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Albert Gates

The U.S. Empire – Its History

(November 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 31, 11 November 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The United States of America is an imperialist nation, just like Great Britain. France. Japan. Germany and Italy. It has a colonial empire which was gained in the same brutal and ruthless manner in which the other imperialist powers acquired their colonies. Chicanery, outright thievery, financial bribery, organized “revolutions” and direct military intervention were some of the means employed during the years when this country carried out its most promiscuous land-grabbing activities. It got results: Within a short period of time, the United States acquired a colonial empire of 281,044 square miles, and 18,000,000 inhabitants,

Nevertheless there is a popular myth that the United States ruling class has no empire to defend and desires none, This is pure hokum. Though the economy of this country does not depend on a vast world empire, to the same degree as England. Wall Street, that is, Standard Oil Company, National City Bank, Chase National Bank, etc., have more than a small interest in America’s colonies. But this is not true for the great mass of American people.

Under the “good neighbor” policy of the Roosevelt Administration, which has been dinned into the minds of the people, no mention is made of America’s possessions – but only of relations with the independent countries of Latin America.

Older generations can, of course, recall the odious Spanish American War. Many people know that the United States has colonies but are not too greatly concerned with this fact. Yet almost every schoolboy in England knows that India is the backbone of the British Empire; that the empire is the very heart and blood of Great Britain. Yes, despite the absence of “colonial consciousness” in the United States, this country has a colonial empire which is a living problem, commanding the deepest interest of the financial and industrial ruling classes. Hence the gigantic military preparations now taking place in this country.

It is interesting and instructive to see how the United States got its empire and what this empire means to American capitalism. In this and future articles we will trace the history of the American Empire. We begin with the Pre-Civil War Day.


American interests prior to the Civil War were generally confined to internal expansion, toward extending and completing the borders of the nation. It is true, that at the beginning of the 19th Century, the Southern Slavocracy had more than once glanced in the direction of Cuba. and proposals had been considered at the Capitol to forcibly seize the sugar island and incorporate it into the United States. But internal problems were of greater moment.

The Louisiana purchase had increased the territory of the States many times its original size. Migration and land settlement gripped the ever-expanding Republic, The War uf 1812 had won her new respect and the right to “freedom of the seas”. Prior to 1812 warships were sent against the Barbary Coast privateers, who were raiding American merchant ships. Settling accounts with England seemed a permanent thing and always took a little time, but the United States treated such problems militantly, always threatening to go to war to obtain what she wanted.

The Texan settlers who came into conflict with their government in Mexico city, engaged in a successful civil war with the aid of influential government offices in Washington and achieved their independence. Texas then was incorporated as a new state. In 1847, the unpopular Mexican War was fought for the purpose of acquiring new territories (the southwest).

Webster In the Saddle

Prior to the Civil War, the Webster-Hamilton policy was dominant in domestic affairs. These men favored a high protective tariff, which, placing high duties on foreign goods, help to build native industry. The administration of which Webster was Secretary of State, helped establish a sound currency and centralized banking. The government was extremely benevolent to the needs of business and kept its ear cocked to their grievances and desires.

Foreign trade was growing and became an important factor in the new industrial economy. The first commercial treaty with China was signed through the office of Daniel Webster. Covetous eyes were cast in the direction of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1840, trade with China amounted to $9,000,000. It was with the object of increasing this trade that Webster sent a commission to China to arrange a trade treaty. Coming as it did after the British had defeated Peking in the Opium War, the treaty was a simple matter indeed. Commercial privileges were obtained in all open ports, and Americans were to be tried in consular courts for breaking Chinese laws! Caleb Cushing, leader of the delegation was led to remark: “By that treaty, the laws of the Union follow its citizens and its banner protects them even within the domain of the Chinese Empire.”

Japan, which had insulated itself from the rest of the world for more than 200 years was compelled to open her doors when Commodore Perry, with a few warships, violated her territorial waters, disregarded her laws and spurned her protests. British and Russian warships were standing by ready to lend a helping hand to the Americans if the occasion should arise. There was no need for it. A treaty of “friendship” was forced upon Japan in 1854 and a commercial treaty followed in 1858. This was only the beginning.

Seward Moves Ahead

Foreign trade continued to grow. Even though no great surpluses of manufactured goods were produced, industry expanded at a rapid rate. The home market, while constantly saturated, was just as constantly renewed by the tremendous inner expansion and the great rises in population resulting from unhampered immigration.

Secretary of State Seward was a powerful and militant advocate of the Webster-Hamilton policies in the Lincoln cabinet and under his tenure of office, foreign commerce increased and new markets were opened to American goods.

The Monroe Doctrine had already warned the European powers to keep hands off the New World. But the ambitious Napoleon III, taking advantage of the Civil War, seized Mexico in order to establish a “catholic empire” and to collect on defaulted “loans.” He installed Maximillian as emperor, but his disciple’s rule was a stormy one since the Mexicans were in permanent revolt against the new regime. The American government frowned upon Napoleon’s action and when the Civil War ended, Congress declared that “it does not accord with the policy of the United States to acknowledge any monarchical government America under the auspices of any European power.” Troops were mobilized on the Mexican border, but they were not required since the French venture ended in a fiasco. The Mexicans, certain of the attitude of their powerful neighbor to the North, completed the revolt with the execution of Maximillian.

In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7,000,000, a legitimate acquisition, yet the lower house fought against what it regarded as an unwarranted expenditure of money, in the same way as the legislative bodies opposed Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase. But skillful negotiations and a little bit of bribery “won” the legislature to the purchase of what has since turned out to be an extremely profitable investment in the interests of American capitalists. The hesitancy on the part of the “representatives of the people” in accepting the purchases with enthusiasm, was only evidence that for the most part, American interest directed toward national growth.

Seward, however, was an advocate of colonial expansion, particularly in the Caribbean Sea. Using the Navy Department which had been cruising in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo, he obtained a treaty for the acquisition of Samana Bay as a naval base. The government in Santo Domingo was in bad financial straits and in trouble with other European powers. It was prepared to grant this naval base in exchange for American protection and financial support. Seward, at the same time, proposed the purchase of the Virgin Islands, for which, he had already obtained a treaty from Denmark; and he had obtained, also, a treaty giving the United States control over the Isthmus of Panama. Both the Senate and the House rejected these treaties and the “unwarranted” expenditures of money involved in the transactions. The defeated South had lost all interest in Latin-American expansion; the Republican Party, completely absorbed in post-war reconstruction, had not yet arrived at the period of her “awareness” of the country’s “manifest destiny.”

Grant Takes A Hand

These efforts at expansion, however, were renewed by the hero of the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant. The Navy Department, always keenly aware of its own special interest, again asked for a base at Samana. Conditions in Santo Domingo at this time appeared favorable to a renewal of Seward’s original overtures. Without informing his Cabinet, President Grant dispatched his personal secretary. Colonel Babcock, to negotiate a treaty with the island. Babcock was met by “President” Baez, who claimed that he was the head of the country. This claim was contested by another. “President” Cabral. But even before Colonel Babcock had departed for Santo Domingo, Baez had proposed that his country be annexed by the United States. The “President” proposed, in his discussion with Grant’s representative, to sell the island for $1,500,000! The two of them then drew up a treaty of annexation and Babcock returned to Washington, bringing with him specimens of ores, hardwoods, coffee berries and similar tropical products. Grant declared to an amazed cabinet, who sat glaring at the Dominican samples: “Babcock has returned, as yon see and has brought a treaty of annexation. I suppose it is not formal, as he had no diplomatic powers, but we can easily cure that.”

What The Senate Did

Not a few embarrassing moments were spent in that meeting of shocked cabinet members. Grant, discomforted by the conduct of his confreres, passed on hurriedly to the next point of business. Hamilton Fish, his Secretary of State, offered to resign because the treaty had been negotiated behind his back. But the President persuaded him otherwise, and Fish before leaving the cabinet meeting agreed to fight for the treaty of annexation.

But Grant had not foreseen that Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would be grossly insulted by the high-handed action of the President of the “Graft” Administration engaging in such foreign sallies without his knowledge. The “insult” was aggravated when Grant erroneously referred to him as “the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.” Sumner organized the fight in the Senate against the treaty and when it came before that body on June 30, 1870, the presidential plea for ratification was rejected.

Grant was highly incensed at Sumner’s conduct and the action of the Senate, but it brought a halt for a number of years to the endeavor to annex Santo Domingo. In his final message to Congress, made some six years afterward. Grant disappointedly, but with great candor, declared that if his treaty had been adopted, Santo Domingo “would soon have fallen into the hands of the United States capitalists.

America was definitely on the high road toward the acquisition of an empire. It was not yet the imperialism of monopoly or finance capitalism, but the meteoric rise of industry was accompanied by colonial expansion. With the defeat of Grant’s venture in Santo Domingo, such efforts were directed to other parts of the globe, and we shall see how quickly the United States was to “learn” the art of building a colonial empire.

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