Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2 Summer 1981

(1) Who makes policy on the basis of what perceptions and interests; (2) To what extent are welfare and democracy dependent upon empire; (3) Granted that it is necessary, what is optimum size of the empire; and what are the effective and proper means of structuring, controlling and defending the empire so that it will in practice produce welfare and democracy with the lowest possible negative consequences; (4) What is the minimum effective size of the empire, and (5) What happens if we simply say no to empire as a way of life? That Black. Messy stuff The dialogue had many focuses: from the power of concentrated economic wealth within America, to the revolutions in Russia and China, the oil of Arabia, and Mexico and the Caribbean, I will get to China and Russia in due time, but for the moment let us concentrate on oil because that black, messy stuff wonderfully clarifies the issues. And also the perceptions and the ambivalences of all the participants in the debate. Our first oil scare occurred between 1919 and 1924 at a time when the United States was still pumping almost more of the guck than the rest of the world combined. The symbol of that panic is the Teapot Dome Scandal, a crisis defined by smaller oil companies like Sinclair attempting to use piddling amounts of cash as a Rapid Deployment Force to defeat giants like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. It reminds me of the best of punk rock: bring search-and-destroy operations back home from Vietnam and use them against the real enemy. All that said, that early oil crisis gives us important insights into how responsible American leaders were thinking about empire as a way of life. At a distance, as in Arabia, it was empire as usual. They used economic power (Europe’s need for capital) to force England and France to give us access to the black stuff that was the blood of their Mediterranean empires. Standard Oil became the chosen instrument of imperial expansion. But when empire began to bubble closer to home, next door in Mexico (or Cuba and elsewhere around the Caribbean), responsible people began to understand that nineteenth-century empire was in trouble. Gunboats, even gunboats loaded with Marines, do not navigate so well amid seas of people who have decided that the oil is their oil. The debate became very serious. Indeed. We came as close as we ever have, even including John Taylor of Virginia and John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, to facing the issues inherent in empire as a way of life. Standard Oil and other imperial spokesmen wanted to sustain the empire everywhere under any and all conditions. But thoughtful and moral conservatives like Herbert Clark Hoover and Dwight Morrow argued for coming to terms with reality and negotiating equal relationships. And antiimperialists like Charles Austin Beard began to face and explore the gut issue, the question asked by Eugene Debs: How do we remain democratic without an empire? Leaders like Hoover, Morrow and Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes were not isolationists. They did not propose to refrain from using American power and influence. But they did entertain grave doubts about the imperial policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. They wanted to reduce armaments and avoid military interventions, and they manifested a far more relaxed attitude toward the various movements for social change throughout the world. They also enjoyed a sense of history that gave them a perspective on the limits of empire and the counterproductive consequences of trying to control everything that happened around the globe. Morrow expressed that very simply in the course of his efforts to work out an accommodation with the leaders of the Mexican revolution. “It sometimes amuses me,” he commented, “when people say, ‘settle the Mexican question.’ You and I know that neither the Mexican nor the Cuban question will be ‘settled’ in the lifetime of anyone now living.” In the same vein, Hoover understood that “a large part of the world had come to believe that they were in the presence of the birth of a new imperial power intent upon dominating the destinies and freedom of other people.” And he was at great pains, in his actions as well as his words, to make it clear that he “absolutely disapproved” of the Big Brother conception of American foreign policy. Given the approach that those leaders were attempting to put into operation, and the dynamics of their dialogue with more explicitly anti-imperial spokesmen, it is clear that the United States was beginning to come to terms with empire as a way of life. But that process was aborted when, for the fourth time in a century, the capitalist political economy collapsed in a massive depression. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a vast social trauma of great intensity, and the culture proved incapable of dealing with the crisis by evolving an alternative way of life. Crab-walking into war The debate about foreign policy continued, but the talk rather quickly focused on its role in saving the system and on the question of going to war against Germany and Japan. The overriding concern with saving the system meant that serious talk about alternatives was lost in the scramble to find and apply traditional remedies. From the outset, for example, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his associates viewed expanded foreign trade and rearmament as central features of the New Deal. Neither those nor other programs proved effective. One does not have to cite radical critics. Harry Hopkins and Adolph A. Berle candidly admitted at the end of the 1930s that the New Deal had failed to restore the health of the political economy. There were still ten to twelve million unemployed, and the recession of 1937 was the most devastating one in the history of the country. And so to war. But not a war to defend a functioning, equitable society—not even a new vision of sich a society. And so into the dissembling aid the lying; and into the stretching of the etter as well as the spirit of the Constitution—and the related weakening of the principles and practices of representative government. I say those things with great anguish because I thought then and I think now that we should have stood with England against Hitler. But we should haze done it at the end of an open, honest debate. And if the decision had been to wat and see, or to go to war only with a cleir commitment to basic structural reform^ or to fight Germany but not Japan (orvice versa)—then so be it. 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