Finis to the Grand Fool’s Errand…or to All Of Us?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Americans have always been led by their educational institutions, the mass media, and political pronouncements, to believe that the “American way of life” is the product of the commitment to democracy and human rights and that the shrewd and cerebral application of unsurpassed resources by exceptional entrepreneurs in an exceptional nation has crafted the fairest, richest and most nearly perfect standard of living in human history. This elemental mythology has long succeeded in mystifying the fact that merciless armed violence and slavery were the essential prerequisites of rapid American expansion “from sea to shining sea” in half a century and gave this nation the potency to maintain independence and evolution over the next two centuries. The profits derived from unpaid labor provided a major source of the capital that fueled the great leap in American financial and industrial power.

Investments of that capital in oil and coal, and steel and machinery, catapulted the 19th century American industrial revolution, enriching a new elite, creating a broader middle class but forcing many into working class grinds. A few years later the rising oligarchs fostered a new form of colonialism aimed at accessing markets and more industrial resources. The noted “American way of life” began to take shape and such exploitation would eventually advance Washington’s and Wall Street’s financial and military dominance in the 20th. Until 1945 the U.S. was by far the leading source and purveyor of the critical energy indispensable for capitalist civilization though this arrangement is backfiring and presages a calamitous and dire future for our species. Today, despite intensifying perception of the need to address climate change, reduce carbon emissions and the necessity for alternative sources of energy, the demand and competition for oil, natural gas and even coal ramps up daily across the globe.

Now the Prez who as a senator voted for the all-time longest war claims a desire to end it, but let’s be real…not really, and says that Washington should never have joined the “misadventure” in Afghanistan in the first place. Remember the Taliban in Texas in negotiations to build pipelines in Afghanistan to draw natural gas from the “Stans” for the profit of American energy corporations? It was the Taliban’s ultimate refusal to cooperate that provided a prime motivation for the invasion to topple them in 2002. And where exactly on the time frame is this “first place” that Biden notes? A broad-spectrum strategy had been in the works well before the events of 9-11. As Zbigniew Brzezinski made clear back in 1998 he and his elite collaborators had deliberately drawn the Soviet Union into an elaborate trap i.e. its own version of America’s invasion and defeat in Vietnam. “The secret operation” said Zbig, “was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap. You want me to regret that?”

Secret Operation? To what end? The multi-varied costs of its Afghan war certainly helped push the Soviet system into collapse but that was only part of the overall intent. Polish by birth, Brzezinski’s motives vis-à-vis the USSR often focused on his anti-communism and desire for revenge for Stalin’s occupation and communization of Poland but this oversimplifies his real standing and importance to geo-political strategy in the imperial draw rooms of the American ruling class where the actual overseers of the political and financial system abide. In 1997, well after the initial phase of the scheme had been achieved, Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geo-strategic Imperatives (written for the Council on Foreign Affairs) made the longstanding and overarching American blueprint perfectly translucent for the few paying attention. Earlier, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon had issued its Defense Planning Guidance which emphasized “Full Spectrum Dominance,” defined as control over “air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment, which includes cyberspace, that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference” anywhere on planet earth.” Few noted that the actualization of this design would require that the U.S. violate international law and kill a lot of people, though there was nothing new about that.

The “Great War” of 1914-18 for the Europeans also became a contest for Middle East oil and as a result the national boundaries of modern states in the region today were drawn essentially by the British and French.  The United States had possessed the largest known sources of petroleum and had therefore been energy independent as well. The Second World War changed that permanently. The U.S. depleted so much of its domestic petroleum that to resuscitate, expand and maintain the domestic way of life Washington now needed permanent access to what had been discovered as the single largest reservoir of oil on the planet. In 1943 President Franklin Roosevelt met personally with the king of Saudi Arabia to formulate the alliance that characterizes the present day. Sitting atop the global power structure after WWII Washington effectively reduced Western Europe and Japan to vassals and moved to supplant them in the Middle and Far East. The comprehensive goal was American corporate access to and control of as many energy deposits as possible and the strategic military positioning to safeguard “the Prize.”  Obviously, strategic positioning to safeguard access to energy and other critical resources against communists or nationalists who believe those assets belong to them would require the expansion of Washington’s military reach as the more than 800 bases worldwide today attests.

The American public education establishment discourages any textbook history of the nation that would reveal that its imperial project was present at the beginning. Born as an outpost of one empire the nascent U.S. rapidly embraced Jefferson’s vision of an “empire for Liberty” (only for white males) and moved to supersede its British parent, moving across the continent against any and all standing in the way. After the Civil War the rising financial and corporate oligarchy turned its imperious gaze outward into the Pacific. The acquisition of Alaska was a bridge to Asia. Annexation of Samoa and Hawaii and the Philippines and Guam followed, and in the Caribbean, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. As Senator Albert Beveridge orated in 1898, “God…has made us the master organizers of the world…the Philippines give us a base at the door of the East…the power that rules the Pacific rules the world.” Republican Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge gloried in American territorial acquisition and brayed that “We have a record of conquest, colonization and expansion unequalled by any people of the 19th century…we are not to be curbed now…for the sake of our commercial prosperity we ought to seize the Hawaiian Islands now.” He neglected to note that such seizure would entail the establishment of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Indeed, by 1905 the U.S. Navy had secretly developed a full-scale battle plan for war with Japan designated “War Plan Orange,” in which the Hawaiian base would be central.

Neither senator was quite accurate in his evaluation though. Global dominance would require more than the capacity to rule the waves. British appraisal of its own strategy for global supremacy  emphasized the necessity to control Eurasia and its resources and markets and labor power. And, of course, there were others embarking on the same mission at the time, including the “Great Game” between Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia for present day India, Pakistan, and yes, Afghanistan. Meanwhile the rise of Germany and Japan, simultaneously with the ascent of the United States, complicated the agenda Britain had set for itself. Both world wars permanently erased British goals and left, from 1945 to 1989, only two major powers contesting for ascendancy.

Plans and pronouncements like those of the senators above were commonplace across both political parties during the Gilded Age. The nation’s schools ignore such utterances of course. At that time American banking and commercial eyes were set upon “the Great China Market,” where the collapse of the imperial system underscored that vast nation’s vulnerability to outside predation. The father of the modern American navy, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, viewed the Chinese as “sheep without a shepherd” and advocated an American colony in China as the “core around which to develop a new China.” Few American citizens know anything of this but the Chinese most certainly do.

The European powers were also competing to feast on China’s riches but World War I arrested those ventures, including temporarily for the U.S.  When Japan stepped into the breach after the Versailles Treaty, later expanding throughout China and declaring its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” the long-envisioned American aims throughout the region were profoundly endangered.

American citizens are led to believe that U.S. entry into both global conflicts was necessary militarily. In neither case was this true. The presumptive threats posed by Germany in both wars, and Japan in the second were largely economic. Neither nation had the remotest possibility militarily to vanquish the U.S. Both nations desired to established autarkic, or relatively closed spheres, which they would exploit strictly on their terms. If successful this would utterly contract the American agenda. The Great Depression had unequivocally demonstrated for the U.S. ruling class how unstable and vulnerable the capitalist system could be (and will continue to be until collapse). Mass poverty and unemployment and social discontent, combined with political and economic threats from both the left and right, could only be addressed by re-establishing social and economic stability. The New Deal had signally failed to do so by the late 1930s. What was to be done?

Among the pillars of American prosperity was widespread trade with the advanced economies where U.S. corporations sold their surplus production. After 1929, to deal with the effects of economic collapse, Britain closed its imperial system and American corporate access to its economy and the resources and markets of its overseas colonies. By 1939 it was all too apparent that Germany and Japan were intent on doing much the same throughout Europe and Asia. The communists in the USSR had long closed their markets to American terms. A major lord of Wall Street emphasized the essential dilemma: “Germany does not have to conquer us in a military sense. By enslaving her own labor and that of the conquered countries, she can place in the markets of the world products at a price with which we could not compete. This will destroy our standards of living and shake to the depths our moral and physical fiber…” Others noted that this added economic blow would make the previous years of Depression seem trifling by comparison.

The gargantuan and unregulated Ponzi Scheme on Wall Street during the Roaring Twenties (and today) enabled the purchase of stock “on margin” (i.e. debt) followed by wild speculation and were certainly factors in the Depression but debt had been contrived throughout the entire American economy to drive consumption demand earlier in the decade.  The credit economy for ordinary wage earners was invented overnight. “Buy now pay later” rapidly accelerated demand which, in turn, fast-tracked new employment, which enabled more workers to obtain credit stimulating demand further, raising living standards dramatically but also the eventual likelihood of overproduction and collapse. Many ordinary citizens opened new bank accounts, oblivious to the fact that their cash deposits were being invested by the banks in Wall Street’s turbulent speculation. As the debt crisis accelerated on Wall Street the great crash began; unpayable debt and the loss of cash assets when banks collapsed led to escalating panic. By 1938 the restrained and moderate social investments of the New Deal had failed substantially to reduce joblessness so domestic demand for industry’s products continued to collapse while major corporate manufacturers could not sell their products abroad either.

Both Germany and Japan had plans to dominate the regions contiguous to them, much as the U.S. had been doing in the Western Hemisphere. Both soon realized that the U.S. would intervene to spoil their schemes and thereby engaged in a formal, if weak, “Axis Alliance” hoping that the U.S. would be extremely reluctant to engage in a two-front war spanning the globe. Nonetheless, FDR secretly aided the British navy in the North Atlantic, even authorizing depth charges against German submarines in violation of Congress’s declared neutrality aimed at fostering an incident in which Germany would attack, perhaps even sink, an American vessel and thereby provoke popular support for armed vengeance and war. In fact, such incidents occurred but were revealed to be deliberate American provocations. On the far side of the world the U.S provided aircraft and American pilots secretly to train Chinese counterparts against the Japanese and by 1941 U.S. fliers themselves were conducting strikes against Japanese targets.

Later in 1944, as American officials realized that victory was evident, the chief of American war production advocated a “permanent war economy” but this was essentially the decision already taken by the Roosevelt Administration as early as 1939 when war broke out in Europe that would direct vast quantities of government dollars to finance equally immense war production with guaranteed profits for the major corporations involved while military service and employment in war industries would eliminate joblessness overnight. However, the major impediment to execute the war plan was broad American opposition to entering another European war since many citizens had come to believe that U.S. entry in WWI had been manipulated by many of the same dominant banks, arms manufacturers, oil, steel, shipbuilding and other conglomerates. The catchphrase “merchants of death” had entered the national lexicon. Congress’s narrow initiation of the Draft in 1940 was a first step toward Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile FDR secretly conferred with Prime Minister Churchill, provided essential resources and loans to England and discussed the conditions that would ultimately favor American entry. Under no circumstances could Britain and its far-flung empire be allowed to fall to the Nazis like France because that would leave the American economy a small island in an ocean of competitive sharks.

In the summer of 1941 Japan invaded French Indo-China, thereby threatening British Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies and their vital resources like tin, rubber and oil. The Roosevelt Administration responded by seizing Japan’s assets in the U.S., embargoed critical oil and steel, and issued an ultimatum to withdraw from its occupied territories. Japan correctly interpreted these acts as evidence that the U.S. was preparing for war and thereby took the fateful decision to attempt to destroy the American bases in Hawaii. Though official ideology still denies that the American military knew of this Japanese decision evidence abounds that American cryptographers (code breakers) were reading key Japanese transmissions. On December 2 one such cable read: “All American personnel given shore leave as usual. Pearl Harbor not on alert.” A final transmission from Japanese spies in Honolulu to Tokyo on December 6 read “all clear…no barrage balloons (air defenses) are up…there is an opportunity for a surprise attack on these places.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation was well aware of Japanese infiltrators and J. Edgar Hoover desired to arrest them but he was dissuaded by the State Department because their “ouster would reveal American cryptographic success,” and thereby destroy the clear strategic and tactical advantage possessed by the U.S.

Well, we all know how the war ended. Collectively the public is still told that the atomic bombings were necessary to avoid the casualties expected from the planned invasion of Nippon in November 1945. Never discussed for the public is the fact that by that date Soviet forces would have overrun parts of northern Japan and created similar problems for American ambitions in postwar China (and Korea) that the American-Soviet co-occupancy of Germany was already exposing. The American codebreaking operation had revealed that Japan had been looking to surrender since the spring of 1945 on terms that would preserve the imperial throne but Washington’s insistence on “unconditional surrender” was clearly preventing immediate capitulation. So to hasten the Japanese surrender and to preclude a Soviet invasion the A-bombs were dropped and immolated hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In this context words spoken in 1942 by General Leslie Groves, are revealing. “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and the project was conducted on that basis” (italics mine). The Soviets actually defeated the majority of Germany’s forces, perhaps as much as eighty percent, and occupied Eastern Europe, including much of Germany, because many nations adjoining the USSR then became allies of the Nazis. Germany could never have been defeated without the Red Army but the defeat of Nazism left communists in control of much of the territory the U.S. wanted open to its advantage. Also disappeared from popular understanding of the decision to use the bomb is the fact that six Japanese cities were left untouched by the massive destruction of virtually every other urban center, including half of Tokyo, by conventional bombing. American analysts wanted “virgin targets” in order to assess the scope of devastation and radiation to be achieved by atomic weapons. Given that the U.S. had forcefully condemned the targeting of civilians prior to American entry into the war the sheer ruthlessness of the atomic desolation would not be lost on Stalin and other Soviet officials. Soon the USSR had its own atomic bombs.

Shortly after the Japanese surrendered General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, informed President Truman and his cabinet that the growing civil war in China, where the forces of Chiang Kai Shek (Jiang Jieshi) were engaged against the Communists, that the United States now faced “defeat or loss of the major purpose of the war” (italics mine).

The U.S. government was deeply anti-communist not because of Stalin’s crimes and the fact that “freedom and democracy” were absent in a communist regime, as Washington’s welcome of Nazi war criminals, and Japanese biological warfare experts attests, and today for equally vicious dictators, but because the vast territory of Russia and its dominions was all but closed to American capital penetration on American terms. Europe’s colonies, fully aware of their overlords’ exhaustion, were rising simultaneously in rebellion and threatening nationalization of their countries’ resources. The major reason the U.S. engaged in the war was precisely to ensure that the rest of Europe and Asia remained economically accessible via the Open Door, which for the previous half-century had been the nucleus of American foreign policy writ large. Then in 1949, with the victory of the communists, the U.S. lost China to the Chinese, though certainly not the ones desired. The very nation that had motivated the policy was now closing the door.

American foreign policy of the half-century after World War Two is the story of anti-communism, of vigorous opposition to nationalist anti-colonialism, and all-out efforts to bring the global economy under the control of America, Inc. Washington and its many new tentacles of subversion (DOD,CIA, NSA, IMF et al) has killed at minimum 10 million Koreans, Vietnamese, Arabs, Muslims, Latin Americans and a host of others across the planet, all claimed to advance human rights and democracy but pursued with outright falsehoods and a willingness to employ vicious military or subversive sabotage in pursuit of its fool’s gold.

Having, in part, abetted the collapse of the Soviet Union via Brzezinski’s “secret operation” it appeared that the United States finally stood at the pinnacle of global power, ready and willing to impart what today’s nationalistic creed deems a “rules-based international order.” The following excerpt from The Grand Chessboard encapsulates the American ruling elite’s projection at the turn of the 21st century.

A power that dominates Eurasia would dominate two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination…about 75percent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well…Eurasia accounts for 60 percent of the world’s GNP and about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources (emphasis mine).

The last time I looked Eurasia encompassed China.  Nixon and Kissinger’s  1972 “opening” initiated “normalization” of relations between the two nations. At that time China was still the poorest nation on earth and the same was true at the end of the decade when in 1979 Carter dispatched National Security Adviser Brzezinski to fully cement diplomatic relations. Said Brzezinski in careful ambassadorial terms:

Our long-term objective is to include China in the international framework of cooperation which we are attempting to build among the key nations of the worldThe global dispersal of power precludes the possibility of either a Pax Americana or a world ordered through a Soviet-American condominium. But we believe we can attain national security in a world of diversity in part by cultivating good relations with the newly emerging countries, none of which is more important than China.

Those elements of the U.S. ruling elite who cheered this engagement perceived China once again as a vast mine of resources, including cheap labor and a profitable outlet for American production, because they believed its post-Mao leaders understood that the cultural revolution had devastated China’s already impoverished economy and were then willing to co-operate with the capitalist west to the unequal and asymmetrical benefit of both nations. They could not and did not perceive the possibility that China would transform its “socialism” into a radically new hybrid of state sponsored socialism and capitalism that has resulted in the most rapid industrialization and technological advancement in history. China is now an immense world power rivaling- and many believe soon to surpass- the economy of the United States.

Nascent Russian capitalism had helped feed the western capitalist system until its revolution and anti-capitalism after 1917 obstructed the Open Door across a wide area. That is why Washington’s policies from 1945 to 1991 were predicated on bringing the USSR down. Then almost in tandem with the collapse of the Soviet Union the Chinese behemoth awakened and it immediately signaled it would not be a subordinate in the new “liberal” world order fantasized by the U.S.

China’s civilization dates back thousands of years. While China certainly dominated its immediate region of East Asia culturally, economically, politically and sometimes militarily, it has no record of seeking to broaden its empire into the wider Pacific or toward Europe. Compare this with 250 year old Washington and its military bases encircling the planet.

It is no accident that Obama’s “pivot to the East” occurred in tandem with the Defense Department’s “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear “deterrent” at an estimated cost in excess of 1 trillion dollars. Chinese leadership is undoubtedly aware of Daniel Ellsberg’s, The Doomsday Machine, and its revelations that the U.S. military actually planned an all-out nuclear strike against the Soviet Union and China during the 1950s and 60s. Nor do they forget Eisenhower’s threat of nukes to bring about the armistice in Korea, a major reason impelling China to acquire its current nuclear capability a half century ago. Though its nuclear force is considerably smaller than that of the U.S. or Russia it is more than capable of retaliating against any who would seek to stifle China’s powerful re-emergence on the global stage.

Today’s growing tensions between Beijing and D.C. over many issues, but principally Taiwan, is extremely disquieting. Japan was able in the 19th century to steal the island at the moment that China was weakest and after Japan’s defeat in WWII, and the subsequent victory of the communists over nationalists, the U.S. pretended that Taipei was the capital of China. By the terms of the agreement signed by Carter in 1979 the U.S. acknowledged China’s inflexible position that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” Washington also agreed to abrogate the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of China, originally signed in December 1954, but declared in the Joint Communiqué that it would “maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”

Yet these fundamental agreements are dissolving dangerously today. There is no question that the growing influence and authority China is again wielding throughout its proximate region, and in global  markets, is all to the detriment of Washington’s goals. The Secretary of Defense insists that China is the most dangerous “adversary,” more than implying a military threat. China is unambiguously primed forcibly to retake Taiwan should it declare independence and Beijing is well aware of the extent of American arms sales to Taipei. Writing in Foreign Affairs Bernie Sanders sounds the alarm: “It is distressing and dangerous…that a fast growing consensus is emerging in Washington that views the Chinese relationship as a…military struggle.” Far from subjecting official claims to scrutiny the media stoke tension and suspicion and inflame the new Cold War.

The critical emergency of the worldwide pandemic and the inevitability of others to follow, coupled with the coinciding and accelerating existential crisis of global climate change should amplify the immediate necessity for intense international cooperation, not conflict. Yet nationalism and militarism are the order of the day.

The recent debate in academic circles about the “Thucydides trap” contends that when one dominant power declines and another simultaneously rises the historical record too often reveals that war ensues. That was the case during WWI when approximately 10-15 million died. Round Two from 1932-45 added another 80-100 million. How many will World War III annihilate?

Paul Atwood is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.