A Long Debate About the Nature and Limits of Empire,

The Benevolent and Progressive Policeman,

The Empire by the Bay

excerpted from

Empire As A Way Of Life

by William Appleman Williams

IG Press, 1980, paper


A Long Debate About the Nature and Limits of Empire

The psychological impact of the Great Depression deeply affected American foreign policy, particularly because Frank Delano Roosevelt's New Deal did not generate peacetime recovery-let alone a new burst of growth and prosperity. Most Americans realized, privately if not publicly, that the economy was revived only through World War II. As a consequence, they were viscerally uneasy about a slide back into depression after the conflict ended.

The planning of the depression years was viewed an example of the dangerous influence of the revolution in Russia, and later, of Nazi Germany; and so, after Hitler was defeated, the Soviet Union was pictured as another Nazi Germany.

The New Deal's relatively disjointed efforts to deal with the depression were not successful in ending the crisis, but they affected the conduct of foreign relations in four important ways. First, and from the outset, Roosevelt steadily increased military spending as part of the effort to revive the system. He initially concentrated on the navy (his first move in 1933 was to build 32 ships over three years), but later extended his largesse to the army and the air force. The emphasis was striking: between 1932 and 1940 roughly 20 percent of government tax receipts were fed to the military.

As part of that, and regardless of one's judgement about the necessity or the wisdom of it, Roosevelt reinforced the inherent power of the giant corporations. By the end of the decade, for example, companies in four states received 39.32 percent of all military contracts; and fifteen states accounted for 82.85 percent of the total. That was not at all unrelated to the revelation in 1939 that 52 percent of total assets were owned by just 0.1 percent of all corporations. In the broader, structural sense, the New Deal created an institutional link between the huge companies and the military.

Second, and whatever the reforms and regulations that emerged, let alone Roosevelt's campaign rhetoric about "malefactors of great wealth," his administration was concerned to save, and if possible revitalize, a capitalist political economy based on the large corporations. Neither the President nor any of his consequential associates had any interest in moving the system toward some kind of socialism or backward into laissez-faire. As a result, foreign policy was dealt with in the traditional framework.

Which meant, third, that power became ever more consolidated and centralized. All the talk, both than and later, about whether or not Roosevelt wanted to be a dictator in the democratic idiom was largely beside the point. He finigled and fanagled and in the end did pretty much what he wanted to do, losing far fewer than he won. Think only of his successful manipulation of the budget to obtain ever-higher military expenditures. But that does not make him a dictator. He was simply a charming upper-class disingenuous leader who understood that marketplace capitalism had proved incapable of functioning without being subsidized by the taxpayer. And he could not imagine anything beyond saving marketplace capitalism.

His tax programs, for example, soaked the middle-and lower class-citizens with a ruthlessness not exhibited by any conservative President in this history of the republic.

Lacking the elementary candor to admit that marketplace capitalism had failed, American leaders had no recourse but to employ The State to create markets, control raw materials, and accumulate capital. And also to provide essential social services (from education to social work and on to death benefits), including sustaining the unemployed at the lowest effective level. And so the taxpayer came to pay twice. Once by providing the profits to the corporations and then again through his taxes, which also helped the corporations \ avoid paying their full share of the welfare costs.

Franklin Roosevelt understood the ultimate truth about empire as a way of life. End the empire and all hell might break loose; the Furies would appear. Thus neither he nor his close advisers could abide people who suggested that it was time-either morally or pragmatically-to consider and devise an alternative to that way of life. As a Wilsonian, Roosevelt clearly perceived America as a benevolent and progressive policeman, and saw contradiction between that role and being a good neighbor.

The President preferred to secure America's objectives with a smile, a wink, a fatherly talk, a shrewd compromise, or a nudge. And, if those proved insufficient, he liked to deploy imperial power indirectly: say through the threat of military and economic intervention exercised-to use an appropriate naval idiom-hull down over the horizon. To that extent, he had matured beyond the imperial enthusiasms he displayed while serving under Wilson. "Sooner or later," he observed in those days, "it seems the United States must go down there and clean up the Mexican political mess."

Thus he dealt with the revolutionary turmoil in Cuba during 1933-34 by surrounding the island with American ships, refusing to recognize the moderately leftist government that came to power, and then signing favorable political and economic agreements with its far more conservative successor. Similar strategies were later employed against Mexico and other Latin American countries. And at least tried in dealings with various major nations.


The Benevolent and Progressive Policeman

All that followed flowed from [Franklin] Roosevelt's decision about how to define and fight the war, and from the reality and related psychological scars of the Great Depression. The President was determined to destroy German and Japanese power. His policy reaffirmed the commitment, born of the Civil War, to a strategy of annihilation unto unconditional surrender. He likewise proposed to wage that war as cheaply as possible and with the least possible disruption of domestic life and society. And he undertook to attain those objectives in the name of preserving and extending America's traditional values, thus realizing its global dream of an open world marketplace dominated by American power.

It was a grand illusion predicated upon a failure to comprehend the full meaning of the Great Depression, and grounded in the charming belief that the United States could reap the rewards of empire without paying the costs of empire and without admitting that it was an empire. As a result, the benevolent, progressive policeman became ever less benevolent and progressive-and ever more baffled and frustrated when other nations increasingly challenged his legitimacy and authority.

Winning [WWII] completely, for example, meant honoring the strategy and tactics of unconditional surrender that Lincoln and Grant had distilled from much blood. It required concentrating vast force on the vitals of the enemy at the price of heavy losses. Many people though that the deployment of overwhelming air power would achieve the objective at a relatively low body count. And planes and bombs did contribute to complete victory. But not quite in the way the prophets promised. Air power proved effective only as it enabled the infantry to kill enemy soldiers and occupy their territory.

Dynamite, napalm, and other deadly items dropped from the sky did kill an enormous number of human beings. One night, for example, the United States burned at least 83,000 people in Tokyo by scattering firebombs across that city. An earlier raid in Europe, orchestrated by Sir Arthur Harris, scorched and otherwise killed 42,000 in Hamburg. And at Dresden-Ah! Dresden!-some 2,372 bombers managed in one night to destroy approximately fifty people apiece. But the infantry was nevertheless necessary to defeat both the Japanese and the Germans. And in that so-called clean air war, Britain alone lost 72,530 men, most of them brave and skilled: more than all the officers killed in World War I.

Much later, the bishops of air power would claim that their acolytes won the war against Japan. Their massive fire raids, culminating in the two atomic bombs, converted many of the heathen. Forgotten in the worshiping of the fireball are the infantrymen who acquired the real estate for the runways close enough for the airplanes to reach Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

Whatever the rhetoric of the New Deal, the President had never done anything of consequence to help American blacks (or any other people with colored skins). And so in January 1941, their most militant and impressive leader, A. Philip Randolph, began to organize a massive march on Washington "to exact their rights" as part of a war that he knew would be presented as a war in the name of freedom.

Roosevelt ignored the early news about the project. Then he backed and filled. He was a master of the dilly daily that distracted and enervated many critics or opponents. He fiddled and faddled for six months. Finally, in the summer of 1941, he finessed the crisis by issuing an Executive Order (No. 8802) that ostensibly ended discrimination-if not racism-against blacks in war industries and the federal bureaucracy (including the military). The President did not, however, impose or execute any penalties for failure to comply. He did not say that there would no contracts for corporations which failed forthwith to wire a consequential number of blacks and treat them equitably. He did not announce that labor unions which refused to enroll a meaningful number of blacks would be denied certifications as legitimate bargaining agents. No matter, the blacks backed off. The master had won again. But in time it would become apparent that he and his successors were too clever by half. The out-foxed themselves.

The Russians were not American blacks. They wanted American troops hunkered down in French hedgerows. Now. And if they were not there the Red Army would move westward beyond its own borders in the process of destroying the German army. Roosevelt defused a march in Washington at little or no cost to his corporate coalition, but he undermined his relationship with the Soviets. And he trapped himself. Victory by the Red Army was the key to avoiding any structural changes at home.


There is no mystery about any of it. The strategy was to use the Soviets to sustain a capitalist political economy. And it worked, at least for a time. It finessed the Russians in the short run, but it benumbed the American citizen. Of course some people died. But one of the most revealing bits of information about the history of America's part in World War II is that it is surprisingly difficult to find a simple statement of how many Americans died in the conflict. We seem to prefer to slide away, drop off, from that truth. But, if you persist, you can find it tucked away under the heading of "Selected Characteristics of the Armed Forces by War" near the back of the Historical Statistics of the United States. The number is 405,399.

... We did win the war cheaply. The Soviets, for example, lost at least 20 million human beings. Nobody knows how many Chinese died. Measured against our 405,399, we emerge as the most efficient war machine of all time. All of which is to say that the atom bomb was not a moral turning point, simply a pragmatic breakthrough. We refined the cost efficiency of killing beyond the imagination of anyone anywhere-in geography or in time.

But the problem was that Americans had become accustomed to winning without paying any significant costs. It was like the game of Truth and Consequences without any Consequences. The Russians and the Chinese supplied the capital, and we busted the bank. While the Russians lost 20 million lives, for example, the United States created 17 million new jobs safe from bombs or bullets.

Those workers, including large numbers of women and teenagers-even some blacks and browns-sometimes had trouble finding places to live or other substantial ways to invest their money. As a result, the entertainment industry boomed. It was more than a bit like prohibition in the 1920s: save the lives to waste the lives. As one bureaucratic wit remarked, "Americans are finding fun-and liking

At the moment of the ostensibly greatest sacrifice, in 1944, the total of goods and services available to American citizens outside the armed forces was greater than it had been in 1936.

Roosevelt could not suppress a smile. Surely, he remarked, 'sacrifice' is not exactly the proper word to describe this program of self-denial." Face it: the vast majority of Americans fought the war in perfect safety and comfort, though perhaps not in luxury. They had never in their immediate memory had it so good. Let there be no doubt. hen it is going well, empire as a way of life is a smashing success.

The citizenry was sent off to Limbo, that marvelous country of ( the powerless. Domestic breakdown followed by international crises left them at the mercy of their ostensible leaders. They were offered what appeared to be a choice, but it was so distorted as to be no more than a cruelly sophisticated version of that old tease about have you stopped beating your wife. Do you favor empire as a way of life and the continuation of your present freedom and prosperity, or do you prefer to honor your avowed ideas and risk a depression? It was not an honest question, but it was highly effective politics.

... an extremely long cable sent early in 1946 by a bureaucrat named George Frost Keenan in Moscow to his superiors in Washington. However much it has been analyzed and explained, even by Kennan himself (particularly by Kennan), it remains the hinge of policy.

Kennan later claimed that his analysis of Soviet behavior and his policy recommendations had been misunderstood and misapplied. There is some justification for that complaint, but it does not speak to the principal issue. Kennan chose to fight his battles inside the government, and his early public statement of his views can hardly be called subtle. He described the Soviet Union in crude mechanical metaphors (wind-up toys that stop only when they run into walls), and promised that such containment would subvert and replace the existing government and system.

One hardly needs to speculate about how the Russians responded to Kennan's views, or to his prompt and extensive influence among American leaders After all, Stalin and his advisers were subtle enough to understand the imperial nature of the Open Door Policy. Stalin viewed it as being "as dangerous to a nation as foreign military invasion." So to be told publicly, in Foreign Affairs, that he was an evil wind-up toy today was hardly calculated to promote a relaxation of tensions. Kennan did approve the article as published. And by then, 1947, he was quite aware that his hyperventilated rhetoric had been embraced by his superiors as the first and only commandment.

In a broader sense, Kennan typified the fundamentally nondemocratic attitude and outlook of the inner circle of American policy-makers. He and his peers were wholly persuaded that the public lacked either the intelligence or experience required to formulate or conduct foreign policy. That is why he never took his case to the public. He was an elitist who stuck with the elite.

Truman, Acheson, and others took from Kennan was the stark reformulation of Lincoln's strategy of containment. 'What Kennan said between 1945 and 1948 was what Lincoln had said between 1848 and 1861: put a wall around the Russians (the South) and that evil society will disintegrate.

The world looked relatively manageable in late summer 1949. The United States had won in Iran, the Soviets in Czechoslovakia. America controlled the Middle East, most particularly the oil in Saudi Arabia, and enjoyed as its allies the reinvigorated and modernized workshops in Germany and Japan. In addition the Russians had been held at bay in Yugoslavia and Berlin. A thoughtful and responsible imperial elite would not have been particularly upset by the overall meaning of various events that occurred during the autumn.

American leaders behaved differently. First in China, where a corrupt and disreputable government gave over in disgrace to quasi-puritanical communist revolutionaries led by Mao Tse-tung. Mao immediately asked to open serious discussions with the United States. Truman and Acheson would have none of it, denying American officials permission even to talk with Mao and refused to recognize his government. Mao was indicating, with the approval of his party's Executive Committee, that he wanted to explore the possibility of becoming a Tito, of developing a socialist but independent China. In their wisdom, Truman and Acheson defined Mao as a puppet of Stalin.

Almost simultaneously, the Russians tested a nuclear device. That meant that sometime in the future they could make and deliver such a bomb. Very shortly after the successful test explosion, with Stalin firmly in residence in the Kremlin, two of his most interesting subalterns-Georgi Malenkow and Nikita Khrushchev-began to speculate in public about using the stand-off to prove that socialism could create a better society than capitalism under conditions of peaceful competition. They were in effect saying that we now feel relatively secure. You have your empire, we have ours. Let us see who does the most effective and impressive job of creating the good imperial society.

Instead, Truman and Acheson ordered a crash program to produce an even more monstrous bomb, and set a task force to work to project the containment strategy to its ultimate conclusion as the basis for American policy. The result was the most impressive statement of the assumptions, ethos, and pragmatics of empire as a way of life ever generated and approved by the government of the United States. By comparison, for example, Henry Luce's sermon about The American Century seems like a grandfatherly talk by Billy Graham to Sunday schoolers on a picnic. There are many imperial documents tucked away in the archives, but National Security Council Document No. 68, dated April 14, 1950, is one of the most awesome.

The context of the document involves far more than the nuclear device tested by the Soviets.* Let us begin with the military base line as defined by two factors. First, as several times noted in NSC-68, the United States enjoyed the capacity "to deliver a serious [nuclear] blow against the war-making capacity of the U.S.S.R." That power was considered adequate "to deter the Kremlin from a deliberate direct military attack against ourselves or other free peoples." Second, the Soviet lack of any comparable stock of bombs or an effective delivery system meant that American leaders were dealing with the possibility of a future change in that situation, not with an existing condition of parity.

American leaders were well aware, moreover, that Winston Churchill had been arguing since 1947 that the United States and its allies should use that monopoly of nuclear weapons to enter into serious negotiations with the Russians to "bring matters to a head and make a final settlement." The signals from Malenkov and


*I am indebted here, and in the following chapter, to suggestions by Sheldon Meyer; and to several discussions with Edward Crapol. Khrushchev underscored that advice, as did recommendations from various people within the United States, West Germany and France. Perhaps George Kennan was the most significant in that group, if only because he had become ever more concerned about the militarization of his policy of containment.

But the policy review group, established on Truman's order as a "matter of urgency," began its deliberations on precisely that basis. Their key reference document was National Security Council Document 20/4 of November 24, 1948 ... called for a build-up of power to create divisions among the peoples of the Soviet Union and "bring about a basic change in the conduct" of the Kremlin. Hence in 1950, the kind of negotiations that Churchill was recommending were ruled out save as "only a tactic" until a massive increase in military spending made it possible to apply the pressure required "to compel the acceptance of terms consistent with our objectives."

Here it is crucial to understand what American leaders meant by that phrase "our objectives." As stated by them several times, it was to build an international order "harmonious with our fundamental national purposes," a "world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish." That almost palpable concern for global order and security is apparent throughout the long document, and is expressed most dramatically in two striking passages.

First, the analysis and policy recommendations are presented in the context of the breakdown of the 19th century imperial systems. Wars and revolutions, noted NSC-68 on the first page, led to the collapse of five empires-the Ottoman, the German, the AustroHungarian, the Italian, and the Japanese-and the "drastic decline" of the French and British empires; as well as to unrest and turmoil in the areas formerly controlled by those powers. The United States must establish a new order to replace the old. Second, that general imperial responsibility was dramatized by this remarkable comment: "Even f there was no Soviet Union we would face the great problem.. . [that] the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable."

Only then is the problem discussed in terms of the Soviet Union. 'While its capabilities "are inferior to those of our Allies and to our own," and its society riddled with "rot," it must nevertheless become the focus of the effort to create "a successfully functioning political and economic system." Hence it was "not an adequate objective merely to check the Kremlin" because that would not be enough to establish and guarantee the new global order. (So much for Churchill.)

The only solution was to "foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system"; "foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system"; force it to "change its policies drastically." The basic strategy was thus developed "with a view to fomenting and supporting unrest and revolution in selected strategic satellite countries," and "to reduce the power and influence of the Kremlin inside the Soviet Union." That would create a situation "in which the Russian peoples will have a new chance to work out their own destiny."

The tactics involved "any means, covert or overt, violent or non-violent." Those included "overt psychological warfare," covert "economic warfare," superficial negotiations as part of presenting the policy as "essentially defensive" in character, and major increases in all categories of military spending. The latter would of necessity require increasing taxes while reducing appropriations for domestic programs. But, pointing to the experience of World War II, the authors of NSC-68 confidently predicted that the increase in military spending would prevent the possibility of any socially and politically explosive "real decrease in the standard of living." Once again, guns and butter.

Unquestionably, NSC-68 is one of the truly impressive imperial documents in the long tradition of the Western European expansion around the world. Its creation and adoption by the leaders of a society that was founded on the Declaration of Independence is mysterious or paradoxical only if one forgets John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Remember, for example, that Locke's essays on liberty and freedom were integrated with his definition of wealth as "having more than the rest of the world." And recall that Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration, owned slaves and was ambivalent about whether or not the First Americans were truly human. And that his strategy for dealing with neighbors he considered troublesome-"the only way of preventing" such difficulties-was to conquer Florida and Canada.

No one has commented more succinctly than Professor Weinberg. "Again and again... one experiences the same difficulty in understanding why particular actions and policies were subsumed under the doctrine of self-defense." And why Americans considered themselves, in a state of "hysterical apprehensiveness," as having a "preordained right to ideal security"-now and on into the future. Yet that is precisely what NSC-68 sought in a wholly imperial framework. It provides the benchmark for understanding American /foreign policy from April 1950 down to our own time.


The Empire by the Bay

Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, to Secretary of State William Seward, 1864
We are the most ambitious people the world has ever seen:-- & I greatly fear we shall sacrifice our liberties to our imperial dreams.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1960
Our frontiers today are on every continent.

In a rare moment of candor, Acheson admitted in 1953 that he and Truman might not have been able to sustain their grandiose imperial policy if the North Koreans had not "come along and L saved us." Actually, Acheson did not even say "North Koreans." He said "Korea." Given his reputation for sometimes shading the truth so finely as to render it indistinguishable from an ordinary j lie, that remark prompted some observers to reopen the question of whether or not South Korea with the overt or tacit approval of the United States, provoked the North Korean attack of June 1950.

On balance, however, it was simply one of those wars that anybody could have counted on to erupt some time. Both halves of that divided country were dying to start dying to unite themselves. That old nationalism raised to fever pitch by very strong shots of mutually exclusive theologies. In any event, the debate about who bears ultimate responsibility obscures the fundamental issue of the response by Truman and Acheson.

Clearly, when the Secretary acknowledged that Korea "saved us," he did not mean in the sense of preventing the defeat or the destruction of the United States. He meant only that it allowed the government to implement the apocalyptic imperial strategy of NSC-68. Primed and ready, armed (or driven) psychologically as well as with the heady rhetoric of that document, they simply went to war. They bypassed the Congress and the public and confronted both with an accomplished fact. A few phone calls, and it was done. Go to bed at peace and wake up at war.

It was even more dramatic than the subsequent intervention in Vietnam as a demonstration of the centralization of power inherent in empire as a way of life. The State had literally been compressed or consolidated into the President and his like-minded appointees. In a marvelously revealing description, underscoring Truman's earlier lecture to the cabinet, the war without a declaration of war was called a "police action." Ironically, the most succinct commentary on Truman's remark was provided by the editor of the New York Times. "We are the most ambitious people the world has ever seen," noted Henry J. Raymond on May 30, 1864, "-& I greatly fear we shall sacrifice our liberties to our imperial dreams."


The military containment and subsequent rout of North Korean forces (by the end of September 1950) created a moment of imperial euphoria. American leaders were high on NSC-68. The United States undertook to liberate North Korea by conquest and integrate it into the American Empire. It was assumed in Washington that such action would accelerate the process of disintegration within and between Russia and China and so finally create an open door world. Then came the moment of truth, and the empire suddenly found itself at bay. The Chinese entered the war with massive force on October 26 and drove the Americans southward to the line that originally divided Korea.

The empire had been brought to bay. Dwight David Eisenhower understood that essential truth, and further realized that the future character of American society depended upon how the culture responded. His first objective after he became President in 1952 was to end the Korean police action before it spiraled into World War III. That accomplished, he set about to calm Americans, cool them of, and refocus their attention and energies on domestic development. He was a far more perceptive and cagey leader than many people realized at the time-or later.

The image of a rather absent-minded, sometimes bumbling if not incoherent Uncle Ike, was largely his own shrewd cover for his serious efforts to get control of the military (and other militant cold warriors), to decrease tension with Russia, and somehow begin to deal with the fundamental distortions of American society. He clearly understood that crusading imperial police actions were extremely dangerous, and he was determined to avoid World War III. When Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 over the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the President called British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and scolded him sharply: "Anthony, you must have gone out of your mind."

When the moment came, Eisenhower could be just as blunt with Americans. A good many of them were probably shocked when, in his farewell address of 1961, he spoke candidly and forcefully about the military-industrial complex that since 1939 had become the axis of the American political economy.

The militant advocates of the global imperial way of life quickly reasserted their power and policy. They, too, recognized that the Chinese counter-intervention in Korea had brought the empire to a critical juncture. Their response was to reassert American power and on with policing the world in the name of benevolent progress. Lead by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and calling themselves the New Frontiersmen, they perfectly expressed the psychopathology of the empire at bay and its consequences. Onward and outward in the spirit of NSC-68. "Ask not what your country can do for you," intoned Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address, "ask what you can do for your country." By country, of course, they meant their government.

Kennedy and his advisers had the brilliant perception to talk about the empire in the classic idiom of the frontier.

... "Our frontiers today," cried Kennedy, "are on every continent." America has "obligations," he explained, "which stretch ten thousand miles across the Pacific, and three and four thousand miles across the Atlantic, and thousands of miles to the south. Only the United States-and we are only six percent of the world's population-bears this kind of burden." He understandably neglected to mention that the burden on the metropolis was somewhat eased by the benefits of controlling a grossly disproportionate percentage of the world's resources. He was more concerned to create the psychological mood of impending doom: "The tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend."

The failure of the effort early in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba intensified that trauma. Not only did the rhetoric become ever more apocalyptic ("this time of maximum danger"), but Kennedy immediately began a massive military build-up in the spirit of NSC-68 (three special requests for extra funds during 1961). Then he indulged himself in a truly arrogant and irresponsible act. Knowing that the United States enjoyed a massive superiority in strategic weapons, Kennedy publicly goaded, even insulted, the Soviet Union by gloating about its gross inferiority.

He scared the Russians viscerally, and in the process not only prompted them to launch a desperate effort to correct the vast imbalance, but very probably touched-off the internal Soviet dialogue that led to the confrontation in 1962 over Russian missiles in Cuba.

[Kennedy] also embarked upon an obsessive campaign to murder Castro, and he deployed between 15,000 and 20,000 American troops (many of them in the field as advisers) to intervene in the revolutionary civil war in Vietnam. Those frontiers on every continent were going to remain frontiers in the traditional meaning of a frontier-a region to penetrate and control and police and civilize.

It simply will not do for Zionists to define themselves as the benevolent, progressive policemen of the Middle East. No more than it will do for us to present ourselves in that idiom on the global scene.

And so to oil. The truth of it is that nobody believes us when we talk about oil as if we were socialists committed to internal equity. The world knows that we are imperialists dedicated to controlling all the oil we can funnel into our bellies.

Empire As A Way Of Life

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