An American Century in Asia

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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 …

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