The Stupid Empire

As the first leg of the American invasion force rolled through Iraq in 2003, Sergeant Brad Colbert of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps leaned out the window of his Humvee and urged the Iraqi people to “vote Republican.” This moment was captured by the embedded reporter, Evan Wright, and made famous in a series of articles that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine and later in the HBO mini-series Generation Kill. (I recommend this series to anyone who wants a realistic view of the early stages of the war in Iraq. It is not for the faint of heart, however. The vulgarity and violence may turn some viewers off, but it also helps explain why people in other parts of the world hate the United States.) Wright later recounted that Colbert was not making a joke; he firmly believed what he was saying. While this surprised Wright, it typifies the “stupid empire” of the Republican Party and progressives in general.

From the war to “end slavery” to the war to “liberate Iraq,” the United States has been waging war for the last one-hundred and fifty years to theoretically bring “liberty and democracy” to “heathen” parts of the world. These are, rhetorically, wars for “humanity’s sake,” but more than anything they bring a perverted form of empire, one in which United States taxpayers are on the hook for trillions of dollars with nothing to show for it except more war, higher taxes, inflation, and resentment from many of the people the military sought to “liberate.” Liberation becomes a relative term, and most of the people “freed” by the United States become dependents of the federal government or are betrayed by the loose promises of “freedom and democracy.”

On 18 December 1865, the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania made the following remark before the House of Representatives: “The future condition of the conquered power depends on the will of the conqueror. They [the Southern states] must come in as new states or remain as conquered provinces.” In one sentence, Stevens clearly articulated the intent of the Republican Party during the War Between the States. Southerners were a conquered people subject to the will of the Republican Party. Former slaves, the “liberated,” were the pawns by which to keep the South “loyal” to the Union.

It is easy to imagine a Union soldier insisting that Southern blacks “vote Republican,” just as Colbert called on Iraqis to “vote Republican.” And, of course, most freedmen and their descendants did vote Republican until the 1960s. Grant would have been hard pressed to win the 1868 presidential election without them and the concurrent disfranchisement of most “evil” Southern whites through the illegally passed 14th Amendment. The Republican war machine spent four years destroying homes, property, lives, and infrastructure and now planned on rebuilding, or more accurately remaking, the South with the help of the “liberated.” As Radical Republican Lot Morrill of Maine said following the war, “The ballot in the hands of the negro became as much the necessity of reconstruction of the republican States and their restoration as the bayonet in his hands was the necessity of the war.”

Abraham Lincoln made the war a “humanitarian” effort with the pithy though incorrect Gettysburg Address in 1863, but where was the humanitarianism of William T. Sherman’s army as they plundered their way to the sea in 1864 or Philip Sheridan’s army as it commenced with the burning of the Shenandoah Valley in the same year? And how was the Republican Party being “humanitarian” when it used the military to enforce carpetbag rule, higher taxes, and both direct and indirect confiscation of property following the war? It seems the blueprint for the United States Empire was written in the years after the unnecessary carnage of the War Between the States: “liberate” a group of people and make them dependent on your continued rule; disfranchise those who oppose you and destroy their property and culture, but tell the world you are doing this for the good of the “liberated.” The South, personified as the woman in the following political cartoon, could easily be any other culture who has faced the burden of the American empire in the last 150 years.

As the Democrats consistently pointed out during the years following Reconstruction, the Republican Party did not change. Without evil Southerners to fight, the Union army turned its attention to the West, and under the direction of Sherman and Sheridan, the western Indian tribes faced the onslaught of the new American foreign policy of “liberty and equality.” Tribes that supported the Confederacy during the War Between the States felt the hammer of the federal government or were intentionally deceived in order to secure land for the railroads. Others who opposed the “blessings” of the Republican Party and the Union army were often slaughtered. Lincoln, in fact, ordered the largest mass execution in American history. 38 Dakota warriors were executed in 1862 after a Sioux revolt against Minnesota residents who continually breached treaties between the tribes and the federal government. Republican benevolence had limits, particularly in regard to those who could not help the Party win elections.

The frontier was “closed” during the administration of Republican Benjamin Harrison with the land runs in Oklahoma beginning in 1889. Again, the government, under Republican leadership, mainly through the corrupt Radical Republican Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, reneged on promises to the Five Civilized Tribes and seized their land through “re-allotment.” The Dawes Act of 1887 divided Oklahoma into small homestead farms, often too small to be productive. Dawes and other Republicans insisted that the re-allotment process would “help” the tribes and provide them with the blessings of liberty and prosperity, but without question, the Act destroyed tribal culture and through corruption and intimidation, most of the tribal members who received land eventually sold it for less than what it was worth or lost it. Dawes had shown a propensity for scheming before—he had been part of the infamous Credit Mobiler Scandal of 1872—and his actions toward tribal lands did him no justice. This should not have been a surprise, however. It was the M.O. for the Republican Party, the same men who pillaged the South following the War in the name of humanity and who ran roughshod over the Constitution during Radical Reconstruction.

The election of Republican William McKinley in 1896 ushered in a new age of American imperialism, but one directly tied to the ideas of Reconstruction. Less than two years after taking office, McKinley asked congress for a declaration of war against Spain. This “Splendid Little War,” known as the Spanish-American War of 1898, netted the United States Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The United States went to war, in part, to “liberate” the Cubans and the Filipino people from evil Spanish rule. Without question, Cuban revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spain before the war began were harshly treated by the Spanish governor of Cuba, but opponents wondered whether that justified American involvement. And, since the United States occupied Cuba after the war and inserted the infamous Platt Amendment into the Cuban Constitution in 1901, what had Cubans gained by cozying up to the United States? Authored by Connecticut Republican Orville Platt, the Amendment made Cuba a virtual protectorate of the United States, and the big brother to the north could intervene at any time to “save” Cuba from itself.

In the Pacific, the United States became involved in a guerrilla war against Filipino insurrectionary forces after they refused to submit to American rule. Teddy Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had instructed Admiral George Dewey to invade the Philippines once war was declared in 1898 (How that related to the poor, downtrodden Cubans no one could answer). Dewey steamed into Manila Bay, defeated a larger Spanish Fleet, and helped protect the American expeditionary force led by Wesley Merritt, a Union War veteran and participant in Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. The Philippines were placed under an American military governor—at first all Republican Civil War vets starting with Merritt—in an effort to bring the blessing of “liberty” their “little brown brothers,” but not all of them accepted American gestures of “humanity” and “liberty.”

Filipino Emilio Aguinaldo harassed American combat forces for three years. This was the first American Vietnam. William H. Taft was eventually appointed governor of the Philippines by McKinley, and to his credit reluctantly accepted the position because he did not support the acquisition in the first place, but Taft did oversee some of the fiercest combat of the Philippine-American War and ultimately supported American occupation.

Republicans trumpeted American military successes (sound familiar?) and claimed that the war was merited to help the pitiful Cuban and Filipino people. This campaign poster says it all:

By the time Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, the Republicans had firmly established themselves as the Party of international empire, and no better articulation of this principle can be found than Roosevelt’s 1904 annual address. In this message, Roosevelt rolled out the principles of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: “Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. 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.” So, the United States determines good conduct and “decency in social and political matters,” and if you fail, the United States will become an “international police power” to keep you in line. This has since been extended to the globe. Ask the people of the Middle East.

Successive presidents used Roosevelt’s logic to intervene in Latin American affairs, and interventionism found new flavor under Democrats Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Imperialism was no longer confined to the Republican Party; progressives had co-opted the message and used it to bring “liberty and democracy” to “unenlightened” or “hopeless” people around the globe. Wilson re-organized Europe after World War I (to the detriment of many cultures in Europe), and Roosevelt helped jump start fifty years of American “police power” by involving the United States in World War II, by appeasing Josef Stalin at Yalta and by insisting on a United Nations. This led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives during the Cold War.

All of these actions had their roots in the Radical Reconstruction of the South. Republicans conquered and subjugated the South and found new votes in the Freedmen. They extended their “humanitarian” efforts by crushing the Plains Indian tribes and in the process opened thousands of acres for their railroads. The Party brought “liberty” to the Cubans and Filipinos and became the police force of the Western Hemisphere under Teddy Roosevelt. “Vote Republican!” Of course, by World War I, you no longer had to vote Republican; voting for either major party sufficed.

So, why is the United States the “stupid empire?” Simple. Unlike other empires in history, the United States expects the conquered to love the conqueror. The Romans did not expect their conquered subjects to love them. They ruled and the conquered accepted. The Athenians crushed several attempts to jettison their rule during the height of their empire, and the British did not care for the plight of their “subjects.” A subject in each case was part of the best and most fee state in the world. Resistance was preposterous (and deadly). Americans, however, believe that our efforts are the result of a simple dichotomy of good vs. evil. We freed you from evil and “gave” you your country back (conditionally), so love us! Reconstruction is taught that way, so is the American push to “liberate” other parts of the world. Certainly, the hypocrisy of the Spanish-American War and the misfortunes of the Plains Indian tribes have been documented, but no one connects the dots between the Republicans who looted the South during Reconstruction and the Republicans who raided the West, the Pacific, and Latin American during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

History has been unjustly kind to the conquerors and many mainstream historians have defended the conquering under idiotic moralistic pretenses. Slavery was bad so white Southerners deserved a beating; the railroads and western homesteaders needed property and Indians were vicious, so the tribes (somewhat) deserved a beating; the Spanish brutalized the Cubans and the Filipinos so the Spanish deserved a beating; Saddam was bad so he deserved a beating. Of course, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, and others were brutal madmen, but it had never been American foreign policy to make “corrections” in the name of “liberty and democracy” until after the War Between the States. Like grizzly bears, the Republicans tasted human blood and had to continue their feeding. It has never stopped. Unfortunately, now voting for either major party perpetuates the “stupid empire.” Love us or die! [But we’ll give you everything back anyway with our strings attached because Americans are the “good guys.”]

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