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Irving Howe

World Imperialist Role Now Public Policy

A Climax in U.S. Foreign Policy

(24 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 12, 24 March 1947, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THERE is more than a touch of irony in the fact that the policy of decisive and unrestricted intervention by U.S. imperialism into worldwide and especially European affairs, has been enunciated by Harry Truman, provincial politician from Missouri; even though it was most consistently advocated by Franklin Roosevelt, the most far-seeing spokesman of U.S. capitalism in the 20th century.

Roosevelt, who did understand the need from the point of view of U.S. imperialism of active intervention into every corner of the globe, was yet restricted in his actions by, and had to heed the cautionings of, the isolationist groups. But Truman, who would like nothing better than to bury his head in Independence, Mo., is forced by inexorable social pressures to drive U.S. money, technique, arms and power into that very Europe of which Americans have traditionally been so suspicious.

We note this in connection with the proposed U.S. loans of $400,000,000 to Greece and. Turkey not merely to show how the Marxist conception of the limitations of the role of the individual in history is demonstrated in the behavior Roosevelt and Truman had to assume. More important, rather, is the fact that U.S. imperialism has now announced – not a new policy, for it did that when it intervened in Europe after the First World War, but rather – an open and frank declaration that it is the major power in the world and that it intends to utilize its superiority in dollars and atom bombs to decide the world’s fate.

For how else can we interpret Truman’s speech? – of which it can be said that seldom has a statement of such consequence been delivered by a figure of such inconsequence ...

Few have understood the implications of this declaration as well as the New York Times commentator, James Reston, who is also the unofficial “leak” of the State Department. As Reston wrote on March 11: “... we now are ready to demonstrate that, if the Soviet Union or its satellites ... insist on expanding in the other key areas of the world, the United States will oppose them not with stern and futile diplomatic notes as in the past, but with power.”

Reston continued, stating by implication that this open declaration of power must be backed up by arms: “There is perhaps still a suggestion in the new policy that we are ‘buying security’ by arming mercenaries ..., but most officials who approve the loans to Greece and Turkey are well aware of the fact that once we have started on this policy, we cannot fail to see it through.”

And then, continued Reston, outlining the detailed intervention by the U.S. in the Middle East: “These loans are going to be carefully policed by the United States. Technical skill is going to be provided to help see that the loans are used effectively to attain their purposes, and if these loans and missions of ours need to be supported by the United States sea power, that, too, can be made available without difficulty.”

Nothing could be more frank.

The repercussions on the European continent have been tremendous. Those very nations – the second-rate declining imperialist powers – which need U.S. propping are yet the ones to be most suspicious about it. Reactions in Rome, Paris and England were, in diplomatic parlance, reserved; in plain English, worried. For they are now between two pressures; if the U.S. delivers them from the rampant Russian imperialism, they know quite well that in its own quiet but more efficient way, U.S. imperialism will squeeze them equally as much.

Little wonder then that the independent bourgeois newspaper in Rome, Il Messagero, wrote:

“The speech and the program it represents are important because behind respectable arguments of general policy lie the influence of colossal economic interests – industrial, banking and commercial – which ... constitute that formidable mechanism of global expansion which is American imperialism.”

The Republicans Tagged Along Meekly with Truman

Equally significant was the domestic reaction in Washington. Some years back such a declaration by a President would have provoked a chorus of horrified isolationist screeches: the Republicans would have tried to utilize the situation to party advantage. Now, tempted though they must have been, they refrained from disagreement; their responsible leadership knew quite well that U.S. imperialism had taken a decisive step in sparring with its Russian rival and in its explicit intervention as the decisive power in non-Stalinist Europe. The Republicans couldn’t say much in opposition, though they must have known that opposition would catch votes.

As if to rub it in, the perceptive James Reston wrote in the Times on March 12 that:

“Considerable progress has been made in the last ten days in making Congress realize that what is at issue here is not merely loans to Greece and Turkey, but a question of establishing a world security system through the employment of American power.”

And so the arc of U.S. foreign policy has been completed. From a nation traditionally suspicious of “foreign entanglements” – in which George Washington’s conditional statement against such “entanglements” became a popular though seldom adhered-to shibboleth – the U.S. has become the arbiter of large sections of the world on whose decision, power and wealth the fate of governments depend. Let those myopic liberals who quixotically maintain that the idea of U.S. imperialism is a “myth” because “we have no colonies” examine the facts: U.S. imperialism is so powerful, the dollar and the bomb’ so omnipotent, that it doesn’t need to “own” any colonies. It controls – and that is enough.

We have spoken of U.S. foreign policy as the unavoidable result of the nature of U.S. imperialism. It may then be asked: are U.S. interests and investments in Greece and Turkey so large as to require this bold policy? Without even citing the statistics on this matter, we may readily answer: No. Most current investments in Greece are British and those investments the U.S. does have in Greece and Turkey are not decisive. What is involved rather is the world position of U.S. imperialism in relation to the other major powers – primarily, Russia. The nature of these immediate struggles are detailed elsewhere in this issue of Labor Action. Here we wish to discuss, however briefly, U.S. imperialism itself.

U.S. imperialism is at present so widespread, so concerned with every corner of the globe because of the nature of its internal economy. A Marxist writer offers some interesting data on this point: “... the outstanding factor in the American industrial and financial system today is an overproduction of capital which has assumed terrific proportions. It is now in possession of a vastly expanded industrial productive capacity. Gross production was running during the first half of 1945 at an annual rate of $206 billion. This is more than double the capacity of the peak year of the pre-depression boom. In 1929 total gross production amounted to only $94.4 billion.

“Capital ready for investment is likewise available in the hands of the Wall Street corporation in prodigious amounts. National income during the war boom reached the stupendous sum of $160 billion. Capitalist corporations received their more than generous share. From 1939 to 1945 net profits after taxes of U.S. corporations totalled $42.7 billions. Their net working capital increased from $24.6 billion in 1939 to $45.5 billion in 1945, a jump of 85 per cent. Current assets from $54.6 billion to $98 billion in the same period.” (William Simmons, in Fourth International Magazine, May 1946)

This vast expansion of productive capacity, only a portion of which, under the workings of capitalist economy, can be absorbed by the domestic market, is the constant goading pressure for Imperialist expansion. It is this process, now brought to a critical culmination as indicated in the figures cited above, which has gradually developed in this country since the turn of the century.

The U.S. became a creditor nation after the First World War. But it had already embarked on numerous imperialist ventures at the turn of the century: the Philippines, China, Latin America, etc. True, U.S. investments abroad at the turn of the century were quite small: $500 million in 1900; slightly over $2 billion in 1909; and slightly under $2 billion in 1912. At the time of World War I, American investments were largely in Europe; it was this crucial fact which drove the House of Morgan to put the decisive pressure on Woodrow Wilson to enter the war.

A Decisive Turn to Foreign Investment

In the decade from 1912–1922, U.S. foreign investments increased 300 per cent. This tendency continued from 1922 to 1931: an increase, estimated by the Department of Commerce, from about $8 billion to about $15 billion. These investments brought in an annual interest of over $500 million a year.

But to look at the matter merely statistically would be insufficient. The specific gravity – the social weight in terms of the functioning of U.S. capitalism – of these foreign Interests held by American capitalists was far greater than a comparison between foreign and domestic investment might indicate. For a collapse of the foreign market, as happened in 1929–1931, Could only result in Internal crisis in the U.S.; this nation was now inextricably bound up with the world economy and was well on the way to becoming the dominant force it is today.

Yet isolationist sentiment increased in between wars and reached a peak in the twenties and early thirties. Does this not seem in contradiction with the expansion of U.S. imperialism which one would expect would lead to an internationalist perspective for U.S. capitalism?

There, is of course more than one reason for this situation. Here we wish only to cite two crucial reasons.

There is no direct sequence from economics to politics. Though U.S. capitalism was becoming increasingly concerned with international investments and developments, the American people were repelled by the First World War and by their subsequent disillusionment about its causes; large sections of it succumbed to a policy of naive isolation: “keep out of European affairs.” That such a policy was literally impossible did not deter them from clinging to it.

Much more decisive was the fact that during the interim between wars, U.S. investment underwent a sharp change in character. By 1929 the center of U.S. imperialism had shifted from Europe to the Western hemisphere; by 1939 the shift was even more emphatic, partly because of Nazi triumphs. (The Far East and Africa during this period remained relatively minor, though potentially of first importance.) The accompanying figures illustrate this point.


Percentage of Total






Western Hemisphere



Far East and Africa



The Differences Between Morgan and Rockefeller

Now the bulk of these investments in the Western Hemisphere were held roughly by the Rockefeller group. The bulk of investments in Europe were held roughly by the Morgan group. The word “roughly” is underlined in both the above sentences,,since the original distinction between the Morgan group as finance capitalist and the Rockefeller group as industrial capitalist has gradually been obliterated as the two groups interpenetrated.

But still in the decades between wars the isolationist point, of view within U. S. capitalism was based on the fact that U.S. investments were predominantly in the Western Hemisphere; the power of isolationism was based on the preponderance of such investments. Isolationism accordingly advocated that the U.S. restrict its interests and activities to the Western hemisphere.

Yet isolationism was doomed. It was doomed because, as capitalism developed and declined, as the internationalization of world economy proceeded at Increasing velocity, the arena of world imperialist Investment became a unity, “one world.” as Wendell Willkie so well understood. What happened in one area of the globe intimately affected another area. For the U.S. to have been indifferent to imperialist developments in Europe would have ultimately meant to face a severe challenge in South America.

It was this conception – which now seems rather simple, but which the divided interests of the U.S. capitalist class and its obtuseness to its general class interests as opposed to its sectional interests, made difficult for the class as a whole to adopt – it was this conception which Roosevelt and Willkie as the most intelligent spokesmen for their class understood best and pushed through.

The Reasons Why Isolationism Is Dead

For by now the defense of U.S. imperialism in Latin America really does begin in Greece; and the defense of U.S. imperialist investment in China really does begin in Turkey. Hence, the U.S. capitalist class is today more united than ever before on the need for it to pursue the course Truman outlined in his speech. And that is why isolationism is dead; that is why the Republicans support Truman.

The old conflicts in policy within the U.S. capitalist class based on different areas of investment or interest can no longer be maintained. Today U.S. imperialism, faced with the most gigantic struggle in its history – the struggle for world hegemony against the imperialism of Stalinist Russia – acts on a united, world-wide scale. No doubt, the scope of U.S. investments abroad will increase; the proportion of investment in Europe will probably and the mass of investment will certainly increase.

There, then, is the shaping factor in U.S. foreign policy. It will sink deeper and deeper into the arenas of world struggle; it will be forced to act on a worldwide scale regardless of temporary hesitations or inhibitions; for it is fighting to rule the world. That the passing executor of this policy is the puny Truman is only an accident.

Would that the working class of the world were as united and determined to oppose this terrible impending conflict as are those who prepare for it!

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