26 Nov 2012

American Empire: A Very Brief History of Our Imperialism

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, American Empire, Books, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, David Lipscomb, Kingdom, Reading, War -Peace
Opening Quote

“The history of the United States shows that in spite of the varying trend of the foreign policy of succeeding administrations, this Government has interposed or intervened in the affairs of other states with remarkable regularity, and it may be anticipated that the same general procedure will be followed in the future.” (- U.S. Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual, 1940)

Entering Where Angels Fear to Tread

I realize at the outset, that my title is likely going to cause a few of my readers consternation. However I do not use it simply to inflame reaction but because I genuinely believe it is an accurate representation of US history.

As I begin I want to confess that it never ceases to amaze me how uninformed Americans (Christian or otherwise) are of their own history and that handmaiden to it geography.  Apparently, many children have been “left behind.”

We see the “evidence” in test in which Americans identify Australia as Russia. We laugh when David Letterman or Jay Leno ask people walking down the street such difficult questions as: who did the United States gain its independence from and what is celebrated on the “Fourth of July” – only to learn that it was from the Canadians! And see average Americans not having a clue what is celebrated on “Independence Day!” Or we have watched on YouTube the beautiful Ms. South Carolina explain why Americans cannot even find America on a world map, if not then go here Miss Teen USA 2007. People so uniformed may get upset because they adhere to half truths and manufacture a mythic past that controls their present – a most dangerous procedure. I advance apologies to them.

Perhaps the most powerful myth is that America – the United States – is a peace loving country and has only reluctantly either gone to war or used its military might with great hesitation and never has imposed its will on sovereign states in an imperialistic fashion.  This is a gross misrepresentation of our history but one that is unbelievably believed even by folks who should know better. We learn what might be called the Great Wars version of American military power presented in most public high schools. In this version we learn the USA has engaged in

1) War of Independence
2) War of 1812
3) Mexican War
4) Civil War
5) Spanish-American War
6) WW I
7) WW II
8) Korean War
9) Vietnam

And now Gulf Wars 1 & 2. But this is not even the tip of the iceberg above the water.  The Marine Corps Small Wars Manual in 1940 knew a far different reality.  My dear reader did you know that between 1800 and 1934 that the United States Marines engaged in over 180 landings abroad? Yes 180! This is amazing considering that originally the Founding Fathers did not see fit to create a standing army nor navy!

I recently finished The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power by Max Boot. This book, published in 2002, won  “Book of the Year” awards from various entities (Washington Post, LA Times, et) and the 2003 “General Wallace M Greene” award for Marine Corps history.  Boot is a very conservative, and proud, exponent of American power and exceptionalism.  Yet this is a great book in spite of the fact that he thinks diplomacy is best done behind a 16″ naval gun.

Boot confesses his own ignorance before he began to write this book, “most of these actions were terra incognita to me” (p. xv).  Boot divides the history of America’s “Savage Wars of Peace” into three eras:

1) Commercial Power [1790s-1890s];
2) Great Power [1898-1941];
3) Super Power [1941-Present].
Boot even describes American policy in the Pacific with the terms “Empire Emerging.” However, this is not
a lament but something for which to be proud.  Boot ultimately writes to defend what he calls the “Pax Americana.” Most of the material in Boot’s book I was already aware of yet it remains a stimulating read for those who have a mythic understanding of our supposed peaceful heritage.

This post should not be seen as an “attack” upon America at all. Rather it is an honest coming to terms with reality and embracing the ironic contradictions that have made up the history of the USA.  It is also a call to humbler status in light of the demands of the Kingdom of God. What follows is an overview of our Empire and how we achieved that status some comes from Boot and others from my own research.  I will be making reference to other sources that I have read that go into much more detail on a given point or episode.

Emergence of the American Empire

I believe our sanitized memories is the first thing that lets us perpetuate the myth of our being a so called Christian nation or the myth of a peaceful one.  I did not point this out before but this blog grew out of a discussion with a beloved friend who had a very different perspective than I do (or did) and insisted I was guilty of an evil known as “revisionism.”  One after the other example though came the reply “I did not know that” or “I never heard of that.”  Thus our “sanitized” memories that hurt us in our present.

1) The Monroe Doctrine adopted in 1823 has been the basis for much mischief in Latin America by the United States.   We even almost went to war with Britain in 1895 because of it. I can only be brief here but I learned none of this in high school …On the basis of the Monroe Doctrine the United States has sent troops to and occupied the following nations: Mexico (1914); Haiti (1915); Dominican Republic (1916); Mexico (1916 – nine more times btw after that); Cuba (1917) and Panama (1918) … and I will briefly expand.

a) between 1856 and 1902 the US forces landed in Panama 13x.  At the time Panama was part of Columbia. In 1902 Panama with US “help” became the Republic of Panama and signed away a ten mile zone that became the Panama Canal

b) Nicaragua has experienced US military landings in 1893 and significant occupation from 1926 to 1933.

haitic) The United States became the “Lords of Hispaniola” from 1915 to 1934.  The US occupied Haiti outright in a bloody conflict from 1915 to 1934 and the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924.  For the blatant, bloody imperialistic and even racist policy in Haiti see Schmidt’s work based largely on Army archives, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.

2)  Doctrine of Manifest Destiny.  This is nothing, if we are honest, but imperialism.  In the name of this “Destiny” the United States slaughtered hundreds of thousands of native Americans, forcefully moved them from their land, broke hundreds of treaties.  The “Trail of Tears”  and Indian Territory being “Indian territory” until the grass no longer grows and the sun no longer shines … well the grass is still growing and the sun is still shining.  As far back as the 1880s Helen Jackson wrote a moving account of our national disgrace in “A Century of Dishonor”  or Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

3) The War with Mexico, 1848.  This was pure aggression on the part of the United States (and largely for the sake of slavery).  The proud naturalized citizen, Alexander Campbell vocally condemned this war of territorial expansion, preservation of slavery, and naked aggression.  Manifest Destiny in action again.  Campbell’s protests can be read here among other places (Address on War). Future General Ulysses S. Grant described this as a “wicked war” and regretted he did not have the courage to resign over it.  For a great look at this not so small war see Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the U. S. Invasion of Mexico. American troops entering Mexico City has hardly been limited to that war btw as noted above.

4) The Pacific Ocean is an American Ocean. The United States has pushed its weight around in the Pacific nearly from the beginning. The ink was barely dry at Appomattox and the US outright annexed an island in the middle of Pacific most had never heard of, Midway Island (1867).

a) Korea. In 1871, Rear Admiral John Rogers set out to Korea in search of a deal that could not be refused in the manner that Perry had done in Japan in 1853.  The Koreans took umbrage at the US interference and the mission ended in a bloody affair and ill will from the Koreans towards the US for a long time.

b) Samoa. I loved maps as a kid. I still do. I recall wondering how in the world some of these little islands so far away from my little world in Alabama became “U.S. Territories.”  One was Samoa. Samoa is a chain of islands located about half-way between Hawaii and Australia.  In the 19th century European powers were busy expanding their empires and the US got in on the act. Samoa was contested by British, Germans and the Americans.  The US wanted Samoa as a naval base for the Pacific Squadron.

The “natives” were caught between these European powers but resisted literally fighting a bush war of sorts. In 1889, Britain, Germany and the USA signed a treaty and divided Samoa up. But the fighting continued till the end of the century. This was for all intents and purposes an outright annexation as happened with 49489Midway.

The Germans did not leave Samoa till World War II and the US retains control of the islands to the present.  It was about this time that Congressman Fernando Wood declared “The Pacific Ocean is an American Ocean!”  Even Boot comments on this Samoan affair in these words,

Normally this practice is known as imperialism, even though Americans, belonging to a country born of a revolt against an empire, are sensitive about applying this term to their own conduct” (p. 66).

I would add most simply do not know about it at all.

5) The Spanish-American War, 1898.  This war gave us the racist phrase “White Man’s Burden.”  As a result of the War the USA literally had territories (i.e. colonies???) around the globe: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippians and other smaller islands that were ceded to the United States.  In 1899 the phrase White Man’s Burden was introduced to justify the burden of white America to bring civilization to the barbarian world.

6) The American-Philippino War, 1899-1913.  The American-Philippino War was an outgrowth of the war with Spain. The Philippians did not want to be colonies of the USA any more than the did Spain.  On February 4, 1899 natives “rebelled” against the United States.  Over a hundred thousand US soldiers would participate in this conflict. Most historians estimate the civilian loss of life in this incredibly bloody war to be near one million and yet your average American has never heard of it.

Though the War was “officially” brought to an end on JULY 4!!!! 1902 (anyone else see an irony with with that!??) armed conflict persisted until 1913 and flared up from time to time until the Japanese invasion.  One enduring, and famous, weapon came out of this conflict.  The legendary 1911 Colt .45 was developed by the US Army in response to bush fighting in the Philippines. President William McKinley said of the fate of the Philippines,

I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way … that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the best we could by them, as our own fellowmen for whom Christ also died.”

The irony drips …

7) Russia 1918-1920. One war I never heard of – and I considered myself well read in American military adventures – was the disaster of our military “intervention” in Russia from 1918 to 1920.  This was by all counts a bizarre act of American imperialism. Interestingly enough I learned of this episode from a Russian back in 1992!  I didn’t believe him when he told me of the American invasion of Russia – but unbelievably it is true.  The whole stupid war Russiaand the ripple affect it continued to have in the Soviet Union and the development of the “Cold War” is chronicled definitively in Robert J. Maddox’s The Unknown War with Russia: Wilson’s Siberian Intervention. and in David Foglesong’s meticulously researched America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920.

8) The annexation of Hawaii.  The Kingdom of Hawaii was a sovereign nation but after the Civil War the kingdom became important to American business interests.  In 1887, American planters engineered a revolution of sorts to overthrow the government.  They succeeded but had a set back.  Stephen Dole (recognize the name?) pushed for the annexation of the islands by the USA. The islands were declared a protectorate of the US in 1893 but was not complete until it was seen that Hawaii was of strategic importance in the War with Spain in 1898.  The islanders had no wish for this but … by the way the annexation was never officially ratified legally rather what happened was a simple majority vote in Congress was used to legalize the ploy.  In 1900 Hawaii was declared a territory with Dole as governor.  The military played a bloodless role in this affair but imperialism it was and is.  Here is a link to the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

I could go on but the US has been engaged in more war than any other modern nation I can think of.   Most of our little wars have been over money — determined by big business.  This is a cold hard fact.  This is true of the United States (the CIA) assassination Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 of Iran over oil … it is impossible to truly understand the events in Iran in the last half century without some knowledge of this American perpetuated murder. This single event as much as anything has convinced the Arab world that the US is both hypocritical and imperialistic — one wonders if they are wrong.

Concluding Empire Thoughts

How should we react to our incredible history of American imperialism (and this is very selective)? Boot in his conclusion decides “one final bit of advice, based on the lessons of history. In deploying American power, decisionmakers [sic] should be less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble” We should not be afraid to use force to “enlarge the empire of liberty” (p.352).

That is quite a concluding thought to an often informative book. But I think it is the wrong conclusion. As Boot freely admits that none of these “small wars” were fought for “humanitarian reasons” but largely economic or enhancing our strategic position in the world (p.340). What makes our imperialism ok is that it has benefited the United States it would seem.

When we look at American history we realize that it is actually the exception rather than the rule that the US is not at war with someone somewhere.  Now I do not believe that the USA is necessarily the evil Empire that some claim. But it is hardly deniable that we have a long history of taking what belonged to others and imposing a life in which they did not choose.

Nor do I believe that we should suddenly look at those in military uniform as imperialists because they are not.  The Marine Corps Small Wars Manual quoted at the top of this blog reveals what is at stake – the military is nothing but the big club the politicians use to get what they want.  The military simply tries to be prepared for what policy makers decide. What we have learned is that politicians have frequently in our history allowed themselves to be influenced by money. In all of these small wars – with huge consequences to this day – the words of David Lipscomb ring true, “The rich use war to make more money. And it is the poor who will kill and be killed.

I think we who claim to be Christian need to have a chastened view of our nation’s real role in the history of the modern world. In view of that history I have a hard time embracing many of the myths we Americans have allowed to continue to drive an imperialistic foreign policy.  Does taking off the Rose Colored Glasses mean one is no longer able to say they love their country??

I do not think so …

7 Responses to “American Empire: A Very Brief History of Our Imperialism”

  1. Tim Archer Says:

    I’ve argued that to see the faults of one’s homeland and still care for her is to love her more than those who would whitewash history to hide her errors.

    You’ve understated a lot of what has gone on in the past, yet probably will receive some criticism. Still, there’s hope that Christians will open themselves to the truth about our world and this nation’s role in it.

  2. Tim Webb Says:

    Great article Bobby. I agree with Tim’s comments above.
    A great documentary on our Imperialism is “Why We Fight” which starts with Eisenhower’s warning about the rise of the Miltary-Industrial Complex.

    Tim Webb

  3. David P Himes Says:

    This is just one example of why our Christian faith is not dependent upon nationality or politics or any institution.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Well written.

    – A student of history

  5. Rick Coleman Says:

    I am also a product of the Stone/Campbell heritage in the Church of Christ in Northern Arkansas in a county with 23 congregations. I am a School of Biblical studies grand and preached for 30+ years. So much history to end up a Deist don’t you think. I like your work and you have cost me a bundle in new book purchases in the last 2 hours. Thanks, Rick

  6. Bobby Valentine Says:

    Robert delighted to have you come by my blog. I am grateful. I think we need to have a firm conception of what the kingdom of God is and what the nations are … they are not the same. Enjoy the reading and hope you come back by. Shalom

  7. Ed Dodds Says:

    Why do the Nations rage and the Peoples plot in vain? [Deut. 32:8 ff LXX; Ps. 82] What is #Shalom but the cessation of #ShedimWars | #Maranatha

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