In recent weeks, we’ve seen signs of an empire that refuses to cease its worst behavior. The drone strikes, preparations for a new military base on Okinawa, the dispatch of more troops on the Korean peninsula, the push for the world’s most expansive free trade agreement, the devastating legacy of the disastrous war in Iraq. The list goes on. This past December, on the 10th to be exact, the world celebrated Human Rights Day 65 years after Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. Yet the amateur historian in me recognized that date for another reason. Fifty years prior, on the 10th of December 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed and the US global empire had officially begun. While US political leaders engage in the lofty rhetoric of equality, justice, liberty, freedom, the policies they make directly and indirectly prevent most of the human race from ever really living life free from want, from fear, from aggression. The following article is written to commemorate that dark day and to all those countless beings who’ve suffered as a result of the ongoing crimes of US foreign policy.
Exiled and living in New York City in the early 1880s, the great Cuban revolutionary poet JosÃ© MartÃ observed the pervasive racial tension in the United States. It was at this point in his life that he predicted, “The white man’s fear of the Negro would impede Cuba’s independence.” The prescience of this statement and its wider application for the whole of Latin America and the world has been borne out with frequent attacks on sovereign nations throughout the 20th and well into the 21st century under the guise of spreading liberty and the American way. Unfortunately this meant a patrimonial disregard for the lives and human rights of the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” that the US military and corporations would encounter abroad. US imperialism on a global scale would be quite unlike the empires that came before it and it. The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10th, 1898 saw the US gain control of various tropical islands throughout the world over the next 115 years, the US has continued to exert its military and economic power to the detriment of humans and ecosystems.
Michael Parenti, the political scientist and historian has written about the various names for the US global project: “informal empire,” “colonialism without colonies,” “neocolonialism,” and “neoimperialism.” Parenti further argues that:
Historically U.S. capitalist interests have been less interested in acquiring more colonies than in acquiring more wealth, preferring to make off with the treasure of other nations without bothering to own and administer the nations themselves. Under neoimperialism, the flag stays home, while the dollar goes everywhere–frequently assisted by the sword.[i]
In this way, the new imperialism was reminiscent of the battle between northern idustrialists and the southern plantocracy in the years leading up to the Civil War. The elite northerners were more intent on universal wage labor as opposed to the costly slave system.
After the Treaty in 1898, industry-based economic interests were a force to be reckoned with and the neoimperialists had successfully won global control over millions and soon enough billions of people whom they considered wretched, backward and incapable of progress.Exploitation was the natural objective for this new kind of domination and racism would play a key role in US foreign policy. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the behavior of the US in the Western hemisphere.
Still a Backyard?
Despite the prominent demands for respect by many leaders in the Latin American region, this year alone we have witnessed Washington maintain its immoral and useless embargo against Cuba, deny the rightful democratic process in Venezuela, spy extensively on the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras and, through its European proxies, detain the president of the sovereign nation of Bolivia without any justification whatsoever. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, amongst others, has strongly condemned US spying on Latin American citizens. This bellicose approach, so characteristic of US foreign policy, demonstrates the absurd claims of superiority and exceptionalism that date back to the doctrine laid down by President James Monroe in 1823, but with the surrender of Spanish colonies 75 years later, the stage for was set for a different kind of global empire.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has not distinguished itself from its predecessors’ approaches to foreign policy, especially in the region that it absurdly maintains is its ‘backyard’ even today. US diplomacy remains heavy-handed and clumsy and a paternalistic approach is still apparent. Some have asserted that the US has overcome its most shameful history with the election and reelection of Barack Obama and that it is merely performing balancing acts in an anarchic world, but how truthful are such interpretations?
The Informal Empire’s Double Standards
In the post-war era, Japan and most of Western Europe were allowed to lay the underpinnings of the social welfare states that successfully provided near universal health care, housing, education and pensions for their citizens. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, any such attempts to govern in the same humane manner were regarded as a threat to US interests and required a whole range of tactics by Washington and its allies to assure progressive regimes would have a short lifespan. If there has been a break with this approach, then it hasn’t been clear to the millions of Latin Americans, Middle-Easterners or Africans who long for justice and policies that allow them to breathe, to progress.
Recall the treatment of socialist leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Vietnam in the 1960s, Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, amongst many others. Many progressives may recognize the names: Mohammed Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Patrice Lumumba, Ho Chih Minh, Salvador Allende, and so many more. The populations of these nations paid dearly for their leaders’ boldness that ran contrary to US elite interests and desires. Often, the story involved nationalization and the attempt to use funds from resource wealth to pay for programs that had successfully proven to alleviate the suffering of war-torn, impoverished nations in Western Europe. Then came the alarmist cables to Washington.
Of course, there were attempts to control remote lands by US leaders before the episodes of 1898 and, of course, the massacres and extinction of the indigenous North Americans cannot be forgotten, yet the conflict with Spain at the dawn of the 20th century marked a brand new era for an increasingly power-hungry Washington and that era has unfortunately not yet ended.
The Core of the US Empire
The US in 2013 appears to be a tattered and divided nation, fueled by misinformation and desperation. The government, along with loyal institutions, are eager to maintain the myth that their nation is the greatest in the history of the world. American exceptionalism is evident in many of the arguments propounded by the elite opinion-makers who manufacture prevailing views of the modern world. The worship of the US constitution of 1787, a common fetish which borders on fanaticism, aims to excuse or cover up the worst flaws in the system. The gridlock and trifling nature of debate in the US legislative body, the bizarre interpretations and corporate protectionism of the federal judicial system, and the increasingly enhanced powers of an executive branch seriously inhibit any fair and decent objectives of the social contract. Inequality and the disproportionately punitive penal code are largely ignored and, though the Occupy movement was able to bring some of these issues to the front pages of newspapers and magazines, profound change is still regarded by many as impossible without a revolution. Lesser evilism remains an unshakeable mantra for liberals and progressives, while the right careens out of control in delusional episodes that defy any knowledge of the natural world or human history.
US citizens are notoriously unaware of how their government behaves abroad, and those who try to bring these messages home are typically marginalized. The race for the planet’s remaining resources promises more of the same domination and resultant misery. The model of surveillance and brutal policing tactics that were essential to Western colonial powers and their proxies is now normalized in US domestic police forces. It is a system of global power that is thoroughly grim, and it is a system that most US citizens do not understand, as historically significant details have been cleverly obfuscated. In that regard, not much has changed in the 115 years that have passed since the US aggressively moved beyond the North American continent.
The War and the Lies
August 1898: Triumphant news from the war front reaches US citizens. The star is the self-acclaimed romantic and future-president, Theodore Roosevelt, alongside his gang known as the “rough riders”. These men would aim to restore the romanticism of war that American citizens had largely rejected following the horrendous effects of the Civil War. While Roosevelt and his gang got most of the credit for the famous battle at San Juan Hill, much less was said about the critical role played by the Buffalo Soldiers, also known as the Negro Cavalry. These regiments fought in many of the wars against Native peoples throughout the US and were highly regarded in some elite circles despite the color of their skin. They won recognition and sought dignity through battle. The harsh circumstances for blacks at that time would compel these soldiers, themselves frequent victims of racial discrimination within the military, to battle other victims of their government in order to prove that their kind was upright and worthy of respect. The Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War would prove the perfect stage for African American soldiers to demonstrate their courage, though Roosevelt’s grandstanding would obscure the essential role they played.
The war started early in 1898 when the government sought to blame the Spanish, absent any evidence, for the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. They were assisted by media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the Rupert Murdoch of that time) and his coverage of the tragedy in his paper The New York Journal. The explosion led to the death of over 250 sailors, but today it is widely believed to have been caused by an internal explosion, not an attack by Spanish forces. The competition between Hearst’s paper and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was fought with sensationalist headlines in reportage of this news, as these two men attempted to outdo one another in manipulating the public readership. Incidentally, an oft-repeated quote in a cable from Hearst to an artist stationed in Havana about furnishing the war in exchange for pictures is largely believed to be a media-driven myth, as several scholars have reported.
However, elites such as Hearst and Roosevelt were determined to get involved in Caribbean affairs. Why they wanted in should be as obvious as why the gangsters and businessmen would eventually force themselves upon Cuba in the following decades. Cuba is an island of unparalleled geostrategic location with a remarkable population and culture. Cuban opposition to Spanish oppression endured and they were closing in on victory before the US, eager to maintain its growth, entered the conflict. The old Spanish empire, built on the backs of sequestered African men and women and the manipulation of indigenous tribes around the world, was dying.
A new empire was born of similar evils but with a different vision, hidden behind contrived benevolence. The myth of the US as a freedom-loving nation was ripe for a new age. Still decades away from the era of liberal propagandists such as Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman, propaganda was a natural shroud for the new emperors.
Preparing a Guiding Strategy
In 1890, Theodore Roosevelt reviewed US Admiral Alfred Mahan’s “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” for The Atlantic Monthly. Mahan’s ideas on naval power would significantly influence Roosevelt and his vision of the United States as a global power. He expressed his view of government spending in the article:
“We need a large navy, composed not merely of cruisers, but containing also a full proportion of powerful battle-ships, able to meet those of any other nation. It is not economy—it is niggardly and foolish short-sightedness—cramping our naval expenditures, while squandering our money right and left on everything else, from pensions to public buildings.”[ii]
This position was widely shared in elite circles and soon enough, the momentum leading toward interventionism abroad was unstoppable.
During the last decades of the 19th century, US growth in manufacturing was rather significant from a global perspective, climbing from 23.3 percent to a leading 30.1 percent of total worldwide production. Economic growth during the decades before and after the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War averaged around 5 percent and the population was growing swiftly, outnumbering other competitive nations.[iii]
As US interests became more complex, Washington perceived the need to project military power throughout the globe. As Cuba is a mere 100 miles from Florida, there was significant interest in the island throughout the entire 19th century. Historian Louis Perez notes that John Adams, as well as Thomas Jefferson, James Buchanan and other US leaders, expressed the desire to “round out” US power by acquiring the island, which was “indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.” US Presidents James Polk and Franklin Pierce both sought to buy the island from Spain in mid-century.[iv] It wasn’t only Cuba on Washington’s radar. Other Latin American countries, and China and Hawaii, also presented possible avenues of expansion. Cuba, however, was clearly a priority. The other targets would require more time and appropriate circumstances. Two world wars would eventually lift the US to what many American elites would believe was its natural position as the world’s superpower and beacon.
The Push for Truth and Justice
With the expansion of US power came vocal critics of imperial ambition, such as William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, John Dewey, William James and Mark Twain. These public figures would work together in the Anti-Imperialist League and denounce the actions of the US abroad. They largely rejected the idea that national security required a big stick or realpolitik. Such objections would inspire generations of anti-war activists in their efforts to remove the veneer of humanitarianism and the benevolent spreading of democracy and liberty from debates about imperial policies. These pretexts were used to encourage the US population to support the war efforts.
Twain, then a popular cultural icon, had no interest in suppressing his disgust for the anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary spirit that guided the foreign policy of the United States in his day. The author of several American literary classics such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” identified the confluence of militaristic leaders, businessmen, and missionaries who made up what he would call the “Blessings-of-Civilization Trust.”[v] Twain consistently used his celebrity to serve as a conscience for his country, but ultimately conscientiousness is a rare condition, and is usually regarded as extremely dangerous. Truth-tellers are dealt with accordingly and the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Harry Anslinger, and their modern heirs like Robert Mueller and Keith Alexander, would excel at finding new ways to crush dissent, silence whistleblowers, and intimidate those who challenge the status quo.
The Burdens of History
The connections between imperialism, slavery, social tension, and greed are there for anyone to see. We find such linkages today in the tireless campaign against Cuban sovereignty and definitive Puerto Rican status. We find them in the US relationship with the Philippines and Guam, both half a world away from Washington, but still negatively affected by US power politics in the Asia Pacific region. The desire to re-establish military presence in the Filipino archipelago, despite its bloody history, involves manipulating competing claims to uninhabited islands that are claimed by multiple nations in East Asia.
As the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese would learn decades after the Filipino insurrection, resisting the US Empire demands an exacting price upon a nation’s most vulnerable inhabitants. Such crimes against humanity were typically defended with some version of the “White Man’s Burden” narrative (based on the 1899 Rudyard Kipling poem which suggests that imperialism is a noble venture) and, consequently, the distorted logic of anti-Communism.
The US military, in snaking its way around the world, has left a trail of unimaginable destruction and misery: a heavy bootprint, so to speak. Yet among the populace back home, most are reticent or incurious about the motivations of the military industrial complex. Currently, large segments of the US population completely ignore the inhumane methods that have characterized the behavior of the US government as well as Wall Street.
Today, 115 years after the empire officially ventured out into the world, the city upon a hill is as visible as ever though it has lost much of its shine. Racism remains a major problem in both US domestic and foreign policy. Addressing the lines of division that are all too often arbitrarily drawn is a monumental task even well into the 21st century where communication and technology have advanced beyond the realm of science fiction. On the other hand, the economic treachery that is inflicted in the form of the increasing and already overbearing corporate control of our lives must be seen as part of a continuum rooted in the idea of domination, a central component in imperialism. It is worth remembering that human beings once shared mostly peaceful interactions with each other as part of small hunter-gatherer communities and tribes. Well before the dawn of what we consider civilization, the bulk of human existence could not have featured exploitation of the other so prominently as it does today, for we would never have made it to this point. Ignoring history and refusing to reconsider what the US empire has wrought will only impede human progress.
Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist and avid enthusiast of American art and culture, observed the difference between our personal recollections and the connections they have to history: “Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us — is rewritten — we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” Prejudices based on bankrupt cultural beliefs are in fact a malfunction of the modern thinking process (Voltaire reportedly mused that they are what fools use for reason). There is a need to continuously evaluate our circumstances based on the most accurate information available. The current situation facing today’s youth is dire. Those renegade members of our species, hell-bent on maintaining brutal domination, have spent much of the past 115 years of modernity manipulating our collective memory and hiding key facts about how we arrived at this point in time. The responsibility falls on us to regularly examine the scorched earth of modern imperialism and remind our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of this history, in order to safeguard any chance of a hopeful future.
Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Michael Parenti. Against Empire, (San Francisco: City Lights. 1995), p. 15.
[ii] Theodore Roosevelt’s review of Admiral Mahan’s book for The Atlantic Monthly was featured in Volume LXVI No. CCCXCVI in October 1890. The entire article can be accessed at http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/treditorials/am6.pdf
[iii] Thomas G. Patterson, “U.S. Intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War,” OAH Magazine of History 12, no. 3, (1998): 5.
[iv] Louis Perez, The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).