditions of its own termination and take preemptive action; the empire’s raison d’etre becomes the mere struggle for survival, the imperial quest a never-ending attempt to forestall its end.
Of course this vision is gloomy; under it, Americans are trapped into empire and its extension. Kaplan identifies a core contradiction, in which everything else is expressive of that core. While I am attracted to this formulation it is not an historical view; history is more liberating, because it tells that empire has not been the only current of international engagement for the United States and because the political culture that I trace in my work was a product of specific conditions of an encounter with the world in the late 19th century, submerged for a time in the 1930s and then deeply reinforced in the post–World War II period; and because the exact forms of empire have changed repeatedly over time, and will continue to do so. There is another America waiting to be reclaimed, the world of stronger intellectual engagement, of 19th century migration and remigration, of the humanitarian service of missionaries and the Red Cross to Armenians in the genocide of 1895-96, of ideals of democracy still standing though often violated. The problem is detaching these things from the trajectory of power.
For the immediate future, the effects of 9/11 have been to consolidate trends seen in the exertion of American power and its distinctive technological warfare in the 1990s; and the result since 2001 have given vast opportunities, not only in Iraq. The United States now has even more bases around the world–in fact over 700; it is well entrenched in central Asia in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. And, the US will not be leaving Iraq, no matter who wins in November. Far too much attention is given to the differences between Democrats and the Republicans, and too little to how public debate on Iraq became centred after 2004 on how best to project American power.
Certainly in an economic sense, American power is declining, slowly and unevenly; but Rome was neither built in a day nor destroyed in one. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country; and is systemically connected to the global economy; indeed far more since the 1970s than in the period 1920-1970. It is less likely than ever that the rest of the world can avoid being affected. The United States still uses 23 percent of the world’s energy, produces 25-30 percent of the world’s GDP, and is the third largest country by both geographical size and population. Its military spending is larger than the next twenty countries combined. American military are currently present in 130 countries. The empire is not going to go away, and deeper knowledge of its traditions, its history and its culture are vital subjects for the education, not only of Americans, but of non-Americans, including in this country. For that is another possible answer to the So what question. Without allies, the American empire could not survive. All empires require collaborators and proxies. We, in Australia are implicated. We might like to snigger at American power, but we are accomplices, not victims. All empires require both.