By William Rivers Pitt*truthout
March 1, 2005
There have been three stages of American empire since the creation of this nation. Each has fed the other, and each has been established and fortified by war. More importantly, each has been fortified by the vast profits derived by the few in the making of war. The first two stages did not collapse, so much as they were absorbed by the next iteration, carrying over all circumstances and attendant difficulties. We exist today within the third stage of empire, one that is sick at the core.
The first stage of this American empire began with the Mexican-American war, but began to flourish at the conclusion of the Civil War. All the states east of the Mississippi River had been brought by force back under the rule of the federal government, a national taxation system had been established to provide revenues to that government, and the nascent outlines of what Eisenhower described as 'the military/industrial complex' had been built by the lucrative contracts handed out to arm, clothe and feed the military.
For many years prior, Americans had been pushing into the western lands occupied by native peoples. Under the banner of Manifest Destiny, the military/economic machine created to fight the Confederacy pushed its way to the Pacific Ocean. In the process, the vast majority of Native Americans were erased from the book of history, a book that is always written by the victors.
The boundaries of this first stage were limited to the 48 continental states, but did not long remain this way. By the time Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency, the first stage had expanded to include Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Imperial footholds had been established in South America and East Asia. While other global empires were on the wane – the Spanish empire was essentially dissolved with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, while the French and British empires were being attacked and slowly rolled back – this American empire became more muscular with each passing day.
The transition between the first and second stages began on April 2nd, 1917, when newly re-elected President Wilson reversed his campaign theme of staying out of the European conflict and asked congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Previously, Americans had defined themselves in no small part by being separated from the troubles of the 'Old World.' When the doughboys shipped out, however, that line of demarcation was crossed.
Despite the eventual victory in Europe, the second stage took many more years to flower and flourish. American armies and navies were essentially dismantled in the aftermath of the 'War to End All Wars,' and the 1930s saw the near-collapse of the American economic system. The advent of and eventual victory in World War II not only cemented the second stage, but resurrected and forever changed the fundamental underpinnings of the American economy. From that victory to now, the American economy has been based centrally on preparation for and fighting of wars.
By the end of World War II, the influence of the American empire stretched throughout Europe to the borders of the new foe, the Soviet empire. Strongholds of the second stage could be likewise found in Africa, the Japanese mainland and many Pacific islands and, with the creation of the state of Israel, the strategically-vital Middle East. American corporations that had built the victorious war machine swam in an ocean of profits. The 'military/industrial complex' was about to become the dominant force in domestic and global commerce, conflict and social structure.
The central reality of the second stage was the Cold War, a death struggle between two competing empires waged across the width and breadth of the planet. The icy staring contest at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin stood a grim counterpoint to the hot blood spilled in proxy wars fought in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere. American and Soviet arms dealers salted the world with millions of conventional weapons to aid these proxy fights.
All the while, larger and more powerful nuclear weaponry was developed by both sides, deployed across the globe, and aimed with deadly intent. On several occasions, most prominently during the Cuban Missile Crisis, these dragons came within inches of slipping the leash. The production of these weapons left uncounted tons of waste behind.
The roots of the third stage were planted deep in this time. At home, the populace became accustomed to existing in a perpetual state of war. The establishment of the Truman Doctrine by men like Paul Nitze created the foundations for an enduring reality: Americans are most easily governed when they are made to fear the strangers 'over there' across the horizon.
Profits from contracts for the development and deployment of weaponry became profitable on an epic scale. The military/industrial complex came to own whole swaths of the American political spectrum on both sides of the aisle, and attached itself umbilically to the petroleum industry as a matter of basic expediency. One cannot fight wars without an abundance of oil and gasoline, and after a fashion, the means and the ends became indistinguishable.
The transition from the second stage to the third stage of American empire came slowly. Millions of Americans took to the streets to protest the large-scale death empire required. The Vietnam War ended with images of Americans fleeing from rooftops in helicopters. A president was required to resign his office or face removal and imprisonment. A 1950s-era chess move in Iran resulted in the 1979 Islamic revolution and the daily humiliation of America by masked gunmen pointing rifles at blindfolded hostages.
The Soviet empire had invaded Afghanistan. The CIA, long the sharp saber of American foreign policy, was broken by the Church Committee. Gasoline became brutally expensive and the American economy struck yet another reef. The American populace, by and large, fell into what could be called a mass depression, described by the last president of the second stage as 'malaise.'
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the third stage came into being, but a hockey game will suffice as a marker. On February 2, 1980, the American Olympic hockey team came from nowhere to defeat the unbeatable Soviet squad in Lake Placid. The subsequent eruption of nationalistic fervor, augmented by the American squad's victory over Finland in the final round to capture the gold medal, led to an outpouring of public emotion that no sporting event had ever created.
It was at Lake Placid that the now-familiar chant of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" was born. The American people had been well-trained during the second empire to expect being on top, and the years prior to Lake Placid had been hard. Something so simple as a win on that ice was enough to strike sparks again, to ignite the long fuse that has been this third American empire. The American people were mesmerized by the vision of their flag rising next to but just a little higher than the red Soviet banner. It was their first taste of what would become a long and uninterrupted stretch of total global dominance.
The central aspect of this third stage has been the rise of the 'movement conservative.' Not to be confused with the breed of conservative that included Nixon and Rockefeller, the movement conservatives held American nationalism and evangelical Christianity as a dual-headed state religion. They spurned concepts of détente and international cooperation. They were and remain radicals in every sense of the word, seeking to deconstruct the American social state that had been in place since the days of FDR.
Ronald Reagan, the first president of this third stage, was the avatar of these movement conservatives, who first began to become an organized entity in American politics during the campaign of Barry Goldwater. Reagan was their perfect man: Confident to a fault, dedicated to the enrichment of the wealthy corporate class while deconstructing Roosevelt's social safety net by any means necessary.
Reagan established the forked-tongue policy talk adopted by the present administration: Speak about the end of large government, gut entitlement programs wherever they can be found, while simultaneously cutting against the grain of the 'small government' ideal by vastly increasing the military and intelligence apparatus of government with trillions of dollars of taxpayer monies.
This cash, as it did during the rise of the first and second stages, vastly increased the power and reach of the military/industrial/petroleum combine. The movement conservatives, funded by this combine, pushed for the deregulation by government of business in every aspect of commerce, none more pointedly than within the media. Over the course of this third stage, that combine purchased 99% of the news media, ensuring that an uninterrupted commercial advocating for empire would be broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Competing messages were all but shut out.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell, when the Soviet empire finally imploded, the banner for this third stage was unfurled for all to see. For the first time in history since the apex of Roman rule, one nation and one government and one military ruled supreme over the known world. The movement conservatives, having lost communism as the main target for their energies and ire, turned inward and laid siege to their fellow citizens. The ultimate goal of this was to purge from debate and consideration anyone who did not approve of empire, and anyone who did not fit the Christian Reconstructionist mold they wished to build American society around.
The rise of George W. Bush, leader of the evangelical/political wing of American Christianity since 1996, to the office of the president has been the fulfillment of the dreams of movement conservatives. September 11 cemented their ascendancy. Now, permanent war and rule by fear are accepted without question. Now, the news media owned by the combine opens the public dialogue to these radicals while painting them as moderate, rational Americans. Now, the dominance of the military/industrial/petroleum combine is unquestioned. Now, the idea that America is engaged in a holy war has been widely disseminated.
There are several cracks in the veneer, however, many of which began during the second stage. The conventional weapons disbursed across the planet during the Cold War are now being pointed at us. Many of our former client states such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which served us so well during the Cold War, have now become profoundly debilitating problems that have exposed our vaunted national security system and military forces as less than adequate to the tasks of empire. The dollar is failing slowly but surely, and new power combines between nations like China, Russia and Iran threaten to destabilize American dominance. Oil, the true coin of this realm, is also becoming scarce. The extremism that always comes when one overwhelming force spreads its wings has passed the point of management, and has itself become both organized and well-funded.
It seems all too clear that this third American empire is threatening to collapse under its own ponderous weight. The movement conservatives cannot contain the forces that have been unleashed against them. The American military is proving itself to be incapable of sustaining the unreasonable demands being placed upon it. The ghosts from the second empire loom large, in Europe and Africa and the Middle East and Central Asia. The American economy, sustained for sixty years by petroleum and war, stands at grave risk of being subsumed by both.
Perhaps, someday, a powerful society will rise that understands the lessons of history. Empires fall, always. They consume themselves, slowly at first, but then with ever-increasing speed as military solutions fail to resolve threats and drain the resources of the core. Perhaps, someday.
More General Analysis of "Empire"