From Republic to Empire

In the words of Murray Rothbard, America was a nation conceived in liberty. Unfortunately, the United States that exists today has not lived up to that heritage.

In this series, we look at America’s transformation from republic to empire and the consequences of Washington’s conquests abroad on the country at home.

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In January 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, which urged colonists to declare independence from the British Empire. In the introduction, Paine wrote:

“The Cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword [and] declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling.”

Paine’s prediction proved correct. The American Revolution would continue to inspire anti-imperialist movements well into the twentieth century. But to understand America’s revolt against empire, we must first ask what an empire is.

Above all else, empires are expansionist, continually aiming to extend their boundaries. It took only two years after the first English settlement in North America for the king to claim dominion over the entire continent.

Empires are territorial. When competing empires claim sovereignty over the same area, they wage war to settle boundary disputes. Thousands of colonists died defending Britain’s territorial claims in America, which Paine saw as an indictment of empire. “Let Britain wave her pretensions to the continent,” he argued. “We should be at peace with France and Spain.”

Empires are also centralized. The British Empire stretched across the globe, but the laws governing these distant territories were decided by political elites in London. These policies included a centralized economic system known as mercantilism, which required all foreign trade to flow through England so the Crown could collect customs revenues.

In Common Sense, Paine recognized how centralized authority replaced commerce with conflict. “Europe is our market for trade,” he wrote, but “submission to Great Britain, tends directly to involve [America] in wars with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship.”

Finally, empires—like all governments—are coercive. By the 1770s, Americans could not escape the violent reality behind Britain’s efforts to compel their submission. Paine concluded his call for independence by proclaiming that “All subjection to Britain ought to have ceased” after colonists witnessed “the violence done to our persons; [and] the destruction of our property by an armed force.”

After waking up to the dangers of an expansionist, territorial, centralized, and coercive government, Americans became convinced that the greatest threat to liberty was the instrument of imperial control: a permanent, professionalized military. To understand how the United States started down its own path toward empire, we must look first to how certain political leaders overcame America’s fear of standing armies.

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In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson condemned King George for keeping standing armies in the colonies during times of peace. Writing in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson understood that militaries were sometimes necessary to defend against foreign invasion—but Britain’s crime was in maintaining a standing army.

A standing army is a perpetual military force consisting of professional, salaried soldiers.

For most of history, standing armies were unique to empires. After the Fall of Rome, Western Europe went centuries without standing armies. In 1776, the British army was less than a century old. After the Seven Years’ War, Britain decided to maintain a military presence in North America, and since the army protected the colonists, they should pay for it.

To Americans, this was essentially a protection racket. Imagine Britain as the mafia, and the colonies as neighborhood businesses. In protection rackets, mobsters promise protection against robbery and vandalism for a fee. But if anybody refuses to pay, the mobsters ransack the store to extort payment from the owner.

This is how colonists saw the British military. Boston was like the business owner who refused to be extorted, so Britain used their military to make an example of city. Occupying soldiers killed civilians, forced their way into private homes, and blocked commerce.

This is the context for James Madison’s statement that “The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”

Costa Rica learned this lesson in the twentieth century. Upon ousting their military-backed communist regime in 1948, they constitutionally abolished standing armies and have since enjoyed the safest and most politically stable country in Central America.

Yet the United States controls the world’s most powerful military. So what changed?

In 1786, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays led an armed protest against oppressive taxes. The Articles of Confederation left the federal government powerless against the rebellion, which was suppressed by state militias.

Shays’ Rebellion provided the impetus for the constitutional convention. Madison warned that armies maintained “under the pretext of defending” invariably “enslaved the people,” but Federalists were more afraid of insurrection. The new constitution struck a compromise: Congress could raise an army funded for two years.

Hamilton defended the compromise by pointing to the West. He endorsed keeping “a permanent corps in the pay of the government” garrisoned on the “Western frontier.” A standing army provided the tool that made imperialism possible, but it was in the West that the American Empire was born.

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In 1845, John O’Sullivan asserted “the right of [America’s] manifest destiny to possess the whole continent for the great experiment of liberty.”

Manifest Destiny is the phrase most associated with America’s conquest of the West. In historical context, it referred to the belief that American’s were destined by God to govern the entire continent, including Canada, Mexico, and beyond.

At the country’s founding, Alexander Hamilton wanted to acquire Louisiana to “secure to the United States the key to the Western country,” and “regretted that the preparation of an adequate military force does not advance more rapidly.”

Even Thomas Jefferson wanted to send troops to the frontier to “add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile country.” As president, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory, despite his conviction that he was violating the constitution.

By adding nearly one million square miles to the nation’s boundaries, the Louisiana Purchase revealed the first characteristic of empire: expansionism. The U.S. similarly purchased Oregon in 1846 and Alaska in 1867, reflecting the imperial characteristic of centralization. In its century as a territory, Alaskan governance was decided by politicians 3,700 miles away—that’s five hundred miles farther than London is from Boston.

Western expansion was also territorial and coercive. America’s Annexation of Texas instigated the Mexican War, a boundary dispute that cost upwards of 38,000 lives, but resulted in the acquisition of territory far beyond the Texas borders.

The war also helped consolidate the national standing army, which provided the impetus for aggressive diplomacy toward the Indians. Early western settlers frequently traded peacefully with Indians, but as the U.S. army took over Indian relations, frontier warfare intensified.

Manifest Destiny is not confined to western expansion. The core concept is the belief that a nation is morally obligated to forcefully spread its superior culture, and this has been repackaged to justify imperial warfare throughout history.

In theocratic societies, it took the form of Holy Wars, such as Crusades and Jihads. In the U.S., Manifest Destiny has traditionally expressed political ideals, such as Jefferson’s dream of an Empire of Liberty and Woodrow Wilson’s promise to “keep the world safe for democracy.”

In 1899, British writer Rudyard Kipling characterized Manifest Destiny as “The White Man’s Burden.” This was his title for a poem intended to encourage Americans to join European Empires in spreading western civilization across the ocean. Kipling published the poem in the aftermath of a conflict that marked the beginning of America’s overseas empire: the Spanish-American War.

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“I would welcome almost any war,” Teddy Roosevelt confided to a friend in 1897, “for I think this country needs one.”

Roosevelt believed Americans were becoming spoiled by peace and prosperity. “No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war,” he insisted. “The fight well fought [and] death bravely met count for more in building a fine type of temper in a nation than prosperity in commerce.”

Roosevelt celebrated the conquest of the West, but victory was bittersweet. Frontier warfare had shaped the national character, and Roosevelt worried it would be destroyed by modern luxuries. But when he read Alfred Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Roosevelt found a new frontier.

Mahan’s book argued that national wealth depended on overseas trade. Great nations, therefore, required vast navies with overseas supply stations. The US had traditionally docked ships in friendly ports, but in the event of war, the country would need to control strategic locations overseas.

When Spain’s colonies began revolting, Roosevelt convinced President William McKinley to station the USS Maine near Cuba to protect American interests. After an explosion left 268 sailors dead, Roosevelt blamed Spanish treachery. Sensationalist newspapers spread his narrative, spurring support for war until McKinley relented. The four-month conflict ended with America acquiring the Spain’s colonies, of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, as spoils of victory.

The Spanish-American War was a contest between two empires and began with colonial uprisings. Yet in a way, all parties fought for the same cause.

The nineteenth century was shaped by the emergence of a new ideology known as nationalism. A nation is a group of people with a common cultural identity, usually based on shared language, beliefs, and heritage. Nationalism contends that the nation should correspond with the state—the centralized political organization of territory.

Nation-states began to gradually replace empires as colonies demanded independence. But political leaders often view independence movements as threats to national unity. Cuban and Spanish nationalism clashed over Cuban secession.

A similar sentiment motivated America’s involvement in the war. Proponents saw its potential in uniting a nation that had remained divided since the Civil War. They invoked cherished American values, promising liberty for Spain’s colonies—a promise they quickly broke.

Just as modern US maps reserve the left corner for Alaska and Hawaii, early twentieth-century maps depicted America’s overseas territories, such as Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. One book of maps claimed, “The term ‘United States’ has ceased to be an accurate description of the countries over which the Stars and Stripes float. It applies merely to the central dominating body, the seat of empire.”

The Spanish-American War made the US an empire by any definition. And just as medieval empires allied with the corporate church, America’s national empire would ally with modern business corporations.

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“War is a racket,” Smedley Butler wrote in 1935. “It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Smedley Butler spent thirty-three years in the marines, attaining the rank of major general. By the time of his death, he was the most decorated marine in history. 

Yet Butler became one of America’s most vocal anti-imperialists. He spent much of his career in Latin America, where his experiences left him convinced that war served the interests of corporations, while soldiers and taxpayers shouldered the costs. 

To understand US intervention in Latin America, we first have to look at how America’s foreign policy shifted after the Spanish-American War. 

Faced with the decision of what to do with Cuba, the US granted Cuba limited autonomy on the condition America would be able to “intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence.” In 1904, President Teddy Roosevelt extended this policy to all Latin American countries. In other words, under the guise of protecting Latin America’s independence, the US government claimed the right to military intervention in the region. 

Roosevelt announced his policy in 1904, retroactively justifying military actions already underway. A year earlier, the military had ordered Smedley Butler to Honduras to quell civil unrest. This began his participation in the Latin American conflicts known as the banana wars.

In 1899, American businessman Minor Keith established the United Fruit Company, which survives today as Chiquita. Keith wanted to expand his banana export business, as bananas had proven immensely popular in the US after their introduction in 1870.

In exchange for land, United Fruit partnered with Central American governments to build infrastructure, but the company quickly faced competition from other American exporters, such as Cuyamel and Standard Fruit. The companies backed rival politicians, exacerbating domestic unrest in the countries they operated in, which became known as banana republics.

This is the context behind Butler’s statement that he “helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903.” Witnessing the military protect corporate interests, Butler blamed capitalism, but he was actually railing against corporatism

Under capitalism, both profits and losses are privatized, but corporatism socializes losses. Butler acknowledged that taxpayers and soldiers bore the costs of the wars that corporations profited from. 

This public-private partnership is similar to the medieval alliance of throne and altar, in which the pope anointed monarchs, legitimizing their rule, and monarchs protected the Catholic Church’s religious monopoly. Today, many politicians similarly support corporate privileges in exchange for political support, which can include military intervention that benefits multinational companies. 

But wars also depend on popular support, and in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson would create the first federal agency to create and distribute wartime propaganda.

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During World War I, Randolph Bourne described war as “the health of the state,” observing that “the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal.”

The war opened in 1914, and most Americans wanted no part in it. Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection slogan was “He Kept Us Out of War,” which proved instrumental to his victory. Yet he secretly wanted to join the fight, and within months of winning the election, Wilson convinced Congress to declare war on Germany.

As a Progressive, Wilson believed social problems should be solved by a strong, centralized, and active state. The consolidation of state power is most easily secured during war, and Bourne saw this in Wilson’s use of wartime propaganda.

“Propaganda” refers to the biased presentation of information to build support for a political agenda by eliciting an emotional response. Wilson made propaganda a state function, establishing a propaganda department—the Committee on Public Information—headed by George Creel. “It was Creel’s idea,” claimed Wilson’s war secretary, “to have, in lieu of a Committee on Censorship, a Committee on Public Information for the production and dissemination of the truth about the war.”

In reality, the agency helped suppress antiwar literature, but its primary function was the creation of propaganda using modern marketing techniques. The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of professional advertising firms whose ads targeted consumer psychology by emphasizing imagery and narrative, rather than product information and price.

Pictorial advertisements presented idealized images of the consumer and introduced the earliest brand mascots, such as the Quaker Oats man and Mr. Peanut, shortly prior to World War I. The Committee on Public Information copied these tactics. Enlistment posters featured heroic depictions of soldiers and monstrous representations of the enemy. Most famous, however, is the poster of Uncle Sam saying, “I want YOU for the U.S. army,” establishing America’s brand mascot.

Narrative advertisements appealed to consumer emotions. Prewar ads emphasized progress and modernity. The Natural Food Company, for example, promoted the first snack “baked by electricity,” which they called “electric biscuits,” or “Triscuits.”

But wartime propaganda introduced new themes, such as patriotism. The slogan “Save the Wheat and Help the Fleet,” made rationing a way to support the troops. War bonds were marketed as “Liberty Loans,” with posters that encouraged citizens to buy them by asking, “Are you 100% American? Prove it.” In contrast, fabricated accounts of German brutality invoked fear and outrage.

The Committee on Public Information was dissolved after the war, but its propaganda techniques were utilized and adapted to new mediums during World War II. In the 1940s, wartime propaganda not only encouraged support for the war, but also for the growing connection between the state and industry, which President Dwight Eisenhower dubbed the “military-industrial complex.”

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Shortly after becoming president, Dwight Eisenhower claimed that “every gun made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies theft from those who hunger and are not fed, are cold and not clothed.”

Eight years later, Eisenhower warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex,” which he defined as the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”

In the 1930s, Smedley Butler explained how the military subsidized private companies, but it wasn’t until the Second World War, Eisenhower noted, that America developed “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

So how did this come about?

After Germany invaded Poland, President Franklin Roosevelt convinced Congress to approve his cash-and-carry program to sell arms to France and Britain. The following year, he replaced cash and carry with Lend-Lease, which “loaned” weapons to cash-strapped allies. Lend-Lease established the precedent of American subsidization of foreign armies.

Upon joining the war in 1941, the US government urged patriots to enlist in the “battle for production.” Propaganda reminded Americans that “production wins wars,” and heroic images of factory workers likened weapons manufacturing to military service.

FDR’s wartime policies mirrored his earlier New Deal, based on the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes. During recessions, Keynes believed, governments should stimulate demand by printing money to spend on public works. FDR applied this formula to his New Deal programs, but after nine years, the economy remained in shambles.

The war allowed FDR to shift to what’s known as military Keynesianism. Because inflationary military spending artificially boosts GDP (gross domestic product) and military enlistment reduces unemployment, military Keynesianism produced the wartime prosperity myth. Many people believe the war ended the Great Depression, despite the country’s facing shortages of basic goods, such as sugar and butter.

Eisenhower understood the problem. “The cost of one modern heavy bomber,” he said, could pay for thirty schools, two power plants, two hospitals, fifty miles of highway, or half a million bushels of wheat. But the arms industry had become a fixture of the American economy. In an early draft of his farewell address, Eisenhower described this as the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”

Political scientists call this the iron triangle of connected interests. Congress passes legislation to benefit an interest group—military contractors—in return for political support. The interest group lobbies Congress on behalf of a bureaucracy—the military establishment—in exchange for special treatment. And the bureaucracy received significant increases in its own funding to administer federal policy. This dynamic has resulted in annual military expenditures of $800 billion—that’s more than the next nine largest military budgets combined.

The military-industrial complex made America the de facto arms dealer for the world, and the US military presence grew to having seven hundred military bases across eighty countries. The military-industrial complex also allowed America to fight a new kind of war by funneling weapons to foreign soldiers to fight what are known as proxy wars.

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In February 1946, George Kennan sent a telegram to the State Department that painted a foreboding picture of the Soviet Union. “We have here a political force,” Kennan wrote, “committed fanatically to the belief that it is necessary that the internal harmony of [American] society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, [and] the international authority of our state be broken.”

A subsequent State Department report urged the federal government to “resist vigorously [Soviet] efforts to expand into areas vital to American security.” The report called on America to “assist all democratic countries endangered by the U.S.S.R.”

President Harry Truman implemented these recommendations in his containment policy, based on what become known as the domino theory. The theory posited, the fall of a single state to communism would precipitate the fall of surrounding countries like a row of dominoes. The US, therefore, needed to contain communism by supporting non-Communist governments economically and militarily.

The contest between the American and Soviet empires is called the Cold War because instead of fighting directly, the states waged proxy wars in other countries. The key battlegrounds were economically undeveloped regions, dubbed the “Third World”—the First World being Western democracies and the Second World being Communist dictatorships.

The American and Soviet governments supplied weapons to opposing sides in Third World conflicts, vying to install puppet governments. The Cold War seemed to usher in a new type of imperialism, but it actually resurrected the ancient formula of the Persian Empire, which installed pliant local governors, known as satraps, to provide the illusion of autonomy in conquered provinces.

The newly established CIA orchestrated regime changes in dozens of countries, often installing brutal dictators such as the Shah of Iran and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. The strategy backfired constantly. American-backed dictators commonly faced coups and assassinations, and their oppressive policies seemed to confirm Soviet critiques of America, even though Soviet-backed dictators were no less brutal.

Instead of containing communism, proxy wars exacerbated Third World conflicts. Some even escalated enough to draw the American military into combat. For example, the US originally supplied weapons to the French military in Vietnam. After France was driven out, President John Kennedy sent equipment and troops to train the anti-communist forces in the south. Within a few years, American soldiers were fighting directly.

The Vietnam War spanned three presidential administrations, expanded into Laos and Cambodia, and resulted in the deaths of 58,000 Americans and millions of Southeast Asians. It was also America’s first military defeat, as Communists took power in all three countries. Yet to the surprise of foreign policy experts, no other dominoes toppled.

The Cold War ended in 1991, securing America’s global hegemony. Proxy warfare continued, but with Russia’s “evil empire” defeated, America lacked a unifying enemy. This changed in 2001, when George W. Bush declared war against terror.

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In 1996, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan penned an op-ed warning that “without a broad, sustaining foreign policy vision, the American people will be inclined to withdraw from the world and will lose sight of their abiding interest in vigorous world leadership.”

After winning the Cold War, the US became the world’s unrivaled superpower. But without the Evil Empire, America no longer had a unified foreign policy for its many interventions abroad. What would America’s role be in the post–Cold War world? Kristol and Kagan’s answer was “benevolent global hegemony.”

The pair founded “the Project for the New American Century” to promote “American global leadership.” In 2000, the organization published a report outlining its proposed foreign policy. “The process of transformation,” the report claimed, “is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.”

Such an event came the following year, on September 11. Five days later, President George W. Bush announced the global war on terror.

In the decade between the Cold War and the war on terror, the US remained actively involved in foreign affairs, but politicians no longer had a single narrative connecting the various operations around the globe. Each new intervention—in Iraq, Bosnia, Zaire, Somalia, and elsewhere—required individual justification and carried distinct political liabilities.

Conservatives capitalized on this dilemma during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Senator John McCain condemned Clinton for failing to provide “a conceptual framework to shape the world going into the next century.” The problem was not that the US was intervening abroad, but that it lacked the direction of a unified policy.

The war on terror provided the solution. US conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, and Somalia became battles in a single war. President Bush indicated as much in 2003: “The battle of Iraq,” he said, “is one victory in a war on terror.”

The war on terror introduced a new kind of enemy—one with no public face, no territorial boundaries, and no representative government. Like the fight against communism, this was a war against a concept, this time without a tangible enemy in the Soviet Union. Because concepts cannot be killed, can never surrender, and are not confined by nation-state boundaries, the war on terror has become America’s most enduring conflict, spread across multiple countries, with no apparent avenue to victory.

Like the mythological hydra, which replaced one lost head with two more, new terrorist organizations have emerged for each one defeated in the war on terror. In 2001, there were thirteen known Islamic terrorist groups; by 2015, there were forty-four. In this way, terrorism has provided the perfect enemy for America’s global empire.

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