Excerpted from Habits of Empire by Walter Nugent. Copyright © 2008 by Walter Nugent. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: When did the United States first start to demonstrate its “habit” of empire-building? Have there been any moments in history when the country might have kicked the habit, but didn’t?
A: The seeds of the habit go back to the colonial period, when Anglo-Americans pushed back the Native occupants on all fronts. My book starts with the settlement in 1782 following the Revolutionary War, where the American negotiators, Franklin, John Adams, and Jay, pushed very hard for all the territory they could get. They succeeded in establishing our western boundary at the Mississippi, despite the fact that we had not conquered and had not occupied Transappalachia, the huge region between the eastern Mountains and the great River. Americans tried but never succeeded in obtaining Canada, either in the 1782 settlement (though Franklin pushed very hard) or in the Canadian-American war of 1812-1814. But they spread successfully westward and southward, reaching the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande, and the Pacific by 1848. Each territorial acquisition between 1782 and 1848 reinforced the imperial habit. After that march across the continent, the habit was ingrained, and empire-building proceeded offshore from Alaska to the Philippines and around the Caribbean by the early twentieth century, and since 1945 around the world.
Q: In Into the West: The Story of Its People, you delved into all aspects of the settlement of the American West. Now, in Habits of Empire you site this settlement as a key factor in the first phase of American imperialism, a connection that has been absent from previous political and military histories of the U.S. What led you to make this crucial link between settlement and empire-building?
A: The idea that we’ve acquired and indulged ourselves in “habits of empire” developed gradually with me. It arose, to begin with, out of my teaching undergraduate and graduate classes on the history of the American West. Into the West tries to provide a comprehensive narrative of the settlement of the western half of the country from Spanish times to the present and to give adequate space to the great many peoples and forces involved in that process. Writing it taught me a lot. But Habits of Empire has a different focus. In my teaching I wanted, but could not find, a straight-line narrative of the territorial acquisitions of the United States, beginning in 1782—there were many books on each one, such as the Louisiana Purchase or the annexation of Texas—but none that looked at the whole thing continuously. It also occurred to me that the legal acquisitions—the treaties, or conquests followed by treaties as in 1819 and 1848—were only part of the story. France and Spain laid claim to North America but they disappeared. Why? Because they failed to occupy it. Americans not only gained title to the area but they drove off or contained the previous occupants (mostly Indians) and then reproduced so fast that they were able to populate it. What I tried to do is to tie the legal (and military) acquisitions to the settlement process. That got me to 1848, the taking of the Southwest from Mexico. Which took only sixty-six years from 1782. But we did not stop there. Nor did I; when I reached that point I understood that we kept on going, because in acquiring the continent we formed the habit of behaving imperially. In the half-century after 1848 we continued on across the Pacific, then after 1898 around the Caribbean, and since 1945 around much of the world. So the book and its thesis —that we first developed a habit of empire in North America and then have employed it elsewhere—took shape gradually. It has been continuously operating from 1782 to the present.
Q: The ideas of “empire” and “republic” seem diametrically opposed to each other, and yet both can describe the American experience. How has the country reconciled one with the other?
A: Very uncritically. There’s a logical gap between the two terms, but it’s possible to live with both if you don’t look too closely. When Thomas Jefferson spoke of an “empire for liberty,” his many followers went along. “Empire” involves the imposition of power by a dominant state over peripheral or weaker people, but if those who are running that dominant state are freely elected by its people, then you have an imperial republic. The trouble comes when the peripheral or weaker people are left out of the decision-making. Such was the case with Indians who were overrun and removed in the 1830s and 1840s as white settlement advanced across Transappalachia; it was obviously true of African-American slaves and, in many places, free blacks too, as in Louisiana after the Purchase; and it was true of native peoples in Alaska, Hawaii, Samoa, and the Philippines and elsewhere. In the imperial vs. republic dichotomy, the imperial side has also been strengthened by accumulation of power by the federal executive (i.e., the presidency), particularly by using the power to make war. It’s been very difficult for Congress to rein in presidents, whether in 1846 against Mexico, 1898 against Spain, or 2003 against Iraq, for example.
Q: You discuss the concept of American exceptionalism, particularly as connected to the rhetoric of an “empire for liberty” and imposing American policies and beliefs on other nations. Why do you think that Americans have come to see themselves and their way of life as morally exemplary?
A: The sense of exceptionalism has many sources, and they extend well back into the colonial period. The usual suspects include the New England Puritans who claimed they were on “an errand into the wilderness”—i.e. bringing civilization to the benighted—and building “a city upon a hill.” Over two hundred years later, Lincoln spoke of the United States as “the last best hope of earth.” From the start, the conviction that we are morally good, or at least our intentions are good though our behavior might be imperfect (but therefore excusable), has been axiomatic. There are many things that have been exceptional about our country and its history—most of all, perhaps, its rapid, relatively easy, and quite conclusive occupation of so much of North America—but the notion of moral exceptionalism, of innate moral superiority, is another matter and, at root, unprovable and arrogant. But it has justified our imperial behavior from the earliest times.
Q: Your book criticizes the US for imposing its will (or, simply, running roughshod) over other people—Indians, Mexicans, Filipinos and others. But isn’t this standard operating procedure for nations and empires? What’s different about our historic behavior?
A: The behavior, to be sure, isn’t that different. It’s not admirable whoever does it, whether Napoleon or Andrew Jackson or whoever. The difference is that we have consistently clothed our expansion and imperialism in idealistic rhetoric, most often that we are altruistically spreading liberty and democracy to less enlightened peoples and places. It’s a self-justification and, since the process is often not pretty, it’s an excuse and a cover-up. The contrast between the rhetoric and the behavior spells hypocrisy or, at best, a failure to realize that other people have rights too.
Q: One of the other factors you site as contributing significantly to the success of American expansion across the North American continent was an exceptionally high birth rate. Were American settlers particularly lusty? What other factors may have contributed to such a high birth rate?
A: As I point out, the Spanish and French administrators of their North American empires (up to the U.S. takeovers in 1803 and 1821) simply could not grasp how rapidly Americans multiplied. I quote an Indiana congressman in 1846 who said “the American multiplication table” made two plus two equal twenty-two: plant a young couple in the then-West (such as Indiana), come back in twenty years, and there would be twenty-two in the family. The frontier birth rate was so high that before 1860, the national population doubled in less than twenty-five years, even faster in areas of new settlement, and it kept on doing so in frontier areas past 1900. Were they particularly lusty? We don’t know—it’s an intriguing question why the French and Spanish did not increase and multiply fast enough to occupy and settle their empires as the Americans did. But the Americans proliferated. How could they get away with it while Europe grew, but much more slowly? Because settlers’ children, as they reached their own teens and early twenties, could pick up and move farther west and open up new country. This went on for several generations: the chemistry of available land (legally U.S. territory) and high fertility. Immigration contributed, but high fertility explains most of it. As a British statesman said, Americans would conquer Oregon (and other areas) not with their armies but in their bedchambers. We don’t think of lean-tos and log cabins as “bedchambers” but what went on inside them was pretty much the same thing. And that provided, in the imperial equation, a huge occupying force.
Q: In the second phase of empire—offshore territorial acquisition—there was rarely a desire for settlement in the acquired territories, such as Alaska, or islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean. What was the motivation behind this new form of expansion?
A: Correct: aside from some very minor forays, there was no farming frontier, no population push from high fertility, in what I call Empire II, the Offshore Empire in the Pacific and the Caribbean. The emphasis shifted from “Manifest Destiny” in the sense of acquiring and occupying territory, to commerce, especially with Asia, and the need for coaling stations and naval bases to protect and advance that commerce. William Henry Seward, Secretary of State in the 1860s, is a very important transitional figure here, and I spend some time on how he justified buying Alaska and other expansions he had in mind. Commerce is the empire of the world, he wrote back in the 1850s. The opening of Japan by the Matthew C. Perry expedition in 1853 (“opening” to U.S. trade), the opening of Korea and China soon after, and the inclusion of Hawaii into the U.S. economic orbit fit right into that. The Caribbean expansion beginning in 1898 began with purer motives—to liberate the Cubans from Spanish oppression, as Americans saw it—but commerce, investment in natural resources from sugar to bananas, soon took over.
Q: The third phase of empire—global or virtual empire—has involved an expansion not of territory, but of power: political, military, and economic. How has this new form of expansion affected American foreign policy?
A: One could say that the global or virtual empire, Empire III, has not just affected, but has basically been, American foreign policy since the end of World War II in 1945. As I point out, a lot of our military placement overseas was a response (or promoted as a response) to the Soviet threat. It was part of the containment policy, enunciated by George F. Kennan and carried out—though in a much more military fashion than Kennan envisaged—by every administration from Truman to the present. It has involved our elaborate treaty structure beginning with NATO. It is represented by the stationing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces in Okinawa, Korea, Germany, and elsewhere since that time. Vietnam and Iraq have been unfortunate aspects of it. But whatever the reason, the U.S. now has over seven hundred bases around the world; commentators (U.S. as well as foreign) speak of the U.S. ranking military officer as the go-to guy in an area rather than our ambassador; and the Pentagon seems to have a “Command” for each point of the compass and more. Economic empire is a related and very elaborate aspect, involving multinationals, globalization, and other things that one reads about in the daily media. My book, however, is a work of history, and so most of it deals with the pre-1850 period, when we developed the habits of empire. I am glad to let others continue the discussion of the recent and current manifestations.
Q: Actions by the U.S. government have often included the “liberation” of places that did not ask to be liberated, such as Cuba or the Philippines and now Iraq. Has there been any instance where the “liberated” people welcomed U.S. intervention?
A: I can think of a couple of case, but they sort of prove the rule. The Cuban insurrectionists who had been trying for years to get rid of Spain did welcome U.S. aid in 1898, but their joy faded quickly when the U.S. military ignored them. Panamanians who had wanted to split from Colombia were pleased when the U.S. backed them in 1903, but it was immediately clear that the U.S. did so in order to control a zone across Panama through which the Canal could be built. Economic elites in various Caribbean and central American republics have welcomed U.S. backing of their property interests. But more often, “liberation” American-style has not been popular. It’s seldom been like the flowers and champagne that greeted the G.I. Joes who entered Paris in August 1945.
Q: How much have the actions of individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Seward, William McKinley, and Teddy Roosevelt—who all embraced the ideology of expansion with great fervor—shaped the direction of policy? Did they reflect the general sentiment of the American people? Have the American people ever strongly challenged this ideology of expansion?
A: Both. They led, but could not have led far if they had not reflected, absorbed, and carried further the general sentiment. One could add John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk, who also contributed much to the extension of American holdings—the continental empire. Their actions were in many respects dubious in a legal and/or moral sense, but they “got things done” and for that were applauded and supported by many if not most of the public. Of the four leaders you mention, Seward may have received the least applause, but only because the public was exhausted after the Civil War finally ended. And even his purchase of Alaska was widely approved of in the press and presumably among the public, contrary to the textbook one-liners about “Seward’s icebox.”
In just about every case of territorial acquisition and expansion there have been people who objected, but almost always they have been in the minority, though sometimes a large one. Not everyone was a War Hawk in 1812. In 1846, after Polk contrived to declare war on Mexico in order to capture California, the opposition Whigs won control of Congress. But their opposition to the war was supported mainly in New England and a few other places. Lincoln, elected to his sole term in Congress in 1846, was not re-elected largely because he opposed the war, contrary to its popularity in his Illinois district. In 1898-1900 a remarkably diverse collection of people belonged to the Anti-Imperialist League—ranging from Mark Twain to William Jennings Bryan to Andrew Carnegie—but they did not prevail and the U.S. took over the Philippines as a colony and Cuba as a protectorate. The one example I think of which “strongly challenged this ideology of expansion” was the opposition to the Vietnam War, and that did not gain strength until 1968 and did not fully succeed until 1973. Today’s opposition to the Iraq venture is another case. In both Vietnam and Iraq the public was slow in objecting but at some point realized that the executive had overreached and that U.S. national security was not being insured despite the investment of people and money.
Q: How did you approach the research for this project? Were there any archives or papers that you found particularly enlightening or that had not been examined in this context before?
A: From the start, I wanted to look at each territorial acquisition not only as to how the U.S. gained it, but also with empathy for those who lost it—the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Indians, the Hawaiians, the Filipinos, and so on. Each episode is a story in itself, and each (as I mentioned earlier) has a lot written about it. But American historians have tended to avoid looking at these episodes from the other side’s point of view. Because I took some pains to read, for example, what French historians had to say about our buying Louisiana, or what Spanish historians thought about our overrunning of Florida, and what Mexican historians thought and think about the 1846-48 war, my take is somewhat different from the usual accounts by American historians. I can’t lay claim to having uncovered some previously secret documents or archives, though I did use primary sources beginning with the Thomas Jefferson papers and the journals of our early congresses; but these are well known and well used by historians. What’s different in my sourcing, I think, is the integration of other people’s positions as reflected in the British, Canadian, Spanish, French, Mexican, and other non-U.S. historiography.
Q: Do you foresee a fourth phase of American imperialism? If so, what would it consist of?
A: In April 2008, the CBS newsmagazine “Sixty Minutes” ran a segment about how NASA is preparing to send astronauts back to the moon and then on to Mars. It even uses the word “frontier.” Why we would do this is never asked. It’s just assumed that we can, and therefore, as Americans, should. In this respect the yearning to “conquer” the “space frontier” resembles the Manifest Destiny enthusiasm of the 1840s, the “benevolent assimilation” that McKinley wanted to bestow on the Filipinos, the winning of “hearts and minds” in Vietnam. Proponents of Empire I, the continental empire, at least had the concrete objectives of land and (in California) gold; proponents of Empire II, the offshore empire, could aim like Seward at spreading civilization by means of foreign commerce; and those pushing Empire III, the global-virtual empire, could claim (even if dubiously) national security or containing the Soviets. What could justify Empire IV is, frankly, beyond me. It won’t be possible to transport John Deeres there or bring back crops or oil. Commerce is out because there are no Martians to trade with. There’s no threat to national security. So the “why” remains, I think, a good question. But how to explain the urge—without answering why—is attributable to our old and unquestioned habits of empire. We just can’t help ourselves.
Q: What subject do you plan to tackle next?
A: I’m doing a short book on Progressivism, the broad-scale reform movement that took place in the early twentieth century. Then I’m tempted to try to answer the question I mentioned earlier: why did Spain and France fail to populate and occupy the empires they claimed in North America, but which the United States succeeded in doing? Why did some populations stagnate and the American people explode westward? I don’t know if that’s answerable, but it’s a challenge.
From the Hardcover edition.