Robert Buzzanco, University of Houston
"America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," Secretary
of State John Quincy Adams told his audience during a
Fourth of July oration in 1821. "She is the well-wisher of the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and
vindicator only of her own." Should the United States adventure into other lands, Adams warned, "she might become the
dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit." It is a great irony that such words, which would
constitute a foundation of anti-imperialist thought for future generations, were uttered by the man who acquired Florida, crafted
the Monroe Doctrine, and was a principal architect and defender of America's continental empire.
But then again any examination of anti-imperialism in the United States
is replete with irony, ambiguity, and complexity.
Whereas in other lands anti-imperialism was often closely identified with the political left and followed Socialist or even Leninist
models, and criticized the occupation and control of less-developed countries, American critiques of empire necessarily evolved differently for there was not as strong a radical tradition here and the United States did not significantly possess a formal empire in the European sense. Thus anti-imperial ideas and actions have to be seen in a broader construction in which individuals or
groups challenged the expansion of state hegemony but did so based on the objective conditions of a particular time rather than
on a doctrinaire or sustained ideology. Even more, anti-imperialists in the United States developed a broad comprehension of
America's imperial mission, and so might oppose not just the political or military control of other lands, but also an aggressive
foreign policy, supporting dictatorships abroad, the establishment of international organizations and compacts, or the excessive
accumulation of executive power at home, all of which were perceived as antithetical to national values.
America's imperialism certainly could be coercive and militarized, but
it was conceptually a grand strategy of economic
penetration, a substitution of dollars in trade and investment for the armies and bullets of wars and occupations. As part of the
imperialist pursuit for areas in which to invest, manufacture cheaply, find consumers, or trade, American military forces did in
fact frequently intervene abroad, but usually pulled out after those lands were made secure for American political and economic objectives, often leaving proxy armies and puppet governments in their stead. Without a tradition of conquest and occupation
and believing in an ideology of republicanism, therefore, Adams and others could champion unrestrained expansion and
anti-imperialism with plausible claims that they did not contradict each other. By developing the historical sense, or myth, that
the United States was not an imperialist power, the national elite-political leaders, business interests, media-could attempt to
counter and delegitimize its anti-imperial critics. Making matters more complex, groups often critical of the state in domestic
matters such as farmers or workers could be advocates of imperial growth out of self-interest as they needed foreign markets
for their crops and manufactures.
Nonetheless, from the earliest days of the Republic forward, there have
been significant opponents of American aggrandizement into new lands. Because
U.S. imperialism had many justifications-economics, security, mission,
racial identification, and so
forth-critics offered an analysis and condemnation of empire based on various factors at different times and to varying degrees.
American anti-imperialists could oppose foreign interventions because of a moral repulsion at the consequences of such
involvement, the betrayal of self-government in other areas, a sense of geographic insularity or security, the contradictions of
empire with democracy, or a rejection of the Capitalist economic system. It was, then, a varied line of thought that had
economic, political and moral roots, and was real, effective and significant, though at times elusive and not part of a sustained
and comprehensive historical process. At the same time, however, the words of John Quincy Adams and others with similar
views would be invoked a century and a half later as the United States waged war in Indochina and intervened in various Third
World areas, so there is indeed a salience to American anti-imperialism that must be recognized.
The Roots of American Anti-Imperialism
Expansion and empire-building were immediate concerns for American leaders
as soon as national independence became a
reality, and issues of growth and hegemony grew more important into the first half of the nineteenth century. The United States
expanded rapidly and significantly across the continent. By purchase and conquest, national leaders gained lands in the
Northwest and Louisiana Territories, Florida, the southeast, the Pacific northwest, and the southwest, while attempting to bring
Canada and Caribbean areas such as Cuba under American sway too, though without success. While it would be difficult to
observe a consistent anti-imperial ideology in this period, one does notice criticism of and actions directed against territorial
acquisition, Indian removal, and Manifest Destiny. Often, such opposition served the interests of political expediency or
power-as with northeasterners or Federalists voting against the Louisiana Purchase or the War of 1812. Critics, however, also
objected on moral grounds or, presaging an argument that would become especially powerful in the Cold War era, the
excessive, or imperial, use of executive power in foreign affairs.
The United States was born out of a war of national liberation against
the world's greatest empire at the time, so tended to deny or describe
benignly its imperial ambitions. Figures such as Benjamin Franklin and
Thomas Paine, for instance, popularized the
idea that America could establish a "benevolent" empire while they condemned the British for policies of the "extermination of
mankind," rather than just conquest, in their colonies. Indeed, the founding generation was conflicted despite the apparent
consensus on expansion. While there was a compelling political will to develop an "empire of liberty"-to use President Thomas
Jefferson's words-there was also a continuing republican ideal which was distrustful of empire and its needs for standing armies, heavy taxes, large bureaucracies, and centralized decision-making.
At the same time, there were strong isolationist tendencies among theruling class. Not anti-imperialist per se, these isolationists did warn against American "entanglements" in other lands. Indeed, in his farewell address President George Washington, like John Quincy Adams an ardent expansionist using anti-imperial rhetoric, suggested that "harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing." Rooted in the fresh memories of their war against British imperialism, ambivalent views on state power, and an attachment to republican values, this isolationism had real meaning to many Americans and was practiced in their political affairs.
Thus when President Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from
France, effectively doubling the size of the United
States, critics attacked his actions as unconstitutional and imperial. Federalists, ironically using arguments that had been
advanced against them by their political foes during the debate over the Constitution, contended that the purchase of
trans-Mississippi lands was unnecessary and dangerous, for emigration into the new areas would "be attended with all the
injuries of a too widely dispersed population, but by adding to the great weight of the western part of our territory, must hasten
the dismemberment of a large portion or our country, or a dissolution of the Government." Such disputes notwithstanding, the
senate approved the acquisition of Louisiana, although the Constitution did not explicitly grant executive power for territorial
expansion, and subsequently authorized commercial restrictions and military engagements against Britain, and accelerated a
national program of Indian removal.
While the growth of a continental empire in the early nineteenth century
may have been inexorable, it did not always proceed
smoothly, as diverse voices were raised in protest against American expansion during the major episodes of territorial
aggrandizement in the period. Representative John Randolph of Virginia was wary of imperial designs; "What! Shall this great
mammoth of the American forest leave his native element," he asked, "and plunge into the water in a mad contest with the
shark?" Federalists stung by a swing in political influence and sectional growth toward the south and west opposed the War of
1812, with some beginning to develop a critique of expansion and even consider the secession of New England states at the
1814 Hartford Convention. The defeat of various Indians in the Creek War and the Battle of Tippecanoe, followed by General
Andrew Jackson's invasion and eventual seizure of Florida, however, made anti-imperial critiques more difficult. Still, many
questioned what they saw as the contradiction of maintaining republican virtues within a growing empire with an expanding
military and a willingness to use force in the pursuit of national interests. Though the enthusiasm for new lands might have
seemed frenzied, many Americans were concerned about unrestrained growth and especially lamented the destruction of Indian society.
After the War of 1812, the federal and state governments intensified
their efforts to oust Native Americans from their lands,
with General and later President Andrew Jackson the leading figure in the era, attacking Seminole in Florida and Cherokee and
other tribes in the southeast with particular ferocity. By the 1820s and 1830s, there was significant division over Indian removal
and continental expansion. When Georgia, in defiance of a Supreme Court decision but with the support of President Jackson,
tried to expel Cherokee from their indigenous lands despite their treaty rights to it, evangelical Christians organized mass
protests and condemned removal, comparing it to a crime against humanity.
Questions of morality and constitutionality-not unlike those raised
in the late twentieth-century debates over the Vietnam War
or intervention in Central America-were common throughout the Cherokee crisis as critics scored the national and state
governments for violating the constitution by rejecting Indian treaties. Writing under the pseudonym William Penn, Jeremiah
Evarts, the chief administrator of the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions, an interdenominational missionary
organization, exposed and denounced the U.S. attack on Indian sovereignty based on morality, history, and the Constitution.
Throughout the colonial period and under the Articles of Confederation and Constitution, Evarts pointed out, various authorities had, by treaty, guaranteed the territorial integrity of Indian lands and the Cherokee and other tribes, which had never
surrendered such title, still held "a perfect right to the continued and undisturbed possession of these lands." The Indians, he
added, did not hold lands in Georgia or any other state, but were sovereign, as "separate communities, or nations." Removal
was, in the minds of Evarts and many other critics of aggressive expansion, "an instance of gross and cruel oppression." While
such views held great currency-the vote in congress to approve Jackson's removal program was quite close in fact-they did not constitute a majority, and Indians embarked on their infamous "Trail of Tears" while many millions of acres of native lands in the southeast were soon opened to agricultural exploitation.
The appropriation of Indian territory occurred in a period of great
expansion, as Americans believed it was their "Manifest
Destiny" to acquire new lands. Advocates of this ideology believed that the United States had a providential right and obligation to assume control over less-developed areas in the name of republicanism, Christianity, and white supremacy. Expansionists
even had a quasi-legal justification for building a continental empire, the Monroe Doctrine. Crafted by Secretary of State John
Quincy Adams and announced by President James Monroe in 1823, the doctrine was a statement of Pan-American influence in which the United States warned European powers to keep their "hands off" newly independent states in Latin America.
Unspoken but just as compelling was the idea that the United States had a natural hegemony over the region and would expand control over all the Americas in time.
Again, however, John Quincy Adams seemed to be of two minds, refusing
diplomatic or material aid to revolutionaries in South America or Greece
because it would jeopardize the national interest by entangling the United
States into the affairs of other
countries and delivering his "America goes not abroad" oration, but also penning the Monroe Doctrine as part of his vision of a
continental empire. To some critics, Adams's ideas were in fact endangering the national interest, with one member of congress
describing the Doctrine as "assuming an unwarrantable power; violating the spirit of the constitution; assuming grounds and an
attitude toward European Powers, calculated to involve us in the strife which there existed, and in which we had no interest;
and indirectly leading to war, which Congress alone had the right to declare."
In addition to such continuing constitutional questions and insular
concerns, critiques of expansion and empire invariably became intertwined
in the intensifying slavery controversy, and almost always included attacks
on the southern political and planter
aristocracy, which had designs not only on the continental west but also on areas in the Caribbean such as Nicaragua and Cuba in which to extend their slave system. By the mid-1840s, these conflicting forces of southern expansionism and anti-slavery
sentiment would lead to a national antiwar-cum-anti-imperialist movement.
The effective cause of the acute division of the era was the American
war against Mexico, begun in 1846 but the culmination of
a generation of U.S. attempts to absorb Texas into the Union. While there were strong sentiments north and south for bringing
Texas and other southwest lands into the United States, the inevitable expansion of slave states gave rise to often-fierce
condemnations of expansion. John Quincy Adams, now a Whig representative in congress and a leader of anti-slavery,
anti-imperialist political forces, feared that the annexation of Texas would turn the United States into a "conquering and warlike
nation." Ultimately, "aggrandizement will be its passion and its policy. A military government, a large army, a costly navy, distant colonies, and associate islands in every sea will follow in rapid succession." Senator Thomas Corwin of Ohio echoed Adams's
views, describing President James Polk as a "monarch" and his cabinet as a "court" and considering justifications for the war as
a "feculent mass of misrepresentation." The "desire to augment our territory," Corwin lamented, "has depraved our moral
sense." Ralph Waldo Emerson, noted essayist and earlier advocate of taking Texas, now predicted that the United States
would gobble up new lands "as the man swallows arsenic, which brings him down in turn" and his fellow Transcendentalist
Henry David Thoreau refused to pay war taxes, received a jail sentence, and wrote his famous essay "Civil Disobedience" in
protest of the Mexican War.
Such critiques held great popular and political appeal in the 1840s
as pacifists, abolitionists, religious leaders, and literary figures pressed
an anti-imperial agenda, while 90% of Whig Party members in congress voted
against the war. Following the
acquisition of Texas, California and other Mexican lands in the southwest, anti-imperialists may have been on the defensive, but
they were not quiescent. When, in the 1840s and 1850s, southern planters began to create and subsidize filibusters,
clandestine armies that would try to invade and secure Latin American lands for new plantations and slavery, abolitionist
anti-imperialists protested vigorously. Whig politicians and an emerging political movement of Free-Soilers, opponents of the
extension of slavery into new territories, especially attacked the deeds of soldiers of fortune such as Narcisco López, who
invaded Cuba in the late 1840s, and William Walker, the "grey-eyed man of destiny," who briefly conquered and ruled
Nicaragua in the late 1850s. Indeed, the firm opposition of the Whigs and Free-Soilers, as well as abolitionists and some
evangelical elements, effectively thwarted southern dreams of a Caribbean empire in the antebellum period. They could not,
however, suppress the intensifying sectional crisis, and civil war had become unavoidable by 1860 when Abraham Lincoln,
who as a Whig representative in 1846 had opposed the Mexican War, assumed the presidency. Within a half-decade, the
conflict between the Union and breakaway states of the Confederacy was over, and the United States was about to embark on its greatest imperial efforts yet, but not without protest and opposition at all points along the way.
The New Empire and its Discontents
The Civil War not only ended slavery and the southern plantation system,
but marked the conclusive triumph of industrial
capitalism as well. Within a few decades, the United States would thus emerge as a global economic power, with the
opportunities and problems attendant to such status, including the acquisition of an extra-continental empire. Indeed, as soon as the Civil War had ended, Secretary of State William Henry Seward embarked on a campaign to augment American territory by acquiring Santo Domingo [the Dominican Republic] and Haiti, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska. Seward's plans,
however, met heavy opposition from anti-imperialists like the noted author and social critic Mark Twain [later president of the
Anti-Imperialist League], Senator Justin Morrill, and editor of The Nation magazine E.L. Godkin, who collectively called on
American leaders to settle domestic issues and create a showcase society that others could emulate instead of seizing or
otherwise taking on new territories. Subsequently, Seward's ambitions, except for buying Alaska, were shelved, though
expansion and empire-building would remain a priority in U.S. foreign policy.
By fin de siècle the American economy, producing more goods and
agricultural commodities than the home market was
consuming, seemed in deep peril and government, corporate, and intellectual leaders urged that new markets abroad for trade
and investment be found and acquired. Such economic pressures-along with calls for new coaling stations and a larger navy, the popularity of "Social Darwinist" ideas calling on America to "civilize" the less-developed and non-white world, Christian
ideology seeking to convert adherents of other, "pagan" religions, and sense that American needed to extend its frontiers as a
form of national renewal-led to a rush for new lands to control in the 1890s and set the stage for new levels of imperialism in the next century.
In the 1890s the United States colonized or at least forcibly established
hegemony over Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto
Rico, and Guam, while Secretary of State John Hay was insisting that an "Open Door" for American products and capital be
recognized by other nations. Because the European powers and Japan had colonial footholds, with administrators, collaborating elites, and occupying armies, in various areas, especially China, the United States would have to use its economic strength to
develop a new world system based on a free and open door for trade and investment. The 1890s then marked the
establishment of a "new empire" not only because the United States forcibly took territory outside the continent, but also
because it was announcing a different form of imperialism, based on equal access to the markets and investment houses of other lands, rather than administrative control and military occupation.
American hegemony over Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines also prompted
significant and striking opposition. Politicians,
commentators, Christians, and intellectuals spoke out against the new aggrandizement and had a comprehensive analysis of the
new empire, one that, again, would foreshadow later anti-imperial arguments and movements. The war against Spain and
intervention into the Philippines, critics charged, gave "militarists" too much power; the United States could acquire coaling
stations or new trading opportunities without war or empire, they explained. Liberal Republicans known as "mugwumps" who
had been drawn to the party by its stand against slavery equated anti-imperialism with abolitionism. Many dissenters contended
that the United States had no right or need to "civilize" others peoples, especially considering its own treatment of blacks at
home, while, conversely, some did not want American to assume control over and responsibility for non-white, and thus
inferior, peoples. Labor leaders such as the Socialist Eugene Debs and the conservative Samuel Gompers agreed that conquest and empire were dangerous, in large measure because they feared the loss of American jobs to foreign workers who would
accept lower wages, a charge echoed in the late twentieth century by anti-globalization activists.
Perhaps most pointedly, anti-imperialists argued that territorial annexation
would pervert American principles. William Jennings
Bryan, titular leader of the Democratic Party and agrarian spokesman, anticipated that the "just resistance" of the United States
to Spanish rule in Cuba and the Philippines would "degenerate into a war of conquest," giving others the right to charge
America with "having added hypocrisy to greed." Senator George Hoar lamented "the danger that we are to be transformed
from a Republic, founded on the Declaration of Independence . . . into a vulgar, commonplace empire, founded upon physical
force." The Anti-Imperialist League, tormented by the spectre of Filipino blood on American hands, even "more deeply resent
the betrayal of American institutions" such as representative government at home, international law, and self-government for
others. Mark Twain used his biting wit to condemn the new imperialism, offering new lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the
Republic: "Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the sword; He is searching out the hoardings where the strangers'
wealth is stored; He has loosed his fateful lightning, and with woe and death has scored; His lust is marching on." He was
particularly outraged by the occupation and ongoing war against the forces of liberation in the Philippines, reporting from Manila and comparing the nationalist leader Emiliano Aguinaldo to Joan of Arc and George Washington. Twain was also quite vitriolic
about missionaries who justified imperialism as an extension of the religious duty. "I bring you the stately matron named
Christendom," he wrote angrily, "returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-chou [Tsingtao,
China], Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth
full of pious hypocrisies." Notwithstanding their passioned opposition, the anti-imperialists were fighting rearguard actions
against faits accompli in the Philippines and elsewhere, leading Theodore Roosevelt, secretary of the Navy, virile expansionist,
and later president, to deride them as "men of a by-gone age having to deal with the facts of the present."
Roosevelt's observations probably represented the views of most Americans,
who appreciated the extension of American
power and influence in 1898 and subsequently. Still, critics of the new empire persisted into the twentieth century, and
American anti-imperialism was part of a broader, global attack on colonialism, but one that developed quite differently than
elsewhere. Liberals like the Briton J.A. Hobson were offering a pointed economic analysis of empire, tying the European reach
into new lands to underconsumption in the home market. More powerfully, Russian theorists and revolutionists Nikolai
Bukharin and Vladimir Lenin, writing during World War I, put forth a new Socialist critique of empire that would find great
currency in the coming years, though not so much in the United States as Europe or the less-developed world. The great
industrial powers, Lenin explained, were matched in a global contest for markets and would increasingly come into conflict in
areas yet to be exploited-later termed the "Third World"-where they would vie with each other to establish colonies for
consumers, raw materials, and investment. Though there were, to be sure, Left, labor, and progressive political forces in the
United States using such a radical model, anti-imperialism also continued to an American ideology, unique to the nation's history and perceived values.
Anti-imperialists of the Leninist, Liberal or American variety found
proof for their theses in the years after the
Spanish-American-Philippine War and especially with the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. Struggles for materials
and colonies in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and elsewhere had led to the widespread carnage, principally, many critics held, for
the benefit of state elites and corporations who needed expanded economic opportunities. In Europe, Bolshevik, Socialist,
Labor and other left parties, after initially supporting the entry of their various states into the war, emerged with this critique of
empire. In the United States, similar analyses were apparent, though usually without the Leninist twist. The war, many American critics believed, was a product of great power, sphere-of-influence rivalries, not necessarily the inevitable consequence of
Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy, often debated the issue of American
imperialism with Theodore Roosevelt and other
expansionists after 1898. "I incline now to anti-imperialism, and very strongly to anti-militarism," Adams observed. "If we try to
rule politically, we take the chances against us." Any U.S. attempt to establish hegemony comparable to the British empire,
Adams and others maintained, was dangerous, futile, and un-American. Many Socialists and other radicals unleashed their
wrath on "dollar diplomacy"-the American policy of sending bankers to foreign lands in lieu of armies to gain influence and
power-as another form of imperialism, just as nefarious and effective, albeit more subtle, that traditional colonialism. Walter
Lippmann, a young but influential journalist, spoke for many progressives in 1914 when he observed that "the arena where the
European powers really measure their strength against each other is in the Balkans, in Africa, in Asia. [T]he accumulated
irritations of it have produced the great war." Between 1914 and the April 1917 U.S. entry into the war, Americans pressed
their government to stay out of hostilities, effectively enough for President Woodrow Wilson's 1916 campaign slogan to be "He
Kept Us Out of the War." Senator Robert LaFollette, House of Representatives Majority Leader Claude Kitchin, William
Jennings Bryan, and activists such as Jane Addams, Lilian Wald, Oswald Garrison Villard of The Nation and others invoked
American antimilitarist traditions to oppose entry in the war, contending that intervention would dampen reform at home,
provoke a curtaining of civil liberties and increase political repression, lead to war profiteering by big business, and otherwise
sully American values. One group, the American Union Against Militarism, even had a mascot, a dinosaur named "Jingo" with
the motto "All Armor Plate-No Brains."
Despite such public dissent, Wilson did in fact ask congress for a declaration
of war shortly after his re-election was secured,
thus alienating progressives, liberals, and anti-imperialists who had supported him in 1916 based on his claims of neutrality,
noninvolvement, and anti-imperialism. Wilson did in fact advocate self-determination, believing that empires would collapse if
their colonies had the right to rule themselves, but his vision was limited, essentially covering the states of Europe that had been
constituents of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, not the underdeveloped and non-white world. More to the point, Wilson's
anti-imperialism was, like John Hay's earlier, a means to promote the Open Door; by breaking down existing empires, the
United States could use its economic strength to gain a foothold in new markets.
After American entry into the war, many of Wilson's previous supporters
began to comprehend his version of anti-imperialism,
and were part of a large and diverse antiwar movement, which, though not exclusively an anti-imperialist movement as well, did
create a broader critique to challenge the decision for war as a dangerous departure from American traditions. Progressives
and future isolationists like Senators LaFollette, Hiram Johnson, and William Borah and others, and radicals like Eugene V.
Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, John Reed, Kate Richards O'Hare, Emma Goldman, "Big Bill" Haywood, Scott Nearing, and
various Socialist and Labor organizations condemned the war and imperialist frenzy attending it, with Randolph Bourne
charging that war, with its opportunities for profits and new territories, was "the health of the state." Woodrow Wilson,
anti-imperial critics charged, had never been neutral but was always pro-England because of American economic ties to the
British empire. Businessmen and their media propagandists, they added, had pushed the government into the war for their own
self-interest and were hoping to use intervention to expand the Open Door. The war, critics concluded, served the interests of
corporations and imperialists, not the national interest.
Challenging a New World Order
Such ideas became even more prevalent in the aftermath of the war as
Wilson sought to develop a new global system, based
on the Open Door rather than traditional colonialism. The keystone of the president's new program was to be a League of
Nations, a body of the world's governments that would ensure "collective security" by taking action against aggressor states,
militarily if so needed. Immediately, a large and diverse coalition of critics came forth to condemn this departure from America's isolationist ideology, as they saw it. Some politicians, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a old-line Republican from
Massachusetts who represented northeastern commercial interests, feared that the League would damage U.S. sovereignty,
forcing America to participate in collective action at the behest of other members of the new organization. "Are you willing to
put your soldiers and your sailors," he asked, "at the disposition of other nations?" Missouri Senator James Reed invoked a
sense of racial superiority, charging that "black, brown, yellow and red races," ranking low in "civilization" and high in
"barbarism," would be on equal footing with the great, white United States.
Lodge and Reed, however, were not specifically opposed to the extension
and use of American power, but many others were
and saw danger in the League. LaFollette believed that it would become an "imperialist club" which would maintain the status
quo and keep colonies such as Ireland and India in bondage because the new body was not likely to sanction action against the great powers that held sway over the less-developed world. Like LaFollette, others such as Senators Borah, Hiram Johnson,
and George Norris were so-called Irreconciliables, who were progressive on domestic matters and believed that the League
would not only limit American autonomy but would deny autonomy to poor nations and was not consistent with traditional
national virtues of self-determination and isolation from the intrigues and squabbles of Europe and elsewhere. More so, a broad consensus was emerging to question America's involvement in and future after World War I, fearing that the United States was
embarking on a path of global behavior, with entanglements and interests abroad, that would resemble that of the existing
empires. Indeed, in the years during and just after the war, a number of anti-imperialist and anti-militarist groups-including the
Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League, and the Women's
International League for Peace and Freedom-emerged to publicly lobby for a more insular and less aggressive foreign policy.
Facing such widespread criticism, Wilson held his ground and refused to negotiate or compromise with his detractors, and the
senate accordingly rejected the treaty to join the League. While the war had marked America's coming out as a great world
power, the United States would not don the trappings of empire.
That is not to say, however, that the United States retreated from world
affairs. Though the period between World War I and
II is usually referred to as a period of isolationism, the 1920s, as the historian and anti-imperialist Charles Austin Beard
remarked, saw a "return to the more aggressive ways . . . to protect and advance the claims of American business enterprise."
Trade and investments, and intervention, abroad increased between the wars as a corporative alliance of government offices
and business institutions sought to create order and stability at home as well as establish such conditions outside of national
boundaries. In addition to reestablishing and augmenting economic ties to a rebuilding Europe and pressing for a greater
opening of Asian markets, American officials and corporations continued to move into Latin America in pursuit of expanded
Such circumstances led to another wave of anti-imperialism in the 1920s
and 1930s, but, once more, in complicated and
seemingly contradictory ways. American officials such as Secretaries of State Charles Evans Hughes and Frank Kellogg,
concerned about exorbitant military spending and the potential for another outbreak of hostilities, brokered international
agreements on disarmament and to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy. They and their successor Cordell Hull
believed that free trade would promote peace, while empire led to conflict. Isolationists in public life and the media also
believed that Europe was still trapped in the type of rivalries that had caused war in 1914 and warned that the United States
should stay clear of foreign engagements until that continent stabilized. Such critics, however, were often internationalists who
did not question America's right or need to expand abroad, but saw contemporary conditions as a deterrent to foreign
involvements at that time.
Others offered a more pointed analysis. Critics of the war and League
treaty such as LaFollette and Borah continued to warn
against American imperialism and militarism, and spoke out against U.S. attempts to crush nationalist liberation movements in
areas such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Marine General Smedley Butler became something of a folk hero and offered a
compelling critique of American imperialism when he called himself a "racketeer, a gangster for capitalism." During his
thirty-three years in the Marines, Butler boasted, he had
The continuing aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, culminating
in the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December
1941, however, undercut the anti-intervention, anti-imperial consensus and set the United States onto a path of, apparently,
irreversible global empire. By war's end in 1945 the United States stood as the world's only great power: as a condition for
aiding Britain during the war, the United States had insisted on opening up the markets of the empire and beginning a process of decolonization; Germany and Japan were in ruin as a result of the fighting that laid waste to Europe and Asia; and the principal
rival to American hegemony, the Soviet Union, had lost over 20 million people and millions of farms and factories during the
war. The United States controlled half the world's trade and had established an economic order, the Bretton Woods system,
and a political institution, the United Nations, as means to wield its power and influence. The so-called American Century was
in full bloom but, U.S. leaders warned, without a permanent military establishment and arms buildup would be in constant peril.
Accordingly, America embarked on its greatest military expansion, began to establish a global network of bases, sought an
international Open Door, and established a National Security State at home.
Fighting for America's Soul
Such measures attracted opposition. Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's vice-president
from 1941 to 1945 and presidential candidate
in 1948, challenged the emerging "Cold War" against the Soviet Union, charging that the United States was using "a
predominance of force to intimidate the rest of mankind." Atomic scientists such as Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard eloquently
warned of the perils of a nuclear arms race and established organizations and journals to challenge the political status quo.
Journalists like Walter Lippmann and the radical I.F. Stone expressed their concern over the extensions of American power
and responsibility into all parts of the world. Senators as diverse as the liberal Claude Pepper and "Mr. Conservative" Robert
Taft feared the establishment of a military government. Vito Marcantonio, a Labor Party member of the House of
Representatives, attacked business and military influences in Washington and the expansion of American capitalism into the
developing world. Many liberals feared that the United States was abandoning its republican virtues, especially as the political
repression associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy consumed the nation's political affairs in the 1950s.
African-American critics in particular challenged the intensified imperialism,
as they saw it. Black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois,
Paul Robeson, and Harry Haywood believed it was dangerous, not to mention hypocritical, to expand American values and
institutions abroad while maintaining a system of apartheid at home in the southern states. In particular, black spokespersons
began to point out the common struggles of Africans trying to gain their national independence from colonial powers with blacks in the United States seeking civil rights. Americans could hardly lead the "free world" by example, they argued, while
maintaining legal segregation at home and endorsing continued colonization in Africa and other parts of the Third World.
Although many mainstream Black leaders supported the Cold War, hoping to parlay their loyalty to foreign policies into a
commitment to act against racism at home, DuBois, Robeson and others offered a more critical analysis, even invoking a
Leninist critique of Capitalist expansion and looking to the Soviet Union as an anti-imperialist model and champion of the rights
of non-white peoples. Paul Robeson condemned Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech as a scheme for "Anglo-Saxon
domination" of the world and called for "united action of all democratic forces to achieve freedom for all colonial and subject
Views such as Robeson's, however, were not conventional wisdom, even
in the Black community, and most Americans
accepted the new global role ushered in by the Cold War. Throughout the 1950s, then, the United States, without much
dissent, intervened in a civil war in Korea, overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, offered economic and military
support to military dictatorships throughout the globe, and continued to expand the Open Door. By the end of the decade,
however, some Americans were uneasy with such hegemony, and various figures emerged to again challenge the U.S. empire.
Cultural figures such as the Beatniks condemned the conformity of Cold War life, the arms race, and the American denial of
self-determination in other lands. More powerfully, and perhaps surprisingly, President Dwight Eisenhower, as he was leaving
office in 1961, warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex. The potential for
the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." Such thoughts may have remained a novelty in the 1960s, but
U.S. intervention in Vietnam, still limited as Eisenhower left office, would mushroom in the coming years, and give rise to a mass antiwar movement that would also question in large measure what critics saw as America's imperial behavior overseas and the
military-industrial complex at home.
As in the 1840s and 1890s, many Americans in the 1960s opposed U.S.
intervention in a foreign war and developed a larger
anti-imperialist critique as a result of their challenge to the conflict at hand. Even before the major decisions to commit advisors,
air assets and combat forces and essentially "Americanize" the Vietnam War, there was evident concern over the growing U.S.
role in the world. Movements calling for an end to the arms race, peace with the Soviet Union, normal relations with Cuba, or
recognition of the People's Republic of China, for instance, were in existence during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and
the Cold War consensus on an aggressive foreign policy, though still noticeable, was being questioned in some quarters.
Vietnam accelerated that process, however, and brought about the greatest domestic challenge to American involvement
abroad in the twentieth century.
By 1964, as the United States began to conduct air attacks against the
enemy National Liberation Front in Vietnam, peace
activists, professors, and students were beginning to challenge the growing American role in Indochina and the larger foreign
policy context of the Cold War. Scholars such as the linguist Noam Chomsky, the historian William Appleman Williams, and
the political scientist Hans Morgenthau participated in "teach-ins" on Vietnam, giving rise to a national movement on various
campuses and serving as a foundation of the antiwar movement. The Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], the largest
radical student group of the period, held the first antiwar rally in 1964 as well, and its adherents not only scored intervention in
Vietnam, but offered a comprehensive analysis of the leaders of the American "empire," which, they charged, denied
self-determination to Third World nations, intervened on behalf of corporate interests, and betrayed American principles.
African-Americans, engaged in an epic struggle for civil rights, added, like DuBois and Robeson earlier, that the United States
had assumed the position of a white imperial power suppressing the yearnings for freedom of nonwhite peoples, whether in
Indochina or below the Mason-Dixon line. Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights leader, went so far as to call the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" while the militant Black Panther Party called on
African-Americans to refuse to join the military or support U.S. intervention, and openly sympathized with Third World
revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements.
Politicians entered the debate as well, as they had during the fateful
League fight after World War I. Senators J. William
Fulbright, George McGovern, Ernest Gruening, Wayne Morse, Mark Hatfield, Frank Church and others were, like the
progressives of the 1920s, anti-imperialist and internationalist. Fulbright, like Borah, chaired the Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations and opposed the policies of the president of his own party. The senator from Arkansas believed that America had
"betrayed its own past and its own promise . . . of free men building an example for the world. Now . . . it sees a nation that
seemed to represent something new and hopeful reverting to the vanity of past empires."
Similar opinions were held by a significant number of Americans, including
religious leaders, businessmen, and even military
officials. Following in the tradition of Smedley Butler, former Commandant David Shoup blasted not only the war but the
foundations of U.S. foreign policy. "I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the
business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people," he said in 1966, "they will arrive at a solution of their own.
That they design and want. That they fight and work for. [Not one] crammed down their throats by Americans." Shoup's views, though bluntly expressed, were shared by a significant number of Americans by the late 1960s and 1970s. Millions
demonstrated publicly against the war and also called for a new, non-interventionist foreign policy. "Dove" Senators tried to
pass legislation to limit the war and, after U.S. withdrawal in 1973, enacted the War Powers Act to restrict the power of the
president to commit American forces abroad, a measure that was principally a response to the "imperial" presidency of Richard Nixon, who had waged war without authorization in Cambodia and Laos and was responsible for the Watergate crisis at home. By the mid-1970s, the United States seemed less prone to intervention in world affairs, a condition derided as the "Vietnam syndrome" by conservative critics but hailed as an anti-imperialist triumph by various progressive and internationalist forces.
Such restraints, however, were short-lived, as the Carter and Reagan
administrations began to ratchet up the Cold War,
increasing military spending, taking a more bellicose approach to the Soviet Union after the detente of the 1970s, and asserting
American imperium in Central America and elsewhere. Millions of citizens, often invoking the legacy of Vietnam, challenged
such policies as violations of national and international laws and of American values and, amid the Iran-Contra scandal, pointed
out the similarities between the imperial presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Still, the 1980s and early 1990s
were not periods of great anti-imperial activity. That would change dramatically, however, by the later 1990s as Americans had a vital role in a global coalition that was challenging the world's economic structure. In some measure, conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, maverick presidential candidates in 1992 and 1996, had used anti-imperial and nativist themes to
sound the alarms about the new global economy. Sounding like progressives in the 1890s or isolationists after World War I,
they believed that transnational corporations were moving abroad to find cheaper labor, thus causing American workers to lose jobs, and that the government and business elite was more interested in extending its interests abroad than in taking care of its
citizens at home. They, ironically, even called for an end to American sanctions against enemy states such as Iraq and Cuba,
governments for which they held little love, because such economic warfare was damaging the people of those lands and not
helping to oust Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro. The United States was "a republic, not an empire," Buchanan often reminded
Americans throughout the 1990s.
By the later part of that decade-with many major powers establishing
regional and world economic groups such as the
European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the World Trade Organization-anti-imperialists went on the
offensive. Where such institutions had usually existed with little fanfare or opposition, various critics such as Chomsky, the
long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and the anti-globalization activist Kevin Danaher emerged to attack what they
considered this new form of global empire, with the United States as hegemon. From 1999 to 2001, when environmentalists,
union members, student activists, anarchists, and other forces disrupted meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle,
the World Bank in Washington D.C., and the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec, the lines were drawn in this new
round in the global contest between the great powers and the forces of anti-imperialism.
As critics of American power, expansion, or empire enter the twenty-first
century, they are using many of the same arguments
that George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Mark Twain, William Borah, or J. William Fulbright put forth in earlier periods.
Broadly defined to mean the aggressive use of power, the denial of self-determination abroad, militarism, or actions inconsistent with a republican form of government, American imperialism has a long tradition, but so does its anti-imperial counterpoint.
Clearly, anti-imperialists, isolationists, doves and others opposed to the excessive use of power or the extension of U.S.
influence have been on the defensive as American leaders have tallied up an impressive array of territorial holdings, military
interventions, proxy governments, and economic opportunities. One can ponder, however, how much more expansive the
reach of American power or extent of militarism would have been without critics at home challenging the establishment and
augmentation of "empire" at all steps along the way.
"The price of empire," J. William Fulbright remarked during the Vietnam
War, "is America's soul, and that price is too high."
Those words could just as easily have been uttered by John Quincy Adams at the turn of the nineteenth century. As America
goes abroad in the future, then, in search of markets, bases, or even monsters to destroy, one can be reasonably certain that
there will be significant forces at home questioning and protesting against such extension of U.S. power, as there have been for
over two centuries already.
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