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 course through the stormy waters of post-war decolonization.

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 imperialism and colonialism. The invisibility of American imperialism when compared with the territorial colonialism of European countriesfootnote2, has been internalized by its historians to such an extent, that with a clear conscience they have denied its very existence.footnote3 Whether this has been the result of State Department gold or simple inability to grasp conceptual distinctions, the end product has been the same: it has meant, in the words of Barrington Moore, astute propaganda but bad history and bad sociology.footnote4

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 idealisticmoralistic problematic. Williams’s argument is best understood as a response to the Turner thesis which associated American democracy with the existence of an expanding frontier to the West.footnote9 According to Turner, ‘whenever social conditions tended to crystallize in the East, whenever capital tended to press upon labour or political restraints to impede the freedom of the mass, there was this gate of escape to the free conditions of the frontier. These free lands promoted individualism, economic equality, freedom to rise, democracy.’ Williams turns this thesis on its head. According to Williams, American history can be seen as the compound of two conflicting themes.footnote10 The first of these themes has been the conception of a corporate Christian Commonwealth based upon the ideal of social responsibility; the second has been the untrammelled individualism based upon the ideals of private property. In Williams’s eyes, the expanding westward frontier which in the 20th century became metamorphosed into a global American imperialism has always been the dominant means by which Americans have evaded the possibility of building a genuine democracy, of constructing the true Christian Socialist Commonwealth which has always remained immanent in American history. Thus American history is not basically seen as the product of the struggle and interaction of classes within a particular social formation, but of the clash between ‘weltanschauungs’. The development of American Imperialism is seen not so much as the result of the inner logic of capitalist development, but rather as the product of a conscious evasion. Like Hobson before him, Williams seems to envisage the possibility of a modified American capitalism shorn of its unnecessary imperialist outworks, and asks whether the ruling class of corporation capitalism has ‘the nerve to abandon the frontier as Utopia’ and ‘to turn its back on expansion as the open door of escape’.