Essay — From the May 2016 issue

American Imperium

Untangling truth and fiction in an age of perpetual war

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In February 1898, the battleship U.S.S. Maine, at anchor in Havana Harbor, blew up and sank, killing 266 American sailors. Widely viewed at the time as an act of state-sponsored terrorism, this incident initiated what soon became a War for the Hemisphere.

Two months later, vowing to deliver Cubans from oppressive colonial rule, the United States Congress declared war on Spain. Within weeks, however, the enterprise evolved into something quite different. After ousting Cuba’s Spanish overseers, the United States disregarded the claims of nationalists calling for independence, subjected the island to several years of military rule, and then converted it into a protectorate that was allowed limited autonomy. Under the banner of anti-imperialism, a project aimed at creating an informal empire had commenced.

HA036__03HA0-1America’s intervention in Cuba triggered a bout of unprecedented expansionism. By the end of 1898, U.S. forces had also seized Puerto Rico, along with various properties in the Pacific. These actions lacked a coherent rationale until Theodore Roosevelt, elevated to the presidency in 1901, took it on himself to fill that void. An American-instigated faux revolution that culminated with a newly founded Republic of Panama signing over to the United States its patrimony — the route for a transisthmian canal — clarified the hierarchy of U.S. interests. Much as concern about Persian Gulf oil later induced the United States to assume responsibility for policing that region, so concern for securing the as yet unopened canal induced it to police the Caribbean.

In 1904, Roosevelt’s famous “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, claiming for the United States authority to exercise “international police power” in the face of “flagrant . . . wrongdoing or impotence,” provided a template for further action. Soon thereafter, U.S. forces began to intervene at will throughout the Caribbean and Central America, typically under the guise of protecting American lives and property but in fact to position the United States as regional suzerain. Within a decade, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua joined Cuba and Panama on the roster of American protectorates. Only in Mexico, too large to occupy and too much in the grip of revolutionary upheaval to tame, did U.S. military efforts to impose order come up short.

“Yankee imperialism” incurred costs, however, not least of all by undermining America’s preferred self-image as benevolent and peace-loving, and therefore unlike any other great power in history. To reduce those costs, beginning in the 1920s successive administrations sought to lower the American military profile in the Caribbean basin. The United States was now content to allow local elites to govern so long as they respected parameters established in Washington. Here was a workable formula for exercising indirect authority, one that prioritized order over democracy, social justice, and the rule of law.

By 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated his Good Neighbor policy with the announcement that “the definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention,” the War for the Hemisphere seemed largely won. Yet neighborliness did not mean that U.S. military forces were leaving the scene. As insurance against backsliding, Roosevelt left intact the U.S. bases in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and continued to garrison Panama.

So rather than ending, the Hundred Years’ War for the Hemisphere had merely gone on hiatus. In the 1950s, the conflict resumed and even intensified, with Washington now defining threats to its authority in ideological terms. Leftist radicals rather than feckless caudillos posed the problem. During President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term, a CIA-engineered coup in Guatemala tacitly revoked FDR’s nonintervention pledge and appeared to offer a novel way to enforce regional discipline without actually committing U.S. troops. Under President John F. Kennedy, the CIA tried again, in Cuba. That was just for starters.

Between 1964 and 1994, U.S. forces intervened in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, and Haiti, in most cases for the second or third time. Nicaragua and El Salvador also received sustained American attention. In the former, Washington employed methods that were indistinguishable from terrorism to undermine a regime it viewed as illegitimate. In the latter, it supported an ugly counterinsurgency campaign to prevent leftist guerrillas from overthrowing right-wing oligarchs. Only in the mid-1990s did the Hundred Years’ War for the Hemisphere once more begin to subside. With the United States having forfeited its claim to the Panama Canal and with U.S.–Cuban relations now normalized, it may have ended for good.

Today the United States enjoys unquestioned regional primacy, gained at a total cost of fewer than a thousand U.S. combat fatalities, even counting the luckless sailors who went down with the Maine. More difficult to say with certainty is whether a century of interventionism facilitated or complicated U.S. efforts to assert primacy in its “own back yard.” Was coercion necessary? Or might patience have produced a similar outcome? Still, in the end, Washington got what it wanted. Given the gaping imbalance of power between the Colossus of the North and its neighbors, we may wonder whether the final outcome was ever in doubt.

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is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History,just out from Random House.

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