The Birth of American Imperialism

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In The Costs of War (edited by John Denson), historian Joseph Stromberg referred to the Spanish-American War of 1898 as a "trial run" for the American empire. The war had nothing to do with national defense and was purely an act of imperialism on the part of the U.S. government, which gained control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. It led the renowned late nineteenth-century libertarian scholar, William Graham Sumner of Yale, to compose a famous essay entitled "The Conquest of the United States by Spain." The essay described how the war transformed America from a constitutional republic into an imperialist power, just like the old Spanish Empire it defeated in the war.

Sumner also forecast what was to come, and what America is today: the policeman of the world, with a military presence in over 100 countries, with endless meddling in the affairs of just about everyone on the planet. As he wrote in War and Other Essays, "We were told that we needed Hawaii in order to secure California. What shall we now take in order to secure the Philippines? . . . . We shall need to take China, Japan, and the East Indies . . . . in order to u2018secure' what we have. Of course this means that . . . we must take the whole earth in order to be safe on any party of it, and the fallacy stands exposed."

Stromberg's analysis of the importance of the Spanish-American War as a "trial run" for American imperialism is an astute analysis, but the real trial run actually occurred more than thirty years earlier during what Stromberg called the U.S. government's war against "internal independent nations," i.e., the Plains Indians. That is where the real template of American imperialism was set, with its demonization of the Indians as inhuman "wild beasts"; the mass murder of everyone and everything, women, children, and animals included; and the policy of unconditional surrender. Indeed, it may even be argued that the War to Prevent Southern Independence was inself a "trial run" for the twenty-five year war on the Plains Indians.

Sherman's War of Extermination

As soon as the War to Prevent Southern Independence was concluded the U.S. government commenced a new war against the Plains Indians. On June 27, 1865, barely two months after the end of the war, General William Tecumseh Sherman was given command of the Military District of the Missouri, which was one of five military divisions the government had divided the country into. There was never any attempt to hide the fact that the war against the Plains Indians was, first and foremost, an indirect subsidy to the government-subsidized transcontinental railroads. Railroad corporations were the financial backbone of the Republican Party, which essentially monopolized national politics from 1865 to 1913, beginning with the election of the first Republican President, the renowned railroad industry lawyer/lobbyist, Abraham Lincoln of the Illinois Central.

General Sherman wrote in his memoirs (p. 775) that as soon as the war ended, "My thoughts and feelings at once reverted to the construction of the great Pacific Railway . . . . I put myself in communication with the parties engaged in the work, visiting them in person, and I assured them that I would afford them all possible assistance and encouragement." "We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress [of the railroads]," Sherman wrote to Ulysses S. Grant in 1867 (See Michael Fellman, Citizen Sherman, p. 264).

Lincoln's old personal friend Grenville Dodge, who he had appointed as a military general, initially recommended that slaves be made of the Indians so that they could be forced to dig the railroad beds from Iowa to California (See Dee Brown, Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow, p. 64). The government decided instead to try to murder as many Indians as possible, women and children included, and then to imprison the survivors in concentration camps euphemistically called "reservations."

When he became president, Grant made his old pal Sherman the commanding general of the U.S. Army and another "Civil War" luminary, General Phillip Sheridan, assumed command on the ground in the West. "Thus the great triumvirate of the Union Civil War effort," writes Fellman (P. 260), "formulated and enacted military Indian policy until reaching, by the 1880s, what Sherman sometimes referred to as u2018the final solution of the Indian problem'" (emphasis added). Other former Union Army officers joined in the slaughter. This included John Pope, O.O. Howard, Nelson Miles, Alfred Terry, E.O.C. Ord, C.C. Augur, Edward Canby, George Armstrong Custer, Benjamin Garrison, and Winfield Scott Hancock.

"Sherman viewed Indians as he viewed recalcitrant Southerners during the war and newly freed people after: resisters to the legitimate forces of an ordered society," writes John Marzalek, author of Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order (p. 380). "During the Civil War," Marzalek continues, "Sherman and Sheridan had practiced a total war of destruction of property . . . . Now the army, in its Indian warfare, often wiped out entire villages . . . . Sherman insisted that the only answer to the Indian problem was all-out war — of the kind he had utilized against the Confederacy."

Sherman, Sheridan, Grant, and the other "Civil War luminaries" all considered Indians to be subhuman and racially inferior to whites, a belief that they used to "justify" their policy of extermination. Sherman also believed that the freed slaves would become "wild beasts" if they were not strictly controlled by whites. "The Indians give a fair illustration of the fate of the negroes if they are released from the control of the whites," he said (See Lee Kennett, Sherman: A Soldier's Life, p. 297). Sherman sought "a racial cleansing of the land," wrote Fellman. "All the Indians will have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers," Sherman declared. Fellman (p. 271) documents that Sherman "gave Sheridan prior authorization to slaughter as many women and children as well as men Sheridan or his subordinates felt was necessary when they attacked Indian villages."

Sherman and Sheridan's troops conducted more than 1,000 attacks on Indian villages, mostly in the winter months when families would be together. Orders were given to kill everyone and everything, including dogs. A war of extermination was also waged on the American buffalo, since it was the Indians' chief source of food, winter clothing, and other things (the Indians even made fish hooks out of dried buffalo bones).

The "Indian Wars" were actually a continuation of the policy of extermination that commenced by the Lincoln administration during the War to Prevent Southern Independence. One of the first attacks was the notorious Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. There was a Cheyenne and Arapaho village located on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado that had been assured by the U.S. government that it would be safe there. However, another Union Army "luminary," Colonel John Chivington, carried out the government's plan of reneging on this promise. As described in Crimsoned Prairie: The Indian Wars, by S.L.A. Marshall who authored thirty books on American military history, Chivington's orders to his troops were: "I want you to kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice."

Marshall describes how the troops "began a full day given over to blood-lust, orgiastic mutilation, rapine, and destruction — with Chivington . . . looking on and approving." Upon returning to Denver, Chivington "and his raiders demonstrated around Denver, waving their trophies, more than one hundred drying scalps. They were acclaimed as conquering heroes, which was what they had sought mainly." "Colorado soldiers have once again covered themselves with glory," one Republican Party newspaper in Colorado proclaimed (Marshall, p. 39).

An even more disgusting account of the Sand Creek massacre is given in the famous book by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (p. 89). "When the troops came up to the [squaws], they ran out and showed their persons to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all . . . . There seemed to be indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children . . . . The squaws offered no resistance. Every one . . . was scalped."

This type of a war of extermination or genocide was repeated hundreds of times from 1865-1890, when Sherman's "final solution" was finally realized. Commenting on the butchering of Indian women and children by Custer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas Murphy remarked in 1868 that it was "a spectacle most humiliating, an injustice unparalleled, a national crime most revolting, that must, sooner or later, bring down upon us or our posterity the judgment of Heaven" (quoted in Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, p. 157).

Custer found that his order to "kill or hang all the warriors" was "dangerous" to his soldiers because it meant "separating them from the old men, women, and children" (Brown, p. 169). So he decided to just kill everyone, women and children included. Marshall, who was the U.S. government's official historian of the European Theater of War in World War II and the author of thirty books on U.S. military history, called Sheridan's orders to Custer "the most brutal orders ever published to American troops." Sheridan is credited with the saying that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," a policy that was endorsed by both Sherman and Grant (who has laughingly been portrayed by court historians recently as some kind of racial hero).

It was the barbaric behavior of these "Civil War luminaries" during the quarter century after Appomattox that was used to "justify" such things as the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos by the U.S. Army during the 1899-1902 Filipino revolt against American imperialism. President Theodore Roosevelt "justified" this mass slaughter by calling Filipinos "savages, half-breeds, a wild and ignorant people." William Tecumseh Sherman himself could not have said it better.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.

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