How To Run An Empire

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Before advising Americans on how to manage their empire, it is first necessary to convince them that their empire exists. This is no easy task, for the comment of the nineteenth-century Cambridge historian Sir John Seely, who said of the British Empire that it was acquired “in a fit of absence of mind,” could, until very recently, be far more appropriately applied to the present imperial role of the United States. Until the Vietnam conflict blew up into a heated domestic political controversy, most Americans were so absent-minded about their dominion over far-flung palm and pine that the schoolboy’s question, “Does the United States have an empire?” could truthfully be answered, “Yes, but they’ve forgotten about it.”

Such forgetfulness, though genuine, cuts little ice among the previous bearers of the White Man’s Burden, for we British know an empire when we see one. Although today the globe is not coloured with large splashes of the American equivalent of imperial red, yet by skilfully allowing the local natives to enjoy the forms of power while Washington controls the substance, the twentieth century’s most prominent anticolonialists have made it respectable to occupy a chain of world-wide military garrisons and even to possess overseas colonies. Admittedly, Alaska is overland and was bought from Russia, but it is certainly not contiguous to the continental United States. As for Hawaii and Puerto Rico, Okinawa and other former Japanese islands in the Pacific, the war-dependent economies of South Vietnam and Thailand, the myriad trust territories in Micronesia, the puppet state of Panama, and the cunningly manipulated but independent Philippines—here is an empire in all its untarnished trappings. A nostalgic Englishman can only envy this phenomenon and admire the dexterity by which the world is mesmerized into believing it isn’t there.

But the American empire was far more invisible than it is today when Englishmen began giving the United States imperial advice. The first and perhaps most distinguished of these mentors was Rudyard Kipling. After the United States took over the administration of the Philippine Islands following the Spanish-American War, Kipling in 1899 published a famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” which was directly aimed at the new American imperialists. It has proved so prophetic that perhaps three stanzas are worth quoting:

Take up the White Man’s burden— Send forth the best ye breed— Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild— Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. Take up the White Man’s burden— The savage wars of peace— Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease; And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch Sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hope to nought. Take up the White Man’s burden— And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hope of those ye guard … Comes now, to search your manhood Through all the thankless years, Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom The judgment of your peers!

Reading those lines seventy-one years ago, many Americans must have pooh-poohed them as hysteria. For Kipling was striking at the great American beliefs that it is possible to be generous and not to be despised, to rule and not to be disliked, to be powerful and not to be hated. Unfortunately time has vindicated Kipling’s cynicism more than American idealism. Faced with Return Okinawa riots by Japanese students, protest marches by Guam islanders, and anti-American demonstrations throughout South America, Kipling’s phrases have a painful ring of truth.