U. S. Imperialism: A Century of
by Lance Selfa
International Socialist Review
Issue 7, Spring 1999
This year marks the 100th anniversary
of the emergence of the U.S. as a major world power. Under the
pretext of responding to a bombing on the USS Maine anchored in
Havana, Cuba, the U.S. went to war with Cuba's colonial overlord,
Spain, in 1899. After routing Europe's weakest colonial power,
the U.S. made off with all of Spain's colonial possessions in
Latin America and Asia, seizing control of Cuba, Puerto Rico,
Guam and the Philippines.
The Spanish-American War marked the entrance
of the U.S. into the worldwide scramble for colonies among the
advanced powers. Novelist Mark Twain made no bones about what
How our hearts burned with indignation
against the atrocious Spaniards. . .But when the smoke was over,
the dead buried and the cost of the war came back to the people
in an increase in the price of commodities and rent--that is,
when we sobered up from our patriotic spree--it suddenly dawned
on us that the cause of the Spanish-American war was the price
of sugar. . . . that the lives, blood, and money of the American
people were used to protect the interests of American capitalists.
A century later, the U.S. stands alone
as the world's superpower. It is the only country with the ability
to go to war anywhere in the world.
The U.S. attained its position of dominance
through competition with other powerful nations. The U.S. and
the world's other major powers--Britain, Russia, China, France
and Germany--fought two world wars, threatened each other with
nuclear annihilation and divided and redivided the world between
How can we explain this madness?
It is important to understand that wars
and violence stem not from the whims of politicians but from the
nature of the system itself. Capitalism is based on the exploitation
of the vast majority of the world's population by a small minority
who own and control all the resources. A recent United Nations
(UN) study showed that all of the world's poor could be lifted
out of poverty by spending the wealth of the world's seven richest
At the heart of a system which produces
this kind of obscene inequality is ruthless competition between
corporations constantly on the lookout for new ways to make profits.
The process of competition forces capitalists to look beyond their
own national boundaries to gain access to new and cheap raw materials
Dividing Up the World
In the late nineteenth century, the British
ruling class established a vast empire that covered one-third
of the globe. It used its industrial and financial muscle to conquer
less powerful countries. Other nations did the same, carving out
huge empires to plunder.
The big powers sent their troops around
the globe--not only to conquer less powerful nations but also
to fight over the division of the world among themselves. Therefore,
economic competition gave way to military competition. Socialists
call this process of economic and military competition--and the
domination of weaker nations which results from it--imperialism.
Although it arrived late on the empire-building
scene, the U.S. operated no differently than other imperialist
powers. It turned the Caribbean Sea into a virtual U.S. lake.
In the 100 years since the Spanish-American War, the U.S. has
invaded Cuba five times, Honduras four times, Panama four times,
the Dominican Republic twice, Haiti twice, Nicaragua twice and
So much for U.S. rhetoric about opposing
Gen. Smedley Butler, who headed many U.S.
military interventions in the early part of this century, gave
a stark account of what he had really been doing:
I have spent 34 years in active service
as a member of the Marine Corps. And during that period I spent
most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business,
for Wall Street and for the bankers.
In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.
I helped make Mexico safe for American
oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place
for the National City Bank to collect revenues. I helped pacify
Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers
The First and Second World Wars resulted
from the struggle between rival capitalist classes over the division
of the globe. For example, the boundaries of most of the countries
of today's Middle East were drawn during the carve-up of the Ottoman
Empire between Britain and France following the First World War.
The Second World War ended with the division
of the world into two rival empires--the U.S.-led Western bloc
and the Russian-led Eastern bloc. Until the Eastern bloc collapsed
in 1989, the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the USSR
threatened to become a nuclear war. To "stop the spread of
communism," the U.S. fought wars in Vietnam and Korea. And
it used the same excuse to destabilize and overthrow regimes it
opposed--from the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 to the
Allende government in Chile in 1973.
The same system which produced the bloody
slaughters of the world wars continues to produce wars today.
The U.S. wields its huge power through institutions like the World
Bank, the International Monetary Fund, NATO and the UN. If poor
countries do not comply with U.S. demands, the U.S. threatens
to withhold bank loans, impose tariff barriers or withdraw diplomatic
And at the end of the day, the U.S. is
prepared to use brute force to back up its economic and political
threats. That is why the U.S. fought the 1991 Gulf War. The war
was not about peace and democracy, but about protecting the West's
oil supplies in the Gulf.
Throughout the century, U.S. officials
have justified wars and interventions with rhetoric about "protecting
democracy," "stopping aggression," or, more recently,
performing "humanitarian" duties. But these merely cover
the real aims of U.S. policy--to make the world safe for big business
and to establish, as President Bush said after the Gulf War, that
"what we say goes."
U.S. Drowns Its Opponents in Blood
Whenever the colonial subjects of the
U.S. fought back, the U.S. drowned them in blood. As Mark Twain
commented on the Philippine war:
We have pacified some thousands of the
islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their
villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished
heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated
the remaining ten millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is
the pious new name of the musket; we have acquired property in
the three hundred concubines and other slaves of our business
partner, the Sultan of Sulu, and hoisted our protecting flag over
And so, by these Providences of God--and
the phrase is the government's, not mine--we are a World Power.
In the 1900-1903 war to conquer the Philippines,
the U.S. killed more than 1 million people. In the midst of that
war, U.S. Army General Shefter said: "It may be necessary
to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half
of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than
their present semi-barbarous state affords."
Yet the real barbarians are the generals
and politicians who run the U.S. military machine. The U.S. is
still the only country to use the ultimate weapon of genocide--the
atomic bomb. Another horrific example of the destruction the U.S.
is prepared to wreak took place during the Vietnam War in the
1960s. By the time the U.S. was finally forced to withdraw in
1975, much of the country had been saturated with chemical weapons,
and the war had claimed two million Vietnamese and Cambodian lives.
But Vietnam also showed how U.S. imperialism
can be beaten. The Vietnamese people's struggle for self-determination
against the U.S. and the U.S.-backed puppet regime in South Vietnam
defeated the world's greatest military power. It also inspired
a worldwide campaign of solidarity, which, by the war's end, reached
right into the U.S. army itself. Thousands of U.S. soldiers drew
the conclusion that their quarrel wasn't with the Vietnamese,
but with the politicians and generals who sent them to Vietnam.
Today's U.S. threats to attack Iraq are
part of a century-old pattern of violence aimed at ensuring the
domination of U.S. power. The only way to end this madness is
to get rid of the capitalist system which causes wars.
Propping up Mass Murderers
Bill Clinton says the bombing of Serbia
and Kosovo is to bring about justice and to protect the oppressed
Albanians. But for decades the West has backed mass murderers
and torturers as long as they fitted in with Western interests.
These tyrants have acted in a manner similar to, and often much
worse than, the Serbian regime. Clinton accuses Serbia's Milosevic
of killing 2,500 people in Kosovo. But the West happily supports
governments which have butchered hundreds of thousands.
In the 1960s and 1970s the U.S. fought
a war against ordinary people in Vietnam. One million were killed
in Vietnam and another million in Cambodia. During that war the
U.S. used, on a more horrific scale, the methods it now accuses
Milosevic of using--search and destroy patrols, burning villages
and driving out thousands of people. Britain used the same means
against those who revolted against the empire, for example, in
The U.S. has murdered opponents, fixed
elections and intervened throughout Central and South America
to defend right-wing forces which pushed U.S. profit and power.
Some 75,000 people were killed by U.S.-backed death squads in
El Salvador. Today the West defends murderous regimes if it suits
their interests, then demonizes them if they step a little out
of line. Saddam Hussein in Iraq went from being a "hero"Zin
the war against Iran to a villain when he was seen as a threat
to U.S. oil interests.
There are many other examples:
INDONESIA AND EAST TIMOR
In 1965 the U.S. backed General Suharto
in sweeping away the slightly left-wing government of Indonesia.
All the Western powers now terrorizing Serbia applauded his victory.
At least 500,000 were killed by Suharto and his allies in the
immediate aftermath of the coup. When Portugal withdrew from its
colony of East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian army occupied it.
The airforce bombed villages indiscriminately and used heavy artillery
against rebel movements and their civilian supporters. Suharto's
men killed probably 120,000 of the 650,000 people in the country.
U.S. President Ford and his secretary
of state, Kissinger, visited Suharto the day before the invasion
and nodded it through. No task force was dispatched to free East
Timor. Up until today the West has provided the weaponry that
lets the Indonesian regime maintain its grip on East Timor.
In 1975 the Portuguese colonialists were
driven from the central African state of Angola. Right-wing forces,
particularly Jonas Savimbi's UNITA, attempted to bring down the
MPLA government which came to power as a result of the uprising
that defeated Portugal. The U.S. was determined to stop a left-wing
government from controlling the country.
From the beginning of the Angolan civil
war, the CIA channelled arms to UNITA. In 1981, when President
Reagan took office, the U.S. government swept away a Congressional
ban on openly sending arms to movements like UNITA. The result
plunged Angola into 20 years of bloodshed. The Angolan war has
already claimed 750,000 lives. Two-thirds of those killed were
children. UNITA specialized in attacks on civilians and sowing
landmines in villages. Over 65,000 people have had limbs amputated
as a result.
ISRAEL AND SOUTH LEBANON
The West has backed Israel, the only
certain nuclear power in the Middle East, for 50 years. Yet Israel
is responsible for horrors far greater than anything that has
happened in Kosovo. At the birth of the state, the Israeli government
used terror to drive out 750,000 Palestinians. In a series of
wars against its Arab neighbors, Israel has always been able to
rely on support from the U.S.
The U.S. has not only handed over hundreds
of millions of dollars of aid but also directly intervened in
military conflicts on Israel's side, such as in the 1973 war.
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Palestinians
and Lebanese were slaughtered as refugee camps were bombed to
rubble. Israel deliberately targeted hospitals with phosphorus
and cluster bombs. During two major invasions in 1993 and 1996
the Israelis killed hundreds of civilians.
Today some people argue that perhaps the
U.S. can do good in Kosovo even if not elsewhere. But the record
of imperialism shows a consistent pattern where profit and power
come first and ordinary people come nowhere.
Its strategic aim is to exercise "hegemony"
throughout the world to get its way in any disagreement with other
states, big or small. But other big states are not always willing
to go along with its schemes.
Index of Website