A History of Washington’s Occupations



Early in the 20th century, the U.S. socialist journalist John Reed explained the drive for plunder, profit and geopolitical domination that lay behind U.S. military interventions. “Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing,” Reed said in a speech. “He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”

The U.S. government established itself as an imperial power at the turn of the 20th century with the Spanish-American War–when it grabbed colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific. The U.S. “liberated” the Philippines from Spain by killing close to 1 million Filipinos in order to seize the country as a beachhead for U.S. ambitions in Asia.

Most of the time, the U.S. preferred enforcing its dominion by quick military strikes to squelch popular movements for democracy and install friendly dictators. But Washington didn’t hesitate to become a colonial occupier. It invaded and ruled over Panama (1901 to 1911), Nicaragua (1912 to 1933), Haiti (1914 to 1934), the Dominican Republic (1916 to 1924) and Cuba (1917 to 1933).

And where the U.S. military went in Latin America, U.S. big business was intimately involved. As Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler famously explained his role during this era: “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…Looking back on it, I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

America’s rulers have tried to bury this bloody history. Like every power before it, the U.S. government claims lofty principles as the justifications for its wars. In recent months, Bush and the right-wing ideologues who serve him have turned to the mythology of the Second World War to find a cover story for their war on Iraq.

The U.S. fought the Second World War, they claim, not for imperialist motives, but to liberate Germany and Japan from totalitarianism and bring democracy. And “after defeating enemies,” Bush recently boasted, “we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments.”

This simply isn’t true. The U.S. still maintains massive military bases in both Japan and Germany–bases that it has used ever since the war to manipulate politics in the two countries. In Japan, far from liberation, the U.S. waged a racist and barbaric war–and from 1945 to 1952, it presided over an occupation.

During the fighting, the U.S. ruling class had whipped up frenzy of hatred. Time magazine, for example, raved, “The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing…indicates it.” President Franklin Roosevelt interned 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

After defeating Japanese forces across the Pacific, the U.S. closed out the war by firebombing civilian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other major cities. Forty percent of Japan’s urban areas were burned to the ground, killings tens of thousands and making millions more homeless.

The final act in this campaign of terror was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki–two civilian targets. The bombs and radiation poisoning killed more than 340,000 people.

Once Japan surrendered, the U.S. occupied the country with 430,000 troops–who went on a crime spree. In the Kanagawa prefecture, for example, Japanese historian Takemae Eiji documents that U.S. soldiers committed 1,336 rapes in the first 10 weeks of the occupation. The invading army took over the only standing buildings in some areas–and built themselves luxurious new homes amid a Japanese population that was destitute.

Unlike its occupations of undeveloped countries, the U.S. was taking over an advanced capitalist society that it hoped to reintegrate into the world order as a junior partner. In the initial phase of the occupation until 1947, the U.S. aimed to rehabilitate a section of the old guard, while granting reforms that would head off a revolution.

U.S. officials imposed a new Peace Constitution, granted both men and women the right to vote, conducted war crimes tribunals, purged hundreds of thousands of militarists from public life and broke up the power of the Japanese military. But these measures were all designed to stabilize the country under a conservative leadership that would serve U.S. interests.

First of all, this was no real democracy. An American general, Douglas MacArthur, decided all of the important questions. With the threat of hundreds of thousands of soldiers under his command, MacArthur would issue orders to the Japanese government, which had no choice but to obey.

Moreover, the U.S. poured old wine into new bottles. Instead of abolishing the monarchy, MacArthur decided to retain Emperor Hirohito–provided he would help convince the Japanese to obey the U.S.

The U.S. also relied on the reactionary, elitist and undemocratic bureaucracy of the old state. In Japan’s new electoral politics, the U.S. backed a section of the old guard led by Yoshida Shigeru, who, after initially resisting many reforms, collaborated with the U.S. in controlling the country as standing prime minister for all but one year of the occupation.

Even with the emperor, bureaucracy and reformed old guard ruling the country, the U.S. was still suspicious of the Japanese people. So it set up the Civil Censorship Detachment to muzzle the media and monitor private phone conversations and personal letters.

Even limited democracy was denied to oppressed populations in Japan. The U.S. disenfranchised Koreans–and scapegoated them as unreliable elements who might be agents of Communist North Korea. On the strategically located island of Okinawa, off the southwest coast of Japan, the U.S. set up a dictatorship that robbed peasants of the best farmland to build military bases.

While the U.S. cared only to strengthen its grip on power, the masses of Japan took their limited democratic rights seriously. Driven by hunger and economic crisis, workers–often led by the Japanese Communist Party–struck for higher wages and benefits, occupied workplaces to keep them from closing, and prepared for a general strike against the Yoshida government, set for February 1, 1947. Okinawans, Koreans and other oppressed groups fought for democratic rights.

The whole of Japan was in rebellion a year into occupation. Washington began to fear that it would lose Japan and the rest of Asia to Russia. Already by 1947, in China, Mao’s Communists were beating the U.S. puppet Chiang Kai-shek in the country’s civil war.

U.S. policymakers feared that the countries of Asia would fall to Russia like dominos–maybe even their super-domino, Japan. To prevent this, the U.S. abandoned the democratic gloss of the first phase of the occupation. As in the U.S., Japan’s Communist Party was witch-hunted.

Using the cover of the witch-hunt, U.S. forces repressed the working-class uprising, banning the planned general strike, attacking workers’ protests and taking away union rights from more than half of public-sector workers.

In 1950, the U.S. imposed an austerity budget called the Dodge Plan that threw the country into a depression–and Japanese companies took advantage, firing hundreds of thousands of unionized employees.

With the social rebellion suppressed, “conservative political forces within Japan joined with their American sponsors to rebuild the nation in ways that bore an uncanny resemblance to the prewar order,” wrote historian Michael Schaller.

The U.S. “de-purged” hundreds of thousands of war criminals, built a new Japanese army led by officers from the old Imperial Army and aided the economic revitalization of the old monopolies. Japan would serve as the main base for Washington’s wars to maintain its influence in Asia and the Pacific–in Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The U.S. granted Japan independence in 1952, but it was able to control the country like a puppetmaster for years afterward. Washington used its military bases as a stick to bully Japan into line–and old pre-war bureaucracy had grown so powerful during the U.S. occupation that it, and not the elected government, decided most important economic and political questions. For these reasons, author Chalmers Johnson calls Japan not a democracy, but an authoritarian regime “remarkably similar to that of the former East Germany.”

Washington and the Nazis

WHAT HAPPENED to the other conquered enemy in the Second World War? Unlike Japan, which the U.S. controlled outright, Germany was partitioned into eastern and western halves by the U.S., Britain and France on one side, and Russia on the other.

The U.S. set up a direct government to rule over its section of occupied Germany. The civilian administrator was John McCloy, who played a key role in the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Nuremberg war crimes trials punished the top layer of the former Nazi regime. But the U.S. feared another wave of revolution, similar to the one that exploded in Russia and the rest of Europe following the First World War.

So Washington hired Nazis for the core of a new state. As a representative from the U.S. spy agency explained: “They say, ‘Why did you use the Nazis?’ That is a stupid question. It would have been impossible for us to operate in southern Germany without using Nazis…Who knew Germany better than anyone else? Who were the most organized? Who were the most anti-Communist? Former Nazis.”

As the Cold War standoff with Russia became the U.S. government’s top priority, plans to try leading industrialists from major companies like Krupps–who had bankrolled the Nazis–were abandoned.

The U.S. quickly rebuilt the West German economy–as a counterweight to Russia’s Eastern European empire. A new conservative party, the Christian Democrats, was put together to rule West Germany in accordance with U.S. demands.

The Marshall Plan to reconstruct Western Europe was introduced for two reasons–to stabilize the crisis-torn societies in order to prevent revolution, and to rebuild a market for U.S. products and investments.

Under the cover of “humanitarianism”

BETWEEN THE two Gulf Wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the U.S. government carried out a number of “humanitarian” interventions. But the reality was different behind the rhetoric.

–“Operation Restore Hope,” the 1992 mission that sent 30,000 Marines into Somalia to help feed starving people by protecting food convoys blocked by local warlords, won the support of many liberals. But Somalis rightly came to view the U.S. as an occupier, not a liberator. The CIA estimates that some 10,000 Somalis were killed during the U.S. intervention. Those who survived were left with a country steeped in even worse violence.

–“Operation Restore Democracy,” launched less than a year later in Haiti, promised to reinstall the elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been overthrown by the military in 1991. But instead of going after the coup leaders, U.S. troops went after the Haitian people. While Raul Cedras and fellow death squad leaders escaped the country to live on millions stowed away in Swiss bank accounts, Haiti’s people were terrorized by the former dictatorship’s police, who patrolled the streets with U.S. troops as part of the interim police force.

–In 1999, the U.S. led a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia with the stated aim of stopping “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians in Kosovo. Not only did the air war wreck Serbia’s civilian infrastructure, but it caused a refugee crisis in Kosovo–which Washington cynically used as an excuse for the occupation to come. After the war, Albanians carried out ethnic cleansing in reverse against Serbs in Kosovo–under the noses of “peacekeeping” troops.

Washington isn’t just a failure at bringing democracy abroad. It’s utterly incapable of it.

ASHLEY SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker.


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