A complex and self-justifying mythology has grown up around the process by which, during and after the Second World War, the United States made the transition from regional power to global empire. That sort of thing is common enough that it probably belongs on the short list of imperial obsessions—Rome had its imperial myth, as did Spain, Britain, and just about any other empire you care to think of—but the American version of it deserves close attention, because it obscures factors that need to be understood as the American empire hurtles down the curve of its decline.
The mythology runs more or less like this: in the aftermath of the First World War, America withdrew from the international responsibilities it had briefly taken up during that war, refusing to join the League of Nations and distancing itself from global politics. In the vacuum thus formed, the coming of the Great Depression sent the conflicts that drove the world to war in 1914 spinning out of control again. As Japan invaded China and Germany prepared for war, the United States faced a sharp political conflict between isolationists, who more or less wanted to build a wall around the country and shut the rest of the world out, and those who recognized America’s responsibility to the rest of the world. That struggle only came to an end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; thereafter the American people united to win the war. Once it was won, in turn, they refused to repeat the mistake of 1919, and took up the burden of global leadership that America retains to this day.
Thus the mythology. The reality was considerably more complex.
To begin with, the conflict between isolationists and internationalists was far less simple than the myth proposes. The isolationist Republican administrations of the 1920s saw no conflict at all between their rejection of the League of Nations and their enthusiastic use of the US Marines to impose puppet regimes and keep the wealth pump running at full roar all through Central America and the Caribbean. The isolation that the isolationists sought was simply a matter of distancing the US from the lethal quarrels of the Old World. Behind their policies stood a vision of the shape of global politics in the post-British era—a vision that divided the world into separate spheres of influence, each under the control of a major power. Latin America, according to this scheme, was the natural prey of the United States, and that’s where the isolationists focused their attention in the years between the wars. They weren’t the only influential group with that idea; the Japanese government, with its dream of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere that would subject east Asia to Japan’s wealth pump, were tracing out exactly such a sphere of influence.
The internationalists, by contrast, were Anglophiles rather than Anglophobes, and they also liked to imagine the American future on a larger scale, one in which Central American banana republics were hardly worth noticing. The dream of a global empire formed by a future US-British union had never really lost its hold in Anglophile circles, while others less enamored of Britain but no less ambitious had begun to imagine a future in which the United States would be the dominant force, Britain a favored but subordinate partner, and the entire planet would feed into the American wealth pump. Their vision of the post-British world was guided by a field of study you rarely hear discussed these days, the science or pseudoscience of geopolitics, which argued that the distribution of land masses, oceans, and resources could be read as a blueprint for a world empire.
You’ll have to look hard to find information on geopolitics today, unless you have the unusual luck to live near a university library that doesn’t follow the currently fashionable practice of purging its stacks of books tht contain insufficiently modern ideas. If you can find books on the subject, though, it’s worth doing, for much the same reason that rereading Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History is worth doing. In both cases, whether the theories are valid is a minor issue at best; what makes them important is that influential people believed them, and acted on them. In the case of geopolitics, American foreign policy from Pearl Harbor right up to the present is a good deal easier to understand if you grasp the basics of geopolitics.
In the writings of Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer, the two most influential geopoliticians of the first half of the twentieth century, the world can be imagined as a giant bull’s-eye, with a central zone surrounded by three (or, rather, two and a half) bands. The central zone is the Heartland or Pivot Area, and includes most of Eurasia from the eastern European plain straight across to the valley of the Lena River in eastern Siberia. Surrounding this on three sides is the Marginal Crescent, which extends from central Europe across Turley and the Middle East to India, China, and far eastern Siberia. Next are the Outer Crescents—this is the half a band—which consists of the islands and peninsulas around the fringes of Eurasia, one extending from Iceland through Britain to western Europe, the other from Japan through the islands and peninsulas of southeast and southern Asia. Furthest out, separated from the rest by oceans or the Sahara Desert, is the Insular Crescent, which consists of both Americas, Africa south of the Sahara, and Australasia.
The geopoliticians argued that this scheme showed the structure of the coming world empire. In the past, they pointed out, the major wars of the modern Western world had pitted a maritime power in the western Outer Crescent against a land power in the western part of the Marginal Crescent, with the land power gradually shifting east: first France, then Germany. So far, the maritime power (Spain, then Britain) was able to draw on the resources of the Insular Crescent to contain and defeat the land power. As the basis of the land power shifts further east into the Pivot Area, though, access to the resources of continental Eurasia—not to mention access to invasion routes giving access to the rich lands of the Marginal Crescent—would more than make up for the resources available to the maritime power, and allow the land power to become a universal empire. Mackinder put it this way in 1904: “The oversetting of the balance of power in favor of the pivot state, resulting in its expansion over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia would permit of the use of vast continental resources for fleet-building, and the empire of the world would then be in sight.”
Domination of the Pivot Area, in turn, depends on control of the eastern European plain, and this inspired a thesis of Mackinder’s that received a great deal of attention back in the day: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Mackinder was warning a British audience about the risk that a German empire that managed to seize control of Russia could supplant Britain’s global dominion; Haushofer, writing a couple of decades later, took Mackinder’s fears as a working plan for German world domination. Neither geopolitician seems to have considered the possibility that the Heartland might have imperial designs of its own, or that the insular crescent might turn out to be a far more secure base for the next great maritime power than a small island perched uncomfortably close to the shores of western Europe. Still, that’s what happened.
It probably bears repeating here that whether geopolitics is valid or not is a secondary question for our present purposes. Geopolitics is important here because its ideas seem to have had a major influence on the leaders who launched America along the final phase of its rise to empire, and still appear to govern the grand strategy of the American empire as it approaches its end. Over the weeks to come, we’ll be exploring the geopolitical side of American imperial strategy in a variety of ways, so a little attention to the paragraphs above may be useful. For now, though, what’s important is that the internationalists in American politics between the world wars saw geopolitics as a blueprint for world power,and wanted the structure raised on that blueprint to have “Made in America” written on it. That was a minority view in the 1920s, but it had wealthy and influential backers, who were well positioned to act when circumstances began to shift their way.
The first of these shifts was the Great Depression or, more precisely, the feckless response of both American mainstream political parties to the economic collapse that followed the 1929 stock market crash. In the crucial first years after the crash, Democrats and Republicans alike embraced exactly the same policies they are embracing in today’s economic troubles, with exactly the same lack of success, and showed exactly the same unwillingness to abandon failed policies in the face of economic disaster. Then as now, the federal government launched a program to bail out big banks and corporations—it was called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in those days—and pumped dizzying amounts of money into the upper end of the economy in the belief, real or feigned, that the money would work its way down the pyramid, which of course it didn’t do. Then as now, politicians used the shibboleth of a balanced budget to demand austerity for everybody but the rich, and cut exactly those programs which could have helped families caught by hard times. Then as now, things got worse while the media insisted that they were getting better, and the mounting evidence that policies weren’t working was treated as proof that the same policies had to be pursued even more forcefully.
In many countries, this sort of thinking drove the collapse of democratic governments and the rise of dictators who won absolute power by doing what everyone outside the political establishment knew had to be done. In the United States, that didn’t quite happen. What happened instead was that a faction of dissident Democrats and former Republicans managed to seize control of the Democratic party, which hadn’t won a presidential race since 1916, and put Franklin D. Roosevelt into office in 1932. Roosevelt, like the dictators, was willing to do what the masses demanded: use public funds to provide jobs for the jobless, keep families from losing their homes to foreclosure, and reinvest in the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. It didn’t end the Depression—that had deeper and largely intractable causes, which we’ll discuss later—but it was successful enough that Roosevelt won reelection in 1936 in one of the greatest landslides in American political history.
What made Roosevelt’s ascendancy crucial was that he was a passionate internationalist, and as Europe moved toward war, he and his administration did everything in its power to get America involved. That move faced fierce opposition, and not only among isolationists; a great many Americans believed at the time, and not without reason, that the United States had received essentially nothing in exchange for saving Britain and France in the First World War—neither of the latter two countries, for example, had ever gotten around to paying off their war debts to the US. All through 1940 and 1941, as a result, the Roosevelt adminstration played a high-stakes game of chicken with Germany and Japan, trying to lure one or both nations into a declaration of war or an attack on American interests drastic enough to give him the political momentum to counter the isolationists and launch a second American rescue of England. In the meantime, the US poured money, supplies and arms into the faltering British war effort, stopping just short of active involvement in the fighting until war finally came.
After Pearl Harbor, despite the myth, isolationism didn’t simply go away. Saturation propaganda and the arrest and trial of antiwar activists on a variety of charges, most famously the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, was needed to break the back of the peace movement in the US. Then much the same thing had to be done again on a bigger scale, via a series of Red scares, after Germany and Japan were defeated and the two Allied powers that mattered, the United States and the Soviet Union, started quarreling over the spoils. Still, the internationalists had won once the Soviet Union turned out to be America’s last remaining rival, because the isolationists—who were by and large old-fashioned conservatives—loathed Marxism even more than they loathed the thought of US involvement in Old World quarrels. The Republican Party, which had gone from the party of empire in the 1890s to the party of isolation in opposition to Wilson, proceeded to reinvent itself yet again as more international than the internationalists when it came to opposing “godless Russia.” Meanwhile the occupation forces in Germany and Japan, not to mention those in Britain and a good many of its former colonies, settled down for a long stay.
The official strategy of the US and its allies, as they consolidated their hold on half the world and looked out uneasily across the borders with the half controlled by Russia and its allies, was described by George F. Kennan in a famous 1947 essay as “containment.” What that meant in practice was that the United States established a massive military presence in both eastern and western Outer Crescents, while trying to pry loose Soviet allies and gain influence over neutral nations in the Marginal Crescent, and keeping the Insular Crescent under the control (and subject to the wealth pumps) of the US and its allies; Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, among many others, paid the price of this latter policy.
Like every imperial system, this one has had its ups and downs. It avoided Britain’s successful but costly policy of bringing large regions under direct political control, preferring instead to install compliant local rulers who would keep the wealth pump running in exchange for a small share of the take. It faltered in the 1970s as America’s other empire, the empire of time that paid tribute by way of oil wells, reached its peak production and tipped into permanent decline, and then gambled everything in the next decade on a daring strategy of economic warfare. That gamble paid off spectacularly, wrecking the Soviet Union and fueling the 1990s boom by feeding the nations of eastern Europe into the business end of America’s wealth pump, stripping half a dozen nations to the bare walls under the euphemisms of economic reform and a market economy. For a few years it looked as though Russia itself might be fed into the wealth pump in the same way, before an efficient counterstroke by the Putin administration pulled that prize out of American hands. Meanwhile the rise of China hinted that Mackinder’s thesis might turn out to be overly Eurocentric, and the north China plain might prove to be just as effective a springboard to the resources of the Heartland as the eastern European plain.
Through all this, the basic structure of American empire has remained essentially the same as it was at the end of the Second World War: a global military presence positioned according to the concepts of geopolitics, whether these are relevant or not; a global political system run by local elites propped up by American aid and, when necessary, military force, tasked with keeping the wealth pump going but left mostly to its own devices otherwise; a global economic system that was designed to suck wealth out of the rest of the world and channel it into the United States, but has sprung large and growing leaks in various places and increasingly fails to do its job; and a domestic political system in which a fantastically bloated executive branch headed by an imperial presidency keeps the forms of constitutional government in place, while arrogating to itself most of the functions originally exercised by Congress, and most of the rights originally left to the states and the people. That’s where we are today—in the aging, increasingly brittle, effectively bankrupt, but still immensely powerful global empire of the United States of America.
That’s the empire that is sinking into its twilight as I write these words, and that faces dismemberment and dissolution in the decades ahead. The global supremacy Theodore Roosevelt dreamed of achieving has become a reality, and now the price of that supremacy has to be paid. We’ll begin talking about that next week.
End of the World of the Week #18
Nostradamus, whose inaccurate prediction of a “Great King of Terror” in the skies in July 1999 was the subject of last week’s End of the World of the Week, had another wowser to his credit. The first printed edition of his quatrains, which appeared in 1555, included a preface by the author which you won’t find repeated in the many later versions of his work. That’s because he announced that by the year 1732, Europe would be so completely depopulated by floods, alongside a variety of other catastrophes, that much of its farmland would remain untilled for centuries after that time. Two for two…
—story from Apocalypse Not