“I chant the new empire . . . “
Walt Whitman sang what he saw—in 1860, he gave a name to Madison’s and Jefferson’s vision of the new commonwealth. “[Our success],” Jefferson had said in 1801, “furnishes a new proof of the falsehood of Montesquieu’s doctrine, that a republic can be preserved only in a small territory. The reverse is the truth.” Despite Jefferson’s belief, however, the American Experiment will probably be remembered as the only reluctant empire in history: no Homers, Vergils, or Kiplings, but a Whitman, sang its praise. Theodore Roosevelt, the only unabashedly imperialist President, saw America as an international do-gooder that spoke softly and carried a big stick.
Yet, as Brooks Adams wrote: “Nature is omnipotent; and nations must float with the tide. Whither the exchanges flow, they must follow.” Theodore Roosevelt’s friend and advisor, Adams may not have been nurtured an imperialist, but, like Whitman, Roosevelt, or even Jefferson, he could not deny what he beheld: an immense, rich, populous country, in a world that had become no more meek than in Themistocles’ time. His fear of a glacial America, slipping towards rot and destruction, finds its echoes in the hearts of many conservatives. A melancholy generalizer and a visionary. Brooks Adams tried to tell us that destinies, manifest or not, may not be shirked in a world of machinelike men. As Woodrow Wilson set up the stage for a century of wars, Adams might have felt vindicated—but whether anything salved his soul, we may never know. If early-20th-century America was a pain to him, what would he say now?
While this country basks in video games, Irangate, pacifism, affirmative action, “justice for all,” and junk mail promoting Hammacher Schlemmer “solar-ventilated golf caps,” Henry Ford’s words should be recalled. “In my mind,” wrote Ford, the creator of the production line, “nothing is more abhorrent than a life of ease. . . . Let every American become steeled against coddling. . . . It is a drug.” Though Ford has been accused of many things, he was, above all, an American: In my youth in Yugoslavia, I remember the almost religious awe his cars caused. “I can reach the engine like a cow’s udder,” a mechanic friend told me, “nothing like a Mercedes, or any of this European junk, where you have to use a can opener before you can get at anything.” Henry Ford was an American because he was fearless: He would look, see, think, and do, regardless of any chorus. It took a long time (until the 1970’s) for American windbreakers to start boasting false pockets, bad zippers, and the theatrical tailoring, typical of Italy, Hong Kong, or Taiwan.
“During the seven and a half years that I was President,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt, “this nation behaved in international matters towards all other nations precisely as an honorable man behaves to his fellow man. We made no promise which we could not and did not keep. We made no threat which we did not carry out.” Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh would have concurred. Though resolutely opposed to the U.S. entry into World War II, both men became loyal workers in the war effort—the American Republic, they felt, must show itself different from old Europe, which had debauched itself into self-immolation. But if President Jimmy Carter ever read his predecessor’s words, as he put in motion his hostage policy, we do not know. What we are aware of, however, is that the Shiite terrorists in Beirut pulled back from harassing the Soviets, after some of their gunmen (and their families) were found carved up—the spread of their fingers did not mean they were willing to have their people die.
The Russians have learned what Americans haven’t. In a world where Tartar horsemen held banquets on platforms supported by the bodies of their still-living foes, and Teutonic knights, Turkic raiders, panzer divisions, and Einsatzgruppen killed more people than anyone can count, knowledge came dear—he who will not vanquish, will be vanquished in turn, and no poems shall revive him. (The Serbs are a rare example of a people resurrected by the memory of former greatness.) Whether Russians are protectively imperial, as many American liberals hold, or malignantly expansionistic, as their enemies say, is immaterial. For millions of Letts, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Rumanians, Yugoslavs, Bulgarians, et al., the Soviet Empire is an evil, without any hyperbole.
Speaking of survival, in 1938 Charles Lindbergh attributed British success to “the past importance of the Channel and the time it gave the British to prepare for war.” Theodore Roosevelt said much the same from a different perspective: “I suppose that the United States will always be unready for war. . . . This is no new thing. Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience.” Yet, “Anglo-Saxons” have reached the end of their insularities: The Channel is a creek, and the Ocean a river. With Canada neutralist or Mexico Marxist, not even the river will be there. In 1987, Canadian socialist New Democrats gained a 40 percent support at the polls; as for Mexico, in 10 years possibly a quarter of its population will be in the U.S. The prospect of an unassimilable “minority” of 20-30 million should kindle memories of the internment of the Japanese in World War II, a much-debated reaction to the reality of a fifth column.
Is America to become a dump for an empire that never took shape? In Britain, second-generation Pakistanis wear saris, live in self-imposed ghettos, and demand that their customs, religion, and culture be underwritten by the British taxpayers. In Canada, Sikhs clamor for the right to serve the Armed Forces in turbans and to carry their dirks into Her Majesty’s courtrooms. In France, Algerians ask for welfare and a voice in the affairs of the Republic, while in Germany Turkish-speaking Turks attend publicly maintained Turkish schools. In Holland, the Mollucans extol their Dutchness, and, in this country a federal director for bilingualism exists, perhaps to help Americans read foreign signs on their subways, buses, public buildings, and schools. (In comparison, in French Quebec a sign in English is a crime, according to the much-celebrated Provincial Law 101.)
“Empire is the child of an inability or unwillingness to live within one’s means,” concludes American Marxist historian William Appleman Williams, adding his voice to Lindbergh’s 1938 opinion that there is an “antithesis of democratic ideals to empire.” There are many Americans, liberal, radical, and conservative, who find nothing wrong with this view. Born in revolt against a world state, Americans are understandably reluctant to become themselves the enemy—yet, isn’t an “inability or unwillingness to live within one’s means” just another definition of ambition, drive, and courage? Those Europeans who could “live within their means” stayed in Europe, as did those Vietnamese, Cambodians, or the Chinese who could reconcile themselves to a lifetime in a labor camp. Some opponents of imperial expansion laud the Chinese 15th-century refusal to start an African colony but seem to forget that mainland China was and is an empire (as attested by its countless ethnic minorities). Historically, empires are often a matter of social physics—the strong and the large behave differently from the small and the weak. “The American imperial way of life,” writes Williams, “conditions people to be outraged about the death required to maintain an empire.”
But when the Vietnamese lost over a million dead in a worldwide war against America, they didn’t count their losses. They would have understood what Theodore Roosevelt meant by saying, “Let us pay with our bodies for our souls’ desire.” It may be possible that the U.S. policymakers also knew what they wanted but were afraid to say it—”the theme of American participation in World War II was victory at the lowest possible cost.” That, at any rate, is the opinion of historian Stephen E. Ambrose. Others contend that “victory by the Red Army was the key to avoiding any structural changes [in America].” According to the Historical Statistics of the United States, only 405,399 Americans died in a holocaust that consumed over 50 million lives (among them over 25 million Soviets and over 10 million Germans). The number of the American dead in Vietnam was comparable to the casualties at Gettysburg alone; yet, not many Americans north of the Ohio River upbraid Lincoln for being a mass murderer.
In retrospect, it seems that in 1860 America was more conscious of its destiny and more willing to pay its dues. Whether Lincoln had a choice or, as many Southerners believe, made a crucial mistake that forever ruined the nation, is a matter of historical conjecture. What is not historical conjecture, however, is that the geopolitical realities of today are no different from yesterday’s. Khomeini, whipping up the ghost of his people’s empire; Qaddafi, bloating up to have another go at Tours; Soviets bathing on Cuban beaches and teaching Nicaraguans to fly Hind gunships; Canadians debating on whether to leave NATO; Mexico on perpetual verge of revolution are all facts of our time—as long as there are the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, the capable and the incapable, America will have a choice. It is a choice many less fortunate nations do not have: whether to agree to “live within its means” and wither away (or die, violently) or whether to secure for itself the position of comparative invincibility. “Right is the oncoming might,” according to John Stuart Mill. The Soviets, the Chinese, the Third World, “proletarians,” “capitalists,” even the Nicaraguans are all striving after might. Can America afford to abdicate because the contest is hard, treacherous, and risky? In the game of survival, second places often do not count. Where are the Armenians today? Or Dacians? Or Burgundians? Or even the European Jews?
For the soft, the record of oppression by the weak should suffice—mob rule in the French Revolution, Soviet Red Terror, the Cambodian self-genocide, to go no further. In comparison, imperial strength has often brought peace, prosperity, pride, and civilization to those areas and times that have produced anything of value. Pax Romana gave us Europe, while Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire preserved it. In Genghis Khan’s description of supreme joy (” . . . to cut my enemies to pieces, drive them before me, seize their possessions, witness the tears of those dear to them, and embrace their wives and daughters”) lies an indication of what the frontiersmen of European Empires saved us from. Today, the Frontiers are shrinking towards the City on the Hill, as in Emperor Constantine Dragases’ time, or before Chalons became a victory.
In their Hamletizing over empire, Americans are tortured with the specter of a loss of freedom. Can those who lay down the law themselves be free, seems to be the question, and the answer, in many Americans’ minds, seems to be negative. It has often been said that freedom does not involve license, and most philosophers (including Hegel), have perceived it as strength arising from the obligation to truth. A sturdy, hierarchical, responsible America might be freer than today’s U.S.—freer from the whims of over 50 percent of its citizens who don’t bother to vote, and from the hang-ups of those who use their franchise only to satirize, blaspheme, or destroy. European democracies, the choice involved trusting particular men to keep the community viable and vigorous—the decisions of New England town meetings were binding even for dissenters. During the Civil War, supporters of the Confederacy or slavery in the North were imprisoned, sometimes shot—no Jane Fondas toured the enemy and cashed in on it. In the American West, vigilance committees enforced the will of the majority, to the detriment of anyone who would not abide by it. An America able to react both to the gadflies and the dragons would be honorable in its willingness to pay for what it wants.
There is yet to be invented a social or a political order which will satisfy everyone. Until the late 19th century the American Nation meant a Germano-Celtic, English-speaking people, not merely an inhabited continent. The world is large, and America can be a point of departure, as well as a port of destination—let others try with “cultural mosaics,” multilingualism, and cultural and religious disintegration. America should continue providing a chance to immigrants of its choice, able to become Americans, but there is no reason why it should be a haven for newcomers unwilling to adapt. Such magnanimity will only delight the enemies of this land and enable every pressure group in the world to take its place as a well-paying influence on American policy. When the rest of this planet has become a United Nations, it will be time enough for Americans to follow suit.
This country is an empire because a continent of close to 300 million people cannot behave as a village assembly and survive. There will never be a technology to change this—either Americans will manage their estate according to its nature, or be challenged by others more than willing to try. Gorbachev, for one, would be delighted to show the Americans how to run their agriculture, industry, and politics; but he would have to get in line with Oliver Tambo, Daniel Ortega, and Yassir Arafat. After 200 years, this republic has no reason to prove anything. If effort means the lack of freedom, instead of a precondition for it, then Americans have ceased being free since the first Europeans came here.
America, the envy of the world, is also its only hope. It is not an unblemished hope, but what are the alternatives? Ulster? Valon-Flemish rivalry? The sanatoriums of Switzerland? French posturing? Italian auto-subversion? Third World New Information Order? Mike Gorbachev’s Afghanistan? Chinese Truths, Leaps, and Pratfalls? Perpetual White Man’s self-flagellation? Are Americans to renounce themselves because a food chain exists?
As a foreigner (“legal alien” in exact terms), I wish to become an American because, after living in much of this world, I know that the only battle worth fighting, in this day and age, is right here, in America. In Kuwait, I was asked to stay and witness the eventual removal of the chadohr; in Iran, they spoke to me of revolution; in Peru, I was promised money that I never lacked; in my native Yugoslavia, I was expected to wait for what the Austrians had won over a century ago—but I wanted to see the whole of this speck in space go somewhere, and I chose America. If America flubs it, the crime will be much greater than self-destruction; a world will be orphaned, before it is destroyed.