American Empire

A review of American Empire: A Global History (Princeton, 2018) by A.G. Hopkins

From the beginning, America has been a house divided. As Andrés Reséndez details in The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, the North American continent has, since long before the arrival of Europeans, been a place of dominion and servitude. The influx of whites led to the banding of the landmass into Spanish, French, and English territories, all intermixed with Natives and their variegated ways. The Spanish and French, riven by internal divisions both colonial and domestic, eventually quit North America. The English remained, but if anything the seed of Albion was just as conflicted as the other Europeans and the hundreds of indigenous tribes.

Very broadly, there developed two main cultures on the eastern North American seaboard. In the South, a civilization of cultivation, of the soul and of the social person, where the harder facts of human existence were worked into a rich brocade of cultural tradition. A hierarchy embraced both the good and the bad of life, and a care for place and ancestry tempered, or sometimes exacerbated, social ills. In the North, a hardscrabble utopianism born of a denuded Protestantism, a Puritan faith that boiled off like a liquified gas, taking with it reliance on God and leaving in its place reliance on man. The Unitarianism of the North reflected the flatness of the Northern imagination. There was no civilizational room for diversity. Everything, as a famous northern political leader once opined, had to be either all one way, or all the other.

Over the course of many centuries, these two American cultures grew apart, even as the business of disassociating themselves from their imperial progenitor drove them together, and the lines between them hardened. The side that believed itself to be destined by God to transform the world in its own image (the side whose forebears had declared, even before boarding the ship that would take them to Massachusetts Bay, that they had been chosen to be the city upon the hill of which Christ had spoken in the Sermon on the Mount) eventually insisted that things be all their own way, and no one else’s. The Leveler instinct was unleashed on the South, and a profoundly complex culture was “reconstructed” to suit the tastes of the ascendant Yankee empire.

Today, the ineptly-named Washington, DC (whose namesake was an anti-imperialist Southerner) straddles the globe, throwing its weight around from Baghdad to Taipei, and from Ottawa to Johannesburg. Those who seek the origins of the Yankee empire often disagree as to when it began, but many agree that the United States of America is, indeed, an imperial power. The details of this empire have been written about in a host of other volumes. Recently, for example, gifted American historian Bill McClay has told the story of how America slowly changed from being a gathering of cultures to a being a single nation-state. James Ronald and Walter Donald Kennedy’s excellent Yankee Empire lists many—but, astoundingly, nowhere near all—of this empire’s many sins. Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, William Appleman Williams, and Chalmers Johnson have helped flesh out the rest, but much of the enormity of the Yankee empire remains to be told.

One of the mainstays of the Yankee empire’s episteme is the belief in its own exceptionalism. “American exceptionalism” is a Stalinist moniker, to be sure, but long before the Soviet Union, northern Americans—such as those who prided themselves on the biblical nature of a city they had not yet built in a land they had not yet been to—thought of themselves as uniquely called to effect heaven on earth. This assurance of predestination has colored nearly everything the Yankee empire has done, from the forced assimilation of Native Americans in concentration camps and the internment of Japanese Americans behind barbed wire to the “liberation,” by bullet, bomb, and bayonet, of the Moros, the Cubans, the Okinawans, the Iraqis, and more. It is because Yankees see themselves, and their empire, as exceptional that they are willing to make exceptions to the rules and exempt their imperium from the usual historical processes by which so many other empires have risen and collapsed.

Now, from esteemed English historian A.G. Hopkins, comes a new book, American Empire, which begins from a very different place than belief in American exceptionalism. The opposite place, in fact. For Hopkins, America is not a separate country so much as an extension of the British Empire, operating under the same logic of empire that both goads and plagues all other empires, and not even really an independent entity until very late in the imperial game. The Kennedys’ Yankee Empire is the unsettling of Yankee ambition from the viewpoint of the Confederacy; Hopkins’ American Empire is the unsettling of Yankee ambition from the viewpoint of Whitehall. In both books we find, not an exceptional imperial project, but a rather lackluster one. The American empire is nothing particularly special, but rather a variation on a theme as old as human history itself.

Hopkins’ book, by contrast, deserves exceptional attention. It is a massive effort, 738 pages of text followed by nearly two hundred pages of small-type endnotes. Hopkins is a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge and also taught for more than a decade at the University of Texas-Austin. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and has a range of expertise nearly as broad as the British Empire itself, ranging easily from African history (his specialty) to North and South America and Western and Eastern Europe, as well as East and Southeast Asia. American Empire is a sweeping, wonderfully researched work of scholarship, a masterpiece following a lifetime of study and serious thought. This is a book that readers will want to read with a pencil in hand, as so much new information and so many new insights are sprinkled throughout each tightly-written page.

Hopkins is particularly keen on reintroducing the history of America’s insular empire into the tale of the United States, and in American Empire he succeeds beautifully in doing just that. When Yankee exploits in Hawai’i, the Caribbean, and the Philippines are foregrounded and taken in context with the essentially English nature of America and the imperial origins (in one form or another, “imperialism” being a notoriously capacious and multifunctional term) of English settlement in North America, it turns out that the United States’ conquest of the east, the Mississippi River Valley, the west, part of Mexico, and eventually all of the Pacific to Japan and South Korea, was basically imperial business-as-usual. It is difficult to learn the truth about the Yankees’ rapacious greed in Honolulu and Manila and San Juan, and then to take seriously Yankee claims to be somehow better than all the other conquerors who have set their sights on other people’s property. Americans think of themselves as a continental people, but the view from the islands is very different than the view from the lower forty-eight.

The only real difference between the Yankee empire and all others is that Americans never really had the constitution to administer foreign lands as, say, the British did. Theodore Roosevelt was almost maniacally gung-ho about conquering Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, but he soon tired of this sport and moved on to other exercises of the will. His son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who had been charged with keeping up imperial appearances, eventually began insisting that it was long past time for the Yankees to go home. If the American empire is exceptional, it is only in the Americans’ flightiness and refusal to make long-term plans beyond the initial “shock and awe”. To that end, indeed, Hopkins begins and ends his book with the invasion of Iraq, showing how both the UK and the USA stumbled into the same imperial graveyard nearly one century apart.

Hopkins is certainly no southern partisan, and he shows that southerners also wanted to colonize the Caribbean islands and extend slavery out into the newly-acquired North American territories. But what emerges from American Empire is a picture of the imperial dialectic’s transformation of an agrarian society into an expansive one. The Yankee empire, once it got going, put pressure on the South in a myriad of ways, from tariffs to millenarian abolitionist violence, and Yankee machinations in Congress made the South realize that the only way to maintain its civilization was to beat the Yankees at their own game. It was a tragedy of Yankee imperialism that the South got caught up in this, and, while Hopkins does not make this especially explicit, it is plain to see that the South succumbed to imperialist logic even before imperialist logic, in the person of William Tecumseh Sherman, made itself physically felt in the final destruction of the Old South.

And yet, not everything has been lost. Reading American Empire, it is hard to escape the comforting notion that there remains an alternative to the Yankee dominion of North America and so much else of the contemporary globe. The South is captive, but not gone. And the Yankee empire, like all others, will one day fall. A.G. Hopkins’ new book is a panoramic exploration of the imperial American past, but it is also a tacit diagnosis of its future. The North will have its Gibbon, in other words, but the South will not need one.

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