An Anti-Imperialist’s Reading List: Part One

This timeless article first appeared on January 30, 2001.


I thought that this week I would sketch out a reading list for those wishing to pursue the themes dealt with in this column and at generally. Some of the works listed are popular, some are scholarly, but all contribute to building the framework needed if we are to gain a critical understanding of how these things – “war, peace, and the state” – work and have worked down the years. The framework is a Rothbardian one: wars are not sealed off from domestic politics, the ambitions of state bureaucrats, economic life and motives, and ideological currents.


We may start with William Appleman Williams’s provocative The Contours of American History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1973), immediately supplementing it with Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.’s The Decline of American Liberalism (New York: Atheneum, 1969), which provides a classical liberal alternative to Williams’s socialism. From a “Neo-Republican” standpoint comes the caustic but realistic Walter Karp, The Politics of War (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), which shows how we were lied into the Spanish-American War and World War I.


Dropping back in time, I recommend Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago: Open Court, 1996) for an important part of the story of how the US state apparatus consolidated its rule over a huge expanse of territory. Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963) is a useful study of US absorption of North America. John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, 2d ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999), to which I am a contributor, provides a sweeping overview of US wars from 1861 to World War II. Don’t read the “civil war” chapters, if you think you may be tapped for Bush’s cabinet.


Now we come to 1898 and the Spanish-American War, the birthdate of the empire in its international sense. There are many useful works, including William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: Dell, 1962), Thomas McCormick, The China Market: America’s Quest for Informal Empire, 1893-1901 (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1967), Lloyd C. Gardner, A Different Frontier: Selected Readings in the Foundations of American Economic Expansion (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1966), Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), and (that redoubtable Marxist) Philip S. Foner, The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, 1895-1898, 2 vol. (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1972). These spell out the neo-mercantilist logic embraced by the early builders of US global dominance.

For the critics, see Robert L. Beisner, Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968) and – a contemporary critic of Teddy and the gang – William Graham Sumner, War and Other Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914). For the soon-to-be-usual atrocities, see Stuart Creighton Miller, Benevolent Assimilation: American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).


For US entry into the pointless exercise called World War I, see Walter Millis, The Road to War, America 1914-1917 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), Charles C. Tansill, America Goes to War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), the second half of Karp, The Politics of War, and Ralph Raico “World War I: The Turning Point” in Denson, ed., Costs of War, pp. 203-247. For two “right-wingers” who didn’t love the Military-Industrial Complex, you can read H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1934). Arno Mayer, Wilson vs. Lenin: Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917-1918 (New York: Meridian Books, 1964) puts Wilson’s world-saving/imperialist program in its context, and Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999) argues that Britain should have stayed out of the damned war.


The sorry legacy of World War I led to American disillusionment with Wilson’s policies. Critical literature on war flourished and a serious antiwar movement became possible. Charles A. Beard, Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels (New York: Macmillan, 1939) and A Foreign Policy for America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940) are two good examples, along with John T. Flynn, Country Squire in the White House (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940). Murray N. Rothbard, “The New Deal and the International Monetary System” in Leonard P. Liggio and James J. Martin, eds., Watershed of Empire (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1976), pp. 19-64, uncovers some of the mercantilist reasons why the New Dealers decided to go to war as early as 1937. (Pearl Harbor was merely an “occasion” for them.) Rothbard’s essay also shows how economic analysis can be useful for more than just Alan Greenspan’s circus act.

Establishment historians have treated opponents of US entry into World War II rather badly. Two who don’t are Wayne Cole, America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940-1941 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953) and Manfred Jonas, Isolationism in America, 1935-1941 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966). Michele Flynn Stenehjem, An American First: John T. Flynn and the America First Committee (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1976) is a defense of Flynn and the AFC. Thomas E. Mahl, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-1944 (Washington: Brassey’s, 1998) exposes the role of British intelligence (oxymoron alert) in bringing America into World War II, while James J. Martin, American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931-1941, 2 vols (New York: Devi-Adair, 1964) examines the conversion of prominent Liberals from antimilitarist skepticism to all-out intervention. Rounding out the ideological front, Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Burlingame, Ca.: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993) threads through doctrinal battles from the 1930s into the 1950s – and beyond.


For general critiques of FDR’s foreign policy, not to mention his honesty, we have Harry Elmer Barnes, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1953), George Morgenstern, Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War (New York: Devin-Adair, 1947), Charles C. Tansill, Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933-1941 (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952), and William L. Neumann, America Encounters Japan: From Perry to MacArthur (New York: Harper & Row, 1963)

Other critical accounts of World War II include Bruce M. Russett, No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States’ Entry into World War II (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) and A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Premier Books [Fawcett World Library], 1961[1965]). To relive the “atmosphere” of the One Good War, I suggest John T. Flynn, As We Go Marching (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1944), who thought he saw a US variant of fascism emerging from the war effort, and Dwight MacDonald, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (New York: Meridian Books, 1958). (The latter is worth reading, just for the description of the odious Max Lerner – macho war correspondent – lecturing shell-shocked German peasants on their personal responsibility for the war!)

From the Left and Right respectively, Gabriel Kolko, The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) John Charmley, Churchill’s Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship, 1940-1957 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995) both note that a central feature of FDR’s foreign policy was easing the British out of their imperial assets, such as oil fields, and getting them into the hands of US companies. In David Horowitz, ed., Corporations and Cold War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), you can find good essays by William Appleman Williams, Lloyd C. Gardner, and David W. Eakins on wartime planning for postwar economic empire; these essays supplement those in Liggio and Martin, eds., Watershed of Empire.


Well, there’s enough reading to keep anyone busy if boredom sets in during the next set of Congressional confirmation hearings. If I have left anything of earth-shattering consequence out, I shall try making it good in Part II, where we learn the secrets of the Cold War and other disturbing bedtime stories. And, yes, I know there’s a lot of new literature on Pearl Harbor. But that’s another whole column.