How could the United States, a nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality, have produced Abu Ghraib, torture memos, Plamegate, and warrantless wiretaps? Did America set out to become an empire? And if so, how has it reconciled its imperialism – and in some cases, its crimes – with the idea of liberty so forcefully expressed in the Declaration of Independence? Empire for Liberty tells the story of men who used the rhetoric of liberty to further their imperial ambitions, and reveals that the quest for empire has guided the nation’s architects from the very beginning, and continues to do so today.
Historian Richard Immerman paints nuanced portraits of six public figures who influenced the course of American empire: Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Wolfowitz. Each played a pivotal role as empire builder and, with the exception of Adams, did so without occupying the presidency. Taking readers from the founding of the republic to the Global War on Terror, Immerman shows how each individual’s influence arose from a keen sensitivity to the concerns of his times; how the trajectory of American empire was relentless if not straight; and how these shrewd and powerful individuals shaped their rhetoric about liberty to suit their needs.
But as Immerman demonstrates in this timely and provocative book, liberty and empire were on a collision course. And in the Global War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq, they violently collided.
The study of “American empire” is a long and distinguished pursuit, and yet one filled with controversy and disagreement.
“Little about the history of the United States is more contested than the question of whether it warrants the label empire. It took eight years of bitter war to liberate America from the shackles of the British Empire. To classify the United States with its imperial ancestor, let alone more recent exemplars and wannabes – the Germans and Soviets, for example – seems perverse, an affront to America's self-identity as well as history.”
Empire for Liberty asks two important questions: “Whatever America is now, has it always been that, or has it changed over time?” In answering these questions, the author “seeks to persuade the reader that America is and always has been an empire,” and, through the lives of six influential Americans, will analyse the trajectory of America’s “rising empire” and the evolution of that term. “Appreciating the dynamism of both” the definition and history of empire, Immerman argues, “is essential in order to weigh the varying motives that drove American empire-building: greed and racism, for example, versus progress and protection.”
In the introduction to this volume, Immerman offers a review of some of the key existing literature on the subject, illustrating the difficulties inherent in the study of empire, and how Americans – publicly and privately – have come to understand the term. The author also handily encapsulates his main view:
“I appreciate the arguments that American has been a force of good in the world, that its ideals and values, especially those concerned with liberty, do have universal applicability, that its missionary zeal to modernize less developed areas can be beneficial, and that the pursuit of foreign policies and strategies designed to promote the security of domestic and international constituents is legitimate and necessary for any state.”
That being said, however, Immerman goes on to add that, “by building an empire through either direct conquest or informal control the United States has frequently done evil in the name of good.”
When it comes to ‘liberty’, Immerman argues, “about the only thing Americans agree on is that it is good”. This is because,
“for Americans, liberty is even more difficult to define than empire. Americans believe in liberty and they support the advancement of liberty, but they interpret the word so broadly, and in so many different contexts, that it all but loses its meaning.”
The introduction offers a summarised outline of the evolution of empire in American history: stemming from comments by Founding Fathers (particularly Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton), who asserted the United States was an “empire” – although, Immerman allows for the fact that we may be misunderstanding their intentions, as the word ‘empire’ was, at that time, synonymous with the word ‘state’. Following the Civil War, the author argues, the idea of empire changed in America – as a way to juxtapose the fledgling United States from other Great Powers and their empires; something not only attainable but also attractive. During the 20th Century, ‘imperialism’ was sometimes argued to be evolving – through economic, cultural and other ties – and “the United States effectively exercised control of national politics in the states of the Caribbean and Latin America, the Pacific and Asia, the Middle and Near East, Africa, and to some extent even Europe.” In effect, during this time, “America projected its domestic system onto the international arena.”
The study of foreign policy is contested in international relations. Realism looks at the actions of states as if they were unitary actors, and yet there is so much more to a nation’s foreign policy. In order to support his decision to section his book as a series of portraits of individuals, Immerman makes the following case:
“the American empire developed into what it is today because individuals make – or made – choices. This is not to play down the power of broad political, economic, social, and cultural forces at the national and international levels. But when one sifts through the multiple influences that are the stuff of history, one ends up with individuals who choose to do one thing and not another. That is the crucial ingredient of contingency.”
It is for this reason that Immerman has decided to focus his attention on six eminent American politicians who have done their utmost to further the idea of American empire, in one form or another. Below, I will very briefly tease out some key features of his arguments and portraits of these men.
Franklin, one of the key Founding Fathers, is an interesting case, when considering the topic of Empire. Born in 1706, he grew up in an age of great, Imperial conflicts, which informed his opinion on the importance of sustaining and maintaining empires – specifically, the British Empire, of which he was a loyal and eager servant for many decades – in the late 1750s, he was described as “the most articulate and vigorous lobbyist for aggressive imperial action against France”.
His efforts and position in support of Empire were predominantly focussed on the importance of maintaining empires by granting all subjects the same rights – this, ultimately, is how he was able to break with the British, following the Stamp Act and the Crown’s negative reaction to American opposition to this unequal treatment. He was an avid proponent of landed expansion, and also the economic and industrial benefits of empire (a result of his Massachusetts origins and career in Pennsylvania – two of America’s key industrial centres at the time).
While living in London, and following the Stamp Act and growing revolutionary sentiment in the American colonies, “the British came to view and in many cases vilify Benjamin Franklin, North America’s most ardent champion of the British Empire, as the leading exponent of American independence.”
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams (JQA), the son of the second US President, John Adams, and the sixth president himself, would during his life be both an ardent supporter and opponent of US Empire.
“What marked Adam’s early official career as a diplomat was, more than his achievements, the ideas he developed from what he observed.”
In 1789, both the new American government and Constitution were in trouble: “American commerce suffered from the severe restrictions imposed by England and virtually all the Europeans” resulting in the US economy descending into shambles, debt skyrocketing as imports far outstripped exports, and support for the new government waning. Madison’s Federalist No.10 had called for a pluralist system characterised by multiple “factions”, whose different interests would come together to aid expansion and by extension America as a whole. Instead, JQA saw rampant sectional divisions throughout society and the economy. The Founding Fathers had
“envisioned… that American expansion would produce a pluralistic society even as it satisfied the multitudinous factions, [but instead it] produced a society suffused with irreconcilable factions that reflected sectional divisions.”
JQA actively campaigned for Jefferson’s continental-expansionary policies, including, as the only Federalist to do so, the Louisiana Purchase, and he would argue for the acquisition of the Oregon territory. He is best known, however, as the crafter of the Monroe Doctrine, “a watershed in the extension of America’s imperial reach,” and his expansionary policies as Secretary of State. JQA’s presidency, however, would not be marked by expansion – despite one attempt – but instead, he would spend his four years in office consolidating existing territory.
Post-presidency, Adams would come to believe expansion or empire were “no longer the fulfilment of God’s promise”, but a “disgraceful, tyrannical usurpation of the national purpose.” This belief is the natural outgrowth of his considerable, and life-long, opposition to the institution of slavery (and not the petulant opposition to Jackson, who defeated his re-election bid). JQA would seek to acquire territory in the North, to benefit the non-slave state balance, and oppose expansion in the South – particularly the annexation of Texas – as attempts by pro-slavery factions to tilt the balance in their favour. In Immerman’s words, JQA found this “intolerable, and symptomatic of an empire gone wrong.” Adam’s opposition to slavery and expansion would last until the moment he died, while conducting his duty as a congressman in the Capitol.
William H. Seward
Of JQA’s protégés, all three of whom would champion Adams’s causes after his death, it would be Seward who “revived, albeit in a different form, Adams’s ideal of an American empire.” Specifically, he was “the pioneering figure before the Civil War to recast territorial empire into a commercial” empire. As it exported manufactures, Seward believed, so too would it export its ideals, values, and principles; the United States would be an empire expanded “not by force of arms, but attraction.”
Seward was an unlikely champion for empire: “Nothing about his personal history or early life provided even a hint of the extent to which he would influence the course of America’s empire.” He was “somewhat cavalier” about his studies as a youth and “paid scant attention” to politics – even the 1812 Mexican War; he was not an ambitious or interested traveller, confining his forays within New York State, Washington D.C., and only an occasional trip to the South.
When Seward did, finally, start paying attention to politics, it was in support of JQA’s proposals for internal and educational improvement. Seward’s support for JQA was also predicated on his vehement opposition to Martin Van Buren – whom he considered part of the corrupt New York political machine. He would go on to rise through the ranks of the New York Whigs, leading to his election as New York Governor. Even in this powerful post, however, Seward would still not act the part of future champion of American Empire, despite boasting that as governor he would make New York and the Hudson River “the true and proper seat of commerce and empire”. Instead, Immerman writes, in office he “paid little attention to either commerce or empire”.
When Seward came to Washington, as a Senator for New York, his conception of the future course of American empire was already highly developed. “Like Franklin and Adams before him, Seward believed that America was destined for greatness and power, and without explaining why, he linked the expansion of liberty to both,” equally, he saw the US destined to be the victor in the competition for supremacy with the UK. This belief in the guaranteed security of American territory, Seward believed, meant “What Americans must focus on… was its future prosperity and power, and the key to both lay in commerce – specifically, in the establishment of a commercial empire,” and the principle battlefield would be the Far East.
The onset of the Civil War and the growing tension surrounding the slavery issue would shift Seward’s focus towards the ‘liberty’ aspect of the debate (save the purchase of Alaska, sometimes known as “Seward’s Folly”), but he always retained his preference for economic empire.
Henry Cabot Lodge
Seward’s protégé, John Hay, would not be the “representative of the muscular empire-builders who shepherded America to global dominance.” Instead, there were a number of new imperialists who were willing to take up the fight for expansion and American exceptionalism.
“Of these, no one was more muscular, better situated, or more instrumental in America’s imperial rise than Henry Cabot Lodge.”
That Lodge would become a “pivotal force” in US foreign policy and empire was unexpected. Like Seward before him, Lodge “focussed his early career almost exclusively on domestic affairs,” including civil service reform, high tariff, and a sound currency – after all, at the time “the legacies of Reconstruction and requisites of reunion still dominated the political landscape”.
Immerman writes that it was not just his political, rhetorical and intellectual abilities that would propel him to significance – rather, it was also due to his background as a Boston Brahmin, surrounded by like-minded individuals. Lodge was in good company: Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, and others formed a group of close friends and colleagues who worked diligently for the improvement of the American empire. James Blaine, not an intimate of Lodge’s, nonetheless also provided a “watershed” moment for Lodge, as he threw his support behind Blaine’s career, becoming “the face of American imperialism” in the process.
Lodge’s near-40 year career in national politics (in the Congress and Senate) was impressive, and “the stature and seniority he attained enabled him to contribute to the making of the American empire like no other American politician, with the possible exception of his friend TR.”
Unlike Seward, Lodge did not fixate on the commercial nature of American empire. He was not blind to its importance, but he believed in Franklin and Adams’s idealistic elements as well.
“Lodge defined the acquisition of colonies, the construction of a two-ocean navy, even the jump in trade with far-off, exotic lands as achievements calculated to recapture the American spirit and revive America’s national character.”
Lodge’s belief was that an American empire had to distinguish itself from other empire-builders, “its imperialism had to serve nobler ends than the aggrandizement of wealth and power.” Instead, it “had to civilize, uplift, and spread the American ideal of liberty.” The election of William McKinley would place Lodge in a perfect position to influence the direction of America’s foreign policy. This he did in the cases of Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines (which the US should take simply “because it could”). He would add his own addendum to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, stating that no “corporation or association” should be permitted to gain control of “any harbour or other place in the American continents”.
When it came to race, Lodge had a mixed position. He believed himself to be a progressive on the issue, yet he openly opposed the latest influx of immigrants from Europe (and also Japan). As a result, he “emerged as the Senate’s most recognisable voice opposing immigration as well as promoting empire”.
Most will know Lodge from his consistent opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s agenda. Lodge despaired for Wilson’s every foreign policy decision, and their mutual animosity came to a boil over the League of Nations charter. Their animosity is strange, in some ways, when you consider that Wilson’s approach to foreign policy and empire was a synthesis of many of Franklin’s, Adams’s, Seward’s, and even Lodge’s beliefs. He would help generate and cement opposition to the League Charter because of Article 10, which required members to come to the military aid of other members, regardless of where the action would be, or what the cause.
John Foster Dulles
For almost half a century, Dulles represented and reflected the tension between the two visions of US foreign policy: empire and restraint (of which isolationism was its most extreme form), and “his formative years paralleled America’s ascent as an international power”. Immerman provides a considerable amount of familial background for Dulles – not all of which I could see relevance in – which in some ways helps explain his life-long interest and involvement in international politics. After university, Dulles worked almost forty years for Sullivan & Cromwell, the law firm that convinced Teddy Roosevelt and Lodge to build the isthmus canal in Panama, rather than Nicaragua. The law firm “was not directly in the business of building empires,” the author writes, “But it provided expert assistance to those who did.” Dulles would take leave from his legal duties on a number of occasions to offer assistance on international relations – particularly after Robert “Uncle Bert” Lansing moved to the State Department.
Following World War I, Dulles attended the peace conference at Versailles, and his experiences there “profoundly affected his life story and his worldview,” with a lingering “bitterness toward Britain and France” whose wishes he felt greedy and punitive in the extreme, which would prevent Germany from ever recovering and in turn could bring down the European and then the United States’ economies. Dulles would come to believe, like Wilson, that the world’s great empires no longer “created sufficient equilibrium to produce a stable international system.”
Where a key focus on economic expansion had preoccupied American imperialists from the Founding Fathers onwards, Dulles’s “hierarchy of values… dramatically… differed from those associated with his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors”. For Dulles, the American empire was one of influence in geopolitics, and “never primarily about economics”. He did, however share Wilson’s belief in “the power of international finance and commerce to heal global pathologies even as they spread wealth throughout America”, and “he did not intend it to safeguard specific U.S. economic interests”. He shared Seward’s belief in America as an empire that lead by example, rather than force – which is the root of his vociferous opposition to the British, French, and Israeli campaign to seize the Suez Canal. Communism was not compatible to his worldview, and American empire was its antidote.
During the Cold War, Dulles would focus his attention to creating a defensive empire, intended to contain Soviet expansion. He was moderately successful in fuelling support for containment, but the future role of American empire was left up-for-grabs after his departure from politics and his death.
Much has been written about Wolfowitz and the neoconservative movement, so I shall not reiterate much of what Immerman writes on this subject. In this chapter, again, Immerman provides a good deal of background on Wolfowitz and his family. Wolfowitz’s worldview was highly influenced by Albert Wohlstetter, who mentored him in his postgraduate studies at Chicago, and worked on nuclear-related issues under Wohlstetter and with Richard Perle (another prominent member of the neocon faction).
Wolfowitz’s rise through the foreign policy ranks was slow and measured, working for both Republican and Democratic administrations (for example, he sympathised with Carter’s interest in human rights issues). He clashed with Kissinger because he believed Nixon’s Secretary of State’s effort to establish
“a global balance of power based on strategic parity between the United States and the Soviet Union recklessly endangered American security because the Kremlin lacked the moral scruples to be trusted and possessed the technological capacity to cause incalculable damage when it cheated.”
The Reagan era, Immerman writes, “reenergised conservatives and neoconservatives, thereby reviving the zero-sum perspective on global politics”. Prior to Reagan’s victory, however, Wolfowitz’s “messianic impulses” and concurrent concerns about US security had already started to build on his project to defeat the ‘Evil Empire’ through the promotion of its logical opposite, the ‘Righteous Empire’, the role of which would be played by the United States. Early on, as deputy assistant secretary of defence for regional planning, he would flag the Persian Gulf and specifically Iraq as areas of grave potential threat.
After American involvement to diffuse the volatile situation in the Philippines – following Ferdinand Marcos’s blatant theft of the country’s first democratic elections – Wolfowitz’s belief in America’s mission only grew:
“The United States could spread the American dream by exporting democracy. Greater liberty would inexorably follow.”
In the neoconservative tradition, the use of force is nothing to shy away from – thus, the brand of foreign policy and American empire pursued and preferred by Wolfowitz and his colleagues, broke from the force-aversion of his predecessors. Wolfowitz opposed the Kirkpatrick Doctrine favoured during the Reagan administration – a doctrine that called for total support for anti-Communism, regardless of the nature of the anti-Communists (see Iran-Contra for an example of how this was a bad idea). Wolfowitz believed Kirkpatrick’s doctrine to be insufficiently Wilsonian, ignoring the “liberty” aspect of America’s global mission. Wolfowitz’s perception was that, “as the avatar of liberty and democracy the United States was locked in mortal combat with global tyrants”.
When the Berlin Wall came down, and as undersecretary of defence for policy under Secretary Cheney, Wolfowitz found himself in a position to help identify how the American empire should act, as the sole remaining empire/superpower While he had no perceived influence on GHWB’s decision to oppose Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, it nonetheless converged with his view of a Wilsonian foreign policy, with the US protecting the Free World against tyranny and oppression. The president’s refusal to take the fight to Baghdad, however, conflicted with Wolfowitz’s belief that no tyrant should be left untoppled; Bush’s inaction and Saddam’s brutal retreat cemented Wolfowitz’s belief that the US
“must remain engaged, and by engaged he meant militarily engaged until it had rid the world of all those tyrants who held in contempt the values and liberties the United States stood for. Monsters cannot be contained.”
In the wake of the Gulf War, Wolfowitz would channel his career into institutionalising the mythic nature of American purpose. Through the 1992 Defence Planning Guidance (DPG), Wolfowitz guided a collective effort by a number of like-minded individuals – all of whom would reappear during George W. Bush’s administration: Libby and Khalilizad, for example. The DPG identified US primacy as the defining feature of the post-Cold War world, and recommended the US take full advantage of its pre-eminence in order to maintain its position. There were two main suggestions on how to do this. First, Immerman writes, “the United States must support constructive policies and programs that co-opted potential opposition and generated a tidal wave of support for American leadership”. The second prescription was for “unequivocal and ever-increasing military superiority required to turn the unipolar moment into a unipolar era.”
Unlike the realists of the Bush administration, who saw global affairs as zero-sum power politics, and the role of America as saving the world from itself, Wolfowitz believed that the US also had “the capability to remake the world”. Specifically, Wolfowitz’s highest priority fell on the Middle East, with a particular passion for ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. Going against John Quincy Adams’s warning against foreign adventurism, Wolfowitz believed
“Destroying monsters was the prerequisite for establishing an American empire, and an American empire was the prerequisite for an Empire for Liberty.”
As a member of the George W. Bush administration, Wolfowitz would see his grand design rent asunder by the fiasco in Iraq, as “developments shattered Wolfowitz’s prediction[s]”:
“[Iraq’s] liberation and liberalisation were to serve as the cornerstone of a new Middle East that would provide a shining example of the potential of an American empire, much as the Philippines had provide an example fifteen years earlier.”
Immerman’s treatment of Wolfowitz – especially when discussing the George W. Bush years – to me, lacked the objectivity of earlier chapters, and has the air more of indictment than investigation or analysis. Immerman is not wrong or unreasonable in his commentary, but the tone was noticeably different. When discussing Wolfowitz’s work as head of the World Bank, however, his tone swings back to moderately praiseworthy, as Wolfowitz does appear to have tried to do good, despite the (justified) ‘guilt-by-association’ reputation he had acquired from being a prominent Bush underling, and the scandal involving his mistress, which cast him in an extremely negative light among his new colleagues.
* * *
While contemporary conceptions of liberty differ from era to era, each of six individuals profiled in Empire of Liberty truly believed in America as a land (and empire) of liberty, and that its ‘job’ in international relations was to spread its values to all corners of the globe “they were not tricked into accepting this purpose”, and their belief of American exceptionalism is shared by “most Americans”.
“When ‘ground truth’ diverged from these beliefs, they rationalised the discrepancy by arguing that long-term benefits sometimes required compromises, or they dismissed incongruities as anomalies, as aberrations. Rhetoric trumped reality.”
Immerman’s conclusion nicely sums up the contradictory nature of an American Empire for Liberty, pointing out the flaws and conflicts. The author looks at the effect the Global War on Terror has had on Americans’ conception of America’s mission. Immerman also suggests the GWOT may have a greater consequence, as it may well cause the American population to reconsider their core beliefs about liberty and American purpose, and has – in light of the “dark side” of the GWOT – “forced Americans to confront who they are”.
This is a very well written and argued book. The approach is innovative, and allows Immerman to work beyond the usual study of presidents, who “unfairly” get most of the attention. It’s difficult to think of any other individuals who might have been included, and certainly not anyone who could have substituted for any of the six individuals Immerman has chosen to study.
Empire for Liberty allows for a wider understanding of the evolution of ideas that would come to be attributed to specific presidents – identifying other, non-Executive actors who placed their stamp on the process of foreign and domestic policy. For the most part, his prose is clear and there is a logical flow to his argument and narrative – though, at times, the author can get bogged down in seemingly extraneous explanations and descriptions (all interesting, but it’s not always clear why they’re relevant to his argument – specifically in the chapter on Benjamin Franklin). Sometimes this can really destroy the flow of the book, but for the main the pages tick by at a decent rate. Due to the continuing-narrative nature of the book, however, as you progress through the chapters, it will become clear how each of these men influenced, laid the groundwork for, or altered the future development of the ideas of ‘empire’ and ‘liberty’.
Moving away from the content and analysis, I must say I was disappointed at the number of typos and grammatical errors in the book. For the main, they were minor typos, doubled words or malapropisms, but there were the occasional errors which were more than mere typing slips (most noticeably, in John Quincy Adams’s chapter, we are told that John Adams married Abigail during the Civil War, in 1864, rather than 1764. Thirty-eight years after his death…). A pity, given the quality of Immerman’s argument and analysis.
Overall, Immerman has written one of the best descriptions and analyses of ‘American empire’ – its meaning, evolution, and key figures that have impacted the idea. Empire for Liberty is essential reading for students and enthusiasts of American history and the United States’ place in and approach to the world, historically and contemporarily.
Further Reading: William Appleby Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (2007); Niall Ferguson, Colossus (2005); David Reynolds, America: Empire of Liberty (2009); Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules (2010); Stephen Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, The Rise To Globalism (1998)