Since the Russian Revolution, the rulers of America have been increasingly concerned to justify their imperial system against revolutionary attack. They have employed two constant methods to maintain their domination. The first has been physical—the proliferation of us bases, the mobility of the American fleet, the alertness of the marines, the manoeuvrings of the cia, the bribery of friendly politicians. All this is well known. The second method has been ideological: the construction of a mythological, non-communist, non-socialist and even non-nationalist road to political independence for the countries of the Third World. To woo the aspiring politicians of these new states, the us has offered them the model of the ‘American Revolution’ of 1776. It was on this basis that Franklin Roosevelt considered that the us was uniquely equipped to advise India on the road to independence, and it was again on the basis of this claim that Eisenhower felt entitled to ditch his Anglo-French imperialist allies at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. America, in the estimation of her ruling politicians, was the first ex-colony, and so was uniquely equipped to steer a benevolent
Of course, one embarrassing feature of this otherwise roseate vista was America’s own imperial record—as a colonial power.footnote1 For it was impossible to deny that the Spanish-American war of 1898 had resulted in the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, or that Hawaii had been annexed to the metropolitan power. To circumvent these difficulties, a large school of official historians has attempted to provide satisfactory legalistic or at least non-economic explanations for America’s unexpected lapse into the colonialism associated with the Old World. With as much ingenuity as their self-imposed myopia would permit, the historians came up with a satisfactory solution. The notorious Monroe doctrine was a defensive reaction against the colonial ambitions of European powers. Its purpose was simply to provide the necessary defensive bulwarks behind which the new nation could be consolidated. According to one official historian, 19th century American leaders ‘were at most only incidentally concerned with real or imagined interests abroad’. The events of the 1890’s had no precedent. They were ‘an aberration’. America lurched into an empire in a fit of absent-mindedness—‘it had greatness thrust upon it’. A Schumpeterian explanation was advanced for the Spanish-American War. Incursions into the Caribbean and the Philippines were not in any sense determined by real economic interests, but were the result of the machinations of the cheap yellow press. The war was necessary to satisfy the frenzied and hysterical emotions of the people. The United States was forced to intervene to prevent new colonial incursions into the American hemisphere. America had not engaged in a determined war of economic expansion but had reluctantly assumed the AngloSaxon burden of helping backward peoples forward to liberty and democracy.
This official interpretation of the background to 20th-century American power has been skilfully elaborated in hundreds of volumes replete with an apparent apparatus of scholarship. For the most part, these legends have taken the form of a knowing or unknowing confusion between
Until recently alternative interpretations put forward by radical or socialist critics have scarcely been more satisfactory. While official historians have celebrated the American ascent to world power either in terms of a beneficent and inexorable manifest destiny or else in terms of an unavoidable geopolitical logic of power, radical critics have tended to see American history as a progressive betrayal of the ideals and possibilities of a lost golden age: Beard’s triumph of personalty (mobile capital) over realty (agrarianism).footnote5 In the heroic epoch of simple agrarians and small entrepreneurs, according to C. Wright Mills, ‘a free man, not a man exploited, and an independent man, not a man bound by tradition, here confronted a continent and, grappling with it, turned it into a million commodities’.footnote6 America was a country unburdened by a feudal or militaristic past and unmarred by the social and religious strife of Europe; but the foundation of an independent America contained a promise that its subsequent history failed to fulfil. David Horowitz could write in 1965: ‘When America set out on her post-war path to contain revolution throughout the world, and threw her immense power and influence into the balance against the rising movement for social justice among the poverty-stricken two-thirds of the world’s population, the first victim of her deeds were the very ideals for a better world—liberty, equality and self-determination—which she herself, in her infancy, had done so much to foster.’footnote7
In recent years the work of William Appleman Williams has also tried to break away from conventional patriotic fantasies.footnote8 Williams has rejected the myth of a golden age and laid bare the deep national historical roots of American imperialism. Nevertheless, for all its virtues, Williams’s work has remained imprisoned in a similar idealistic