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How a Desire for Profit Led to the Invention of Race: Eric Foner Reviews The Dominion of War by Anderson and Cayton

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After the subjugation of the Philippines, the American empire gave up territorial conquest. Economic penetration coupled with sporadic military intervention replaced long-term direct rule as the favoured mechanism for exerting American power. Nonetheless, the American empire was hardly benign or devoted to liberty. Woodrow Wilson spoke of bringing the virtues of democracy and self-determination to the world, but during his presidency, US armies occupied areas of Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua and Cuba. The aim was to protect American political hegemony and commercial interests, but the rhetoric was that of freedom. These aims, and this rhetoric, persist today on a global scale.

In an age of overspecialisation among historians, it is refreshing to encounter a work that sweeps over five centuries of American history, especially one that is readable, well researched and informed by a coherent theme and strong point of view. But in some ways, The Dominion of War is disappointing. For one thing, its structure is at odds with its argument. Biography is not the best vehicle for examining the large issues with which the book grapples. The choice of subjects is limited and sometimes difficult to understand: why only MacArthur and, in a brief epilogue, Colin Powell from the 20th century, and why Santa Anna at all? The biographical details are revealing but often seem unrelated to the book's broad themes. How crucial to the history of empire are Washington's preoccupation with order, Jackson's sense of honour, Santa Anna's womanising or MacArthur's relentless ambition? The biographies stress individual decision-making and the unintended consequences of events. British victory in the Seven Years War produced the American Revolution; territorial acquisition from Mexico sparked the sectional controversy that led to the Civil War. But the authors' emphasis on "highly contingent events' leaves the reader wondering whether empire is intrinsic to the American experience or the accidental outcome of individual idiosyncrasies.

"What makes a book good is what you leave out,' John Garraty once remarked. Obviously, selection is crucial in a work that tries to cover five centuries. But in this case, too much has been left out of the story, especially once the book reaches the 20th century, when the US acted most forcefully as an empire on the world stage. War, moreover, was not the only catalyst of overseas empire. The book ignores empire's internal roots the quest for markets for America's ever-expanding industrial production, the need for raw materials, the desire for places to invest capital. There is almost nothing about culture and ideology as sources of imperial power. In general, the US is treated as an undifferentiated imperial unit, expanding first on the North American continent and then internationally, with little attention to internal divisions, including divisions over the wisdom and morality of empire itself.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is any consideration of the centrality of slavery to the first 250 years of the American experience. The authors seem to view slavery as little more than an obstacle to the national unity necessary for the full realisation of the country's imperial ambitions. But colonial America was part of a slave-based empire. After independence, slavery spurred expansionism and gave American nationality a distinct racial cast. African-Americans are almost entirely absent from this story at least until the final pages, when Colin Powell makes a brief appearance to illustrate how the Vietnam War affected thinking about the country's role in the world.

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Still, Anderson and Cayton deserve praise for their call for Americans to think about their history in terms of power as well as freedom. Current imperial policies, they suggest, do not result from the machinations of the president and a small group of malevolent advisers, but have deep roots in the American experience. Greater knowledge of the idea and practice of empire might help Americans understand why other nations resent our penchant for pursuing our own interests as a world power while proclaiming that we embody universal values. The Dominion of War offers a valuable reminder that the benevolence of benevolent imperialism lies in the eye of the beholder. Indians and Mexicans did not choose to surrender their land to the onward march of the empire of liberty. Filipinos and Puerto Ricans did not necessarily share the judgment that they were better off under American rule than as independent nations. As we watch from our living-rooms the progress of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is worth remembering Anderson and Cayton's observation that most American wars have been fought "less to preserve liberty than to extend the power of the United States in the name of liberty'.

The Dominion of War might be read alongside J.M. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee's protagonist, a well-intentioned petty bureaucrat living on the imperial frontier, develops a passionate hatred for a brutal official sent from the centre to extract information about a local insurgency. He comes to understand that the torturer and the humanitarian are both intrinsic to the practice of empire. "I was not, as I liked to think, the indulgent pleasure-loving opposite of the cold, rigid colonel. I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when the harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.' Empire is a way not of protecting democracy and human rights, but of destroying them.

"Republic or empire?' This was the central question of the presidential contest of 1900 between William McKinley, the proponent of benevolent imperialism, and William Jennings Bryan, who viewed empire as incompatible with democracy, at home as well as abroad. At least McKinley and Bryan were candid about what was at stake. In the 2004 campaign, empire was the idea that dared not speak its name. Bush repudiated the word while pursuing the policy. Kerry offered, in effect, empire with a human face. By a small majority, the American people chose the unalloyed version. The question now is whether the rest of the world will consent to live as its subjects.

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[*] Penguin, 400 pp., 8.99, June, 0 14 101700 7.

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)
 

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