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The American Empire



Alan Levine has sent me an article from the Weekly Standard (5/8/02) entitled "Hegemony, Not Empire; How the pax Americana differs from the pax Romana", by Kimberly Kagan, who teaches at West Point. It points out differences, but fundamentally it reflects the distaste for the comparison already expressed by Hank Greely. In our history textbook project we have stressed the image of another country in a nation's textbooks. Equally important is how people see their own country. I have received e-mails with curious reasons for denying that the US is an empire. The ruthless conquest of the American West ia a prime example of imperialist expansion.

As for the overseas American Empire, consider Warren Zimmermann, The First Great Triumph. How Five Americans Made Their Country a Great Power. The five are Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, Admiral Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root. As the title suggests, the whole story is triumphalist. Zimmermann does not hesitate to use the word "imperialist". He mentions those who opposed this overseas expansion (Mark Twain, President McKinley among others), but the "five Americans" are the heroes of the book. It traces the growth of the overseas empire, stressing the period around 1898: in the Caribbean Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the Pacific Hawaii, Wake, Guam and the Philippines. There is a parallel between Cuba and the Philippines in that in both countries there had long been a rebellion against Spanish rule, whose evils the American press stressed and exaggerated The US stepped in allegedly to help the rebels, but then seized control and ended up with the enmity of those liberated.

Cuba is an odd case. From 1898 to 1902 it rules the island, but then gave it independence on a leash--the Platt Amendment. Zimmermann refers to a revisionist theory, unknown to me, that the US should have hung on to Cuba longer and then possibly have incorporated it into the US. In that way, he asserts, it would have avoided the trouble it has with Fidel Castro. Imperialism no longer involves the grabbing of land but economic domination, which may or may not be a good thing. Zimermann does not go into that for chronological reasons, but he mentions that the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the annexation by the US was brought about by American owners of sugar plantations.

Teddy Roosevelt or Fide Castro? In the good old days, a cavalry charge was the most glamorous part of war, and Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders were one of the last manifestations of this. Teddy Roosevelt liked the words "war" and "empire". My guess is that those who do not are not great admirers of him, although he is enjoying a burst of popularity, as this book shows. As for the admirers of Fidel Castro, well...

Ronald Hilton - 1/20/03


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