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The United States and Imperialism (1986)

Views: 618 From the Summer 1986 issue of The World Socialist The history of US imperialism dates back to the times of the foundation of the nation. …

by World Socialist Party US



5 min read

From the Summer 1986 issue of The World Socialist

The history of US imperialism dates back to the times of the foundation of the nation. Whether making and breaking treaties with various American Indian tribes and “nations”—expropriating their lands—or in adventures in far-flung oceans and climes, US capitalism went all-out from its beginnings in muscling its way into world business and, in pursuit of such ends, into the internal affairs of other nations. To be sure, that is not exactly how such activity was always explained by the official moulders of public opinion. Like ruling classes everywhere, the capitalists of the United States were aided in their expansionism by their educational and religious henchmen who found high-sounding moral justification for their nation’s conquests. It must be admitted, though, that the primary motivation has been amply clarified by at least some US historians (as well as by some politicians in their more honest moments—see “Foreign Policy for Beginners”). As a case in point it will be instructive to quote directly from The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard (1927):

The revolution wrought by steam and machinery was by no means limited in its effect to factory districts, corn fields, cotton plantations, and mining camps. It widened the borders of economic empire by the expansion of American commerce into the Far Pacific. Though obscured to the vulgar eye by the dust of domestic conflict, the construction of that commercial dominion went forward rapidly from the foundation of the republic. The very year after Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, the Empress of China, fitted out partly at the expense of Robert Morris, merchant prince and ‘financier of the American Revolution,’ sailed from New York to Canton, carrying the American flag into the midst of the Dutch and British pennants that fluttered in the breezes of Chinese waters. Before the Fathers completed the framing of the Constitution, at least nine voyages had been made to the Far East by enterprising Yankees.

And the Beards continued their interesting disclosures:

In the year of Washington’s inauguration, ten ships from Salem plowed the waters of the Indian Ocean. Before he delivered his ‘Farewell Address,’ warning his countrymen against foreign entanglements, American captains were at home in the ports of China, Java, Sumatra, Siam, India, the Philippines, and Ile de France. In 1979, the date of his retirement to Mt Vernon, a crew of thirty boys, the oldest not over twenty-eight, took the Betsy, a boat of less than a hundred tons, on a voyage around the world by way of the Horn, Canton, and Good Hope, netting on an outlay of about eight thousand dollars the neat profit of a hundred and twenty thousand. (I, page 661) 

The World Socialist Party (US) has for many years recommended the Beards’ Rise of American Civilization as an excellent source for information on the material factors influencing US history. They were not socialists but they did as much, if not more, than most professed socialists (and/or communists) in this country to straighten out the generally mistaken views on subjects such as the causes of the American Revolution, the Civil War and the real reasons behind Wilson’s switch on World War I which brought about US entry into that shambles only  some five months after he had been reelected in a platform accentuating the slogan: “He kept us out of the war!” Having been written in 1927, this book does not go much beyond World War I but the Beards did manage, during their lifetime, to bring their chronicle of US history up to the times of World War II with their Basic History of the United States.

Modern Overseas Adventures

It would not be possible within the scope of an article to list the instances of US imperialist adventure throughout its history completely. At least some of the oldest among the present population are no doubt passingly familiar with most of the thrusts of US military power in defense of her imperial interests – not all of which have been successful – since World WarI. There must be a few, though, who have not been made aware of US “meddling”, overtly and covertly, into the affairs of the nations of Southeast Asia and, particularly, the countries of Central and South America . From the time of Fidel Castro’s “conversion to Marxism” and embrace of and by the Soviet Union there has been hostile, even at times, violent, reaction by officialdom in this country and indeed, wherever purported Marxists gained or even threatened to gain control in the Americas. Were it not for the Nixon and Reagan flirtations with the head dispensers of Chinese “marxism”, one might at least suspect that the basis of this hostility toward leftist regimes in Latin America is truly ideological.

The truth, of course, has to be otherwise. The hostility is obviously based upon the threat to important US capitalist interests by left-radical nationalists in those countries. As is well known, even if the knowledge is sublimated, as it usually is, by the more conservative-minded among capitalism’s apologists, bourgeois antipathy towards Bolshevism has not been carved in stone. There have been many occasions since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when US, British, and other heads of the more traditional variety of capitalists have heaped encomium on the heads of the Soviet dictators. Particularly this was true during most of those years of World War II when Western Capitalism was allied with Bolshevik State Capitalism and when the topmost political leaders of Britain and the US hailed Joseph Stalin as a contemporary “genius”. In fact, had Stalin not lived on into the period of “Cold War”, reverting to his status of “monster”, he would quite likely still be depicted in US school texts as the savior of Russia.

Conflict of Interests, Not Ideologies

In any case. one thing should have been made clear since the times of World War II: it is not professed ideological differences between nations that propel them into open warfare against one another. It is, rather, the fact that their economic foundations and the basic philosophies that arise from them are all but identical, notwithstanding some differences in nomenclature and that they are, at least temporarily, threatening one another’s imperial interests. Both Hitler and F. D. Roosevelt put it succinctly: Hitler with his “Germany must expand or explode” and Roosevelt’s “Our frontier is on the Rhine”.

What should be emphasized, though, is that “anti-imperialism” is, or should be, regarded as of no concern of the working class of either imperial or subject nation. It is just another red herring injected into the class struggle, whether with deliberate intent of confusing or through simple ignorance on the part of the propagandists. The cause of mass poverty, insecurity, and war, is not imperialism but the very relationships themselves of capitalism – wage labor and capital.

Harry Morrison

Foreign Policy for Beginners

“We want a foreign market for our surplus products.”

– William McKinley, 1880’s

“In the interests of our commerce  . . . we should build the Nicaragua canal, and for the protection of that canal and for the sake of our commercial supremacy in the Pacific we should control the Hawaiian islands and maintain our influence in Samoa  . . . The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race.”

– Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, 1890s

“It seems to be conceded that every year we shall be confronted with an increasing surplus of manufactured goods for sale in foreign markets if American operatives and artisans are to be kept employed the year around. The enlargement of foreign consumption of the products of our mills and workshops has, therefore, become a serious problem of statesmanship as well as well as of commerce.”

– State Department 1898

“Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even of the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process  . . . the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.”

– Woodrow Wilson, 1907

“The real reason that the war we just finished took place was that Germany was afraid her commercial rivals were going to get the better of her and the reason why some nations went onto the war against Germany was that they thought Germany would get the advantage of them.”

– President Woodrow Wilson, St Louis, 1919

” . . . our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably weakened – by our loss of Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets (and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods, as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well by insurmountable restrictions upon our access to the rubber, tin, jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and Oceanic regions.”

– US State Department, 1940

“The real stake in this war is sea control, is the domination of the avenues of world trade.”

– United States News, Sept. 13, 1940

“There never was a war at arms that was not merely the extension of a preceding war of commerce grown fiercer until the weapons of commerce seemed no longer sufficiently deadly.”

– General Hugh Johnson (1882-1942)

“As you know, we’ve got to plan on enormously increased production in this country after the war, and the American domestic market can’t absorb all that production indefinitely. There won’t be any question about our needing greatly increased foreign markets.”

– State Department official, April 1944

“In May of 1962, we stand at the great divide; we must either trade or fade. They (the Russians) are ready to take and sell any area in which we leave a gap. And we do not intend to give way.”

– President Kennedy, May 4 1962

“What is the attraction that Southeast Asia has exerted for centuries on the great powers flanking it on all sides? Why is it desirable, and why is it important? First, it provides a lush climate, fertile soil, rich natural resources, a relatively sparse population in most areas, and room to expand. The countries of Southeast Asia produce rich exportable surpluses such as rice, rubber, tea, corn, tin, spices, oil and many others . . . “

– Kennedy’s Undersecretary of State, U. Alexis Johnson – Early 1963

“My approach to Africa is in some ways like the Japanese approach to Asia, and approach is not necessarily humanitarian. It is in the long-range interest of access to resources and the creation of markets for American goods and services.”

– U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, 1977

Source: Daily Battle, Berkeley, California; Socialist Party of Canada leaflet

Tags: Classic Archive, Harry Morrison, Imperialism, US Foreign Policy, US History, US Imperialism, Woodrow Wilson, World Socialist

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