- Historic Sites
How To Run An Empire
From John Bull to Uncle Sam:
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Consider some domestic American institutions. It is still undeniable that in a world which governs its international behaviour with more attention to old-fashioned morality than many newspapers would have us believe, an empire must give an example to its satellites if she wishes those satellites to fall into line. She must insist on certain standards—not to the extent that Russia has imposed her standards on Czechoslovakia, but perhaps as closely as we, the British, insisted on standards in public life in India and Africa. I would advise what in your jargon is called a long hard look at some of the less attractive aspects of the American scene—the administration of justice, not always impartial; the respect for law and order, not always enforced; the standards of political life, not always incorrupt; the equality of the citizen, not always upheld; the rights of the individual, not always respected; the denial of privilege, not always observed. In America there are too many ideals cloaking too much cynicism; too many robber barons oppressing too many poor; too much mere talk about peace and too many acts of violence. Perhaps a military defeat will be a good moral purge. It may allow you to rekindle a feeling for America which foreigners have lost. We fear you, we envy you, sometimes we like you, but we have lost a lot of our respect for you. The “American Way of Life” has become a bit of a giggle. We would like you more if you stood higher in our esteem.
Yet although the main foundations of empire are laid at home, may I offer two specific pieces of advice which concern those Americans who are most often found in the imperial outposts. Encourage—and I make no bones about using this Nancy Mitford language—a better class of person to become officers in your armed forces. In an empire the military needs prestige. As your representatives abroad, senior officers require something more than bonhomie and set opinions. Your present incumbents— devoted and technically adept though they may be— include a number of the illiberal and ill-educated. The military men’s power and influence is too wide for them to be any but the best you breed.
Improve too the quality of the men who represent your nation’s mass media as foreign correspondents. The ease with which Vietnam press visas were granted to American and foreigner alike may well turn out to be one of the major mistakes of the conflict. Some of my own most vivid memories of being a Saigon-based war correspondent concerned American reporters who either so loathed their country’s war policy or were so blindly in love with the exhilaration of battle that their objectivity was seriously impaired. I also recall many examples of gross and insensitive behaviour by pressmen—such as a photographer who arrived on a scene of appalling carnage and asked in an enthusiastic tone, “Any K.I.A. [killed in action] from Dayton?” Without in any way suggesting that censorship should have been imposed, or without wishing to impugn the many outstanding reporters who went to Vietnam, I nevertheless believe that America did herself a disservice by not being more careful about who was licensed to cover that war.
There—that is enough; indeed, it may be too much, so lest you think my damns have been too constant and my praise too faint, let me end on a note of sincere admiration. I know of no people who are so open and ready to criticism, or who examine themselves so honestly, as do civilised Americans. Imagine a Czech journalist writing for Novosti in the language I have used. There is, too, a type of American civilisation which is the more attractive because it is still evolving. It is a civilisation at once enquiring, active, liberal, lettered, and unhurried, forming a kernel of real culture and taste. I know men who belong to what is plainly becoming an American aristocracy—though they would shy away from the word—in its best sense: leaders, rulers, thinkers, reformers, men of will and purpose and courage. If these men become the new American imperialists, the world will be better and more quietly governed, for they know how to carry the big stick, while walking softly as well.