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International Socialist Review Issue 7, Spring 1999

U. S. Imperialism: A Century of Slaughter

By Lance Selfa

THIS YEAR marks the 100th anniversary of the emergence of the U.S. as a major world power. Under the pretext of responding to a bombing on the USS Maine anchored in Havana, Cuba, the U.S. went to war with Cuba's colonial overlord, Spain, in 1899. After routing Europe's weakest colonial power, the U.S. made off with all of Spain's colonial possessions in Latin America and Asia, seizing control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

The Spanish-American War marked the entrance of the U.S. into the worldwide scramble for colonies among the advanced powers. Novelist Mark Twain made no bones about what this meant:

How our hearts burned with indignation against the atrocious Spaniards. . .But when the smoke was over, the dead buried and the cost of the war came back to the people in an increase in the price of commodities and rent--that is, when we sobered up from our patriotic spree--it suddenly dawned on us that the cause of the Spanish-American war was the price of sugar. . . . that the lives, blood, and money of the American people were used to protect the interests of American capitalists.

A century later, the U.S. stands alone as the world's superpower. It is the only country with the ability to go to war anywhere in the world.

The U.S. attained its position of dominance through competition with other powerful nations. The U.S. and the world's other major powers--Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany--fought two world wars, threatened each other with nuclear annihilation and divided and redivided the world between them.

How can we explain this madness?

It is important to understand that wars and violence stem not from the whims of politicians but from the nature of the system itself. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the vast majority of the world's population by a small minority who own and control all the resources. A recent United Nations (UN) study showed that all of the world's poor could be lifted out of poverty by spending the wealth of the world's seven richest billionaires.

At the heart of a system which produces this kind of obscene inequality is ruthless competition between corporations constantly on the lookout for new ways to make profits. The process of competition forces capitalists to look beyond their own national boundaries to gain access to new and cheap raw materials and workers.

Dividing Up the World

In the late nineteenth century, the British ruling class established a vast empire that covered one-third of the globe. It used its industrial and financial muscle to conquer less powerful countries. Other nations did the same, carving out huge empires to plunder.

The big powers sent their troops around the globe--not only to conquer less powerful nations but also to fight over the division of the world among themselves. Therefore, economic competition gave way to military competition. Socialists call this process of economic and military competition--and the domination of weaker nations which results from it--imperialism.

Although it arrived late on the empire-building scene, the U.S. operated no differently than other imperialist powers. It turned the Caribbean Sea into a virtual U.S. lake. In the 100 years since the Spanish-American War, the U.S. has invaded Cuba five times, Honduras four times, Panama four times, the Dominican Republic twice, Haiti twice, Nicaragua twice and Grenada once.

So much for U.S. rhetoric about opposing aggression.

Gen. Smedley Butler, who headed many U.S. military interventions in the early part of this century, gave a stark account of what he had really been doing:

I have spent 34 years in active service as a member of the Marine Corps. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers.

In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.

I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues. I helped pacify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12.

The First and Second World Wars resulted from the struggle between rival capitalist classes over the division of the globe. For example, the boundaries of most of the countries of today's Middle East were drawn during the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France following the First World War.

The Second World War ended with the division of the world into two rival empires--the U.S.-led Western bloc and the Russian-led Eastern bloc. Until the Eastern bloc collapsed in 1989, the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the USSR threatened to become a nuclear war. To "stop the spread of communism," the U.S. fought wars in Vietnam and Korea. And it used the same excuse to destabilize and overthrow regimes it opposed--from the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 to the Allende government in Chile in 1973.

The same system which produced the bloody slaughters of the world wars continues to produce wars today. The U.S. wields its huge power through institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, NATO and the UN. If poor countries do not comply with U.S. demands, the U.S. threatens to withhold bank loans, impose tariff barriers or withdraw diplomatic cooperation.

And at the end of the day, the U.S. is prepared to use brute force to back up its economic and political threats. That is why the U.S. fought the 1991 Gulf War. The war was not about peace and democracy, but about protecting the West's oil supplies in the Gulf.

Throughout the century, U.S. officials have justified wars and interventions with rhetoric about "protecting democracy," "stopping aggression," or, more recently, performing "humanitarian" duties. But these merely cover the real aims of U.S. policy--to make the world safe for big business and to establish, as President Bush said after the Gulf War, that "what we say goes."

U.S. Drowns Its Opponents in Blood

Whenever the colonial subjects of the U.S. fought back, the U.S. drowned them in blood. As Mark Twain commented on the Philippine war:

We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining ten millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket; we have acquired property in the three hundred concubines and other slaves of our business partner, the Sultan of Sulu, and hoisted our protecting flag over that swag.

And so, by these Providences of God--and the phrase is the government's, not mine--we are a World Power.

In the 1900-1903 war to conquer the Philippines, the U.S. killed more than 1 million people. In the midst of that war, U.S. Army General Shefter said: "It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords."

Yet the real barbarians are the generals and politicians who run the U.S. military machine. The U.S. is still the only country to use the ultimate weapon of genocide--the atomic bomb. Another horrific example of the destruction the U.S. is prepared to wreak took place during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. By the time the U.S. was finally forced to withdraw in 1975, much of the country had been saturated with chemical weapons, and the war had claimed two million Vietnamese and Cambodian lives.

But Vietnam also showed how U.S. imperialism can be beaten. The Vietnamese people's struggle for self-determination against the U.S. and the U.S.-backed puppet regime in South Vietnam defeated the world's greatest military power. It also inspired a worldwide campaign of solidarity, which, by the war's end, reached right into the U.S. army itself. Thousands of U.S. soldiers drew the conclusion that their quarrel wasn't with the Vietnamese, but with the politicians and generals who sent them to Vietnam.

Today's U.S. threats to attack Iraq are part of a century-old pattern of violence aimed at ensuring the domination of U.S. power. The only way to end this madness is to get rid of the capitalist system which causes wars.

Propping up Mass Murderers

Bill Clinton says the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo is to bring about justice and to protect the oppressed Albanians. But for decades the West has backed mass murderers and torturers as long as they fitted in with Western interests. These tyrants have acted in a manner similar to, and often much worse than, the Serbian regime. Clinton accuses Serbia's Milosevic of killing 2,500 people in Kosovo. But the West happily supports governments which have butchered hundreds of thousands.

In the 1960s and 1970s the U.S. fought a war against ordinary people in Vietnam. One million were killed in Vietnam and another million in Cambodia. During that war the U.S. used, on a more horrific scale, the methods it now accuses Milosevic of using--search and destroy patrols, burning villages and driving out thousands of people. Britain used the same means against those who revolted against the empire, for example, in Malaya.

The U.S. has murdered opponents, fixed elections and intervened throughout Central and South America to defend right-wing forces which pushed U.S. profit and power. Some 75,000 people were killed by U.S.-backed death squads in El Salvador. Today the West defends murderous regimes if it suits their interests, then demonizes them if they step a little out of line. Saddam Hussein in Iraq went from being a "hero"Zin the war against Iran to a villain when he was seen as a threat to U.S. oil interests.

There are many other examples:


In 1965 the U.S. backed General Suharto in sweeping away the slightly left-wing government of Indonesia. All the Western powers now terrorizing Serbia applauded his victory. At least 500,000 were killed by Suharto and his allies in the immediate aftermath of the coup. When Portugal withdrew from its colony of East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian army occupied it. The airforce bombed villages indiscriminately and used heavy artillery against rebel movements and their civilian supporters. Suharto's men killed probably 120,000 of the 650,000 people in the country.

U.S. President Ford and his secretary of state, Kissinger, visited Suharto the day before the invasion and nodded it through. No task force was dispatched to free East Timor. Up until today the West has provided the weaponry that lets the Indonesian regime maintain its grip on East Timor.


In 1975 the Portuguese colonialists were driven from the central African state of Angola. Right-wing forces, particularly Jonas Savimbi's UNITA, attempted to bring down the MPLA government which came to power as a result of the uprising that defeated Portugal. The U.S. was determined to stop a left-wing government from controlling the country.

From the beginning of the Angolan civil war, the CIA channelled arms to UNITA. In 1981, when President Reagan took office, the U.S. government swept away a Congressional ban on openly sending arms to movements like UNITA. The result plunged Angola into 20 years of bloodshed. The Angolan war has already claimed 750,000 lives. Two-thirds of those killed were children. UNITA specialized in attacks on civilians and sowing landmines in villages. Over 65,000 people have had limbs amputated as a result.


The West has backed Israel, the only certain nuclear power in the Middle East, for 50 years. Yet Israel is responsible for horrors far greater than anything that has happened in Kosovo. At the birth of the state, the Israeli government used terror to drive out 750,000 Palestinians. In a series of wars against its Arab neighbors, Israel has always been able to rely on support from the U.S.

The U.S. has not only handed over hundreds of millions of dollars of aid but also directly intervened in military conflicts on Israel's side, such as in the 1973 war. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese were slaughtered as refugee camps were bombed to rubble. Israel deliberately targeted hospitals with phosphorus and cluster bombs. During two major invasions in 1993 and 1996 the Israelis killed hundreds of civilians.

Today some people argue that perhaps the U.S. can do good in Kosovo even if not elsewhere. But the record of imperialism shows a consistent pattern where profit and power come first and ordinary people come nowhere.

Its strategic aim is to exercise "hegemony" throughout the world to get its way in any disagreement with other states, big or small. But other big states are not always willing to go along with its schemes.

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