An Anti-Imperialist’s Reading List: Part Two

This timeless article first appeared on February 20, 2001.


With the ritual bombing of Iraq taking on symbolic importance as the first foreign policy act of any incoming US administration, it is astounding that our wonderful “free press” can never bothered to admit, much less discuss, the joys and sorrows of empire. World War II left the United States unscathed – other than by big government – with the lowest proportional casualty figures of any major participant. Ours was the only fully-functioning economy in the world. Our cities were unbombed. It would have been possible to demobilize after victory, but that is the last thing anyone should expect a rising world power to do. Soviet creation of a tier of friendly states on its western frontier seemed to bespeak one of those long-standing “plans to conquer the world,” of which we sometimes hear, but in fact stemmed logically from the results of the late war.

The US leadership chose to read Soviet policy as a cosmic challenge of life-and-death proportions, rather than negotiate solutions along the lines of the neutralization of Austria in 1953. D.F. Fleming’s The Cold War and Its Origins, 2 vol. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961) is very detailed and, therefore, useful on the critical period, 1945-1947, before Stalin made his final decision to impose one-party Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. What hung in the balance was whether Eastern Europe would be “Finlandized” or Stalinized. On the face of it, the former seems preferable, but US pressure arguably forced Stalin’s hand. This has nothing to do with believing that Stalin was anything but a totalitarian monster, but much to do with whether or not one believes it was useful for American leaders to overplay their hand when they had no intention of going to war over their demands. Cynical US encouragement of Hungarian rebels in 1956 – rebels whom US authorities had no intention of actually helping – seems a case in point. Fleming’s account suffers from his neo-Wilsonian preconceptions and his view that Stalin was significantly better than the defeated Hitler. I repeat: the critique of the Cold War does not depend on certifying Stalin as a nice man and, anyway, Stalin did not live forever. The critique of the Cold War rests on whether or not it was in fact essential for the safety and freedom of the American people, the only constituents in whose name US officials ought ever to have acted. Those like Hubert Humphrey, who wrote that “the cause is mankind,” ought perhaps to have removed themselves to Geneva.

US leaders’ overriding programmatic goals were formed in the years after 1898. The means for realizing their goal of world mercantilist empire were debated and underwent modification between 1898 and 1945. The program itself remained intact. US leaders would have pursued their program, had there been no Soviet Union standing between them and markets to which they believed themselves entitled. On such issues, see William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: Delta, 1972), Walter LaFeber, American, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1975 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976), and Thomas G. Patterson, ed., Cold War Critics: Alternatives to American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1971).

Charles Mee, Meeting at Potsdam (New York: M. Evans, 1975) deals with the postwar division of Germany, treating such matters as reparations, Allied administration of Germany by zones, and US use of the atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. He ties these into an account consistent with the independent existence of non-negotiable US goals which were bound to stir up trouble with Russia, no matter who was running that country. John Lukacs’ A New History of the Cold War (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966) is essential reading. Lukacs, a Hungarian historian who became an American citizen, airs surprisingly critical views of the Cold War from a unique conservative perspective. His discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, is at some variance with the received version.


Charles Mee notes that Truman’s policy was inherently interventionist. The voters returned a Republican House of Representatives in 1946, showing that Americans were ready for release from wartime controls and global crusading. Faced with domestic resistance to his plans, Truman ratcheted up the rhetoric of the Soviet/Communist threat, thereby distorting internal US politics for two generations while providing a handy ideological cover for what remained, to all intents and purposes, continued pursuit of Open Door Empire.

Not everyone went along. The transformation of the Right from “isolationism” to unrestrained intervention took a few years. In the meantime, Senator Robert Taft’s A Foreign Policy for Americans (New York: Doubleday, 1951) called for a very restrained foreign policy, one which fell far short of what Republican internationalists wanted. The “northern agrarian” Louis Bromfield made a very bitter attack on the Cold War in A New Pattern for a Tired World (London: Cassell & Company, 1954), did Garet Garrett in The People’s Pottage (Boston: Western Islands, 1965), the Old Right journalist’s classic essays from the early 1950s. Historian Justus D. Doenecke’s Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1979) treats the Old Right’s rearguard action against Cold War interventionism in detail.


Our old friend, the Bomb, was a brooding presence throughout the High Cold War, along with the various insane rationales for using it. Annihilationist “strategy” became a growth industry in military-industrial-university thinktanks. Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Vintage Books, 1977) is very useful on the genesis and use of the bomb. Strong criticisms of the whole syndrome can be found in E.P. Thompson, The Heavy Dancers: Writings on War, Past and Future (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) and George F. Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1983).


With the Bomb perhaps making major war unappealing, Cold Warriors found plenty of harm to do on a smaller scale. I leave to one side the Korean War – the partial exception to US avoidance of major war – for possible future treatment. Noam Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), At War With Asia (New York: Pantheon, 1970), and For Reasons of State (New York: Vintage Books, 1973) take aim at the foreign policy of the forward-looking Cold War liberals. Richard J. Barnet’s Intervention and Revolution: The United States in the Third World (New York: New American Library, 1968) and Roots of War: The Men and Institutions Behind U.S. Foreign Policy (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973) seek to ground US imperialism historically and theoretically, while Jonathan Kwitney’s Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World (New York: Congdon and Weed, 1984) is a journalist’s view of the same matters. There is, of course, a vast literature on these matters, of which these works are only a sample.


For the relationship between war and state power at home, see Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1994). Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987) kicked off a fierce debate, when it first came out, about the outlook for the US empire. Who actually “won” the debate is far from clear. As always, Murray N. Rothbard, “War, Peace, and the State” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), pp. 115-132, is an excellent introduction in how to think about these matters.


For the part played by the vaunted American free press in promoting interventionist policies abroad, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988); for the same process at work in domestic policy, see Benjamin Ginsberg, The Captive Public: How Mass Opinion Promotes State Power (New York: Basic Books, 1986).


The free press, indeed. Friday, I think it was, I was watching one of our heroic networks on the latest bombing. The announcer said something like, “Iraqi officials SAID [obligatory sneer] that several civilians were injured.” The accompanying film clip showed someone who did, indeed, appear to be a child, carried on what appeared to be a stretcher, towards what appeared to be an ambulance. My question: Why show the damned film at all, then? Perhaps Saddam Hussein has a special cadre of actors, who portray imaginary victims of US bombing as needed. Alternatively, if US networks must show the film, can they perhaps refrain from lecturing us on the nature of what we are seeing? On the face of it, it seems to speak for itself. We are looking at the joys and sorrows of unacknowledged Empire.

Well, the honeymoon could not last. I only hope that W does not give us reason to wish Al Gore was in office. I doubt that is possible, but then history is not a predictive science.