The United States has invaded more countries, launched more coups, armed more dictators and trained more terrorists than any empire in history. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the country’s military spending will hit US$1 trillion per year in the next decade. And the US controls at least 750 overseas military bases in 80 countries—it can put troops on the ground almost anywhere at the drop of a dollar. It remains the only state to have ever exploded an atomic bomb over a city.
The US began to develop as an imperial power from the mid-nineteenth century, undergoing rapid economic growth while other world powers such as Britain and Spain began to decline.
Early US expansionism involved annexing the western states from Mexico and occupying guano islands and then Hawaii in the Pacific. In 1898, the Spanish-American war marked the entrance of the United States as a true imperial power. Spain faced a war of national independence in the Philippines, led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The Filipino independence movement initially accepted tactical assistance from the United States, expecting to govern an independent state after the Spanish were ousted.
Instead, the US cut a deal with Spain, allowing it to purchase the Philippines for $20 million and take the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and Cuba. The star-spangled banner was raised in Manila and a bloody three-year war to occupy all the Philippines ensued, killing potentially 1 million people to put down the nationalist movement.
In April the following year, US General William Shafter, who was responsible for maintaining supplies to the army in the first phase of the invasion, told the Chicago News: “It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords”.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the US economy continued an unprecedented industrial expansion, and the government began using its financial clout, backed by growing military might, to structure international trade to most suit its capitalist class. Future President Woodrow Wilson explained in a 1907 Columbia University speech:
“Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down.”
The US dominated the lucrative sugar and tobacco export trades in Cuba and invaded the country three times between 1906 and 1922 to maintain unequal arrangements. This involved lending political support to the dictator Fulgencio Batista from 1934 until his overthrow in the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
The US entered World War Two not as a champion of anti-fascism, but more than two years into the conflict, when the German Nazi regime had already taken control of much of continental Europe. In this supposed “war for democracy”, the US came into its own as a utiliser of unchecked brutality in both Europe and Asia. In 1946, Edgar L. Jones, a former war correspondent in the Pacific, described US conduct in the Atlantic Monthly:
“We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones for letter openers.”
By 1945, when Axis defeat was imminent, the US began exercising cutting-edge war technologies as a warning for what it was prepared to do if challenged in future. In March, the American-British firebombing levelled Dresden, and the US military firebombed the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe until all its weaponry was exhausted, causing a more concentrated loss of life, it is estimated, than any other time in human history until that point.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki had escaped firebombing only because the US wanted to experiment with a new type of weapon. In August, the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities, killing at least 150,000 people instantly, or gruesomely in the days and weeks to follow. The surrender of Japan had already been guaranteed; the US engineered this enormous loss of life to test its new nuclear technologies and prove its willingness to use extreme force.
When the Cold War with the Soviet Union began, US imperialism acquired an increasingly political dimension. The country repeatedly provided support to right-wing movements and dictators to prevent the success of left-wing struggles that could have challenged US economic supremacy or diplomatically allied with the Soviet Union. A nuclear arms race brought the world close to annihilation in several tense movements, leaving tens of thousands of warheads scattered across continents.
In 1948, the US director of policy planning, George F. Kennan, wrote an influential Cold War policy paper, in which he argued:
“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population ... Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity ... We should cease to talk about vague objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.”
In the wake of World War Two, the US established the School of the Americas—dubbed the “School of Assassins” or “School of Coups” by its opponents—in Panama. Here, the US trained police and military personnel of dictatorships and the extreme right across Latin America.
In 1954, President Eisenhower launched “Operation Success” against the democratically elected government in Guatemala, which challenged the landholdings of the dominant US United Fruit Company. The US orchestrated a successful coup, led by School of the Americas-trained Guatemalan forces, which banned independent trade unions and plunged the country into four decades of Central America’s bloodiest civil war.
The US subsequently invaded Honduras and Panama four times, the Dominican Republican, Haiti and Nicaragua twice, and Grenada once, as well as propping up almost every Latin American dictator, from Brazil to El Salvador to Argentina.
In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency supported the overthrow of elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, threatening British and American profits. In the 1960s, the US supported the dictatorial regime of Indonesia’s General Suharto, who murdered up to 1 million people in an anti-communist pogrom. These methods were repeated in 1973, when the CIA supported the military coup of Augusto Pinochet against social-democratic leader Salvador Allende in Chile, which resulted in the establishment of a brutal military dictatorship.
The US also invaded Korea in the 1950s. Up to 4 million Koreans were killed or disappeared in the conflict, and the country was divided. The war was a precursor to the Vietnam War, launched the following decade, which followed a different course due to the enormous resistance of Vietnamese national liberation fighters and a rebellion of US soldiers. Nonetheless, the US deployment of chemical weapons such as napalm and Agent Orange permanently poisoned widespread environments and led to birth defects occurring among the Vietnamese even decades later.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the US sought to establish itself as an unchallengeable global superpower. Often dubbing its imperialist invasions as “humanitarian interventions”, the US launched the brutal Gulf War in Iraq in the early 1990s. In 2001, the US invaded and began a decades-long occupation of Afghanistan, and in 2003 again invaded Iraq.
The US had desired a short and sharp victory in Iraq, and hinted that it would then move on to regime-change wars in Syria and Iran to install political leaders pliant to US interests in the oil-rich and strategically important Middle East. Iraqi resistance stalled this expansionist dream, and instead the US was bogged down in a bloody occupation that resulted in at least 1 million deaths.
Alongside these invasions and coups, the US has carried out innumerable war crimes, operated facilities of torture and “disappeared” untold thousands of people. It has experimented with ecological, biological and psychological warfare. It has politically excused and militarily supported murderous governments on every continent.
The number of people dead at the hands of US militarism—from warfare, injuries, disease or poverty—is perhaps incalculable, but stands certainly in the tens of millions. The United States, capitalism’s “greatest democracy”, is the most terrible purveyor of violence the world has known.
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