How the US Ascended to Global Empire in the 20th Century

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The way the U.S. global empire developed to be the most powerful empire in history is encapsulated in the first three presidents of the 20th century, William Appleman Williams wrote in his final work, published in 1980, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts About an Alternative.

Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1900-09, was arguably the first to hold that office with a vision for the U.S. as a world power. Famous for his saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” TR was the embodiment of the U.S. as a global policeman, benevolent in its own view. In relations with Latin America, Roosevelt said nations “must have a just regard for their obligations towards outsiders . . .  chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may . . .  force the United States . . . to the exercise of an international police power.”

But, notes Williams, TR made clear that role also involved “rich and ostensibly civilized powers.” He would negotiate a settlement in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War, intervene in a European dispute over Morocco, and send a built-up U.S. fleet on a tour around the world. “ . . . the President made it clear he considered it necessary to maintain order within the rich neighborhoods as well as in the poor slums. . . the watchman . . . projecting its community values  . . . as the single standard for the world.”

His successor, William Howard Taft, in office from 1909-13, expressed the role of the U.S. in terms of the global marketplace with his Dollar Diplomacy. Writes Williams, “The long years of acquiring and developing the domestic, continental empire were over.” He quotes Taft. The U.S. had “accumulated a surplus of capital beyond the requirements of internal development . . . our surplus energy is beginning to look beyond our own borders, throughout the world, to find opportunity for the profitable use of our surplus capital  . . . “ The role of government was “to preserve to the American people that free opportunity in foreign markets which will soon become indispensable to our prosperity . . . “

Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913-21, brought those two strains together with “a grand vision of global benevolence presided over by the United States,” Williams writes. To that purpose he led the nation into World War I in the righteous conviction that the deployment of American police power was necessary to usher in a millennium of democratic progress based upon the acceptance and observance of the principles and practices of the American marketplace economy.”

He quotes Wilson. The U.S. had to enter that conflict because violation of those principles “made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secured once and all against their recurrence.” Williams writes, “His emphasis was on the world being defined in the image of America (italics Williams’).” This is the “world made safe for democracy” for which Wilson strove.

Wilson provided “an impressive synthesis” of “the new imperial outlook . . . he had to control the disgruntled poor (symbolized by the ongoing revolutions in China, Mexico, and Russia) while simultaneously policing the greed of the rich who competed with the United States for the wealth of the world. That awesome undertaking was the inevitable result of defining American freedom and welfare and security in global terms.”

The system is challenged

That system needed to preserve the “Open Door” for capital investment throughout the world. This was first expressed in Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door Notes of 1899-1900 insisting to other powers that there should be no bars on trade and investment in the spheres of influence they maintained in China. Williams viewed these notes as seminal expressions of what was to be U.S. policy throughout the world. (This is detailed in more depth in the second part of this series.)

Thus those revolutions constituted a fundamental challenge to the Open Door order. Williams writes that it could not “survive countries taking themselves out of the system,” whether the motivation was socialist as in Russia or nationalist as in China and Mexico. “The most militant imperialists emphasized the necessity for prompt and strong action to prevent such withdrawals from the global system.”

The Great Depression that began in 1929 challenged that system in unprecedented ways. “ . . . faith in growth was  . . . dashed to the ground. The failure stunned most Americans. They had been born to the truth that their culture was predicated upon growth, and now there was no growth. Truly a traumatic experience.”

That would have a deep impact on U.S. foreign policy from the 1930s through the postwar period. The New Deal led by President Franklin Roosevelt instituted major social policies and built new infrastructure, but it did not bring the economy full recovery. “Most Americans realized, privately if not publicly, that the economy was revived only through World War II. As a consequence, they were viscerally uneasy about a slide back into the depression after the conflict ended.”

The depression forced limits on marketplace freedoms most Americans had believed were the basis of their own individual liberty, thus reinforcing those uncertainties. “Americans had little psychological affinity . . . for a philosophy that viewed such restraints as part of a community of reciprocal benefits and obligations (italics Williams’).” All that would make them tolerable was economic growth. “And in the American economy that growth was predicated upon imperial expansion.”

The course for war is set

Thus efforts by other countries to address the depression through their own controls were regarded as “threatening to leave the United States a beleaguered island of freedom.” That included efforts by France and Britain to maintain preference in their own colonial empires, as well as efforts to create autarkic systems in Europe by Nazi Germany and in East Asia by fascist Japan. “American leaders increasingly emphasized their earlier fears that a world divided into such trading blocs would create what Walter Lippman called ‘a truly revolutionary condition’ that would force the United States to make structural and institutional changes at home.”

Writes Williams, “Franklin Roosevelt understood the ultimate truth about empire as a way of life. End the empire and all hell might break loose: the Furies would appear.”

Thus the course for World War II was set. “ . . . between the January 1940 termination of the commercial treaty with Japan and the September 1940 exchange of destroyers for bases with Great Britain, he committed the government to a war for America’s imperial way of life.” Of course the regimes in Germany and Japan were despicable, but the underlying imperial agenda of the war is indicated by the fact that, apart from the most notable war criminals, the ruling political, economic and military leadership of those nations was maintained in the postwar era. In return, they would merge their nations fully into the Open Door order. U.S. financial leverage forced a war-bankrupted Britain to open up its empire. A Cold War would start shortly after the war with the only major nations that remained “out of the system,” the Soviet Union and China.

In the years leading up World War II, the fundamentals of the domestic order that would prevail through the postwar years were put in place. The origins of the modern military-industrial complex can be traced to spending in the 1930s intended both to prepare for war and revive the economy. Williams notes that 20% of 1932-40 tax receipts went to military spending. Roosevelt also “reinforced the inherent power of giant corporations,” which took the lion’s share of military contracts. “ . . . the New Deal created an institutional link between the huge companies and the military.”

Overall, despite FDR’s rhetoric about “’malefactors of great wealth, his administration was concerned to save and if possible revive a capitalist economy based on large corporations.” So he fostered a tight alignment between the state and the corporations. The state would provide subsidies, create markets, and assure access to resources. “Thus the collapse of the system of marketplace capitalism consolidated the power of those who were committed to sustaining the system.” Everyone else, Congress, state and local governments, and citizens, “were being steadily reduced to responding to, or simply implementing, proposals and actions taken by the executive department and the corporations.”

The bills are coming due

The global order we know today originated in the 1930s and 1940s. FDR aimed to realize the U.S. “global dream of an open world marketplace dominated by American power.” But, writes Williams, “It was a grand illusion predicated upon a failure to comprehend the full meaning of the Great Depression, and grounded in the charming belief that the United States could reap the rewards of empire without paying the costs of empire and without admitting that it was an empire.”

Those bills are coming due today, in renewed great power competition that threatens global nuclear annihilation, and a climate crisis grounded on the assumption of unlimited economic growth. Williams’ questions remains as cogent as ever. “Are we unable, intellectually, to do any better to sermonize on the theme that endless growth is crucial to our social-psychological health; and are we unable, morally to share the world . . . on an equitable basis? If you answer ‘yes’ to those questions, then hunker down for what James Baldwin called The Fire Next Time . . . We will suffocate, sizzle and fry.”

“Empire as a way of life will lead to nuclear death,” Williams concluded in 1980.

His answer: “Get on with important matters. Turn away from empire and begin to create a community.”

In the 43 years since Williams completed his final work, we have not heeded his call, and the nuclear danger he envisioned then has returned with unprecedented potency, while the climate crisis then on the dim horizon indeed threatens to sizzle and fry us.  It is time to turn to abandon empire as a way of life and turn to the hard work of creating community, beginning where we live.

Next: How empire is a thief stealing from the future, and Williams’ vision for moving from empire to regional communities.

This first appeared on The Raven..