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The Virus of Imperialism (Part 1)

Mises Daily: Monday, September 02, 2013 by

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Study imperialism with Thomas DiLorenzo at Mises Academy beginning September 9.

In his famous 1898 essay, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” the great Yale University libertarian scholar William Graham Sumner argued that America had crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, and had become an imperialistic empire. It had become the Spanish empire. But Sumner was only half right. The conquest of Cuba was an imperialistic war, but so were all other American military adventures since the American Revolution. Apparently, even a man as brilliant and astute as Sumner was somewhat befogged by the endless and pervasive drumbeat of war propaganda.

“War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne explained in his famous essay of that title. But to the average citizen war means heavy taxation, conscription, censorship, dictatorship, and death. War enriches the state like nothing else can, while impoverishing, enslaving, and ending the lives of many of its citizens. Hence lies, myths, superstitions, and propaganda have always been the essential ingredient of the warfare state. Without them, the public would never acquiesce in the never-ending wars of conquest and imperialism that have long characterized the American state.

The War of 1812

Barely twenty years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified there arose quite a few American politicians who believed it was their “manifest destiny” to invade and conquer Canada. One of the congressional leaders of the early nineteenth-century war party, Henry Clay, celebrated the declaration of war against Great Britain on June 4, 1812, by declaring that “Every patriot bosom must throb with anxious solicitude for the result. Every patriot arm will assist in making that result conducive to the glory of our beloved country” (David and Jeane Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, p. 98).

Among the “official reasons” for the invasion of Canada in 1812 were the alleged “impressment” of American sailors by the British government, but that had been going on for decades, as Justin Raimondo has pointed out. The tall tale was also broadcast that the “evil” British were encouraging Indians to attack American settlers. The real reason for the War of 1812, however, was an impulse to grow the state with an imperialistic war of conquest. The result of the war was a disaster — the British burned down the White House, the Library of Congress, and much of Washington, D.C. Americans were saddled with a huge war debt that was used as an excuse to resurrect the corrupt and economically destabilizing Bank of the United States, a precursor of the Fed.

The Mexican-American War

When James K. Polk became president in 1845 he announced to his cabinet that one of his chief objectives was to acquire California, which was then a part of Mexico. As he wrote in his diary, “I stated to the cabinet that up to this time as they knew, we had herd of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed. I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war.”

Thus, long before the presidency of George W. Bush, James K. Polk advocated the neocon notion of the “pre-emptive war.” Polk recognized that the Mexican army had not committed any “act of aggression,” so he set out to provoke one by sending American troops to the border of Mexico in territory that historians agree was “disputed territory” at the time because of a very dubious claim by the U.S. government. None other than Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs that, as a young soldier serving under the command of General Zachary Taylor during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, he understood that he had been sent there to provoke a fight:

The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory furthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. I was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive [President Polk] could announce, ‘Whereas war exists by the acts of, etc.’ and prosecute the contest with vigor.

Polk’s gambit worked; he did provoke the Mexican army. In his war message to Congress he then declared that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. ... As war exists ... by the act of Mexico herself, we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country.” This con game of provoking a war by showing up on another nation’s border, heavily armed with weapons aimed at the hoped-for belligerent, would be repeated many times in subsequent generations, right up to today’s provocation of a war in Syria.

The invasion and conquest of Mexico enabled the U.S. government to acquire California and New Mexico at the cost of some 15,000 American lives and at least 25,000 Mexican casualties. It was an aggressive war of conquest and imperialism.

The American “Civil War”

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln threatened “invasion” and “bloodshed” (his exact words) in any state that refused to collect the federal tariff tax on imports, which had just been more than doubled two days earlier. At the time, tariffs accounted for more than 90 percent of all federal tax revenue, so this was a gigantic tax increase. This is how Lincoln threatened war in his first official oration:

The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.

But of course the states of the lower South, having seceded, did not intend to “collect the duties and imposts” and send the money to Washington, D.C. Lincoln committed treason (as defined by Article 3, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution) by levying war upon the free and independent states, which he always considered to be a part of the American union. By his own admission (and his subsequent actions), he invaded his own country over tax collection.

The Republican Party of 1860 was the party of protectionism and high tariffs. The Confederate Constitution had outlawed protectionist tariffs altogether. The result would have been a massive diversion of world trade to the Southern ports which would have forced the U.S. government to reduce its desired 50 percent average tariff rate to competitive levels (10-15 percent), depriving Northern manufacturers of this veiled form of corporate welfare, and depriving the government of the revenue it needed to pursue its manifest destiny of a mercantilist empire complete with massive subsidies for railroad corporations (among others).

Lincoln’s dilemma was that he knew he would be condemned worldwide for waging a bloody war over tax collection. Another excuse for war had to be invented, so he invented the notion of the “mystical,” permanent, and non-voluntary union. He did not want to be seen as the aggressor in his war for tariff revenue, so he hatched a plot to trick Southerners into firing the first shot by sending American warships to Charleston Harbor while steadfastly refusing to meet with Confederate peace commissioners or discuss the purchase of federal property by the Confederate government. He understood that the Confederates would not tolerate a foreign fort on their property any more than George Washington would have tolerated a British fort in New York or Boston Harbors.

Quite a few Northern newspapers recognized the game Lincoln was playing. On April 16, 1861 the Buffalo Daily Courier editorialized that “[t]he affair at Fort Sumter ... has been planned as a means by which the war feeling at the North should be intensified” (Howard Cecil Perkins, Northern Editorials on Secession).

The New York Evening Day Book wrote on April 17, 1861, that the event at Fort Sumter was “a cunningly devised scheme” contrived “to arouse, and, if possible, exasperate the northern people against the South.” “Look at the facts,” the Providence Daily Post wrote on April 13, 1861. “For three weeks the [Lincoln] administration newspapers have been assuring us that Ford Sumter would be abandoned,” but “Mr. Lincoln saw an opportunity to inaugurate civil war without appearing in the character of an aggressor.” The Jersey City American Standard editorialized that “there is a madness and ruthlessness” in Lincoln’s behavior, concluding that Lincolns sending of ships to Charleston Harbor was “a pretext for letting loose the horrors of war.”

After Fort Sumter, on May 1, 1861, Lincoln wrote to his naval commander, Captain Gustavus Fox, to say that “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country [i.e., a civil war] would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.” He was thanking Captain Fox for his role in duping the Confederates into firing upon Fort Sumter (where no one was either killed or wounded). Lincoln responded with a full-scale invasion of all the Southern states and a four-year war that, according to the latest research, was responsible for as many as 850,000 American deaths with more than double that number maimed for life. Standardizing for today’s population, that would be the equivalent of roughly 9 million American deaths in four years.

The Spanish-American War

Immediately after the “Civil War” the U.S. government waged a twenty-five-year war of genocide against the Plains Indians “to make way for the railroad corporations,” as General Sherman declared. Then by the late 1880s, American imperialists wanted to kick the Spanish out of Cuba where American business interests had invested in sugar and tobacco plantations. An American warship, the U.S.S. Maine, was sent to Havana in January of 1898 to supposedly protect American business interests from an insurrection. On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion sunk the ship, killing 270 sailors. The Spanish were blamed for the explosion despite a lack of incriminating evidence. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” newspaperman William Randolph Hearst famously said to the artist Frederic Remington, implying that, armed with the artist’s illustrations, his newspapers would generate war propaganda. The U.S. government waged war with Spanish-occupied Cuba for the next four years, making the world safe for American sugar and tobacco corporations.

To study more intensely the subject of imperialism and anti-imperialism, consider taking my new Mises Academy five-week online course on the subject beginning the evening of September 9.