With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, conventional accounts of the worldwide expansion of American power since the outbreak of the Pacific War have been in some disarray. The standard version of us power-projection abroad has held that it was called forth by the overriding need, first to liberate Europe and Japan from Fascism, and then to protect democracies everywhere from the ussr and Communism. Logically, then, once the Free World was no longer threatened either by Fascism or Communism, the global operations of the American state ought to have been scaled back. But in fact they have extended yet further, into regions of the earth of which few in Washington had ever dreamed. As the ideological fog of the Cold War cleared, what was revealed was a special kind of imperial state with huge military and civil bureaucracies, flanked by massive business organizations, jutting out into large zones of Eurasia, South America and other parts of the world. How was this to be explained?
Through much of the 90s, the new landscape was still in part obscured by the vapours of ‘globalization’, propagated by sociologists and speechwriters of the Western establishment. Since the turn of the century, however, it has become more difficult to ignore, and there is now a growing volume of literature seeking to address it. In this field, American Empire strikes a singularly refreshing note. The historian who has written it, Andrew Bacevich, is a former military officer, whose voice retains something of his army background: his picture on the dust-jacket suggests a more amiable and good-looking version of Oliver North. But there is nothing barracks-like about his prose. American Empire is a tonic to read: crisp, vivid, pungent, with a dry sense of humour and sharp sense of hypocrisies. Bacevich is a conservative, who explains that he believed in the justice of America’s war against Communism, and continues to do so, but once it was over came to the conclusion that us expansionism both preceded and exceeded the logic of the Cold War, and needed to be understood in a longer, more continuous historical durée.
The search for an intellectual perspective that could grasp the dynamics of imperial power led this Army colonel to cross political tracks and find answers in two bodies of work associated, in different contexts, with the American Left—the writings of Charles Beard, in the inter-war years, and William Appleman Williams, from the 1950s to the 1970s. Both these historians had insisted that the United States, contrary to official liberal mythology, was an expansionist power—not drawn to generous actions abroad by lofty internationalist ideals, but driven towards ceaseless diplomatic and military interventions across the world by forces deeply rooted within American society at home. In the 1920s Beard, already famous for his economic interpretations of the Constitution and the Civil War, turned his attention to us foreign policy, and concluded—consistently with the general focus of his work—that ‘as the domestic market was saturated and capital heaped up for investment, the pressure for the expansion of the American commercial empire rose with corresponding speed’. Fearing the consequences of this dynamic, Beard advocated an alternative route of development, much in the spirit of Hobson in England: the better way forward was to deepen the domestic market by raising the living standards of American workers and investing in social programmes at home.
The great obstacle to such a path lay in the fear of the American business class that such deepening might unleash political forces that would undermine the entrenched privileges of the propertied classes within the United States itself. For this bloc, if domestic prosperity was to be maintained without sacrifice of economic hierarchy, capital accumulation would have to be re-wired to external expansion. War and conquest had to be accepted as the price of social peace at home. ‘Nations’, said Beard, ‘are governed by their interests as their statesmen conceive those interests’. In the United States, the principal business of the state was business. Banks and corporations were the real motors of the foreign policy that had pushed America into the First World War, and were driving it towards a Second, against which Beard passionately warned.
William Appleman Williams, although he shared many of Beard’s political instincts, was otherwise a very different kind of historian, who did not so much look at the material interests underlying the dynamic of American expansion, as at the rival ideals whose conflict he took as a guiding thread for understanding the history of the nation. Originally, the Pilgrim Fathers had brought the vision of a Christian Commonwealth to the New World—an egalitarian community of small producers, whose values had never altogether disappeared, taking in later times the form of an ethical socialism. But from the Revolution onwards, an alternative vision of America’s future had developed and for the most part dominated: the construction of a vast continental—and eventually overseas—empire, in which big money and hubristic ambition would thrive, under cover of fair-sounding liberal ideals of free trade and competition for all. The Contours of American History, Williams’s major work, traces a counterpoint between these incompatible outlooks down into the epoch of the Cold War. The global battle against Communism was just the latest way in which America sought to escape abroad from the calling of what Williams believed was its true, moral self at home.