WILLIAM APPLEMAN WILLIAMS,
Empire as a Way of Life, 1980,
(Introduction and Chapters 6-9)

In the following recording by the LA soundposse, Dr. John Marciano continues his public seminar series with “Empire as a Way of Life”, a monthly lecture and discussion, presented until June of 2007. Dr. Marciano says about Empire as a Way of Life,

“A fundamental purpose of our meetings is to understand the systemic nature of the US empire and the economic and military imperialism that is its lifeblood. The historian, William Appleman Williams, argues that empire became a way of life in the US. A combination of patterns of thought and action that, as it becomes habitual and institutionalized, defines the thrust and character of a culture and society. This way of life has convinced many US Americans they have a right or manifest destiny to impose their political and economic policies upon others.”

The lectures are given at the Ken Edwards center in Santa Monica, California. Dr. John Marciano is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, where he taught courses on social and historical foundations of education, and class, gender, and race. Paper and email copies of the lectures are available. Contact Dr. Marciano at johnmarciano@mac.com.

The discussion of the 2nd half of William Appleman Williams’s Empire as a Way of Life will include insights from Chalmers Johnson’s, Sorrows of Empire; Felix Greene’s powerful critique of US imperialism from The Enemy; and Noam Chomsky’s analysis of Cold War policies in Towards a New Cold War, among others. I will concentrate on the WW II and Cold War empire policies of liberal Democratic presidents: FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.

Williams argues that the

“process of transforming the realities of expansion, conquest and intervention into pious rhetoric about virtue, wealth and democracy reached its culmination during the decades after WW II.”

Critical to “our imperial self-deception, our surrender to doctrine,” was National Security Council Document 68 of 1950 in which the US

“asserted the unique right and responsibility to impose [its] chosen ‘order among nations’ so that ‘our free society can flourish.’”

The NSC 68 authors presented the Cold War as the

“fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic but of civilization itself.”

NSC 68 was, in Williams’s view, “the defining historical document of the Cold War era.” Released in April 1950, its primary authors were two key members of the capitalist ruling class: Paul Nitze, former investment banker and head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department; and Robert Lovett, investment banker who had been appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense.

A key premise of NSC 68 was that other countries were to complement American “objectives.” This meant building a global world order

“harmonious with [US] fundamental national purposes, a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish.”

Translated in plain English, this meant a world in which US interests as defined by our ruling elite prevail.

The authors advocated a new world order to replace that which existed prior to WW II, and they recognized that

“even if there were no Soviet Union we could face the great problem … [that] the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable.”

Order in the interest of ruling elites has been fundamental to the nature of empire; and after WW II, the real fear has been revolutionary nationalism and independence in the Third World, not the USSR. Williams believes that NSC 68 is

“one of the truly … imperial documents in the long tradition of Western European expansion around the world.”

He is right, and it is critical to understanding US imperialism after WW II.

“It provides the benchmark for American foreign policies from April 1950 … to our own time.”

Noam Chomsky’s critical analysis of NSC 68 is found in his book, Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan. He points to the serious problems facing the US economy after WW II as the context for this document and its proposed policies. These problems included the fear of another depression, and a special concern about

“an independent course in Western Europe….”

One critic called the latter a “nightmare for U.S. policymakers.” These fueled NSC 68’s call for a “vast … militarization of the economy,” and the need for a

“rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.”

The “free world,” of course, is that part of the world open to penetration and control by US corporations. The “freedom” the document advocated would allow the US governmental and corporate class to dominate the economic and political systems of other nations. It had nothing to do with our common-sense notion of freedom.

Chomsky continues: “… the exaggeration of the Soviet threat [reached] almost hysterical proportions” even though the authors simultaneously recognized fundamental Soviet economic and military “weakness” – a contradiction that is never explained by mainstream apologists of US imperialism. The document sought to

“overcome US domestic economic problems by the familiar device of military Keynesianism”

– what FDR used to end the Great Depression – with special attention, in one analyst’s words, to overcoming

“Western Europe’s tendency to pursue an independent economic course by binding Western Europe to the US with military ties.”

This independent economic development might close off opportunities to US capitalism.

NSC urged the US

“to foster a world environment in which the American [i.e., capitalist] system can survive and flourish….”

This would not be difficult given US moral leadership in the world:

“The essential tolerance of our world outlook, our generous and constructive impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international relations are assets of potentially enormous influence….”

Chomsky adds:

“… or, we might add, would be so, if we could only somehow overcome the blindness of Latin Americans and others who, in their absurd and obtuse delusions, fail to perceive these fundamental elements of US policies and action.”

According to Chomsky, NSC 68 “was a proposal awaiting the opportune moment for enactment” – that was provided by the Korean War. Its language was similar

“to that of the … ‘Resurgent America’ program of the Reagan Administration, both in the manipulation of the alleged Soviet drive for ‘world domination’ and in the real domestic and international goals concealed by Cold War imagery and rhetoric.”

A decade later, the Kennedy Administration moved to use “similar rhetoric and programs” and their affinity

“to the Reagan programs of militarization and international confrontation and aggressiveness [is] striking.”

Let’s return to Williams’s discussion of the “benevolent and progressive policeman” who is part of “the self-image of empire.” The real challenge to US benevolence, he asserts, has always been

“the threat to the capitalist system posed by revolutionary nationalism [because] any contracting out of the global marketplace threatened both the theory and practice of capitalism.”

The fundamental target after WW II, therefore, was not the former Soviet Union but Third World movements that would take those nations out of the global capitalist order.

Williams’s discussion of FDR’s presidency is critical to his thesis on empire, and a needed corrective to the largely positive view many liberals and leftists have of the New Deal. While it is true that the Great Depression left a deep “psychological impact” in the US, Williams is right that

“FDR’s New Deal did not generate peacetime recovery [as] the economy was revived only through WW II.”

The massive state subsidies generated by the war ended the Great Depression – not New Deal reforms.

In Williams’s view, Roosevelt actually strengthened the imperialist state: he “steadily increased military spending” and “reinforced the … power of the giant corporations,” as power “became ever more consolidated and centralized.” And WW II

“was a grand illusion predicated upon a failure to comprehend the full meaning of the Great Depression, and grounded in the belief that the US could reap the rewards of empire without paying the costs … and without admitting that it was an empire.”

The centralization of power and imperialism that unfolded under FDR continued under Harry Truman – often portrayed as a liberal, anti-corporate, political figure.

“Effective political power [was] more narrowly concentrated in the alliance of economic giants and the government that had been created during the depression and the war,”

leaving citizens “reduced to saying yes or no to choices defined and presented by others.”

Truman was a Wilsonian in his imperial foreign policies who believed

“the US had to be aggressive in getting exports and raw materials (and relevant financial arrangements)”

in order to insure prosperity at home. He and his advisers were hard liners during the Cold War and not “responsive to any indications that the Soviets were interested” in a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Williams’s argument here – that the US was a major force in starting and deepening the Cold War – is the thesis put forth by historian D.F. Fleming in his seminal two-volume history of the period.

Williams believes the Korean War finally brought “the empire … to bay” – causing Eisenhower to confront “the essential truth” about its ultimate costs. Ike “clearly understood” the inherent dangers of imperial policies; and in his 1961 farewell address,

“he spoke candidly and forcefully about the military-industrial complex that … had become the axis of the American political economy.”

This complex is vastly more powerful today.

Eisenhower’s concern was ignored, however, when Kennedy and the “Best and Brightest” empire managers took over. Williams views them as

“militant advocates of the global imperial way of life [who] quickly reasserted their power and policy [of] policing the world in the name of benevolent progress.”

The New Frontier gang

“perfectly expressed the psychopathology of the empire at bay and its consequences.”

We will examine Kennedy’s militarist and imperialist views when we get to Grandin’s book.

The “rhetoric [became] more apocalyptic” and Kennedy “began a massive military build-up in the spirit of NSC 68.” Even though

“the US enjoyed a massive superiority in strategic weapons,”

he

“publicly goaded, even insulted, the Soviet Union by gloating about its gross inferiority.”

In the early stage of the Kennedy presidency, the USSR had 4 operational nuclear missiles; the US had some 20,000 nuclear warheads and 300 missiles.

These and other facts ought to put to rest the lies used by Kennedy and his advisers that Eisenhower and Nixon had allowed the US to fall dangerously behind the Soviets in nuclear capability. Kennedy’s actions, according to Williams, “scared the Russians” and

“very probably … led to the confrontation in 1962 over Russian missiles in Cuba.”

I believe Williams’s assertion is wrong: the true context for the Cuban missile crisis was to be found in the terrorist acts against Cuba by the US that eventually forced the USSR to arm that nation against an invasion from the imperial giant to the north.

Williams sympathizes with President Johnson’s

“brave … and in the end tragic – effort to rescue the … contradiction in the imperial way of life…. He tried to make major improvements in the quality of life for the poor”

and also “secure the frontier in Indochina.” He couldn’t do both “because … the dynamics of empire … left him no room for maneuver.” US imperialism does not leave room for “guns and butter”: each time that choice has been decided in favor of militarism that left domestic human needs to wither on the vine.

Williams asks whether “the idea and reality of America is possible without empire.” The short answer is no: capitalist USA and empire go hand in hand. We cannot end one without ending the other. He continues:

“Are … we unable … to share the world … on an equitable basis?”

Again, no: There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell given that this system feeds on endless growth and expansion and is built on a foundation of inequality. He asks yet another profound question:

“Is it possible to create and sustain a democratic culture without conquering or otherwise controlling and wasting a grossly inequitable share of social space and resources?”

Again the answer is no: it cannot be done within the structural realities of a capitalist and imperialist system.

I would like to begin our critical look at Williams with some insights from Chalmers Johnson’s fine book, The Sorrows of Empire. Johnson, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, a Japan scholar, and former CIA consultant during the Vietnam War, offers a powerful analysis of the origins and true costs of our empire.

Johnson’s first major assertion is that

“most Americans do not recognize – or do not want to recognize – that the US dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, they are often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new [form] of empire.”

An important aspect of this empire is

“that the CIA has evolved into the president’s private army to be used for secret projects … (as, for example, in Nicaragua and Afghanistan during the 1980s).”

Johnson fears that as this militarism,

“arrogance of power, and … euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its cultural and basic values,”

the republic will be destroyed.

The US empire has grown to the point where it staggers the imagination: it

“supports [a] military-industrial complex, university research and development contracts, petrochemical refineries and distributors, innumerable foreign [countries] with whom it has treaties, … multi-national corporations and the cheap labor they use to make their products, investment banks, … and speculators of all varieties, and advocates of ‘globalization’ – the catch word that really means forcing all nations to open themselves up to American exploitation and American-style capitalism.”

Despite this complex and long imperialist history, Johnson claims we have

“a long-standing … urge to find euphemisms … that soften and disguise the US version….”

Teddy Roosevelt, for example,

“professed to be not an imperialist but an ‘expansionist.’ Arguing for the annexation of the Philippines, he said, ‘there is not an imperialist in the country…. Expansion? Yes…. Expansion has been the law of our nation’s growth.’”

Just reread Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s fine article on US imperialism to see the historical evidence for this “law.”

In his discussion of the links between the Cold War and empire, Johnson claims that the former allowed the US to grab a number of lands that were

“defended or liberated during WW II. … In 1953, for example, the US … secretly forced part of the indigenous population of Greenland, … a Danish colony since 1721, to move – it gave them four days’ notice and threatened to bulldoze their homes – to make way for a vast expansion of Thule Air Force Base, … 234,002 acres disguised since WW II as a ‘weather station.’”

Despite “protests by the Inuit of Greenland and numerous lawsuits filed in the Danish Supreme Court,” the US remains in control of this base.

For Johnson, the liberal Woodrow Wilson

“remains the godfather of those contemporary ideologists who justify American imperial power in terms of exporting democracy.”

Wilson stated the “world must be made safe for democracy.” America, he explained, must fight

“for the rights and liberties of small nations for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free persons as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

According to Wilson, these were pursuits “we have always carried nearest to our hearts.” Grandin details the historical record of Wilson’s relentless imperialist aggression in Latin America, revealing the utter bankruptcy of the latter’s claims that he was concerned about the fate of small nations.

Beginning with the Korean War, Johnson tells us, the empire became institutionalized as “huge military expenses fundamentally altered the political economy” of the country. Staggering levels of military spending

“became a normal feature of ‘civilization’ and all members of congress, regardless of political affiliation, tried to attract [military] contracts to their districts. Regions such as Southern California became dependent on [military] expenditures.”

By 2002,

“it was estimated that the Pentagon funneled nearly a quarter of its research and development funds to companies in California”

alone – a subsidy to major corporations and the rich that would have caused a catastrophic collapse of the state’s economy had it been removed.

The empire with its Pentagon capitalism turned Japan and Korea “into political satellites in the late 1940s,” and paid off client regimes “to keep them docile and loyal” – essentially this means paying off the ruling elites in those nations to keep their citizens in line.

“We have taught state terrorism to thousands of Latin American military and political officials at the Army’s School of the Americas”

and

“utilized the CIA and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to bring about ‘regime changes’ via coups, assassinations, or economic destabilizations and have bombed or invaded countries that have openly broken with or oppose our hegemony.”

In pursuing these imperialist policies, Johnson argues,

“the most powerful tool of the [Pentagon] in promoting its image and protecting its interest from public scrutiny is official secrecy – the so-called black programs paid for through the ‘black budget.’”

This systematic effort to “confuse” and spread disinformation began during WW II “with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.” Since the beginning of the Cold War, the Pentagon has become

“addicted to a black-budget way of life…. All funds for the CIA were (and still are) secretly contained in the [War Department’s] public budget under camouflaged names. As the president, the Pentagon, and the CIA create new intelligence agencies, the black budget expands exponentially.”

For example:

“In 1952, President Truman signed a still-secret … charter creating the NSA [National Security Agency]; in 1960, President Eisenhower set up the even more secret National Reconnaissance Office, which runs our spy satellites; in 1961, President Kennedy launched the Defense Intelligence Agency, the personal intelligence organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of [War]; and in 1996, President Clinton combined several agencies into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The budgets of all these ever-proliferating agencies are all unpublished”

and have not been challenged by either party since the creation of the National Security State in 1947.

Despite the realities of imperialist aggression since WW II, built upon a massive foundation of taxpayer funds for overt and covert policies, the essential nature of the entire empire project must be hidden from US citizens. Johnson points out that

“history tells us that an expansionist nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to consolidate its gains. It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak is in their own best interest, or their own fault, or the result of ineluctable processes beyond human control, or a consequence of the spread of civilization, or in accord with scientific laws – anything but deliberate aggression by a hyper-power.”

While we can see the blatant imperialism of George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bill Clinton

“camouflaged his policies by carrying them out under the banner of ‘globalization.’ The main agents of this imperialism were Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, and his deputy [and former] President of Harvard Lawrence Summers. The US ruled the world but did so in a carefully masked way that produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated nations.”

Johnson asserts that globalization policies must be seen within the context of an

“imperialism [that] cannot exist without a powerful military apparatus for subduing and policing the peoples who stand in its way and an economic system for financing an expensive and largely unproductive military establishment.”

He believes we need

“to examine the elaborate ideology of ‘neoliberalism’ that has obscured America’s international endeavors before the triumph of unilateral militarism and to reveal how militarism has displaced and discredited America’s economic leaders…. It is in this economic sphere that the overstretched American Empire will probably first begin to unravel.”

This is scholar Immanuel Wallerstein’s major argument: the US Empire is in decline because of serious economic contradictions that must be masked with unilateral and belligerent militarism.

Johnson makes a critical point about the connection between empire abroad and the destruction of democracy at home:

“Although tyranny, because it needs no conscience, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.”

This will first begin with “a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans.”

It will be followed by

“a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses congress and is itself transformed from an ‘executive branch’ of government into something more like a [Pentagon] presidency. Third, an already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will be increasingly displaced by a system of propaganda, disinformation, and a glorification of war, power, and the military legions. Last, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and short-change the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens.”

I would argue that anyone who has studied the US Empire carefully would have to agree with Johnson’s accurate and chilling analysis. From the creation of the National Security State in 1947, the levels of lying, secrecy and presidential power have continued to grow, aided by compliant and silent legislative and judicial branches. There are no checks on the endless war promoted by the empire, save for those that emerge from the people themselves – as we learned from the US-Vietnam War and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We cannot count on our elected officials to mount any substantive challenge to the endless imperialist wars organized and promoted by Democratic and Republican presidents.

As fine as Johnson’s analysis of empire is, we must go deeper yet to link US imperialist aggression to the very premises and policies of 21st century corporate capitalism. In his introductory essay in his edited book, The New Imperialists, Colin Mooers cautions us not to see the most recent US imperialist actions under the current Bush regime

“solely in terms of a reaction to [9/11], or, more sinisterly, as the pre-planned goal of bellicose neoconservatives.”

It is true that this regime “is more willing to resort to large-scale military interventions” than previous administrations.

“However, to see this as a fundamental change in the nature of US imperialism would be an exaggeration. The USA has a long and unbroken history of imperialist conquest stretching back more than two centuries…. While America is still the preeminent military power on the planet, its superiority in firepower vastly exceeds its economic supremacy. It is this imbalance between its economic and its military might that helps account for the shift to a more aggressive military posture. Thus, the drive … toward a more coercive orientation in international relationships is intended to send a message not only to so-called ‘rogue’ regimes and ‘failed’ states, but also to its major economic competitors.”

Mooers believes we need to understand the move to the “new imperialism” is linked to “the deep structural shifts in global capitalism that have occurred over the past two decades” – shifts that are to be found in the neo-liberal policies that truly emerged under Reagan and his successors who attempted

“to address a persistent [problem] for capitalism, … its tendency toward overcapacity and over-accumulation – an issue which is particularly acute for the US economy. Driving this process was the need to locate new sites of capitalist accumulation and new markets for commodities.”

As discussed in Williams, this problem first emerged in the late 19th century and was clearly recognized by all the influential corporate and political figures of that time.

Mooers believes we need to understand this latest and very belligerent phase of imperialism, therefore, in light of the goal of exporting and entrenching

“capitalist social-property relationships throughout the world; it is about the universality of capitalism. And just as in earlier phases of capitalism, state military power has been central to the imposition of this new stage of primitive accumulation and enclosure.”

His conclusion is accurate and distressing: we, and especially the victims of US imperialism, face a “more or less permanent state of warfare – war without end.” This is necessary for the US because its competitive struggle to dominate the global economy “requires military action without end, in purpose or time.”

In an another essay in Mooers’s volume that complements and supports his thesis, historian Ellen Meiksins Wood (“Democracy as Ideology of Empire”) argues that the

“fully developed capitalist empire, which depends above all on economic imperialism, is basically the story of US imperialism.”

Militarism is necessary in order to “police the global system to make it safe for the movements of capital.” Therefore, the first and most important

“objective of this new empire … is free access for capitalism and US capitalism in particular, to anywhere in the world – what is euphemistically called openness.”

This “free access” to people and the earth has been obtained by the most violent means, in order that exploitation by US ruling elite interests will continue.

In a previous class I shared some insights from Felix Greene’s book, The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism; I wish to add some of his other reflections to our discussion of Williams and empire.

Greene, writing in the early 1970s, argued that the US had “become the new world colossus, the inheritor of inconceivable wealth and power.” But, he asked,

“power to what ends? And where does the wealth go? Who controls this immense and complicated system? … And is the US using its new and extraordinary position to ameliorate poverty and injustices of the world, or are we seeing only the latest of the long line of imperialists out only for themselves.”

Given the historical record, the answers to his questions are quite clear.

Greene argues that the maintenance of imperialism became especially critical after WW II. In his view, therefore, the US had to confront a number of “immediate imperatives” in order to save this system:

  1. it might be “left as an isolated island in a world gone ‘socialist’” and thus capitalism

    “could not survive as an island in a non-capitalist world.”

    Therefore, the first “survival imperative” for US rulers was

    “to keep the existing capitalist world capitalist.”

  2. “Because of profits made during WW II, huge amounts of capital were accumulated in the hands of US corporations. Capital cannot remain idle and will always go where it makes the largest profit.”

    Therefore, it was imperative the US

    “invest surplus capital abroad where the largest profits could be made.”

  3. Because of

    “wartime expansion … and the rapidity with which American industry reconverted its factories to civilian production, there was a growing unused industrial capacity.”

    Therefore, another imperative was to “find markets overseas for American goods.”

  4. In order to compete in the world market,

    “it was necessary to obtain the prodigious amounts of raw materials … at the lowest possible cost.”

    Thus, an imperative was “to secure control over the sources of raw materials.”

  5. Of course, in order to have

    “access to the sources of raw materials and control over them”

    the US had to have

    “the capability physically to control those countries that supply them,”

    thus necessitating “the establishment of a global network of unchallenged military power.”

From the voluminous historical record, including D.F. Fleming’s excellent history of the Cold War that he traces back to the US-led invasion of the newly founded Soviet Union in 1918, we know exactly what US ruling elites did to deal with each of the imperatives listed above.

Greene concludes his critique of US imperialism with a profound question:

“Why are the poor countries of the world still so poor?”

It strikes to the core of the imperialist dilemma that few in the US wish to confront:

“Foreign investment has not helped the undeveloped countries because it is not intended to help them. It is intended to make profits for investors – which is a very different thing.”

He concludes with what he calls “one of the grotesque paradoxes of our world”:

“The backward countries are really enormously rich. It is indeed because of their wealth that they are colonized.”

We shall leave the final word on empire tonight to the eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee. Writing in the 1970s, he stated:

“America today is the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in defense of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor … have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness for the greatest number.”