How the US Began Its Empire

‘The Great Naval Battle Off Cavite (Manila Bay),’ in which the US squadron led by Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War, May 1, 1898
Kurz & Allison/Library of Congress
‘The Great Naval Battle Off Cavite (Manila Bay),’ in which the US squadron led by Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War, May 1, 1898


The election of Donald Trump will no doubt have many calamitous consequences, but one of the most insidious is likely to be its impact on foreign policy. During the campaign, Trump voiced misgivings about the recent string of unwinnable wars that have followed military interventions abroad—exercises in regime change and nation-building, conducted in the name of humanitarian democracy—and he suggested that his administration would be reluctant to embark on similar projects. Yet Trump enveloped this sane skepticism (rarely if ever articulated in American presidential campaigns) in a cloud of racist bombast, bellicose posturing, and xenophobic nationalism.

What has emerged from Trump’s rants is a self-contradictory vision of a Fortress America with tightly controlled borders that invites foreign conflict by maintaining a provocative, overextended presence abroad. This is hardly a recipe for international stability. What might have been an overdue debate on the limits of interventionist overreach has not materialized, while Trump has been dismissed as a dangerous isolationist. A debate on American intervention is as necessary as ever.

Since the 1930s, the word “isolationist” has been used pejoratively by those who reject any tendency toward restraint in the use of American power abroad. Yet the objections to open-ended military interventionism cannot be reduced to isolationism. They have a rich and complex history—rooted in the classical republican mistrust of empire and articulated by thinkers as diverse as William James, Mark Twain, Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, and William Fulbright, none of whom was a xenophobic nationalist. Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag locates the origins of this anti-imperial tradition in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, and argues for its continued relevance to public life today.

One could not ask for a timelier argument. For decades, anti-imperial thought has been largely absent from public discourse. So has the word “imperialism.” The chief substitute for it has been “internationalism.” This word evokes a vision of global cooperation, with examples ranging from the Allied war against fascism to contemporary grapplings with climate change. No one can deny the necessity of the United States engaging constructively with the rest of the world; the problem is that engagement has so often involved imperial aims and military methods. The rhetorical shift from imperialism to internationalism suggests a sanitizing process at work during the twentieth century, as the United States moved away from a formal empire based on the occupation of foreign territory to an informal empire based on proxy governments backed by occasional…

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