American History for Truthdiggers: A Once, Always, and Future Empire

This is an American History series written by Danny Sjursen, a US Army major who taught history at West Point. It is the same history we all learned in high school, except the bullshit has been removed. Enlightening…

The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 38th and last installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, who retired recently as a major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point.

Part 38, the final installment of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10;Part 11; Part 12; Part 13; Part 14; Part 15; Part 16; Part 17; Part 18; Part 19; Part 20; Part 21; Part 22; Part 23; Part 24; Part 25; Part 26; Part 27; Part 28; Part 29;Part 30; Part 31; Part 32; Part 33; Part 34; Part 35; Part 36; Part 37Part 38

by Danny Sjursen edited by O Society October 2, 2019

There is a widespread belief American history is best viewed in a linear context. The United States, the narrative goes, began as a flawed experiment in democracy—replete with slavery and bigotry at the start—but gradually and consistently improved into a more perfect union, a millenarian nation on its way toward serving as an example for the world, a “city on a hill.” Minorities, according to this notion, once were oppressed but gained equal rights and equal protection under the law since; America conquered Indian and Mexican land but long since set aside its imperial ways. As such, both at home and abroad, the U.S., though still imperfect, is a force for good in the world.

It’s a comforting narrative, but also an narrative inconsistent with reality, with the facts, and the arc of our history. Progress, such as it is, has been wildly inconsistent and halting since the Anglo colonization of the eastern coast of North America. Take the plight of African-Americans. Theirs is a history of false starts, dreams deferred, and hopes enlivened only to be dashed. Consider, for example, more blacks were U.S. House members and senators in 1877 than in 1967. In the wake of the Civil War, the reforms of Reconstruction launched African-Americans into positions of power they would not regain for nearly a century.

During this time, Northern whites abandoned black people to the whims of Southern bigots, and the result was Jim Crow—systemic segregation, a parallel apartheid system in the American South. A further example is black people finally saw their voting rights protected by the 1965 Voting Rights Act—which required the federal government to carefully review electoral procedures in the former Confederate states—only to find many of those protections stripped away by a reactionary Supreme Court early in the 21st century. Clearly, there’s very little progressive or linear climb in the journey of black Americans.

Taking such a broad view of American history further, one cogently can argue the U.S. couldn’t even be considered a true democracy until 1965, when many blacks finally received the right to vote more than 240 years after slaves first arrived on these shores, and almost two centuries after the Declaration of Independence was written. Still, few citizens think in or frame our country in those terms.

Furthermore, America still runs a parallel system of governance for its remaining colonies, which Washington euphemistically labels “territories.” In the conquered islands of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and many others, the residents have no representation in Congress or say in the election of the presidents, who hold the power to send them off to fight and die in foreign wars. These people represent the victims and refuse of America’s second empire.

This, indeed, is the key point. The U.S. is imperial from the first, the very moment when a band of English aristocrats in search of precious gold landed at Jamestown in what is today Virginia. Since this day in 1607, America never ceased to be a settler-colonial empire in the vein of czarist Russia, British South Africa, and modern Israel. Its manner of empire may well change, but its reality never meaningfully alters as the U.S. proceeds through three distinct phases of imperialism:

First, from 1607 to 1897, British colonists, and then self-styled Americans, displace and destroy countless native peoples, eventually spreading a (perceived) superior way of life from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, another take, indeed, on the phrase “from sea to shining sea.” America’s relationship with conquered native peoples proceeds through phases of displacement, genocide, containment, and finally confinement on often barren reservations.

This legacy system remains today in what must be considered a series of internal colonies similar to South African “bantustans” and to Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition to overrunning outmatched natives, the U.S. also drums up a war on false pretenses and proceeds to conquer the northern third of Mexico (1846-1848), even occupies its capital and forces a regime change of its government.

In phase two (1898-1945), with the frontier “closed,” Native Americans safely confined, and a truncated Mexico firmly in its place south of the Rio Grande River, expansionist Americans seek colonies across the seas. After starting another war under false pretenses in 1898, this time with imperial Spain, the U.S. snatches the massive Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and a slew of Pacific islands. Finding the strange inhabitants of these lands too brown and too “barbaric” to integrate into coequal states, the U.S. rules them first as direct colonies and then as unequal territories and commonwealths.

It is instructive, indeed, occupying American troops take to calling the indigenous peoples of these islands “niggers,” borrowing this slur from the nation’s original sin of slavery, racism and internal colonization, and apartheid. The transition is seamless and continues well into the next, third, phase of American empire, in which Arabs and Muslims are quickly labeled “sand niggers” by many Americans sent to fight wars in the Greater Mideast.

After emerging from the Second World War relatively unscathed—at least in comparison with war-ravaged Europe and Asia—the U.S. seeks global hegemony in phase three (1946 to the present) of its imperial journey. Rather than retreat behind its ocean boundaries, America remains militarily deployed abroad while politicians craft a veritable national security militarist state at home.

Although technology, particularly in transportation, obviate the need for physical control and direct governance of old-style colonies, the U.S.—far from eschewing empire—spreads its imperial tentacles over the world. In the name, alternately, of fighting communism, spreading democracy, and protecting human rights globally, the U.S. military constructs, occupies, and operates from an “empire of bases.”

Two decades after the 9/11 terror attacks are used to justify ever more blatant expansion, the U.S. military counts 800 bases in 80 countries, on every inhabited continent. The U.S. warfare state unashamedly divides every square inch of the globe into discrete military commands overseen by generals and admirals who often serve in the manner of Roman proconsuls. At the time of writing, America, rather than offering a peaceful example to the world, is at war in at least seven countries. Post-World War II justifications and enemies change from “Red” communists to brown terrorists, but the outcomes remain remarkably consistent.

In all phases of American imperialism the empire, inevitably, comes home, often poisoning any hope for meaningful democracy, meritocracy, or equality within U.S. borders. The racism and white supremacy necessary to wage wars of conquest, plunder, and extermination against Indians and Mexicans not only stem from but add to existing currents within the expanding nation’s borders. Anti-immigrant nativism and xenophobia catapult back to the homeland from American occupation and colonial suppression across the seas.

Systems of mass surveillance perfected in the Philippines set the stage for a similar program meant to squelch dissent during the world wars and morphs into today’s tech-savvy digital “bugging” of American life. In another example, imperial counterinsurgency abroad informs the internal repressive tactics of the later “war on drugs,” waged mostly within America’s internal colonies of impoverished black and brown neighborhoods and native reservations.

During phase three of the American empire, the results of this imperial “coming home” are immense. Permanent “terrorist” detention at Guantanamo, torture, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, illegal rendition and National Security Agency wiretapping, unthinkable to many Americans before 9/11, are modern outgrowths of a consistent American imperial structure and history. Perhaps the most disturbing outgrowth of late-stage U.S. empire is the phenomenon of militarized “warrior cops,” equipped with surplus Army equipment and clothed in camouflage fatigues, policing poor communities of color as if it is occupied territory. These law enforcement personnel, which include a disproportionate number of military veterans, transport counterinsurgency and conventional warfare tactics into the internal colonies of America—forgotten spaces full of forgotten, and forsaken, people.

The vast, vast majority of this imperial history unfolded long before Donald Trump arrived on the national scene. It is a legacy of empire bequeathed to generations of Americans by their forefathers across the centuries. Men (and the top leaders are always men) from each and every major American political party built, expanded and maintain this dual structure of internal and external imperialism. Empire is perhaps the only truly bipartisan national endeavor.

Furthermore, class, the most unspoken of American maladies, is often at the root of American systems of oppression. The division of the working class along ethnic and religious lines, and then the suppression of the remaining class-conscious activists, helps make the imperial machine palatable in the first place.

An outspoken, buffoonish, billionaire businessman comes to rule, to serve as de facto emperor, of the American imperial complex on the back of his claims to represent working-class people and “Make America Great Again,” indicative of the power of class cooption and racial subjugation. Supporters of Donald Trump, “deplorable” though they might be in the eyes of opponents, when viewed in proper context are inherently American.

Trump in Context: Reflections of America’s Dark Side

Donald Trump is no aberration. No doubt the election of a shady real estate magnate, tabloid playboy, and reality-TV-star-turned-xenophobic-populist is a profound matter. That said, much of the Trump effect is a modern-day reflection of America’s historical trends and baggage. With just a touch of difference, the coalition who elected Trump is a standard alliance of four distinct interest groups (and peoples) who put Republicans in office for decades and maintain American imperialism and internal oppression long before this particular political party is even founded. These are anti-taxation (usually hyper-wealthy) libertarians, foreign-policy hawks with imperial proclivities, intolerant brands of evangelical Christians, and racist xenophobes.

The “genius” of Trump, then, is not unlike Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon before him. All manage to appeal to these wide and seemingly dissimilar and contradictory groups and pull them under a big tent, despite subsequently governing mainly in the interests of wealthy elites. The main glue, of course, is in racial appeals to white identity which first held together the Southern Democrats (1830s-1950s) and then a transformed Southern-dominated Republican Party (from the 1960s to the present).

In the area of domestic policy, Trump’s defense of white supremacist violence, harsh oppression of immigrants and refugees, reflexive support for militarized cops, and refusal to act to tamp down a national epidemic of gun violence seem to many progressive-minded Americans to be uniquely heinous. In reality, Trump and his supporters simply rebranded older forms of racism, nativism, and homegrown militarism long crucial links in American society.

Furthermore, as in earlier administrations, lines between what constitutes domestic and foreign policy are blurred under Trump. As such, barbed wire along the southern border with Mexico has a direct link with the walling and wiring off of adjacent neighborhoods by the U.S. military in Baghdad.

Trump’s massive tax cuts, statistically highly skewed to benefit the very rich, are far more consistent than anomalous. The massive income inequality to result from this tax revision and regular cuts to social welfare programs reaches record levels, yet is a standard aspect of American economics not unlike the prevailing situation during the Gilded Age (1877-1914). The president’s call for a “Muslim ban,” which finally morphs into a “travel ban” against a select group of Muslim-majority countries, also has plenty of historical precedent. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1924 Immigration Act (which limited migration from Slavic, Jewish, and Asian communities) and massive internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II are only a few of the antecedents of Trumpian policy and procedure.

In the realm of foreign policy, Trump has, it must be said, speaks in ways out of step with the traditionally expansionist foreign-policy-hawk wing of his coalition’s quartet. His calls for the end of “dumb” wars and missions in the Middle East no doubt appeals to many in a war-weary public and demonstrates an earthy (if uniformed) commonsense. Still, his lack of follow-through on this front—whether due to his own dishonesty or the influence by the wildly hawkish advisers surrounding him—demonstrates the prevailing power of the national security structure, or what his supporters term the “deep state.” In practice, Trump only increases the scale of U.S. bombing and worldwide military deployments, and even brings America to the brink of war with states as separated and diverse as Iran and Venezuela.

Nevertheless, one should not let self-styled liberals or Democratic partisans off the hook. Their manufacturing of and obsession with “Russiagate”—the so-far-unsubstantiated claim the Trump campaign colluded with Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election—heightenes a new Cold War and, given the long, sordid history of American meddling in foreign elections, illustrates the obtuseness of the “liberal” class. Trump then expandes Cold War 2.0 to include a growing China by waging foolhardy economic warfare against Beijing.

Finally, Trump’s right-wing authoritarian ambitions not only spread to a number of foreign countries but also built upon the precedents set by former American Presidents Nixon, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, and even Andrew Jackson. Taken as whole and in proper context, then, Trump is an all-American president, and his promise to “Make America Great Again” is little more than a recasting of regular calls to return to the whiter, more oppressive, less equal United States of the past.

The American Future: Republic or Empire, Democracy or Oligarchy

In the light of the correct, if discomfiting, facts, one must conclude America carries the baggage of four dark historical themes. These are genocide, racism, hypercapitalism, and empire. Today’s Thanksgiving myths to the contrary, English colonists and later self-branded Americans never seriously consider coequal coexistence with indigenous peoples. Through the spread of diseases (sometimes purposefully), wars of conquest, policies of confinement, and cultural attacks on native ways of life, the U.S. devastates American Indians. By 1890, these First Peoples are nearly extinct.

Racism, which begins in the form of “original sin” color and caste-based chattel slavery, not only poisons but pervads the American experiment. For more than half of its history, Anglo-American society builds itself largely on the literal and figurative backs of black slaves. When the obscenely bloody American Civil War brings de jure slavery to an end, de facto slavery (both economic and social) continues for another century in the guise of a structural system of apartheid segregation.

Even today, black poverty and a massive black-white wealth gap, as well as police suppression and institutional racism, continue to maintain a permanent African-American underclass. Furthermore, regular appeals to “law and order” throughout American history ensure black and brown people fill the nation’s prisons, culminating in today’s structure of mass incarceration, in which more blacks are in some phase of the modern correction system than were slaves in 1861.

Capitalism, which reaches its most extreme form on America’s shores, also characterizes the development and progress of the United States. Generations of historians, pondering the socialism and social democratic and labor parties developing in the Old World of Europe and across the global south, are befuddled by the question of why there is no widespread socialism in America.

Though there are no easy answers, some note a peculiar American strain of hyper-individualism, purposeful racial and ethnic divisions of the working class, and pervasive attacks on labor unions combine to halt the influence of even mild forms of collectivism and social welfare in this country. Gilded Age wealth inequality mirrors colonial-era aristocracy and set the stage for today’s record degree of income disparity. American taxation always—with one brief exception, from the 1930s to the 1960s— is exceptionally low and regressive, slanted from the first to benefit the super rich.

Empire, by now, should speak for itself. Throughout its history the United States maintains a dual-track system of imperialism. Black urban ghettos and Southern sharecropping communities, to say nothing of Indian reservations, served and still serve as monuments to internal empire. Conquered native and Mexican lands in North America and captured Spanish Pacific and Caribbean colonies personify external empire for centuries. Since the Second World War, expeditionary U.S. military basing and historically unprecedented interventionism characterize modern foreign empire. This legacy of empire always “comes home to roost,” in varying forms of nativist xenophobia, militarized policing, and the squelching of internal dissent and civil liberties. Empire, for America, is always a way of life.

In spite of it all, hope—however weakened—for a truly democratic, inclusive, and peaceful America remains. The immense power of the military-industrial complex and corporate oligarchs and their misguided xenophobic and racist foot soldiers, no doubt, only makes the American dream seem more distant than ever. Nonetheless, history consistently demonstrates the potential power of a motivated people to shut down the system and force positive change. This change, this progress, however, is more unlikely than ever to come from within the three foundational institutions formed by the U.S. Constitution.

The executive branch seized so much power—especially in foreign affairs— presidents (sometimes not even elected by a plurality of the voters) operate more like dictators than servants of the people. The legislative branch, the Congress, is stalemated by tribally partisan division, is veritably owned by well-funded lobbyists and long ago ceded its constitutionally-mandated duty to declare war and oversee foreign affairs. As such, the people’s purported representatives cannot be counted on to roll back empire either at home or abroad.

The courts, especially the Supreme Court, become highly politicized and increasingly dominated by archaic, reactionary, conservative “originalists” who interpret the Constitution as though it and they are in an 18th-century time capsule. After a brief spell of progressive, activist decisions (1954-1971), the courts roll back minority protections and affirmative action and even—in the infamous Citizens United decision—hand over political power to the wealthiest slice of Americans. Furthermore, these unelected judges refuse to weigh in on the legality of U.S. imperial policy and presidential war-making abroad.

Change, reform, revolution even, must explode from the grass roots, from organized people power. The precious, highly-lauded institutions of American representative democracy fail the people yet again. Only new collectivist bodies, egalitarian citizen groups, can wield the power to demand a new path for the nation. The odds are stacked against us, no doubt. Those who control the current system count on citizen apathy, reinforce it even, and know they cannot continue indefinitely to hold the reins without it.

The owners of this country—the corporations and their proxy politicians—fear a cross-class, multicultural movement by poor and working people more than anything. Power rightfully belongs to the people, as promised to them by America’s very founding document. After all, the preamble to the Constitution stipulates the government exists to serve not the states, the rich, the corporations, or the military, but rather the American people. We can seize control of our collective destiny if we have the courage and the will to take it.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
• Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974” (2019).
• Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018).

 

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