Empire for Liberty

By Jim Miles

(Empire for Liberty.  Richard H. Immerman. Princeton University Press, 2010.)

History takes on an interesting life when written as well as Richard Immerman’s new book "Empire for Liberty," with the lengthy subtitle "A History of American Imperialism From Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz." Immerman’s work ranges, as indicated, from the foundation of the United States to its second to last manifestation under the George Bush government. The six figures through whose lens the creation of empire is viewed are major figures in the era that they served, but only one actually served as president. This supports one of the main ideas of Immerman – and other historians – that it is not the presidency that defines a unique and particular paradigm or epoch with each change in government, but that there is a consistency with U.S. imperial/foreign policy that has existed since the foundation of the original United States.

At initial view the trajectory of the six persons studied may appear subject to a disjointed story, yet the history flows from one person to the other not just on the consistency of the policy issues, but with the connections between the various persons via their families, friends, and political associates. They are all bred from the same elite group that has been in power from the beginning, undergoing political name changes and sometimes political rhetoric but always with the same message – the empire for liberty.

What Immerman highlights within this theme is that the empire is much more about empire and much less about liberty. With that, he begins with a discussion on what an empire consists of and what liberty consists of, having more difficulty defining the latter than the former. His work “seeks to persuade the reader that America is and always has been an empire,” and that the “extension of America’s territory and influence has always been inextricably tied to extending the sphere of liberty.” He admits that liberty is interpreted “so broadly and in so many different contexts, that it all but loses its meaning.” 

One of the “fundamental features of empire” identified by Immerman is that within an empire “Centralization and integration are distinct from equalization…Class and regional differences [remain].” Further, “Because of violence’s historic role in the establishment of empires, not all the people with the heterogeneous population could qualify as citizens, not all were equal, not all could or would assimilate, and not all consented to the rule of the sovereign.” After exploring the various permutations of empire Immerman concludes that the U.S. “fit even the most restricted definition of empire by the outbreak of the Civil War.” His work takes a broader perspective however and sees the U.S. empire as roll-over from the intentions of the British Empire on the North American continent.

While introducing the six persons chosen for the essays, Immerman indicates that “Neither the formulation nor implementation of U.S. foreign policy is democratic. Only an elite few get a “Vote.” By their rhetoric and by their values, these individuals gave voice” to the silent majority and “played pivotal roles in shaping the course of the American empire.” From his clearly developed thesis and his strong precis of the important players of his choice, the characterizations that follow provide a lively, entertaining, and informative package on the development of the U.S. empire of liberty.

Liberty…and Racism

The central theme that keeps reoccurring is that of ‘liberty’, and how it is misused and abused as part of the rhetoric of empire. It begins initially of course with the obvious lack of liberty for the black slaves and the indigenous population, the sub-theme running throughout of this brand of liberty being racist (and thus unequal and non-democratic). 

Benjamin Franklin is first on the list, at first an ardent supporter of the British Empire, who from circumstances changed allegiance to the new American Empire, “His choice of an American empire over Britain’s was his most difficult, agonizing decision.” Even here at the start, the concept of liberty was limited. Franklin’s goal for the American revolution was “to create the institutions under which ordered liberty could thrive,” but while often speaking of liberty, it “was a means to an end, not an end in itself.” For the indigenous people, “it never occurred to him to grant Indians the liberty to remain on the land,” nor “it never really occurred to him that Canadians were at liberty to resist envelopment by the American empire,” and he still denied liberty to his slave. 

As the nascent empire expanded it ran full on into the conflict between expansion and liberty. The concept of expanding one’s empire to protect the homeland is not a Twenty-first century concept, but had its origins with the southward and westward expansion of the U.S. In the era of John Quincy Adams, the next of Immerman’s subjects, the acquisition of Florida involved inhabitants “sympathetic to the United States [who] would stage coups and then request U.S. annexation.”  That successful paradigm was accompanied by “just war ideology” suffused with the “racism he shared with his countrymen” to articulate a doctrine of the right to defensive war.” 

These policies led to Adams prescient thoughts on the empire, that “by enlisting under other banners than her own…the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force….She might become the dictatress of the world.” During this era of the creation of the Monroe Doctrine, more contradictions rose, as “The more forcefully [Monroe] demanded the abolition of colonization, the more difficult it became to divorce the expansion of U.S. territory from the expansion of slavery.”

Slavery, insisted the southerners, “was the purest form of liberty.” While best remembered for his opposition to slavery and the annexation of Texas, at the end of his life and career “Adams had yet to denounce slavery publicly. Union and empire always took precedence.”

Commerce and the Military

The concept of liberty became conflated with commercial prosperity, as phrased by Immerman’s third candidate of empire, William Henry Seward, who proclaimed commerce “the chief agent of its [America’s] advancement and enlargement of empire.” This commercial empire, had the military to support it, as evident in “Admiral Matthew Perry’s coercive “opening” of Japan in 1854 to American trade.” Seward was one of the first proponents who “advocated enhancing U.S. military, especially naval, capabilities, and signalling America’s willingness to use force to buttress its diplomacy,” and thus its commercial control.

Following Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge championed the same militant perspective, one that continued especially through the Latin Americas. During this era, secretary of state James Blaine “marked the shift toward the aggressive global posture that portended America’s emergence as an overseas empire.” Hawaii, the Philippines, and Venezuela all were subject to the more aggressive posturing. Liberty for Lodge, “was never more than an abstraction.”

The acquisition of Hawaii was represented through the commercial interests of white sugar agribusinesses, but for Lodge “military and strategic concerns were paramount,” concerns that “were inseparable from America’s national character…the character of force.” Lodge became the “point man for American imperialism,” who was not concerned about possible damage to the domestic sugar industry, nor were there any “considerations of the native Hawaiian’s liberty,” as “upon these islands rest a great part of the future commercial progress of the United States.”  

Lodge‘s rhetoric played the race card as well, as the U.S. imperial drive “makes for civilization and the advancement of the race.” His rhetoric also included the arrogance and conceit of empire, boasting “We have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people of the nineteenth century.” Lodge perceived the U.S.’s mission as “a mission of freedom”, yet the contradictions of freedom with the obvious racist overtones of statements made about the Philippines “demonstrated a remarkable facility for intellectual gymnastics.”

Empire of Security

These same themes carried forward into post World War II rhetoric and actions, first with the Cold War and subsequently with the “war on terror.” John Foster Dulles, Immerman’s fifth subject, cared even less about liberty and was more concerned about security. Dulles became known for his “moral crusade [of] reducing statesmanship to a religious contest between good and evil.” With a strong Christian fundamentalist background, Dulles championed the right of the U.S. to lead the Free World “by exercising…its spiritual, ideological, economic, and, most important, military power. Dulles did not concern himself with the liberty of those subject to U.S. rules.” Liberty was in his vocabulary, but “without the need to provide substance to its meaning.”

It was during Dulles’ tenure that the not so covert coups in Guatemala and Iran occurred, under the auspices of his brother Allen Dulles, head of the newly created CIA.  The Iranian coup was “an unintended consequence” of his influence (taking place in association with the British), a “watershed in the growth of the American empire” and its further consequences or ‘blowback’ that is even more evident today than previously. And in Guatemala, the country was “liberated…from its own people, and as a consequence made a mockery of the very word liberty.”

Immerman summarizes the results of Dulles’ tenure saying:

“The empire Dulles was so instrumental in constructing was unequivocally not an empire of liberty. Whether wrestling the imperial mantle from the British and French or building on the foundation laid by American decades earlier, what became the outposts of America’s empire in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Latin America, and elsewhere allowed for little liberty within its populations.”

Empire of Full Spectrum Dominance

The final subject of Immerman’s careful research is Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon player within the Bush government. His influence carried on well before the Bush regime, and even when an insider his seemingly lower position of influence belied the significant part he played in creating the empire of “full spectrum dominance.” Wolfowitz was well schooled in the theory of nuclear warfare, creating the base necessary for believing in the utility and practicality of first use pre-emptive nuclear weapons warfare. 

Fitting the motives to suit their own purposes, the neocons, with Wolfowitz in full stride, more fully developed the sinister aspects of the ‘evil’ empire of the Soviets, believing that the “Kremlin lacked the moral scruples to be trusted and possessed the technological capacity to cause incalculable damage when it cheated [on nuclear parity]”  Wolfowitz’s “messianic impulses” early on led him to identify the Persian Gulf in general and Iraq in particular as “potential grave danger…because at stake were vital oil reserves, and because the Arab-Israeli conflict presented a ready platform for mischief making” by the Soviets. 

The neocons that Wolfowitz represents “resolutely held to the premise of America’s exceptionalism,” among whose attributes “was its righteousness” contrasting with not just the Soviets but much of the rest of the world who were “evil.” This good-evil dichotomy made the neocons “wary of negotiations and multilateral institutions.” This “temperament…shuns complexity, tactical adjustment, and the role of patience in geopolitical manoeuvrings,” creating an atmosphere wherein “the U.S. must also abandon its atavistic aversion to using force.” 

Wolfowitz himself combined a self-righteousness with “an extraordinary confidence in the efficacy of American arms,” harnessing together its “unassailable moral purposes to its unassailable military might…..No one had been more instrumental in developing the conceptual framework for Bush’s global posture, and no one was more attuned to or sympathetic to the president’s agenda.” In a prime case of blowback, Wolfowitz’s desire to do away with Saddam Hussein, Wolfowitz’s “arrogance ..(and) ..hubris .. led to what may turn out to be the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history, a blunder that could prove fatal to the empire.” 

‘Promoted’ to the head of the World Bank, Wolfowitz “brought to his first meeting his reputation for arrogance, self-righteousness, ideological inflexibility, contempt for the conventional wisdom and the professionals responsible for it.”  Being “in so many ways the personification of the twenty-first century’s “Ugly American”, he was forced to resign from that position and his career is “on hold.”  For those concerned about liberty, one can only hope he stays on hold.  

Obama’s Hope

As with all histories, the writing creates a time lapse that makes interpretation of current events difficult if not impossible. Immerman ends his work castigating the Bush administration as “detention, torture, and rendition were systematic, orchestrated by the [CIA] with the Bush administration’s explicit approval.” Following that he looks forward to the ‘audacity of hope’ and ‘change’ that have proven to be meaningless under Obama’s leadership. While recognizing that Obama has not followed through on his rhetorical promises, he indicates that the future “may well incorporate less empire and more liberty.” 

If so, it will probably be involuntary, in the face of the triad: of military ineffectiveness even with massive superiority in a technical sense; of the economic problems whose solutions are so far benefiting only those large corporations who are operating well within the structures of the empire; and of the increasing environmental problems as indicated by recent global weather events. The empire may well be less – more liberty remains highly uncertain. 

Immerman’s journey through the “Empire of Liberty” strongly supports his starting theme. The United States has always held imperial ambitions. The large contradiction involved within empire places its requirements for expansion and acquisition of territory and wealth against the liberty of others at home and abroad. This is an excellent work that flows cleanly through the history of the U.S., a valuable addition to any library concerned with history, empire, and liberty. 

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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