America: The New Imperialism. From White Settlement to World Hegemony: V.G. Kiernan; With a preface by Eric Hobsbawm; Verso, London; pp 440; ? 12.00
There have been books written on the United States in the past with great scholarship but surely few have been written with so much clarity and adherance to truth. It is not a cliche to say that it is easier to write about a person than of a nation. In a sense it is easier to write a biography than a history. And this is where many historians have failed.
Not Kiernan. When he writes that every empire has been both Jekyll and Hyde he says it all. This is not a historian who sees life through coloured glasses. As he puts it ?if the 20th century has taken note of some elements of culture in barbarian societies, it has been compelled also to see how much barbarism lurks within civilisation.? Others may see the United States as the world'sgreatest democracy. Kiernan suffers from no such illusion. He sees things as they were once and as they are now.
As he notes, the American evolution as a nation has been different from and is less organic than that of European nations and lacks even a ?national name?. The so-called ?American? people were first colonists, then rebels, then a mixture of all the peoples of Europe and as a result could not take itself for granted. The country itself began not as a very big or important country ?but one precociously conscious of great destinies. Kiernan'sassessment of the early years of the United States stops short of being cruel. The basic analysis is ruthless. Every error, political, social and behavioural is registered with unerring accuracy. At first the moving spirit that guided America was how to get rich. The pursuit of money was ?frenetic?. Internal distempers encouraged aggressiveness against outsiders, as a means of reconciling divisions. Always private appropriation of natural resources went unchecked by any thought of public interest. Southern society was of a kind usually produced only by conquest at its most brutal but with a Black population that had been bought, not conquered. The White man fought the Red Indian with a barbarity matched by few nations elsewhere. Racialism was rampant. The manner in which the United States expanded was ruthless, the savages were the White men.
To read Kiernan is to shed tears. As late as 1869, an American general was telling his men to hunt down the Apaches ?as they would wild animals?. Women and children were excluded from the hunt in principle, less strictly in practice. Genocide was practised on such a large scale that Hitler would have been ashamed of. Extermination was loudly talked about. ?(Red) Indians out of sight were Indians out of mind.?
The chapter on Americans in ?Latin? America and Asia is most illuminating for it deals with competition in trades and commerce among the western nations. By 1897 American business personnel in China numbered 1,564, a figure second only to the British total of 4,929. The manner in which the Americans took over the Philippines is a story by itself. The islands were taken by force. ?Murder, rape, torture and other crimes were too frequently committed by American soldiers and by the native scouts commanded by American officers.? Filipinos and trade unionists or anarchists or any others ?outside the pale? went together. Attacks back home on Blacks were multiplying. Lynching and massacreing of Blacks was almost standard practice. About the same time, back in America itself ?six hundred Hindoos? had been set upon by mobs and beaten in ?an act of racial fanaticism?. When, finally, in a show of liberalism and anti-colonialism the Philippines were given their freedom, ?in effect the system meant leaving the countryside to be run in their own manner by the landlords, while America held political power and skimmed off the cream of the profits?.
When the United States wanted to dig the Panama Canal, it preferred to ?buy? territory rather than ?steal? it. The deal was struck in the name of treaty rights, national requirements and the progress of civilisation.
As Kiernan puts it: ?America always loved to think that whatever it wanted was just what the human race needed.? What it couldn'tcapture by force it took by planting Americans in countries it sought.
By 1913 the US had a bigger stake in Mexico than all the other foreigners put together with 75,000 resident planners, traders, engineers and 1,200 million dollars of investment. When the US planned to ?take over? China, by the 1920s there were 13 American colleges and 2,500 American missionaries in the country. America knew how to capture lands easily without bloodshed.
The World War I had made Britain indebted to the US. When the Britsh Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald visited the US in 1929 President Hoover suggested to him that he might like to handover Bermuda, British Honduras and Trinidad to the US in lieu of war debts.
US army officers had learnt nothing from the history of Europe in the twenties and thirties. General Wedemever had spent some years in a Nazi military academy and left it with hatred of Bolshevism. General MacArthur, son of a general who took part in the conquest of the Philippines considered ?the Russian a greater menace than the Nazis had ever been?. So much for American understanding of Nazism. Even after the World War II, and the formation of the United Nations under the leadership of US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, neutralism was not tolerated and any country like India choosing ?non-alignment? fell under resentful suspicion.
In 1954, an unenlightened State Department spokesman was telling a Congressional Committee that the US must ?dominate Asia for an indefinite period and pose a military threat against communist China until it breaks internally?.
During the Vietnam war most American officers in Saigon had concubines ?paraded without concealment?. In the concluding chapter, Kiernan says how the CIA spent ?billions? in building up the Mujahideen with the help of the Pakistani ISI and that story is particularly revealing. Kiernan is neither vicious nor bitter. He is merely telling the truth about America in an entertaining way. If there is any moral in this, it is so self-evident that it doesn'thave to be put in words.
As the novelist Henry Miller reflected. ?Once I saw in a store window a framed photo of all the Vice Presidents we have had. It might have served as a rogues? gallery?. Miller had a remarkable way of telling the truth. So has Kiernan but with greater sophistication.