Rarely has any President seen himself as being imperialistic. But Imperialism best defines the actions of past administrations. Rarely have we seen ourselves as “The Evil Empire.” But we should examine the facts.
Alexander Hamilton, while not a President, was a founding father of this country. Hamilton advocated a strong military, and particularly a Navy, to protect trade routs around the world. This country was just learning to walk when Hamilton argued for asserting our power around the globe. But Hamilton was not an imperialist – he was protecting the trode routs necessary to the economic growth of our country.
Thomas Jefferson made the deal with Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase – doubling the size of the nation. Jefferson could see the economic need for natural resources to build our national base of strength in the world. But Jefferson was not acting as an imperialist – again, he made a good business decision but did not attempt to project American influence on anyone but the Native American. At that time the sovereignty of the Native Americans was not recognized.
McKinley attacked the Spanish in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Phillipines – in the interest of freeing the people from Spanish domination and putting them under the domination of the United States. T. Roosevelt quit his job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to join the Rough Riders and personally went to Cuba to assert American power. This was clearly and act of imperialism – but was a qualified projection of power because of the proximity of Spanish sea domination to this country – One could easily argue the war with Spain was steeped in self protection. There were certainly Imperial overtones.
T. Roosevelt was probably the most extreme advocate of American expansionism. He desperately wanted a canal in Central America to promote trade. When the Panamanians revolted against their government – Colombia -Roosevelt recognized Panama as a sovereign nation within 48 hours. The Colombians had proved difficult in the canal negotiations and Roosevelt knew he could strike a deal with the Panamanians. Roosevelt used the internal conflict of other nations to promote the interests of America. Diplomatic recognition insured the Panamanians protection from the United States should Colombia decide to take their land by force. Roosevelt was a self-admitted imperialist; believing in his soul that American influence was healthy for the world community.
Attempts to avoid the mantle of imperialism led to late entries into World Wars I and II. After World War II the country of Israel was formed and was immediately (same day) recognized by President Truman – asserting the influence of this great country. This was not so much an act of imperialism as of political expediency. An Imperial Truman would not have drawn lines at the 38th parallel in Korea.
John Kennedy sent advisers to Viet Nam and Lyndon Johnson escalated the conflict. What were we doing over there? We were exerting American influence on the globe. The argument of the time was that we were protecting our country from the expansion of communism – there was hardly any economic gain from the protection of Vietnam.
History dictates and we sometimes learn the lessons. Sometimes not. The examples presented in this post are debated today for their merits of principle. Sometimes their is a conflict of principles – the interest of American trade, American economics (our Public Welfare) – conflicting with principles of imperialism – the projection of American Military Power to influence global governance.
This country was founded on a protest of British imperialism – the Brits were asserting their power over the American Colonies and our forefathers said, “Hey, hold on a minute. We want a little Tea Party.” Consequently a basic principle of anti imperialism has permeated the American public mindset. When Presidents act as imperial leaders they never use that word to describe what they are doing – rather they couch their arguments in the interest of the public welfare of the American populace. They think a rose by another name will smell sweeter.
This writer is a patriotic American. We believe in the public welfare of the American people. The world is hard. It is cruel. It is not fair. We believe in diplomacy. We believe that all diplomatic options should be explored before exerting violent influence. Note that Panama and Israel were both recognized diplomatically, the Louisiana Purchase was a diplomatic endeavor, suggesting that Imperialism is not necessarily violent.
The real question is more nuanced – What exactly is the Public Interest of America? What exactly are the core values that we are protecting? What is the ‘standard of living’ – ‘the American way’ – What are we protecting? More on that later.
To be imperialist or to not be imperialistic. The question is defined by current events – when in the course of human events it becomes necessary to protect our interests – get out of the way folks because here come the Americans.
We will be exploring modern concepts of Imperialism as we look more closely at Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush the first, Clinton, and Bush the second.
Stay tuned for a lively discussion.