Joseph R.


September 21, 1999

Notes for an Historical Sketch
of the American Imperial Mind


Anyone who studies U.S. foreign policy, as history or current politics, comes up, finally, against the question of motivation: Why do these characters bother with it? Why do they want to run the whole damned world? Leaving aside the American people, in whose name they do these things, what's in it for the policy makers themselves? I bring this up because, after years of studying the details, the whole thing still makes very little sense at times. I know there are some "explanatory" models out there. In one, it's the Capitalist Mode of Production wending its sordid way through the decades; in another, it's the wicked White Folks – cruel and bloody-minded ab urbe condita – just showing their racist contempt for their non-European brethren. One model, popular with Scandinavian theorists, has it that big industrialized states naturally tend to throw their weight around against small non-industrialized states. In this, they are partly on track. These theorists usually footnote quite a lot to the other two theories – capitalism and white wickedness. This, in my view, lessens the usefulness of their efforts.

The truth, bad as it may be, has more to do with the ideas and interests prevalent in the state whose leaders decide to go in for empire than with "causes" like capitalism and racism, so large that they prove everything and nothing. This, of course, does not mean that no one ever made a buck on empire, nor does it mean that past imperialists were racially enlightened, although Alexander the Great often gets points for his "universalism." It doesn't even mean that theory is useless to students of empire. Without ruling out comparison with other imperial situations, where appropriate, I think the place to begin is with a review of the specifically American context of the American empire.


William McKinley, a deadly-dull conventional Republican, was an extraordinarily self-effacing politician and manager; but it was McKinley who put himself in the forefront of those late 19th-century statesmen and thinkers who believed politically-driven expansion of American goods and capital into foreign markets to be essential to US prosperity and "greatness." This resulted from his acceptance of the "overproduction/ underconsumption" view of the US economy. That analysis held that US businesses were somehow producing more goods than the home market could ever absorb. Ever-expanding overseas markets were sorely needed to solve this problem. This led McKinley to favor flexible tariffs and reciprocity treaties to pave the way for US penetration of overseas markets. The fabled markets of China loomed large in this scheme.

McKinley knew that, down the road, military force might be needed to sustain a neo-mercantilist push into foreign markets. Usually portrayed as a likeable but intellectually fossilized laissez-faireist and a weak executive, McKinley shrewdly exploited Spain's inability to suppress popular revolution in Cuba. He put escalating demands on Spain that made war unavoidable. Once he had his war, the President deployed the range of supposed Presidential "war powers" to seize insular real estate from Spain in the Caribbean and, more importantly, the Pacific, and to maneuver Congress and public into support for his measures. In a short time, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Philippines, as well as a Cuban protectorate. With the Philippines, the United States now had coaling stations and forward military positions looking toward the Chinese and other Asian markets.

By expanding the scope of American foreign policy through formal colonial empire (in the Philippines) and informal empire elsewhere (Latin America), McKinley greatly expanded the opportunities of the American federal government and his own office, which began their trajectory towards their present dimensions. He felt awkward at first about his power to alter the lives of distant subjects at the stroke of a pen, but rose to the occasion. Few Presidents since have shown like misgivings.

McKinley and his Secretary of State, John Hay, popularized the phrase "Open Door " as the short description of their program, and deployed the notion in an effort to hold China together as one potential market in the face of Western and Japanese encroachments into parts of it. Later Presidents like Wilson and FDR acted on the same analysis. The fact that the original economic thinking behind the Open Door strategy was unconvincing never seemed to lessen its popularity with policy makers.


New Left historian William Appleman Williams claimed that by the end of World War II, American leaders had so "internalized" the Open Door viewpoint that it underwent a partial transformation from strategy to ideology. Thus the Inner Doctrine, as I have called it, became operationally indistinct from the Outer Doctrine, which is all about the Golden Rule, international law, and doing good deeds. One of the Americans' critics, General Charles DeGaulle, marveled at US leaders' ability to combine noble abstractions and sordid mercantilist goals into unified policies they found entirely believable. These leaders are always shocked and indignant that anyone doubts their good intentions or opposes their concrete material aims.

Both the policy described above and the leaders associated with it took a bit of a beating in the Vietnam War. For a little while, it seemed we might get an open discussion of the grounds and purposes of an American foreign policy. But the Indo-Chinese setback did not discourage the foreign policy types from claiming they had mostly been right and merely in error in the details of the war. The spectacular Soviet implosion likewise led them to no rethinking of their goals and methods.


And why should it? The Cold War, as I tried to suggest last week, was never especially "about" the Soviet Union. That "ramshackle empire" – as Louis Bromfield called it – was a stumbling block for US policy for forty some years, but the policy itself had defined the situation, as it still does. The famous NSC 68, which stated in 1950 the fundamentals of US policy, gave the ballgame away by saying that "attempting to develop a healthy international community" was "a policy which we would probably pursue even if there was no Soviet threat" (my emphasis). The "healthy international community" was an Outer Doctrine formula for a world made safe for US mercantilist penetration of markets everywhere. Further, as Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz point out, during the Cold War the US kept Japan and Germany from having independent foreign and economic policies by taking over their defense in the name of containing the Soviet Union. The Cold War thus made possible a "double containment" of friend and foe alike.1 In this light, US policy in Asia, which the Indo-China War was supposed to sustain, amounted to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, with Japan as the junior partner.

For all their talk of "free trade," US leaders pursued something very different. The classic Manchester School doctrine held that free trade simply involves trading with people. The freer world trade becomes, the more likely it is that there will be peace, as nations become economically interdependent. Richard Cobden, John Bright, and their school never suggested that you first create an international new world order presided over by One Good Power in order then to have free trade. The neo-mercantilist strategy favored in the US state and defense departments amounts to what the late Murray Rothbard referred to as "inverted" or "right-wing" Leninism, which accepts the Leninist analysis of the relation between politics and economics but draws the conclusion that imperial shaping of economic life is necessary and good.


Once leaders call a new empire into being, under whatever slogans and for whatever concrete reasons, a larger logic comes into play. Coercing distant subjects into accepting foreign rule means that empires meet with much the same problems – financial, institutional, moral, etc. Here comparison is indeed valid and useful. Here the functionaries of our empire find themselves learning again what the Romans, the British, and other practitioners of these applied arts learned long ago.

If Ludwig von Mises was right to say that sociology looks for universal lessons of history, I wish to claim J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) as a contribution to that field. Actually, the book is a rather surreal novel about events on the frontiers of an unnamed empire. It may well be eaten up with postmodernism, for all I know, and give comfort to the theories of empire rejected above. It is a meditation on empire, whatever else it may be.

A key point is the identity of the barbarians. We are not long in finding out. Clearly, they are the gung-ho, can-do, failure-is-not-an-option types, who elbow aside, jail, and torture the central character of the novel, an easygoing, old-school colonial administrator. These newly minted graduates, half secret police and half social-climbers, show up with their Yankee know-how (so to speak), their ancient Roman efficiency, and a bit of French republican fanaticism, to set right what the lax old bureaucrat has led slide. They "understand these things" and know how to deal with those cursed frontier nomads (the putative barbarians) and their ethnic kin within the empire. They quickly precipitate a frontier war, which existed at first entirely in their own minds, and are then unable successfully to complete it. They are very good, however, at terrorizing and looting the people they are supposed to be protecting down to the hour of their withdrawal from the frontier.


I recommend reading Coetzee and then settling down to that film about John Paul Vance in Vietnam. They aren't the same story and they don't even deal with exactly the same kinds of people. They do, however, treat the sorts of problems in which imperial operatives get bogged down, when they decide to establish, create, or restore order in somebody else's country. One more thing: even if you don't much care how foreign subject peoples are handled, try to remember that the Foreign Legionnaires come home, at last, and take up jobs bringing the joys of order to their own countrymen. They tend to apply the methods they learned elsewhere. Richard Cobden and Carl Oglesby, among others have pointed this out. I think it goes part of the way toward explaining some recent events at home, but I suppose we should wait for the Official Report.


I have asserted the claims of history and comparative studies of empire. In a future column I plan to say a little about the kinds of theory which can help our understanding of these things.

[1] Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz, "American Hegemony – Without an Enemy," Foreign Policy, 92 (Fall 1993), 5-23.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

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