After our invasion of Iraq turned up no weapons of mass destruction in that country, President Bush did a little bait and switch with bringing freedom to the Iraqis brought out as the prime motivation for our Middle Eastern incursion. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he said in 2005. This notion of bringing liberty from the barrel of a gun was nothing new. Walter Nugent points this out straight away in his Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion
when he notes that Thomas Jefferson, well-known advocate of individual freedom, envisioned the United States as an "empire for liberty". "But imperialist he was," Nugent says of the Founding Father.
Nugent splits American imperial ambitions into three phases. The first is the acquisition of the lower 48, the second is the empire building done in the Pacific Ocean as well as the Caribbean & South America, and the last is the post-WWII era which utilizes more indirect methods of control. Each of these phases, Nugent opines, are undergirded by a sense of American moral pureness and superiority. American expansion is always accompanied by proclamations that we are committing a moral right and never justified on selfish grounds such as economic gain or for strategic concerns.
The bulk of the text is devoted to how the original Americans expanded their 13 colonies into what is today the continental United States. I recall a fair amount of high school American history class – everyone knows the Louisiana Purchase and “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”, for instance, but Nugent goes into some depth here. He begins with Transappalachia. America was able to play the English, French, and Spanish off of one another and gain favorable borders after winning its freedom. The desire to expand had to do with a lust for land and profit-making but there was also a strong sentiment that would later be known as “manifest destiny”. Even the earliest Americans felt that they had a divine mandate to exercise dominion over the land.
One of the great things about the book is how Nugent provides a fairly detailed political and historical context for events. For example, rather than simply saying that the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1793, we learn about the pressures facing everyone at the bargaining table. The English colonial secretary, the Earl of Shelburne, was facing empty coffers and a need to split the Americans from the French. Meanwhile in Paris the French foreign minister was desperate to have the Americans honor their treaties with his country. Over in Spain, King Carlos III was attempting to get on the good side of the Americans as their newly formed country now abutted the Spanish Empire.
Subsequent chapters deal with the Louisiana Purchase, the disastrous War of 1812, the acquisition of Florida, Texas, Oregon, etc. The treatment of Indians is well-known and Nugent doesn't cut America any slack in this regard. But he doesn't dwell on this topic either. Much more emphasis is placed on the stratagems and subterfuges used by the men who have run this country. For example, the ink was barely dry on the Louisiana Purchase when future president James Monroe and diplomat Robert Livingston started claiming that the deal included West Florida when they knew damn well it didn't. Soon Jefferson and Madison were spouting the same nonsense. That autumn insurgents took the French fort in Baton Rouge and Madison seized the moment to declare West Florida as belonging to the United States - much the chagrin of our erstwhile allies who had played such a significant role in helping the colonists gain their freedom.
One of things that drew me to reading Habits of Empire
was watching John Sayles' Amigo
, a film about America's venture in the Philippines at the tail end of the 19th century. I realized that I knew precious little about how my country ended up with all those islands in the Pacific.
It started with a search for islands that could act as the maritime equivalents of rest stops for trade ships. Then the military, in the form of the Navy, and the guano industry aligned interests and in 1856 uninhabited guano-rich islands were declared fair game by the Guano Islands Act at the behest of the American Guano Company. The Midway Islands followed in 1859. Samoa involved chicanery. The natives didn't have a monarch who had authority to cut deals in a manner that Westerners were accustomed. So the United States basically went out and found one.
Hawaii is a very sad tale. Americans moved in and initiated reforms which would benefit themselves. Whites established industries such as sugar and soon Hawaii was home to a wealthy white elite that owned most of the land. In the late 1880s King David Kalakaua's policies weren't rigged in favor of the upper classes so they fomented an uprising and forced Kalakaua to the real power over to them and the government cabinet they populated and controlled. Voting was restricted to landowners, most of whom were white. Pearl Harbor came under American control, laws were passed that mandated all schools to teach in English only, et al.
We gained the Philippines after defeating the Spanish. Many American politicians viewed the Filipinos as savages, unable to rule themselves. And so the American mission there was one of “benevolent assimilation” backed by “the strong arm of authority”. Unsurprisingly, the same people who didn't want the Spanish in their homeland also didn't want Americans there. A tense occupation collapsed into war when an American soldier killed two Filipino soldiers and then yelled, “Line up, fellows. The niggers are in here all through these lines.” A day later 59 Americans and some 3,000 Filipinos were dead and a war was on.
Nugent gives scant attention to his third phase of American expansion as he considers it to be ongoing but this does invite the reader to look at how phases one and two resonate today.
One of the most obvious continuities is the use of questionable assertions or outright lies to enter into war. The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine
in 1899 as a pretext for war echoes in the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In the Philippines Americans tortured Filipinos. The most notorious form of torture was the so-called “water cure” which we call water boarding today. In that same war the American military gathered civilians and placed them into areas around various villages with the warning that, if they left this zone, they were putting their lives at risk. Nugent notes that this “tactic also prefigured the 'strategic hamlet' policy that the Americans would use decades later in Vietnam.”
The episode in the Philippines also demonstrates how America has traditionally viewed itself as being superior to other nations. The notion that the “savages” couldn't rule themselves was tweaked a little for our Iraqi incursion. Bush did not describe the Iraqis as unfit for democracy, but instead claimed that America was doing God's work in bringing democracy to an oppressed people. Despite the change, the American paternalism remains the same.
Finding the man named La Mamea to act on behalf of the Samoans doesn't seem all that different from America propping up friendly dictator the past several decades. And on and on it goes. This country has lied, stolen, cheated, betrayed allies, and killed in the name of expansion and exerting its influence. And nearly every time it has been done under the guise of moral rightness and with the supposed approval of the Judeo-Christian deity.
Habits of Empire
is a real eye-opener. It provides overwhelming evidence that we Americans should be highly skeptical of the foreign policy claims of our politicians and to ignore their grandiose claims of American exceptionalism. Underneath all the moral rhetoric, America has proven to be motivated by greed just as much as any other empire.
Labels: Books, Imperialism, Politics