U.S. Imperialism Has a Long History
excerpted from the book
Exposing the American Empire
Edited by John Bellamy Foster
and Robert W. McChesney
Monthly Review Press, 2004, paper
John Bellemy Foster and Robert W. McChesney
Soviet text on Military Strategy
"The political aims of American imperialists
were and still are to enslave economically and politically the
European and other capitalist countries and, after the latter
are transformed into obedient tools, to unify them in various
military-political blocs and groups directed against the socialist
countries. The main aim of all this is to achieve world domination."
Chalmers Johnson, Sorrows of Empire
"As distinct from other peoples on
this earth, most Americans do not recognize-or do not choose to
recognize-that the United States dominates the world through its
military power. Due to government secrecy, they are often ignorant
of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do
not realize that a vast network of American military bases on
every continent but Antarctica) actually constitutes a new form
The primary goals of U.S. imperialism have always been to open
up investment opportunities to U.S. corporations and to allow
such corporations to gain preferential access to crucial natural
... an empire by definition is a sphere of exploitation in which
a single imperial power plays the dominant role.
Ronald Steel, Pax Americana, 1967
"After Vietnam, the Dominican Republic,
and the Greek junta, it is not so easy for an American President
to speak with a straight face of the nation's foreign policy being
based on the 'liberation of man' or the 'survival of liberty."
Kipling, the "White Man's Burden,"
and U.S. Imperialism
by John Bellamy Foster, Harry Magdoff, and Robert W. McChesney
In the Spanish-American War of 1898 the United States seized the
Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, emerging for
the first time as a world power. As in Cuba, Spanish colonial
rule in the Philippines had given rise to a national liberation
struggle. Immediately after the U.S. naval bombardment of Manila
on May 1, 1898, in which the Spanish fleet was destroyed, Admiral
Dewey sent a gunboat to fetch the exiled Filipino revolutionary
leader Emilio Aguinaldo from Hong Kong. The United States wanted
Aguinaldo to lead a renewed revolt against Spain to prosecute
the war before U.S. troops could arrive. The Filipinos were so
successful that in less than two months they had all but defeated
the Spanish on the main island of Luzon, bottling up the remaining
Spanish troops in the capital city of Manila, while almost all
of the archipelago fell into Filipino hands. In June, Filipino
leaders issued their own Declaration of Independence, based on
the U.S. model. When U.S. forces finally arrived at the end of
June, the fifteen thousand Spanish troops holed up in Manila were
surrounded by the Filipino army entrenched around the city-so
that U.S. forces had to request permission to cross Filipino lines
to engage these remaining Spanish troops. The Spanish army surrendered
Manila to U.S. forces after only a few hours of fighting on August
13, 1898. In an agreement between the United States and Spain,
Filipino forces were kept out of the city and were allowed no
part in the surrender. This was the final battle of the war. John
Hay, U.S. ambassador to Britain, captured the imperialist spirit
of the time when he wrote that the Spanish-American War as a whole
was "a splendid little war."
With the fighting against Spain over,
however, the United States refused to acknowledge the existence
of the new Philippine Republic. In October 1898 the McKinley administration
publicly revealed for the first time that it intended to annex
the entire Philippines. In arriving at this decision President
McKinley is reported to have said that "God Almighty"
had ordered him to make the Philippines a U.S. colony. Within
days of this announcement the New England Anti-Imperialist League
was established in Boston. Its membership was to include such
luminaries as Mark Twain, William James, Charles Francis Adams,
and Andrew Carnegie. Nevertheless, the administration went ahead
and concluded the Treaty of Paris in December, in which Spain
agreed to cede the Philippines, along with its other possessions
seized by the United States, to the new imperial power.
This was followed by a fierce debate in
the Senate on the ratification of the treaty, centering on the
status of the Philippines, which, except for the city of Manila,
was under the control of the nascent Philippine Republic. On February
4, 1899, U.S. troops, under orders to provoke a conflict with
the Filipino forces ringing Manila, were moved into disputed ground
lying between U.S. and Filipino lines on the outskirts of the
city. When they encountered Filipino soldiers, the U.S. soldiers
called "Halt" and then opened fire, killing three. The
U.S. forces immediately began a general offensive with their full
firepower in what amounted to a surprise attack (the top Filipino
officers were then away attending a lavish celebratory ball),
inflicting enormous casualties on the Filipino troops. The San
Francisco Call reported on February 5 that the moment the news
reached Washington, McKinley told "an intimate friend.. .
that the Manila engagement would, in his opinion, insure the ratification
of the treaty tomorrow."
These calculations proved correct. The
following day the Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris officially
ending the Spanish-American War. Under the treaty Spain ceded
Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States, and
Cuba came under U.S. control. It stipulated that the United States
would pay Spain $20 million for the territories that it gained
through the war. But this did little to disguise the fact that
the Spanish-American War was an outright seizure of an overseas
colonial empire by the United States, in response to the perceived
need of U.S. business, just recovering from an economic downturn,
for new global markets.
The United States immediately pushed forward
in the Philippine-American War that it had begun two days before-in
what was to prove to be one of history's more barbaric wars of
imperial conquest. The U.S. goal in this period was to expand
not only into the Caribbean but also far into the Pacific-and
by colonizing the Philippine Islands, to gain a doorway into the
huge Chinese market. (In 1900 the United States sent troops from
the Philippines to China to join with the other imperial powers
in putting down the Boxer Rebellion. Kipling's "White Man's
Burden subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands,"
was published in McClure's Magazine in February 1899. It was written
when the debate over ratification of the Treaty of Paris was still
taking place, and while the anti-imperialist movement in the United
States was loudly decrying the plan to annex the Philippines.
Kipling urged the United States, with special reference to the
Philippines, to join Britain in the pursuit of the racial responsibilities
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Many in the United States, including President
McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, welcomed Kipling's rousing call
for the United States to engage in "savage wars," beginning
in the Philippines. Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana declared:
"God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic
peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle selfcontemplation
and self-admiration .... He has made us adept in government that
we may administer government among savage and senile peoples."
In the end, more than 126,000 officers and men were sent to the
Philippines to put down the Filipino resistance during a war that
lasted officially from 1899 to 1902 but actually continued much
longer, with sporadic resistance continuing for most of a decade.
U.S. troops logged 2,800 engagements with the Filipino resistance.
At least a quarter of a million Filipinos, most of them civilians,
were killed along with 4,200 U.S. soldiers (more than ten times
the number of U.S. fatalities in the Spanish-American War).5
From the beginning it was clear that the
Filipino forces were unable to match the United States in conventional
warfare. They therefore quickly switched to guerrilla warfare.
U.S. troops boasted in a popular marching song that they would
"civilize them with the Krag" (referring to the Norwegian-designed
gun with which the U.S. forces were outfitted). Yet they found
themselves facing interminable small attacks and ambushes by Filipinos,
who often carried long knives known as bolos. These guerrilla
attacks resulted in combat deaths of U.S. soldiers in small numbers
on a regular basis. As in all prolonged guerrilla wars, the strength
of the Filipino resistance was due to the fact that it had the
support of the Filipino population. As General Arthur MacArthur
(the father of Douglas MacArthur), who became military governor
of the Philippines in 1900, confided to a reporter in 1899:
When I first started in against these
rebels, I believed that Aguinaldo's troops represented only a
faction. I did not like to believe that the whole population of
Luzonthe native population that is-was opposed to us and our offers
of aid and good government. But after having come this far, after
having occupied several towns and cities in succession... I have
been reluctantly compelled to believe that the Filipino masses
are loyal to Aguinaldo and the government which he heads.
Faced with a guerrilla struggle supported
by the vast majority of the population, the U.S. military responded
by resettling populations in concentration camps, burning down
villages (Filipinos were sometimes forced to carry the petrol
used to burn down their own homes), and engaging in mass hangings
and bayonetings of suspects, systematic rape of women and girls,
and torture. The most infamous torture technique, used repeatedly
in the war, was the so-called water cure. Vast quantities of water
were forced down the throats of prisoners. Their stomachs were
then stepped on so that the water shot out three feet in the air
"like an artesian well." Most victims died not long
afterwards. General Frederick Funston did not hesitate to announce
that he had personally strung up a group of thirty-five Filipino
civilians suspected of supporting the revolutionaries. Major Edwin
Glenn saw no reason to deny the charge that he had made a group
of forty-seven Filipino prisoners kneel and "repent of their
sins" before bayoneting and clubbing them to death. General
Jacob Smith ordered his troops to "kill and burn," to
target "everything over ten," and to turn the island
of Samar into "a howling wilderness." General William
Shafter in California declared that it might be necessary to kill
half the Filipino population to bring "perfect justice"
to the other half. During the Philippine War the United States
reversed the normal casualty statistics of war-usually many more
are wounded than killed. According to official statistics (discussed
in Congressional hearings on the war) U.S. troops killed fifteen
times as many Filipinos as they wounded. This fit with frequent
reports by U.S. soldiers that wounded and captured Filipino combatants
were summarily executed.
The war continued after the capture of
Aguinaldo in March 1901 but was declared officially over by President
Theodore Roosevelt on July 4,1902-in an attempt to quell criticism
of U.S. atrocities. At that time, the northern islands had been
mostly "pacified" but the conquest of the southern islands
was still ongoing and the struggle continued for years-though
the United States from then on characterized the rebels as mere
In the southern Philippines the U.S. colonial
army was at war with Muslim Filipinos, known as Moros. In 1906
what came to be known as the Moro Massacre was carried out by
U.S. troops when at least nine hundred Filipinos, including women
and children, were trapped in a volcanic crater on the island
of Jolo and shot at and bombarded for days. All of the Filipinos
were killed while the U.S. troops suffered only a handful of casualties.
Twain responded to early reports (which
indicated that those massacred totaled six hundred rather than
nine hundred men, women, and children, as later determined) with
bitter satire: "With six hundred engaged on each side, we
lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded
counting that nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered six hundred
including women and children-and we abolished them utterly, leaving
not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably
the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers
of the United States." Viewing a widely distributed photo
that showed U.S. soldiers overlooking piles of Filipino dead in
the crater, W. E. B. Du Bois declared in a letter to Moorfield
Storey, president of the Anti- Imperialist League (and later first
president of the NAACP), that it was "the most illuminating
thing I have ever seen. I want especially to have it framed and
put upon the walls of my recitation room to impress upon the students
what wars and especially Wars of Conquest really mean."
President Theodore Roosevelt immediately
commended his good friend General Leonard Wood, who had carried
out the Moro Massacre, writing: "I congratulate you and the
officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms
wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American
Michael Ignatieff, professor of human rights policy at Harvard's
Kennedy School of Government
The Iraq operation most resembles the
conquest of die Philippines between 1898 and 1902. Both were wars
of conquest, both were urged by an ideological elite on a divided
country and both cost much more than anyone had bargained for.
Just as in Iraq, winning the war was the easy part .... More than
120,000 American troops were sent to the Philippines to put down
the guerrilla resistance, and 4,000 never came home. It remains
to be seen whether Iraq will cost thousands of American lives-and
whether the American public will accept such a heavy toll as the
price of success in Iraq.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: With the U.S. economy deteriorating and with
more layoffs, how is the Bush administration going to maintain
what some are calling a garrison state with permanent war and
occupation of numerous countries? How are they going to pull it
NOAM CHOMSKY: They have to pull it off
for about another six years. By that time they hope they will
have institutionalized highly reactionary programs within the
United States. They will have left the economy in a very serious
state, with huge deficits, pretty much the way they did in the
1980s. And then it will be somebody else's problem to patch it
together. Meanwhile, they will have, they hope, undermined social
programs, diminished democracy, which of course they hate, by
transferring decisions out of the public arena into private hands.
And they will have done it in a way that will be very hard to
disentangle. So they will have left a legacy internally that will
be painful and hard. But only for the majority of the population.
The people they're concerned about are going to be making out
like bandits. Very much like the Reagan years. It's the same people,
And internationally, they hope that they
will have institutionalized the doctrines of imperial domination
through force and preventive war as a choice. The U.S. now in
military spending probably exceeds the rest of the world combined,
and it's much more advanced and moving out into extremely dangerous
directions, like space. They assume, I suppose, that no matter
what happens to the American economy, that will give such overwhelming
force that people will just have to do what they say.
The Grid of History, Cowboys and Indians
Senator Robert Byrd at onset of Iraq invasion, 2003
"What is happening to this country?
When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends?
When did we decide to risk undermining international order by
adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome
military might? How can we abandon diplomacy when the turmoil
in the world cries out for diplomacy?"
"The doctrine of military preemption
was never voted on by the American people or their representatives
... It seems so monumentally criminal that important words like
democracy and freedom have been hijacked, used as a mask for pillage,
taking over territory and settling scores."
During the early seventeenth century the English conquered Northern
Ireland ... The English policy of exterminating Indians in North
America was foreshadowed by this English colonization of Northern
Ireland. The ancient Irish social system was systematically attacked,
traditional songs and music forbidden, whole clans exterminated,
and the remainder brutalized. A "wild Irish" reservation
was even attempted. The planted settlers were Calvinist Protestants,
assured by their divines that they had been chosen by God for
salvation (and title to the lands of Ulster). The native (and
Papist) Irish were definitely not destined for salvation, but
rather the reverse, both in the present and hereafter.
The "plantation" of Ulster followed
centuries of intermittent warfare in Ireland, and was as much
the culmination of a process as a departure. In the sixteenth
century, the official in charge of the Irish province of Munster,
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, ordered that:
The heddes of all those (of what sort
soever thei were) which were killed in the dale, should be cutte
off from their bodies and brought to the place where he incarnped
at night, and should there bee laied on the ground by eche side
of the waie ledying into his owne tente so that none could come
into his tente for any cause but commonly he muste passe through
a lane of heddes which he used ad terrorem...[It brought] greate
terrour to the people when thei sawe the heddes of their dedde
fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and freinds.'°
Bounties were paid for the Irish heads
brought in and later only the scalp or ears were required. A century
later, in North America, Indian heads and scalps were brought
in for bounty in the same manner. Native Americans picked up the
practice from the colonizers.
Reconciling empire and liberty was a historic obsession of U.S.
political thinkers and historians, and in the twenty-first century
it is openly being debated once again. Thomas Jefferson had hailed
the United States as an
"empire for liberty." Andrew
Jackson coined the phrase "extending the area of freedom"
to describe the process in which slavery had been introduced into
Texas in violation of governing Mexican laws, to be quickly followed
by a slaveholder's rebellion and U.S. annexation. The term freedom
became a euphemism for the continental and worldwide expansion
of the world's leading slave power. The contradictions, particularly
since the initial rationalization for U.S. independence was anti-empire,
It is easy to date U.S. imperialism to
Andrew Jackson, but he only carried out the original plan, initially
as an army general who led three genocidal wars against the Muskogee
in Georgia/Florida, then as the most popular president ever, arid
the organizer of the expulsion of all native peoples east of the
Mississippi to the Oklahoma Territory.
Although white supremacy was the working
rationalization and ideology behind theft of Native American lands,
and especially the justification for African slavery, the independence
bid by what became the United States of America is more problematic,
in that democracy/equality and supremacy/dominance/empire do not
make an easy fit. During the 1820s, in the era of Jacksonian Democracy,
the unique U.S. origin myth was created, with James Fenimore Cooper
as the initial scribe. Cooper's reinvention of America in The
Last of the Mohicans has become the official U.S. story. Herman
Melville called Cooper "our national novelist," and
he was the great hero of Walt Whitman who sang the song of manhood
and the American superrace through empire. As a supporter of the
U.S. war against Mexico, 1846-1848, Whitman proposed the stationing
of sixty thousand U.S. troops in Mexico to establish a regime
change there, "whose efficiency and permanency shall be guaranteed
by the United States. This will bring out enterprise, open the
way for manufacturers and commerce, into which the immense dead
capital of the country will find its way."
Whitman's sentiment followed the already
established U.S. origin myth that had the frontier settlers replacing
the native peoples, similar to the parallel Afrikaner origin myth
in South Africa.
The public acceptance of media propaganda justifying U.S. government
aggression falls into the pattern of a belief system ...
Warren Zimmermann in his book on the frankly imperial aims of
the Teddy Roosevelt administration,
Americans like to pretend that they have
no imperial past. Yet they have shown expansionist tendencies
since colonial days . . Overland expansion, often at the expense
of Mexicans and Indians, was a marked feature of American history
right through the period of the Civil War, by which the United
States had reached its continental proportions.
The War for American Independence, which
created most of the founding myths of the Republic, was itself
a war for expansion ... Thomas Jefferson nursed even grander plans
U.S. Weakness and the Struggle for Hegemony
... the importance of the Yalta arrangements ... in effect, made
the cold war a choreographed arrangement in which nothing ever
really happened for forty years. That was the important thing
about the cold war. It divided up the world into a Soviet zone
that was about a third of the world and a U.S. zone that was two-thirds.
It kept the zones economically separate and allowed them to shout
at each other loudly in order to keep their own side in order,
but never to make any truly substantial changes in the arrangement.
This lasted only about twenty-five years.
The United States ran into difficulty somewhere between 1967 and
1973 because of three things. One, it lost its economic edge.
Western Europe and Japan became sufficiently strong to defend
their own markets. They even began to invade U.S. markets. They
were then about as economically powerful and as competitive as
the United States, and that, of course, had political implications.
Second, there was the world revolution
of 1968. In 1968, there were two themes that were repeated throughout
the world in one version or another. One, we do not like U.S.
hegemony and dominance of the world, and we don't like Soviet
collusion with it. That was a theme everywhere. That was not only
the Chinese stance on the two superpowers but that of most of
the rest of the world as well.
The second theme of 1968 was that the
Old Left, which had come to power everywhere-Communist parties,
social-democratic parties, and national liberation movements-had
not changed the world and something had to be done about it. We
were not sure we trusted them anymore. That undermined the ideological
basis of the Yalta agreement, and that was very important.
The third thing that happened between
1968 and 1973 is that there were people who did not agree with
Yalta. They were located in the third world, and there were at
least four significant defeats of imperialism that occurred in
the third world. The first was China, where the Communist Party
defied Stalin and marched on Kuomintang-controlled Shanghai in
1948, thus getting China out from under U.S. influence on the
mainland. That was a central defeat in the U.S. attempt to control
the periphery. Then there was Algeria and all its implications
as a role model for other colonial territories. There was Cuba,
in the backyard of the United States. And finally there was Vietnam,
which both France and then the United States were incapable of
defeating. It was a military defeat for the United States that
has structured world geopolitics ever since.
The threefold fact of the rise of economic
rivals, the world revolution of 1968 and its impact on mentalities
across the world, and Vietnam's defeat of the United States, all
taken together, marks the beginning of the decline of the United
... the so-called Washington Consensus ... coalesced in the 1980s.
What is the Washington Consensus about? To understand it, we must
first remember that the 1970s was the era when the United Nations
proclaimed the decade of development. Developmentalism was the
name of the game from the 1950s through the 1970s. Everybody proclaimed
that countries could develop. The United States proclaimed it.
The Soviet Union proclaimed it, and everybody in the third world
proclaimed it-if only a state were organized properly. This was
the basic ideology; development was to be achieved by some kind
of control over what went on within sovereign national states.
Now tie Washington Consensus was the abandonment
and the denigration of developmentalism, which had visibly failed
by the late 1980s, and, therefore, everyone was ready to abandon
it. They substituted for developmentalism what they called globalization,
which simply meant opening up all the frontiers, breaking down
all the barriers for (a) the movement of goods; and more importantly,
(b) capital; but not (c) labor. And the United States set out
to impose this on the world.
An important element of the Washington
Consensus was the ideological consensus-building process at Davos.
Davos is not unimportant. Davos represents an attempt to create
a meeting ground of the world's elites, including elites from
the third world, and to constantly bring together and blend their
At the same time, the objectives of the
United States during this period took three forms. One objective
was to launch a counteroffensive, the counteroffensive of neoliberalism,
which aimed to (1) reduce wages worldwide; (2) reduce costs to
(and end ecological constraints on) corporations, permitting the
total externalization and socialization of such costs; and (3)
reduce taxation, which was subsidizing social welfare (that is
to say subsidizing education, health care, and lifelong guarantees
The real threat to U.S. military power is nuclear proliferation,
because if every little country has nuclear weapons it becomes
very tricky for the United States to engage in military action.
... the collapse of the Soviet Union ... was a disaster for the
United States; it removed the most important political weapon
they had in relation to Western Europe and East Asia.
... we now have a weakening of the dollar, and the dollar has
been a crucial lever of the United States, enabling it to have
the kind of economy it has and the dominance it has over the rest
of the world.
The hawks do not see themselves as the triumphant continuation
of U.S. capitalism or U.S. power or anything else. They see themselves
as a group of frustrated outsiders who for fifty years did not
get their way even with Ronald Reagan, even with George Bush Sr.,
even with George Bush Jr. before 9/11. They are still worried
that George Bush Jr. will chicken out on them. They think that
the policy that went from Nixon to Clinton to the first year of
George W. Bush, that of trying to handle this situation diplomatically
and multilaterally-what I called above the velvet glove-was an
utter failure. They think it just accelerated the decline of the
United States, and they think that had to be changed radically
by engaging in an egregious, overt, imperial action-war for the
sake of war. They did not go to war on Iraq or Saddam Hussein
because he was a dictator. They did not go to war on Iraq even
for oil. I will not argue that point here, but they did not need
the war on Iraq for oil. They needed it to show the United States
could do it, and they needed that demonstration in order to intimidate
two groups of people: (i) anybody in the third world who thinks
that they should engage in nuclear proliferation and (2) Europe.
This was an attack on Europe, and that is why Europe responded
the way it did.