The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

August 15, 2000

Joseph Stromberg is on vacation.
We present a classic column from last year.

August 3 , 1999

Empire as a Way of Death


Pericles' Funeral Oration is widely seen as a noble statement of core Western values. Noble, doubtless, but the rest is arguable (Western Civilization having had a bad day or two). Pericles – the Athenian FDR? – saw the Athenian Empire as the great defender of freedom – freedom defined, however, by the Athenian Empire and its "defensive alliance," the Hellenic NATO aka Delian League. The analogy goes further. Athens was democratic and imperialistic – thus refuting Wilsonian Fallacy #1 that "democracies" are always peaceful and kindly. Like the American globocrats and their NATO counterparts after 1989, the Athenians asserted – in the famous dialogue with the Melians – their "right to rule" after the overthrow of the Persians. For the Americans and NATO, the Soviets' fall raised the question first posed by Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner in the early sixties, "What will the preachers do, when the Devil is saved?" We know what George Herbert Walker Bush did: he found a lesser devil on whose country he dropped the full weight of humane police action and peacekeeping to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis who never posed the slightest threat to Kennebunkport.


The American Empire lurched into existence a hundred years ago with the Spanish-American War. President William McKinley quickly learned how to sail under Two Doctrines. The Outer Doctrine – for public consumption – was that American intervention was uniquely philanthropic: the freedom of the poor Cubans and good government for the Filipinos were our only goals. (Things didn't work out that way – but never mind.)

The Inner Doctrine was a vision of prosperity through economic empire. The Open Door Notes staked the claim. Government support for the expansion of favored corporations into world markets became the central theme of 20th century US foreign policy. Where foreign empires, states, or revolutions threatened this goal, US policy makers would risk war to sustain it. In the end, whatever his outward fuss over "freedom of the seas" and Teutonic "barbarities," Woodrow Wilson's drive to involve Americans in the First Euro-Bloodbath had as much to do with possible threats to the Open Door program as with his "idealism."

After Americans repudiated Wilson's war, a series of Republican Presidents pursued the Open Door with less fanfare. It was emphatically not a period of "isolationism" despite the moderation of those in charge. It seemed to Herbert Hoover that the Open Door and the "territorial integrity of China" were not worth a war. His New Deal successors fitted their policy, especially from 1937, to threats to the Open Door while grumbling about Italian and German inroads into Latin American markets. Once the European war broke out in September 1939, Roosevelt worked to intervene as rapidly as possible.

US wartime military and civilian planning reveals the grand scale of the American leadership's postwar ambitions. They thought in terms of US dominance of the "Grand Area" – later the "Free World," and now, the "New World Order." This planning rested on a mercantilist conception of hegemony. The self-named "wise men" of the northeastern political and corporate Establishment were supremely confident of their ability and right to manage the globe. After bombing their opponents flat, they looked forward to an American Century, only to find the Soviet Union blocking their path into very desirable markets and resources.

The Open Door does not explain everything about the origins of the Cold War but it was a major (even obsessive) concern of policy makers in the late 1940s. Whether the Cold War made any sense at all, it did allow the worldwide extension of US power. It gave an ideological and practical framework for the growth of what can only be called an American Empire.

It also gave us dear old NATO. Debating the treaty in the aftermath of the Berlin Blockade and the Marshall Plan, only a handful of Senators opposed that entangling alliance. Senator Taft said that the pact "will do far more to bring about a third world war than it will ever maintain the peace of the world." This shows how hard it is to foretell things. Taft could not have dreamed that NATO – having achieved its object and having, therefore, no reason to exist – would expand its membership and attack a state which had not attacked a NATO member any more than he could have imagined the wild ride of the Arkansas traveler.

But much more than NATO was at issue. The Wise Men and their National Security managers wanted colossal mobilization blurring the distinction between peace and war. As some of them admitted in the infamous NSC-68, had there been no Soviet Union, they would still have pursued much the same program. This ambitious program almost ran aground on Congressional opposition to its costs (hard to believe now).

The postconstitutional, Presidential War in Korea saved the planners' bacon. It also continued the military practices and moral theory developed in other conflicts. One General commented, "almost the entire Korean peninsula [is]... a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed.... There were no more targets in Korea." General Curtis LeMay noted, "We burned down just about every city in North and South [!] Korea..... we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes." He was not being critical. I shall pass over the "strategy" and "tactics" of the Viet Nam War.


An Empire – and by any standard there is an American Empire – which subscribes to a doctrine of Total War ought to make everyone nervous. Somewhere along the line from the Pequod War, Sherman's March to the Sea, the bloody so-called "Philippine Insurrection," and the firebombing of Japan and Germany, US leaders – civilian and military – took up the notion that it is reasonable to make war on an Enemy's entire society. Only a few observers like C. Wright Mills and Richard M. Weaver even questioned the doctrine during the High Cold War.

And, sadly, it all ended. For the planners and managers the Soviet collapse was inconvenient – requiring a new ideological rationale, new enemies, and much retargeting – if they stayed in the Empire business. I leave, unsung, the Gulf War, with that lovely phrase about "making the rubble bounce" as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died since that splendid little war under the "humane" mechanisms of "economic warfare." I only add that this style of warfare fails, in detail, the following useful test: Can we conceive of Robert E. Lee using these weapons or tactics?


There are many writers who worry themselves sick about "late capitalism" (whatever that might be). It is more to the point to worry about the pattern of late empire. Here we find an array of interlocking ideological, political, and economic facts paralleling those of comparable periods in other civilizations. One of these facts is irresponsible power centered in bureaucracies that aspire to manage all aspects of human life (here Paul Gottfried's After Liberalism is very useful). At the apex of the would-be Universal State stands the figure of Caesar. Oswald Spengler defined "Caesarism" as "that kind of government which, irrespective of any constitutional formulation that it may have, is in its inward self a return to formlessness.... Real importance centered in the wholly personal power exercised by Caesar" or his representatives.

Having allowed the American President to become an Emperor, who dares now be surprised that an "impeached" Executive can, on his own motion, begin bombing a state with which neither the US or NATO was "at war" in the name of human rights and universal do-gooding? Perhaps Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. needs to take a deeper look at the imperial presidency. The sheer contempt shown for all law – Geneva Convention, UN ephemera, NATO Treaty, and, what ought to matter, our Constitution – shows an "arrogance of power" that would stun the present incumbent's former employer, Senator J. William Fulbright (not to mention his History Professor Carroll Quigley). That so few notice or complain is itself part of the late imperial pattern. Empire, with its many "abridgments of classical liberty" (to quote Richard Weaver) is, in its American form, not the personalistic rule of a Great Khan, but is mediated through mega-colossal bureaucracies, which at times can block the President. Precisely because Presidential power is most unhampered in foreign affairs, recent Presidents have aspired to strut upon the world stage while Rome – or at least Los Angeles – burns.


In late empire, the empire itself becomes an ideological value. The Empire is necessary, benevolent, and good. While spin-masters may still deploy universalist rhetoric – "Doin' right ain't got no end," empire is increasingly its own justification. It comes to seem unreasonable that there should be there more than one power in the world. This is the classical imperial doctrine. Some writers refer to this pattern as "Asiatic" – a formula that leaves out several important cases.

Where two empires exist, each calls the other "evil" and asserts its claim to sole universal rule, as in the "Cold War" propaganda duel between Justinian and Chosroes (as recounted by George of Pisidias). The full imperial claim, which arises with late empire, entails the following, as summarized by BYU Historian Hugh Nibley: "(1) the monarch rules over all men; (2) it is God who has ordered him to do so and.... even the proudest claims to be the humble instrument of heaven; (3) it is thus his sacred duty and mission in the world to extend his dominion over the whole earth, and all his wars are holy wars; and (4) to resist him is a crime and sacrilege deserving no other fate than extermination." Clearly, there is room only for one such Benefactor and all others should get out of Dodge. Except for the references to God, this outlook undergirds "the act you've known for all these years" and the propaganda pronouncements of this latest frontier war. The "lateness" of our imperial period is suggested by how little attention the public pays to these exercises. They are now normal, even if few acknowledge that there is an American Empire. And yet, as Garet Garrett wrote in 1954, "The idea of imposing universal peace on the world by force is a barbarian fantasy" and the mental state of a realized empire is "a complex of fear and vaunting."

The late "war," "police action," whatever, provides many examples of the imperial hubris. Thus we witnessed the usual demonization of the Enemy Leader and, then, the Enemy People. The mindless reflex that demands "Unconditional Surrender" soon kicked in. Towards the end (of this phase, anyway) Sandy Berger drew up Skinner Boxes for the Serbs, who would be rewarded with less bombing as they withdrew from square A into B and so on. Bombing after an "agreement" damned sure isn't traditional diplomacy – and it may not even be good behaviorism. But, then, Empire means never having to say you're sorry. Or wrong. But "mistakes" happen.


During the splendid little Serbo-American War, imperial spokesmen fielded the old Outer Doctrine of Doing Right alongside the new Imperial Style of just issuing orders whose justice is implicit. (Perhaps this is the real "End of History.") The warmakers' practices simply improved on their old ones: hence the new focused terror bombing in which civilian deaths are all "accidental," "unintended," "collateral," etc., and the Wise Guys' Lessons of Viet Nam: no real press coverage, no casualties, no answering back from Congress, etc.

The ideological babble was deafening, as the sixties "Civilian Militarists" gave way to the young Social Militarists. (What are armed forces for? mused Secretary Albright.) It is beyond belief that these uninformed, half-educated eternal youths, helped out by a few leftover ghouls from the Cold War, wish to tell the world how to live. (Already in 1946, Felix Morley called the US "the world's greatest moralizer on the subject of the conduct of other governments.") After the high-tech smashing of Serbia, the US elite's little sermons about "weapons of mass destruction" (and ordinary guns owned by those terrible rednecks) ring a bit more hollow.

Just as World War I was the War of Austrian Succession and World War II the War of British Succession, this "war" be seen as the War of Soviet Succession (or part of it). This brings us back – like the Freudian return of the repressed – to our old friend the Inner Doctrine: Open Door Empire. As Jude Wanniski points out, NATO's American-run Drang nach Osten has something to do with grabbing political-economic control of all the former Soviet assets in Western Asia. Oil is sometimes mentioned. The old dream of American mercantilist world-overlordship – now misleadingly discussed as "globalization": a mysterious force rising spontaneously out of equally mysterious "late capitalism" – is back. This is why the sober political-economic elites can tolerate the actions of the hippie-bombers. Uncooperative minor states like Serbia that refuse their assigned role must be swept aside. Their actual deeds are beside the point (and similar deeds by others, who do take their orders, go quite unpunished). One wonders if the overgrown, eternally innocent Boy Scouts who are spreading the NATOnic Plague have any idea how dangerous major historical transitions can get? Do they think about World War III? Probably not. Do they think it's clever to poke the wounded but irritable Russian Bear with a stick? Do they yearn for a rerun of the Crimean War? Do they think at all? Who knows? After all, they don't have to think – and that, too, is part of the syndrome of Late Empire.

Please Support

A contribution of $50 or more will get you a copy of Ronald Radosh's out-of-print classic study of the Old Right conservatives, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form


Have an e-gold account?
Contribute to via e-gold.
ur account number is 130325

Back to Home Page | Contact Us