Birthed in opposition to empire, the United States of America, did not therefore and simply abandon its interest in expansion. The great Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis argued that the purpose of America’s westward expansion (along with the Monroe Doctrine) was to protect the nation’s “core” of the original 13 states from attack.
In this way, it is not that the United States was simplistically anti-imperialist. Rather, the country had created a strange anti-empire for itself. It would challenge empires around the world, while utilizing the tools of empire to establish continental control first, and then, ultimately, global dominance for itself.
The Anti-Empire, then, was birthed in reaction to empire.
A History of Anti-Empire
After the United States waged war upon the British Empire, the young country found itself in a Quasi-War with the French. From there, America challenged the European imperial powers, yet again, with the Monroe Doctrine, which cut off the western hemisphere from the machinations of the imperial powers in the Old World.
Over time, the United States would beguile the Spanish Empire—first by taking Florida from them and then, ultimately, agitating for war in Cuba. Meanwhile, the United States annexed the Pacific Coast of North America in a rapid war against the Mexican Empire and then engaged in a bloody civil war.
After the Civil War as the United States dealt with the problem of reconstructing the South, power and wealth was centralizing in the hands of the federal government and industrial masters in the form of the corporation. All of these moves buttressed America’s growing might on the world stage. Even so, the country remained decidedly anti-empire.
By the time of World War I, the United States had defeated the British Empire and weakened France’s imperial control in the New World; America had also completely broken the once-proud Spanish Empire with their victory in the Spanish-American War.
Despite its growing power and influence, the American Anti-Empire remained on the periphery of world affairs. The remaining European empires dominated the world system. In fact, Europe was viewed as the hub of global power and the height of culture. Yet, by 1914, the remaining European empires found themselves brutally engaged in the most destructive war ever to hit the continent.
World War I was not a war on behalf of nationalism. Far from it: it was a conflict fought between world empires for global supremacy—with varying forms of socialism compelling the combatants to previously unimaginable extremes. Since most of these empires were equals, in terms of capabilities and might, had the United States never involved itself in the conflict, it is likely that the rivals would have fought to a negotiated settlement . . . and empire would have survived.
The hope of the allied powers was that the United States would intervene on the side of the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia), and crush the Triple Alliance of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. But, the entente of great European powers got more than they bargained for in aligning themselves with America’s Anti-Empire.
In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had made clear his antipathy to all forms of empire. Rather than merely sending American doughboys to end the war in the entente’s favor, Wilson insisted on fighting to end all war while simultaneously ending empire itself. Wilson envisaged a postwar order that forced all European empires to abandon their overseas colonies, embraced free trade, and made their markets open to American goods while opening their polities to American ideals. Essentially, Wilson wanted a postwar scenario in which all empires lost.
Will Empire Strike Back?
After that terrible war, the British Empire was laid low; the French were a spent force; the German Empire was no more; the Austro-Hungarian Empire—which had survived from the Middle Ages to the dawn of the airplane—had vanished; and the Ottoman Empire was cleaved to bits. Meanwhile, the reign of the tsars ended in revolutionary bloodshed brought on by the Bolsheviks (and the Russian Empire itself was handed over to the butchering Bolsheviks).
The American Anti-Empire terminated these European empires.
The next 80 years would see the fall of the British and French empires, as well as the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union—leaving the American Anti-Empire as the dominant global power. Today, however, that global anti-empire is internally divided by socialist revolutionaries while new empires, like China, seek to break America’s great anti-empire.
Perhaps history is a tale of empire versus anti-empire, and empire might be about to exact its terrible vengeance.
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