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The American “Empire” Reconsidered (notevenpast.org)
77 points by samclemens 66 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments



This is really good, as in there isn't anything really to disagree with good.

I've found Edmund Morris's books about Teddy Roosevelt to be a great insight into this time because he was such an epitome of the Gilded Age generation that wanted empire. 1898 really does seem to be a crucial year, prior to that the US had not gone much past enforcing the monroe doctrine (see Cleveland's disagreements with the Germans over Venezuela). Teddy is front and center during this time when the US conquers Cuba and the Philippines. Within a few years Hawaii is conquered/stolen (this is the colony that never got away), Panama is basically annexed so the US can get the canal.

It was a weird kind of imperialism. The US actually gave Cuba its independence really quickly (02-03?), but it was economically dependent. When Castro came to power like 80% of the Cuban economy was owned by US holders. In the Philippines, horrible things were done to the Filipinos who resisted. This was done under the auspices of Roosevelt and Taft who otherwise were very moral men. See their actions domestically. They just had a very paternalistic view about the US's role of spreading civilization. Mark Twain (who apparently posted this link) was a huge critic of these actions. The US was very aware that it was getting into the empire business and there was lots of debate about it.

There were many holdouts and it took both world wars for the isolationist sentiment in the US to be completely broken. Not surprisingly, maybe, by FDR, who modeled himself after his older cousin in more ways than one. After WW2 the ship had sailed and the US had so much global power (all the old empires save Russia dying), that it no longer really had a choice.

Someone on HN recommended Oliver Stone's Untold History of the Unites States. It's a really good look at the other end of this empire. It's obvious where his biases lie (check out his Putin interviews for some real ass kissing). Sometimes he says cringeworthy stuff like "this particularly American sin of xenophobia" (like really dude, you know this much about history and you're gonna say that), but it's great criticism and something lots of people would do well to watch.

Not to be too pretentious, but we must know our history. So many things that are currently happening have deep roots in the past. Hopefully someone will find these recommendations useful.


> Someone on HN recommended Oliver Stone's Untold History of the Unites States. It's a really good look at the other end of this empire. It's obvious where his biases lie (check out his Putin interviews for some real ass kissing). Sometimes he says cringeworthy stuff like "this particularly American sin of xenophobia" (like really dude, you know this much about history and you're gonna say that), but it's great criticism and something lots of people would do well to watch.

He’s a great filmmaker, but I couldn’t get into this series. It really seemed to me that the goal was to spoon feed me ideas rather than to educate me and cause me to think. I love history and have a pretty dim view of US behavior towards the rest of the world (I have lived in the US all of my life), so it could have been a great match. The tactics felt very manipulative, however.

Documentaries shouldn’t use background music to inform me of who the hero is or who the bad guys are. They should be relatively dry and factual. This series is a fantastic example of how it should not be done.


No work of history is entirely straight. Even if the presentation is dry, if you read two different historians on the same era you're likely to get a wildly different account. Was the War of 1812 a rousing success that united Americans more than they had been and demonstrated the ability of a republic to wage war without compromising its principles, or a catastrophic, foolish decision? I've seen both takes.


I can only take it in doses, but it's invaluable from the perspective of if you wanted to represent the US as poorly as possible based on its own actions, how could you do it?

He's a guy you can't watch with your blinders on, but the raw amount of material there is, and the coverage of events like Iran in 53, Chile in 73 is a good counterpoint to anyone who wants to suggest the US cares particularly about democracy, or has only been a force for good, that kind of rhetoric.

Is there something similar that has less of a slant?


I find Chomsky's critiques of US Imperialism to be fairly dry, lucid and unemotional. However, it is difficult to perform a critique of America's moral standing and not be accused of having a slant, regardless of the sufficiency of your evidence or the strength of your argument.


Great post! It's always instructive to me how the primary purpose and usage of the US military from inception was truly centered around global commerce rather than defending the national territory.

Unburdened by a legacy of monarchy but well-acquainted with mercantilism, the merchant paternalists of the early US instead decided to focus on unfettered (for them) trade even if that meant fetters for others both iron and more structural.

I refer of course to the numerous examples stretching back to the Barbary Pirates, United Fruit etc. Military force was also used internally in the US to protect monied interests against more democratic forces, like the Ludlow Massacre.


The Barabary Pirates wasn't really a paternalist imperial action - the Pirates had a better navy than we did and were enslaving our sailors when they caught our ships, so it's funny that you talk about fetters for others.


I think you're missing my point that we didn't fight the Barbary Pirates because we particularly cared about them enslaving people (even our own) but because they were disrupting our commerce through the Mediterranean.

And the Barbary Pirates and American slave trade could and did coexist. You seem to be quite emotional on that point.


I'm not emotional about the Barbary Pirates. I simply think that pointing out that a country cared more about its merchant interests than another country's citizenry isn't exactly deeply insightful. Also, I don't agree that a country that had freed itself from monarchy less than a generation earlier can be described as 'unburdened by the legacy of monarchy' particularly given the origin of common law in the US.

To be a merchant paternalist, you generally need to be powerful. I thought it was important to point out that the United States was not powerful at that time, and barely managed to protect its merchant's interests some of the time. Your comment about merchant paternalists not caring about leaving others in fetters, both iron and structural, doesn't really apply to that particular conflict.


This was in some sense preordained, given that it was Shay's Rebellion that motivated the creation of a strong federal government and the Whiskey Rebellion was one of the earliest usages of the standing army. But the other obvious purpose was expanding the territory of the United States. Hogeland's Autumn of the Black Snake details how defeating Indians in Ohio was the impetus to create a standing army, an idea that was quite controversial.


> Roosevelt and Taft who otherwise were very moral men

What? Roosevelt was a despicable war monger, an extreme racist and he had little respect for the lives of his own soldiers (the more die the bigger the glory) or anybody else.


What's that based on?

Roosevelt was not a racist, at least not compared to his contemporaries. Booker Washington ate at the executive mansion (a first) with him. He gave African-Americans federal positions they had not previously held and tried to limit some of the lynching going on. He was not always right about this, see his actions in Brownsville, but he was way ahead of others. Wilson, for example, who was an actual racist, but hated war.

He was one of the few people who saw the rising power of the Japanese and respected them. He helped them and the Russians make peace and won a Nobel for that. Never actually went to war as president. He was an unabashed lover of war, but even learned that lesson (too late), when his son died in WW1. It broke him and he ended up dying within a couple years.

He was full of himself, but for someone full of himself, he actually did more for the working class with regulations and anti-trust action then any of the presidents preceding him.

He's guilty of some of what you say, but it's not by any means th full pictures, and ultimately we can only understand people within the context of their time. Roosevelt was way better than most.


TR wasn't the only, or best, progressive of that era, but he was a worthy champion of social and industrial justice.


> There were many holdouts and it took both world wars for the isolationist sentiment in the US to be completely broken.

This is seeing something of a revival right now and I highly doubt that it was ever 'completely broken', it merely got overruled by a substantial majority.


You're right to an extent, but there's some difference to it. Isolationism wasn't something poor xenophobes held, it was something people like Joe Kennedy held firmly to and that's 20 years after WW1 when the US went all out in getting involved in the global order.

Someone like Trump might talk some isolationist talk because it wins votes, but do you think those people who make hundreds of millions projecting American power really want that to stop? Not many people thought Brexit would happen, though, so maybe...


What Trump is doing and what Obama did to some extent is Retrenchment rather than Isolationism. US is hyper-extended and pulling back is pretty natural reaction after two decades of engagement in Middle East and Afghanistan.

That is not Isolationism, my rule of thumb is when US Navy vacates Diego Garcia (naval base in Indian Ocean), I will consider they are becoming Isolationist until then the talk of Isolationism just hot air.


Isolationism is much more than giving up foreign territories, it is as much about that as it is about solely looking after your own interests rather than a more global view. Places where you would see this are treaties, entities like NATO, the United Nations and so on and by that yardstick the US is becoming more isolationist by the day.

Diego Garcia being vacated would be a sign that America is no longer a world power by any measure. It might come to that, but not in the next 30 years or so.


The problem is that in politics you get called Isolationist as soon as you suggest sometime a little out of the 'allowed opinion' stream. Many so called 'isolations' are not against building a bunker around the US and doing nothing.

The United Nations for example can easily be engaged in even if you are against most US foreign policy.

> about solely looking after your own interests rather than a more global view

This 'global view' was basically about building a global order that the US could control. I was just another view about what in Americas best interest by a different group of elites.


> The problem is that in politics you get called Isolationist as soon as you suggest sometime a little out of the 'allowed opinion' stream.

That's not my experience.

> Many so called 'isolations' are not against building a bunker around the US and doing nothing.

That may be so. But many of them are. You can't build yourself up as the policeman of the world and then within the space of 6 months do a full 180 on that policy without getting called out on it.

> The United Nations for example can easily be engaged in even if you are against most US foreign policy.

Yes, but there are more ways to do this and the present day administration seems to have thrown 50 years of built up credit out with the remaining bathwater. Note that it is easy to destroy a reputation, it is very hard to put it back together again.

> This 'global view' was basically about building a global order that the US could control.

Agreed. But now we're headed towards a global order that the US definitely won't be able to control with China and Russia as dominant poles and the United States voting 'present' or even taking sides with Russia. This is going to have some significant consequences none of which will be pleasant.

> I[t] was just another view about what [is] in Americas best interest by a different group of elites.

That may be so. But the price for that changing viewpoint will not be paid by Americans.


> it is as much about that as it is about solely looking after your own interests rather than a more global view

I find it very, very hard to believe that the "global view" was ever more or different from "solely looking after your own interests". You may find nuance simply because there were and are many people involved with their own respective different ideas and goals, but even when something looked altruistic on the surface I'm sure you can always trace it back to someone benefiting financially. For example, giving aid but binding it to conditions leading to money returning to you (plus interest, when it's a loan). Altruistic would be giving up some of your own rights, e.g. on patents or IP, or giving the other party an advantage in trade - it does not even have to be giving "money" (which often just fuels corruption).


I see isolationism as the run up to the next world war, those who make 100's of millions projecting American power will make 100's of billions on the next big war.


I would question why the Mexican war and westward expansion, and Alaska and Hawaii don't count as empire-building. They are states now, but not at the time.


Because empire is what the british or europeans do. We were born out of freeing ourselves from an evil empire. So since birth, empire had negative connotations. To say we are an empire means we are just as evil as the british empire or the french empire or the spanish empire. But we are the beacon of freedom, liberty and democracy. So we can't be an empire...

Every nation lies to itself.


Good article. I would just add that the US took the lead in setting up the post-WWII political and economic order in part because it wanted to avoid a repeat of the chaos of the previous two decades, and that had in fact been characteristic of much of the world for many thousands of years. And a great many other nations joined in this order because they had some similar motives.

It is important to explain this because many on the left believe that the world was a peaceful, just, and prosperous paradise until Western imperialism came along, which is completely false. And lately many on the far right have been falsely claiming that the West was ditto a quite wonderful place until modernity.


why is the word empire in quotes?


America does not officially have colonies or call itself an Empire. It does however have states that are second-class citizens (what is Puerto Rico?), weird extralegal exclaves (Guantanamo), tiny occupied islands (Guam), and lots of other countries which are independent but also to some extent economically and militarily subordinate, in which the US State Department feels entitled to influence policy, from the famous "banana republics" to Europe and the Middle East.


>tiny occupied islands (Guam)

Guam is a territory (second class citizen like Puerto Rico in some ways) . Having lived there for two years (about a decade ago) there is/was a interesting generational dichotomy. The WW2 survivors and their children are generally very happy to be part of the USA as they were liberated from Japanese. The younger generations see: a third of the land off limits for military bases, housing prices being driven by generous military overseas housing allowances, and an influx of young (mostly male) service members affecting competition a dating pool already affected by being the equivalent of Hawaii for Japanese tourist, and don't have as pro USA opinion.

(edit: formatting)


Empire: an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly especially an emperor or empress.

>It does however have states that are second-class citizens

Colony: a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country, typically a distant one, and occupied by settlers from that country.

>lots of other countries which are independent but also to some extent economically and militarily subordinate, in which the US State Department feels entitled to influence policy


Rounding the point off - hence why "Empire" was in quotes and not just written as Empire. It's not a technical empire, but is making a point (using conversational context).


What specifically disqualifies it from being defined as an empire?


It's not really large enough. The no-quotes empires had subject peoples and areas at least comparable in size to their own people.


Where in the dictionary definition of empire does it state this?

Anyways, it still seems to meet your criteria:

>the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant “Little Americas” to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-...


Although tiresome to argue dictionary pedantry, I think the crux of it is that the implication is that the the US doesn't have any defined role in the rule of a lot of the countries (as in, they don't claim ownership, or even influence), but that it's exerted either overtly or covertly by other means.

The point in this context is that the US's web of influence extends outside of the areas in which they have a direct structure of power in place (and isn't consistent within those that it does) - those points, in this sense, imply an "Empire" (quotes, as nebulous), rather than an Empire (the defined thing).


Similar to the concept of Lawfare. When a government can impose their laws or economic leverage on a foreign country thereby occupying them without troops or a military presence.


Very well then. Seems quite analagous to the supposed difference between "enhanced interrogation" and "torture".


Well, yeah - "enhanced interrogation" is the "air-quotes" version of torture.


Having military posts doesn't make that territory part of an Empire if the US doesn't exert much political control over the host country.

I'd probably call Gitmo part of an empire, since the presence is hostile. But the rest of those bases is more or less volunatry. Ok maybe Japan and can't really say no, but the rest of those bases are voluntary.

If America has an empire, it's rather small. Puerto Rico, Guam, American Somoa, Northern Mariana Islands, and US Virgin Islands.


>Having military posts doesn't make that territory part of an Empire if the US doesn't exert much political control over the host country.

The political control was solidified over the past 100+ years for the benefit of US corporations. Countries which worked towards self-determination because they didn't like seeing the natural wealth of their land expropriated were labeled as communist, and had their governments overthrown with covert coups, assasinations, and mercenary armies.

>I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

-Major General Smedley Butler


Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. They try to write a coherent, understandable description of what made the British Empire and the Romans empires while clearly leaving present-day Italy and Britain not-empires.

Current-day Italy can boss San Marino and the Vatican State around, current-day Britain has a scattering of islands around the world. Current-day Italy indubitably has the military force to beat San Marino, Britain did actually win back the Falklands but its victory didn't seem self-evident at the time.

When I squint at the map, the US foreign dominions and military bases look a little on the large side for a plain country, but ridiculously small for an empire. The US military is all over the world and has very impressive weaponry, but was beaten quite thoroughly by the Viet Cong, hasn't beaten the Taliban and and gave up after the first attack by Hizbollah.

"Empire" in quotes looks quite appropriate to me.


Empires traditionally rule over much more sizable peoples and lands, and if that weren't a requirement, then we could probably consider every nation an empire.


An empire would have held on to Iraq after the Gulf War. An empire would have held on to the Philippines after [edit: World War II]. An empire would have held on to Japan after World War II.

The US is not an empire because it doesn't act like one, not really. Yes, it has some overseas possessions. No, it's not the expansionist conquer-the-world Borg that many people mean when they call it an empire.


Your argument presupposes that the empire’s maximal influence would be attained by domination through overt use of force.

In reality — the us military empire doesn’t maintain those conquered possessions as conquered possessions because it can’t — it doesn’t have sufficient military power and attempting to do so would increase the front on which conflicts requiring use of that military power would be required (further diminishing direct conquering capacity).

The us military empire building strategy differs from your suggestions for tactical reasons not as evidence of a policy that does not involve pursuit of empire building.


Fun fact: US citizens overseas still have to file US federal income tax. The only place in the world where they don't have to do this, is Puerto Rico, because of its special status as a US territory.


Not to mention that not all states were created equally. Some states have a pretty crazy history relative to the others.

New Mexico's history is arguably the state with the craziest history. Weird fact: slavery didn't end here after the civil war.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/28/us/indian-slaves-genizaro...

Besides that, it was a territory administered by the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Empire before eventually falling into the hands of the United States who really weren't sure what to do all these new citizens and Native Americans (they wouldn't really get citizenship until 1924) until the strange place was given statehood in 1912.

Hawaii is my close pick for 2nd place given that it was once it's own nation and even had it's own crazy war of unification.


While Guam is of strategic importance, as much as Kadena is, I doubt most Porto Ricans would vote for independence. I just don't see that happening. But who knows, maybe they would. If they did vite for independence I don't think the USG would oppose it.


> It does however have states that are second-class citizens (what is Puerto Rico?)

Not a state. Though, not for lack of voting for it.


Sarcastic finger quotes?


For 'post-colonial globalisation' IMO read offshore global oligarchs with no allegiance to any nation state...and their corporate armies...


Why is empire in quotes? We are most definitely an empire - the largest that'll ever exist on earth. We are the only global superpower.


I'm under the impression that empire is generally a collection of nations being administered collectively, generally under a single ruler called an emperor, rather than just being a term for a powerful nation. The British Empire ruled the UK and numerous colonies and the Holy Roman Empire ruled over a collection of Germanic states. Except for a few exceptions (e.g. Guam and Puerto Rico) the US is all one nation and governmentally not an empire




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