The American Legion Magazine | 2.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd

Not long ago, a prominent professor of philosophy offered a remarkable assessment of the United States. Americans, he concluded, are building “an extensive empire…which seems very likely to become one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.”[1]

What’s so remarkable about that? After all, given America’s enormous military, economic and cultural influence, all that professor did was state the obvious. But what’s obvious today was not so obvious in 1776, when Professor Adam Smith offered his prophetic assessment of the United States.

Perhaps equally remarkable is the fact that many of the Founding Fathers shared Smith’s vision and actually wanted to build a new kind of empire in the New World.

Whether or not this has always served America’s interests is debatable, but the historical roots of America’s unique form of empire are not.

Empire in the Making

That may sound strange in an era when “empire” is a dirty word. Yet as Niall Ferguson argues in his history of American power, Colossus, “There were no more self-confident imperialists than the Founding Fathers themselves.” In fact, Ferguson reminds us that George Washington called America “an infant empire.”

Writing in The Federalist Papers, John Jay argued that the United States should aspire to the power and prestige enjoyed by the British Empire. “We have heard much of the fleets of Britain, and the time may come, if we are wise, when the fleets of America may engage attention,” he wrote.

Alexander Hamilton, in “Federalist No. 11,” pointed to the empires of Europe as the rationale for a uniquely American empire. “Let the thirteen states, bound together in a strict and indissoluble union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!”

Thomas Jefferson concluded that “no constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extending extensive empire and self-government.” He envisioned the United States maturing into “an empire of liberty,” and he anticipated a day when “Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders, and to hobble along by our side.”[2]

Of course, as is so often the case, the Founders’ meanings and intentions are not always clear-cut. Washington, after all, called on his successors “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

“Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto,” Jefferson added.

Moreover, all of the Founders worried about one of the main engines of empire—unchecked executive power. Thus, the constitution decoupled the war-declaring and war-making powers of government.

In any event, Jefferson’s policies helped spur America’s transformation from a tiny republic clinging to the Atlantic seaboard into a continental, then hemispheric, then global empire.

As Ferguson details, much of this came courtesy of America’s treasury rather than its troops:

  • The LouisianaTerritory’s 559.5 million acres for $15 million,
  • East Florida’s 46.1 million acres for $15 million,
  • The Oregon Territory’s 192 million acres for nothing,
  • Texas, California and New Mexico’s 338.7 million acres for $20 million,
  • Arizona’s 19 million acres for $10 million,
  • Alaska’s 375 million acres for a paltry $7.2 million.[3]

The result was what historian John Lewis Gaddis calls “continental hegemony,” and it was largely an outgrowth of ideas proposed by John Quincy Adams.

Gaddis notes that in 1811, while serving as President James Madison’s ambassador to Russia, Adams envisioned a nation “coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and by nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”[4]Adams’ vision would lay the groundwork for what came to be known as “Manifest Destiny.”

When he became secretary of state under President James Monroe, Adams helped develop the Monroe Doctrine, which made America’s hemispheric ambitions plain. “The American continents are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by European powers,” Monroe declared.

By the time President James Polk delivered his inaugural address, in 1845, Manifest Destiny—and America’s empire—were in full bloom. “Foreign powers should…look on the annexation of Texas to the United States not as the conquest of a nation seeking to extend her dominions by arms and violence,” Polk explained, “but as the peaceful acquisition of a territory once her own.”

He threatened war with Britain over the Oregon territory, and went to war with Mexico over Texas and the West. U.S. territory grew by more than a million square miles in Polk’s four years in office.

By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. was a “de facto imperial power in much of the Western Hemisphere,” as Harvard’s Stephen Rosen has noted, and was primed to expand its empire beyond this hemisphere.

Capitalizing on a weakened and overextended Spain, President William McKinley grew the American empire south into Cuba and Puerto Rico, and west into the Pacific, from the Hawaiian Islands all the way to the Philippines. By the time the smoke had lifted, McKinley was being hailed as “chief of our nation and our empire.”[5]

His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was an unapologetic empire-builder. Ferguson even notes that TR once lamented the “lack of imperial instinct that our people show.” Perhaps their reticence was understandable. A bloody guerilla insurgency in the Philippines claimed 220,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans, devouring hundreds of millions in treasure.

Yet TR called upon America and other leading powers to play the role of regional policemen. Toward that end, he used U.S. warships to flex American muscle in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Pacific, fulfilling Jay’s vision of a time when America’s fleets would engage the world’s attention.

World War I would remind America that being an imperial power can have unintended consequences. Betting that Mexico would do anything to reclaim the lands it lost during America’s westward push under Polk, the German government promised to reward Mexico with Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, on the condition that America’s southern neighbor enter the war on Germany’s side.

Mexico didn’t take the bait, but the episode illustrates how expansion had exposed America to unforeseen dangers.

Even so, by the end of the war, America had deployed troops across a vanquished Europe—even into Russia—thus fulfilling Jefferson’s vision of a day when America’s power surpassed Europe’s.

An Empire by Consent

Ferguson writes that during World War II, British officials were struck by the “imperial character of American postwar planning.”

Yet America’s postwar empire would not be typical. Other nations wanted in. They even wanted U.S. troops on their soil. It was “hegemony by consent,” in Gaddis’ words.

By 1959, America’s security commitments included NATO for Europe, SEATO and ANZUS for Asia and the Pacific, CENTO for the Middle East, bilateral treaties for South Korea and Japan, and the Rio Treaty for the Western Hemisphere. By 1963, as Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty Year Wound, the U.S. had a million troops “stationed at more than 200 foreign bases.”

Gaddis notes that even after defeating Tojo in the Pacific and Hitler in Europe and Africa, Americans “found it difficult to think of themselves as an imperial power.” Yet they “proved surprisingly adept at managing an empire.”

Perhaps their success was a function of how Americans treated those within their informal empire.

The Japanese found out after their defeat, which became their liberation. The post-imperial constitution, which guaranteed equal rights, education reform, free speech and religious liberty, bore the unmistakable fingerprints of an American general—Douglas MacArthur.

The Germans found out after Stalin blockaded West Berlin. Blending the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency of a Detroit assembly line, the Americans crafted an air campaign unlike any in history. The coal- and food-laden planes would land every three minutes during the Soviet siege.

The South Koreans and South Vietnamese found out when they were unable to hold back their northern neighbors.

Likewise, the Israelis found out after their country was nearly overrun. “For generations to come,” Golda Meir declared after the 1973 war, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”

By the end of the Cold War, even the Soviet Union was asking America to maintain its empire. “It is important for the future of Europe,” Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stunningly confided to President George H.W. Bush, “that you are in Europe. We don’t want to see you out of there.”[6]

Kuwaitis, Kurds, Kosovars and many others have come to a similar conclusion.

In short, the 20th century reminds us that the challenges we face in the early 21st century, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea, are reflections of our history, not deviations from it.

This is not to say that America’s informal empire is perfect or problem-free. The morning newspaper reminds us that the responsibilities and worries of the world’s lone superpower never end. But many of America’s neighbors would concede—and history confirms—that the American empire has been a constructive, beneficial force.

The Benign Empire

Today, the U.S. copes with being an empire in a post-imperial, even anti-imperial, age. Yet as Johns Hopkins scholar Michael Mandelbaum argues, “The world’s guilty secret is that it enjoys the security and stability the United States provides.”

Some 50 countries—representing more than half the world’s landmass—willingly participate in defense and security treaties with the United States. America’s ambidextrous military guards the 38th parallel, keeps the sea lanes open, responds to disasters of biblical proportion in places as disparate as Sumatra and Pakistan, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and monitors Russian, Chinese and North Korean—and perhaps soon, Iranian—nukes.

No other military could attempt such a feat of global multitasking, let alone achieve it. And the Pentagon’s methods are nothing short of stunning: tank columns that move as fast as cars on a freeway; seaborne warplanes that strike at night, or in the snow, or in sandstorms; satellite-guided bombs and precision missiles that are equally accurate when fired by an unmanned drone or far-away submarine; invisible bombers that fly trans-global missions; Special Forces on horseback armed with laptop computers; and “regular” forces that are more motivated, more intelligent, more lethal and yet more restrained than any in history.  

Which brings us to another factor contributing to the American empire’s success: America is a benign power, its presence welcomed in virtually every instance. The freely elected Iraqi government wants U.S. forces in Iraq, even if half the U.S. Congress does not. Afghanistan wants U.S. forces to excise Taliban scar tissue. Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe divided by concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against a revisionist Russia. And across the Pacific, from Japan to Vietnam to Australia, those who worry about an emergent China are strengthening their ties with Washington.

Further evidence of America’s reach is found in the spread of, and demand for, America’s consumer culture—what Middle East expert Fouad Ajami calls “America’s hipness.”

Nations that once wanted to be a part of America’s informal empire merely for security reasons now want in for economic and cultural reasons. Ferguson notes that half of the 30,000 McDonald’s restaurants salt-and-peppered across the world are located somewhere other than the U.S. Likewise, 70 percent of Coke’s thirsty drinkers reside outside North America. WalMart has 2,700 stores outside the States. Starbucks has stores in 37 countries (and counting).

In other words, globalization actually could be the Americanization of the world, which is just another indication that the United States has arrived exactly where Adam Smith predicted it was headed in 1776.

[1] Quoted by John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience, p.111.
[2] See Niall Ferguson, Colossus, introduction and p.34; see also Gaddis, p.107.
[3] See Ferguson, p.40.
[4] Quoted in Gaddis, p.26.
[5] Quoted in Walter LaFeber, The American Age, p.227.
[6] Quoted in Walter LaFeber, The American Age, p.755.

Growth Spurts

1776 Adam Smith concludes that America’s Founding Fathers are laying the foundation for “an extensive empire.”

1811 John Quincy Adams argues for expansion of the United States “across the North American continent.”

1823 James Monroe outlines his doctrine warning European powers against intervention in the Western Hemisphere.

1830s and 1840s The United States pushes its borders to the Pacific Ocean.

Spanish American War The U.S. acquires territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific after defeating the Spanish empire.

World War I U.S. military, industrial and diplomatic strength plays a pivotal role in ending the Great War.

World War II The U.S. emerges as a military, economic and industrial juggernaut. “With her left hand,” as Churchill marveled in the years following the attack on Pearl Harbor, “America was leading the advance of the conquering Allied armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan.”

Cold War The U.S. begins to bear the full weight of global leadership as it rebuilds Europe and Japan; creates a web of international economic, political and security institutions; takes over many of Britain’s and France’s obligations in the Middle East and Asia; and matures into a global superpower to contain and ultimately overcome the Soviet empire.

1990s With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. is unrivaled in the economic, military and cultural spheres, and political scientists begin to talk of a “unipolar world.” By the end of the 1990s, some even promote the U.S. from the ranks of superpower to “hyperpower.”

2000s The appeal of America’s cultural and commercial exports expands globally, even as the United States tries to cope with the burdens and responsibilities of global leadership in a post-imperial age.


(Sources: John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security and the American Experience, p.26, p.111; Davide Cannadine, Ed., The Speeches of Winston Churchill, p.256.)