Sources of U.S. Imperialism

Levin, N. Gordon Jr.

AMERICAN IMPERIALISM: A SPECULATIVE ESSAY, by Ernest R. May. New York: Atheneum. 239 pp. $5.95. THIS BOOK is concerned with explaining America's sudden turn to overt imperial expansion in...

...By and large, however, Americans tended to perceive this early expansion as the conquest of land and not of people...
...In an England newly threatened by rising powers, liberalism quickly became liberal-imperialism for many, with Gladstone's behavior on the Egyptian question and Joseph Chamberlain's conversion from classical liberalism to imperialism constituting the major events...
...Especially useful is his discussion of the manner in which traditional liberal anti-imperialist theory and practice became eroded in France and England, and was stillborn in Germany...
...Of course, the long and bloody American repression of Aguinaldo's Philippine nationalist revolt, which followed immediately upon annexation, reveals the danger in any imperial effort to force another people to be free, but it is extremely significant, nonetheless, that in 1898-99 the United States did decide to make its first missionary effort to liberalize a foreign society...
...To these factors May contributes another of his own by arguing that the American foreign-policy establishment in the late 19th century (an establishment of businessmen, politicians, educators, ministers, and publicists whose interlocking and regional nature May describes skilfully) was moved to abandon its traditional hostility to foreign conquest because of the growth of imperial theory and practice in an Atlantic world, especially that of England, to which American foreignpolicy elites felt themselves bound by cosmopolitan ties of intellect...
...The problem was, however, that people did already exist on this supposedly virgin landó the American Indians...
...Moreover, the existence of an American liberal norm for world politics has meant, despite periodic swings between involvement and semi-isolation, that American foreign policy has been characterized by a "centrist" ideological BOOKS content in a 20th century marked by major political world movements of the Right and the Left...
...According to the Williams school, American foreign policy since the 1870's has been marked by an urge toward commercial expansion in the face of the threat of domestic underconsumption of industrial goods...
...American society had never been receptive (outside of the South) to military-aristocratic institutions or to concepts of hierarchy and dominance...
...It could be argued, however, that May's whole emphasis on the events of 1898-99 is misplaced...
...It is this neo-mercantilist marriage of state and capitalism (often accompanied by nationalsocialist welfare programs designed to curb socialism, appease the working class, and strengthen the efficiency of the state and its economy for global competition) which most characterized the era of imperialism with its scramble for empire in Africa and Asia...
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...That is to say, the state component of the European marriage between state and capitalism, a component based in large part as Schumpeter maintained on an atavistic aristocratic warrior tradition, was hard to establish in a society such as America in which liberalcapitalist individualism had been the dominant institutional and ideological motif...
...Yet, as May argues, there is good evidence that the American foreign-policy establishment was nonetheless impressed with English liberalimperialist doctrine as transmitted by Seeley, Dilke, Froude, Rosebery, and Chamberlain...
...Moreover, as other historians have shown, in this period such American leaders as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and others of the Anglophile Republican elite increasingly came to accept English notions of a joint AngloAmerican world order, and were not averse, in return for British recognition of America's strategic preeminence in the Western Hemisphere, to operating in world politics in concert with British imperial power in search of an Anglo-Saxon political order and commercial stability in Africa and Asia...
...Classical liberalism in England had been paradoxically and uncomfortably joined with a mid-nineteenth BOOKS century English formal and informal empire which ensured Britain commercial and strategic global dominance under the umbrella of a naval Pax Britannica...
...From the anti-imperialists came a sense of American liberal-exceptionalism, and a vision of a missionary America defeating traditional European imperialism and constructing a peaceful, new world order of liberal capitalist harmony, safe for the export of American goods and values...
...Moreover, as Indians were removed or ignored, Americans found it possible during most of the 19th century to square expansion with an ideology of anticolonialist liberalism...
...In opposition, the imperialist position in 1898-99 insisted that America had to operate in an imperialist global environment in which power counted in the search for markets...
...In short, by employing his own version of reference group theory, May argues for the importance of emulation in explaining "the impact on Americans of English and European examples...
...The anti-imperialists accepted the necessity for American commercial expansion, but they argued that the United States could best achieve the conquest of world markets by advocating freer trade, peaceful international-capitalist order, and a global system beyond Europeanstyle power politics...
...One might immediately ask why this is a historical problem since there can be no doubt that one of the dominant themes of earlier American history had been that of territorial expansion across the North American continent...
...MAY'S ANALYSIS is an extremely helpful one because of its global focus...
...In place of the notion of an open international capitalist system of liberal harmony, there developed on the continent theories of state capitalist imperialism calling for cooperation between government and business in the search for national advantage in a competitive world...
...In the view of such historians as William A. Williams, Walter La Feber, and Thomas McCormick, what is significant is not so much the fact of America's opting for an overtly imperial role in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, but rather the manner in which there can be illustrated a basic continuity in America's foreign policy goals both before and after the events of 1898-99...
...He discusses the growth of imperialistic social Darwinist ideology in America, the existence of a drive for foreign markets fed by a fear of domestic underconsumption, and finally, the social and psychic crisis in the United States during the 1890's which saw hitherto conflicting class and ideological elements joining momentarily for a popular nationalistic release in war against Spain...
...Age, sex not important...
...It is this strange fusion of national self-interest with liberal internationalism which has marked, and continues to mark, the American search for an orderly "centrist" global Pax Americana...
...Consequently, the United States has sought to open all areas of the world to American exports, but has never been really interested in a formal empire on the European model...
...It is not surprising, then, that the decline of Britain's relative power position in the late 19th century was also accompanied by a sharp drop in the global influence of freetrade classical liberalism, an ideology which to some in Germany and elsewhere appeared as a cover for continued British hegemony...
...Rather, the United States has attempted to secure the open door for American goods in other nations' empires...
...The United States could not create a peaceful and open international-capitalist EDITOR WANTED by national liberal organization for new 20-page monthly tabloid on political and social Issues...
...Thus, as the 20th century approached, the United States had a history of expansion, but little or no experience in establishing imperial rule over settled alien populations...
...Within the American foreign-policy establishment this decision was not a universally popular one by any means...
...In this sense, then, the imperialists, for all their sense of racial and cultural superiority were, paradoxically, less racist than those of their anti-imperialist opponents who, in the American tradition of dealing with the Indians, assumed that underdeveloped alien cultures were incapable of being Americanized...
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...Momentarily unified around the vision of a war against reactionary Spain to free the Cubans, the elite soon split over the issue of annexing Puerto Rico and the Philippines...
...The central problem for May is to explain why after the Spanish-American War the United States moved to violate its anti-imperial tradition by establishing formal imperial rule over Puerto Rico and the Philippines...
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...Little if any sustained effort was made by Americans to absorb the Indians or their land into the United States...
...Finally, it should be noted that Theodore Roosevelt was also an advocate of fusing national assertion with progressive domestic social reform from above...
...Instead, they maintained that American colonial rule would uplift native peoples to the practice of true freedom, and that it was America's moral and religious duty to make the effort...
...While it is true that the United States moved back to formal anti-imperialist orthodoxy after 1900, it is important to note the manner in which, during later periods of American diplomatic history, the United States came to practice an expansive diplomacy which fused viewpoints from both sides in the imperial debate of 1898-99...
...PERSUASIVE as this analysis may seem, we ought not to move too quickly past the events and debates of 1898-99, and we are indebted to May for helping us to take another and closer look at the moment of America's decision to opt, even if only momentarily, for the overtly imperialistic path...
...From the imperialists came a willingness to fuse business and the state for power goals, a realistic assessment of the structure of world trade and politics, and a willingness to use American power, even if not in an overtly imperialistic manne-, in the reformation and reconstruction of alien peoples and polities...
...These historians do not share May's view of the significance of the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, actions which they see as pragmatic steps toward the larger goal of commercial expansion, and they would also emphasize that after 1900 the United States made no more annexations because the expansion of American political and economic influence in search of a global open door for American industry could take place more successfully through the more efG21 BOOKS ficient techniques of informal empire in the Caribbean and elsewhere...
...Fusing idealism with racism, they insisted that the Puerto Ricans and Filipinos were incapable of adopting liberal values and that the necessity of continuing to dominate them would only contaminate the purity of the American liberal way by turning the United States toward European values of hierarchy and despotism...
...The anti-imperialists spoke of America's liberal traditions of antimilitarism, anticolonialism, and expansion into unsettled (ignoring the Indians) areas of contiguous virgin land...
...In the creation of this (as the Williams school might term it) expansive American "imperialism of anti-imperialism," the events and debates of 1898-99 were of real importance, and Ernest May's book helps us to understand them better...
...Of course, the fact that the American Indians had a tribal culture of their own has inhibited their assimilation to a liberal individualistic society all of whose other members, black or white, either were themselves immigrants or descendants of immigrants who, voluntarily or not, had been uprooted from their native milieu...
...There also arose theories of imperial responsibility for the protection and the tutelage of underdeveloped peoples, theories which paradoxically united the competing imperial powers around the common assumption of the manifest destiny of white Europeans to dominate the underdeveloped world...
...In addition, the imperialists rejected the antiimperialist view that Filipinos and Puerto Ricans were incapable of being liberalized...
...As mentioned above, there existed strong American liberal traditions in opposition to the entire approach of European imperialism...
...The early vision of America's manifest destiny involved free white people moving out into a fertile empty space which God had ordained as the home of a unique, liberal, individualistic society...
...May does not reject earlier answers to this question...
...wane oraer by merety wisning it, ana m the meantime, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico were of immense strategic and economic value...
...THIS BOOK is concerned with explaining America's sudden turn to overt imperial expansion in 1898-99 through the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines...

Vol. 16 • January 1969 • No. 1


 
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