NEW YORK — One thing that has receded from public debate as a consequence of the disaster that is America’s war against Iraq is talk of the United States as an empire. During the onrush to the invasion and for some time afterward, one popular comparison was with the Roman Empire. Another, of course, was with the British Empire, though with the latter it was cautionary.
“Nineteenth-century Britain had much less military power than the U.S. today, but it had much more ability to get things done within its empire than the U.S. in today’s world,” wrote Stanley Hoffman in “The Foreign Policy the U.S. Needs” in The New York Review of Books (Aug. 10).
For one thing, Britain had cadres of the educated willing to be sent to far-flung colonial outposts and endure the inevitable local hazards for years on end. Today young, educated Americans are willing to do anything similar only for money and for short periods of time.
What was palpable about the excitable talk of America as an empire, in any case, was the whiff of embarrassment and incredulity it carried. Yes, the U.S. has been all powerful for quite a while, but the avatar of democracy can’t be an empire, can it?
I was among the incredulous, to tell the truth. I grew up in Japan during Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s reign and in the years that followed. America was democracy, period. Notions drilled into your head when young stay with you. For decades after I came to live in New York City, I simply did not link the U.S. with imperialism.
In fact, as I learned, quickly enough, once I decided to look into it, the view of this nation as empire came with its founding. As tradition has it, the Empire State is so called because, during his survey of harbors, waterways and such in New York, George Washington pronounced the area to be fit for “the seat of the Empire.” That was in December 1784.
I haven’t ascertained this story in a document quoted in any of the countless biographies of the Sage of Mount Vernon. But I see online the same designation occur in his letter to Arthur Young dated Dec. 5, 1791. In April 1789, Washington became president of the U.S. in New York City, the first capital of the newly formed union, but evidently he wasn’t happy with the place. So, “was I to commence my career of life anew,” he wrote, he would propose a tract of land on the Potomac River as the site for “the seat of the Empire.”
When you think of it, the concept of the new land as empire may not really have been a conceit. The U.S. was born of the final phase of the Seven Years’ War, the clash for global hegemony between the greatest European powers of the day, Britain and France. Washington fought in it on the British side, naturally.
As soon as the republic got its act together, it started territorial expansion. One bit of irony in this regard is that John Quincy Adams, who in 1821 famously proclaimed his nation would not go overseas to spread the gospel of democracy (“She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”), helped create two years later the Monroe Doctrine, which would lead to some of the more destructive interventions in the belief that South America was the backyard of the U.S.
In 1845, journalist John O’Sullivan declared it was “the common duty of Patriotism” to strive for “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent.” He did this to support the annexation of Texas even as he lined up California for the next step in his overspreading plan for America. The American-initiated war with Mexico had started a year before.
Only eight years later, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry would be sent to Japan to pry the country open under the threat of guns. Little wonder that Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his last stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” casually called the U.S. “the empire.”
In 1935, the editors of Fortune magazine took it upon themselves to tell their readers what the U.S. has been all about. “It is generally supposed that the American military ideal is peace,” they wrote. “But for this high-school classic, the U.S. Army, since 1776, has filched more square miles of the earth by sheer military conquest than any army in the world, except only that of Great Britain. And as between Great Britain and the U.S. it has been a close race, Britain having conquered something over 3,500,000 square miles (9 million square km) since that date, and the U.S. (if one includes wresting the Louisiana Purchase from the Indians) something over 3,100,000.”
This observation necessarily reminds me of the American writer Helen Mears’ 1948 book, “Mirror for Americans.” Mears, who was briefly in Japan on the U.S. commission to advise the Japanese government on labor issues after the war, was as clear-eyed as the Fortune editors. The central pretext for the Occupation was the proposition that the Japanese were “inherently militaristic and expansionist,” but the West’s postwar condemnation of Japan as a warmonger nonpareil was, Mears wrote, “a perfect illustration of respectable people smashing their own glass houses.”
MacArthur didn’t like Mears’ argument and banned the publication of the Japanese translation of her book.
And that reminds me of something else. When “Mirror for Americans” was published, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Trial) was drawing to a close. Of that trial, Elizabeth Vining, the Quaker English tutor of the Japanese Crown Prince (today’s Emperor), asked: “Could a court be impartial and justice be served when the judges were also the prosecution?” That question has growing credence today. Those who recoiled from the U.S. invasion of Iraq did so because the country acted “as prosecutor, judge and Globocop rolled into one,” as the German writer Josef Joffe puts it in his just published book, “Uberpower.”
Is the U.S. an empire? Yes, no question about it. With its military budget exceeding the total of the military budgets of the next eight to 10 countries combined, and with more than 700 military bases spread all over the world, the country can be nothing but.
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