Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz
by Richard H, Immerman. (Princeton University Press; 237 pages); $24.95.
There are many reasons to be angry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but perhaps the most teeth-grating moments of the launching of war in Baghdad were marked by the moralism by which U.S. officials justified their invasion. There was all sorts of highfalutin rhetoric that the invasion was necessary to make the world safe for democracy but stripped of rhetoric, the Bush Doctrine was one that told other countries: Shut up and do as you’re told. We’re America, and we can invade anyone we want to for any reason we want. We’re good, and we go to war because we’re good. So stop whining and do what we want.
The Obama administration, while continuing the Bush administration’s wars, has largely abandoned the rhetoric of democratic imperialism that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld so loved. The neoconservative hawks, for their part, grumble in their coffee about the need to bomb Tehran, but their influence has waned, although they could easily come back the next time the Republicans are in power.
Many of us knew that the arguments the imperialists made — that we need to invade other countries to force them to be free — were not new. But what Richard Immerman, a Temple University historian, shows in his fair, judicious, and highly informative book is that there has always been an imperialist faction in America and that the arguments for war have changed very little in the past two centuries.
My judgment is that by building an empire either by direct conquest or informal control the United States has frequently done evil in the name of good. I do not accept the proposition that some problems require imperial solutions.
But from its start, Immerman contends, America has been an empire that doesn’t like to think of itself as an empire. The United States, he says, is “an imperialist with a history of opposing imperialism.” For example, both President Bush and his key associates all denied they dreamed of establishing an American imperium over the Middle East. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, famously declared that the United States did not want one inch of territory in Iraq. But in Immerman’s assessment, “although former President George Bush may prove to be the most vigorous denier of an American empire among all U.S. presidents, he was forced to issue so many denials because of all American presidents he acted most imperialistically in the classical sense.” He adds that the invasion of Iraq was “the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history, a blunder that could prove fatal to the American empire.”
Immerman’s book consists of six profiles of key thinkers in American foreign policy. He shows that the six — Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, secretaries of State William H. Seward and John Foster Dulles, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924; R-Mass.), and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — represented a continuum of changes in the rationale for American imperialism.
For example, William H. Seward, in the 1850s and 1860s, argued that an expanding America was necessary to fight slavery. Henry Cabot Lodge began his career allied with former slavery-fighters and ended it opposing the League of Nations because he believed America could remain the “world’s last hope” for liberty only if the United States could do whatever it liked overseas in the name of freedom. John Foster Dulles began his career as a junior clerk in the American delegation at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and ended it using the imperialistic principles of Woodrow Wilson as the basis for justifications of the containment policies in the Cold War. Each one of the figures Immerman describes took the imperialistic baton of his predecessor and ran with it. Early imperialists
America’s first imperialist was Benjamin Franklin. Ironically, Franklin began his career as an enthusiastic advocate of British imperialism. After British forces conquered Quebec in 1759, some British mercantilists argued that the newly conquered Canadian territory ought to be traded to the French for the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, on the grounds that owning the island would enable the British access to a cheap sugar supply. In a 1760 pamphlet, Franklin disagreed, insisting, as Immerman writes, “that the North American continent was not an appendage but the Western frontier of the British empire. Its safety and security were therefore integral to the empire’s, regardless of which side of the Atlantic the population lived.”
Franklin soured on British imperialism after the British tightened controls over the colonies with a series of acts beginning with the Stamp Act of 1766. He ably defended American interests overseas. After American independence, Franklin fervently supported the Ordinance of 1787, which devised a method for turning the territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers into what would eventually become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In Franklin’s view, America should pursue a policy of “indefinite expansion,” with a steady stream of new states joining the United States as liberty-loving “self-governing republics, immune to the possibility of despotic rule from the center.”
Thomas Jefferson, also an enthusiastic imperialist, said, “Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North and South, is to be peopled.” When Jefferson bought the territory of Louisiana in 1803, doubling the size of the United States, he was opposed by the Federalists, who feared the United States could not assimilate such a large swath of territory and that some or all of it would be controlled by the slaveholders in the South. The only Federalist senator to support the treaty was John Quincy Adams, who argued that the North American continent was “America’s dominion” and that only a continent-sized United States could prevent North America from descending “into a common battlefield of conquerors and tyrants.”
But Adams’s most lasting legacy for American imperialism was his role, as James Monroe’s secretary of state, in drafting the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. While one of the doctrine’s three clauses said that the United States had no interest in European conflicts, the remaining two declared both North and South America to be America’s sphere of influence. To keep South America free of “the great colonial establishments” of Europe, the Monroe Doctrine declared, the United States had to be a continental hegemon.
William Henry Seward had, for much of his career, the admirable goal of trying to eliminate slavery in the United States. But his vision was more messianic than Adams’s. In the 1850 debate over whether to admit California to the United States as a state, Seward argued that to protect the American republic, America had to expand to include all of South America and large parts of Asia. “If, then, America will remain an undivided nation,” he declared on the Senate floor, “the ripening civilization of the West” will “mingle with the declining civilization of the East on our own free soil … and a new and more perfect civilization will arise to bless the earth, under the sway of our cherished and beneficent democratic institutions.”
“Abroad our Empire shall no limits know,” Seward, quoting John Dryden, said after the Civil War. “But like the sea in boundless circles flow.”
Henry Cabot Lodge, in his 30-year career in the Senate, prided himself on being the upper chamber’s leading imperialist. “We have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any of the people of the nineteenth century,” he boasted, as he cheered American conquest of the Philippines and Hawaii and the construction of a two-ocean navy. When Lodge opposed U.S. admission to the League of Nations in 1919, he did so both because of his personal animus against Woodrow Wilson and because he feared that the League would place a check on American power. “The United States is the world’s best hope,” he declared, “but if you fetter her in the interests of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her power for good and endanger her very existence.”
John Foster Dulles was named for his grandfather, John Foster, an imperialist who had been Benjamin Harrison’s secretary of state. But the expansive imperialism of Lodge had evolved into a defensive imperialism. In Dulles’s eyes, America’s sphere of influence had to expand to the entire “free world” in order to protect the West against Soviet expansion. If governments had to be overthrown — in Iran, or in Guatemala — the United States had to be free to act in whatever ways it could to check Soviet plans.
The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the idea of a bipolar world and caused the advocates of an American empire to come up with new rationales for their actions. Immerman sees Paul Wolfowitz as one of the key players in that imperialist effort. As undersecretary of defense in 1992, Wolfowitz drafted the Defense Planning Guidance document, which said that the principal task of American foreign policy was to deter “potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role” in world politics. A summary was even more explicit: America should remain the world’s only superpower “by demonstrating that [its] friends will be protected and taken care of and that [its] enemies will be punished.”
Wolfowitz and his allies prevailed in the George W. Bush administration, and America remains committed to perpetual war in Afghanistan and a cold peace in Iraq. To the end of his presidency, George W. Bush remained committed to a policy that the American empire was somehow necessary to preserve liberty around the world. “Security and prosperity depend on the expansion of liberty abroad,” he said in his farewell address in January 2009. Using language that Adams, Seward, Lodge, and Dulles would have understood, he noted, “If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led.”
Those of us who support peace and liberty might ask after reading Empire for Liberty why “the cause of freedom” is something that America must lead, and whether the lasting legacy of our great crusade for global freedom is to turn the world into a colder, harder, more despotic place.
Richard Immerman’s Empire for Liberty reminds us that American imperialism is deeply rooted in our country’s history. But merely being old does not make a tradition just or wise.
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.