[Marxism] The imperial republic

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 2 07:43:16 MST 2004

The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 3, 2004
American Wars for Liberty and Power


The Mall in Washington, D.C., is a good deal less inviting in December 
than in April, when the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin burst into 
bloom and tourists loiter in the sun. But because the ways in which the 
Mall and its monuments give meaning to the events of American history 
are clearest in the winter -- and because the story we have to tell is 
in many ways a wintry tale -- it may not be amiss for us to begin on the 
Mall with the trees bare and the skies gray, walking down the path that 
leads from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


If Korea and Vietnam make it only to the margins of the Mall, it is 
hardly surprising that the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the 
Spanish-American War, and the many wars against North American Indians 
are altogether missing from it. Less central to the grand scheme, they 
caused fewer deaths, created fewer heroes, and engaged smaller 
proportions of the population as soldiers and sailors. Controversial in 
their day, they seem in retrospect wars less to defend American liberty 
than to extend American power. They are, indeed, hard to see as anything 
but wars for empire. Yet these wars, too, are part of America's story.

The creation and preservation of the United States are events central to 
the history of North America, but the Revolution and Civil War cannot be 
fully understood unless they are seen together with those other, 
less-well-remembered wars. Indeed, the American Revolution and the Civil 
War can best be understood as unanticipated consequences of decisive 
victories in the great imperial wars -- the Seven Years' War and the 
Mexican-American War -- that preceded each by a little more than a 
decade. In both cases, the acquisition of vast territories created 
severe, protracted, and ultimately violent debates over sovereignty and 
citizenship. Those bitter postwar disputes over the empire's future led 
to civil wars and ultimately to revolutions that altered the fundamental 
meanings of rights and citizenship, and redefined the bases of imperial 

Our view of history begins with the proposition that war itself has been 
an engine of change in North America for the past five centuries. 
America's wars, however, have not been uniform in either their character 
or their consequences, and it is important to recognize that wars can 
have very different implications and consequences depending (among other 
factors) on whether they are localized conflicts between nonstate 
groups, large-scale contests between empires, revolutionary wars, wars 
by which a triumphant empire consolidates control over its conquests, or 
wars of foreign intervention.

At least from the middle of the 18th century to the present, American 
wars have either expressed a certain kind of imperial ambition or have 
resulted directly from successes in previous imperial conflicts. 
"Imperialism" is, of course, a loaded term, full of negative 
connotations. We suggest, however, that it can most productively be 
understood in the sense of the progressive extension of a polity's, or a 
people's, dominion over the lands or lives of others, as a means of 
imposing what the builders of empires understand as order and peace on 
dangerous or unstable peripheral regions.

To found a narrative of American development on the concept of dominion 
is to forgo the exceptionalist traditions of American culture -- those 
durable notions that the United States is essentially not like other 
nations but rather an example for them to emulate, a "shining city on a 
hill" -- in favor of a perspective more like the one from which 
historians routinely survey long periods of European, African, or Asian 
history. Indeed, our story makes the long-term pattern of America's 
development look broadly similar to those of other large, successful 

More than anything else, it is a story of power -- or, more precisely, a 
story of how power has been acquired, defined, used, contested, and lost 
in North America. It describes a past, and implies a present, in which 
human beings exercise far less control over events than they think they 
do: a past in which the unintended consequences of a persistent quest 
for power are often the most important of all.

In the 1500s, the Age of Contact, we can trace the consequences of the 
16th-century collision between radically different systems of war, 
trade, and empire that had previously arisen in Europe and the Americas. 
In general, European expansion and the intrusion of various competing 
European groups throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean basins had 
tremendously disruptive effects for Europe and the Americas alike.

In the Age of Colonization and Conflict, roughly from 1600 to 1750, 
Europeans from England, France, and the Low Countries sought to realize 
their dreams of profit and mastery by establishing colonies in North 
America. Perhaps the most striking unanticipated result of those 
colonizing enterprises was the intensification of warfare among 
competing native groups. By the beginning of the 18th century, 
interactions between American Indians and European peoples resulted in 
the emergence of a diplomatic and political system that reflected a 
balance of power in which native groups played a balancing role.

The vast conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years' War (1756-63; its 
North American phase, 1754-60, is sometimes called the French and Indian 
War) ended this period of relative stability, introducing the Age of 
Empires and Revolutions, which lasted until 1900. Unlike the three 
previous wars between Britain and France, this one ended in a decisive 
victory, as a result of which the North American empire of France ceased 
to exist and Spain (France's ally in the final year of the war) was 
compelled to surrender its imperial claims east of the Mississippi 
River. That left Britain (in theory, at least) the proprietor of the 
eastern half of North America; it also marked a turning point in 
American Indians' power to exert decisive influence over outcomes on the 

After 1763, the defeated Spanish succeeded best in reforming their 
empire, which survived for more than a half-century thereafter. The 
victorious British, by contrast, failed, so alienating their colonists 
by attempted reforms that the 13 North American colonies took up arms 
against empire. In their effort to mount resistance to a sovereign king 
in Parliament, colonial leaders used arguments that stressed what had 
usually been called the rights of Englishmen, stressing the centrality 
of political freedom and the protection of property and other rights. 
Because the colonists were a chronically divided lot, however, the 
leaders of the resistance movement took care to couch their explanations 
and appeals in universalistic language: as defenses of natural rights, 
not merely the liberties of Englishmen.

The War for American Independence shattered the British empire and made 
those universalized ideas the foundation of American political identity. 
It took another dozen years after the end of the war in 1783, however, 
to produce the complex of agreements and understandings we call the 
Revolutionary Settlement, which became the basis of a new, successful, 
and aggressive American empire, the United States. Imperial and 
republican elements together formed the basis of revolutionary political 

With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president, bands of white 
American citizens on the borderlands of the Republic defined the 
political community as a brotherhood of white Protestant men like 
themselves and treated vulnerable American Indians as racially different 
peoples to be removed -- or exterminated. In the War of 1812, Americans 
conjoined defiance of British efforts to dictate their commercial and 
diplomatic policy with a war of conquest, by which they intended to 
secure control of eastern North America. Though the Americans failed to 
conquer Canada, they effectively destroyed the power of American Indians 
east of the Mississippi River, thereby consolidating the United States' 
claim to the region from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The 
conquest of what was then called the Southwest, begun by Andrew Jackson 
in his campaigns against the Creeks in 1813-14 and continued in 1818 
when he invaded and occupied Florida, came to completion in 1819 with 
the treaty annexing Florida and the subsequent removal of most American 
Indians to lands west of the Mississippi.

As important as those aspects of the War of 1812 were, the war's most 
significant legacy proved to be a distinctively American just-war 
ideology. Unlike the members of the Revolutionary generation, who 
justified taking up arms to defend a fragile liberty against Britain's 
seemingly unlimited sovereign power, proponents of war argued that 
offensive warfare -- against the British in Canada, the Creeks in 
Alabama, and the Spanish in Florida -- was justified because conquest 
would liberate the oppressed and expand the sphere of freedom. It was a 
justification Americans applied again in their next imperial war -- and 
indeed in every subsequent war in their history.

Great Britain and the United States ceased to compete militarily after 
1815, leaving Mexico, which declared its independence from Spain in 
1821, as the last remaining obstacle to the dominion of the United 
States in North America. The Mexican leaders' fears of revolution and 
racial war, along with the rich geographic diversity of their nation, 
inhibited the emergence of an American-style revolutionary settlement 
and created a fertile field for caudillos, violence, and local 
rebellions. One of the last, on the remote northeastern fringe of 
Mexico, created the Republic of Texas in 1836. A decade later, the 
United States annexed Texas, provoking a war with Mexico in 1846. Within 
two years American soldiers overwhelmed Mexican resistance, seized the 
national capital, and forced a peace, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo 
(1848), that deprived Mexico of fully half its territory.

As in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, the accession of vast 
amounts of territory created a furious debate that shredded the 
political fabric of the victorious empire. Then it had taken 12 years 
for the imperial community to collapse in civil war; it now took 13. 
Adding the lands from the Rockies to the Pacific coast to what Americans 
thought of as the empire of liberty made the question of slavery's 
expansion into the conquests inescapable. The Revolutionary Settlement 
broke down as Northern and Southern Americans came to see each other as 
potential tyrants intent on subjugation. Thus in April 1861, Southerners 
and Northerners went to war to make the American empire safe for their 
own, mutually exclusive, notions of liberty, convinced that no 
alternative remained but an appeal to the god of battles.

In short, revolution had once again emerged as an unanticipated 
consequence of an imperial war, and once again it created a new 
political synthesis. A new revolutionary settlement was predicated on 
the supremacy (in theory, if not in daily practice) of the national 
government, the uniformity (in theory, if not in fact) of citizens' 
rights, and the permanence of the state.

The last act of the Age of Empires and Revolutions was the subjugation 
of American Indian resistance west of the Mississippi River by elements 
of the U.S. Army, a process completed a little more than two decades 
after the Civil War by the confinement of native groups to reservations 
throughout the West. Meanwhile, the industrial transformation of the 
American economy and the rise of corporate capitalism, trends 
accelerated by the Civil War, produced an American governing elite that 
had less interest in territorial acquisition than in the expansion of 
economic dominion, in the United States and beyond its borders. That 
metamorphosis did not mean that Americans ceased to debate the 
relationship between the exercise of coercive national power and the 
commitment to universal freedom; the terms of the debate, however, shifted.

Just how far they moved became evident with the Spanish-American War in 
1898: an imperial war with a decisive victory that resulted not in a 
third American revolution but rather in an alteration of 
long-established patterns of conquest and incorporation. Previous 
imperial adventures had opened vast, thinly populated regions to 
Anglo-American colonization in the certainty that the territories carved 
from them would be populated by white settlers who would eventually lead 
them into the Union as states. Victory in 1898, however, yielded 
conquests comparatively poorer in land than in population; and those 
millions of conquered Cubans and Filipinos were not only overwhelmingly 
nonwhite but Catholic, or even Muslim, in religion. When Filipino 
insurgents, resisting American liberation between 1899 and 1902, killed 
or wounded more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and demonstrated what the true 
costs of an overseas empire could be, American leaders embraced an 
alternative imperial policy -- interventionism -- that allowed them to 
exercise power beyond the borders of the United States but that did not 
require yet another revolutionary reconstruction of American political 

Elements of continuity nonetheless remained strong as the Age of Empires 
and Revolutions gave way to the Age of Intervention, which has lasted 
into the present. Americans continued to fight wars according to the 
just-war ideology first worked out in the War of 1812 -- the notion that 
to be justified wars must either protect or expand the sphere of liberty 
-- and that they have applied, in one form or another, ever since. As an 
imperial republic, the United States remained dedicated to using force 
not only to impose stability on disorderly peripheral regions but to 
create the conditions for liberty as Americans understood them -- free 
markets, the protection of property rights, and the rule of law -- in 
temporary protectorates.

World War I, however, laid bare the terrible costs of modern war. Most 
Americans found them bearable for the comparatively short time needed to 
subdue the German imperialists in Europe, but had no interest in 
perpetuating them as an open-ended commitment to liberating Asians or 
South Americans or Russians from their various oppressive regimes. 
Moreover, the emergence of the Soviet Union as the revolutionary and 
imperial successor to czarist Russia put the United States on the 
ideological defensive for the first time in its history. A republic that 
had regarded itself as the very embodiment of liberal revolutionary 
principles in the 19th century became a leading proponent of the status 
quo. In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans turned to celebrating their 
history as a series of sacrifices made by Americans in the defense of 
liberty, an essentially conservative reading of their past that 
nonetheless left them prepared, when confronted with the crisis of Pearl 
Harbor, to revive the commitment of the United States to the military 
liberation of peoples beyond the seas.

World War II, construed as a struggle against various tyrannies -- 
German Nazism and Italian fascism in Europe, Japanese militarism in the 
Pacific and Far East -- catapulted the United States to a position of 
global leadership from which, this time, it did not retreat. American 
opposition to communist regimes in China, the Soviet Union, and 
elsewhere during nearly a half-century of cold war was, in that sense, a 
continuation of the defense of freedom conducted with such striking 
success in 1941-45. The limits of that commitment, made evident in 
Vietnam between 1968 and 1973, in effect confirmed the terms on which 
Americans were still willing to support foreign interventions; for it 
was only the palpable disconnection between the public justification of 
that war (the defense of freedom in South Vietnam) and its prosecution 
that finally convinced a majority of the American people that the war 
was no longer worth the sacrifice of lives and treasure.

In sum, then, our version of American history emphasizes contingency, 
proposes an unfamiliar set of turning points and phases of development, 
suggests that war and imperialism have powerfully influenced American 
development from the 17th century through the present day, and recasts 
familiar triumphs as tragedies. It identifies imperialism and 
republicanism as inseparable twin influences in the creation and growth 
of political culture in the United States. It denies that chauvinist 
demands for imperial wars in 1812, 1846, and 1898 were somehow 
exceptions to an otherwise pacific history in which Americans make war 
only when they have been driven to it by the need to preserve their 
threatened liberties. It implies that the great American military 
interventions of the 20th and early 21st centuries have been as much 
efforts to establish and preserve hemispheric -- and ultimately, global 
-- hegemony as they were efforts to defend ideals of freedom against the 
designs of would-be tyrants. Finally, it argues that the defining 
moments of American political culture and nationhood, the Revolution and 
the Civil War, can be understood as the unintended consequences of 
vaunting imperial ambitions.

Wars -- not only as fought but also as contemplated, criticized, 
defended, and remembered -- have furnished crucial occasions for 
Americans to debate who they are and to express what they hope their 
nation represents. The quest for liberty and the pursuit of power 
together have created an American historical dialectic catalyzed and 
made dynamic by war. The tale we may too easily assume we know, with a 
significance we may too readily believe we understand, is a chronicle 
that begins in war, and ends -- with us.

Fred Anderson is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at 
Boulder, and Andrew Cayton is a professor of history at Miami University 
of Ohio. This essay is adapted from their book The Dominion of War: 
Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, to be published next 
month by Viking. Copyright © 2005 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton.


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