“Maybe the reason people don’t like Hillary isn’t so much that they don’t like her, as it is that they don’t like the role of the presidency itself.” I read this comment recently somewhere on Twitter, and thought it was an interesting point.
William Appleman Williams in his book Empire As A Way of Life, would take that thought even further. Is it the role of the presidency that those people don’t like, or is it America itself? Because, as he says, “The American imperial way of life…inherently involved, knowingly and purposively, the destruction of traditional values and their replacement with arbitrarily imposed external values.”
Originally published in 1980, this essay was republished with a new introduction in 2007, and although there are enough typos to be exasperating, it is a fantastic clear and concise look at the history of the American Empire.
The majority of the book covers American history since its official founding, and discusses many presidents and their actions as it relates to the development of America. Some of these policies will sound familiar if you took AP U.S. History in high school, such as the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, and Open Door Policy.
This book is important because it cuts through the myths we often have of our country. It reveals the lie of liberty and justice for all, of the troops fighting for freedom and democracy, and shows the depths behind the symbolism of not standing for the national anthem. It also reveals how easy it is to paper over the realities of history with appeals to intangible ideals like independence, patriotism, and progress.
From the Louisiana Purchase to the Alamo to Hawaii and Puerto Rico, we know our American Story is one of expansion. But somehow that story always has a glossy sheen. It’s an ad in a magazine for new real estate. It seems so harmless. Most people want a house with a bigger yard, maybe an acre or two. What’s wrong with that? Although the term ’empire’ has fallen out of favor, even The Atlantic wrote an article defending the American Empire as recently as 2014.
Empire As A Way of Life rips the magazine out of our hands, replacing it with something darker, more insidious.
“But the history of the United States is not the story of triumphant anti-imperial heretics. It is the account of the power of empire as a way of life, as a way of avoiding the fundamental challenge of creating a humane and equitable community or culture.”
The U.S. wasn’t acquiring more land so we could throw a block party. We wanted more land because it was there. Because the more land, the more money, the more power. And when you have the power, you don’t get pushed around. No taxation without representation. We know the drill. When you got skin in the game you stay in the game. You don’t get a win unless you play in the game. The U.S. wanted the wins, and we got them, no matter the cost to anyone else. No matter the cost to our own citizens, even. As long as you were white, or became white, the empire was on your side. (It must be nice.)
Even though this book is nearly 40 years old, nothing has changed in the American way of life to render it obsolete. And given the renewed public interest in early American history, thanks to Hamilton (fun fact: he created the Coast Guard in order to collect taxes on imports and to protect ships involved in trade; military and capitalism are core to the American way of life), we should make an effort to fully understand the implications and effects of the founding fathers’ actions.
The Monroe Doctrine didn’t end with his presidency. American expansion didn’t stop when we got to the ‘from sea to shining sea’ bit. We now have military bases in 71 countries. Why? How? A highlight of the book are the lists at the end of several chapters, timelines of American interventionist activity, excluding declared wars. They are jaw-droppingly long. 23 from 1787-1829 alone, covering ground from Mexico to Greece, and 71 from 1829-1898. The reasons for these, Williams states, is that “Empire as a way of life is predicated upon having more than one needs.”
Another reason this book is important is because the broad overview of American history gives us the long view on so many things. The Spanish-American war might have been in 1898 but the consequences for Puerto Ricans are still going on today. Writing as he is from 1980, Williams was able to say, “No one yet knows the precise nature of the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger.”
But today in 2016, we do know. We know how Kissinger’s actions led to the rise of Pol-Pot and the Khmer Rouge (and we also know that the U.S. supported the KR for years). And bringing this back around, we also know that Clinton talks about how much she respects and listens to Kissinger. This should rightfully alarm people. If we don’t know our history, how are we to learn from it so that we don’t repeat it?
And if we don’t know our history, how can we rebut the lies people tell? Just this week a presidential nominee said we should steal resources from other countries in battle, and a Lt. General said, “It is not the American way of war to go and occupy land, steal its resources…” But as Empire shows us, it has always been the American way. How did we get our land in the first place?
As depressing as all of this history can be, the book closes on a hopeful note. First, he has a few provoking questions:
“Is the idea and reality of America possible without empire?”
“Are we unable, morally, to share the world…on an equitable basis?”
“Is it possible to create and sustain a democratic culture without conquering or otherwise controlling and wasting a grossly inequitable share of social space and resources?”
Then he ends with an invitation to imagine and work towards a better way of life. Just because this is how we’ve been, doesn’t mean this is how we have to be. As Williams points out several times, empire as a way of life has never been a foregone conclusion, and doesn’t have to be today.
Although small, this is not a book to rush through, nor one that can be skimmed. But the story he tells of America is an important one, and one that reveals that it really is true; history does have its eyes on you.