Andrew Bacevich: America’s Very Long War

Yves here. Andrew Bacevich’s well-written piece attempts to put America’s relentless meddling and war-making into a a bigger context. Bacevich pointedly avoids using the world “empire” except when depicting Afghanistan as a storied graveyard of empires, and mentions imperialism as if an indicator of cray cray (“naked imperialism’). The reluctance to call something by its proper name is….telling.

And by not correctly focusing on the pathology (imperialism) and looking instead at symptoms, Bachevich get the disease progress wrong. In the 1930s, the US really was domestically focused, with a small armed forces by world standards. My simpleminded guess as to what triggered the change in ambition took place was that our elites all got high on how we were able to, and did, remake Germany and Japan, and had enormous influence over post WWII reconstruction in Europe and new “international” organizations like the World Bank, IMF, and UN.

So starting with Vietnam is too late. Any proper study needs to include the Korean War, the successful coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, the 1954 “United Fruit” Guatemalan coup, Sputnik, Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” leaving office speech (and while we are at it, the coup that removed Australia’s prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975). Vietnam was the first big warning of imperial overreach, that the US could not always get what it wanted.

And it’s hard to understand the superficially unironic reference to the 1619 project…..but even if you regard it as a flat note, it does support Bacevich’s point that “context matters.”

By Andrew Bacevich. Originally published at TomDispatch

In the long and storied history of the United States Army, many young officers have served in many war zones. Few, I suspect, were as sublimely ignorant as I was in the summer of 1970 upon my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam.

Granted, during the years of schooling that preceded my deployment there, I had amassed all sorts of facts, some of them at least marginally relevant to the matter at hand. Yet despite the earnest efforts of some excellent teachers, I had managed to avoid acquiring anything that could be dignified with the term education. Now, however haltingly, that began to change. A year later, when my tour of duty ended, I carried home from Vietnam the barest inkling of a question: How had this massive cockup occurred and what did it signify?

Since that question implied rendering judgment on a war in which I had (however inconsequentially) participated, it wasn’t one that I welcomed. Even so, the question dogged me. During the ensuing decades, while expending considerable effort reflecting on America’s war in Vietnam, I never quite arrived at a fully satisfactory answer. At some level, the entire episode remained incomprehensible to me.

On that score, I suspect that I was hardly alone. No doubt many members of my generation, both those who served and those who protested (or those, like several recent U.S. presidents, who contrived to remain on the sidelines), have long since arrived at fixed conclusions about Vietnam. Yet, for others of us, that war has remained genuinely baffling — a puzzle that defies solution.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

In history, context is everything. Revise that context and the entire story changes, with the 1619 Project a timely but by no means unique example of that phenomenon.

For the successive administrations that took the United States to war in Vietnam, beginning with Harry Truman’s and culminating with Lyndon Johnson’s, the relevant context that justified our involvement in Southeast Asia was self-evident: the Cold War.

From the late 1940s on, the advertised purpose of basic American policy was to contain the spread of global communism. Across the ranks of the political establishment, anticommunism was tantamount to a religious obligation. For years, that alone sufficed to legitimize our military involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the immediate issue — whether supporting France against the communist Viet Minh there after World War II or midwifing an anticommunist Republic of Vietnam following the French defeat in 1954 — stopping the Red Menace rated as a national security priority of paramount importance. In Washington, just about everyone who was anyone agreed.

The actual course of events in Vietnam, however, played havoc with this interpretive framework. Once U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, while American bombers tried to pound the communist North into submission, the original rationale for the war became increasingly difficult to sustain. True, the enemy’s peasant army displayed a fondness for red flags and uniform accouterments. But so what? The threat posed to the United States itself was nonexistent.

When President Richard Nixon visited “Red” China in 1972, the Cold War morphed into something quite different. With the nation’s most prominent anticommunist taking obvious delight in shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, the war effort in Vietnam became utterly inexplicable — and so it has remained ever since.

When the Cold War subsequently ended in what was ostensibly a victory of cosmic proportions, any urge to reckon with Vietnam disappeared entirely. After all, in comparison with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, how much did the fall of Saigon in 1975 matter? In Washington, the answer was clear: not all that much. On an issue that far exceeded the Vietnam War in importance, history had rendered a definitive verdict. Only the churlish would disagree.

Then, quite literally out of the blue, came the events of 9/11. In an instant, the “end of history,” inaugurated by the passing of the Cold War, itself abruptly ended. Rather than pausing to consider the possibility that they might have again misconstrued the signs of the times, descendants of the political elite that had contrived the Vietnam War — including several who had found ways to sit out that conflict — devised a new framework for basic U.S. policy. The Global War on Terror now became the organizing principle for American statecraft, serving a function comparable to the Cold War during the second half of the prior century.

As had been the case during the early phases of the Cold War, the Manichean mood of that post-9/11 moment favored action over deliberation. So, within weeks of those attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States embarked on a new shooting war in — of all places — landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan, famous for being the “graveyard of empires” (including the Soviet one) but not much else.

That war was destined to continue for 20 years. By the time it ended, many observers had long since begun to compare it to Vietnam. The similarities were impossible to miss. Both were wars of doubtful strategic necessity. Both dragged on endlessly. Both concluded in mortifying failure. To capture the essence of the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t take long for critics to revive a term that had been widely used to describe Vietnam: each was a quagmire. Here was all you needed to know.

So based on outward appearances, the two wars seemed to be siblings. Yet when it came to substance, any relationship between the two rated as incidental. After all, the Vietnam and Afghan Wars occurred in entirely different periods of contemporary history, the one preceding the annus mirabilis of 1989 when that wall in Berlin came down and the other occurring in its wake.

But here’s the thing: in reality, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t change everything. Among the things it left fully intact was a stubborn resistance to learning in Washington that poses a greater threat to the wellbeing of the American people than communism or terrorism ever did. To confirm that assertion, look no further than… well, yes, the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Changing the Frame

You can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War I (1914-1918). And you can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War II (1939-1945). But to arrive at some approximation of definitive historical truth when it comes to twentieth-century Europe, you need to think of those two events as the Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. Only then is the connective tissue between the “Guns of August” and the horrors that were to befall Western civilization three decades later revealed.

Something similar applies to America’s wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In ways that may not be easily appreciated, the two are intimately related. Bringing to light their kinship — and, by extension, their true significance — requires situating them in a single historical framework. Classifying Vietnam as an episode in the Cold War and Afghanistan as an unrelated part of the Global War on Terror confers a certain superficial narrative order on the recent past. But doing so is like pretending that World War I and World War II were unrelated events. It overlooks essential connective tissue.

Instead, to identify a historical frame that encompasses both Vietnam and Afghanistan, consider this proposition: however momentous they were for Europeans, the events of 1989-1991, when the Soviet Union imploded, left the American way of life all but untouched. True, the end of the Cold War had enormous implications for Western and Eastern Europe (soon to merge), for the states of the former Soviet Union (cut loose to pursue their own destinies), and for Russia itself (diminished and humiliated, but still a mammoth successor state to the USSR).

While these events unleashed a torrent of self-congratulation in the U.S., the passing of the Cold War did not substantively modify the aspirations or expectations of the American people. For decades, the United States had exerted itself to uphold and enhance the advantageous position it gained in 1945. Its tacit goal was not only to hold the communist world in check but to achieve ideological, economic, political, and military primacy on a global scale, with all but the most cynical American leaders genuinely persuaded that U.S. supremacy served the interests of humankind.

Attach to this outlook whatever label you like: innocence, intractable ignorance, megalomania, naked imperialism, historical myopia, divine will, or destiny. Subsuming them, however, was the concept of American exceptionalism. Whatever your preferred term, here we come to the essence of the American project.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did nothing to dislodge or even modify this strategy. Indeed, the collapse of communism seemingly affirmed the plausibility of pre-existing American aspirations and expectations. So, too, did the events of 9/11. Bizarrely but crucially, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only imparted to American exceptionalism a renewed sense that here was the very foundation of the nation’s identity. Beginning with the administration of President George W. Bush but continuing to the present moment, the United States regularly doubled down on its quest for a global primacy that was to be achieved largely, though by no means entirely, through the use or threatened use of military power.

We’re now in a position to assess the consequences of such an approach. An essential preliminary step toward doing so is to discard the narrative of contemporary history that centers on the Cold War, succeeded, after a brief but blissful interval, by an unrelated Global War on Terror. It’s time to substitute a narrative describing an American military enterprise that began when the first U.S. combat troops came ashore in South Vietnam and persisted until the last American soldier departed Kabul in defeat some 56 years later. While thinking of this conflict as the Fifty-Six Year War may be accurate, it lacks a certain ring to it. So, let’s call it the Very Long War (1965-2021), or VLW, instead.

At the outset of the VLW, this country’s global preeminence was, of course, self-evident. At home, the constitutional order, however imperfect, appeared sacrosanct. By the time that Very Long War had reached its climax, however, informed observers were debating the international implications of American decline, while speculating anxiously about whether the domestic political order, as it had existed since at least the end of the Civil War, would even survive.

As the episodes that launched, concluded, and defined the essential character of the VLW, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan hold the key to understanding its dismal outcome. Whether considered separately or together, they exhibit with unmistakable clarity the grotesque military malpractice that forms the VLW’s abiding theme.

Why did the United States fail so ignominiously in Vietnam? Why did it fail again in Afghanistan? The answers to these two questions turn out to be similar.

Begin with the fact that neither the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s nor the ouster of the Taliban regime after 9/11 qualified as in any way vital to this country’s national interest. Both were wars of choice undertaken in places of (at best) tangential importance to the United States.

Then, add into the mix a near total absence of competent political oversight; deficient generalship, with senior officers struggling to comprehend the nature of the wars they were charged with waging; unwarranted confidence in the utility of advanced military technology; an excessive reliance on firepower that killed, maimed, and displaced noncombatants in striking numbers, thereby alienating the local population; nation-building efforts that succeeded chiefly in spawning widespread corruption; an inability to inculcate in local militaries the capacity and motivation to defend their country; and not least of all, determined enemies who made up for their material shortcomings by outpacing their adversaries in a willingness to fight and die for the cause.

Each one of these factors informed the way the United States fought in Vietnam. A half-century later, each reappeared in Afghanistan.

In terms of their conduct, the two campaigns differed only in one important respect: the role allotted to the American people. Reliance on conscription to raise the force that fought in Vietnam spurred widespread popular opposition to that war. Reliance on a so-called volunteer military to carry the burden of waging the Afghan War allowed ordinary Americans to ignore what was being done in their name, especially when field commanders devised methods for keeping a lid on U.S. casualties.


The Very Long War has, in fact, exacted an immense toll, essentially without benefits. Bookended by Vietnam and Afghanistan, the entire enterprise yielded almost nothing of value and contributed significantly to the rise to power of Donald Trump and the wounding of this country’s political system. Yet even today, too few Americans are willing to confront the disaster that has befallen the United States as a consequence of our serial misuse of military power.

This represents a grievous failure of imagination.

On that score, just consider for a moment if this country had neither intervened in Vietnam nor responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. What would have happened?

Almost certainly, the North Vietnamese would have succeeded in uniting their divided country with much less bloodshed. And Taliban control of Afghanistan would in all likelihood have continued without interruption in the years following 2001, with the Afghan people left to sort out their own destiny. Yet, despite immense sacrifices by U.S. troops, a vast expenditure of treasure, and quite literally millions of dead in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, that’s exactly how things turned out anyway.

Would the United States be worse off had it chosen not to engage in those twin wars of choice? Would the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and the People’s Republic of China more recently have interpreted such self-restraint as evidence of weakness? Or might this country’s adversaries have seen the avoidance of needless war as an indication of prudence and sound judgment by a powerful country? And had the follies of war in Vietnam and Afghanistan been avoided, might it not have been possible to avert, or at least diminish, the pathologies currently afflicting this country, including Trumpism and our deepening culture wars? Certainly, that possibility should haunt us all.

Of one thing only can we be certain: it’s past time to be done with the Very Long War and the misguided aspirations to global primacy that inspired it. Only if Americans abandon their fealty to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the militarism that has sustained it, might it be possible to conclude that the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan served some faintly useful purpose.

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  1. bwilli123

    “Subsuming them, however, was the concept of American exceptionalism. Whatever your preferred term, here we come to the essence of the American project.”
    This as Yves points out, puts the cart before the horse. “American exceptionalism” is just another convenient rationale, like “Responsibility to Protect,” trotted out when the previous banner grows too tatty.
    According to Wikipedia (FWIW) the label didn’t exist even as a rationale until … “mid-1929, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disbelieving that America was so resistant to revolution, denounced (US Communist Party leader) Lovestone’s ideas as “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”
    America could have been just as equally “exceptional” without the further desire to impose its will upon others, and in fact becomes less exceptional the more that projection succeeds.

  2. marcel

    A bit off topic. I came across this video from an American professor, explaining what is going on in Ukraine.
    The scary bit is that the video dates from 2015.
    It is probably the best thing you’ll watch today (at 1.5x speed, it takes about half an hour to get to the Q&A part).

    1. KLG

      A friend sent me this last week. John Mearsheimer’s analysis is nearly flawless. There was never a good reason to expand NATO to the east, but there was every the reason in the world to disband NATO after its reason for being disappeared in the early-1990s. Even Dick Cheney mentioned the “peace dividend” back in those days, pre-Halliburton for him. But what would Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton do in a world without war all the time?

  3. LawnDart

    America… …in fact becomes less exceptional the more that projection succeeds.

    The multinationals will move on to cannibalize the next unwary state, as our domestic population helplessly wonders, what happened?

    “Exceptionalism” is a scam, a distraction. The United States did not fail in Vietnam, nor Afghanistan– Trumpism may be explained in part by a growing recognition in the USA that these were banker’s wars, and that it is our country that is paying the price– though not “the elite” who govern us, who profit wildly from these military actions– win, lose, or draw: the use of the United States military always fulfills this objective when you’re the house.

    The Very Long War has, in fact, exacted an immense toll, essentially without benefits. Bookended by Vietnam and Afghanistan, the entire enterprise yielded almost nothing of value and contributed significantly to the rise to power of Donald Trump and the wounding of this country’s political system.

    Needless to say, I totally disagree with this statement by the author: the MIC has distributed untold billions of dollars in wealth amongst shareholders, and “foriegn (or “othered”) threats” justify the expansion of the national security state and curtailment of civil liberties, lest the peasants grow restless.

    Trump is a saftey-valve who serves to protect the elite and the status quo.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’m sorry, but “bankers’ wars” is crazy and a complete fabrication.

      Banks were heavily regulated, boring, and only so-so profitable (*by design because regulation*) in the 1960s. Up through the early 1980s, banker pay was absolutely on par with pay in every other industry. The Fed’s balance sheet was larger than that of any bank through the early 1980s too. Go read Simon Johnson’s The Quiet Coup and get a grip.

      1. Adam Eran

        OK, maybe the phrase “banker’s wars” is not on target (“creditors’ war”?), but Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province says one of the prime motivators for Vietnamese resistance to the better-funded, better-armed Western colonial powers was the fact that the population was indebted to the French and their successors in ways that made them, in effect, debt peons.

        Race learned Vietnamese on the boat over, and spent his time interviewing prisoners, defectors and the general population rather than huddling in some “strategic hamlet.”

        Oddly, the U.S. granted debt jubilees to its opponents in World War II (Japan & Germany), but was unwilling to do so with the Vietnamese, even though they were our “allies.” The U.S. even went so far as to toss out the treaty ending World War II that promised a plebiscite to unite Vietnam… Of course, ask an Indian how unprecedented that is…

      2. LawnDart

        Since its formation, City National’s Aerospace and Defense Group has closed on over $450 million in loan commitments and helped clients with over $50 million in deposits. Today, our team helps navigate the complex financial decisions of companies and management teams in the aerospace and defense industry. No matter the challenge, we build solutions so that you’re ready for anything.

        I’d say that these small-potato guys get a cut of the action, interest and fees, at little to no risk, but I can’t say that the cake belongs to them alone, so “banker’s wars” might be a bit of hyperbole.

        Thanks for the reading recommendation:

        From the article:

        …the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. 

        I noted the contrast between “our” oligarchs and those of emerging economies, the difference being that far fewer of ours took a haircut during the GFC than theirs did during their own financial crises– Fed vs. IMF approachs.

    2. bwilli123

      The GFC, Afghanistan, Covid.
      Crises are a cover that enables governments to ‘justifiably’ extend handouts to the well fed pigs at the front of the trough. If correctly managed there should be nothing left for those at the rear.

  4. Glen

    To some degree, the MIC relationship to the American military and (more importantly) Federal budget reminds one of the Wall St relationship to the Federal Reserve. This relationship might have been healthy at some point in the far past, but all it’s about now is how to suck money out of the American people and funnel it to the very very rich. Who cares why one fights or if it’s good for the country, it’s all about starting a war and sucking up the money just as Wall St and the Fed is no longer about supporting American banks and industry to fund a productive economy, it’s all about funneling money to perpetually failing bank and mega corporation CEOs.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, no, no, no, no. Since Nixon went off the gold standard, bonds have nada to do with federal budgets. Operationally, Treasury debits its account at the Fed first and goes and issues bonds later. Bonds are strictly a political holdover from gold standard days.

      On top of that, Wall Street did not become politically powerful until well into the 1980s, decades after Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” speech. Before then, Wall Street = stock brokers. When I went into investment banking in 1981, everyone who hadn’t gotten an MBA and been exposed to investment banking and elite consulting firm recruiting assumed I had become a stock tout. It was ONLY the volatile interest rate environment of the 1970s that turned bond investors into often traders (before bonds were a sleepy backwater since just about everyone was buy and hold to maturity) and made bond trading firms a hotbed of analysis. Even then, it wasn’t until Volcker started the decades-long trend of declining interest rates that simply being long bonds was profitable, and bond trader Salomon Brothers became the King of Wall Street.

      1. RabidGandhi

        Could the 50s/60s be more of an aberration? One of the subtexts of Tooze’s Deluge is that JP Morgan had lent oodles to France & UK pre-WWI, literally banking on the idea that it could get the Wilson Admin to intervene in a European war and thus guarantee JPM would get paid. The US public, by contrast was decidedly anti-war. In the end Morgan et al prevailed, showing themselves indeed ‘politically powerful’. I believe a similar case has also been made about the 1898 war.

        1. Carolinian

          Exactly. If “war is a racket” then whose racket is it?

          As for the above, I’d say he’s just stating the obvious and that Lyndon and Westmoreland are exactly like the mediocrities in charge these days. Indeed it’s remarkable the degree to which war mongers are often such small minded people. The Nazis would be considered (and at the time were often considered) a clownshow if not for the results. War is the worst of us coming to the surface and the best part of us–our ability to think–being suppressed.

      2. Science Officer Smirnoff

        Glen’s last line,
        it’s all about funneling money to perpetually failing bank and mega corporation CEOs.
        was perhaps an unintended streamlining of the conventional enough line that Fed interest rate repression led to the zombification of failing organizations and has spawned massive asset bubbles in obvious places.

        1. Glen

          I guess I was not very clear.

          It was a comment about the dysfunctional relationship between the MIC and the DoD. The MIC no longer seems to work FOR the DoD, it seems to be able to set DoD policy so that it gets big fat contacts.

          Just as it looks to me that the Fed along with the SEC no longer seems to even try to REGULATE Wall St, it just seems to provide endless trillions to Wall St whenever it requires a bail out.

          I can speak with a more authority with regard to the MIC/DoD having been in that world. Now, Generals and DoD civilian types seem to be making decisions based on the job they can score from the MIC after they retire, and much less what is required for the good of our country. That dynamic was always there, but I didn’t see such BLATANT corruption when I was there. That German Admiral who spoke the truth and then got fired reminded me of the Admirals that chewed me out on occasion. (I once had an Admiral tell me that he was going to give our project to the Soviet Navy because he was pretty sure they could get the work done on time, on cost, and we were behind schedule, over cost.)

      3. TimD

        I am not sure it was Volker who started the trend of declining interest rates. The initial declines had to do with the oil glut in 1981 and the economic deceleration due to de-industrialization. I would agree that Volker was instrumental in fighting inflation with high interest rates but he didn’t deliver the knockout punch.

  5. DJG, Reality Czar

    Yves Smith: You make a very interesting observation in the head note about the seductions and degradations of empire: “So starting with Vietnam is too late. Any proper study needs to include the Korean War, the successful coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, the 1954 “United Fruit” Guatemalan coup, Sputnik, Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” leaving office speech”

    I’d take the U.S. empire back even further and bring up two annexations that aren’t even discussed in the U S of A these days: The Philippines and Hawaii.

    Wikipedia defining the Philippine War: “was an armed conflict between the First Philippine Republic and the United States that lasted from February 4, 1899, to July 2, 1902.[14] While Filipino nationalists viewed the conflict as a continuation of the struggle for independence that began in 1896 with the Philippine Revolution against Spain, the U.S. government regarded it as an insurrection.[15] The conflict arose when the First Philippine Republic objected to the terms of the Treaty of Paris under which the United States took possession of the Philippines from Spain, ending the Spanish–American War.[16]”

    The U.S. was responsible for atrocities in the Philippines. And I am seeing some rhyming between the Philippines and South Vietnam.

    Hawaii wasn’t quite as scandalous, I suppose: Diseases introduced by non-Hawaiians had already done the atrocities.

    Bacevich’s essay, then, is good for understanding the middle war (his Thirty Years War of 1914-1945) and the failed end wars of Afghanistan and Syria. But the early war was part of the scramble for empire.

    PS: I wonder if the “remaking” of Japan by the U S of A was related to the so-called opening of Japan by Admiral Perry and the U.S.A. Somehow, the U.S. resisted the idea of colonizing Japan—even as the other Great Powers were dismantling China. It gave the US of A a bit of credit among Japanese.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, I’ve often wondered why the Philippines in particular has so often been written out of the stories told. There was a long running and very terrible war there which arguably continues to the present day with a sort of low level insurgency in the south. Its a classic colonial and post colonial situation and I find it quiet weird that nobody points this out. And Hawaii too is quite simply a colony, the history is unambiguous.

      I’d also add that depending on your definitions of defeat, Vietnam wasn’t the first. The Korean War was at best a stalemate, and arguably a loss as the original aim was to secure the entire peninsula. The US/UN came very close to a humiliating loss in that war. Although it could be argued that ironically while these were tactical defeats they were strategic victories for the US as the results helped cement the US position in the pacific. A divided Korea and conflict in SE Asia made the US’s allies all the keener to have bases close by.

      Victories though aren’t everything. While the British empire shrank in the 1950’s the British scored key military ‘successes’ in places like Malaysia, Oman and Kenya. But they didn’t help in any way. Perhaps this is why these have been more or less written out of history, only remembered in those countries.

      1. CJ

        Bacevich writes about the Philippines in his new book. And Korea. And Iran 1953, etc. I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to include the entire history of the world in this short essay.

          1. Louis Fyne

            in no order: paucity of contemporary media coverage, American veterans of the insurgency didn’t move onto positions of academic or political power; overshadowed by WWI, WWII and MacArthur made the Americans the “good guys”.

    2. upstater

      Doesn’t it really go back to the nation’s founding? George Washington attempting to expand into the Ohio Valley. Or into the Great Lakes? Lewis and Clark and the beginnings of manifest destiny? Perhaps the war of 1812, when we wanted to seize Canada? The Monroe Doctrine? Texas and the seizure of half of Mexico soon after?

      There is a continuous thread of “destiny” and “exceptionalism” from the very beginnings. And it has always been driven by the rich dominating political power.

      1. fresno dan

        January 24, 2022 at 7:20 am
        I put in a link at today’s “links” that makes the point that modern politics being about “aggression”
        Looking at this post, I come to share your view – the view that the US has ALWAYS been about aggression – its just that it used to be cloaked in soft words to hide the facts.

      2. Michael

        The Barbary States were a collection of North African states, many of which practiced state-supported piracy in order to exact tribute from weaker Atlantic powers. Morocco was an independent kingdom, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli owed a loose allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. The United States fought two separate wars with Tripoli (1801–1805) and Algiers (1815–1816), although at other times it preferred to pay tribute to obtain the release of captives held in the Barbary States.

      3. Adam Eran

        JFYI, between 1798 and 1994, the U.S. was responsible for 41 changes of government south of its borders. In effect, the Monroe Doctrine was just putting Europe on notice that our southern neighbors were now *our* colonies.

        In addition to producing a constant stream of military and political refugees, these acts of aggression have even extended to economic attacks. NAFTA is the latest of these. One might guess that shipping subsidized Iowa corn to Mexico would at least impair their corn farmers’ income–and the treaty compensates the large farmers. Mexican real, median income declined 34% in the wake of NAFTA, making economic refugees where the military and politics couldn’t.

      4. Fred1

        As to when we should start evaluating when the US empire began, let me suggest That Vast Southern Empire by Matt Karp. It covers US foreign policy during the antebellum period by referencing editorials in major southern newspapers; speeches of southern politicians; books written by southern political elites; as well as private letters. The word “empire” appears frequently, and the writers/speakers repeatedly advocate policies that explicitly are premised on the creation of an empire.

  6. Michaelmas

    Yves S: My simpleminded guess as to what triggered the change in ambition took place was that our elites all got high on how we were able to, and did, remake Germany and Japan,

    No. Long before that. Even before 1944 at Bretton Woods — before WWII’s end — which was when it became openly evident that Churchill and the British were willy-nilly handing off the British Empire to the US, and the rest of the European colonial powers were flattened. (As the accounts of Keynes and others there made evident.)

    It happened in 1940, before the US even entered WWII. See —

    Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy

    by Stephen Wertheim (pub. 2020)

    ‘For most of its history, the United States avoided making political and military commitments that would entangle it in European-style power politics. Then, suddenly, it conceived a new role for itself as the world’s armed superpowe … in the months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the Nazis conquered France, the architects of the nation’s new foreign policy came to believe that the United States ought to achieve primacy in international affairs forevermore.

    ‘Scholars have struggled to explain the decision to pursue global supremacy. Some deny that American elites made a willing choice, casting the United States as a reluctant power that sloughed off “isolationism” only after all potential competitors lay in ruins. Others contend that the United States had always coveted global dominance and realized its ambition at the first opportunity. Both views are wrong. As late as 1940, the small coterie of officials and experts who composed the U.S. foreign policy class either wanted British preeminence in global affairs to continue or hoped that no power would dominate. The war, however, swept away their assumptions, leading them to conclude that the United States should extend its form of law and order across the globe and back it at gunpoint. Wertheim argues that no one favored “isolationism”―a term introduced by advocates of armed supremacy in order to turn their own cause into the definition of a new “internationalism.”

    But DJG Reality Caesar is on track in their post above. The real turning point is the US annexation of the Philippines and Hawaii at the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th. Even before that, the attempted annexation of Canada that the British stopped dead in 1812 is pretty indicative of the mindset of US rulers from the start. Once one discards the propaganda and looks at actually documented US history, it becomes blazingly clear that the US is simply another brutal colonial kleptocracy like Brazil — just a lot more successful.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      As I said, the US had a teeny armed forces by world standards in the 1930s. There may have been factions with greater ambitions but they didn’t even come close to getting their way. And citing “a small cadre” in 1940 after Hitler and Mussolini were on the march does not support your thesis. It supports mine.

  7. Samuel Conner

    Vietnam has roots, too.

    Maybe it started with Truman. IIRC, after the War against fascism, he backed the French against Ho Chi Minh (for geopolitical reasons — wanted French cooperation in the standoff with the Soviet Union).

    … if it started with Truman, perhaps one could point to the decision — by the D party leadership in ’44 — to replace Henry Wallace with Truman as FDR’s VP candidate in the election that year.

  8. jackiebass63

    I believe you can go way back to the Spanish American War to see the seeds of empire being sowed.

    1. Louis Fyne

      even further back, Mexican War. Many pundits/politicans (of all sides of the political aisle) back then were screaming at the top of their lungs re. the immorality of the war.

      Alas the easy win of being the hemisphere’s bully and taking the weak kid’s lunch money got the DC interventionist bloodlust going for the next 150 years.

  9. carambola

    There are many candid quotes of US presidents one could pull out at this moment. Let’s take e.g. Taft, 1912:

    The day is not far distant when three Stars and Stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal, and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally.

  10. rob

    this post about military involvement ; seen through the eyes of a “military man”,
    reminded me of the other post about kim iversen, coming to terms about covid.
    Both do a great job of “not seeing the forest through the trees”.
    Both are a bit star struck as they are in the process of realizing that “the stories” they were groomed to believe are JUST LIES. They haven’t gotten that far yet, but they might eventually realize the truth, if they keep expanding their worldviews. The justifications and excuses of the ruling elite, can be seen, were people to look.
    The cognitive dissonance, that is preventing people from giving up on firmly held beliefs, may erode during their lifetimes.They may not.

    Maybe the imperial thrust of the mature USA(post WWII)… with control through the monetary system,banking(The federal reserve act),wall street, IMF,world bank, bretton woods,ETC. and a military;. was really just the “new world” created after WWI..(part 1) and WWII (part 2).. which really had a power player in the “land between two waters”… who was a rising star of their elite and their “manifest destiny”….
    Meaning;There doesn’t seem to be any actual demarcation when ” americans” weren’t in the process of TAKING…whatever they could, and from whomever , had “IT”.
    Maybe , since “we”(americans) were british back then, we learned this from our mother countries, colonial aspirations… empire, always on the horizon..

  11. BillS

    I believe one could argue that Andrew Jackson’s expansionism that was to become “Manifest Destiny” can be said to encapsulate both American Exceptionalism and the beginning of American Empire. The Philippines were a continuation of the “Go West Young Man” expansionism. One can draw a straight line of thought from the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans to the “Strategic Hamlet” program of the Vietnam War or the forced “modernization” of the Afghan “primitives.”

  12. The Rev Kev

    My own take here. Perhaps the rise of the American Empire can be thought of as one of those Mexican ziggurat pyramids. We’ve all seen them and here is an example-

    So the first climb was in the Spanish-American War when Washington decided that the easiest way to get an empire was to take over somebody else’s empire. In this case, the Spanish empire. This kept up until the end of WW1 when the US armed forces were cut way back and so it all plateaued. The second rise was WW2 and the increase in power and wealth kept up until Vietnam when it again plateaued. The next rise was when the USSR fell apart and the Gulf war broke out so the US expanded even more but more along the financial sphere with ‘globalisation.’

    But then came 9/11 and the gloves were off. The Homeland security department as set up, not to protect Americans against terrorists but to protect Washington against Americans – like something out of the old USSR. Washington also decided that it would create a new world order with the US in control of as much oil as it could grab – which all nations needed – and so began the campaign to take out country after country in the middle east. Afghanistan was also invaded to give an anchor point for American influence and control in this vital part of the world. But then the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan came unstuck because the locals took up arms to take back their country.

    And without realizing it, they had been at the top of that ziggurat pyramid but then the world changed. China rose and never became the neoliberal paradise that they thought that it would be. Russia came back with a vow never to be so weakened again. Other countries like Iran had learned watching the American way of war how to defend against it and now the US cannot attack Iran for example. So how can I summarize this all? How about – it’s been a wild ride so I hope that everybody enjoyed it. Because now the tab is coming due and at the top of one of those pyramids, there is only one way to go.

    1. Rod

      To your point–Washington also decided that it would create a new world order with the US in control of as much oil as it could grab – which all nations needed – and so began the campaign to take out country after country in the middle east
      and why?

      she found that the U.S. military emits more than entire countries like Portugal and Denmark, and that the Department of Defense accounts for nearly 80% of the federal government’s fuel consumption.

      Read this in an article yesterday in Climate News trying to figure USMIC GHG emissions:

      It’s a can of worms trying to parse it…
      And because you appreciate superior engineering, this is also highlighted:

      Crawford calculated that the Air Force’s version of the plane, the F-35A, gets about 2.37 gallons per nautical mile. Note that’s not miles per gallon—that’s 2.37 gallons of fuel burned for every mile traveled. On a single tank of gas, one plane can produce almost 28 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

      1. upstater

        The USAF has 51 F-35s at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska (near Fairbanks). My brother, a longtime Alaska bush pilot, said the F-35 range of 650 miles and fuel consumption so high range that it cannot reach the Russian far east without having refueling tankers (aka “sitting ducks”) circling western Alaska to fill up the gas tanks. Apparently somebody thought this was a good idea…

  13. philnc

    The anti-imperialists of the 1890s and early 1900s certainly saw the Spanish-American war as an inflection point, but as others point out above, the first Mexican War and later incursions into C and S America by the Antebellum pro-slavery Filibusterers predate that (as do the joint naval patrols by British and US forces along China’s rivers during our Civil War). Further, if we take off the blinders and consider the nearly constant, genocidal, land grabbing campaigns by settler colonists (and successive governments) against indigenous peoples, you could conclude that America has been imperialist from the beginning.

  14. commit

    “Then, quite literally out of the blue, came the events of 9/11.”

    Out of the blue? For who? Neoconservatives counted on a “New Pearl Harbour” type event, in their plans for the “New American Century”. They would have to cancel the plans if that event did not come.

    1. rob

      and now that the University of Alaska at Fairbanks engineering professor Hulsey ;with the equiptment needed to undertake such a study./and his dept. did a four year study proving building seven was destroyed by demolition, we know 9-11 was not a surprise, to those in “the know”.

  15. Rod

    with the US in control of as much oil as it could grab – which all nations needed
    Thanks for pointing this out— something the War Machine of US Empire cannot currently function without and something whose unlimited consumption of is going to kill our planet.

  16. David

    I’m glad Bachevic didn’t wheel out the old “Empire” canard. At best it’s unhelpful and at worst it positively obscures history. As I dimly recall, it was first popularised by Chomsky in the 60s and 70s, essentially as a term of abuse, and if you want to use it that way, that’s fine. But the experience of the US since 1945 doesn’t not resemble that of any empire anywhere. Expansionism, by the way, is quite a different thing from Empire, and it’s important to remember that.

    The reality is more complex and more interesting. After 1945, the US found itself with occupation troops in Germany at a time when the Soviet Union was consolidating its hold on Eastern Europe, and in Japan at the time of the Korean War. It had a worldwide presence, and this presence morphed into a worldwide anti-communist deployment. One of the funny things about foreign policy is that the present is overwhelmingly determined by the past, because it’s always easier to keep doing something than to change policy. In Asia, for example, it’s clear that, even now, other states in the region are happy to see the US still in Japan (even if most Japanese aren’t) because they see US military power as a stabilising influence against a recidivist Japan. A worldwide presence, even if haphazardly assembled, led to a whole series of anti-communist interventions around the world. But this wasn’t an “Empire”, any more than it would have been fair to talk about a “Soviet Empire”, including North Vietnam, Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, South Yemen, Afghanistan etc…

    What changed perhaps was the coming to power in Washington in the early 90s of an NGO-influenced policy cadre, high on normative liberal state theory, convinced of their righteousness, and, unlike traditional liberals, ready to intervene everywhere, with the forces that the Cold War had left at their disposal. (The results, of course, have been terrifying.) This is one reason why I think the comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan are dangerous and unhelpful. There are almost no, points of commonality unless you count the fact that both were fought by American troops. Consider: there was no equivalent of North Vietnam, the VietCong were essentially united whilst the Taliban were highly disunited, The VietCong and North Vietnam had major allies and the Taliban didn’t. Vietnam was a former colony and Afghanistan wasn’t, there was no equivalent of the large-scale bombing raids against North Vietnam, Vietnam was fought by conscripts, Afghanistan by professionals, there was a reasonably organised government and armed forces in Vietnam but not in Afghanistan, and the objectives, strategies, tactics, weapons, climate and timescale were all different. Apart from that ….

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      While the tactics and circumstances on the ground varied, and the presence or not of organized and capable adversaries varied, the U.S.’ very long series of foreign “engagements” have an abiding theme and mechanism:

      a. Resources and wealth tended to aggregate into the hands of wealthy people who think it’s OK to take by force what others have

      b. Those wealthy people used political influence to vilify/produce the rationale for war, and sell it to whomever needed selling in order to instigate hostilities against the target du jour, and

      c. After the military did their job, new (U.S. dictated) financial and legal systems and local but remote-controlled governance was installed in the target countries to funnel continuing wealth into the hands of the wealthy people that instigated those “engagements”, and

      d. The collusion between the predator-elites and the MIC skewed investment (all forms of wealth) away from productive uses in the economy and toward war apparatus (blow stuff up)

      Are not those four behaviors the essence of empire? It walks, talks, and looks like empire. The label fits.

      As Rev Kev above points out above, what’s different is that the targets are now hip to the game. They are collaborating among themselves, in classic balance-of-power dynamics, to defend themselves. And they getting much better at it.

      Meantime, the Empire forgot to invest in its home-base economy (because it could rent-extract more profitably elsewhere, why bother?) and now we are conducting fairly risky brinksmanship on several (not just two) fronts in order to maintain Empire operations.

      1. David

        So how do either Vietnam or Afghanistan fit into that picture? There was nothing to take by force, the rationales for war had nothing to do with resources, and the wars (especially Vietnam) were exceptionally expensive. If you actually look at the history of Empires, most have been a burden rather than a benefit. The British and French gave their empires up because they were too expensive to retain. Indeed, national glory and great power status, rather than money, were the main drivers of the great age of Empire.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Vietnam: containment of Communism (the “domino theory”) so that’s a retention strategy to keep what’s already taken, e.g. Japan, the Philippines, S. Korea, plus Indonesia and (some of, off and on) down thru S.E. Asia.

          and then…

          Afghanistan: gateway into central asia, underbelly of Russia, and now it may become a key transit leg of the land-route BRI. NeoCons went berserk when Biden pulled the plug on that one. (NeoCon is HQ of confluence of elite predators and MIC).

          The central and northern Asian hemisphere has lots of resources, and plenty of people with many unmet needs and wants. It’s Empire-bait: got resources that can be traded, have unmet needs = plenty rent opptys for decades to come. The Project for the New American Century.

          Take a look at the map of EurAsia. It’s just positively huge. Some parts are under-populated and poor (thereby militarily weak), lots of natural resources…what a great place to stick the Empire’s crow-bar in and dislodge some hi-quality ore.

          So, Vietnam was “containment of China”, Afghanistan was entry-point for next frontier of resource extraction and markets to sell into. Western productive capacity is way underutilized, and has been for some time. Hence all the debt – got to gen up demand.

          Why all the recent fuss with Russia and China?

          As of Vietnam, China successfully rebuffed U.S. military incursion. As of N.Korea with nukes, that closes off S.Korea advance upwards. Lately China is rapidly closing itself off to Western rent-seeking. Worse yet, it’s showing central Asia that there’s an alternative to Western Empire wealth extraction.

          Russia is the bulwark to eastwards expansion of NATO. NATO is the European theater east-facing bulldozer blade of the U.S. empire.

          China + Russia + Iran = balance of power in the making. That’s why these nations are labeled “bad”.

    2. TimD

      It depends how one spins the term empire. The Romans and Brits were proud of it and let everyone know. The main difference between what America, Post WWII-Japan and Modern China in their relations with other countries is that the Romans and Brits largely had their own armies and governments abroad while modern empires install or support ‘friendly’ governments that will encourage foreign investment and pass laws that help ensure profit maximization. Sure there were a few times that the US had to step in and hold a territory or two for a while; but the newer, improved model of dominating countries is much more efficient that the old. I would say that Japan was the smoothest because they just used investments. China is doing very well with all the infrastructure and other investments it is making around the world.

      The other benefit of this model is that it has the veneer of Democracy and the support of Freedom. Supporting a ‘friendly’ candidate while demonizing the opposition looks good and get the job done. Once in a while the non-friendly wins an election and there is a need to withdraw investment or stir up trouble with the opposition. More rarely on and as-needed basis, clandestine organizations, or even the military, can be used to overthrow elected governments and install a friendly. Did you ever wonder why so many of America’s presidential allies in foreign governments were generals? All America needed to do to legitimate interference was to call the unfriendly some kind of radical, socialist commie.

      BTW – Vietnam asked the US for help against the French in the 1940s. The US supported the French and the Viet Minh who thought they were emulating the American Revolution ended up turning to the communists.

  17. upstater

    I agree that US occupation prevented a “recidivist Japan” or even a “recidivist Germany”, but the Japanese left in the late 1950s and early 60s was a force to be reckoned with, as it was in much of western Europe. And the US surely was immersed in local Japanese and western European politics in a most insidious way. By the 70s virtually everyone became classless “consumers”. When intervening outside of the occupied countries, the US employed the Jakarta Method facilitating the local elites and military.

    I also agree that the R2P crowd altered foreign policy and interventions. But the Jihadi/Taliban die was cast by Carter and Brzezinski furthered by Reagan, providing an anti-Western religious ideology and cadre that eventually won. Afghanistan was not a repeat of Vietnam, but it has some rhyming stanzas.

  18. stefan

    The logic of war and peace: encrypted in Victory is future Defeat.

    For example, the evil of the Nazis was so manifest that America henceforth convinced herself that any future war project is a Crusade of the Good. America is decieved by her own propaganda. She has forgotten that everyone under the sun possesses a shadow.

    Heraclitus was the first to speak of this logos.

  19. TimD

    I often what individual Americans in the US won with the end of the Cold War. Sure, Neoliberalism became the only political/economic system and there were no threats to American preeminence – except for all those pesky nukes laying around. What did the individuals get besides a share of the glory?

    Deindustrialization was well underway, governments were shifting power to corporations and unions were on decline, public schools were not what they were, real wages started getting stagnant in the late 70s. In the last three decades of the 20th century real GDP growth was 3.2%, down from 4.4% in the 50s and 60s; but higher than the 2% that the country has averaged since 2000. In 1989 the national debt was $3 trillion and now it is almost $30 trillion. To be sure, cheap consumer goods from places like China and third-world countries have made people feel like they had more disposable income – but the cost has been annual trade deficits that are hundreds of billions of dollar per year. The debt per citizen works out to over $150000.

    Those are the numbers. We also see a country that cannot work together to solve a problem. One party tries to negate the other while, they other tries to find compromises. The country can’t even get enough people vaccinated to create some type of herd immunity – or ensure reduction in the intensity of the virus.

    What were the spoils of victory again? How does preeminence lead to a better life for everyone?

  20. Gregory Etchason

    The Cold War DoD budget quickly ate Keynesianism in 1948. It was the FDR WWII command and control economy that saved Capitalism not the New Deal. The major industrial corporations had never seen such profit margins before. Everything else is simply theater to justify military keynesianism. Including this year when politicians said , here’s an extra $30 billion more than you requested just for good measure. Not to mention $30 billion is the price tag for vaccinating the rest of the world against COVID. The problem now is squandering so much treasure on conventional war making when it’s likely obsolete. The moment Biden sends troops to Romania or Lativia as premption to Ukraine. Putin will surely turn off the heat and the lights in Western Europe. Remember most electricity in the EU was converted to natural gas in the past decade. Biden is about to end NATO as we know it. Germany will be the first to bail out.

  21. chuck roast

    Forgive me for being unimpressed. Note that Bacevich is writing for TomDispatch. He’s preaching to the choir. If he has a clue about the Keynesian militarism that has driven the economy for generations it escaped me. He is the perfect “political scientist”…all politics, no science. Political Science replaced Political Economy as the educational hegemon for this very purpose. His Cartesian logic manages to defy the complex interaction of the forces of production and American cultural institutions. One tomato.

  22. John

    IMO Bacevich could have had a lot of his questions about VietNam and Amrika’ s forever wars answered had he internalized Heller’s “Catch-22” published in 1961.
    I sense in him a lot of the clueless, striving, True Believer typical of a category from the officer class that I encountered during my period of forced servitude in the military. Sacrificing his own son to the military cray cray is a burden I don’t envy.
    This type has probably been around since Babylon. The forever wars sure have.
    In that sense, there is nothing exceptional about Amrika.

  23. ptb

    Yemen. Talk about Yemen.
    US made bombs, dropped from US made planes, targeted with US help, by US trained or occasionally actual retired US pilots making an easy buck, under flags of convenience.

    1. Andy

      The non-reaction to the ongoing US/UK war in Yemen shows how hollow and ridiculous the moral claims made by the R2P and “democracy promotion” crowd are.

      Anyone who claims to stand for democracy and peace but is ok with their government participating in mass slaughter can’t be taken seriously.

  24. RJ McElroy

    In 2006 Bacevich wrote an Introduction to a reprinting of William Appleman Williams Empire as a Way of Life originally published in 1980. For those not familiar with Williams he analyzes the idea of empire and imperialism from the first page in great and uncommonly found detail. At the end of his Introduction Bacevich writes: “At root, empire as a way of life is an exercise in evasion. Americans look abroad to avoid looking within.” From 1829 to 1898 Williams reports on seventy U.S. interventions on foreign soil that were not declared wars and from 1898 to 1920 there were thirty nine such incursions.
    Williams concludes: “Empire turns a culture away from its own life as a society or community. Ultimately, everything is seen primarily in terms of foreigners; the culture considers itself embattled and beleaguered, and hence unable to define or deal with reality in ways that are effective and appropriate.” Sounds familiar.

    The U.S. did have a preview of Vietnam in the Philippine-American War which supposedly ended in 1902, although my grandfather survived a bolo knife (kris) attack with the loss of his right arm in 1906 and there were intermittent hostilities until 1922. The guerrilla war that started at the end of the Spanish-American War is still continuing on the island of Mindanao and adjacent islands.

  25. David in Santa Cruz

    Yves makes a very good point — that the American cultural deflection happened in the wake of the Second World War.

    Remember, other than a brief moment at remote Pearl Harbor, Americans were spared the devastation of Total War, unlike the other belligerents. Starting with Nanking, Warsaw and Rotterdam, the human suffering inflicted during the Second World War cannot be understated. The industrial centers of the Northern Hemisphere were devastated by fire-storms — London, the Midlands, the Po Valley, the Ruhr, the Kanto, etc.

    America became what was in effect the only industrialized nation for the next 20 years — not due to our “democratic” or our “capitalist” institutions, but due to our geography. It was manna falling from heaven to American industrialists laid-low and shamed by the Great Depression. They became intoxicated on this power over the planet. They didn’t have to be smart; they didn’t have to be good at what they did; “American Exceptionalism” grew from that brief period post-WW2 when America was the only game in town, and it has become ingrained in what passes for “thinking” on the part of American elites.

    Post-war exceptionalism has led American elites to a strong sense of entitlement, but the continental scope of the country has insulated them from any sense of empathy for people far across the oceans who need to be bombed for their own good. Robert McNamara ran-up the Vietnam war after using his Harvard MBA to help LeMay start fire-storms in Japan and a gig as President of Ford Motor Company. I find it no coincidence that Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin jointly profiteered through Pine Island Capital Partners with John Thain, disgraced former-chairman of Merrill Lynch; remember, Blinken’s father was a co-founder of Warburg Pinkus.

    I do think that the events of September 11, 2001 represented a sea-change that American elites have been thus far unable to process rationally — because it was a one-shot deal. They continue to view killing foreigners in their own countries as an appropriate expression of their entitlement to economic hegemony.

  26. Tom Pfotzer

    Blinken’s father was a co-founder of Warburg Pinkus

    I didn’t know that, and thanks for pointing it out.

    Do you ever wonder how these webs get weaved?

  27. Phil in KC

    I wish I could summon the ghost of the late Gore Vidal who had very clear thinking on American militarism and the Empire. His basic thesis was that the Republic was replaced with a National Security State by the terms of the 1947 Defense Act, which essentially removed the power to wage war from the Congress to the National Security Council. Along with this Vidal noted what you mentioned earlier: that prior to the emergency of 1941, the American people were reluctant to go to war and had a small standing army relative to many nations. After 1941, we have been on a war footing continuously, said Vidal.

    Along with Vidal, I would bring Col. Lawrence Wilkerson into the discussion. Wilkerson has studied the decline of empires and believes the US is currently in a state of decline. This is something our politicians dare not admit in public. Wilkerson believes that the best path for a declining empire to take is to recognize that it is in fact in decline and so lengthen the glide path to preserve its global presence. He notes that long after the United Kingdom ceded leadership of the West to the US, they managed to “punch above their weight” and exert influence in many ways that benefited the UK.

    One salient characteristic of a declining empire, per Wilkerson, is the reliance on the military to solve almost every problem, the military being the last repository of civic virtue and vigor. This was certainly true of the Roman empire. Wilkerson noted that the Brits were able to catch themselves in time and avoid engaging in any further draining wars after the Kenya insurgency and the Malaya emergency. They knew they simply couldn’t afford it and simply withdrew. The Suez fiasco was probably the turning point.

    I don’t think we will have a Suez moment because we can’t admit the truth about ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves about America, that we are exceptional, that the normal rules don’t apply to us, blind us.

    I don’t think the Chinese are necessarily brilliant, but they are engaging constructively in Asia and Africa, building infrastructure, harbors and ports, roads, intermodal hubs, rail, etc. This is what empires on the rise do–they build. They might be overreaching, though, as their own nation has pressing needs.

  28. leondarrell

    Where one starts in tracing historical determination can be arbitrary. WW2 is a good starting point, or the US grabbing of Spanish empire remnants is another. What’s on display is a relentless greed system, where wealth in all its forms is the motive, and exceptionalism, democracy, just war are all cue card justifications.
    Consider just the population imbalance in the current world system: the US has 330 million people, and the Eurasian landmass 5 billion, a ratio of 15-to-1! It’s been useful to have a fiat dollar system as an alternate faith system, but that seems to be getting tattered now as well. Hell to pay…

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