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Empire as a Way of Life
William Appleman Williams
Excerpted from the August 2, 1980 Issue
There is no way to understand the nature of our predicament except by confronting our history as an empire. That is the only way to comprehend the Iranian demand that we acknowledge our long-term interference in their affairs, the widespread anger about our acquiescence in the progression of Israel’s settlements on the West Bank, the Russian charge that we apply one standard to them and another to ourselves and the deep resentment of us among the peoples of the poor countries. The only way we can come to terms with those matters is to look our imperial history in the eye without blinking, flinching or walking away into the wonderland of Woodrow Wilson’s saving the world for democracy.
Let us start with a definition of empire: the use and abuse, and the ignoring, of other people for one’s own welfare and convenience. America was born and bred of empire. That does not mean that we are unique; indeed, just the opposite. We are different only because we acquired the empire at a very low cost, because the rewards have been enormous and because until now we have masked our imperial truth with the rhetoric of freedom.
Make no mistake about it: the imperial way of life produced the promised rewards. It generated great economic wealth and effectively limited social discontent. But we must also report the costs. I do not for a moment dismiss the people killed and the property stolen, but I would suggest that the greatest price was paid in the coin of our sensitivity about what we were doing and how that was understood by other peoples. We were already assuming that our right to security transcended the traditional right to defend what we had and had become the right to perfect security in any imaginable future contingency. We began to define security as the natural right to empire.
Americans became so habituated to empire as the price of freedom that they demanded ever more freedom and ever more empire. Andrew Jackson was at once a prime mover and the symbol of that new enthusiasm for the imperial way of life. More freedom at home and more expansion elsewhere. People like the Cherokees were clearly backward—and so a threat to the American Way. Move them out and force them to adapt. And all the while other Americans, the merchants, the shippers, the sealers, the whalers and the Navy, were busy defining the sea itself as another frontier to be penetrated, controlled and exploited.