The American Empire.

With brief notes on some other empires

© Rae West 1998


The American Empire    
The Israeli Empire
The Russian Empire
The British Empire
The Austro-Hungarian Empire    
The Belgian Empire
The German Empire
The French Empire
The Portuguese Empire    
The Spanish Empire
The Roman Empire
The Athenian Empire
The Japanese Empire

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The American Empire

  1. It's a curious fact that one of the most obvious aspects of the second half of the 20th century—the American Empire—is almost entirely censored out of ordinary discourse. There are a few exceptions, notably Gore Vidal, and the occasional American historian (one died a few years ago, but I can't recall his name), and some left-wingers. Thus, Tom Nairn and others point to the official ideology of 'freedom' in the American Empire, as earlier in the British Empire. This site attempts to suggest some historical parallels and coincidences.
          The obvious reasons include: (1) Not wishing to emphasise the change in the Monroe Doctrine from some sort of protection to active intervention; (2) post-WW2 coincidence that the British Empire was largely demolished, and a different word had to be used; in the same way, after the American revolution, however much people might have wanted their own monarch they had to affix a different name, since there would otherwise be awkward questions of legitimacy; (3) not wishing to draw attention to the various state activities—army, navy, air force, espionage, and so forth.

  2. This is R.D. Laing, now dead, The Obvious c 1968: ‘.. Suppose the Chinese had 600,000 troops in Southern Mexico engaged in slaughtering the local inhabitants, devastating the ecology and dropping more bombs on Northern Mexico each month than were dropped on the whole of Germany during the whole of World War II. Suppose the Chinese had encircled the USA with missile bases in Canada, Cuba, the Pacific Islands; that China's fleets patrolled the seas and its atomic submarines appeared to be ubiquitous; and that all this was deployed, according to the Chinese, for no other purpose than directly to put down a threat to the Chinese people by the people of the USA. And suppose that China had made it quite clear.. that it regarded the USA as the greatest threat to world peace, and that if the USA sent any troops into Northern Mexico, they would give them all they'd got and smash them back into the Stone Age. ...’

  3. A piece from about the same date: Russell Stetler The Anatomy of Imperialism written approx. 1970

  4. A piece also of that date, by a professor of geography, Keith Buchanan. His work anticipates Noam Chomsky/Edward Herman's much-censored The Political Economy of Human Rights. It has in my view the weakness—perhaps inherited from Hobson (see below) of having no way of valuing raw materials; what 'value' can be attached to, say, diamonds or gold? In practice, trade figures are used. Related to this is the inability to estimate power in any sensible way; Buchanan gives no maps of bases nor any way to estimate the costs of empire in resource terms.
        The American Empire by Prof Keith Buchanan, full version, with nineteen maps

  5. On intellectual distortions caused by the US empire in unexpected places, see three essays which I've put on my site with permission of their author, Kurt Johmann. Although I don't agree with everything he says, they are thought-provoking: The Big Bang (influence of empire on cosmology); Understanding the Drug War (several uses of drug myths); Debunking the Ice Age (Part of this thesis looks at human populations in the Americas).

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    The Israeli Empire

          This is a somewhat unexplored aspect of the second half of the twentieth century. I'll content myself with putting in Bertrand Russell on Israel his last statement, written in 1970.

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    The Russian Empire

          In the following extract Prof C. N. Parkinson (of the Law) outlines the growth of the Russian Empire, quoting other peoples' data; his point is that land empires may escape observation in a way sea empires find less easy:-

          ‘Quite as important [as European and US expansion], and little noticed, was the expansion of Russia. The vacuum caused by the weakness of Asia, which drew the British by sea, was as effective in drawing the Russians by land. The Mongol collapse and the empty spaces of Siberia led the Russians towards the Pacific. What is still more significant is that their advance exactly paralleled that of Britain, beginning at the same time and ending literally in the same year. The year when Gregory Stroganoff entered Asia (1558), with encouragement from Ivan the Terrible, was the year in which Elizabeth I came to the throne. Tobolsk was founded just before the defeat of the Armada, Tomsk just after the accession of James I. The annexation of western and central Siberia accompanied the development of New England, as also the foundation, in 1640, of Madras. The date of the first Navigation Act (1651) is also the date of the first Russian clash with the Manchus. The fateful year 1707, when the Act of Union coincided with the death of Aurangzeb, was equally marked by the annexation of Kamchatka. The Russians reached the Amur in the year (1847) that James Brooke was appointed to public office in Borneo. The whole of Siberia was conceded to Russia in the year (1858) that the East India Company was replaced by the India Office, and Vladivostok was founded in the year after that. Like the British, the Russians were moving astride the trade route, which they began to transform in 1891, just after Cecil Rhodes had become Prime Minister at the Cape. But the 4000 miles of the Trans-Siberian railway were not finished until 1905, a year which marked the limit of British and Russian expansion alike.
          From 1472, when Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow, married the niece of the last emperor of Constantinople—from about the time, in fact, when Columbus first went to sea—the Russians had been pursuing their imperial destiny as the "third Rome." "The importance of the move is in direct proportion to the neglect it has received in Western studies." [This quotation from Michael Edwardes, 1961; following from Lancelot Lawton, 1912.] But another and earlier author wrote on the subject that "The Cossacks have achieved for Russia what the sea-rovers have done for England." That is perfectly true, and the story of their move eastward by land, coincident with the British move by sea, should convince us, were we in doubt, that Russia is essentially a western power...’ [Parkinson thinks or thought that 'orientals' and 'westerners' are two different types of people, apparently basing this idea on the Greeks and Persians as presented in history courses early this century].

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    The British Empire

          [These notes refer to the most recent one]

    1. J. A. Hobson's Imperialism: A Study (1902; revised 1938) which influenced Lenin (Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism; written in 1916) and also Keynes (at least to the extent of mentioning it) has fifteen appendices, all tables, of such things as the population and date of acquisition of countries, by 'mother country' of which 13 were listed for 1900 (Starting with the U.K., then including all Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and ending with China and the USA), and trade: average value per head (in pounds sterling), imports, exports, percentages of imports and exports. And emigration figures.
            On the military side, Hobson dates the British Empire (this one—not counting the earlier one) from 1871 (Griqualand west), then 1874 Fiji Islands, and so on.
            As with the US Empire, it was a scrappy arrangement, with assorted variations according to local conditions.

    2. Some idea of the military activity of this epoch can be got from Punch, the comic magazine; it has engravings on the following; many others did not come to its notice: 1841 Anglo-Chinese war, 1853-4 Crimean war, 1857 Anglo-Chinese war of 1856-1860, 1857 Indian Mutiny, 1867 Anglo-Abyssinian war, 1874 Anglo-Ashanti war, 1878 Anglo-Afghan war, 1879 Anglo-Zulu war, 1881 Anglo-Boer war, 1882 Anglo-Egyptian war, 1885 Anglo-Soudan war, 1886 Anglo-Burmese war, 1893-1896 Egyptian-Dervish war, 1895 Anglo-Ashanti War, 1896 Jameson Raid, 1897 North-west frontier of India war, 1897 Orange Free State, 1898 Omdurman campaign, 1899 Boer war, 1899 North West frontier.

    3. Tom Nairn's Enchanted Glass (1988) muses over the difficulty of the name of the 'mother country': ‘.. U.K. (or 'Yookay', as Raymond Williams relabelled it), Great Britain (imperial robes), Britain (boring lounge-suit), England (poetic but troublesome), the British Isles (too geographical), 'This Country' (all-purpose within-the-family), or 'This Small Country of Ours' (defensive-Shakespearean). 'Ukania' also has the great merit of recalling 'Kakania', Robert Musil's famous alternative name for the Habsburg Empire in The Man Without Qualities. ..’ Thus Nairn adopts the name 'Ukania' no doubt to the bafflement of most of his readers.

    4. It's interesting to note that "the British Empire" was officially renamed "the British Commonwealth of Nations" in 1931, by a Statute of Westminster. However, since at the same sort of time the Japanese talked of a 'co-prosperity sphere', and the Germans of the third 'Reich', and the Soviet Union of 'Socialist Republics', perhaps this change meant little.

    5. There are many more or less plausible theories as to what happens when empires fall; e.g. large migrations of people. An interesting idea is the deliberate damaging of ex-colonies, for example by dividing them. (Harold Smith's website has some evidence for this process in Nigeria).

    6. In 1900, history, 'especially of the [British] Empire', was made a compulsory subject in secondary schools. In 1902, Empire Day was established (to coincide with Victoria's birthday). Sadly, these reforms didn't necessarily improve the general standard of British awareness of the world. Thus we find Russell (admittedly a stern critic) saying that schoolchildren are made stupid by being told to believe the empire is for the good of subjects. H G Wells in his Autobiography muses on English private school education: ‘.. it is possible to understand why the enormous possibilities of world predominance and world control, manifest in the British political expansion during the nineteenth century, wilted away so rapidly under the stresses of the subsequent years. Its direction was dull, ignorant, pretentious and blundering.’ It's interesting to compare modern US education; Hobson's book is about 30 years after the start of empire, while some US researchers were saying similar things as early as Korea and certainly the early 1960s, rather less than 30 years. British education in history remained entirely conventional certainly for 50 years after the start of empire, and US education shows no detectable sign of improvement on this.
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    The Austro-Hungarian Empire

    1. This is Tom Nairn again: ‘The königlich und kaiserlich domains of the Habsburg dynasty suffered from a comparable plethora of names, for comparable historical reasons: Austria-Hungary, Austria, the Habsburg Empire, 'the Empire', or even 'Danubia'.

    2. The Austrian motto was ‘A E I O U’—‘Austria Est Imperia Orbis Universalis’ i.e. Austria is the empire of all the world.

    3. J. McCabe: ‘The cutting-up of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire at Versailles had been crude and cruel, but it is a lie originating in Germany and quite generally accepted in Britain and America, that the Sudeten provinces of Czecho-Slovakia had then been detached from Austria and tacked on to Bohemia. Any map that was published before 1919 will show that these provinces are part of ancient Bohemia, which before the Catholic troops so mercilessly trampled on it in the Thirty Years War was the most promising of the smaller civilizations of Europe. Its sturdy people were instinctively anti-Papal and had raised the banner of Hus before Luther was born. In its exhausted condition it had been taken over by Austria and had been made compulsorily Catholic in the customary way.’
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    The Belgian Empire

    1. It doesn't seem to be widely realised that Belgium is an artificially-made country. To quote from an email: ‘Most Flemish people don't like that artificial state [Belgium] which was founded out of nothing in order to serve as a buffer between France and Prussia after the Napoleonic war and in order to destroy the Netherlands as a competitor of the British Empire regarding colonial affairs. In my opinion, this state is going to decay in the next decades in[to] a Dutch and French part and perhaps a small German part which was annexed after WW1, but where the Germans are a majority still today.’
    2. For a fairly short time, perhaps around 1910, the Belgian Congo story was fairly well-known. After the First World War the normal processes of censorship submerged it; and in any case there were other issues. It's fair to say that now it's virtually unmentioned; I can't recall a single mention by an BBC programme ever, for example; the presentation of Belgium in Britain at least is always of boring men eating chocolate and cream cakes who managed to produce Magritte. Anyway, E. D. Morel, Casement, and the Belgian Congo for the story.
    3. There's a link with uranium, the fake 'nuclear weapons', the 'atomium' in Brussels, and probably the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community, because this area had uranium ore. (Note added 2013)
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    The German Empire

    1. There's a certain amount of confusion over these empires, partly due to the difficulty of saying exactly what's meant by 'German'.

    2. Gibbon's Decline and Fall: ‘Charlemagne, who, in the year eight hundred, established the second, or German Empire of the West..’

    3. Benjamin Kidd (1918): ‘In modern Germany, it is often pointed out by Germans themselves that notwithstanding the ruling part played by Prussia in the evolution of the modern German empire, the intellectual part of the work has not rested to any corresponding degree with the natives of Prussia. Two men who created the intellectual ethos were Treitschke and Nietzsche, neither of whom was Prussian in descent. ...’

    4. This is Hilaire Belloc (1929): ‘.. between 1866 and 1871.. Prussia destroyed the military power of Catholic Austria and created a new German Empire in which the Catholics were carefully cut off from Austria and formed into a minority with Protestant Berlin as their centre of gravity. Prussia also suddenly and completely defeated the French Army, took Paris and annexed what suited her of French territory. ... so-called "German Empire,".. the very negation of what the old words "German" and "Imperial" had meant for a thousand years. .. designed.. to contain the largest possible minority of Catholics consistent with leaving the majority of the new state Protestant..’

    5. Engels (1884): ‘According to Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, in the tenth century the chief industry of Verdun -- in the Holy German Empire, observe -- was the manufacture of eunuchs, who were exported at great profit to Spain for the Moorish harems.’

    6. On 19th century pro-Germanism; someone not known to me called Boris Brasol (c 1920): ‘.. 1849 the European press revealed a political scheme known as 'Lord Palmerston's Plan for the Reconstruction of Europe.' Therein it was specifically stated: 'The plan... pertain to a new configuration of Europe, the erection of a strong German Empire which may act as a wall separating France from Russia as well as the establishment of a Polish-Magyar Kingdom designed to complete the scheme directed against the giant of the North...’

    7. Charles Isaac (1921): ‘.. Germany had a larger free trade area and a larger free trade population than Britain ever had. Inside the Zollverein there is complete free trade as understood by the Manchester school.’

    8. Ben Elton & Richard Curtis, in Blackadder: “When the [first world] war started the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. The German empire was one sausage factory in Tanganyika”
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    The French Empire

    1. As with the British and German empires, there are several; one seems to share the distinction with the American empire of not being known by that name (except by e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre).

    2. Encarta 95: ‘The Seven Years' War officially ended in 1763. On February 10 of that year the Treaty of Paris was signed to settle differences between France, Spain, and Great Britain. Among the terms was the acquisition of almost the entire French Empire in North America by Great Britain. The British also acquired Florida from Spain, and the French retained their possessions in India only under severe military restrictions.’

    3. Nevertheless the 'First Empire' is dated 1810ish; e.g. Encarta 95: ‘.. Although Napoleon posed as the defender of the Republic, in 1804 he established the French Empire and took the title of emperor. This action indicated that his ambitions extended beyond the limits of Bourbon France, and in 1805 he again took up arms. In the next two years he defeated Austria, Prussia, and Russia and made himself master of most of Europe. [1804-1815]..’

    4. The 'Second Empire' was established by Napoleon III, 1852-1870.
            However, during the 'third Republic' period French imperialism was active in North Africa and south-east Asia (say 1880-1910) and of course repercussions continued in the 1950s and beyond. For all this period the expression 'French Empire' seems to have been underused.

    5. (Rudorff's The Myth of France (1970) deals with (among many other things) French colonialism in North Africa and Madagascar, and concludes that the cruelty of the French was greater than that of any other imperial power.)
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    The Portuguese Empire

          Apart from Brazil and some other parts of South America, Portugal established colonies in other parts of the world: Africa, Goa in India. Portugal is often quoted as proof of the disaster of race-mixing. (Added 2013). Top of page

    The Spanish Empire

          This once vast empire was responsible for mass murder on a scale possibly exceeding any other. Its decline is variously attributed (by non-Spanish people) to intellectual torpor, Catholic fanaticism, the monarchy, irrational desire for gold and silver, status seeking, the Inquisition, the cult of pure blood, failure to unite with supposed allies, and the excessive taxation of their peasantry. As late 1898, the Spanish defeat over Cuba was simply called 'El Desastre'. Or at least the above may be true; the phrase la leyanda negra (the 'black legend') has been current, possibly since Protestant times, to suggest the above is just propaganda. But perhaps the 'black legend' is itself a black legend.

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    The Roman Empire

    1. This is by now more interesting for the attitudes and ideas and myths about it. For example, in Victorian Britain, textbooks contained such phrases as the [unknown] place which ‘had the honour to be the landing-site of the Romans’. The fact they had virtually no permanent influence seems to be of no interest to them.

    2. Rabelais looked at the theory of the ‘Translation of the Roman Empire’—the westward motion of civilization. In the mid-16th century.

    3. Russell: ‘Hegel's interpretation of history since the fall of the Roman Empire is partly the effect, and partly the cause, of the teaching of world history in German schools. In Italy and France, while there has been a romantic admiration of the Germans on the part of a few men such as Tacitus and Machiavelli, they have been viewed, in general, as the authors of the 'barbarian' invasion, and as enemies of the Church...’

    4. On another German, Russell said of Theodor Mommsen (on Rome): ‘I do not think it would be unfair to Mommsen to say that his history has two themes: one the greatness of Caesar because he destroyed liberty; the other that Carthage was like England and Rome was like Germany, and that the future Punic Wars to which he looked forward would have an outcome analogous to that of their predecessors.’

    5. Russell also wrote somewhere that all American clergymen know why Rome fell: because of depravity and vice. He also said they don't know enough to be aware that morals a century or so before this event were in fact impeccable.

    6. Richard Haywood's Myth of the Fall of Rome (1958) perhaps added another possibility..
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    The Athenian Empire

    1. This lasted about 60 years; cp. say the British Empire (about the same).

    2. Herodotus (Rawlinson's translation into English): ‘How brave a thing is freedom of speech, which has made the Athenians so far exceed every other state of Hellas in greatness!’

    3. Thucydides (translation by Crawley): ‘First the Athenians besieged and captured Eion on the Strymon from the Medes, and made slaves of the inhabitants, being under the command of Cimon, son of Miltiades. Next they enslaved Scyros... There were many who came forward and made their several accusations; among them the Megarians, in a long list of grievances, called special attention to the fact of their exclusion from the ports of the Athenian empire and the market of Athens, in defiance of the treaty. .... the Lacedaemonians and their allies put an end to the Athenian empire, and took the Long Walls and Piraeus. The war had then lasted for twenty-seven years in all.’
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    The Japanese Empire

    1. [478-9, section XXXI Imperialism]
      When, in 1894, the Japanese and Chinese quarrelled over the suzerainty of Korea, which both claimed, the world was astonished by the rapidity and completeness of China's defeat. The result was a scramble for China. The French claimed a sphere of influence in the South, the British claimed one in the Yangtse. The Russians seized Manchuria, and rejoiced to think that, at Port Arthur, they at last had free access to the warm water. The Germans, in 1897, had the good fortune to have two missionaries murdered in Shantung; they extorted, as indemnity, the harbour of Kiaouchau with valuable railway rights in the hinterland. Finally ignorant Chinese reactionaries, the Boxers, encouraged by the Empress Dowager, attacked the "foreign devils" wherever they were to be found, especially in missions and in the legations at Peking.
            An international expedition was sent in 1900 to punish the country; Peking was sacked, a heavy indemnity was imposed, and the legation quarter henceforth had the right to garrison itself with foreign troops, while the Chinese were forbidden to build houses in the neighbourhood of its walls.
            China was cowed - for the benefit of Europe, it was supposed at the time. The Russo-Japanese war, four years later, changed everything. Since the war with China, the Japanese had considered their rights in Korea established. But Russian Grand Dukes had timber concessions in that country, which, moreover, seemed necessary in order to round off the new acquisitions in Manchuria. The newly constructed Siberian Railway made a war in the Far East seem feasible to the Russian military authorities. The Japanese, however, proved the stronger. At sea, they destroyed the Russian navy; on land, they conquered Port Arthur and South Manchuria up to Mukden. It was the first time since the great days of the Turks that Europeans had been defeated by non-Europeans. In China, from that time onwards, the only important imperialism has been that of Japan, while Europeans, especially since the Great War, have survived only on sufferance. [Footnote: I have dealt more fully with imperialism in China and Japan in my book The Problem of China.]
            The effect of the Russo-Japanese war was as important in Russia as in China. It led first to the Revolution of 1905 involving a constitution with the beginnings of Parliamentary government. It next caused a complete change in Russia's foreign policy. Far Eastern adventure was no longer possible. The Anglo-Japanese alliance made it impossible for the French to come to the help of the Russians. For the same reason, as well as the Anglo-French entente in 1904, the year when the war with Japan began, the French could not be expected to help Russia against England. This made a forward policy in Asia impossible, and removed the reasons for enmity between England and Russia which had subsisted ever since the Russian advance in Central Asia made us nervous concerning our Indian Empire. The result was that Russian ambitions were directed to the Balkans and the Near East, where they came into conflict with Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and therefore Germany. This policy nowhere conflicted with British interests, but, on the contrary, made British friendship both possible and desirable. Hence arose the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, which completed the grouping of the Great Powers that persisted until the Great War.
            Japan's rise to supremacy in the Far East put an end to the ambitions of European Powers in China, and thus removed from the sphere of their mutual bargaining the last important region that they had left unappropriated.
            Henceforth, the planet was mapped out, and a gain to one State could only be secured at the expense of some other. This intensified rivalries, and made adjustments more difficult; the expansive forces which had found their outlet in imperialism were compelled to operate, no longer in distant undeveloped regions, but nearer home, and in direct competition with neighbouring nations. Though statesmen foresaw the result, they lacked the will and the intelligence to prevent it; impotently, though not blindly, they drifted to catastrophe.
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