“Contemporary America isn’t an empire, at least not in any conventional or traditional sense. Your typical empire invades countries to seize their resources, impose political control, and levy taxes. That was true of every empire from the ancient Romans to the Brits and the Soviets.” - Jonah Goldberg, writing for National Review.
Though Goldberg wrote those words over a decade ago, his critique of the idea of “America as an empire” is still shared among the political establishment. As a diligent listener of NR’s “The Editors” podcast, I can confirm the conservative publication still holds this view.
Those who label America an empire don’t do so to win some obscure ideological battle, but rather to bring to light the consequences of our foreign policy, which is often hidden from American eyes. Whether it’s the bombing of an innocent family in Kabul or the less explosive (but still violent) blockade of Cuba, America’s international impact is often unnoticed by the general public.
Bringing attention to the idea of America as “an empire” would do well to erase the blissful ignorance. To disprove the above contention to the moniker, here are the three stages of American Empire.
Conquest & Genocide (1776 - 1861)
Predating the country itself, this stage is the most self-obvious, and arguably the most barbaric of the three. As soon as Europeans set foot on the continent, they began amassing land, dividing it into territories, and displacing the original inhabitants. In the most literal of definitions, this is imperialism.
When the United States of America was founded in 1776, this conquest became a state directive. Under the banner of manifest destiny, American merchants and settlers went west, laying the groundwork for the annexation of the continent through endeavors such as the Louisiana purchase, the ethnic cleansing of the Great Plains, and the Mexican-American War, among others.
By the eve of the Civil War, the U.S. was well on its way to welcoming what would become the “Lower 48” into the Union.
To return to the words of Mr. Goldberg: “Your typical empire invades countries to seize their resources, impose political control, and levy taxes.” Considering the majority of our states are named after the nations we invaded and eventually destroyed (Spoiler Alert: “Massachusetts” and “Connecticut” are not European names), I’d say this definition is quite apt.
Colonialism (1865 - 1945)
Though the Civil War didn’t end the Native Holocaust or annexation of Native land, the period after Civil War was largely signified by the U.S.’s foreign adventures.
An uncelebrated period of U.S. history, this is when the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. These territories were taken by war (primarily the Spanish-American War of 1898) or treaty, though these treaties were always with other colonizers and cannot be considered an exhibition of the inhabitant’s desire for foreign rule. (A perfect example is the acquisition of the Virgin Islands, which were bought from Denmark).
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Alongside this land grab was a period of military invasions, largely for the purpose of quelling opposition to American capitalism. From 1899 to 1901, the U.S. (and many other nations) invaded and occupied China during what is known as “The Boxer Rebellion.” In 1903 the U.S. “encouraged” the independence of Panama from Columbia for the purpose of digging the Panama Canal, which wouldn’t become property of the Panamanians until the Carter Administration.
This period also saw the 19-year occupation of Haiti in 1915 (one of three occupations by the U.S.), the invasion of Veracruz in 1914, and several other incursions, attacks, and bombings throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
Influence & Coercion (1945 - Now)
By now it’s clear the United States was at one point an “empire”, but what about now? After all, Jonah Goldberg’s dispute focused on Iraq, not early 20th century Central & South America.
Before addressing the active imperialism of the United States, it’s worth stating that an empire doesn’t stop being an empire when it stops expanding. We still hold the territory of the nations we conquered, say nothing of our five current territories Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. Puerto Rico is over $70 billion dollars in debt to the United States, so the idea that America isn’t extracting value for these territories is absurd.
But, holdings the fruits of past conquests isn’t the American government’s only imperial activity. Since 1945, the U.S. has sought to extend its power and influence (the literal definition of “imperialism”) through a mix of economic, political, and military pressure. This includes but is not limited to the Vietnam War (and its covert offshoots into Laos & Cambodia), the defense of Israeli Apartheid through the U.N. Security Council Seat, the Iran-Contra scandal, the attempted invasion and then embargo on Cuba, the diplomatic pressure on countries hesitant to join the Iraq War, the CIA-backed installation of Augusto Pinochet, the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran, and the imposition of “shock capitalism” into Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Also, there’s a long history of overthrowing any government that even gives the whiff of being “leftist.”
Mr. Goldburg and the political establishment will argue these actions don’t “make us an empire” because it doesn’t mesh with the imagined picture of Roman Centurions patrolling Gaul or British warships plundering the East Indies. But such an argument ignores the intent of imperial conquests, past and present.
Rome didn’t conquer Europe because the Emperors wanted to stretch their legs. They conquered because they wanted to extract value from the lands, change the inhabitants, and institute what they deemed to be a superior way of life. There’s no denying the intention of our Cold War regime changes was to ensure other countries operated identically to our socio-economic capitalist structure. And one doesn’t need to look far to find War on Terror rhetoric evoking the need to make other places more like America. (Bush called the W.o.T. “a crusade”.)
I’d wager that the contention to the “empire” moniker isn’t based on literal accuracy, but rather the way it makes people feel. Not only does mention of “Empire” conjure up the image of Darth Vader force choking Rebel Alliance soldiers, but it runs contrary to Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” description of the Soviet Union. But in the places we employ our military and economic might, there’s no debate.
In the bombed-out neighborhoods of Kabul, the Boxer Rebellion memorials of China, or the still-embargoed Havanna, the message is clear: “the Americans will tell you how to live and get mad when you say no.”
Sounds like an empire to me.
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