Back in 1965, the original Students for a Democratic Society sponsored a march in Washington DC against the US war in Vietnam. It was the largest march against the war to that point, with around 25,000 people attending. The protest is not famous for its numbers as much as it is famous for one of the speeches given there. The speaker was SDS president Paul Potter and, if a speech can be summed up with one quote, the speech Potter gave that day can be summed up with this excerpt:
What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values-and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its?
We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over-all the time.
As the antiwar movement grew in numbers and deepened its analysis, more and more of its members did name that system and the name they gave it was imperialism. According to the American Heritage dictionary, imperialism is “the policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.” Naturally, the nature of modern imperialism is closer to the second half of the proffered definition than it is to the first. However, the former was a necessary historical development for the latter to occur. Since the invasion of Afghanistan by Washington in October 2001, the use of the word imperialism has experienced a renaissance as the media and others attempt to define the nature of US foreign policy in the post-911 era. This use has risen in all quarters, not just among critics of that foreign policy. Indeed, folks like Thomas Friedman proudly trumpet the fact of US imperialism in their writings as if they have been newly freed to call a spade a spade.
However, there is one fallacy in the current usage. That fallacy is that the term is quite often only used in relation to the neocon Project for A New American Century, as if it is only the neocons who support an imperialist foreign policy in Washington. Until now, only those on the far left and far right are willing to call all those politicians, generals, corporate chiefs and mediots that support the political system in DC imperialist.
Now, however, it is time to add Condoleeza Rice to that list. In a speech given to the Economic Club in New York on June 6, 2007, Rice did everything but utter the word as she summoned forth the ghosts of Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt and Cold War architect Dean Acheson and stated that the Bush foreign policy is not a break with previous administrations, but a continuation of what she called “100 years of American realism.” Or, as she put it, “We believe that our principles are the greatest source of our power, and we are led into the world as much by our moral ideas as by our material interests.” Of course, when Washington can convince the US public that those material interests (Washington’s true principles) and moral interests coincide, then that “American realism” works best. Looking back, if one examines the actions of Teddy Roosevelt, they will recall that he was an aggressive supporter of the US colonization of the Philippines under the guise of liberating them. This was merely a continuation of his determined campaign to go to war with Spain in the Carribean when he served as the Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley. In fact, Teddy once stated, “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” While president, Roosevelt served the needs of US international trade by garnering US control of the Panama Canal.
As for Dean Acheson, he understood that the only way for the United States to maintain and expand the power it assumed during and immediately after World War Two was by finding a new enemy. Like many others in Washington and London, he understood that the communist movement in all of its forms was the greatest challenge to the desires of US capitalism. Consequently, he named Stalinist Moscow as the number one enemy and the numerous struggles for independence from colonialism then occurring as close seconds. What this meant was that these national liberation movements were denied US support even if they were not communist. Consequently, many of these movements turned towards Moscow for assistance, a phenomenon that often gave the Moscow allied elements in the movements a greater hand than other elements. As Tom Hayden points out in his upcoming book How To End the War in Iraq, this tendency to blame all national liberation struggles on Moscow and (later) Beijing is but one of the reasons the Iraq war architects and supporters failed to predict the Iraqi and Afghani insurgencies.
One name Ms. Rice failed to mention was Henry Kissinger’s. That man truly understands the reality of US imperialism and has called it realist politics ever since the first day he started serving in Richard Nixon’s White House (if not before). More important than Henry the K., however, is the fact that Dr. Rice places the Democrats’ opposition to the Bush strategy squarely in its place. Her speech made it clear that there are not two foreign policies at work in the upper echelons of the Washington-Pentagon-Wall Street axis, only a few differences in the methods used to achieve the goals of a single policy. That policy is the policy that best serves the corporate capitalist need to expand and dominate. Or, as the American Heritage dictionary puts it: “a policy of extending a nation’s authority… by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.”
Paul Potter’s speech forty some years ago made it clear that there was a system in place that drove the US war machine and its diplomatic auxiliary. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, that system has been called by its real name by the shameless ones that currently run the country. Condoleeza Rice’s attempt to include the aggressive strategy of the neocons in the tradition of what she terms American realism may be scorned by the liberal opposition, but their scorn is misdirected. Ms. Rice could not be more correct. Her tracing of a historical line from the imperial ravings of Teddy Roosevelt to the policy papers of the Bush administration (with a nod to Dean Acheson and Harry Truman) is closer to the truth than any speech by any of the current leaders in the Democratic race for the 2008 election. If she had only included Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, that line would have been nearly complete.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com