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Resisting U.S. imperialism
“We oppose U.S. intervention in Cuba, the Middle East and elsewhere. We are for self-determination for Puerto Rico.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
“‘Freedom’ is a grand word,” Lenin once wrote, “but under the banner of freedom for industry, the most predatory wars were waged.”
Nowhere is this statement truer than the United States. Washington has always cloaked its predatory ambitions in the language of the American Revolution—freedom, liberty, democracy and freedom of trade. It has always been the “reluctant empire,” invading other countries for their own good, and always with kind and benevolent intentions. During the Cold War, the United States presented its efforts to dominate the world as a titanic battle of democracy versus communist tyranny. Since 9-11, it has presented the same goal under the cloak of defending “civilization” against intolerant, terror-driven, fanatical Islam.
Imperial plunder and mass murder with a human face
From its early years ideologues in the United States have accepted the idea that it was destined to dominate the world. “The history of territorial expansion,” exclaimed O.H. Platt, a Connecticut senator in the late 1890s, “is the history of our nation’s progress and glory...We should rejoice that Providence has given us the opportunity to extend our influence, our institutions and our civilization into regions hitherto closed to us.”
The United States was from the beginning built upon violent conquest, starting with the enslavement, murder and dispossession of Native Americans. “America the benevolent,” writes historian Sidney Lens, “does not exist and never has existed.”
From its war with Mexico in 1846—which resulted in the annexing of half of that country to the United States—to the occupation of Iraq, the United States has never been shy about using its military might to conquer territory, annex colonies and intimidate rivals and weaker nations. Its interventions in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam alone are responsible for the deaths of more than 6 million people.
Between 1870 and 1922, the U.S. emerged as the world’s biggest industrial power, and its total wealth increased tenfold, from $30 billion to $320 billion. By the end of this period, the U.S. became Europe’s and the world’s creditor; after the Second World War, it added to its economic power its military supremacy—a position it has fought to maintain by any means necessary ever since.
As a latecomer in the scramble for colonies, the U.S. often presented its own efforts to compete with more established colonial powers as anticolonial. It promoted what it called an “open door” policy—that is, demanding that markets closed to it by other powers be opened up for exploitation by U.S. interests.
Woodrow Wilson made it clear in 1907 what the “open door” policy meant in practice:
“Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process.”
Though the U.S. was never a major colonial power, it did, however, acquire a handful of colonies. The Spanish-American War in 1898, during which the U.S. seized control of Spain’s former colonies, was its “coming out” party as a world power.
Under the guise of liberating Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the U.S. took the latter two as formal colonies, and seized Cuba as an informal colony (it had already seized Hawaii in 1893). In order to “pacify” the Philippines, U.S. forces killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who were not prepared to turn their country over to another power.
“Gunboat diplomacy” in the Caribbean and Central America
While the U.S. never again took on formal colonies after 1898, it turned the Caribbean into an “American lake,” through what was called “gunboat diplomacy”—using financial and military leverage to subject weaker nations to Washington’s dictates.
The U.S. engineered a revolution in Panama in 1903, leading to its breakaway from Colombia (a U.S. naval armada prevented Colombia from intervening) so that a U.S.-controlled canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, could be built across the Isthmus of Panama. For all intents and purposes, Panama also became a U.S. colony.
A few years before, the Platt amendment passed by Congress in the U.S. required measures inserted into the Cuban constitution that protected the right of the U.S. to intervene whenever its interests were threatened—something the U.S. took advantage of several times in the course of Cuba’s history before 1959. For example, Marines landed in 1912 to put down a rebellion of sugar workers. Cuba’s finance, agriculture and industry—in particular the booming sugar and tourist industries—became completely dominated by U.S. capital, facilitated by U.S. military power.
A typical practice was for a U.S. bank to buy up a country’s debt, and then ask for assistance from Washington to protect its financial interests. The Marines would invade, seize the custom’s house and central bank of the country and establish control, using customs revenue to pay off the debt.
The U.S. has sent troops to Caribbean and Central American countries more than 40 times since 1890. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924 and Nicaragua from 1909-33. In each instance (and also in other countries), the U.S. trained local armed forces and “friendly” dictators to look after their interests once they departed. Where required, the U.S. used more covert methods, authorizing the CIA to foment coups to topple unfriendly regimes—for example, in Guatemala in 1954.
President Theodore Roosevelt explained in 1904 how the United States was to play the world’s policeman:
“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere, the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
Translation: Do what we want, or we invade.
What of modern-day U.S. imperialism?
Puerto Rico remains a colony to this day—the only remaining colony possessed by the U.S., and, indeed, one of the few remaining colonies in the world.
A bilateral pact in 1952, the Free Associated State, helps maintain the fiction that Puerto Rico’s status is agreed upon by both parties. But the U.S. retains veto power over local legislation. The Pentagon controls all matters related to Puerto Rico’s defense and its national guard, and Puerto Ricans can be drafted into the U.S. Army, as they were during the Vietnam War.
And though the U.S. imposed American citizenship on Puerto Ricans in 1917, Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot vote for the U.S. president, senators or congressional representatives. The FBI has federal jurisdiction in Puerto Rico, and the U.S. National Park Service runs the island’s major parks. The federal courts carry out their functions strictly in the English language, despite the fact that roughly 80 percent of the population speaks only Spanish.
After years of the U.S. keeping Cuba as a colony in everything but name, the 1959 Cuban Revolution overthrew a Washington-backed puppet, Fulgencio Batista, and for the first time in its history freed Cuba from foreign domination.
Since then, the U.S. has attempted invasion (at the Bay of Pigs in 1961), assassination (many times against Fidel Castro, successfully against Che Guevara), blockade and embargo to attack the revolution. Yet Cuba remains an example of how a small oppressed nation can stand up to the northern colossus—and as such the U.S. has subjected Cuba to endless suffering and hardship up to this day. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act not only forbids American companies from doing business in or trading with Cuba, but also penalizes foreign companies that trade with Cuba. Only recently has the US begun to ease some of the conditions of the blockade.
US imperialism in the Middle East
The Middle East has long been a key region for U.S. interests because it sits on the world’s largest reserves of oil, the most important strategic resource in the world.
The U.S. has relied on brutal, repressive regimes—Iran under the Shah, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt to this day—to do its dirty work. It has used the CIA to foment coups against “unfriendly” regimes. When necessary, it has intervened directly to punish governments that have challenged its dominance in the region—as it did to Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003.
To this day, the U.S. spends billions annually to maintain a large military presence in the Middle East. It provides billions in military hardware to client states, in particular to Egypt and Saudi Arabia—and above all to Israel, which the U.S. carefully maintains as the region’s most formidable military power. In the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, when dictatorships were overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia, the US has worked closely with allies in the region to reverse the process, supporting the Saudi invasion of Bahrain to suppress the democracy movement, for example, quietly supporting General Sisi’s counterrevolutionary coup in Egypt, and backing a regime in Iraq based on sectarian repression of the Sunni minority. Its failed policies in Iraq—which deliberately fostered the Shia Sunni sectarian divide in order to run the country—are part of the explanation for the rise of ISIS in the region.
Since the late 1960s, Israel has been the single most important ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, fulfilling the role of “watchdog” in the region, as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz put it years ago.
For this reason, Israel receives more economic and military aid from the U.S. than any other country in the world. Israel’s unique status comes from the fact that it is a garrison state, ready to defend the dispossession of Arab land upon which its existence and survival depends.
“Once upon a time,” writes analyst Chalmers Johnson, “you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies”; today, imperialism is measured in military bases. The U.S. boasts 737 military bases in other countries throughout the world, outposts of a war machine that accounts for almost half of the world’s total military expenditures and 1.8 million military personnel.
After the collapse of the USSR and the bipolar Cold War world, the U.S. emerged as the world’s sole superpower. But this did not yield a “peace dividend,” as was talked about at the time. On the contrary, the U.S. scrambled to find ways to project its military power more systematically in order to deter potential rivals and secure its sole superpower status.
We live, so the expression goes, in the “belly of the beast.” As socialists living in the world’s most rapacious imperialist power, it is our duty to oppose U.S. intervention around the world, under whatever particular disguise it wears—whether it is in the name of humanitarian intervention (Kosovo and Haiti), spreading democracy (Iraq) or defending the “homeland” against “Islamic terror.”
We do this for two reasons. One, we look forward to anything that weakens U.S. imperialism and strengthens opposition to it, because it is under such conditions that the struggle for genuine liberation from exploitation and oppression can better thrive; and two, because without unconditional support for the peoples around the world who are the victims of American imperialism—whether they are Iraqis, Haitians, Cubans or Puerto Ricans—we cannot create the international solidarity necessary to defeat it.