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How To Run An Empire

February 2024
11min read

From John Bull to Uncle Sam:

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.

But having scored the debating point that British advice to the American empire is not to be taken lightly, let us turn away from post-mortems and towards the future. It is a perfect moment to do this, for the end of the Vietnam war will be either the finest or the darkest hour for American imperialism. When the armistice is signed on the 50th parallel, whatever the communiqués may say, America’s enemies will assert that the new empire has lost a war, lost face, and lost the confidence and esteem of her allies. Many of those allies will be secretly and spitefully delighted. For America herself it will be the parting of the ways. For nearly thirty years she will have moved away from her homely traditions and down the imperial road. This is the new empire’s first reverse. All the old Yankee prejudices, all the latent isolationism of the early years, all the diverse forces which lead the new generation to revolt against society, will be brought into play, and there will be immense pressures to start a return to the cosy assurance of the American womb. Why, it will be asked, was America ever tempted to go back to the bad old struggles from which the early fathers had with such travail escaped? Surely the whole raison d’être of the nation was to create a haven away from political entanglements for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? What was the Monroe Doctrine but a barrier against outside interference with the American dream? And where was the American dream to be realised except in America? It will be a testing moment, perhaps the supremely testing moment of the century. The British Empire underwent a similar moment when, in December, 1805, Napoleon overthrew Austria at Austerlitz, and all Europe, until then subsidised and succoured by England, was in French hands. In one agonised outburst, Pitt ordered the map of Europe to be rolled up; but only a few months later, just before he died, he confidently declared in a speech at the Guildhall in 1805, “England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.” It is not too farfetched to argue, against the background of increasingly militant Communist expansionism in Asia, that the situation of 1806 is about to be with the Western world again.

The time for advice has arrived. If America is not to lose her imperial sway, she must retain her empire. To do so, she will certainly have to reconsider some attitudes. She may even be obliged to reform some institutions. Let us take the empire first, the threefold empire— the territories outside the continental United States, the military bastions around the world, and the great golden calf reflecting the American way of life.

Keep, I would say to Americans, all your overseas territories. If weak nations ask for your protection, give it. Do not surrender Guam. Do not negotiate a transfer of Guantánamo. Keep a firm hold of the Panama Canal. Maintain your bases in Subie Bay and in the Ryukyu Islands. Make quite certain that when the peace protocols are written you are given in South Vietnam whatever facilities you require for exerting influence in that area. If it’s the peace of the world you wish to secure, the Pax Americana cannot be guaranteed from within Fortress America. Every empire, from the Roman to our own, repeats that lesson. World power cannot be exercised by any nation unless she goes beyond her own frontiers. Only one empire can resist another. Within decades of your retreat behind your own stockade, much of the world, and certainly all the East, will have fallen under Communist control.

What indeed is so morally wrong about American flags among palm and pine? Pure self-determination could only logically apply if nations consisted of one race, long established within natural ethnic frontiers. The nations which answer to that description are few and far between. Every single boundary in Africa was artificially drawn during the nineteenth century in some European foreign ministry. What moral right have the Spaniards and Portuguese in South America? Or Romanian Jews in Israel? Why do the Soviets rule in Samarkand? Why is the government of an independent Mauritius given to the immigrant Indian community? In each case, the answer is simple—no moral right at all. The Spaniards and Portuguese conquered the territories and killed the natives; the Jews settled and now defend their settlements; the Russians extended their empire overland to the east; the Indians are the most numerous and vote for each other. There are no morals about it. Americans, as part of their imperial duty, must spread and multiply. If they care to play to the gallery by granting statehood to Puerto Rico or erecting an elaborate Potemkin façade of independence in front of Panama, that’s their business. It’s always sensible to undermine your opponent’s arguments by conforming to what is called “world opinion,” however ill-founded. Even the Russians have allowed the Baltic states to keep their languages and folk songs and national costumes. What does it matter who dances on the village green, as long as every function of government is in Russian hands?

And if you leave your military bases around the world, or reduce them to the extent that your power is no longer credible, do you believe any Western nation or concert of nations will take your place? Do you believe the Russians will disarm in harmony? Are you prepared to allow the Communist world to spread right up to the walls of Fortress America, confident that the American dream can remain inviolate inside? You know perfectly well that it is only American arms, money, and men, American purpose and command, that keeps the military alliances of the Western world alive. Your allies are in any case the most reluctant of military partners, continually basing their military plans on the protection of what they call the “American umbrella.” Without you they will dither and fall apart and spend their budgets on pills and permissiveness, exactly as the slack kingdoms of Europe would have remained supine under Napoleon had not England provided an injection of gold and steel.

Your influence on the Western and Christian world is, however, your most precious and most powerful weapon. But your golden calf has become suspect: you literally need a new image. Norman Rockwell’s well-fed families of the “White Christmas” era were too complacent, too narrow, much too pleased with themselves. Even moderate intellectuals were contemptuous of Babbitt’s passionate salesmanship. Overseas admirers of the American Presidency after four White House occupants of the Roosevelt, Truman, Elsenhower, Kennedy calibre were shaken out of their admiration by reports of the personal crudity and public credibility gap of Lyndon Johnson. Outside America, the Nixon era’s space flights appeal only to a narrow and rather sophisticated minority. Stupendous as your achievements have been, most humble people would prefer to see America making a greater concentration of effort on human problems. As for your youth, inevitable as is their reaction to the grey flannel suit, they are reacting in a way which is very alarming for anyone who believes in evolution. What is wrong with the old American puritanism tempered with the best of the new educated liberal beliefs? You will be opposing, as long as this century lasts or longer, the most formidably puritan dogma, the Marxist-Leninist creed. As the English found during the last war that they were obliged to become more organised, more methodical, more Germanic than the Germans in order to defeat their enemy, so you too must become more austere than 1970 finds you if you are to convince your own youth and their fellows in the Western world that you can offer an American society worth working for, sacrificing for, and if need be, dying for.

The most important attitude you must change is your attitude to time. You have an adolescent’s attitude to time. It is not hurrying to the extent you think it is. A European reads with amazement constant references to recent years as if they were part of a vanished age. “Way back in 1953 …” begins a typical American magazine article, usually trumpeting the tremendous strides made since that misty era. “Way back in 1453” is admissible, but sixteen years is a drop in the ocean of time. It all stems from the passionate desire of each American that the millennium should occur during his lifetime. He is creating a materialistic heaven-on-earth and must be alive to enjoy it. Anything that detracts from the creation of this heaven, or diverts the creator’s attention, is an extraneous nuisance, a “problem” to be “solved” as soon as possible so that he can return to the real business of life. So the Vietnam war, the crime wave, racial tension, youthful protest, must be solved, settled, and shelved before the next election, the next summit meeting, the beginning of the 1970’s, the renewal of an international loan. Such an attitude hands you tied and bound to anyone who can afford to wait. It is a crippling handicap in your negotiations with the Communists. Remember the old German proverb about Russia: “In that country a hundred miles is no distance, a hundred deaths no tragedy, a hundred years no time.” You are dealing, you Americans, with that kind of people, and at times they are playing with you. Life, as Harold Macmillan reminded Ed Murrow in their famous television interview, does not consist of problems that can be solved but of situations with which you must live. Don’t be so impatient. Time is only your enemy if you misconstrue its meaning. On many a reputation, shattered in Vietnam, could be written the ancient epitaph: “Here lies the man who tried to hurry the East.”

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.

Many readers, especially younger ones, will doubtless disagree with the author, but they cannot fault Mr. Aitken on his age. He is twenty-seven, a staff member of the London Evening Standard, and currently a Conservative candidate for Parliament. He is a great-nephew of the publisher Lord Beaverbrook and grandson of an old Empire hand, Lord Rugby, who once governed Peshawar and the Sudan and was permanent secretary of the Colonial Office.

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