written by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick... We write this book as the curtain slowly draws down on the American Empire. It was 1941 when magazine magnate Henry Luce declared the twentieth century the "American Century". Little could he have imagined how true that would be, writing before the defeat of Germany and Japan, the advent of the atomic bomb, the boom in U.S. postwar production, the rise and institutionalization of the military-industrial-complex, the development of the Internet, the transmogrification of the United States into a national security state, and the country's "victory" in the Cold War.
Luce's vision of untrammelled U.S. hegemony has always been a contested one. Vice President Henry Wallace urged the United States to instead usher in what he called "the Century of the Common Man". Wallace, who realists dismissed as a "dreamer" and a "visionary", laid out a blueprint for a world of science-and technology-based abundance, a world banning colonialism and economic exploitation, a world of peace and shared prosperity. Unfortunately, the world has conformed much more closely to Luce's imperialist vision than Wallace's progressive one. More recently, in 1997, a new generation of proponents of U.S. global supremacy, who would go on to constitute the neoconservative "brain trust" of the disastrous George W. Bush presidency, called for the establishment of a "new American Century". It was a perspective that gained many adherents in the earlier years of the twenty-first century, before the calamitous consequences of the United States' latest wars became widely recognized.
The United States' run as global hegemon - the most powerful, dominant nation the world has ever seen - has been marked by proud achievements and terrible disappointments. It is the latter, the darker side of U.S. history, that we explore it the following pages. We don't try to tell all of U.S. history. That would be an impossible task. We don't focus on many of the things the United States has done right. There are libraries full of books dedicated to that purpose and school curricula that trumpet U.S. achievements. We are more concerned with focusing a spotlight on what the United States has done wrong - the ways we believe the country has betrayed its mission - with the faith that there is still time to correct those errors as we move forward into the twenty-first century. We are profoundly disturbed by the direction of U.S. policy at a time when the United States was recently at war in three Muslim countries and carrying out drone attacks, best viewed as targeted assassinations, in at least six others. Why does our country have military bases in every region of the globe, totalling more than a thousand by some counts? Why does the United States spend as much on its military as the rest of the world combined? Why does it still possess thousands of nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert, even though no nation poses an imminent threat? Why is the gap between rich and poor greater than in any other developed country, and why is the United States the only advanced nation without a universal health care program?
Why do such a tiny number of people - whether the figure is 300, 500 or 2,000 - control more wealth than the world's poorest 3 billion? Why are a tiny minority of wealthy Americans allowed to exert so much control over U.S. domestic politics, foreign policy, and media while the great masses see a diminution of their real power and standard of living? Why have Americans submitted to levels of surveillance, government intrusion, abuse of civil liberties, and loss of privacy that would have appalled the Founding Fathers and earlier generations? Why does the United States have a lower percentage of unionized workers than any other advance industrial society? Why, in our country, are those who are driven by personal greed and narrow self-interest, empowered over those who extol social values like kindness, generosity, compassion, sharing, empathy and community building? And why has it become so hard for the great majority of Americans to imagine a different, we would say better, future than the one defined by current policy initiatives and social values? These are only a few of the questions we will address on these pages. Although we can't hope to answer all of them, we hope to present the historical background that will enable readers to explore these topics more deeply on their own.
Along the way, we will highlight some of the forces and individuals who have endeavoured, sometimes heroically, to put the country back on the right track. We take seriously President John Quincy Adams's July 4, 1821, condemnation of British colonialism and declaration that the United States "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy" lest she "involve herself beyond the power of extrication, and in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force." The United States, Adams warned might "become the dictactress of the world [but] she would be no longer ruler of her own spirit."
Adams presciently saw what would befall the United States if it sacrificed its republican spirit on the alter of empire. Compounding the problem is Americans' persistent denial of their nation's imperial past and the ways it shapes present policy. As historical Alfred McCoy observes, "For empires, the past is just another oversees territory, ripe for reconstruction, even reinvention." Americans refuse to live in history, even though, as novelist J.M. Coetzee understands, empire must always do so. In Waiting for the Barbarians, he wrote, "Empire dooms itself to live in history and to plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one."
Americans believe they are unbounded by history. Historical Christopher Lasch saw this as a reflection of their "narcissism". It is also, for many, a way to avoid grappling with what their nation has become over the past century. It was easier, while U.S. dominance lasted, for citizens to comfort themselves with consoling fables of U.S. benevolence while real historical knowledge steadily declined. Americans' continuing separation from the rest of the multilingual and integrated world only exacerbates the problem. Seclusion has not only bred ignorance; it has bred fear, which we have manifested repeatedly in the exaggerated assessment of enemy threats and recurrent panics about alien intruders, domestic and foreign radicals, and, more recently, menacing Islamic terrorists.
U.S. citizens' ignorance of their country's history was once again driven home when the results of a nationwide test, known as the Nation's Report Card, were unveiled in June 2011. The test of fourth, eighth and twelfth graders revealed that U.S. students are, according to The New York Times, "less proficient in their nation's history than in any other subject." The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency. And even the "proficiency" of that 12 percent was called into question when, shockingly, only 2 percent could identify the social problem that the Brown v Board of Education decision was meant to correct, even though the answer was evident in the wording of the question.
Though the belief that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations...was buried for many in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the jungles of Vietnam, it has reemerged in recent years as a staple of right-wing revisionism.
This gaping historical void has largely been filled with myth. Among those myths is the self-serving idea that, in the words of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella in 1630, America shall be as a divinely ordained "city upon a hill", a beacon for the rest of the world to follow. According to such reasoning, the United States is measurably superior to the rest of the corrupt and venal world. At certain moments, that has been true. There have been times when American values and achievements have led the way to major advances in human history and social progress. But there have been just as many occasions, if not more, when the United States has undermined human progress in pursuing its policies. Though the belief that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations - that others act out of self-interest to achieve power or economic gain while the United States, motivated only by a commitment to freedom and liberty, altruistically sacrifices for making - was buried for many in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the jungles of Vietnam, it has reemerged in recent years as a staple of right-wing historical revisionism.
This myth of American exceptionalism was perhaps best reflected in the post-Versailles comment by President Woodrow Wilson that "at last the world knows America as the savour of the world!" U.S. leaders have expressed that sentiment repeated over the years, although usually with a little more humility.
Such humility is completely missing from declarations by Tea Party xenophobes who have made obeisance to the notion of American exceptionalism the sine qua non of patriotism and take President Barack Obama's more nuanced comments to confirm their suspicion that, even if he was born in the United States, as most now grudgingly admit, he's still not really an American. They take great umbrage to his 2009 comment that "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
"To deny American exceptionalism is to deny in essence the heart and soul of this nation."
That Obama refuses to trumpet the notion that the United States is history's gift to humanity has become an article of faith among Republican leaders who, knowing that 58 percent of Americans believe that "God has granted America a special role in human history," have opportunistically used Obama's less-than-full-throated assent to bludgeon him. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee charged that Obama's "worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had...He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is to deny in essence the heart and soul of this nation."
The importance of developing an uncorrupted view of U.S. history and a cogent criticism of U.S. imperialism has been an article of faith among left-leaning historians and activists dating back to the New Left in the 1960s. Conservatives, on the other hand, have routinely denied that the United States has any imperial pretensions. It is only recently that neoconservatives have broken with this pattern, proudly proclaiming not only that America is an empire but that it is the most powerful and most righteous empire the world has ever seen. To most Americans this is still blasphemy. To the neocons it reflects muscularity - the United States playing the dominating role for which God prepared it. In the euphoria following the October 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan, before the folly of the United States latest imperial ventures came crashing down on the premature celebrants, conservative pundits jumped on the empire bandwagon. William Kristol's Weekly Standard boldly headlined the cover of its October 15th edition, "The Case for American Empire." National Review editor in chief Rich Lowry called for a "kind of low-grade colonialism" to topple dangerous governments beyond Afghanistan. A few months later columnist Charles Krauthammer took note of the fact that "people are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire'. " He thought it timely, given the complete U.S. domination "cultural, economically, technologically and militarily." The New York TimesSunday Magazine cover for January 5, 2003, read: "American Empire: Get Used To It."
Although many neoconservatives see the empire as a recent development, U.S. expansionist impulse shaped settlement, growth and conquest from the establishment of the earliest British colonies, an impulse later embodied in the notion of "manifest destiny" and reflected in the Munroe Doctrine. As Yale historian Paul Kennedy put it, "From the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation." This sometimes genocidal hunger for others' land and resources was always couched in the highest of motives - a commitment to altruistically advancing freedom, progress and civilization - and continues to be so today. As William Appleman Williams, one of the earlier and most insightful students of the American Empire, explained, "The routine lust for lands, markets or security became justifications for noble rhetoric about prosperity, liberty and security." U.S. leaders have accordingly denied, though not always convincingly, the racist assumptions that justified this expansionist impulse.
They have also denied the means by which it was accomplished. But reminders have often come from the most unexpected places. It was Samuel Huntington, progenitor of the reductionist and wrongheaded "clash of civilizations" thesis, who astutely pointed out, "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas, or values, or religion (to which few members of other religions were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do."
Wall Street Journal editor and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot understood better than most that US imperial designs were not of recent vintage. He chided Donald Rumsfeld for his sharp response to an Al-Jezeera reporter who asked him if the United States was "empire building." Boot quipped that Rumsfeld "reacted as if he'd been asked whether he wears women's underwear." "We don't seek empires," Rumsfeld snapped. "We're not imperialistic. We never have been." Boot disagreed, citing the expansion across the continent that began with the Louisiana Purchase; moving abroad with the late-nineteenth-century acquisitions of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii and Alaska; followed by the post-World War II "bout of imperialism" in Germany and Japan; and capped off with the "recent 'nation-building' experiments in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan[, which] are imperialism under another name." But, unlike critics on the left, Boot applauded US expansionary policies. "US imperialism," he argued, "has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century."
Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, a sometimes apologist for the British Empire, understood that Americans' pretension to superiority was, to say the least, self-serving. Ferguson wryly observed, "To those who would still insist on American 'exceptionalism', the historian of empires can only retort: as exceptional as all other sixty-nine empires."
Although apologists' claims to moral superiority were certainly overblown, their claims to military superiority seem defensible. Few have more perspective on this topic than Paul Kennedy, whose award-winning 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers noted that the US Empire was in decline, following the habitual pattern of imperial overreach. But, like others, he was dazzled and, one might say, blinded by the ease with which the United States obliterated Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing," he wrote, reversing his earlier judgment. "I have returned to all the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years ... and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain's army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies - right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy." Kennedy was awestruck by the fierce power of the country's twelve carrier groups. No other empire could compare: "Charlemagne's empire was merely Western European in its reach. The Roman Empire was stretched further afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and a larger one in China. There is, therefor, no comparison," he concluded.
But even these claims deserve closer scrutiny. The United States certainly possesses the greatest firepower, the best trained and equipped and most capable troops, and the most technologically sophisticated weaponry of any military power in history. But this has not easily translated into victory on the battlefield when the enemy employs asymmetrical tactics and the objective is winning hearts and minds.
Confusion over U.S. imperial status has resulted from the fact that the United States exercises the power and functions of an empire but does not take on the traditional trappings of one. Clearly, it has not followed the path of European colonial empires, although it has occasionally dabbled in colonial ventures. These have, for the most part, been adjuncts to oversees economic penetration constituting what some have called an "open-door" empire, one more concerned with control of markets and other forms of economic domination than with controlling subject populations and actual territory. The United States has, however, repeatedly resorted to military force and even prolonged occupations to deal with threats to those economic interests and private investments. More recently, U.S. control has been exercised through what Chalmers Johnson aptly described as an "empire of bases" that are a substitute for the colonies of days gone by. By 2002, Pentagon figures indicated that the United States had some form of military presence in 132 of the UN's then 190 member nations. Add to that the multibillion-dollar carrier battle groups, and the U.S. military presence is truly global. Plus, the United States retains the world's most potent nuclear arsenal, capable, despite reductions in recent years, of ending life on the planet several times over.
The latest frontier has been military domination of space as part of what the United States calls "full-spectrum dominance." It was outlined in the US Space Command's 1997 publication "Vision for 2010" and fleshed out further in the Pentagon's "Joint Vision 2020." It portends U.S. domination on land and sea and in space.
The American Empire has evolved over the course of more than a century. After fulfilling what journalist John L. O'Sullivan termed its "Manifest Destiny" by spreading across North America, the United States looked overseas. William Henry Seward, Secretary of State to both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, articulated a grandiose vision that incorporated Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, parts of the Caribbean and Columbia, and Midway Island.
While Seward dreamed, the Europeans acted, gobbling up everything they could get their hands on in the late nineteenth century. Britain led the way, adding 4.75 million square miles of territory - an area significantly larger than the United States - in the last thirty years of the century. France added 3.5 million. Germany, off to a late start, added one million. Only Spain's colonization was in decline. By 1878, the European powers and their former colonies controlled 67 percent of the earth's surface and, by 1914, an astounding 84 percent. By the 1890s Europeans had divided up 90 percent of Africa, the lion's share claimed by Belgium, Britain, France and Germany. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the leading proponent of an American Empire, observed, "The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and present defence all the waste places of the earth" and urged the United States to move quickly to make up for lost time.
But such an empire was anathema to most Americans, who were struggling to defend a nineteenth-century vision of a producer's republic from a ravenous industrial capitalist order. The enormous gulf between opulent capitalists and struggling masses shook the foundations of Americans' democratic and egalitarian ideals. Most farmers and workers deplored the idea that a handful of bankers and industrialists, along with their stable of rubber-stamp legislators and judges, should run the country. Poet Walt Whitman captured that feeling when he described the excesses of capitalism as "a sort of anti-democratic disease and monstrosity."
The 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s witnessed some of the bloodiest labor struggles in the nation's history. In 1877, striking railway workers and their myriad supporters from all parts of the working class paralyzed much of the nation's rail traffic as capitalists, haunted by memories of the revolutionary workers who created the Paris Commune of 1871, conjured up their own nightmare visions when several cities, including Chicago and St. Louis, were shut down by general strikes. In Washington, D.C., the National Republican newspaper ran an editorial titled, "The American Commune" which stated, "The fact is clearly manifest that communist ideas are very widely entertained in America by workmen employed in mines and factories and by the railroads." The railroad strike "is nothing less than communism in its worst form, not only unlawful and revolutionary, but anti-American." St. Louis' leading newspaper, the Republican, concurred: "It is wrong to call this a strike; it is a labor revolution." When local militias proved unwilling or unable to quell the uprising, President Rutherford B. Hayes, who owed his office in part to the railroad magnates, sent in the US Army. The ensuing battles left over a hundred workers dead and a nation bitterly divided.
The struggles intensified in the 1880s, as the Knights of Labor exploded on the scene, successfully striking Jay Gould's 15,000-mile railroad network in 1885. Gould was no ordinary robber baron. Having once boasted that he could "hire one half of the working class to kill the other half," he was perhaps the most hated man in the nation. And the Knights, with their appeal to class unity and democratic socialist philosophy, was no ordinary labor federation. Gould's capitulation to the Knights' demands, in what the business newspaper Bradstreet's called a "complete surrender," shocked the nation. Knights membership skyrocketed around the country, jumping from 103,000 on July 1, 1885, to over 700,000 a year later. The movement was dealt a crushing blow, however, when authorities nationwide used the deaths of seven policemen in Chicago's Haymarket Square in May of 1886 as an excuse to not only destroy the anarchist, who were involved in the incident, but to go after the Knights, who forswore violence and were completely uninvolved in the Haymarket events. Radicals everywhere were targeted in the ensuing Red Scare.
Looking back on the period, reformer Ida Tarbell recalled that "the eighties dripped with blood." Though the decade did not quite drip with blood, workers did question the legitimacy of a system that empowered the wealthy - the new corporate and banking elite - and marginalized the overwhelming majority of workers and farmers, who experienced limited advances in good times and often devastating setbacks in bad.
Discontent was regularly expressed by angry farmers as well, particularly the ones who organized the Farmers Alliances in the 1880s and the People's Party in the 1890s. Historians continue to debate just how radical farmers were, but there is no doubt that most opposed the growing reach of the corporate state, and many of their leaders roused audiences with anti-Wall Street rhetoric. The People's Party adopted a platform at its first convention in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1892 that declared, "The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of government injustice, we breed the two great classes - tramps and millionaires."
Although the Populists' appeal was limited to parts of the South, Midwest and West, the People's Party won almost 9 percent of the presidential vote in 1892, carrying five midwestern and western states, and electing over 1,500 candidates, including three governors, five senators, and ten congressmen. The Populists doubled their vote in 1894, electing seven congressmen and six senators.
Much of the middle class shared the revulsion toward an economy predicated on the notion that individuals motivated by private greed would somehow produce a greater social good. Middle class Americans not only sided with the railroad strikers in the Great Strike of 1877, they devoured Edward Bellamy's enormously popular 1888 utopian socialist novel Looking Backward, which quickly sold over a million copies, making it the second most popular American novel in the nineteenth century, behind Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The financial panic on Black Friday - May 5, 1893 - triggered the nation's worst depression to date. It would last five long years. Within months, 4 million workers lost their jobs. Unemployment soon approached 20 percent.
The nation debated the depression's causes and sought ways to avoid future economic collapse. Those who believed that the 1893 depression resulted from overproduction argued that the United States needed more markets abroad to absorb its growing surplus. Socialist, trade unionists, and reformers, on the other hand, believed that the 1890s crisis resulted from under-consumption, and proposed a rather different solution: redistributing wealth at home, so that working people could afford to buy the products of America's farms and factories. But few capitalists endorse that approach, choosing instead to involve the United States in world affairs in ways that would fundamentally transform the nation.
Before the United States could stake its claim to foreign markets and natural resources, it needed a modern steam-powered navy and bases around the world to supply it. The United States annexed the harbour of the Pacific island Pago Pago in 1889 and built a new navy between 1890 and 1896.
Pago Pago was just the start. In 1893, American sugar planters, working with the US minister in Honolulu and supported by US marines and sailors, toppled Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani, and installed American Stanford Dole, a cousin of pineapple magnate James Dole, as president. The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. President William McKinley called it "Manifest Destiny."
The United States declared war agains Spain on April 25, 1898, purportedly to deliver Cuba from Spanish tyranny. The fighting began thousands of miles away in Manila Bay, where, on May 1, Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet. One anti-imperialist noted, "Dewey took Manila with the loss of one man - and all our institutions." The war was over in three months.
Secretary of State John Hay called it "a splendid little war." Not everyone thought the war so splendid. On June 15, 1898, the Anti-Imperialist League tried to block US annexation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Its ranks included such prominent individuals as Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Mark Twain, Jane Addams, William James, William Dean Howell, and Samuel Gompers. But anti-imperialists' efforts were no match for a nation imbued with the glory of war and the thrill of easy victory in a righteous cause.
When the dust of war settled, the United States had secured the beginnings of an overseas empire, having annexed Hawaii and acquired Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain. The Philippines were viewed as an ideal refuelling stop for China-bound ships. After wavering about what to do with the islands, walking the White House floor night after night and praying to "Almighty God" for guidance, McKinley opted for annexation, seizing upon the opportunity to civilize one of the world's "inferior races", which Rudyard Kipling referred to as "the white man's burden."
Under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipinos had been rebelling against Spain for years, and they naively believed the United States would help them gain independence. They drafted a constitution and established a republic on January 23, 1899, with Aguinaldo as president. On February 4, US forces opened fire in Manila. US newspapers reported this an an unprovoked Filipino attack on unarmed US soldiers in which 22 were killed and 125 to 200 wounded. Filipino losses were estimated in the thousands. Newspapers predicted that the attack would rally support for the imperial cause and ensure Senate approval of the bitterly contested treaty, according to which the United States was to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines. The New York World observed that the United States was, "suddenly, without warning, face to face with the actualities of empire... To rule we must conquer, to conquer we must kill." Pressure mounted on treaty opponents to support the troops. General Charles Grosvenor, a Congressman from Ohio, declared, "They have fired on our flag. They have killed our soldiers. The blood of the slain cries from the ground for vengeance."
Senator Richard Pettigrew called the betrayal of Filipino independence "the greatest international crime of the century."
The Chicago Tribune described the Senate debate as the bitterest contest "since the impeachment trial of Andy Johnson." Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts warned that the United States would become "a vulgar, commonplace empire founded upon physical forces, controlling subject races as vassal states, in which one class must forever rule, and the other classes must forever obey." After much arm-twisting and assuring that this did not entail permanent US control of the Philippines, the treaty was ratified by a margin of one vote over the two-thirds needed. Hoar later observed, the United States "crushed the republic the Philippine people had set up for themselves, deprived them of their independence, and established there, by American power, a Government in which the people have no part, against their will." Senator Richard Pettigrew called the betrayal of Filipino independence "the greatest international crime of the century."
Filipinos overwhelming supported the rebels and provided them food and shelter. The Americans, some of whom employed the tactics they had perfected fighting Native Indians, responded with extraordinary brutality. Following one ambush, General Lloyd Wheaton ordered all towns within a twenty-five radius destroyed and all their inhabitants killed. When rebels surprised the Americans stationed at Balangiga on the island of Samar, killing fifty-four of the seventy-four men there, Colonel Jacob Smith ordered his troops to kill everyone over the age of ten and turn the island into "a howling wilderness." Some of the soldiers happily obliged. One wrote home, "Our fighting blood was up, and we all wanted to kill 'niggers' ... This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces." US officers put hundreds of thousands into concentration camps.
"This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man."
One of the most vigorous backers of the US takeover of the Philippines was Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana. Beveridge visited the Philippines to get a first hand look at the situation. The only senator to have actually visited the Philippines, his views were eagerly anticipated. He addressed a crowded Senate chamber in early January 1900, offering one of the most colourful, blunt and chauvinistic defences on record of US imperial policy:
"The Philippines are ours forever. ... This island empire is the last land left in all the oceans. ... Our largest trade henceforth must be with Asia. The Pacific is our ocean. More and more Europe will manufacture the most it needs, secure from its colonies the most it consumes. Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural customer. ... The Philippines give us a base at the door of all the East. ... Most future wars will be conflicts for commerce. The power that rules the Pacific, therefore, is the power that rules the world. And, with the Philippines, that power is and will forever be the American Republic. ... God...has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world's progress, guardians of its righteous peace. The judgement of the Master is upon us: 'Ye have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many things.' "
But for McKinley the real prize was the fabled China market, which Japan and the European powers had been carving into exclusive areas of investment. Fearing that the United States would be frozen out of the China market, Secretary of State John Hay issued his first "open-door" note in 1899, asking other nations to grant equal access to commercial activity in their spheres of influence. Although the responses were often ambiguous, Hay declared the following March that all had assented to the open-door principle. Chinese nationalists, however, resenting all foreign domination, sparked a massive uprising against foreign occupiers and their missionary allies. Five thousand US troops joined those from Europe and Japan in repressing the Boxer Rebellion.
"If there be one principle more deeply rooted in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest."
Thus, the 1900 presidential election between McKinley and William Jennings Bryan took place with US troops tied down in China, Cuba and the Philippines. At the Democratic National Convention, Bryan defined the contest as a "fight between democracy on the one hand and plutocracy on the other," and he launched into an impassioned attack on imperialism. In his booming baritone, he aligned his opposition to imperial conquest with the philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, quoting Jefferson, "If there be one principle more deeply rooted in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest." The voting public, by a narrow margin, seemed to at least acquiesce in the new imperial course laid out by McKinley and his advisors. Socialist Eugene Debbs barely registered in the polls.
After the election, Philippine atrocity stories began to circulate, replete with lurid accounts of murder, rape, and a new kind of torture called waterboarding. In November 1901, the Philadelphia Ledger's Manila correspondent reported:
"The present war is no bloodless, fake, opera bouffe engagement. Our men have been relentless; have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten and up, an idea that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog...whose best disposition was the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to "make them talk," have taken prisoner people who have held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet riddled corpses."
One soldier sent the following account to the Omaha World-Herald:
"Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth, and pour a pail of water into his mouth and nose, and if they don't give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I'll tell you it is a terrible torture."
Fighting persisted for three and a half years before President Theodore Roosevelt declared the islands pacified. The United States deployed a total of 126,000 troops, 4,374 of whom did not make it back alive. The toll among Filipinos was much higher - perhaps 20,000 guerrillas and at least 200,000 civilians, many from cholera. Americans comforted themselves with the thought that they had spread civilization to a backward people, but at a hefty price - $400 million. Senator Beveridge felt it was money well spent. But Beveridge underestimated the real cost. The republic of Washington and Jefferson, which had long inspired democratic and revolutionary movements around the world, had started down the road that would soon make it the foe of meaningful change and the defender of the status quo.
In February 1901, while US troops were in McKinley's words, uplifting, civilizing and Christianizing the Filipinos, the US Congress dispelled any lingering illusions regarding Cuban independence, passing the Platt Amendment, which asserted the United States' right to intervene in future Cuban affairs, limited the amount of debt Cuba could accumulate, restricted Cuba's power to sign treaties, and gave the United States a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which would secure the eastern approach to the Isthmus of Panama. The United States made clear that the army would not leave until the amendment was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution.
After the war, American businessmen swooped in, grabbing all the assets they could seize. United Fruit Company gobbled up 1.9 million acres of land for sugar production at 20 cents per acre. By 1901, Bethlehem Steel and other US businesses may have owned over 80 percent of Cuban minerals.
In September 1901, a twenty-eight-year-old anarchist, Leon, Czolgosz, shot McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. One of his anarchist acquaintances reported that Czolgosz had complained about the "outrages committed by the American government in the Philippine Islands." Ironically, the assassination brought to office a much more committed imperialist, Teddy Roosevelt.
The new president savoured the prospect of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama that would connect the Caribbean to the Pacific. But Panama was a province of Columbia, which refused to relinquish sovereignty for the $10 million the United States offered. Roosevelt took matters into his own hands and seized the canal route from those "cut-throats of Bogota." The United States orchestrated a revolution, sent in warships to keep the Columbian army at bay, and quickly recognized Panama's independence. In addition to the Canal Zone, the United States received the same right to intervene in Panamanian affairs that it had extorted from Cuba. Secretary of War Elihu Root warned that building the canal would force the United States to police the region for the foreseeable future.
The United States began policing the region long before the completion of the canal in 1914. As US investment in Latin America grew by leaps and bounds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, United Fruit Company and other US corporations insisted on stable, compliant governments that would protect their interests. Americans took over banana and coffee plantations, mines, railroads and similar enterprises. So much land was devoted to commodity production for export that the countries became dependant on food imports to feed their citizens. The revenue at least enabled them to service the mounting debt to foreign banks.
Defending American businessmen's growing investments required the constant involvement of the military to prop up corrupt and dictatorial governments and suppress revolutionary movements. As early as 1905, Root, who had become secretary of state, wrote candidly, "The South Americans now hate us, largely because they think we despise them and try to bully them." Between 1900 and 1925 the United States repeatedly intervened military in Latin America. It sent troops to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925; to Cuba in 1906, 1912, and 1917; to Nicaragua in 1907, 1910, and 1912; to the Dominican Republic in 1903, 1914, and 1916; to Haiti in 1914; to Panama in 1908, 1912, 1918, 1921, and 1925; to Mexico in 1914; and to Guatemala in 1920. The only reason it didn't intervene more frequently was that it often stayed, occupying countries for extended periods of time: Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, Haiti from 1914 to 1933, the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, Cuba from 1917 to 1922, and Panama from 1918 to 1920.
Honduras was dominated first by the Spanish, then by the British, and then by the Americans. By 1907, its foreign debt stood at $124 million, its national income at $1.6 million. Between 1890 and 1910, foreign bananas transformed the nation. First the Vaccaro brothers and then Sam "the Banana Man" Zemurray bought up vast plantations and the government officials needed to make sure things run smoothly. They were soon joined by United Fruit Company of Boston. Beginning in 1907, political instability afforded the United States a pretext militarily and reinstall the supine government of Manuel Bonilla. US bankers also replaced their British counterparts in controlling Honduran debt. With the political climate improved, United Fruit increased it holdings from 14,000 acres in 1918 to 61,000 in 1922 to 88,000 in 1924. In 1929, Zemurray sold out to United Fruit and became the company's top official. The people of Honduras have remained impoverished ever since.
The Nicaraguans fared no better. US marines, under the command of Smedley Butler, intervened in 1910 to establish a government friendly to US interests. When growing US domination provoked the ire of Nicaraguans, Butler's marines again intervened to defeat the rebels, killing two thousand Nicaraguans in the fighting. Butler was beginning to understand that his mission was essentially to protect US commercial and banking interests. As he wrote to his wife during the fighting, "It is terrible that we should be losing so many men fighting the battles of these d...d spigs - all because Brown Bros. have some money down here." When the Central American Court, which Roosevelt had established with much fanfare in 1907 to peacefully adjudicate conflicts in the region, condemned the US intervention, US authorities ignored that ruling, effectively destroying the Court's authority. US troops would occupy the country for the next twenty years.
In 1922, the Nation ran a scathing editorial titled "The Republic of Brown Bros.," which echoed Butler's assertion that the marines were there to do Brown Brothers bidding. The piece detailed how the bankers systematically secured control over Nicaragua's customs, railroad, national bank, and internal revenues with "the State Department in Washington and the American Minister in Managua acting as private agents for these bankers, using American marines when necessary to impose their will."
Augusto Sandino was among the many Nicaraguans committed to throwing off the yoke of US tyranny in their country. In 1927, he and his guerrillas engaged in a bloody battle with US marines before retreating into the mountains. He reemerged the next year and, with popular backing, waged a guerrilla campaign against the occupying forces and their Nicaraguan National Guard surrogates. One US planter wrote Secretary of State Henry Stimson that the military intervention had "proved a calamity for the American coffee planters. Today we are hated and despised. This feeling has been created by employing the American marines to hunt down and kill Nicaraguans in their own country." Understanding this and fearing that US military involvement in Central America was undermining his ability to protest Japanese actions in Manchuria, Stimson pulled the marines out of Nicaragua in 1933, leaving things in the hands of the National Guard under the leadership of Anastasio Somoza. With the marines withdrawn, Sandino announced his readiness to negotiate but was captured and executed by Somoza's National Guard. In 1936, Somoza seized the presidency, brutally exercising power that he and his two sons would not relinquish for another forty-three years until they were overthrown by the Sandinista revolutionary movement, named after Sandino, triggering another war with the United States under the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
No one had more firsthand experience intervening in other countries than Major General Smedley Butler. Butler enlisted in the marines at age sixteen when the 1898 war against Spain began. He fought against the Filipino insurgents and then helped put down the Boxer Rebellion in China. Before long he was commanding one Central American intervention after another. Having already received two Medals of Honor, Butler commanded the 13th Regiment in France during the First World War. For that service he received the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star. A tiny bulldog of a man, Butler wrote a book titled War is a Racket, which is still quoted and admired by many military men. At the end of his long and highly decorated service, he reflected upon his years in uniform:
"I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I helped make Mexico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Bros. in 1909 - 1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to that Standard Oil went its way unmolested...
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."
Long after Butler's retirement, war would remain a "racket" as US troops and intelligence operatives fanned out across the globe to defend the economic and geopolitical interests of American capital. They would occasionally improve the lives of those they left behind. But more often, as we detail in the following pages, they would leave misery and squalor. The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one. But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the kind of structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.