Guide to Imperialism

The Lords of Human Kind. Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire

by V.G. Kiernan
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $7.95

Critics of Empire

by Bernard Porter
St. Martin’s Press, 369 pp., $10.50

Britain and the Russian Civil War

by Richard H. Ullman
Princeton, 395 pp., $10.00

The Fall of the British Empire, 1918-1968

by Colin Cross
Coward-McCann, 368 pp., $8.95

Britain in the Century of Total War

by Arthur Marwick
Little, Brown, 514 pp., $8.50

Sitting down to review these books on the morning of October 15, my window overlooking Boston Common and the crowds gathering in the sunshine for the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, I could not help reflecting on their peculiar relevance. Imperialism is a chameleon, a “prehensile-tailed” animal, adept at changing its color. Historians and sociologists have chosen to regard it simply as an offshoot of nationalism, the nationalist hysteria writ large. In reality, it was alive and kicking long before men thought of nations and nationalities, and we shall do better to think of it as the spontaneous offspring of the primordial urge to force other men into subjection and make them work to produce the “surplus” for the lucky few—the conquering, imperial warband—without which (historians assure us) the proud structure of civilization could never have been raised.

Was there ever an age, as we turn the dispiriting ledger of world history, that was not “imperialist”? Hyksos and Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Mongols and Moslems, all were expert in the practice of empire, if not the art. Power for its own sake and profit for its own sake, together with the confidence to believe that one’s own race and values are superior to everyone else’s, are ingrained habits of mankind. What distinguishes modern imperialism from that of the Assyrians who “swept down like a wolf on the fold,” is its greater sophistication, its dazzling array of self-justifying explanations, the skillfully positioned red herrings with which it covers up its scent, the flourishing hedge of half-truths which conceals its prehensile tail.

Though the idiom is slightly different—as different as American English is from English English—the arguments about Vietnam are the stock arguments of imperialism, going back a century and more, just as the situation in Vietnam is a classical imperialist situation, similar in essentials to the “temporary” British involvement in Egypt in 1882. President Kennedy, when he began the build-up of American forces in Vietnam in 1962, was as convinced as Mr. Gladstone in 1882 that it was a short-term measure to restore “order” in an emergency which would soon be over. Both found it easier to get in than get out. The “temporary” British occupation of Egypt lasted until 1954; if the dénouement in Vietnam turns out different, it will be not because the nature of imperialism has changed, but because the world in which we live is different. Power may be transient in the sense that it changes hands; but its nature remains the same though, like the chameleon, it may change its color.

Imperialism today is once again in process of changing its color. The old techniques and rationalizations have become rusty and inefficient, and are being replaced, as Kwame Nkrumah and others have pointed out, by the more modern apparatus of “neo-colonialism.” It used to be said that the Suez war of 1956 was the last of the old-style imperialist wars. Future historians are more likely to reserve that distinction …

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Letters

Colonies February 12, 1970