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An American Century in Asia

Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos
South Vietnamese villagers being evacuated by US forces in an attempt to clear the area of Vietcong during Operation Cedar Falls, 1967

Michael Hunt and Steven Levine write, “We came of age, amid the ferment of the 1960s, deeply concerned with the Vietnam War. Hunt lived in Vietnam early in that decade…Levine was an activist in the antiwar and civil rights movements.” Now retired, the two were colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where they taught courses on Asian revolutions and US foreign policy. The broad outlines and many of the details in the Hunt and Levine study will be known to readers who remember or were active in the Sixties and early Seventies.

This is not a criticism; Hunt and Levine’s book benefits not only from the scholarship of the last four decades but from the debate over whether the US, having learned little and still bound by old convictions and blindnesses, is refighting foreign “wars of liberation” in the same destructive and self-destructive way. As Hunt and Levine state, “Both the violent rise and the long, painful decline of the American Pacific project offer a cautionary tale applicable to the US entanglement in the Middle East and Afghanistan.”

Arc of Empire’s propositions and conclusions are eloquently stated and for the most part, it seems to me, true. Of its four examples of the American attempts to impose empire, two, the Philippines and Vietnam, are convincing and will add to the knowledge of older readers and enlighten younger ones. The authors do not, however, persuade me that either Japan or South Korea fits their thesis about America’s destructive imperial tendencies.

Their main premise is clear: “Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which a state employs coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) to subjugate an alien population within a territorially delimited area governed by another state or organized political force.” The consequences of empire include collaboration with local elites, an army prepared to put down “restless natives,” military bases, imperial administrators, and ideological justifications aimed at both the home and the subject audiences.

In addition to the ideological justifications, which amount to “civilizing missions,” as the French used to say, American imperialism entered regions where previous colonial or dictatorial regimes had failed or were withdrawing. US military strategy then enforced control with overwhelming force, resulting “in the deaths of millions.” Finally there emerged a “strong, stable, and prosperous eastern Asia” as the US was either defeated or became exhausted and withdrew.

The authors claim they don’t “emphasize the motives behind empire.” But they do—and how curious it would be if they didn’t. For Americans, these motives include a denial of imperialism or colonialism, which they have always insisted were characteristic of Britain, France, Spain, or Holland. Nevertheless, the authors insist, the US was seeking “command of territory.” Then there was the claim that Americans are “champions of freedom.” More broadly this is underpinned by

a potent self-image as a unique people destined by geography, history, and moral character to guide politically immature and easily misled Asians to a better future…[combined with a] strong sense of exceptionalism and destiny….

In the Philippines, for example, “American rule was guided by a commitment,” according to a presidential commission, to “the well-being, the prosperity, and the happiness of the Philippine people and their elevation and advancement to a position among the most civilized peoples of the world.” Less loudly stated, but always in the background, was the domestic fear that failure would look weak, either to one’s internal enemies or to foreign allies or enemies.

One of the consequences of this self-image, Hunt and Levine argue, is that when the inevitable defeat or withdrawal came, rather than examining the reality of a determined adversary, Americans undertook an internal hunt for those responsible. Presidents starting with Harry Truman were accused of being weak-kneed and some of their advisers and many other government employees were falsely accused of being subversive, not only by such demagogues as Joe McCarthy but by the government’s own agencies.

However, before the US withdrew from several Asian countries, it inflicted, as the authors write,

high human and material costs on those who resisted. Destruction was visited upon one country after another, leaving masses of dead and maimed noncombatants as well as enemy soldiers…. Dominion came at a high price, but Americans paid little of it.

The invasion, occupation, and domination of the Philippines in the late nineteenth century is the book’s most potent example of America’s empire-building. It was preceded by the American occupation and subjugation of Hawaii, Midway, and Pearl Harbor, and the contest with Germany over Samoa. The onslaught on the Philippines was justified as a stroke against Spain, needed both to defend the US holdings in the Pacific and to secure an outpost in case other powers excluded the US from the carve-up of China. President McKinley spoke of the “childlike nature of the Filipinos” and of “destiny” and “duty.” And yet it was those same Filipinos who, like future targets of American subjugation, were to form a resistance movement. In this case the movement fractured, reformed, and ultimately lost. The Americans cultivated a native elite who were eager to link themselves to the conquerors, and were, Hunt and Levine contend, the predecessors of the families governing in Manila today.

The military victory was made possible partly by army officers hardened in the wars against Native Americans and in the Civil War. It was also, the authors argue, partly made possible because, until not long before, the US had for two centuries enslaved black Africans. This history imbued many American nationalists with “a strong sense of racial superiority and entitlement justifying Anglo dominance over other, supposedly lesser peoples.” Dehumanization of the enemy in the Philippines was crucial to the ethos of counterinsurgency, with “nigger” and “gook” normal terms of abuse. (“Gook” resurfaced in Korea and I often heard the word used in Vietnam, sometimes for the forces of South Vietnam.)

In the Philippines civilians and prisoners were routinely mistreated, and what is now known as “waterboarding” was employed as the “water cure.” This was accompanied by a practice that later became routine in Vietnam: “collective punishment” was “commonplace, making entire villages suffer.” My Lai comes to mind. And as in Vietnam, “officers were not likely to report the excesses committed by their angry and racist troops.” It is notable, the authors write, that while the casualties among Filipinos were at least in the tens of thousands—and many estimates are higher—and the effects were more lasting than in any other American East Asian encroachments, the US impact on the Philippines is barely, if at all, taught in American schools or examined even by most critics of American policies and behavior abroad.

What the Americans could not have foreseen, however, was the effect farther east of their intrusion into the Philippines: growing fear in Japan and China that a new enemy was approaching. “As Japanese and Chinese observers clearly saw, the United States had become an imperial presence in eastern Asia…. The very fact of conquest dramatically signaled the emergence of a powerful and confident country on the shores of the western Pacific,” and this provoked and strengthened the region’s emerging nationalism.

Vietnam is the other inarguable example of what Hunt and Levine define as American imperialism in Asia. The terrible story of the Vietnam War is well known to readers of the The New York Review and has been minutely examined in many books, most recently Frederik Logevall’s Embers of War.* Here again, as in the Philippines,

Americans would take the place of one colonial power and set to work with collaborators in yet another exercise…sustain[ing] a client regime, [and] inflicting in the process enormous destruction and suffering upon the peoples of Indochina—Laotians and Cambodians as well as Vietnamese.

As has been often shown in this journal, there were those close to policymaking who understood the realities in Vietnam—above all the historic dislike of foreign aggressors reaching back over 1,500 years, the fear of American violence, and the popularity among many South Vietnamese, as even Eisenhower was to admit after he left the White House, of the Communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh. The authors say rightly:

The US commitment unfolded despite, not because of, the information available to US policymakers. The dreams of domination, doctrines of containment, and fears of policymakers trumped reality as the specialists so ably depicted it.

The authors do well, too, to quote President Johnson’s secret admission to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about what would happen if the US left Vietnam: “I think it would just lose us face in the world. I shudder to think what [other countries] would say.”

There are some shortcomings in this analysis. Many North Vietnamese soldiers were not convinced that their welfare was important to “the fatherland,” as North Vietnamese novels—of which the authors are aware—make clear. It is not the case that the North Vietnamese soldiers “who became ‘martyrs’ could expect both symbolic and material recognition.” The authors make plain, moreover, that Communist morale was low, especially after the failure of the Tet offensive in 1968. There was a common saying among North Vietnamese soldiers: “Born in the north to die in the south.” Indeed, as several North Vietnamese novels show, it is remarkable that the Hanoi forces still fought with such determination and won.

In Vietnam, as in the Philippines,

those Americans suffered from one fatal flaw. They manifested colonial attitudes rooted in the previous century—a missionary confidence in the United States as a transformative force in the world and a conviction of cultural superiority over Asians seen as alternately barbaric and childlike….They were blind to the way nationalism had over half a century captured the imagination of educated Vietnamese.

Still, Hunt and Levine do not convince me that Japan and Korea also demonstrate American imperialism. Indeed, they begin their chapter on Japan with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Very quickly they move back to 1931 with Japan’s attack on China and even farther back to Japan’s late-nineteenth-century drive “to dominate the neighborhood as a matter of necessity and right.” The Japanese empire would soon include parts of China and Korea, Taiwan and Okinawa. Hunt and Levine emphasize Japan’s fear of US encroachment on its “neighborhood” after the occupation of the Philippines. Because they are scrupulous historians they observe that President Theodore Roosevelt, an “arch-imperialist,” was also convinced that “Japan was a civilized power deserving of a dominant regional role.” He wanted to “conciliate rather than confront Japan and to avoid a dangerous and costly naval race.”

Japan slid closer and closer to Berlin and Rome, and in 1936 it joined the Anti-Comintern Pact, followed four years later, on September 27, 1940, by its entering into a full-fledged Axis alliance. Tokyo “was now an integral part of a global threat to peace, the principles of democratic governance, and the European and global balance of power on which America’s own security ultimately rested.” The US was alarmed by Japan’s expansion and its militant policies, Hunt and Levine show. But despite an American fleet buildup, an oil embargo, aid to China, and the freezing of Japanese financial assets, the US administration wanted to avoid war with Japan.

  1. *

    See my review in these pages, “ A Debacle That Could Have Been Avoided,” October 25, 2012. 

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