III. Expansion and Informal Empire
In Europe as well as the United States, the late 19th century was a period of expansion--a renewed drive for power, colonies, markets.
The Expansionist Rationale
Expansionism was an historic American policy--one might really say a mindset--stretching back to colonial period. But after the 1860s, it shifted in two ways: shift from continental expansion to extracontinental expansion, and from territorial acquisition to the exploitation of markets abroad.
Between 1869 and 1901 the gross national product quadrupled: from $9.1 billion in 1869-1873 to $37.1 billion for 1897-1901. Exports increased more sharply than imports.
$393 million in 1870
$858 million in 1890
$1.4 billion in 1900
By 1898 US exported more than it imported.
Expansionists regarded cultivation of foreign markets as a priority. If unsuccessful, one observer warned, "our surplus will soon roll back from the Atlantic coast upon the interior, and the wheels of prosperity will be clogged by the very richness of the burden which they carry, but cannot deliver." Originally the concern of the private sector, this emphasis on exports became the concern of the Federal government as well after several sharp recessions in the 1880s and 1890s.
The need to secure new markets for American goods provided the rationale for overseas economic expansion, the creation of an “informal empire” to support that expansion, a new battle fleet oriented navy to protect this now-vital commerce, and ultimately a more professional peacetime army to support U.S. interests overseas. The Spanish-American War and Philippine War can be traced directly to the expansionist impulse as can various American interventions in central America and Caribbean.
The United States acquired some outright possessions--Philippines, Puerto Rico, etc.--but largely had an “informal empire” which it has maintained to this day. The term “informal empire” was coined to describe a situation in which the United States could—and did—exert a controlling influence over the political and economic life of many countries in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and East Asia. American armed forces were dispersed worldwide to protect American business interests.
The creation of an informal empire led to powerful new instances of “blowback.” China makes a good example. Initially the United States sought only to have free access to the potentially lucrative China market, but chronic political instability in China induced the U.S. to join with European powers to impose order.
Imagine a situation in which foreign soldiers occupied key ports on the American coast, foreign warships cruised American waters, and foreign governments regarded American sovereignty as a joke. Further, imagine that if a foreign soldier or sailor robbed, raped or killed an American citizen, he would be tried by his government, not in an American court. Such a situation obtained in early 20th century China.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese bitterly resented it.
At this point I showed the class a film clip from
Pebbles. Set in 1926 China, the film depicts the crew of the Navy gunboat
U.S.S. San Pablo caught up in the turmoil of the Chinese revolution. Like
her captain, Lieutenant Collins (Richard Crenna), the crew takes it for granted
that China is essentially a land of “coolies,” incapable of self-government.
Steve McQueen plays Jake Holman, the gunboat’s machinist. In the clip, he and a shore party have arrived at the China Light mission to remove several American missionaries. Here they discover that the head of China Light, Mr. Jameson, is under sentence of death because opium was found growing on mission property. “Mr. Jameson didn’t know about it,” an idealistic young school teacher, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen) tells Holman, “but technically he’s responsible.” Holman wonders why Mr. Jameson couldn’t duck the charge—after all, a Chinese court imposed the sentence—but Mr. Jameson is determined not to be like his fellow Americans. He will respect Chinese law and appeal his case in accordance with its provisions.
At first Mr. Jameson resists the idea of boarding San Pablo. But he learns that the gunboat’s next destination is Chang Sha, where the appeals court is located. Since he’s headed there anyway, and the gunboat is a faster way to travel than overland, he agrees to go with the shore party—still in the custody of a young Nationalist officer.
The shore party returns to San Pablo, but have barely arrived when a Communist mob shows up, chasing Holman’s coolie assistant, Po-han, who had gone ashore. In an attempt to create an incident, they capture Po-han and slash his chest repeatedly with a knife. Lt. Collins resists the provocation and tries unsuccessfully to bargain for Po-han’s freedom. (At one point Holman, almost beside himself, ups the ante himself.) Finally the gunboat’s chief coolie tells the captain that Po-han is screaming for someone to shoot him. Collins refuses: the solution could too easily be twisted into the “murder” of Po-han. But Holman cannot bear his friend’s agony. He grabs a Springfield rifle from a crewmate, adjusts the sight, and kills his friend.
I liked the clip because it put a human face on “blowback.” Holman, like most Americans, is completely apolitical. He just likes making the ship’s engine run, and one of his joys was to teach Po-han the skills of a machinist. But although he wasn’t interested in the politics of empire, those politics were interested in him—and forced him to make a terrible choice.
The gunboat U.S.S. Panay, shown above as
she looked in 1928, was in some respects a real life counterpart of the San
Pablo. This vessel too became caught in the throes of the Chinese
Revolution--and also in the Japanese invasion of China.
Japan was an ally of the United States and Great Britain during World War I and, afterward, a signatory to the Washington Conference which involved, among other things, the issue of maintaining stability in China. Japan relied upon the China market far more compellingly than the United States. When the measured American policy of informal hegemony over China failed to work--and the Great Depression plunged the world into financial crisis--Japan fell into the hands of militarists. In 1931 the new militaristic regime invaded Manchuria. Six years later it manufactured an excuse to invade the rest of China. The Panay, then protecting American business interests on the Yangtze River, came under attack by Japanese war planes. Japan claimed it was an accident, the United States accepted the explanation and reparations, but the Panay incident turned out to be a modest milestone on the road to war between the United States and Japan in 1941.
The Chinese Revolution continued right through
World War II. It lasted until 1949. The United States backed the
Nationalists, and when they lost, the result was a colossal case of "blowback."
America’s grab for a share of the China market had, over time, inadvertently
contributed to the rise to power of a ruthless Communist regime implacably
hostile to the United States.
IV. The Pacifist Critique
A. Looking at the larger context: the aims of power
"Self-defense" can be something of a chimera if the overall thrust of American foreign policy is one of interference in other nations. The avowed policy is simply to maintain world stability and a level playing field for trade, the conduct of international relations, etc., but how well does reality match the rhetoric?
B. The lessons of "blowback"
Military solutions frequently generate more problems than they solve.
C. Nonviolent resistance
Mahatma Gandhi's strategy of nonviolent resistance--satyagraha or "truth force"--offers an alternative worthy of serious consideration. At a minimum, pacifists have generated some of the most penetrating analyses concerning the roots of war, whereas most military historians accept war--the solution of problems by violence--as a given.
At this point I showed the students a film clip from the 1982 film, Gandhi. The clip depicts the 1930 "salt satyagraha," in which Gandhi defied the British government's monopoly on the manufacture of salt--a basic staple of life, and doubly so in a land like India. I liked it for four reasons: first, Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) explains the strategy of satyagraha to an American reporter (Martin Sheen); second, Gandhi draws a direct analogy between satyagraha and a military campaign; third, the scenes vividly illustrate that it is, in every sense, a war--except that one side is using the traditional tactics of violence, and the other is using the revolutionary tactic of nonviolent resistance. Finally, the campaign ends in success.
Skeptics often note that Gandhi's tactics
received a big assist from more traditional efforts by the Indian Congress
Party, and, of course, that he faced the British, not the Nazis, Japanese, or
Soviets. Surely it would be suicide to try nonviolent resistance on such
regimes. Gandhi, however, was convinced that the Hitlers, Tojos, and
Stalins are powerless without the collaboration of ordinary human beings; that
these human beings have a conscience; and that it can be awakened if one is
determined and disciplined enough. In a real sense, Gandhi was every bit
as ruthless as HItler. He might have had his followers walk right up to
the bayonets of an invading Japanese army and let themselves be impaled.
Thousands, even tens of thousands might die, but sooner or later the average
Japanese soldier would refuse to kill any longer.
Gandhi may have had a point. Fifty million perished in the Second World War. More than twice as many have died in the decades since. A massive satyagraha against the Axis might have been as bloody as the war--but it would have transformed the world.
Actually, Gandhi would probably have adopted a less extreme strategy. No occupying power can function without the active collaboration of the occupied. Through general strikes, Gandhi would have made it impossible for the Japanese to govern India effectively. In the end, you can't kill everybody, particularly if your soldiers see--really see--the nature of the people they occupy and thereby the real nature of their own government.
For a very comprehensive guide to Gandhi's
thought, see Mahatma Gandhi: His Life,
Work, and Philosophy.
By the end of the film clip, the activists had arrived. They were part of a "peace camp" established on the Oval of the university campus and included both students and non-students. I cannot say our initial session was much of a success. The activists seemed to regard their job as mainly one of inviting my students to go over to the peace camp rather than offering a well-organized presentation on their opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan. And I didn't coordinate with them beforehand except in the most minimal way. Even then I changed direction at the last moment. My first idea was to focus solely on Thoreau's opposition to the War with Mexico. One activist had dutifully read Civil Disobedience, only to discover that my students had not.
Nevertheless, the activists hinted just enough at their perspective to pique the interest of my students. Having already devoted two hours (out of forty for the whole course) to drawing past and present together, I decided to go for broke and invited the activists to return the next time class met. Meanwhile, my T.A. and I huddled and put together a structured lesson plan. I took it over to the peace camp and discussed it face to face with the contact person for the next class.
V. Seeing the Big Picture: The Art of Net Assessment
From what I could judge of the initial session, the activists' opposition to the bombing stemmed less from principled pacifism than a Noam Chomsky-like critique of American foreign policy. They seemed to have three basic points: first, a bombing campaign was more likely to exacerbate than quell the danger of further terrorist attacks; second, the power elite's commitment to "globalization" had for years been creating monsters like bin Laden and desperately unhappy people willing to commit mass murder and die in the process; and finally, the decision to go after bin Laden by removing the Taliban regime might be less certain a method of dismantling Al-Qaeda than of giving the United States greater influence over a region of the world in which considerable oil reserves are believed to exist--that is, the former Soviet republics immediately north of Afghanistan.
One may be skeptical about any or all of these
points. But as regards a military history course, the important thing is
that the peace activists were employing a concept known as net assessment.
I first encountered the term as a graduate student back in 1989. Two of my
professors, Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, had begun to interact with
Andrew Marshall, then (and still) director of the Pentagon's Office of Net
Assessment. Marshall invented the term and the concept while an analyst at
the RAND Corporation.
In its broadest meaning, net assessment is rather
uncomplicated. It is, as Williamson Murray and Barry Watts have pointed out, "a
systematic approach to answering the question: How do the military capabilities
of the two contending powers stack up relative to one another?" While it may
take, as a point of departure, such traditional measures of military power as
numbers of men, ships, cannon, etc., true net assessment goes far beyond such
"bean counting" and deals with more subtle and (usually) less quantifiable
factors -- levels of training and readiness; geographical position; political
will -- in short, anything that could influence relative military capabilities.
Net assessment amounts to an attempt to determine ahead of time who would
prevail in an armed encounter at a given place and time and over a given set of
(As part of a graduate course taken at the time, I wrote a paper entitled Net Assessment During the Trent Affair, which, because it deals with a Civil War topic, I mention here.)
Profs. Millett and Murray eventually produced a volume of essays entitled Calculations: Net Assessment and the Coming of World War II. It dealt with how the major powers had sized up the international situation, their probable antagonists, and so on. Obviously some of the major powers' answers were very much mistaken, often because they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the opposing regime.
Net assessment fundamentally hinges on
assumptions about how the world works. What drives the train?
Economics? Culture? A naked will to power? Whatever the
answer, war does not operate in a vacuum. It is conducted on behalf of those who
wield the most power within a society. It's therefore important to develop a
coherent world view concerning who has that power and what they want to do with
it. Such a world view fundamentally conditions one's understanding of the causes
of war, the legitimacy of solving problems through violence, whether
nation-states alone possess the right to use lethal force, and so on.
Well, okay. Within the United States, who wields the most power, and for what purposes?
To begin with, there's the "American Creed" perspective: America is a land of opportunity in which anyone can become wealthy, so no meaningful class structure exists. The widespread opportunity to vote and run for public office, coupled with fact that Americans are mostly middle class, means that the political structure is primarily responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans.
Counterbalancing that is the New Left perspective, which emphasizes the existence of a "power elite" composed of the wealthiest Americans, particularly those who control large corporations. The key assumption is that the political structure is overwhelmingly in the service of this group, and also that the interests of this group do not coincide with the interests of most Americans.
One of the activists presented a succinct description of the peace camp perspective, which corresponded closely with the ideas of Noam Chomsky. The students then had the same amount of time in which to offer their own views about how American society really works. To my surprise, they largely seemed to agree with the activist. They differed primarily in two respects: first, they felt no sense of indignation that American democracy is a sham; second, they saw no alternative. My distinct impression was that everything was pretty much okay as long as they had their MTV. (The thoughtful feedback I've received since has led me to a more hopeful impression.)
Assuming the New Left is correct, why do those with less power (or no power) accept the status quo? The ideas of Chomsky provide one answer, but so does the concept of cultural hegemony, made famous by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
A Practical Exercise
In the second hour of the class, students broke up into four discussion
groups, each operating from a different world view. The linked handouts
below supplied context.
Group 1: Bush Administration (realpolitik)
Group 2: Bush Administration (idealist)
Group 3: Al Qaeda
Group 4: Indonesian Nike Factory Workers