America: The Two Empires
It’s a curious feature of American history that some of its major turning points are best summed up by books. In the years just before the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was the book; it had a huge role in focusing colonial grievances to the point that they were ready to burst into flame. In the years before the Civil War, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; that’s the book that made the North redefine a troubled national dialogue over a range of regional differences as a moral debate over slavery, pure and simple, and so pushed both halves of the country into positions from which they couldn’t back down short of war.
Both of those books stayed famous long after the issues they influenced were settled, and back when American children actually learned about American history in school, at least, most people knew the titles—though you won’t find many people of any recent generation who read either one. The book that played a similar role in launching America on its career as a global empire didn’t get the same kind of treatment. Unless you know a fair amount about military history, you’ve probably never heard of it. Its title is The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and its author was Alfred Thayer Mahan.
Mahan was an officer in the US Navy; he’d seen combat duty in the Civil War, and remained in the service during the postwar decades when the country’s naval forces were basically tied up at the dock and allowed to rot. In the 1880s, while serving at the Naval War College, he became a leading figure among the intellectuals—a small minority at that point—who hoped to shake the United States out of its focus on internal concerns and transform it into an imperial power. He was among the most original of American military strategists as well as a capable writer, and he had an ace in the hole that neither he nor anybody else knew about when his book saw print in 1890: his good friend and fellow lecturer at the Naval War College, a New York politician and passionate imperialist named Theodore Roosevelt, would become president of the United States just over a decade later by way of an assassin’s bullet.
Mahan’s theory of naval power was influential enough, then and now, that it’s going to be necessary to sketch out the central themes of his book. He argued, first of all, for the importance of maritime trade to a national economy, partly because shipping was (and is) cheaper than land transport, and partly because most international trade had to go by sea; second, for the necessity of a strong navy to protect shipping routes and project force to defend national economic interests overseas; and third, for the need to establish permanent naval bases at a distance from the nation’s own shores, along important trade routes, so that naval forces could be refueled and supported, and so that a naval blockade could be effectively countered—Mahan here was thinking about his own experiences with the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the Civil War, a crucial element in the North’s victory. He backed up all these points with detailed case studies from history, but his aim wasn’t limited to understanding the past; he was proposing a plan of action for the United States for the near future.
In 1890, the United States had spent a quarter century following exactly the opposite advice. The Union victory in the Civil War, as discussed in the last two posts, handed control of the nation’s economic policy to industrial and agrarian interests that wanted high tariffs and trade barriers to protect domestic industry. As those took effect, other nations followed suit by raising tariffs and barriers against goods from the United States, and America distanced itself from the global economy of the late 19th century. Straight through the Long Depression of 1873-1896, economic self-sufficiency was one of the core elements of national policy; the idea was that American farms and factories should produce the goods and services Americans needed and wanted, so that the United States could avoid the state of permanent dependency British-supported policies of free trade, backed by the superlative size and power of the British Navy, was imposing on so many other countries at that time.
As we saw in last week’s post, though, Mahan’s advocacy of naval expansion came at a crucial time, when the wealth pump of America’s industrial system was struggling to keep from consuming itself, and a growing number of Americans were beginning to look enviously at Europe’s global empires. The huge success of The Influence of Sea Power upon History—it was an international bestseller, was translated into more than a dozen languages, and became required reading for politicians and naval officers around the world—had a massive role in reformulating the debate around imperialism. Armed with Mahan’s logic, the proponents of an American empire could redefine the pursuit of global power in terms of the nation’s safety and prosperity. By the mid-1890s, the obsolete Civil War-era ships that made up what there was of the Navy a decade earlier were rapidly being replaced by a new fleet on the cutting edge of naval technology. All that was left was an opportunity to put the new fleet to use and begin carving out an American empire.
That last step came in 1898, with the Spanish-American war. Those of my readers who think that the neoconservatives marked any kind of radical departure from America’s previous behavior in the world should take the time read a book or two on this now-forgotten conflict. Spain at that time was the weakest of the European colonial powers, with only a handful of possessions remaining from her once-vast empire—a few islands in the Caribbean, notably Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were among the most important. The project of seizing Cuba from Spain had been a popular subject of discussion in the South in the years before the Civil War, when finding new acreage for the plantation system had been a central theme of regional politics; Mahan’s book argued forcefully that the United States needed at least one large naval base somewhere in the islands to the south of the US mainland, and the hope that new territorial possessions might become captive markets for American industry gave new incentive to the old plan.
The Phillippines were another matter. In the pre-trade barrier era before the Civil War, the United States had begun to establish a presence along the western shores of the Pacific, sending a fleet to wring trade concessions from Japan in 1853 and making substantial inroads into the lucrative markets in China. The Civil War and the years of relative isolation that followed put paid to that, but regaining a place along the shores of east Asia was a high priority for the pro-empire party. The possibility of a US naval base in the Philippines was a tempting one, and added to the incentives for a war with Spain.
All that was needed was a provocation. That was provided, first, by propaganda campaigns in the American mass media accusing the Spanish government in Cuba of atrocities against the Cuban population, and second, by a boiler explosion aboard the USS Maine, one of the Navy’s new battleships, which was making a port call in Havana. The explosion was instantly blamed on a Spanish mine; public opinion in the United States, fanned by the media, favored war; Congress, which in those days still fulfilled its constitutional role by setting policies that presidents were expected to carry out, duly declared war; US naval forces were already in position, and sailed at once. Ten weeks later Cuba and Puerto Rico were conquered, two Spanish fleets had been crushed in separate battles nearly half the world apart, and the United States had its overseas naval bases and its empire.
The American president at that time, William McKinley, was not among the cheering majority. He was no opponent of American expansion—it was during his presidency that the United States annexed Hawai’i and what is now American Samoa—but service in the Union infantry in the Civil War gave him a more realistic attitude toward war, and he did what he could, with the limited power presidents had in those days, to stop the rush to war with Spain. He won reelection easily in 1900, but the next year he was killed by a lone gunman. His vice president was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who proceeded to turn Mahan’s strategic principles into national policy. It’s an interesting commentary on the difference between the two eras that nobody, as far as I know, has ever proposed a conspiracy theory to account for McKinley’s death.
The dawn of American empire had impacts reaching well beyond the handful of territories the United States seized and held in McKinley’s day. The same Congress that declared war against Spain had passed a resolution forbidding the annexation of Cuba—this was partly to win support for the war from the anti-empire faction in Congress, partly a bit of pork-barrel protectionism for the American sugar and tobacco industries—and that limit forced the proponents of empire to take a hard look at other options. The system that resulted was one that remains standard throughout the American empire to this day. Cuba got a new constitution and an officially independent government, but the United States reserved the right to interfere in Cuban affairs at will, got a permanent lease on a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and turned the Cuban economy into a wholly owned subsidiary of American commercial interests. The result fed the wealth pump of empire, but cost the United States much less than an ordinary colonial government would have done.
It also proved easy to export. In 1903, using a stage-managed revolution backed by US ships and Marines, the United States manufactured the new nation of Panama out of a chunk of northern Colombia, and established a Cuba-style government there under tight American control to provide a suitable context for a canal uniting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. Other Latin American countries fell under United States control in the years that followed, and had their resources fed into the increasingly busy wealth pump of American empire. Standards of living across Latin America duly began their long downward slide, while the United States boomed.
Meanwhile, as one of the last major acts of his presidency, Roosevelt launched what would be the definitive announcement that America had arrived on the world stage: the voyage of the “Great White Fleet.” In December 1907, sixteen battleships and their support vessels—their hulls painted stark white, the Navy’s peacetime paint scheme just then—sailed out of East Coast harbors to begin a voyage around the world, stopping at ports on the way. By the time they returned to Hampton Roads in February 1909, governments around the world had been forced to deal with the fact that a new power had entered the global political order.
All of this—Mahan’s theories, the Spanish-American war and its aftermath, the growth of a US empire in Latin America, and the military implications of America’s huge naval buildup and sudden attainment of global reach—was discussed at great length in books and periodicals at the time. What very few people noticed, because the intellectual tools needed to make sense of it hadn’t been developed yet, was that the United States was developing what amounted to a second empire, parallel to the one just described, during these same years. Where the imperial expansion we’ve just examined established an empire across space, this second empire was an empire across time. Like the move to global empire, this empire of time built on an earlier but more limited method of feeding the wealth pump, and turned a large but otherwise ordinary nation into a world power.
This “empire of time,” of course, consisted of the American fossil fuel industries. Where an empire extracts wealth from other countries for the benefit of an imperial nation, fossil fuel exploitation extracts wealth in the form of very cheap thermal energy from the distant past for the benefit of one or more nations in the present. The parallels are remarkably precise. An empire is profitable for an imperial nation because that nation’s citizens don’t have to produce the wealth that comes from foreign colonies and subject nations; they simply have to take it, either by force or by unbalanced systems of exchange backed by the threat of force. In the same way, fossil fuel extraction is so profitable because nobody nowadays has to invest their own labor and resources to grow and harvest prehistoric trees or extinct sea life, or to concentrate the resulting biomass into coal, oil, and natural gas. Equally, as we’ve seen already, empires go under when the wealth pump drives colonies and subject nations into poverty, just as fossil fuels become problematic when sustained extraction depletes them. In both cases, it’s a matter of drawing down a nonrenewable resource, and that leads to trouble.
Nobody seems to know for sure when coal was first mined by European settlers in the New World, but the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania were already being developed by the time of the Revolution, and the coming of the industrial revolution made coal an important commodity. Like the real estate that fueled America’s westward expansion, coal was abundant, widely distributed, and of even more widely varying value; it was more than adequate to fuel the growth of a national economy, but not enough by itself to open the door to world power. It took the second empire of time—the one embodied in petroleum—to do that, just as the concentrated wealth that could be had from overseas empire made it possible for the United States to transform itself into a global force.
There’s another fascinating parallel between America’s overseas empire of space and its second empire of time. That latter began in 1859, with the drilling of America’s first oil well in western Pennsylvania, right about the time that the United States was making its first tentative movements toward intervention in Asia. For decades thereafter, though, petroleum was used mostly as a source of lamp oil. It took a flurry of inventions in the 1880s and 1890s—right around the time the push for overseas empire was taking shape in the United States—to turn petroleum from a useful commodity to a source of nearly limitless mechanical power. It was in the wake of that transformation that the two empires fused, and the United States vaulted into global power. We’ll talk about that next week.
End of the World of the Week #15
The apocalyptic thinking discussed in previous posts here has percolated in plenty of odd directions over the centuries, and traces of it can be found in plenty of unexpected places today. One example that’s worth at least a glance is the role of apocalyptic ideas in helping to shape the remarkably messianic notions the liberal end of the Baby Boomer generation has generally had of itself and its place in history.
Some of my readers may recall The Greening of America by Charles Reich, a book published to much fanfare in 1970. Reich argued that American history could be understood in part as a process of shifting modes of consciousness in which Consciousness I, which had been glued firmly in place from colonial times to the Second World War, had morphed into Consciousness II, or square consciousness. This, Reich insisted, was about to be replaced by Consciousness III, or hip consciousness, which would become universal just as soon as all the squares either died off or got a clue.
Ten years later, Reich wasn’t exactly looking like a prophet, but that didn’t stop Marilyn Ferguson from making much the same claim in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980). Ferguson didn’t use Reich’s historical scheme, but the basic argument—that those of the baby boomer generation who were into the 1980 equivalent of hippie culture were the forerunners of a great wave of change that would make the world much better—was essentially the same.
Twenty years further down the road, the same claim was being circulated with a little less generational slant by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson in their 2000 book Cultural Creatives. Under that flattering label, Ray and Anderson lumped the same ideas and attitudes that Reich assigned to Consciousness III and Ferguson to her Aquarian Conspiracy, and paired it with the same claim, that a great positive change of consciousness was on its way and would give boomer idealists the world they thought they wanted.
None of these grand transformations, it bears remembering, has happened, but it may be worth noting what happened instead. In the aftermath of 1970, the Sixties guttered out, and in the next presidential election, Nixon won by a landslide. In the aftermath of 1980, the alternative scene of the Seventies collapsed, and Reagan won the presidency. In the aftermath of 2000, we got the rise of the neoconservatives and George W. Bush in the White House. It seems unlikely that any of these sudden rightward turns were what the authors had in mind.
—story from Apocalypse Not
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.