One of the ironies about America’s adventure in empire-building is that just about the time we came around to admitting that it existed, the empire began to fall apart. Even its sharpest critics now approach the subject with scholarly analysis rather than indignation; their discussion is beginning to take on the air of a post-mortem rather than of a trial. This is not because the will to dominate has vanished, but because the means to bring it about have diminished. Though the spirit remains willing, the flesh is growing weak.

It is no longer considered bad form, let alone “left-wing,” to discuss America’s imperial role. Thus when Raymond Aron refers to “the imperial republic” he is not making an accusation but merely describing a historical reality. Atlantic loyalist that he is, the distinguished French writer and professor sees nothing particularly shameful about the empire, finding it, like the cold war itself, rooted in the “dialectic of history.”

He does, however, cautiously suggest that is was both counterrevolutionary and exploitative. Within the Third World, “its major, if not its sole, objective seems to me to have been to prevent parties professing Marxism-Leninism or likely to open the way to Marxism- Leninism from coming to power.” Within Europe the empire levied a toll for its nuclear umbrella and its permanent garrison of GIs. “Is not the cost of foreign policy in foreign currency practically the same as the deficit in the US balance of international transactions?” Aron asks in a question meant to answer itself. Washington’s allies “lent it the amount in foreign currency it needed for policing the world.” When de Gaulle said as much a decade ago it was heresy; today it is the common wisdom. “The United States made use of its military pre- dominance to impose a monetary system and, in particular, privileges for the dollar, to which its partners, had they enjoyed full freedom of movement and had they been capable of defending themselves on their own, would never have consented.”

This is, of course, the point documented so superbly by David Calleo and Benjamin Rowland in their recent study, America and the World Political Economy.1 But it is well to be reminded of it by such a traditionalist as Aron. He accepts European dependency as a fact of life, given their postwar weakness and the dubious ambitions of Stalin, who “within the sphere he occupied paid not the slightest regard to the Western powers’ inevitable and legitimate reactions to the liquidation of their friends.” The cold war, he maintains, was rooted in the fact that Washington “could not complacently accept the Sovietization of Eastern Europe.”

This traditional explanation, however, is being increasingly challenged—and by many who could not remotely be labeled revisionists and who suggest that Stalin’s liquidations may have been aggravated rather than limited by US policy. In his elegant essay “Lessons” of the Past, Professor Ernest May points out that it was not at all clear in the early postwar period that Stalin was intent on Sovietizing all of Eastern Europe. The Russians accepted a non- communist government in Hungary until after the Truman Doctrine message in 1947, and until 1948 they accepted a coalition government in Czechoslovakia in which communists played a minority role. It was in occupied Germany and the border states of Poland and Bulgaria that they insisted on complete and brutalized subservience. Truman and his advisers, according to May, “ascribed to Soviet machinations developments which might with equal plausibility have been explained in other ways.” They chose a militant course of action even though the signals they received were highly ambiguous. They assumed that Russia was intent on world conquest—or at least the domination of Europe—not because the evidence was incontrovertible, but because, in May’s view, they had overlearned the “lessons” of the past. In Stalin they saw another Hitler, just as in Vietnam they read the makings of another Munich.

May drives home his point with great skill, showing a number of instances in which American leaders mistakenly interpreted the present in terms of the past. It is a persuasive analysis within its assumptions. However, many will be unconvinced that the cold war and the history of American interventionism can be explained as a series of misperceptions. Radicals, of course, argue that the architects of American diplomacy knew exactly what they were doing: creating an American imperium. Using anticommunism to silence dissent from the left and secure huge military budgets from Congress, they set about to implement a Pax Americana based on the twin pillars of the bomb and the dollar. Binding it all together was a messianic vision of a “mission” to bring about progress and peaceful change as the American elite defined that mission.

As befits the director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, May sees bureaucratic politics rather than ideology or interests as the key to American diplomacy. The sudden postwar shift from alliance to hostility toward Moscow can best be explained, he argues, “in small part by the prejudices of US leaders, in larger part by occurrences in Europe and the Middle East, and in perhaps still larger part by the manner in which those occurrences were described and interpreted by the American bureaucracy.” It was this bureaucracy, ponderous and unwieldy, paralyzed by intellectual inertia, back-scratching, rewarding mediocrity, and with “a vested interest in the quasi- imperial status of the United States,” that, he maintains, put the most menacing interpretation on Soviet behavior and blocked for so many years a more flexible American diplomacy.


Franz Schurmann, a well-known sinologist at Berkeley, where he teaches both history and sociology,2 sees “world views” rather than mis-perceptions as central to American foreign policy. “At the root of every operation,” he declares, “no matter how institutionalized and surrounded by long-entrenched bureaucratic interests, is a policy flowing out of some ideology, a world view informed by basic class outlooks.” For him ideology is rooted in the lower classes, “enters the social fabric through the state, and is funneled through the pinnacle of state power, the chief executive.” Therefore, “the major function of great national leaders is to personify certain ideologies from which policies flow.” Schurmann’s years of China-watching have clearly left their mark. Indeed, as he confesses, “nothing has influenced my political thinking so much as years of immersion in the writings of the Chinese Communists.”

To this ideological bent he adds a model of bureaucratic politics designed to show how decisions are made in Washington, Peking, and Moscow. Policy in the American system, he declares, is not imposed from the top but emerges from the incessant struggle between the president and the various military, legislative, and executive bureaucracies. He describes this struggle as one between the “realm of ideology,” as exemplified by presidential power, and the “realm of interests,” centered in the bureaucracies and the pressure groups that feed them.

By marrying ideology with bureaucracy, Schurmann seeks to avoid the sterility of the bureaucratic politics formula, which attempts to explain how “actors” behave in a situation without ever asking how they reached their assumptions. To summarize briefly a complicated, and often unnecessarily convoluted, argument, he maintains that all presidents are preoccupied with ideology and dedicated to the preservation of the American empire. This imperialism was not a product of the cold war, but rather its prime cause. It “was born in 1945 and Franklin D. Roosevelt was its visionary, prophet.” American imperialism flowed almost ineluctably from messianic idealism and unparalleled military-economic power.

When any nation has a political realm of ideology concretely visible in the form of a powerful chief executive, military and political structures with global concerns, and deep ideological currents purporting to bring about peace, progress, and justice in the world, it is on the way to becoming an empire.

Truman inherited FDR’s imperial mantle—although presumably stripping it of its more “progressive” elements—and his successors wore it with enthusiasm. The empire sustained the all-powerful presidency not only abroad but at home as well. The scepter by which the president exercises his command is the atomic bomb. Through his control over nuclear weapons, the president is able to dominate the bureaucracies and pursue an imperial foreign policy. That policy, however, accepts certain limitations. It seeks to contain, not destroy, communism, for the president realizes that a threat to Russia’s vital interests could trigger nuclear war. Thus imperialism and containment are two sides of the same coin. Each superpower is allowed a free hand within its own imperial domain, while clashes are confined to ill-defined border areas such as Korea and Vietnam.

Containment, for Schurmann, is the method by which the empire is preserved from outside threats. Imperialism is the tool by which the president asserts his power within the American government. Since 1945 “the White House strove for greater power just as any other agency, and the policy line that helped it most in that quest was containment, the building of an American empire abroad.”

The president has his enemies, however, those at home being more dangerous than those abroad. Congress, the military, the bureaucracies lie in wait to seize power from him whenever he falters. Right-wing politicians challenge the policy of containment because it is too negative. They want to “roll back” communism wherever it appears and strike at the sources of communist power. These rightists, we are told, are actually anti-imperialist. They do not preach that a Pax Americana is good for the world’s oppressed masses; they have no desire to assume costly commitments in distant parts of the globe. They are Asia-firsters, rather than Europe-firsters. Their natural allies are not on Wall Street—which supports containment because peace is good for profits, and an empire provides new realms for business expansion—but in the military bureaucracies.


These bureaucracies in the Pentagon incessantly challenge the president for power. During any period of executive weakness, “the losers in the bureaucratic power struggles lunge forward with their own views, programs, and interests to try to recapture the power they have lost to the executive.” Thus the real threat to American imperialism is not Moscow or Peking, but in the Pentagon and the Congress. “The true aggressors are within the government.” The battle rages back and forth as each struggles for supremacy. Even though a president may come into office with a rollback mentality, like Nixon, he soon becomes an apostle of containment and imperialism because these buttress his power.

But the president must make compromises with his bureaucratic foes. This is done through various “tradeoffs.” Thus in return for his exclusive control over nuclear weapons, the president allows the military to engage in limited conventional wars. He concentrates on imperial visions while the military fights the insurgents who threaten right-wing client regimes. During the cold war “the predominant form the relationship between the chief executive and the nationalist- military alliance took was a trade-off of global policy for regional power.” The military-industrial complex was allowed to fight its war in Asia so that the president could have a free hand in nuclear summitry.

Vietnam is seen as battleground for two different wars: a presidential war fought with ground troops to keep South Vietnam under American control, and a presidentially sanctioned air war to strike at the “sources of aggression.” “The ground war in South Vietnam was the war of the containment liberals. The air was against North Vietnam was the war of the rollback right-wingers.” Thus Vietnam was a pawn in the internal war between presidential and bureaucratic power. Johnson, Schurmann asserts, sent in troops for bureaucratic reasons: to disarm the right-wingers who were agitating for a strike against China. He could not simply pull out, we are told, because “if he had decided to end the war once and for all, the right-wing trinity would have risen up in violent opposition to him.” By the same token, the air war against Laos and Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia were “trade-offs” with the American military. “In return for accepting the policy of no more bombing of North Vietnam and, by implication, no prospect of bombing China, the Joint Chiefs of Staff…were able to retain the real power inherent in waging an air war from carriers and land bases.”

Schurmann has a bureaucratic explanation even for Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election. When Johnson finally faced the fact that victory was unattainable and vetoed Westmoreland’s request for more troops, the only way he could stave off counterattack by the military bureaucracy “was to announce it to the entire world and then cancel out his power.” The hawks were forced to await the new president, who appeased them with a limited air war while he gradually withdrew the troops and secretly paved a break-through to Peking that formally extended the containment policy to China.

For all its complexity, Schurmann’s theory of trade-offs and bureaucratic conflict is a tidy one. Everything fits, if we accept the assumption that the lines between presidential and bureaucratic power are so clearly delineated, and that politics can be neatly divided between what he calls the “realm of interests” and the “realm of ideology.” Escaping the narrowness of analyses based on “models” of bureaucratic politics, Schurmann injects heavy drafts of ideology, and thus proposes a comprehensive theory of how and why decisions are made.

The problem is that his system is essentially a closed one. Nobody ever commits a simple mistake. Events happen because of historical forces and bureaucratic-ideological clashes. Even Kennedy’s assassination, we are told, was, from a historical point of view, “almost inevitable.” Schurmann’s obsession with the writings of the Chinese communists seems to have led him to an enthusiasm for political predetermination. His theories are ingenious and are studded with provocative insights. But the evidence he uses to reach his conclusions could often be interpreted quite differently.

In discussing the Korean war, for example, he asserts that Truman’s decision to place the Seventh Fleet between China and Taiwan was “a triumph for containment, not for rollback nationalism.” Yet he slides over the more important decision to send American troops to South Korea—presumably because we have been instructed by him to see it as part of the containment policy. However, as May points out in his own reconstruction of the Korean intervention, “the logic of containment and deterrence could have led Truman almost as easily to a conclusion opposite from the one he reached.” He could have viewed it as a Russian trick to distract US attention from Europe and instead of immediately sending troops he could have left it outside the American defense perimeter, as Acheson had earlier described it. Was the ground war in Korea really a trade-off, or was it, as May would argue, a misperception based on a faulty reading of history? Schurmann’s analysis provides an answer, but one that sometimes seems too tightly confined to an ideological-bureaucratic mold.

In trying to box the cold war into a neat system, he has to stretch the material and blend too many elements. There are at least three separate books here, and they do not always meld. Along with Schurmann’s many challenging insights are a number of strange, and even sentimental, digressions. Had it not been for China, we are told, “historians could point with wonderment to the incredible things that Kennedy achieved in the thousand days of his reign.” While those incredible things remain unenumerated, they presumably sprang from the “global idealism” of an administration that “again and again stressed peace, as Kennedy indicated by organizing his Peace Corps.”

By concentrating on impersonal bureaucracies and historical forces swept along by ideology, Schurmann tends to lose sight of the figures within the bureaucracies he excoriates. We have heard much about the foreign policy “establishment,” but rarely have its composition and its operations been closely scrutinized. Richard Barnet’s Roots of War broke new ground on this elite, which has now been studied in fascinating detail by John Donovan in The Cold Warriors. The bureaucratic managers of the cold war, he demonstrates, are inseparable from the empire they helped to create. A self-perpetuating group that rewards loyalty and punishes public dissent, purges those who challenge the dominant beliefs (for example, embracing George Kennan when he expostulated the containment doctrine and expelling him when he disavowed its militaristic excesses), finds a comfortable home for those whose policies failed (such as McNamara and the Bundy brothers), the foreign policy elite has orchestrated the American cold war empire from its inception.

The men who have formed this elite are not evil. They believed that the exercise of American power was justified by blessings of American idealism. Even though some came from Wall Street and returned there, they were not agents of finance capitalism intent on exploiting the poor. Rather they believed that they could bring something better to the world than what the communists offered. It was not their idealism that was dangerous, but their arrogance and their moral obtuseness. They started out with the conviction that they were saving Western Europe from oppression and they ended up by perpetrating the war against Vietnam.

American cold war policy has too often been examined in a vacuum, as though it were exclusively the result of “historical forces” or of bureaucratic conflicts. Both right and left—as exemplified by Aron and Schurmann—have a weakness for abstract sociological-historical theories. But there was also a psychology of the cold war and the remarkably cohesive group of men who conducted it. “The elite mind-set,” as Donovan has shown,

with its obsessive fear of Communist expansion, its voracious hunger for foreign markets,…its limited perceptions of the social revolution in the Third World…and its predisposition to rely upon military technology in shaping a global order conceived in terms of lessons derived from experience with Hitler’s aggression, established the framework of United States strategic thinking during the formative stages of the Cold War.

What is different about the Nixon Administration is the way in which it has bypassed the cold war elites. Long suspicious of the Eastern liberals of both parties and their hostility to him, Nixon has tended to exclude them from key decision-making posts. Foreign policy is no longer shared with the bureaucracies but has been tightly controlled by Nixon and Kissinger. This has not only made secret diplomacy possible, but has deprived the Establishment liberals of their traditional role as a funnel to transmit foreign policy goals from the top to the public at large. Resenting their refusal to respond to his Vietnam policy—even though he was clearly carrying on a commitment inherited from his elite-supported predecessors—Nixon demonstrated that he could function successfully without them. Disarming the elites, he pursued policies they could not attack and yet had never been able to achieve themselves: an end to the American war in Vietnam, the opening to China, and expanded détente with Russia.

There is some reason to believe that the eclipse of the foreign policy elite may be more than temporary. This particular group was a product of the cold war and played the vital role of explaining to an initially indifferent public the need to pursue an interventionist diplomacy. When that policy collapsed in Vietnam, its advocates became demoralized and their cohesion disintegrated. The cleverness of the Nixon Doctrine—with its call for fewer interventions, while paradoxically retaining the same commitments—was that it needed only minimum public support. An interventionism based on naval and air power, but not requiring an army of GIs, can be carried out so long as the public is basically indifferent. The old elite, with its links to the venerable Council on Foreign Relations, to social science “think tanks,” and to the great banking and publishing empires, is no longer so necessary as a conduit. It is striking how Nixon and Kissinger have pursued a diplomacy that has so largely ignored it. During the long agony of the Vietnam war, the constant complaint of Kissinger’s Cambridge friends was that, although he listened sympathetically, he paid no more attention to their indignation than if they had been from the PTA.

If the Nixon Doctrine has defused public discontent with interventionism by making it less visible (although apparently not less costly, to judge by the new military budget), the policy can work only if the president relies on air and sea power—and on economic weapons—rather than on US troops. There is, as we saw in the last stages of the Vietnam war, no reason why this cannot be done with minimal public attention and with the full support of the military. This, of course, does not jibe very well with Schurmann’s neat formula about presidential (nuclear and land forces) versus bureaucratic (naval and air operations) power, but that’s the way it is. Containment is perfectly compatible with aerial bombardment; one can have good relations with the Russians and Chinese while devastating their ideological ally. Indeed it is virtually the only military method of imperial control that a future president would be able to exercise, with the result that economic punishments and rewards are becoming increasingly powerful weapons.

In the last pages of his book Schurmann tells us that in the future imperialism and expansionism will take different forms, since Washington no longer has the power to impose a Pax Americana upon the world. However, the temptation of the world’s mightiest power to control events will persist and engender conflicts “until imperialism finally vanishes as a system of governance.” It is hard to see how imperialism will vanish, however, so long as there is the means to exercise it. Ultimately it seems to rest on the possession of power. Power seeks to control events, to ensure a “stable world order”—which it generally equates with the status quo. Thus imperial powers are counterrevolutionary almost by definition, including the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. Although communism in the Third World no longer seems to be spreading in a way that is considered a threat to American security, this does not mean the nation will no longer pursue an imperial foreign policy. As Robert W. Tucker has written in a provocative essay in the collection, Retreat from Empire?3

There is no reason to expect that America will abandon a position security may no longer require yet one that continues to respond to other motivations, not the least of which is the desire to retain the nation’s influence in the world.

Now that the American empire is crumbling under the pressures of rising nationalism, nuclear proliferation, economic crisis, food and raw material shortages, the disintegration of old alliances, ideological indifference, superpower collusion, and the replacement of messianic idealism with sauve-qui-peut cynicism, it is possible to be less emotional and less ideological in analyzing what it meant. It was not merely an insatiable search for markets, as the Marxists would have it;nor an obsessive anticommunism and felling of insecurity, as liberals believe; nor a “dialectic of history” compounded by sincere misperceptions and bureaucratic in-fighting.

Rather, it was a combination of these and something more: a conscious will to dominate based on the possession of unrivaled military and economic power—and opposed to a regime whose brutality and repressiveness in the lands it controlled helped make anticommunism a convincing cause. For postwar America to have pursued anything other than an imperial policy when it had the undisputed power to do so, would, from our current vantage point, appear remarkable. The problem is rooted in the nation’s overwhelming military and economic power, and in the prerogatives of what Arthur Schlesinger calls “the imperial presidency.” It has become clear, as Tucker points out, that “so long as a president—any president—has the power in foreign affairs the American executive has come to possess, the tendency will remain strong to pursue an activist foreign policy.”

While the scope of American imperialism has been highlighted by radicals, the reasons for its existence go far beyond the economic arguments so often expounded. American diplomacy has been self-consciously expansionist, and economics has played an important part in the drive to extend American influence. But America’s imperialist adventure was based on more than economic expansion or the effort to sustain capitalism. “The United States was capitalist,” as Thomas Paterson has written in his balanced historical analysis, Soviet-American Confrontation,4

but it was also arrogant, Christian, militarist, racist, highly technological, chauvinistic, and industrialized. To argue that these traits all stem from capitalist roots is to make the term “capitalist” so elastic and all-encompassing as to be meaningless. It should be kept in mind, truism though it may be, that the United States had become a world power of uncommon dimensions, not just a capitalist power, and behaved like other great powers through history—it exploited opportunities.

The American empire was exceptional, but perhaps not so exceptional as it flatters our pride or our indignation to assume.

This Issue

August 8, 1974