"We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population.... Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming, and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction.... We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."- George Kennan, U.S. Secretary of State, Department memo, 1948
EXPANSION, CONTINENTAL AND OVERSEAS
The thirteen colonies that became the United States were on the cutting edge of the expansion of England that created a global political economy ultimately known as the British Empire.
Born of the expansionist impulses that had led to the conquest of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, the United States itself became an empire that equaled, indeed surpassed, the greatest projections of British power. Today, more than two centuries after independence, the sun never sets on American territory, properties owned by the U.S. government and its citizens, American armed forces abroad, or countries that conduct their affairs within limits largely defined by American power.
The first U.S. census, conducted in 1790, asserted ownership of 891,364 square miles of the North American continent. Much of that acreage was also claimed by Native American societies, and various European powers contested marginal areas. Today, the fifty states total 3,623,420 square miles, and the directly ruled overseas possessions bring the total to 3,630,254.
The United States also maintains military bases in thirty-five nations and enjoys military usage agreements with several others. Corporations, banks, other associations, and individuals are estimated to own between $233 and $260 billion abroad. By any standard, the United States is today an empire that extends its economic, political, and military power around the globe.
Such impressive expansion in just over two hundred years cannot be explained in simple terms. The American empire, to quote Winston Churchill's remark about the British Empire, "did not just grow like Topsy," nor was it the creature of any single urge (say, power or greed) or dream (to save the world) or fear (of being conquered). It is more useful, rather, to think about American expansion in terms of the changing interactions among ideology, economics, military strategy, and domestic politics.
The early pressures for expansion across the continent emphasized the desire for land for agriculture, natural resources (wood, water, minerals, fossil fuels), and markets for those products. The gradual development of manufacturing, the related need for a continental infrastructure of transport, growth of a merchant marine, and the financial profits of all these activities combined to increase such pressure. The advocates of each of the expansionist objectives developed their particular explanations of why outreach was necessary.
At the same time, those interest group ideologies began to be integrated in a general ideology of expansion. That process and the resulting overview developed from religious as well as secular origins. The theological arguments were drawn from the Gospel of Matthew and adapted to America as early as 1630 by John Winthrop: "Men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the Lord make it like that oAmerican f New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people upon us."
And some two centuries later, in 1850 after the war against Mexico, Herman Melville echoed that justification for continental and maritime expansion: "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.... God has predestined ... the rest of the nations must be in our rear."
The secular argument for expansion was also expressed very early, perhaps most explicitly by Thomas Paine in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense: "We have it in our power to begin the world again." Whatever Paine's fluctuating relationship with religion, that formulation echoed Winthrop as well as John Locke's earlier proposition that "in the beginning America was the world." Thus it remained for James Madison (with some help from his friend Thomas Jefferson) to develop the most sophisticated and powerful secular explanation of the need for expansion.
First in letters and then publicly during the debate over ratification of the Constitution, Madison argued that the only way to sustain a republican government was to provide a surplus of resources and social space. The logic comes down to us in the present as the assertion that social peace and civil government depend upon enlarging the pie rather than arguing over the shares of a constant pie.
Expansion (read "growth" in our time) is necessary to avoid class conflict and to provide for population growth. Jefferson cut through to the heart of the matter in a slightly different way: without expansion it would be necessary to redivide the existing property for each new generation (which even in his time implied a communitarian redistribution of property).
Both men were candid. "This form of government," wrote Madison in 1787, "in order to effect its purposes, must operate not within a small but an extensive sphere." Having secured American access to the Pacific through the Louisiana Purchase (1803), Jefferson summed it up in 1809: "I am persuaded no constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government."
Within that consensus, however, the politics were never neat and rational. The arguments over which kind of expansion for which particular interests, and over the order of priorities, continued to bedevil American leaders. And the religious and secular concerns about spreading the light from the City upon a Hill and beginning the world again raised questions about the obligations toward the other peoples conquered in the process of extending truth and freedom.
Finally, the military problems of furthering and defending an ever-larger system confounded the best minds. Those matters were at the center of American politics during the continuing battle to subjugate the Native American cultures and the debates on the Louisiana Purchase, the war of conquest against Mexico, and whether or not to allow the slave-owning states to find their own way to salvation.
Those issues were not resolved by the North's victory in the Civil War. Indeed, the moral and practical questions of how best to rule and transform or regenerate a defeated enemy and to restore a marketplace economy were dramatized with wrenching force. At the same time, the rapid maturation of the industrial political economy in the North posed its own economic, social, and military challenges.
The new industrial leaders faced the same problem of markets for their booming production as had their agricultural predecessors. And like them, they concluded that overseas markets would be the answer.
Many perceptive, shrewd, or moralistic minds labored to adapt that idea to a program to solve the industrial problems. As in earlier times, the particular arguments offered were integrated in popular terms by a few charismatic leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. They advocated overseas expansion in order to sustain economic prosperity, to maintain domestic social peace and welfare, and to fulfill the American mission to reform the world.
Roosevelt insisted, for example, that it was "of the utmost importance" that the United States secure "the commanding position in the international business world ... especially at a time when foreign markets are essential." He added that it would be necessary to "exercise an international police power" from time to time. Wilson had a different style, but his points were the same. "If America is not to have free enterprise, then she can have freedom of no sort whatever.... We need foreign markets." Later he said, "the world must be made safe for democracy."
Such language revealed the inherent logic both of the concept of America as the City upon a Hill and of the capitalist marketplace political economy. Problems and solutions were externalized: opposition was either misguided or evil and had to be overcome. Thus rival capitalist powers, as well as anticapitalist revolutions, were viewed as dangers to be thwarted.
That outlook guided the response of the great majority of Americans toward the policies and actions of Germany and Japan in the late 1930s, and also toward the Soviet Union and anticapitalist revolutions after World War II. Each of those nations and social movements was perceived as a threat to the economic, political, ideological, and military well-being and security of the United States.
From the end of the revolutionary war, however, that expansionist consensus was periodically challenged by conservatives as well as liberals and radicals on moral and pragmatic grounds. Those who opposed the proposed constitution during the debate of 1786-1787, for example, argued that it would create a political system calculated for empire and thus lead to the ultimate subversion of meaningful democracy at home. One can fairly say that they understood Madison's argument and its implications.
Similar criticism was offered against the continuing conquest of Native Americans, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, and, even more militantly, the War of 1812 (particularly in New England and among groups in the seaboard South). Anti-imperial sentiment reached a climax in opposition to the war of conquest against Mexico. Its essence was best captured on July 4, 1821, by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams: "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.... She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."
Although the anti-imperial movement was a latent factor in northern opposition to the Civil War, it did not become a serious force in politics again until the war against Spain led to expansion into Cuba and the Philippines (1898-1903). But it did succeed in turning policy away from classic colonialism, and it was a factor in the successful opposition to Woodrow Wilson's proposal to involve the United States (through the League of Nations) in a sustained effort to make the world safe for democracy. The anti-imperial outlook continued to exert significant influence on American policy during the 1920s and 1930s.
The war against the Axis powers, however, and the subsequent perceived threats from Russia and revolutionary movements effectively undercut that influence. The next major effort by the anti-imperialists came during 1947-1948 when an unusual combination of anticommunist conservatives led by Senator Robert Taft and noncommunist liberals and radicals led by Henry A. Wallace tried to slow the revived momentum of imperialistic policies. The effort failed.
It can be argued with some force that the anti-imperial outlook contributed significantly to the widespread support for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was far less a militant crusader than Harry S. Truman, and in particular the latent if unorganized opposition to Truman's arbitrary intervention in Korea correctly viewed Eisenhower as an advocate of a less enthusiastic and bellicose approach to reforming the world in the image of America.
As an intellectual and political movement, however, the anti-imperialists did not begin to reassert themselves until President John F. Kennedy intervened to overthrow Cuba's revolution, which led to the missile crisis with the Soviet Union. But they exerted only marginal influence on policy until the intervention in Vietnam became a major war. What came to be called by expansionists the "Vietnam syndrome" was actually the revival of traditional anti-imperialism, and it played a crucial role in the withdrawal from Vietnam and the reluctance to engage in further interventions around the world.
Under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, however, the pendulum swung back. The Reagan administration, until blocked by Congress, supplied money and equipment to the Contras who were trying to overthrow the Marxist government in Nicaragua; secret efforts to continue funneling money to them culminated in the Iran-Contra affair. Reagan also sent U.S. military forces into Grenada to check the threatened expansion of communism there and bombed Libya in an effort to reduce its alleged support of international terrorism.
Under Bush, the United States invaded Panama to remove Manuel Noriega from power. And when Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, the United States assembled and led a multinational coalition in a full-scale war to reclaim the country. "We've licked the Vietnam syndrome!" Bush declared.
Thus the historical confrontation between the two conceptions of America's place in the world continued to be played out.
Edward McNall Burns, The American Idea of Mission: Concepts of National Purpose and Destiny (1957); Lloyd Gardner, Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in American Foreign Policy, 1941-1949 (1970); Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (1935).
William Appleman Williams
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