Last Lecture: Against Empire


I am not sure why, but have started writing out last lectures for my “US as a Global Power” class. It makes me feel like a mid-twentieth century professor: cue pipe (and penis). The course is challenging, exciting and also painful for me as well as for my students. Writing out a last lecture is my attempt to synthesize where we have been over the past few months and what that might mean. Also, it’s kind of a love letter to my students, for their hard work and patience over the course of a long and difficult semester contemplating the workings and wreckage of American empire.

Good morning.  And, as I should have said before, maybe every single day before we started class:  we stand at this moment on the historic lands of the Menominee, Miami and Potawatomie nations, who remain sovereign and present in Milwaukee today.  The existence of the University of Wisconsin, one of the great American land grant institutions advancing research and public education, is dependent on a system of settler-colonialism, in which the state amasses lands and resources, and in the process, dispossesses indigenous inhabitants.  That is the ground we stand on at this moment.

This interpretation has been overshadowed in our national political life by American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States conveys democracy and progress around the world, and, therefore, is unlike any imperial power of the past.  You can see the university as an emblem of progress and enlightenment; or you can contextualize that progress and enlightenment in light of dispossession and loss and start from there.

Because of the dominance of American exceptionalism, I have felt it necessary in this class to emphasize practices of empire, from the colonial period on, and to trace the ways that these practices are entangled not only with the emergence of the United States as a global power –the operative title of this course – but with the very existence of the nation itself.

This class, then, is in many ways a long intervention against the history and historiography of American exceptionalism.  In one semester, you as students were asked to challenge your longstanding understanding of our national past. Many of you have testified to your surprise and pain over the course of the semester as we examined this history.

Over the course of this class, we have talked about the development of an American empire, starting with Thomas Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” in what became the continental United States over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Built largely through the labor of enslaved Africans and exploited migrants from Europe and the Americas, this empire required dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants in this land. An ideology of Manifest Destiny justified expansion West as well as the confiscation of a healthy chunk of Mexico at the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848.

Overseas expansion followed the “closing of the frontier” in 1892 and the military defeat of united Indian nations in the West. Starting with the Spanish American war, the United States began to acquire territories beyond our continental boundaries: Hawai’i, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines.

The constitution sort of followed the flag. But the new territories were legally marked as separate from the nation. Often viewed as racially distinct, their denizens were accorded differential access to democratic self-government and the full rights and protections of American citizenship.

Practices of empire overseas were shaped by domestic ideas of gender and race, which governed everything from ideas of the appropriate attire for Hawai’ian hula dancers, to the civilizing burden carried by missionaries, to labor practices in the new territories, to the capability of people newly ruled by the stars and stripes to emigrate to the imperial center and become full citizens.   In turn, the conduct of overseas empire shaped domestic governance, requiring tax dollars, surveillance infrastructure, immigration enforcement, and frequent military mobilizations, among other things.

Around this time in the course, we encountered the great American political theorist, W.E.B. DuBois.  You’ll remember his line, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Many of you quoted his essay on WWI, “The African Roots of War,” on the first take-home exam. In his writing as well as his political work founding the Pan African Congress in 1900, DuBois recognized a Black and anti-colonial internationalism often at odds with American empire.  DuBois and his allies recognized the mutually reinforcing connections between domestic racism and imperialism. They created global networks to counter imperialism and work for racial justice.

In addition to territorial expansion, American empire operated economically. Learning from the banana, we looked at the rise of United Fruit as a political, military, and tourist power in the western hemisphere. This took place during the period between the two world wars, often referred to as a time of “isolationism” in the United States.  Despite this isolationism, this period was marked by multiple U.S. military interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the expansion of an economic empire facilitated by the newly constructed Panama Canal. Dressed in her signature fruit headdress, Portuguese-born Brazilian Carmen Miranda performed Latin American songs and dances for an American audience. More affluent members of her audience could tour the region on United Fruit’s cruise ship freighters, learning from the company about the happy lives of the plantation workers there.

Typically, historians think of the end of World War II as marking the end of isolationism and the emergence of the U.S. as a global power.  We talked about the elusive human rights moment at the end of the war: the formation of the United Nations and the idea of internationally recognized rights for all. DuBois delivered an address to the U.N. in 1947: “An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of the Rights of Minorities,” asking the newly formed body to recognize and respond to injustices in the United States. In 1951, the UN High Conference on Refugees recognized international rights  for refugees.  These are still on the books, though they are rarely realized in the conduct of individual nations towards the world’s 65 million displaced persons.

We read Henry Luce’s very different declaration of insurgent American power at the end of the war, as well as Harry Truman admonishing the west to protect democracy by fighting the rise of “unfree,” communist world powers.  Just as manifest destiny once explained the virtue and necessity of expansion west, anti-communism became the rallying point through which the U.S. mobilized incursions into decolonizing nations in Africa and Asia and continued its domination of the Western Hemisphere.

Our study of the global Cold War began by looking at the U.S. alliance with the newly independent Filipino regime in repressing the Hukbalahap uprising after World War II.  Huk rebels had been key American allies in the fight against Japanese domination of the Philippines. But immediately after the war, President Ramon Magsaysay deemed them communist and worked to extinguish their claims for strong unions and equitable land distribution.  Habits of empire prevailed, and the U.S. backed the suppression of the Huk rebels.

As anti-Huk operations in the Philippines suggest, Cold War practices were crucially shaped by previous habits of empire. Edward Lansdale developed his counterinsurgency theories in the Philippines and fell in love with a Filipina, Patrocinio  (Pat) Yapcinco, who became his longtime mistress and later, his wife, there before bringing both to South Vietnam.  We could start a lot of places and find these kinds of continuities and parallels. The Philippines is one place to look for imperial continuities:  we also noted Ho Chi Minh’s presence at Versailles at the close of WWI, his eloquent pressure on Woodrow Wilson’s support for liberal internationalism and national sovereignty.

The State Department and the new Central Intelligence Agency understood the rise of anti-colonial movements in countries like Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Congo, Nicaragua, Angola, Honduras,  and Vietnam as anti-American, both because they were potentially communist and because they threatened economic and political interests overseas.  Cold War military engagements returned stateside, in the form of immigrants and refugees, increased surveillance and militarization, and even the names of subdivisions sold by real estate agents previously employed by the CIA.

The internationalism of the Cold War created both the infrastructure and ideological disposition of our current War on Terror.  Iranians in 1979 remembered the US-backed overthrow of Mossadegh in ways few Americans were able to do at the time, courtesy of American exceptionalism.  To many Iranians, US efforts on behalf of the ailing despot, Shah Reza Pahlavi, were contiguous with prior forms of intervention: deposing a democratically elected government, training the despised Savak, the Shah’s brutal intelligence agency.

To Americans watching the newly invented Nightline, with its nightly chronicle of national emergency, it appeared that Iranians – most often portrayed as an angry, Islamic, mob –had a baseless, almost dispositional hatred of the United States.  As President George W. Bush explained it after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, “they hate our freedoms.”  American TV watchers had little access to the long history of the region, so it appeared that the U.S. embassy in Tehran had fallen victim to fundamentalist mob rule, that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda came out of nowhere, possessed of an inexplicable hatred of the west.

Cold War considerations, like the arming of anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan, have created the conditions for our current, seemingly endless War on Terror.  American and Saudi funding to Pakistan during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nurtured and militarized the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, including nascent Al Qaeda.  As Jeremy Scahill explains, these forces subsequently flourished during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The continuity of U.S. empire, its militarization and seemingly endless reach, is one of the stories told in this class.  Many of you commented on how overwhelming this continuity feels, and how difficult it seems to oppose it or even to find other historical threads.

Recently, when we listened to Stephen Kinzer talk about the history of U.S. intervention from the 19th century to the present, many of you took hopeful note of his discussion of Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League. We studied the Anti-Imperialist League briefly, when we discussed the Spanish American War and beginnings of overseas empire.  But, maybe because this course tilts towards the story of empire, many of you had forgotten it.

So Kinzer’s reading of Mark Twain as a fiery anti-imperialist, thundering against the moral and political implications of empire, stood out.  We tend to understand Twain as a clever, playful fellow, rather than as an anti-imperialist thinker. Similarly, we learn about Henry David Thoreau and even read his “On Civil Disobedience” as an example of upstanding, solitary morality, rather than as a broad indictment of the Mexican-American War, which is how Thoreau meant it to be read.

I took your somewhat belated attention to the Anti-Imperialist League as a hunger for alternatives to empire, so I want to work towards a conclusion of this last lecture, and this class, that opens up some non- and anti-imperial possibilities.  Just as the conduct of empire is an international proposition, it conjures and occasions alternative internationalisms.  These alternative internationalisms hold out other possibilities for relations between nations and their inhabitants.  They are not always ascendant, but they are persistent.   We can think about the Anti-Imperialist League in this country; we can think about the Pan-Africanist Congress and its work against racism and colonialism. Revisiting Christina Heatherton’s “University of Radicalism,” we notice that resistance to empire is everywhere, even in the jails in which anti-imperialist radicals find themselves in company with other outlaws and dissidents.

Errands of U.S. empire have long occasioned mass protest.  Domestic and soldier opposition to the Vietnam War hastened the U.S. exit from Saigon in 1975.  Protesters the world over opposed both wars in Iraq as well as the ongoing bombings in Syria and Yemen.  Responding to calls from Palestinian civil society, people around the world are taking part in the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement calling for an end to Israel’s American-backed occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

We don’t have to look far to see resistance to empire.  As we sit in class today, a caravan of migrants has made their way from the violence and poverty imposed in their Central American countries by decades of exploitation, starting with United Fruit and continuing through CIA-backed regime change under presidents from Truman through Trump.  (At this very moment the U.S. backs a regime in Honduras that lost the popular vote in a recent election.). Migration is a form of resistance to the inequalities of historyMany in the United States have recognized the rights of migrants, working to shelter them against deportation through the Sanctuary Movement, which began during the 1980s and continues through the present day.

We can look to indigenous nations, who continue to resist settler-colonialism, after more than 500 years of it. Last year, a mobilization of indigenous nations of the Americas stood off the Dakota Access Pipeline for seven months, making the long fight of the Oceti Sakowin to protect their lands and waters visible the world over. Such fights to protect resources continue throughout the Americas.  It is only the narrative of exceptionalism, of progress and benevolent improvement, that keep many of us from seeing these struggles.

I remember  how surprised some of you were when we saw Colin Powell  testifying to the United Nations about evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, and I told you that I knew, and most of my friends did too, that he was lying.  We went to war anyway, though I remember marching in the streets of Toledo, Ohio, where I was living at the time, with a crowd of recent Arab and Muslim immigrants who worried what the conflict might mean for their homelands.  I do believe that it matters to know the truth, and that when more of us know the truth, we can prevail.

Opposition to empire has not always been successful, but it has been continuous.  It matters that you know some of the history we talked about this semester, that you can recognize the language of exceptionalism when you hear it, that you can make your own choices about what is right and what is true.

Thank you for being open to talking about all of this, for being curious, for wanting to know stuff I had to cram over the weekend, and for always asking questions I could not quite answer. I have learned a lot from you this semester.


Last Lecture: Against Empire

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