Sidney Lens chronicles U.S. imperialism's long, bloody history
September 5, 2003 | Page 8
AS MAINSTREAM publications express both conservative praise and liberal justification for U.S. imperialism, the re-issue of Sidney Lens' 1971 book The Forging of the American Empire couldn't come at a more appropriate time.
Lens, a Marxist historian until his death, explodes the fiction the U.S.'s history has been largely peace-loving and benevolent. Employing Russian revolutionary Lenin's analysis of imperialism as the expression of the highest stage of capitalist development, this book explains how and why the colossus of the Western Hemisphere came to rely on economic, political and military means to become the world's superpower. SHERRY WOLF discusses this important book.
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THE NEEDS of a burgeoning capitalist state forced to compete in an increasingly global economy dictated the drive for territorial expansion, and later, as U.S. economic and military prowess grew, for empire. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had already overtaken Britain as the dominant world manufacturer.
During the final years of that century, the economic preconditions were developed to require new markets for U.S. goods and new sources for raw materials. This was the economic breeding ground for imperialism.
After taking Cuba in a matter of weeks at the start of the Spanish American War in 1898, the U.S. went on to the Pacific--ironically, landing in Manila the same day that Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" poem was published. That birth of U.S. imperialism was a vicious, racist and nasty guerrilla war during which the Americans killed up to a million Filipinos for one reason--the Philippines provided the U.S. with a base at the door to the East.
Though Cuba and the Philippines were never annexed as colonies or even made into "protectorates," they became part of America's "sphere of influence." Essentially, the sphere of influence in the Caribbean and Pacific, and soon after throughout Latin America, referred to a portion of territory where the U.S. expressly declared that no other nation could exert political influence or exploit natural resources.
The U.S. avoided the complications of incorporating them as states with democratic rights and the expenses of administering colonies, and yet afforded full political and economic control by U.S. banks, corporations and government. It was the perfect plan--conquest by dollars, backed up with gunships.
As Lens explains, this was the U.S.'s great innovation to imperialism--after all, a burgeoning pluralistic society with bourgeois democratic ideals couldn't march in and appoint viceroys the way Britain had. Moreover, there weren't many colonies to be had--Europe had taken over much of the planet and the expense and military sophistication required for modern battle was beyond the means of the U.S.
Through developing a sphere of influence, rather than colonies, the U.S. maintained the façade of indigenous control--a local opportunist could always be bought--with complete financial and political hegemony held in New York and Washington.
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READING THE deals made by Brown Brothers, J & W Seligman and the National City Bank--all New York financial houses--is like being catapulted into the late 20th century where the International Monetary Fund and World Bank impose onerous conditions on loans forced on unwilling governments.
The economic penetration of Latin America really began in earnest once the Canal Zone was secured. With the empire in its infancy, the U.S. was compelled to use cruder and more belligerent methods of gunships and outright occupation.
In the Dominican Republic, where conditions imposed on the impoverished sugar-producing island were intolerable, rebellions arose to kick out the Yankees and their Dominican collaborators. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt sent in the Marines to take over the custom houses, where tariffs and duties from trade were collected and stored.
U.S. troops stopped a revolution from taking place there, and a New York banking firm floated a new $20 million loan guaranteed by American direct control of the custom houses which sent 55 percent of all collections back to New York. Warships were kept anchored off the coast.
In 1911, when the Dominican president was shot for his collusion with the U.S. and a provisional president was elected, President Howard Taft sent a couple of commissioners to check on the situation--along with 750 Marines who politely suggested, no doubt, that the new government step down. It did, and the U.S. placed its own man in charge and kept Marines on the island for decades.
In 1912, Marines put down a revolution in Nicaragua. When Brown Brothers imposed a new loan, they wrote into the agreement that the railroads, customs houses and the central bank would be in the hands of the New York bank. An important aspect to the intervention in Nicaragua is that it had less to do with the actual money and investment in Nicaragua, since it was quite small.
Thousands of Marines remained there for 13 years to impress on the entire region, if not the world, that the U.S. would not have its financial and military position challenged. Just as in wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, the foreign policy of an imperialist nation can't simply be gauged by immediate commercial and investment benefits.
On six occasions between 1914 and 1915, the U.S. State Department tried to take control of the Haitian customs houses, each time using domestic disturbances as a pretext. When the newly elected president of Haiti refused to hand over the railroads and banks, Marines landed in Port au Prince, went directly to the vaults and seized $500,000. The money was immediately transported to New York, where it was deposited in the vaults of the National City Bank. Marines stayed for 19 years and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Haitians, forcing them to build roads and railways for raw materials to be transported to U.S. ships.
Without ever annexing or colonizing these countries, U.S. banks backed by guns put Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti under its economic, political and military control. These countries, which came to be known derisively as Banana Republics, were forced into economic subservience by the U.S.
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THE FIRST World War would never have happened, wrote Lens, if "the world were limitless and the natives passive." President Woodrow Wilson, who ran as a peace candidate promising to keep America out of the war, kept his word just long enough for the U.S. to make a financial killing by supplying the Allies.
The war catapulted the U.S. onto the top tier of global powers. By 1917, Wilson followed the calls for "profits or peace" from the House of Morgan and other Wall Street titans and sent tens of thousands of workers to their deaths in Europe.
This "war to end all wars" created 21,000 new American millionaires and reduced the wages of working people from their prewar levels. As Lens wrote, in the postwar era, "peace was to be a continuation of war by other means."
With European powers devastated by a war that depleted their gold reserves and destroyed much of their industrial capacity, the U.S. could afford to control world markets without guns. The U.S. produced 85 percent of the world's cars, held half the world's gold reserves and pumped two-thirds of known oil reserves. It was clear to the world that Britain's empire was fading and the U.S. was taking over as the global power.
The global capitalist crisis, which experienced a 50 percent decline in industrial production between 1928 and 1932, laid the basis for a new carve-up of markets and territory that led to the Second World War. Unfortunately, Lens completed The Forging of the American Empire before U.S. troops were forced out of Vietnam and the American Empire suffered its greatest defeat.
Lens writes not simply a historian, but with the partisan eye of a socialist, who understood that the growing struggles around him had the potential to undermine the greatest imperial power in history. This makes The Forging of the American Empire crucial reading.