Propaganda, and Perspective, on "American Empire"

Posted: Nov 14, 2007 7:31 AM
Propaganda, and Perspective, on "American Empire"

In 1959, the hilarious Peter Sellers comedy “The Mouse That Roared” charmed audiences around the world by mocking America’s long-standing reputation for prodigious generosity – especially to nations who’ve fought the United States and lost. The movie (based on a droll and sprightly novel by Leonard Wibberley) tells the story of the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick that decides to cope with imminent financial collapse by declaring war on the U.S. The Grand Duchess and her prime minister (both played by Sellers) unleash the full might of a Fenwickian expeditionary force for an invasion of New York City, storming Manhattan with a twenty-man army equipped with medieval armor and bows and arrows. The scheming Europeans naturally plan in advance for a speedy, abject surrender, after which they expect to benefit from the bountiful foreign aid and reconstruction assistance that America traditionally lavishes on its beaten foes.

This good-natured spoof connected with moviegoers of the era precisely because they recognized elements of truth in its portrayal of America’s bounteous naïveté – satirizing a notorious national instinct to spread Yankee wealth even to obscure, powerless and hostile nations that looked on the United States with ill-disguised contempt. Ironically, the film appeared in the midst of the Cold War period regularly characterized by revisionist historians (William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and many more) as the very height of U.S. arrogance and imperialism, when the American colossus needlessly menaced the appropriately frightened Soviet Union and ruthlessly imposed its will on allies and unaligned alike.

Critics of the United States and its role in the world prefer to argue their point of view by focusing on specific instances of American bullying or brutality, recounting their favorite horror stories from Indonesia or Nicaragua, Vietnam or Chile, the Philippines or Iraq – or any of two dozen other places around the globe where American intervention or involvement imperfectly exemplified the nation’s self-professed high ideals. These arguments range over two centuries of history to yield abundant examples of American folly, recklessness, even cruelty, but hardly justify film-maker Michael Moore’s proclamation that the United States constitutes an “Evil Empire” resembling the mass-murdering excesses of the old Soviet Union. (“One Evil Empire down and one more to go,” the portly provocateur declares on camera in his little-seen, America-bashing 1998 documentary, “The Big One.”) The leftist insistence on concentrating on individual examples of U.S. “perfidy” emphasizes details over destiny, arcane disputes over isolated, long-ago blunders above big picture considerations of the overall impact of U.S. policy. Yes, it’s possible to argue that the United States (and our British allies) harmed democratic development (and our own long-term interests) by undermining the leftist Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, but that doesn’t justify (or even explain) the current Iranian designation of the U.S. as “The Great Satan” or the cheering crowds at Teheran rallies who lustily chant “Death to America!” In the same sense, skeptical military historians might dismiss General George Washington as an inept tactician and inferior leader of men who lost nearly every battle he fought, without acknowledging that after eight years he won a seemingly impossible victory against the world’s greatest power.

Those who insist on slandering the United States seek ugly close-ups of twisted trees but won’t step back to consider the forest. They lack perspective, and ignore context. They refer to dwell on the harsh impact of specific American initiatives or policies, without acknowledging the Republic’s undeniably benevolent and beneficial impact on the world at large during every era in our history.


The strongest, most direct evidence against the indictment of the Untied States as a destructive, callous imperial power comes from a consideration of the progress of those nations most closely involved with the United States. In the long-term, the states and peoples who aligned themselves with America in world affairs, and even those nations that experienced lengthy American occupations, prospered economically and developed functioning democratic institutions. The phrase “The Yanks are Coming! The Yanks are Coming!” (featured in George M. Cohan’s stirring World War I rabble-rouser “Over There”) most often signaled a nation’s immediate liberation and never meant its long-term destruction or conquest. Each national story boasts its own distinctive features but the experience of America’s Western European allies, as well as our one-time enemies in Germany, Italy and Japan, indicates that inclusion in the U.S. sphere of influence helped provide protection, prosperity, and the chance for flourishing democracies. In divided nations, the stark contrast between the pro-American segment and the anti-American counterpart offers unequivocal indication that connection with the United States provided a blessing, not a curse. The US surely deserves credit for the vastly more fortunate circumstances of South Korea over North Korea, for the relative freedom and prosperity of the former West Germany compared to East Germany, and even the superior development and free institutions in small, pro-Western Chinese enclaves (Taiwan, Hong Kong) compared to mainland China.

Moreover, whenever a developing state has realigned from an anti-American position to a policy of cooperation and commercial connection with the United States, these nations gained enormous benefits – as with all the former states of the Soviet sphere (“Warsaw Pact”) in Eastern Europe, where the Baltic republics, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and most other nations entered periods of dramatic growth and democratization after the collapse of the Russian Empire. By the same token, nations that shifted from affiliation with the West to a posture of anti-Americanism (Cuba in 1959, Iran in 1979) make the switch at their own enormous long-term detriment. It’s far more than a matter of US power rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies: the record in every corner of the world suggests that the incorporation of American ideas of self-government and free markets leads to higher standards of living and more stable free institutions. While Communists and Third World revolutionaries might denounce nations within America’s sphere of influence as “puppets” or “satellite regimes,” the tragic experience of South Vietnam (and the neighboring states in Laos and Cambodia) stands as a rare example of societies suffering long term negative consequences for that status. The most important argument for continued U.S. involvement in Iraq hinges on the importance of preventing the struggling Iraqi government from becoming a second exception.

With all the danger and deprivation in the Middle East, the most wretched conditions in today’s world still occur almost entirely in sub-Saharan Africa, where impoverished and violence-ridden nations complain far more frequently of too little US involvement than they do of too much. The Clinton administration drew widespread criticism for its handling of the genocidal conflict in Rwanda: though no one could blame the United States for provoking the slaughter, America earned ferocious denunciation for its failure to intervene.


In 1942, the historian Rupert Emerson declared: “With the exception of the brief period of imperialist activity at the time of the Spanish American war, the American people have shown a deep repugnance to both the conquest of distant lands and the assumption of rule over alien peoples.”

In the 65 eventful years since Emerson’s observation, this “deep repugnance” remains a prominent feature of American public opinion and has helped to shape foreign policy. The bloody (and seemingly innumerable) foreign wars of the Twentieth Century saw millions upon millions of American troops deployed to every corner of the globe but for the most part they came home at the earliest opportunity. President Wilson dispatched more than two-million American soldiers to France to win World War I, but in less than two years they had all left the Old World behind. The sixty year presence of American forces in Europe and Japan following the Second World War has not only decreased dramatically in size since the demise of the Soviet threat but continues today at the insistence of the host countries. Aside from the economic benefits to local economies from the numerous American bases, US troops (for better or worse) provide a security shield that has allowed our European allies to scrimp on defense spending, with military resources in no way commensurate with their economic or political power. In any event, not even the most implacable anti-American could describe today’s robust and re-united Germany as a restive, captive society, crushed by Yankee imperialism because of the ongoing presence of the US military on its soil. By the same token, the 29,000 American troops who remain in South Korea for defensive purposes some 54 years after the armistice with the North hardly constitute an occupation force or have prevented the nation’s dazzling prosperity and democratization.

These long-term military assignments represent prominent exceptions to the general American rule of quick, short-term interventions rather than permanent conquests. In 1848, victorious troops marched into Mexico City after the crushing defeat of that nation’s vaunted military machine. “Jingos” at home demanded the annexation of all of Mexico, but instead President Polk accepted a treaty that added to the nation the sparsely populated territory of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah (Texas had achieved its own independence from Mexico eleven years before). Rather than simply imposing its will on a conquered neighbor, the U.S. agreed to assume Mexico’s burdensome national debt of $3.25 million and to pay the government a surprisingly lavish sum of $15 million more. After the settlement, Washington made no attempt to maintain American forces or bases on Mexican soil.

The same pattern applied almost everywhere – with American withdrawal following even the bloodiest, most punishing military struggles. In “Dangerous Nation,” Robert Kagan discerns this same impatience in the Reconstruction of the American South after the War Between the States. In our nation’s first exercise in “Nation Building,” the federal government ultimately failed because it allotted only 11 years before withdrawing Union troops (as part of the compromise that settled the disputed election of 1876) and abandoning the ambitious effort to guarantee justice and security for former slaves. This limited appetite for occupation and rebuilding has bedeviled post-war policies far more than any desire for permanent presence, leading to problematic and truncated missions in conflicts ranging from the Barbary Wars of 1805 to the First Gulf War and the Somali intervention of the 1990’s. Osama bin Laden pointed to America’s humiliation in Somalia (where 18 mutilated soldiers led to a hasty American withdrawal) as one of the incidents that led him to characterize the United States as a “paper tiger” with no staying power. Bin Laden also mentioned the departure from Lebanon in 1983 after the suicide bombing that killed 261 Marines, and particularly noted the way that public impatience and exhaustion brought about the retreat from Vietnam. Ironically, by focusing on the American penchant for quick withdrawals from the world’s hot spots, our primary terrorist adversary undermined his own characterization of the United States as a ruthless imperialist power.

Even the long-standing and often bloody US mission to the Philippines culminated in American decisions to forego any imperial role and resulted in Filipino independence and (flawed) democracy. The United States seized the former Spanish colony with little difficulty at the outset of the Spanish American War, but then suppressed a stubborn nationalist insurrection (1898-1902) that killed more than 4,000 American troops and some 200,000 Filipinos. This nightmare didn’t stop the American authorities from setting up an elected legislative assembly five years later, with a US-style bicameral legislature by 1916. In 1935, the Philippines achieved full internal self-government and, after a brutal Japanese occupation during the War, achieved complete independence (together with massive US reconstruction aid) in 1945. The determination to renounce any colonial role in the Philippines, even after massive sacrifices over the course of nearly a half century, hardly characterizes a typically imperialist approach.

As to the territories added by the United States as part of its ongoing enlargement of its boundaries, none of these acquisitions followed the familiar colonial pattern of invasion and subjugation of hostile native populations. In all cases, American expansion involved annexing or negotiating for sparsely populated tracts of land in which settlers from the U.S. had already established flourishing communities. Before acquiring West Florida from Spain, or Oregon and Washington from Great Britain, or California, Texas and the Southwest from Mexico, U.S. citizens had already rushed into these territories and to some extent Americanized them. More than 30,000 Americans had settled in Texas with the permission of the Spanish colonial and Mexican governments, and by 1835 they outnumbered their Mexican neighbors by at least eight to one. Even the annexation of Hawaii amounted to the confirmation, rather than the beginning, of US domination. American traders and whalers played a prominent role in the islands as early as the 1780’s, and the arrival of US missionaries in the 1820’s led to the rapid spread of Christianity, literacy, and civil institutions. As early as 1854, the native Hawaiian government formally applied to Congress for admission to the Union as an American state – bypassing the normal territorial phase. Because the Hawaiians insisted on joining the Republic as a free state, the slave-holding South blocked their bid for instant statehood. Some thirty years later, Robert Kagan writes, “Hawaii had become a virtual ‘economic colony’ of the United States. Hawaiian products sold to the United States, mostly sugar, constituted 99 percent of all the islands’ exports, while the Untied States supplied three-fourths of all Hawaii’s imports. American-born settlers, the sons and daughters of missionaries and whalers, had over the years become a dominant economic and political force on the islands. Over time the ‘American’ and other influential light-skinned merchants in Hawaii agitated for political rights and a political system more closely attuned to their political and economic interests.” This led to an elected legislature, the decline of the monarchy, the establishment of a republic in 1894, territorial status in 1900, and statehood in 1959. As in the other permanent additions to US territory, it wasn’t invading armies that made Hawaii part of the nation, but independent-minded immigrants and settlers acting for their own advancement, without governmental sponsorship or sanction, and establishing the American communities that made United States acquisition not only possible, but inevitable.


The notion of America as liberator of the world animated the Republic and its politics long before the globe-girdling wars of the Twentieth Century. As early as 1838, a Jacksonian newspaper called “The Democratic Review” published a soaring description of America’s destined international role that might bring a blush to the cheek of even the most visionary neo-con:

“The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles: to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High – the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere – its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens – and its congregation the Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling and owning no man master, but governed by God’s natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood – of ‘peace and goodwill among men.’”

Otto von Bismarck might boast of building his German Reich on the basis of “blood and iron,” but the United States consistently viewed its international mission in deeply Christian, messianic terms. After deciding on an ongoing American role in the Philippines, President William McKinley granted a White House interview to the General Missionary Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church. “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight,” the President revealed, “and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t how it was but it came… that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift them and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”

One can scoff at such naïveté and sentimentality, just as many Americans scoffed at the soaring rhetoric of the second Bush inaugural with its promise to eliminate tyranny and promote democracy around the world. Nevertheless, such ideals about the U.S. obligation to less fortunate peoples have always played a role in shaping American policy and mobilizing the public support to permit its implementation. The sincerely held notion of American mission helps to explain the apparent contributions in the U.S. approach to its role in the world: we’re reluctant and embarrassed to pursue raw power for its own sake, but we can be shockingly aggressive, even militant when it comes to promoting democracy, free markets, and Christianity.

Of course, the pursuit of such ideals can also bring financial benefits that enrich the Republic and its populace. In a fascinating new book called “Day of Empire,” Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School, analyzes the emergences of a succession of “hyper-powers,” each of which dominated the globe in its own era. Concerning the Untied States she writes: “America built its world dominance not through conquest but commerce….America for most of the nineteenth century ‘contented itself with carving out….(an) ‘empire of the seas’- an informal empire based on trade and influence…Even today, as John Steele Gordon writes, “if the world is becoming rapidly Americanized as once it became Romanized, the reason lies not in our weapons, but in the fact that others want what we have and are willing, often eager, to adopt our ways in order to have them too.”

While the “soft power” of US culture and corporations ultimately wields more influence that our military strength, America has pursued numerous “humanitarian” interventions over the centuries that in no way serve either our financial and strategic self-interest. The recent military missions in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo brought scant reward to the United States while managing, with varying degrees of success, to save lives. Nearly a century earlier, the Boxer uprising shook China and, as Max Boot writes, “America joined in a multinational expedition to rescue the besieged legations in Peking. While the Europeans and Japanese participants were determined to carve out their own spheres of influence in China, the United States pointedly committed itself to maintaining free trade for all – the Open Door.”

Unlike other dominant powers in world history, the United States today remains less focused on enhancing its own sway than on promoting the stability and institutions that have allowed it to flourish. As Amy Chua concludes: “Even when the United States invades and occupies other countries, the goal today is never annexation but, at least ostensibly, an eventual military withdrawal, leaving behind a constitutional (and hopefully pro-American) democracy.”


America’s good intentions do not necessarily produce good results. Even in the noble and necessary struggle against Nazism in World War II, US troops proved themselves capable of appalling cruelty. As Stanford professor Norman Naimark recently noted in the Weekly Standard (November 12, 2007): “Some five million Germans died during World War II, including 1.8 million civilians. Allied bombing campaigns, including the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, destroyed German cities and killed hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants, among them 75,000 children under 14….Many thousands of Germans starved to death, especially in the American Rheinwiesen lager (Rhine Meadow camps); others were beaten and horribly tortured. American soldiers sometimes shot Germans, usually SS and other uniformed Nazis, where they were found, and executed others without trial in detention camps. No American (or German) should have any illusions about the violence carried out by GI’s and their officers against disarmed and interned German soldiers, policemen, and even civilians at the end of the war. The “greatest generation” committed crimes against captured Germans that make Abu Ghraib look like child’s play.”

Naimark readily concedes, however, that it makes no sense to consider such atrocities outside the context of the wider war, just as it makes no sense to condemn the US atom bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki without reference to their ultimate life-saving role for both Americans and Japanese (who otherwise would have perished by the millions in a fight-to-the-death defense against a conventional invasion of the home islands).

In the same way, it’s impossible to indict America for its vigorous and sometimes overweening international role in the period 1945-1989 without consideration of the multi-generational, world-wide struggle against the aggressive, unspeakably brutal force of world wide Communism. In his Nobel Prize Lecture of 2005, Sir Harold Pinter smears the United States for causing “hundreds of thousands of deaths” with its support for “right wing military dictatorship” in “Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile.” At no point, however, does Pinter remind his listeners that every one of the “dictatorships” he mentioned played a role in the larger struggle against the Soviet Union and its repeatedly announced intentions (“We will bury you” warned Nikita Khrushchev) to destroy the United States and its way of life. America-bashers may insist that the Russian Empire never constituted a real threat to the west, and the militant anti-Communists merely conjured up the specter of the Red Menace in order to exploit fear in the service of their own power-mad ends, but the corpses piled high in much of Europe, Asia and Latin America provide unimpeachable evidence to the contrary. “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression,” the 1997 compilation of research edited by French academician Stephane Courtois, counts some 100 million victims of communist murder during the Twentieth Century. This record, largely ignored by too many contemporary Americans, may not excuse every American misdeed of the Cold War period, but it can certainly help to explain them.

Chile, for example, usually constitutes a favorite demonstration of American perfidy for those who seek to discredit the United States. In 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende became the world’s first democratically elected Marxist President and immediately launched a radical program of nationalization, wealth distribution, and social reform. The nation faced dire and increasingly violent divisions even before the CIA-directed coup in 1973, with more moderate Chileans fearing the imminent imposition of an unshakable, implacable Castro style dictatorship. Instead, Chile endured 17 years of authoritarian, right-wing, pro-American dictatorship from General Augusto Pinochet, with ruthless persecution of suspected dissidents combined with audacious free-market reforms. For all his brutality, Pinochet succeeded in creating the most dynamic economy in Latin America and under American pressure he allowed a referendum on his own rule in 1988, then gave up power altogether less than two years later. Today Chile continues to benefit from a growing economy and stable democratic institutions, with a freely elected socialist President. While the international left regularly and repeatedly blames the United States for installing Pinochet, America gets no credit for its decisive role in his removal. In the same way, the critics assault the US for backing the Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, but never praise American policy makers for securing his peaceful removal and supporting the more democratically-minded “People Power” revolution of Corazon Aquino.

Above all, those who concentrate on Cold War excesses of US foreign policy avoid the most significant point of them all: the strategies and sacrifices, doctrines and deceptions employed by the United States resulted in the most remarkable victory in our history, with nearly 500 million human beings liberated from Stalinist tyranny. The results everywhere, in terms of vastly improved living standards and fresh blessings of freedom, should speak for themselves.

So should the restraint, modesty and generosity of the USA in responding to the collapse of its long-time Soviet rival. With America for the first-time enjoying matchless power in a suddenly uni-polar world, the new “hyper-power” made no attempt to abuse its standing. As Amy Chua writes: “Here was a society with unthinkable destructive capacity, facing no countervailing power. Yet it seemed to go without saying that the Untied States would not use its unrivaled force for territorial expansion or other aggressive imperialist ends…. When it came to U.S. military might, the most controversial issues were whether the United States should intervene abroad for purely humanitarian reasons (as in Kosovo or Rwanda) and what America should do with its ‘peace dividend,’ the billions of dollars the United States would no longer be spending on its military.”

The best way to put America’s place in the world in proper context is to call to mind a famous sequence from the most beloved Hollywood movie of them all. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” small town banker George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) contemplates a Christmas Eve suicide before guardian angel Clarence provides the ultimate life-affirming vision. He provides the disheartened hero with a dark, dysfunctional view of the town of Bedford Falls if he’d never drawn breath, as the community would have taken shape without his good deeds and benevolent influence. With that sharper perspective, George can go home to his loving family to celebrate the holiday with gratitude and joy.

Those who condemn the United States should perform a thought experiment involving a global “Bedford Falls Vision.” Imagine that the United States had never become a world power, or never existed at all. Would the ideals of democracy and free markets wield the same power in the world? Would murderous dictatorships have claimed more victims – or fewer? Would the community of nations strain under the lash of Nazism, or Communism, or some vicious combination of both? Would multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy flourish anywhere on earth without inspiration from the ground-breaking example of the USA? Would the threat of jihadist violence and resurgent Islamic fundamentalist menace humanity more grievously, or not at all?

No one can provide definitive, authoritative answers to such hypotheticals, but merely confronting the questions should help put the American role in more complete context. As George Bailey’s view of an alternate reality convinced him “It’s a Wonderful Life,” even the briefest contemplation of a world without America should persuade us that “It’s a Wonderful Nation” – in fact, the Republic rightly recognized as the Greatest Nation on God’s Green Earth.