The Beginnings of Empire

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“We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.” ~ Donald Rumsfeld (April 2003)

And we can’t imagine why Rumsfeld is so ignorant of American military history, especially since Vice President Dick Cheney calls him “the finest Secretary of Defense this nation has ever had,” and especially since the Department of Defense, which he ran for six years, publishes a quarterly report that reveals the extent of America’s global troop presence, now up to 159 different regions of the world.

I have referred to this report (“Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country”) in several previous articles. The DOD now has these quarterly reports online for the years 1950 and 1953 through the present. What they show is that the U.S. global empire is not a recent phenomenon. One would think that after World War II, all U.S. forces would have been brought home — or at least brought home from every place except Western Europe and Japan.

Think again.

The U.S. global empire was well in place soon after World War II. According to the “Personnel Strengths” document for 1950 (the oldest available), the United States had troops in about 100 different countries and territories. Here is the list:

Alaska
Afghanistan
Algeria
Argentina
Australia
Austria
Azores
Belgium
Bermuda
Bolivia
Brazil
British West Indies Federation
Bulgaria
Burma
Canada (including Newfoundland)
Canal Zone
Caroline Islands (Truk, Palau)
Ceylon
Chile
Colombia
Costa Rica
Cuba
Cyprus
Czechoslovakia
Denmark
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
Egypt
El Salvador
Eritrea
Ethiopia
Finland
France
Germany
Greece (& Crete)
Greenland
Guatemala
Haiti
Hawaii
Honduras
Hong Kong
Hungary
Iceland
India
Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia)
Indonesia
Iran
Iraq
Ireland (Eire)
Israel
Italy
Japan
Jerusalem
Johnston Island
Korea
Lebanon
Liberia
Libya (Tripoli)
Luxembourg
Mariana Islands
Marshall Islands
Mexico
Midway
Morocco
Netherlands
New Zealand
Nicaragua
Norway
Pakistan
Panama (Republic of)
Paraguay
Peru
Philippines
Poland
Portugal
Puerto Rico
Rumania
Ryukyus (Okinawa)
Samoan Islands
Saudi Arabia
Singapore
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Syria
Taiwan
Thailand
Trieste
Turkey
Union of South Africa
United Kingdom
Uruguay
USSR (Russia)
Venezuela
Virgin Islands
Volcano Islands (Iwo Jima)
Yugoslavia

We still have troops in some of the same places. And no, they are not all embassy guards, as is explained here and here.

And what has having troops in all of these places since World War II resulted in? Nothing but wars and military interventions. Vietnam veteran and peace advocate James Glaser has documented the sixty-five official foreign military actions since World War II that have been approved by Congress to qualify the combatants for membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). A paper based on extensive research of American military actions in foreign countries that was presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association in Savannah, Georgia, documented these and other unofficial actions, concluding in part:

Analysis of all United States military actions since the end of World War II show that America has engaged in 263 military actions. A third of these occurred before 1991, while the United States initiated 176 of these between 1991 and 2002.

World War II was not the beginning of the U.S. empire. Between the two world wars, U.S. troops were sent to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Russia, Panama, Honduras, Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Turkey, and China.

But World War I was not the beginning either. Before we tried to make the world safe for democracy, U.S. troops were sent to Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and Mexico.

Although we might begin the U.S. empire with the seizure from Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam during the Spanish-American War of 1898, we need to go back a few years earlier to U.S. intervention in Hawaii. Many Americans know that Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959; few Americans know what led up to the annexing of the island chain in 1898.

A new book by Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books, 2006), tells the sordid tale of how Hawaii’s white plantation owners conspired with the Harrison administration in Washington and John L. Stevens, the American minister to Hawaii, to overthrow the existing monarchy of Queen Liliuokalani. This was all made possible by the protection of the U.S. Navy, which sent ashore 162 sailors and marines. Concludes Kinzer:

Although Stevens was an unabashed partisan, he was no rogue agent. He had been sent to Hawaii to promote annexation, and the men who sent him, President Harrison and Secretary of State Blaine, knew precisely what that must entail. It was true, as his critics would later claim, that Stevens acted without explicit orders from Washington. He certainly overstepped his authority when he brought troops ashore, especially since he knew that the “general alarm and terror” of which the Committee of Safety had complained was a fiction. Still, he was doing what the president and the secretary of state wanted. He used his power and theirs to depose the Hawaiian monarchy. That made him the first American to direct the overthrow of a foreign government.

The beginnings of this overthrow actually go back to the 1850s when, “to protect American growers, the United States levied prohibitive tariffs on imported sugar.” Hawaiian sugar planters eventually agreed, with the acquiescence of the Hawaiian monarch, to “grant the United States exclusive rights to maintain commercial and military bases in Hawaii” in exchange for a reciprocity treaty that promised free trade in sugar. But as Kinzer explains: “This treaty preserved the façade of Hawaiian independence, but in effect turned Hawaii into an American protectorate.”

Neoconservative Max Boot believes that U.S. imperialism “has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century.” Those of us who prefer the non-interventionist foreign policy of the Founders to the gunboat diplomacy of neoconservative warmongers have a different opinion: U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for evil.

Rather than the presence of the U.S. military guaranteeing peace and stability throughout the world, the presence of the U.S. military more often than not is the cause of war and instability.

It goes without saying that U.S. troops should not be on foreign soil. And not only should the removal and redeployment of U.S. troops from American territory be prohibited, as U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (1881—1940) proposed in his Amendment for Peace, there should be no military advisors, no bases, no entangling alliances, no nation building, no humanitarian relief, no peacekeeping operations, no spreading democracy, no regime changes, no opening markets, no enforcing UN resolutions, no liberations, no bombing, no killing, no policing the world — no intervention whatsoever.

A non-interventionist foreign policy would also mean no foreign aid, disaster relief, or “donations” to the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank. A non-interventionist foreign policy is simply a Jeffersonian foreign policy:

I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment.

Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.

Rumsfeld can’t imagine why anyone would ask about U.S. imperialism. How could anyone not ask about U.S. imperialism after studying American military history for more than five minutes?

Rather than being a history of how the military has defended the country, it is a history of aggression, imperialism, empire, invasion, meddling, occupation, hegemony, belligerency, bellicosity, jingoism, gunboat diplomacy, and every other form of interventionism. How can a secretary of defense be so ignorant?

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