Empire of Denial: American Empire, Past Present and Future.

dscn0433Iwo Jima Monument, October 2006

“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.

8 responses to “Empire of Denial: American Empire, Past Present and Future.

  1. Hello, I have a Theory about US-Aust. relations that there were a couple of military displays of power in peacetime (like Perry’s 1854) that changed the perceptions of the USA and “the unreliable Yankees” and turned it much the same way the Emancipation in 1863 did of British middle class opinion and helped Rapprochement. I think a couple of key events like the US Fleet visit of 1909 to Australia and New Zealand left an indelible mark on Australians.
    However I believe the much larger US Battle Fleet visit of 1925 to the Australian East coast was unparalleled and merits further research. Has anyone to your knowledge followed this line?
    I see no parallel to it because the event was so massive, such a daring projection of US Military Power so far from their home. Some will suggest that Theadore’s fleet of 1909 was the trigger but the reality is that though this event was well publicized the White Fleet itself was third rate and never in contention to threaten Brittania’s position. Unlike the much larger 1925 fleet.
    Where in our history did any power let alone the equal #1 ranking naval power of the world, send 70% (43 ships 450,000 tons in total) of its newest and most powerful warships 17000 miles return trip from home ……on a goodwill visit?
    Only America!
    There seems to be next to nothing in the way of research to support the importance of this event and yet my grandfather told me that it changed the way Australians saw America. In his words, “they weren’t just Yanks anymore”. When Australians saw those ten new US battleships riding in Sydney Harbour, three of them argueable the most powerful in the world, it was just like the visit of the USS Enterprise in 1961 – only ten times more powerful. We realised that no matter what happened with Britain we now had an Ally that not only had as powerful a fleet as Britain’s but one that was prepared to send it (the whole fleet) across the world to our harbour – and we were saved.
    This is the sort of stuff the Romans did in Sicily to Carthage!
    and America such a “new” power:
    Was there ever in 20th C History this large a projection of power in peacetime?

    The year before 1924, the British sent but 2 similar sized Capital ships to visit Aust. The Hood & Renown.

    I am a former Head Teacher of History in the State System and thinking of writing. Have a special interest in US/Australian Naval History. Studied at UNE under Klaus Loewald

  2. Mark Luccarelli

    To quote you, Ian: “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.”

    Of course it is a prerequisite. So, yes, I agree with your criticism of Nye and your critique of American Exceptionalism. You might have mentioned William Appleman Williams’s great book, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy” least your readers think that all Americans have been asleep. Yes, there have been many “accomplices” with American power, but why call not simply call them “allies”? Rome had its allies as well. My question to you: is this the age of the American Empire or of empire in general?

    • Thanks for your valuable and stimulating views on all of this. I do think this is still the age of American empire, since empires tend to go down slowly and unevenly. But of course the point is that there are always other empires of varying degrees of importance. The US has never had its way without the complications that alliances with and opposition from other empires has entailed.

      I think the American empire overlaps with but does not equal the forces of globalization that might be called a new kind of “empire’. I wrote about this in the last chapter of my book Transnational Nation. Things like WTO are supranational forces set in motion with rules greatly influenced by an American free trade view of the world, but these rules can be used by others. Still, the economic power of the US market has been, at least until recently, an unequal influence on that system. Trade muscle can outweigh trade principles, as can be shown in the case of US beef and other import quotas from small countries like Australia.

      Empire understood as informal control over other peoples and places is not dead; we seem to be entering a new era in which the energy resources of the world are carved up anew between different powers. The informal power of China is increasingly important as a kind of ‘empire of resources’ being gobbled up – Australia is becoming part of the Chinese empire in this sense as its coal and iron ore are now our basic commodity exports, and we survived the GFC intact due to this connection, in part.

      I should have mentioned William Appleman Williams; he is part of what I meant when I wrote “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.” William’s work was important in making empire central to American identity, and he had and continues to have an influence posthumously through his students. He does not, however, give attention to the forces outside the United States that contributed to the framing of American imperialism. I have treated William Appleman Williams briefly elsewhere- see for example “Empire in American History,” in Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano, eds., Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), pp. 541-56. By the way this is a great book that you should read—it draws much needed attention to the formal empire of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, etc, and begins the process of rethinking the connections between those colonies (for that is what they really were) and domestic American politics. My new book, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2010) is an elaborate commentary on the feedback processes of encounters in the colonial world and their effects on the conceptualization of American empire in the late nineteenth century.

      There have certainly been many critics of empire in the United States. Reforming the World devotes a chapter to those critical of the American informal moral empire developing in the late 19th century. I am also involved in the planning of a future conference at Oxford in April 2011 which will deal with the United States and anti-imperialism as a tradition.

      I don’t think this answers your question fully. But as Williams knew, the U.S. was good at informal empire, and not so good at formal.

      The paragraph about foreign complicity in American empire is not a new idea, as Geir Lundestad had articulated a celebrated version of it as empire by invitation. I was simply reminding Australian audiences of their peculiar relationship with the United States, one that may not be duplicated everywhere. However, I do think that in the case of Britain under Tony Blair, “accomplices” is the correct term. He was a partner in crime. Without the intellectual and moral cover that Blair provided, the American invasion of Iraq would have been far more difficult even than it was (and is). But it was not an empire by invitation in that case; Bush was determined to go in, whatever it took; Blair aided him in an unconscionable way as an ally and an accomplice, as, indeed, Australia was.

  3. Do you think that “empire by invitation” is a compelling argument?

    • Geir Lundestad’s argument — “Empire by Invitation” is a good one. Allies definitively try to “use” the American empire for their own purposes. The recent Wiki leaks, for example, show Saudi Arabia egging the United States on towards military action against Iran. Asking whether this is a “compelling argument” leads me to suggest that one must not reify the American empire, and freeze it in time. Empire may be invited at some points, and not at others. Do not try to reduce the American empire to an essence in which the totality of empire is contained in a single expression or contradiction. Empire should be seen as a changing social formation. It should be historicised.

  4. The “Civil War” or War Between the States was also a war for American Empire, not just the Mexican War or the Spanish-American War. The War Between the States was fought to subjugate the South to Northern interests, the interests that goaded Lincoln into starting a war that would cost over 600,000 men, un-numbered civilians in the South, and the economic life and worth of the South.

    • Was Lincoln an empire builder? Was he an imperialist? Our correspondent, Christopher, thinks so. And one can easily find, on the net, Lincoln haters who argue that the aggrandisement of the American state has origins in the national consolidation of the Union in the Civil War. Certainly it is true that if the South had been allowed to secede and establish its own separate nation, then the ability of the remaining United States to project power regionally and globally would have been much more limited. Imagine trying to fight the Spanish-American War, that ended with the United States in possession of Cuba (as a protectorate till 1902 and a de facto protectorate until at least 1934), Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines with supply lines that had to skirt a possibly hostile, pro-slavery south holding New Orleans, Florida and Norfolk, Virginia. Imagine later maintaining the whole Caribbean as an American lake in the years 1898-1934.

      Lacking a secure water passage for border state and Midwestern farmers to international markets via the Mississippi might also have hurt economic development. The rich resources of states such as Texas, which by the first decade of the 20th century included oil, would have belonged to another people. The growth of the American state in the 20th century would also have been difficult without the latent powers of the 14th amendment, which could not have been passed without the defeat of the Confederacy and the subsequent Reconstruction struggle.

      So it’s an interesting hypothetical question. But there’s another side to this. As Lincoln understood, the secession of the states would not stop squabbles over such thorny questions as escaped slaves, and might have led to an eventual war anyway between the two separate nations. The South would have been free to pursue its own imperialist designs on Cuba and Santo Domingo, etc. It could be equally said that the rights of black people, and non-white people more generally, in the remaining United States, would have taken even longer to be protected, since the 14th amendment applied also to Northern and border states, which did not practice racial equality in 1865.

      Christopher is correct that the Mexican War was an expansionist war. Some people do not want to call it imperialist because the country taken was thinly settled, but the rights of the indigenous people there and the quite substantial numbers of existing Hispanic settlers were trampled on in the process (and statehood was denied to Arizona and New Mexico for nearly seven decades!).

      The occupation of the South after the Civil War was by a military force and military governments, though provoked by the resistance of southerners to the terms of reintegration in the Union. In some ways, this could be seen as a rehearsal for 1898. See D. Meinig, Transcontinental America, 1850-1915 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995) But consolidation of national power in the decades after the Civil War was both contested and incomplete. The latent power of the 14th amendment to transform the relations between states and the federal government did not take full effect for a century.

      Lincoln also did as much as he could possibly have done (many historians think too much) to appease the South and maintain the federal union, as it existed before 1861. See Potter, The Impending Crisis of the South (1976) and Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1941), new ed. 1995). So I don’t think it makes sense to call Lincoln an imperialist or the tool of imperialists. History doesn’t always turn out exactly the way you intend, in fact it never does.

  5. I can’t think of another American president who might have held the nation together during such a divisive Civil War. The great tragedy was that Lincoln’s murder by a man consumed with hatred prevented the same nation from experiencing the benefits of his leadership during Reconstruction thus setting the stage for the enormous tragedy of Segregation, which in many ways was worse than slavery itself because Blacks lacked the intrinsic (market) value that protected them as commodities. As a Northerner who spent six weeks of ROTC training with Southern college and university students in 1952 during the korean War, I was shocked at how personally many expressed their hated of “yankees” they didn’t know personally. I think the destructive power of residual bitterness from lost wars- particularly if augmented by a hate-monger like a Hitler or Milosovich, has been greatly underestimated.

    I also think he assassination of McKinley played an important role in US history by empowering the impetuous Teddy Roosevelt to dabble in China’s drug problem as perceived by do-gooders like Bishop Trent . The result was the Harrison Act of 1914, which ultimately became the basis for our wrong-headed and disastrous “war” on drugs which- rather than deterring drug use- has simply industrialized “drug crime” on a global basis.

    Most humans are better at crime than altruism Mexico’s current marijuana problem also demonstrates the power of Denial.

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