U.S. Imperialism as Philanthropy

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, March 2, 2023

When a cartoonist was recently denounced and canceled for racist remarks, Jon Schwarz pointed out that his resentment at black people for not being grateful for what white people do for them echoed similar resentment over the years for the ingratitude of the enslaved, of dispossessed Native Americans, and of the bombed and invaded Vietnamese and Iraqis. Speaking of the demand for gratitude, Schwarz writes that, “the most berserk racial ultraviolence in U.S. history has always been accompanied by this kind of rhetoric from white Americans.”

I have no idea if that’s always true or even which is the most berserk, much less what all the causal relationships are, if any, between the crazy things people do and the crazy things people say. But I do know that this pattern is longstanding and widespread, and that Schwarz’s examples are merely a few key examples. I also think this habit of demanding gratitude has played a key role in justifying U.S. imperialism for over two centuries.

Whether U.S. cultural imperialism deserves any credit I don’t know, but this practice has either spread to or been developed in other places. A news report from Nigeria begins:

“All too frequently, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) continues to suffer constant attack and disparagement from the Nigerian Public, while its operatives die daily to protect Nigerians from criminals and armed bandits rampaging the length and breadth of our country, and holding our people hostage. The reasons for these attacks on the unit are often based on alleged harassment, extortion, and in extreme cases, extra-judicial killing of alleged criminals and innocent members of the public. More often than not, many of such allegations against SARS turn out to be false.”

So, only sometimes do these good people murder, extort, and harass, and for that they are “too frequently” disparaged. Countless times I recall reading that same statement about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It never seemed to make any sense. Similarly, the fact that a lot of times U.S. police don’t murder black people has never persuaded me that it’s all right when they do. I also remember seeing U.S. polls finding that people believed Iraqis were in fact grateful for the war on Iraq, as well as that the United States had suffered more than Iraq from the war. (Here’s a poll in which U.S. respondents say Iraq is better off and the U.S. worse off because of the U.S. destruction of Iraq.)

Which brings me back to the question of imperialism. I recently researched and wrote a book called The Monroe Doctrine at 200 and What to Replace it With. In it I wrote:

“In cabinet meetings leading up to Monroe’s 1823 State of the Union, there was much discussion of adding Cuba and Texas to the United States. It was generally believed that these places would want to join. This was in line with cabinet members’ common practice of discussing expansion, not as colonialism or imperialism, but as anti-colonial self-determination. By opposing European colonialism, and by believing that anyone free to choose would choose to become part of the United States, these men were able to understand imperialism as anti-imperialism. So the fact that the Monroe Doctrine sought to forbid European actions in the Western Hemisphere but said nothing about forbidding U.S. actions in the Western Hemisphere is significant. Monroe was simultaneously warning Russia away from Oregon and claiming a U.S. right to take over Oregon. He was similarly warning European governments away from Latin America, while not warning the U.S. government away. He was both sanctioning U.S. interventions and outlining a justification for them (protection from Europeans), a far more dangerous act than simply announcing imperial intentions.”

In other words, imperialism has been understood, even by its authors, as anti-imperialism through a pair of sleights-of-hand.

The first is presuming gratitude. Surely nobody in Cuba wouldn’t want to be part of the United States. Surely nobody in Iraq wouldn’t want to be liberated. And if they say they don’t want it, they just need enlightening. Eventually they’ll become grateful if they’re not simply too inferior to manage it or too ornery to admit it.

The second is by opposing somebody else’s imperialism or tyranny. Surely the United States must stomp the Philippines under its benevolent boot or somebody else will. Surely the United States must take over western North America or somebody else will. Surely the United States must load up Eastern Europe with weapons and troops or Russia will.

This stuff is not only false, but the opposite of true. Loading up a place with weapons makes others more, not less, likely to do the same, just as conquering people makes them the opposite of grateful.

But if you snap the camera at the right second, the imperial alchemist can combine the two pretenses into a moment of truth. Cubans are happy to be rid of Spain, Iraqis happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, for just an instant before realizing that the U.S. military is — in the words of the Navy’s commercials — a force for good (emphasis on “for good”).

Of course, there are indications that the Russian government expects gratitude for every bomb it drops in Ukraine, and every bit of its destruction is supposed to be thought of as countering U.S. imperialism. And of course this is crazy, even if Crimeans were overwhelmingly grateful to rejoin Russia (at least given the available options), just as some people are actually grateful for some things the U.S. government does.

But if the U.S. were benevolently or reluctantly using imperialism to counter the greater danger of everybody else’s imperialism, polling would be different. Most countries polled in December 2013 by Gallup called the United States the greatest threat to peace in the world, and Pew found that viewpoint increased in 2017. I’m not cherry-picking these polls. These polling companies, like others before them, only asked those questions once, and never again. They’d learned their lesson.

In 1987, rightwing radical Phyllis Schlafly published a celebratory report on a U.S. State Department event celebrating the Monroe Doctrine:

“A group of distinguished persons from the North American continent gathered in the U.S. State Department Diplomatic Rooms on April 28, 1987 to proclaim the lasting vitality and relevance of the Monroe Doctrine. It was an event of political, historical and social importance. Grenada’s Prime Minister Herbert A. Blaize told how grateful his country is that Ronald Reagan used the Monroe Doctrine to liberate Grenada in 1983. Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica reinforced this gratitude. . . Secretary of State George Shultz told of the threat to the Monroe Doctrine posed by the Communist regime in Nicaragua, and he urged us to hold fast to the policy that bears Monroe’s name. Then he unveiled to the public a magnificent Rembrandt Peale portrait of James Monroe, which has been privately held until now by Monroe’s descendants. ‘Monroe Doctrine’ awards were presented to opinion makers whose words and actions ‘support the continuing validity of the Monroe Doctrine.’”

This reveals a key support for the seemingly random nonsense of demanding gratitude of your victims: subservient governments have offered that gratitude on behalf of their abused populations. They know it’s what’s most desired, and they provide it. And if they provide it, why shouldn’t others?

Weapons companies would not currently be thanking the president of Ukraine for being their best salesman ever had the president of Ukraine not made an art form of expressing his gratitude to the U.S. government. And if it all ends with nuclear missiles crisscrossing the globe, you can be fairly certain that a special unit of jets will be painting the sky with exhaust trails reading “You’re Welcome!”

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