July 31, 2006


America: a democracy and an empire (HIROAKI SATO, 7/31/06, Japan Times)

In April 1789, Washington became president of the U.S. in New York City, the first capital of the newly formed union, but evidently he wasn't happy with the place. So, "was I to commence my career of life anew," he wrote, he would propose a tract of land on the Potomac River as the site for "the seat of the Empire."

When you think of it, the concept of the new land as empire may not really have been a conceit. The U.S. was born of the final phase of the Seven Years' War, the clash for global hegemony between the greatest European powers of the day, Britain and France. Washington fought in it on the British side, naturally.

As soon as the republic got its act together, it started territorial expansion. One bit of irony in this regard is that John Quincy Adams, who in 1821 famously proclaimed his nation would not go overseas to spread the gospel of democracy ("She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy"), helped create two years later the Monroe Doctrine, which would lead to some of the more destructive interventions in the belief that South America was the backyard of the U.S.

In 1845, journalist John O'Sullivan declared it was "the common duty of Patriotism" to strive for "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent." He did this to support the annexation of Texas even as he lined up California for the next step in his overspreading plan for America. The American-initiated war with Mexico had started a year before.

Only eight years later, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry would be sent to Japan to pry the country open under the threat of guns. Little wonder that Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his last stories, "The Domain of Arnheim," casually called the U.S. "the empire."

In 1935, the editors of Fortune magazine took it upon themselves to tell their readers what the U.S. has been all about. "It is generally supposed that the American military ideal is peace," they wrote. "But for this high-school classic, the U.S. Army, since 1776, has filched more square miles of the earth by sheer military conquest than any army in the world, except only that of Great Britain. And as between Great Britain and the U.S. it has been a close race, Britain having conquered something over 3,500,000 square miles (9 million square km) since that date, and the U.S. (if one includes wresting the Louisiana Purchase from the Indians) something over 3,100,000."

This observation necessarily reminds me of the American writer Helen Mears' 1948 book, "Mirror for Americans." Mears, who was briefly in Japan on the U.S. commission to advise the Japanese government on labor issues after the war, was as clear-eyed as the Fortune editors. The central pretext for the Occupation was the proposition that the Japanese were "inherently militaristic and expansionist," but the West's postwar condemnation of Japan as a warmonger nonpareil was, Mears wrote, "a perfect illustration of respectable people smashing their own glass houses."

Yeah, but the other guys always throw the first stone.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2006 7:41 AM

Little wonder that Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his last stories, "The Domain of Arnheim," casually called the U.S. "the empire."

Wow! When a semi-deranged writer says about how bad America is, even in the mid-19th Century, it has to be true! Does that apply to modern semi-deranged writers and semi-deranged filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, too? So then tell me why the ones who say good things must be crazy and/or ignored?

This (the excerpt at least) looks like it was written for a school assignment topic, "Compile a List of Quotes Describing the US as an Empire".

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 31, 2006 9:32 AM

So why is it that the default setting for US foreign policy is isolationism?

Posted by: Mike Morley at July 31, 2006 9:35 AM

Because we're afraid of being contaminated by our contact with the world.

Posted by: oj at July 31, 2006 9:47 AM

A real empire would kill the people and take the land.

Posted by: ratbert at July 31, 2006 11:05 AM

The US is not an empire, it is a hegemony.

Posted by: Gideon at July 31, 2006 11:44 AM

We are both the new Roman Empire and the new Catholic Church.

Posted by: Bob at July 31, 2006 2:33 PM

The other guys are saps.

Bob: We're Zion.

Gideon: We're a Co-Prosperity Sphere. Really.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 31, 2006 5:24 PM

The shinning city on the hill and I don't mean Oz.

Posted by: erp at August 1, 2006 11:09 AM