US Imperialism


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Originally published in the book Marxism and the USA, published by and available from Wellred.

The end of the 19th century saw the birth of imperialism. Germany, France, Britain and Belgium struggled to gain possession of markets, territory, raw materials and spheres of influence. This policy led to the establishment of colonies and empires in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. On the Pacific, Japan’s development followed a similar pattern, following the Western lead in industrialization and militarism, enabling it to gain a foothold or “sphere of influence” in China. As Germany emerged as a great power after victory in the Franco-Prussian War, which completed the process of German unification, so the U.S. would emerge as a great power after the victory of the North in the Civil War.

The British LionThe United States, as the youngest member of the capitalist club, entered late into the scramble for markets and colonies. As a result it found itself at a disadvantage with respect to the older imperialist nations of Europe. The Panic of 1893 exacerbated the already fierce competition over markets in the growing “spheres of influence” of the United States, which tended to overlap with Britain’s, especially in the Pacific and South America. Like all newly industrializing great powers, the U.S. adopted protectionism, seized a colonial empire of its own (the Spanish-American War of 1898), and built up a powerful navy (the “Great White Fleet”). Following the example of Germany, the United States tried to solve the depression by the adoption of protective tariff protection with the passage of the McKinley Tariff of 1890.

The nascent trend of American imperialism found its voice in a new generation of U.S. politicians, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, all of whom advocated a more aggressive foreign policy as a means of pulling the United States out of the depression of the second Grover Cleveland administration.

In addition to the strictly economic content of imperialism, it also fulfilled an important social and political role. Europe in this period witnessed the re-emergence of far more militant working-class organization and mass strikes. The existing social order felt threatened by the growth of the trade unions and Social Democratic Parties. A period of increasing unemployment and deflated prices for manufactured goods gave an additional impulse to imperial expansion.

Very soon after it had thrown off the yoke of British and European imperialism and established itself as a young and vigorous capitalist power, the U.S.A. began to flex its muscles and assert its power, developing territorial designs on its neighbors, especially Mexico. This was expressed in the Monroe Doctrine, which, as early as 1823, proclaimed that the American Continent was closed to European colonization, that America was for the Americans and that any attempt on the part of Spain or any other European state to reconquer the South American republics would be considered “a manifestation of unfriendly disposition towards the United States.”

On this subject W.E. Woodward writes: “[…]the South American republics were not grateful then and are not grateful now. On the contrary, they hate us heartily on account of the Monroe Doctrine, as they assume that the doctrine is our indirect way of asserting an overlordship over the countries to the south of us.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 358.) Whatever may have been the original intention, there can be no doubt that that has been precisely the result.

Under the pretext of reaffirming the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. imperialism in reality extended it beyond all recognition through the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904. In practice, this was taken to mean that the U.S.A. claimed the exclusive right to “lead” the entire American continent – North and South. Under McKinley’s Republican administration, the U.S.A. aimed to restore prosperity and obtain new markets through the “Open Door” policy. The meaning of this was already demonstrated in the U.S.-Cuban War.

Spain was the weakest of all the European imperialist states, and its last remaining possession in the New World, Cuba, was an obvious target. In 1895 the people of Cuba rose in revolution against their Spanish colonial masters. The Madrid government sent 200,000 soldiers but were unable to put down the uprising. The Cubans made use of guerrilla war, avoiding pitched battles and resorting to hit and run tactics – just like the Iraqis at the present time. The Spanish imperialists resorted to brutal repression. All suspected rebels were rounded up and placed in concentration camps, where many died of disease and starvation. These events were followed with great interest in the United States, and not only from humanitarian motives. American citizens had about $50 million worth of Cuban property, including sugar and tobacco plantations and iron mines. American property was being destroyed.

A vociferous campaign began in the U.S.A. in favour of “going to Cuba and sorting out the whole damn mess.” This was an early expression of the pent-up chauvinism that was pushing America to assert its power on the world stage. President McKinley was not sympathetic to the imperialists and attempted to keep the U.S.A. out of war. But he was under increasing pressure from the imperialists who made sure that every Spanish atrocity, real or imaginary, was splashed all over the front pages of American newspapers in what was called “yellow journalism”.

TR Carries a Big StickWe know from more recent experience how easy it is to whip up pro-war feelings by using the mass media to create hate figures and manipulate public opinion – as George W. Bush and his administration did very effectively after the 11th September. It was even easier at that time because the American public had no experience of foreign wars. In such a situation, some incident is always needed to spark off war hysteria. In this case it was provided by the notorious Maine incident. The U.S. war party had a very vocal leader in the person of Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, who imagined that the U.S.A. should act on the world stage in the same way as General Custer leading the Seventh Cavalry into battle against the “injuns”. He declared that President McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair”. All the war party needed was that useful little incident. They got it on February 15 1898 when the Maine was blown up in Havana harbour.

Late in January 1898, the U.S. government sent the battleship Maine to Havana on what was supposed to be a “good will” mission. In fact, “good will” had nothing to do with it. The Maine had been sent to protect U.S. property and citizens in Cuba. Despite this act of blatant interference, the Madrid government swallowed hard, maintained a diplomatic silence and publicly accepted the “good will” fairy story. It could hardly do anything else!

To this day nobody knows what happened. It may be that the Maine was blown up by Spanish loyalists, indignant at the affront to their government. But it is also possible that it was the work of Cuban rebels, intending to provoke a U.S. military intervention against Spain. It is even possible that the ship’s magazine may have blown up through some kind of accident or spontaneous combustion. Certainly the official report on the incident was inconclusive. But it really made no difference. All this has quite a modern ring about it. After the 11th September, the right wing clique in the White House found the perfect excuse for carrying into practice the plans for the invasion of Iraq that they had already prepared long before. The destruction of the Twin Towers was the perfect excuse for this, although it is well known that Iraq had nothing whatever to do with it. Once the war machine starts to roll, like the Juggernauts of ancient India, it crushes everything in its path. 

Is it not remarkable how every war is always humanitarian and pacific in intent, no matter how many lives are lost? Chauvinistic and anti-foreigner feeling is whipped up and all kinds of false moralizing arguments are put forward to dress up an act of aggression under the banner of the noblest and most humanitarian sentiments. But behind the scenes the most sordid self-interest is at work. Listen to Senator Thurston of Nebraska: “War with Spain,” he said, “would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce.” In other words, war was just another department of big business, or, as old Clausewitz might have said “the continuation of business by other means”.

Faced with pressure of such intensity, McKinley took the honourable way out and joined the war party. In his speech to Congress, the President was economical with the truth. He did not inform Congress that Spain had agreed to accept all the terms imposed by Washington for reform in Cuba. He doubtless understood that a “splendid little war” would not do his prospects for re-election any harm. He would have been right, except that his Presidential aspirations were cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

On April 19th, Congress declared war on Spain. The U.S. Navy moved in with gusto, although it was based on the other side of the world in Asia. Admiral Dewey entered Manila where the Spanish fleet was anchored and reduced it to scrap iron in the space of five hours. U.S. land forces backed by Filipino insurgents defeated the Spanish. But later the same insurgents were fighting the U.S. forces. Not for the last time, one imperialist power had simply replaced another.

From the American point of view the Spanish War was a brilliant success. Casualties on the U.S. side were few. The U.S. Navy lost fewer than 20 men, having destroyed the entire Spanish fleet. The total fatalities of the U.S. army in Cuba were 5,462. Of these, 379 were killed in action. The rest died from disease and bad food sold to the army by unscrupulous Chicago meat companies and accepted without question by stupid or corrupt military managers.

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