Thanksgiving: Just another day of empire

Joel Helfrich

The other day, Minnesota Public Radio aired a documentary that asked the following question: “Is the United States becoming an empire?” I chuckled to myself and immediately thought every student at the University should be asked to purchase and read historian William Appleman Williams’ short tour de force, “Empire as a Way of Life,” during Thanksgiving break. After the break, we could create teach-ins that discuss, critique and build on William’s work – all the while offering ways to deal with our present state of affairs. We would do well to ponder Williams’ words: “One of the central themes of American historiography is that there is no American empire. Most historians will admit, if pressed, that America once had an empire. They then promptly insist that it was given away. But they also speak persistently of America as a world power.” Perhaps we should read Anne McClintock’s “Imperial Leather” and Walter LaFeber’s “Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism,” among others, for good measure.

But Williams’ work can help us start a dialogue on this campus that is sorely needed. It is not only important to protest against our ever-growing military industrial complex and the resources that it milks from U.S. society; if you want to make change in this society, you must understand, at a deep level, the foundation on which the history of the United States rests. From the colonial period to the present, Williams lays out a stark reality: The United States is and has long been an empire. Each chapter also includes a timeline of events, mainly military, that the United States has taken part in since 1798. At the start of each chapter, Williams offers quotations – some critical, some sarcastic, some innocent, but all illuminating – from foreign diplomats, John Locke and Adam Smith, presidents on both sides of the political isle, authors such as Melville, Twain and Fitzgerald, and historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Stephen Ambrose and Francis Jennings.

For example, foreign policy and intelligence experts Thomas Franck and Edward Weisband said, “Unfortunately, the United States has never learned to listen to itself as if it were the enemy speaking.” In 1811, American statesman Henry Clay said, “A war will give us commerce and character.” In 1850, Melville commented, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of out time.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 declared, “It would be particularly unwise from political and psychological standpoints to permit limitation of our action to be imposed by any other nation than our own.” Consider

looking at the Bush Doctrine, www.white house.gov/nsc/nss5.html, unveiled at the end of September. This document is the justification for the United States’ imperial ambitions, yet it tries to make the United States a nonempire.

Because he argues and shows the history of the United States as the history of an empire, Williams’ book is just as timely now as it was in 1980 when it first appeared in print. For starters, we all notice the rush that our greater society is in – particularly to go to war with Iraq. In these times I have to remind myself of the words of India’s text of spiritual wisdom, the Bhagavad-Gita: “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” On this side of the world, ecologist Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Long before Leopold, Henry David Thoreau asked, “What’s the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Of significance to students at the University: In 1949, Albert Einstein wrote, “The crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.”

To me, our greatest threat as a nation comes in the form of increased military spending, material desires, and any “ism” that undermines the social fabric of freedom. Currently, we spend more than all so-called “industrialized” nations in the world. Perhaps we should listen to the words of Martin Luther King Jr., whose words may be able to lift us out of our national downward spiral. During the Vietnam War, exactly one year before his death, King astutely observed that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values (and) rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Joel T. Helfrich’s columns appear monthly. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]