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The Day the US Became an Empire

Photo by Jason Eppink | CC BY 2.0

For half a century, the United Kingdom celebrated May 24, the birthday of the late Queen Victoria, as “Empire Day.”  The US ought to have its own Empire Day and it should be on June 15.  It was on June 15, 1898 that the US became an empire.  On that day, the US House of Representatives voted 209 to 91 to annex Hawaii.  (The US Senate followed on July 6, voting 42 to 21 in favor of annexation.)

One could argue that the US has always been an empire.  Thomas Jefferson called the US an empire, but an “empire of liberty” dedicated to spreading freedom around the globe.  Tell that to the Native Americans killed and dispossessed by White Settlers.  Tell that to the Mexicans.  The US seized a third of their country through war. Still, it wasn’t until 1898 that the US acquired its first overseas colony.

Hawaii had been an independent nation.  In 1887, American planters in the islands had forced a change to the Hawaiian constitution which largely disenfranchised ethnic Hawaiians to the benefit of wealthy Whites.  By 1893, with US support, American and European businessmen on the islands had staged a coup d’êtat, overthrowing the monarchy,[1] and establishing a Republic of Hawai’i; from there, they maneuvered for Hawaii’s annexation in 1898.  That same year, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam would be gathered into the fledgling American Empire, fruits of the US victory in the Spanish-American War.

Why Imperialism?

During the 1896 presidential campaign, Republican William McKinley, who went on to win in November, was asked how the US could avoid a replay of the catastrophic 1893 depression.[2]  McKinley answered that “We want a foreign market for our surplus products.”

McKinley could have said “abundance” rather than “surplus.”  Abundance aptly describes the wealth pouring from America’s fields and factories. Abundance ought to be welcome in any society.  But not capitalist society.  It is a mark of the perversity of capitalism that it makes abundance a problem. The home market, Lenin observed, cannot absorb the “superabundance of capital” and goods.[3]  Hence,

As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be utilized not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward [sic] countries.[4]

Lenin’s theory of imperialism explained the war which had begun two years earlier, in 1914.  Lenin showed that the war was imperial in origin.  In order to survive, capitalism is forced to look beyond the nation-state to the world market.  Inevitably, this brings nations into conflict with each other.  Lenin demonstrated that imperialism was not separable from capitalism, but was capitalism’s “highest stage.”  Lenin thought that Revolution would inevitably follow.  Lenin did not foresee that once capitalism had reached its “highest stage” it would remain there in an indefinite holding pattern.[5]

“Little Brown Brothers”

Belief in White racial superiority acted as a spur as well as a brake on America’s imperial expansion.  Some members of Congress opposed imperialism because it was contrary to the ideal of self-government set out in the Declaration of Independence.  But there was also strong opposition to bringing the non-Whites of Hawaii and Cuba and the Philippines into what was seen as a White Man’s republic.  On the other hand, imperialists argued that it was the White man’s duty (or “burden”) to provide leadership to our “little brown brothers,” as William Howard Taft, US Governor-General of the Philippines and a future president, would call them, inasmuch as they were incapable of governing themselves.

One incident in particular illustrates this attitude vividly.  The Filipinos fighting against Spanish rule believed that the US had promised to liberate the islands.  Instead, the US took Spain’s place as the Filipinos’ colonial overlords.

Why this turnaround?  As he told a group of clergy visiting the White House, McKinley had asked God what to do about the Philippines.[6]  God responded in a series of bullet points.  America had four options.  Three of these—Filipino independence, returning the islands to Spain, or turning them over to “our commercial rivals” France or Germany—McKinley rejected. McKinley concluded “That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them….”

The US also provided lofty motives for imposing its hegemony over Cuba.  The US justified the 1898 war with Spain, at least in part, as a humanitarian intervention avant la lettre.  The US would bring freedom to the Cubans and end Spanish atrocities.  Never mind that the Spanish atrocities were largely fabricated by the jingoist newspaper publisher, William Randolph Heart, the Roger Ailes of his day.  When the USS Mainesank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, Hearst and the rest of the yellow press blamed Spain, adding to the inducements to war.

In the end, the US double-crossed Cuba.  Now nominally independent following Spain’s defeat, Cuba became a de facto colony of the US.  The US did not annex Cuba, but forced the drafters of the Cuban Constitution to adopt a provision (the Platt Amendment) which gave the US carte blanchevto intervene in Cuba in the future.[7]

The Neoliberal Rape of Puerto Rico

The Filipinos would not finally be rid of the Americans until 1946.  American hegemony over Cuba only ended with the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Puerto Rico remains a US possession to this day, subject to Uncle Sam’s loving care.  Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, yet are not treated like Americans.  Puerto Ricans have no vote for president or representation in Congress, nor do they receive the full protection of the US Constitution.

Last October, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.  Researchers at Harvard have estimated the death toll at 4,645—seventytimes higher than the official count.  The hurricane crippled electrical service and access to clean water for months, the catastrophe made worse by incompetent disaster relief efforts by the US Government.  (Justine Calma, “The U.S. Could Have Avoided Puerto Rico’s Water Crisis,” GRIST, Oct. 20, 2017.)

Would Puerto Ricans have been left to twist slowly in the wind if they had been White?  The disaster has highlighted Puerto Rico’s colonial domination by the US. Award-winning Puerto Rican filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner writes:

[A]lthough it has become liberal sport to insist on how different Trump is from everything and everyone that preceded him, the president’s response to the hurricane is consistent with American colonial history. This is manifested in both the slowness and limited scale of assistance during Hurricane Maria, and by the fact that when local leaders criticized him for it, Trump defended himself by invoking century-old stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as lazy and ingrates who “wanted everything to be done for them.”[8]

Racism pays cash dividends.    Even before the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico staggered under the weight of a $123 billion government-debt crisis.[9]  Since Maria, Puerto Rican suffering has grown.  What Naomi Kleincalls “disaster capitalists” have redoubled their efforts to privatize Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, privatize schools, foreclose on homes, impose deregulation, and ramp up economic inequality, all while cutting billions from the public sector.  Look me in the eye and tell me that colonialism is a thing of the past.

Happy Empire Day, Everyone.

Notes.

[1] STEPHEN KINZER, THE TRUE FLAG; THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN EMPIRE (2017), page 45.

[2] Id. at 25.

[3] V. I. LENIN, IMPERIALISM, THE HIGHEST STAGE OF CAPITALISM (1916), chapter IV.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  This is why I wince every time I hear that we are living in the era of “late capitalism.” Capitalism has endured longer than anyone on the left expected.  What if capitalism lasts another 500 years?  For all we know, we may still be living in the era of “early capitalism.”

[6]  HOWARD ZINN, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (1980), pages 312-13.

[7] Id. at 311.

[8]  FrancesNegrón-Muntaner, “The Crisis in Puerto Rico Is a Racial Issue.  Here’s Why,” THE ROOT, Oct. 12, 2017.

[9] To his credit, on October 3, 2017, President Trump suggested that Puerto Rico’s government debt should be canceled.  However, to quote the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, “When a donkey flies you don’t expect him to stay up long.” Trump soon retracted the suggestion.

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Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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