As the United States (US) began to assert its dominance over the newly conquered Pacific region in the aftermath of World War 2 the plan crafted by those in Washington was aimed at maintaining control over several islands which were to serve as its new strategic points. This region which was to be ruled over by the US was composed of three archipelagos; the Carolines, Marshalls and Marianos, which are collectively known as Micronesia. With the selective language frequently employed by the US when commenting on the ambitions of its empire the expansion into that part of the Pacific was referred to as acquiring “strategic territories”. These comments, made by the first American delegation to the United Nations (UN), were made to distract from what they really were: colonies. The creation of an “American lake” in the Pacific had been referenced as far back as 1898, as America had already begun the process of seeking land outside its borders. This rhetoric of conquest – deeply embedded within the American tradition – has been used to justify the mass murder of native peoples, not only on the mainland itself but also the “territories” that the US has decided it wants to annex. What started as an American lake has become an American sea.
US atrocities in the Pacific include the dropping of two atomic bombs, along with the establishment of military rule in Japan and its subsequent transformation into the “workshop” of Asia. This led on to the invasion of Korea, which culminated in a mass genocide of the populace during the “forgotten war”. Further interventions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos alongside the support given to puppet regimes have all been a part of the American mission to bring “democracy” and to prevent the spread of communism. The implication being that the American way of life was something that could be recreated wherever it was established, whether by force or by consent, and that communism was always something alien and nefarious. This arrogance along with clear geo-political interests has seen the US in an almost perpetual state of war since its inception. One of the great propaganda accomplishments has surely been the ability to create and sustain the idea that the US is a protector or even a bastion of democracy. Terms like “freedom” and “democracy” which serve as the nation’s clarion call are, in essence, bywords for American capital to extract wealth unimpeded without any interference from the native population, whose cheap labour serves only to be exploited. In order to facilitate this the United States has found itself perfectly happy to install dictators across the globe, so those interests remain predominant.
Empires like the United States are sustained not just by the wealth they expropriate but also by the foundational myths used to support them. These tales which are frequently promulgated as fact serve only to allow its inhabitants to form a sense of self, and a connection with the nation they are a part of. What distinguishes America’s trajectory has been the real lack of recognition by the white settler community with what are some disturbing realities. The 1776 declaration by the founding fathers has all the heroic gusto of any of the great revolutions. However, the supposedly “self evident” truths commonly referred to, which proclaimed the rights of man to liberty and freedom, once constitutionally enshrined, prohibited the mass of the black population from obtaining any of those rights and condemned them to a life of slavery and toil. This aspect of the American revolution has not been given enough attention. That is, the fact that the desire to secede from Britain was motivated as much by the desire to maintain a slave state as it was by any other factor. The foundation of America is as much a story of unfreedom as it is one of liberty. American historian Gerald Horne describes the clear racist motives behind the creation of the first apartheid state in his book The Counter Revolution of 1776. That “Suppressing African resistance became a crucial component of forging white settler unity-and the solidifying identity that was whiteness” ensured “that this development…was to become a deliciously profitable trade in human flesh”.
A distinctive feature of American history is where it begins. If the series of events which make up its canon are accepted, then whatever took place prior to that is deemed unimportant or irrelevant. This omission of several crucial facts has meant the systematic erasure of the indigenous people from any discussion, and has resulted in their treatment being overlooked, as their lands and way of life were stolen. This has served only to accentuate the more sordid features of the US empire as that repression mixed with imperial blood lust continues to surface in peculiar ways. As Roxanne Dunbar notes in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States references to indigenous history crop up as a part of America’s “killing machines and operations with names such as OH-6 Cayuse, AH-64 Apache…Thunderbird and Rolling Thunder”. The assimilation of ritual slaughter into a national culture and further enforced by Lockean principles of “improvement” has buried itself deep within the US psyche where the outside world has been altered to represent an “Indian territory” that needs to be tamed. Presidents and generals alike refer almost unconsciously to that history as a source of inspiration. Kennedy’s acceptance speech during the 1960 Democratic National Convention asked that he be seen as “a new kind of frontiersman confronting a different sort of wilderness”.
The history surrounding the founding fathers and the impetus to “head west” is also one that has been heavily distorted. The narrative and promotion of the ideal yeomen settler was only encouraged at a certain point as the necessity of obtaining land was required to match a rapidly growing population. The founding fathers were initially hostile to the idea of lone farmers heading out with rifles into what was still native territory. Figures like Daniel Boone, who later became a national icon, while running from debt he took thirty followers and crossed the Appalachian Mountains into what eventually became Kentucky. Washington initially referred to the frontiersmen as “a parcel of banditti, who will bid defiance to all authority”. Ben Franklin considered the frontiersmen as the nation’s “refuse” and that they “were no better than carnivorous animals”. What was the source of this hostility? The United States at the time was rather a Union of States with poorly defined boundaries. The new government had no desire to be drawn into the squabbles caused by the likes of Boone, and more so that the land that was being settled on was something Washington (who was a landlord) had also been looking to profit from. Disorganized settling was clearly in contradiction to the plans he and other wealthy land speculators had. So as the population rapidly expanded it became harder to control and therefore a different system of settlement was adopted in the 1800s where settlers were given plots of land to live on and consequently figures like Daniel Boone helped strengthen and support that new ideological framework.
The resulting American obsession with acquiring lands and with “heading west” now possess almost atavistic qualities. When it is understood what had to be done to the indigenous population in order for that goal to be accomplished it is no surprise that it has served as a blueprint for those who promote racist and genocidal tendencies. The Nazis, as they had begun to consider not only race relations within the Third Reich but also Germany’s relationship with its neighbouring states, clearly sought inspiration from what they saw as the white race asserting its dominance. In Volkisch World History, the founding of the United States is described for Nazi readers as “the most important event in the history of the states of the second millennium…the struggle for Aryans for world domination received thereby its strongest prop”. Hitler in 1928 remarked admiringly that the US had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand, and now keep the modest remnant under observation in a cage”. In Hitler’s American Model the relationship between Nazi ideology and the US legal framework is explored further as the US treatment of minorities inevitably allowed the Nazis to speculate on how to legally enforce their own worldview. As the Nazi lawyers were drafting the Nuremberg laws they noted that “America was particularly notable for its creation of novel forms of de facto and de jure second-class citizen-ship for blacks, Native Americans, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans”, and that as America conquered new lands instead of granting the natives citizenship they were referred as “non-citizen nationals” in the constitution. This was all useful inspiration as the Nazi state was gearing up for war and the acquisition of new territories it planned to take as Lebensraum. With so much material to work with the Nazis were able to observe the type of behaviours these laws also nurtured within US society.
This genocidal form of settler hostility has played a large part in defining US race relations. That the community of the free who presided over an enslaved black population were also warped by the master-slave relationship that had been established became acute. Thus, “slave society ended up affecting the white community as a whole…black slaves were also the enemy within, abolitionists were immediately suspected of treason, thus becoming the target of a series of more or less harsh repressive measures”. That the violence which was externalised was also redirected internally. Domenico Losurdo also notes clearly in Liberalism: A counter History that there was “no doubt about it: the terroristic power wielded by slave-owners over their blacks also ended up affecting, on a lasting basis, members and fractions of the dominant race and class”. Fredrick Douglass probably the most famous American slave-turned-abolitionist recounts an episode in his auto-biography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass where after being transferred to a new owner, a man named Master Hugh, his new mistress who upon first meeting him began “to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another”. He describes in detail how after repeated insistence from his new Master she began to change and eventually “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me…the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness”.
The US’s failure to deal with its own structural racism has a clear chronology which is marked by the civil war. After the United States had annexed nearly half of Mexico in 1848 the issue over whether the new states would be free from slavery or not brought up issues such as states’ rights, along with the already growing contradictions between a Southern society totally shaped and dependent on a slave economy, and the rapidly modernising North which had begun to express its own preferred form of exploitation via wage labour. In A Short History of Reconstruction historian Eric Foner summarises by saying that “reconstruction must be judged as a failure”, and that the economic depression in the 1870s, coupled by the inability to remove a wealthy Southern class still wedded to their land and who were still able to “employ its prestige and experience against reconstruction”, aided in its demise. The destruction of black labour movements, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and regressive tax laws which punished small property owners were all factors which made the moment an even darker episode, as what had started out as a successful radical alternative quickly became an American tragedy. Another dark legacy born from those events is the fact that several US military bases were named after the confederate generals who had rebelled in favour of slavery.
Even though the former slaves had been granted a semblance of freedom after the 1863 emancipation proclamation, as several black political representatives were quickly being appointed during reconstruction, ultimately the black community was purposefully obstructed from taking advantage of these democratic rights as education and property qualifications continued to serve as restrictions. What later followed was a propaganda campaign which displayed the black population (who had served as skilled workers under slavery) as morally bankrupt and a danger to society. From this came the consequences of the infamous 13th amendment, which saw a large proportion of those communities being sent to prison to perform a new kind of slave labour under a new penal system. For those who remained in the South they became the targets of white violence from a mob who preyed on a disenfranchised black community and terrorised them with lynching and other brutal atrocities. Infamous events which followed on from this were The Birth of a Nation being played in the White House under Woodrow Wilson, whose 14 points supposedly granted colonial people the right to freedom. Largely excluded from such freedoms were some of the colonies the US had acquired such as Puerto Rico and those of the British. Wilson himself was a supporter of imperialism and in 1907 was quoted as saying “since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nation which are closed to him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state”. He sent troops into Haiti in 1915 to crush what he saw as a rebellion (the fear of the 1791 rebellion clearly still embedded within the white settler psyche) with the occupation lasting throughout his Presidency. Wilson described people of colour in general as “children” who required “training”.
This history of dehumanizing other groups has certainly served the empire well, as the imperial grunts who are sent out to invade foreign lands have already been indoctrinated into a society which was built on and glorifies violence. When those services are called upon it is meted out to whomever Washington deems necessary. Is it any surprise then that there is a constant surfacing of clear US war crimes and a general failure to uphold basic human rights? This culture of violence has become an American pathology and is present even in its most cherished figures. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, in his earliest writings referred to the “war with savages” as possessing almost ritualistic qualities despite it being “the most terrible and inhuman”. Roosevelt despaired as he was unable to take part in the practice of slaughtering the indigenous population now that “the frontier proper has come to an end”. Opportunities soon presented themselves as Spain found itself at war with Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Consequently, America, along with Roosevelt, quickly rushed in to take advantage of what appeared to be too much for the former power to handle. What “began as an empire wide revolt by Spain’s subjects ended as the Spanish-American war”. As Daniel Immerwahr outlines in How to Hide an Empire, one ruling state was replaced by another as a deal was made between the two powers in Paris in order to exclude those who clearly sought independence. Spain sold the Philippines to the US for 20 million dollars, with Puerto Rico and Guam thrown in for free. The US then proceeded to use those territories as a backyard laboratory as a way of experimenting on its people. One area being birth control.
What about those on the mainland? In Rogue State William Blum documents the many atrocities committed by the US and in chapter 15 he details the government’s use of chemical weapons and their experiments on their own citizens. The “Army has acknowledged that between 1949 and 1969, 239 populated areas from coast to coast were blanketed with various organisms during tests to measure patterns of dissemination”. In 1950 in the New York area homing pigeons were used to drop “turkey feathers dusted with cereal rust spores”. In Minneapolis in 1953 there were “61 releases of zinc cadmium sulfide in four sections of the city, involving massive exposure of people at home and children in school”. The CIA conducted experiments in 1955 where in Florida during an “open-air test of whooping cough…cases jumped…from 339 and one death in 1954 to 1080 and 12 deaths in 1955”. From November 1964 to January 1965 “The Army conducted aerosol tests over stockyards in Texas, Missouri, South Dakota…and Nebraska using “anti-animal non-biological stimulants…It’s not clear what effect this might have had”. In one of his more famous Bushisms, George Bush Jnr accidently told the truth in an interview when he said “our enemies are innovative and resourceful and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people. And neither do we”. Other realities of life in the land of the free feature the US government continuing to violate the basic rights of its citizens by opening and reading their mail, listening to their phone calls and police stops for looking too “hispanic” while simultaneously gunning down its black citizens.
Pundits of the American empire frequently refer to the illegal US occupation of Iraq as a turning point in the country’s history. The 9/11 truth movement having already been invaded by paranoid conspiracy theorists is more a reflection of how much the empire has helped distort the relationship between its citizens and their government, as they are forced to endure the rapidly deteriorating conditions endless wars produce. Though certainly serving as a defining moment, the military culture that has been engendered in the population with all the social harms it brings, can be traced much further back than 9/11. In The Soft Cage, American journalist Christian Parenti wants readers to understand that “9/11 looks less like a seismic shift from freedom to tyranny and more like an aggressive and opportunist acceleration of this country’s long slow decline into the soft cage”. That the weapons the military has developed for use abroad slowly find their way back home as US relations begin to appear more defined by how it conducts operations abroad than how a normal state should function. From tanks on the street to the use of counterinsurgency techniques in what are supposed to be domestic settings, the excesses of violence slowly built up can’t help but spill over into civil society where the line between the police and the armed forces becomes more and more blurred. What has this meant? For those who were already structurally discriminated against it has intensified and so for migrants who are detained or for those who make up America’s deprived communities they are categorized more as enemies of the state than victims of oppression.
The constitution itself which is lauded as the most cherished part of the country’s heritage is itself a document that disguises oppression. Those men who assembled in Philadelphia were very aware of their class interests when writing it. Charles Beard, in his famous book An economic interpretation of the constitution of the United States, dispels any myths surrounding its creation. He quotes James Madison: “The most common source of faction (class) has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society”. A survey of the economic interests of the men who wrote the constitution would detail the various forms of property they held which included that of “merchants, money-lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists and financiers and their professional associates”. This was the ruling class expressing its own class interests. Token references to freedom are of course included as they were clearly aware the people had to be thrown a bone. In essence the constitution was formed to protect property owners, the haves against the have nots. That American “democracy” was to be one ruled by money was clear from the beginning. Politicians are bought and sold and the capitol itself is a lobbying nest where the financial interests of America’s owners are cemented.
Someone who was keenly aware of how constitutional realities can have an alienating effect was Marx. In his earlier writings when commenting on the limitations political emancipation offered he wrote: “Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and, on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person. Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his ‘own powers’ as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished”. Could a similar argument not be made for the individual as imagined under the US constitution? That its inhabitants, who have been completely atomised and individualised, live in a highly politicised state devoid of real freedom has become obvious and this attempt to reconcile social and economic oppression with a supposed political freedom has evidently reached an impasse? That a colonial project – initiated and settled by a community indoctrinated into white supremacy – won through genocide, supported by myths and false hopes is now finally experiencing what was long overdue. Unless a complete overhaul of US society is accomplished, the land of fables is doomed.