Posts Tagged ‘American Imperialism’

[Re-posted with permission from Who Makes Cents?]

Today’s guest discusses the history of Empire of the Airaviation and how this provides a lens to interpret the history of capitalism and U.S. foreign relations across the twentieth century. Amongst other topics, Jenifer Van Vleck tells us how the airline industry helped solve various political and logistical challenges for the U.S. government during World War II and how the airlines relied on the government and vice-versa.

Jenifer Van Vleck is Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. She is author of Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy (Harvard University Press, 2013).

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“We Must Look Only to Ourselves to Save the Situation:” The Emergence of Opposition to the Occupation

African American Intellectual History Society      May 13, 2015
Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee

Calvin Chase, editor of The Bee

This is the fifth entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The  previous entry in this series can be found here.

Booker T. Washington was correct. Just as he predicted one month before his death, countless African Americans did watch the unfolding events in Haiti with the utmost interest. While consistent in their opinion that the occupation mattered a great deal, those observers would, however, exhibit little consensus in their initial reactions to it.

Washington’s ally George L. Knox was certain that the occupation would benefit Haitians. The editor of the Indianapolis Freeman informed his readers that “most of the leading thinkers of the race see nothing but the fitness of things in the move of the United States to look out for the prosperity of Haiti.” Those who did not think that the United States was looking out for Haiti’s best interests were mistaken. Knox chastised the “few” black leaders who “demurred, thinking of the thing of independence in the abstract.” Appropriating the social philosophy of the pioneering president of Tuskegee Institute, Knox contended that “a negro nation that conducts itself as other nations . . . should be proud of the opportunity to make good.” But one that did not should be ashamed. The Indianapolis journalist concluded that “no negro government is preferable to the kind presented by [Haiti] in the recent past.”[1]

Sol Johnson agreed. Indeed, the editor of the Savannah Tribune insisted that all the “well informed colored people” in his city also felt “that the establishment of a provisional protectorate over Haiti is about the best thing that could be done to guarantee a stable government for the Black Republic.” He even speculated that “ten years of steady training in industry and civic righteousness” under the guidance of the Americans would “work a ‘revolution’ in Haiti that will make it the garden spot of the entire West Indies.”[2]

Those who articulated such beliefs shared a favorable opinion of the civilizing mission used to justify U.S. imperialism. For Johnson, Knox, and their ilk, the promotion of a puppet president in Haiti, the establishment of a new treaty advantageous to U.S. business interests, and the squashing of dissent in the Haitian capital were means of securing rather than diminishing democracy in Haiti. If “progress” came at the point of a bayonet (and it most certainly had) then responsibility for that violence lay at the feet of its victims. According to one black Baltimorean, “Haiti made [the occupation] possible by continual revolutions—which are a disgrace to civilization.” Rather than sympathizing with Haitians, African Americans needed to take heed and commit themselves to self-improvement. “The moral of this international incident,” he surmised, “is . . . of application to the Negro in the United States. The greatest enemy of the Negro in the United States is the Negro himself.”[3]

Still, to the chagrin of Knox, some African Americans did, in fact, demur and sympathize with the plight of Haitians from the very outset of the occupation. Calvin Chase was one of them. The editor of the Washington Bee called the acts “committed by the United States upon the black republic of Haiti” some of the most “diabolical and unconstitutional” in recorded history. “What right,” he asked, did the United States have “to go and seize the republic of Haiti and administer her affairs?” In Chase’s opinion, the erosion of Haitian sovereignty was a defining moment in African American history; it was a time for “the Negro to define his position.” Decades of uplifting their communities, of proving themselves civilized and appealing to the better sensibilities of their white counterparts, had sustained African Americans but produced little improvement in their political and social status. It was clear to the Bee editor that “speaking about right and justice toward the Negro in this country is all mockery and a farce to American civilization.” The moment had arrived to demand not suggest that the U.S. government distance itself from white supremacy at home and abroad and “let Haiti alone.”[4]

The firm repudiations of the occupation that emerged from some black leaders at its outset sparked the imaginations of Haitian nationalists. As the Americans usurped Haitian political independence, Alonzo P. Holly issued an appeal to African Americans on behalf of their “brethren” in Haiti. The Haitian son of leading nineteenth-century black nationalist James Theodore Holly acknowledged that many African Americans had “come to look at your brethren of Haiti through the biased vision of the unrelenting critics of our race” and had thus “unwittingly voiced their criticisms.” But he figured that the moment had arrived for them to transcend that past myopia. Holly alerted African Americans that “we of Haiti need your fraternal sympathies and moral support just now” because “we are having our rights as a free, independent and ‘sovereign’ nation . . . entirely ignored by an American expeditionary force.” He hoped—indeed expected—that African Americans would lend that support once informed of the censorship of the Haitian press and other excesses of occupation. Echoing the words of a recent editorial written by Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois, Holly issued a succinct directive to his “ten million brethren in the United States.” “LET US SAVE HAITI,” he thundered. It was, after all, “the ultimate refuge of the Negro race.”[5]

At the same time that Holly issued his appeal, Ernest Chauvet was traveling to Washington, D.C. The editor of leading Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste hoped to convince Woodrow Wilson that his administration was committing grave errors in how it was carrying out the occupation. In particular, he was incensed by the recent actions of U.S. officials who shut down a different Haitian newspaper, ordered the impounding of its existing copies, and arrested and fined its editors and printer. Chauvet knew that such measures served no purpose other than to bolster the power of the Americans in Haiti. He understood that they belied the notion that the occupation was benevolent in any meaningful way.[6]

Chauvet was, of course, correct. Still, his points fell upon deaf ears. Woodrow Wilson did not give the Haitian journalist an audience. And neither did some leading African Americans. Du Bois, the intellectual who Holly pictured as a chief advocate for Haiti, informed Chauvet that there was little that African Americans could do for Haitians in that moment. In fact, his “Save Haiti” editorial quoted by Holly did not demand an immediate end to the occupation. Instead, it recommended a “Haytian Commission of white and colored men appointed by the President to co-operate with Hayti in establishing permanent peace.” Although well-intentioned, the proposal did the exact opposite of what Haitian activists wanted. It afforded Wilson and the U.S. government a continued leading role in policy-making in Haiti.[7]

African Americans including Du Bois would eventually play a key role in the powerful, transnational opposition movement envisioned by Holly. But, at the outset of the U.S. occupation, their activism was still in its nascent stages. Nobody realized that truth more than Solon Menos. As calls for justice in Haiti were met with ambivalence abroad, the Haitian ambassador in Washington, D.C. called upon his compatriots to assume sole responsibility for securing the removal of U.S. Marines from Haitian soil. “We must look only to ourselves to save the situation,” he surmised, “and can count on no one else to break the spell.”[8]

Next Month: “Our Courage Gave us Our Independence:” Grassroots Resistance to the Occupation

[1] Indianapolis Freeman, September 11, 1915.

[2] “Protectorate for Haiti Favored,” The Savannah Tribune, September 25, 1915.

[3] Baltimore Commonwealth, August 21, 1915.

[4] “Haiti,” The Washington Bee, August 28, 1915.

[5] Alonzo P. Holly, “An Appeal from Haiti to the Editors and Their Ten Million Brethren in the United States,” Indianapolis Freeman, October 30, 1915.

[6] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 220.

[7] “Hayti,” The Crisis 10, no. 5 (September 1915): 232.

[8] Dubois, 220.

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American Hegemony or American Primacy?

Joseph S. Nye

Project Syndicate      March 9, 2015

CAMBRIDGE – No country in modern history has possessed as much global military power as the United States. Yet some analysts now argue that the US is following in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, the last global hegemon to decline. This historical analogy, though increasingly popular, is misleading.

Britain was never as dominant as the US is today. To be sure, it maintained a navy equal in size to the next two fleets combined, and its empire, on which the sun never set, ruled over a quarter of humankind. But there were major differences in the relative power resources of imperial Britain and contemporary America. By the outbreak of World War I, Britain ranked only fourth among the great powers in terms of military personnel, fourth in terms of GDP, and third in military spending.

The British Empire was ruled in large part through reliance on local troops. Of the 8.6 million British forces in WWI, nearly a third came from the overseas empire. That made it increasingly difficult for the government in London to declare war on behalf of the empire when nationalist sentiments began to intensify.

By World War II, protecting the empire had become more of a burden than an asset. The fact that the UK was situated so close to powers like Germany and Russia made matters even more challenging.

For all the loose talk of an “American empire,” the fact is that the US does not have colonies that it must administer, and thus has more freedom to maneuver than the UK did. And, surrounded by unthreatening countries and two oceans, it finds it far easier to protect itself.

That brings us to another problem with the global hegemon analogy: the confusion over what “hegemony” actually means. Some observers conflate the concept with imperialism; but the US is clear evidence that a hegemon does not have to have a formal empire. Others define hegemony as the ability to set the rules of the international system; but precisely how much influence over this process a hegemon must have, relative to other powers, remains unclear.

Still others consider hegemony to be synonymous with control of the most power resources. But, by this definition, nineteenth-century Britain – which at the height of its power in 1870 ranked third (behind the US and Russia) in GDP and third (behind Russia and France) in military expenditures – could not be considered hegemonic, despite its naval dominance.

Similarly, those who speak of American hegemony after 1945 fail to note that the Soviet Union balanced US military power for more than four decades. Though the US had disproportionate economic clout, its room for political and military maneuver was constrained by Soviet power.

Some analysts describe the post-1945 period as a US-led hierarchical order with liberal characteristics, in which the US provided public goods while operating within a loose system of multilateral rules and institutions that gave weaker states a say. They point out that it may be rational for many countries to preserve this institutional framework, even if American power resources decline. In this sense, the US-led international order could outlive America’s primacy in power resources, though many others argue that the emergence of new powers portends this order’s demise.

But, when it comes to the era of supposed US hegemony, there has always been a lot of fiction mixed in with the facts. It was less a global order than a group of like-minded countries, largely in the Americas and Western Europe, which comprised less than half of the world. And its effects on non-members – including significant powers like China, India, Indonesia, and the Soviet bloc – were not always benign. Given this, the US position in the world could more accurately be called a “half-hegemony.”

Of course, America did maintain economic dominance after 1945: the devastation of WWII in so many countries meant that the US produced nearly half of global GDP. That position lasted until 1970, when the US share of global GDP fell to its pre-war level of one-quarter. But, from a political or military standpoint, the world was bipolar, with the Soviet Union balancing America’s power. Indeed, during this period, the US often could not defend its interests: the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons; communist takeovers occurred in China, Cuba, and half of Vietnam; the Korean War ended in a stalemate; and revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were repressed.

Against this background, “primacy” seems like a more accurate description of a country’s disproportionate (and measurable) share of all three kinds of power resources: military, economic, and soft. The question now is whether the era of US primacy is coming to an end.

Given the unpredictability of global developments, it is, of course, impossible to answer this question definitively. The rise of transnational forces and non-state actors, not to mention emerging powers like China, suggests that there are big changes on the horizon. But there is still reason to believe that, at least in the first half of this century, the US will retain its primacy in power resources and continue to play the central role in the global balance of power.

In short, while the era of US primacy is not over, it is set to change in important ways. Whether or not these changes will bolster global security and prosperity remains to be seen.

Photo of Joseph S. Nye

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. He is the author, most recently, of Is the Ame… read more

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“Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

March 13, 2015   African American Intellectual History Society

William Pickens

This is the third entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The previous post can be found here.

1903 was a demanding year for Pierre Nord Alexis. After seizing the Haitian presidency in a coup, the octogenarian politician had to plan a grand party. Haiti would celebrate one hundred years of independence in 1904, an extraordinary feat given the attempts made by the United States and Western Europe to diminish Haitian sovereignty in the preceding decades. The commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent efforts made to sustain its gains thus had to be remarkable. It had to be worthy of Toussaint Louverture, of Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Alexis established a National Association for the Centennial to ensure that it was. Among its other tasks, the Association staged a competition for the composition of a national anthem. The winner was La Dessalinienne. In January 1904, hundreds of thousands of celebrants flocked to the new Palais du Centenaire in Gonaïves while thousands of their compatriots heard the official introduction of the new anthem in Port-au-Prince. As the ode to the fathers of Haitian independence rang out among the descendants of former slaves, government authorities christened the Place des Héroes de l’Indépendence and unveiled monuments to the nation’s most cherished heroes including Louverture and Dessalines. Surely, the celebration organizers must have thought, these ancestors would be proud. 

Others were not so certain. In particular, Rosalvo Bobo questioned why his compatriots were celebrating at a time when the corruption of the Haitian state threatened to undermine national progress. “Centennial of our freedom,” he scoffed.

 No. Centennial of blacks enslaving blacks. Centennial of our follies, of our turpitudes, and, amidst unceasing pretensions, of our systematic retrogression. Centennial of our fraternal hatreds, and of our triple weakness: moral, social, and political. Our Centennial amidst murders in our towns and countryside. Centennial of our vices, of our political crimes. Centennial of everything that could be most hateful inside the breast of men. Centennial of the ruin of a country by misery and filth. Centennial of humiliation and, perhaps, the definitive degradation of the black race, by its Haitian representatives.[1]

Bobo was severe in his critique. But he did not offer it without aim or purpose. The Haitian intellectual sought to recover the prosperity of the recent past, which was evidenced, in part, by the sizable contingents of Germans, Syrians, and other foreign businessmen who pursued commercial ties with Haitian elites and flocked to Haitian cities. His remarks, then, were a call for reform akin to the jeremiads that flourished among his African American contemporaries who demanded improvements in their communities or in the broader U.S. society. To that end, Bobo urged Haitians “to ask forgiveness from Dessalines, from Toussaint” and “work to emerge from the stupor of an entire century.” If they did, he promised that

1904 will not be a celebration of nothing at all, but the first year of the existence of a gathering of brave black people working modestly and with dignity to be a people. And the tiny republic of Haiti will be able to be a huge thing to all of Europe! And the old continent will be able to take notice, in the year 2004, of the first centennial of the GREAT FREEDOM of the HAITIAN PEOPLE![2]

Yale student William Pickens was less sanguine about the prospects of Haitian independence. In February 1903, the son of former slaves entered the annual “Ten Eyck Prize” oratorical competition at his university. His oration was about Haiti. Pickens first argued that Haiti commanded the attention of Americans because its history shed light “upon the much-mooted questions which involve the welfare of the whole southern section of our country.” He proceeded to elucidate his version of that history. Pickens asserted that the success of the Haitian Revolution was illusory. “With the gain of absolute independence,” he maintained, “the uncivilized horde gained the most efficient weapon of self-destruction” and “destroyed every trace and hope of internal civilization.” In Pickens’s reckoning, they relapsed “into a savagery and cannibalism comparable to any state of their African ancestry.”[3]

This was no call for internal reform. It was a plea for occupation. The future NAACP field secretary surmised that “the savage and the child to rise to higher things must feel the power of a stronger hand.” Haitians, in other words, needed to submit themselves to American civilization. In fact, Pickens assumed that U.S. policymakers were uniquely suited to undertake a benevolent intervention in Haiti because they were “schooled as no other in the problems of the negro race.” He insisted that Haitians would accrue numerous benefits from the proposed foreign intervention because “under American institutions the blacks as a race have reached the highest plane of civilization of which the negro’s history has record—a fact sometimes obscured by the remonstrance against injustice and oppression.” For Pickens, flattering influential whites and critiquing the purported failures of black self-government in Haiti thus became a convenient means of validating his own success while making a case for the inclusion of African Americans in U.S. politics and public life.[4]

To be sure, the shortcomings of this attempt to prove the “Americanness” of African Americans were apparent to some of his peers. John Edward Bruce was one of the countless Americans who learned of Pickens’s essay as it became the subject of newspaper headlines and gossip throughout the entire United States. He was less than pleased with it. In a column appearing in an April 1903 edition of The Colored American, the activist editor better known as Bruce Grit argued that the Yale student mistook “the temper of the Haitians” when he assumed that they “ought to submit to a benevolent assimilation.” The testimony of Haitians proved his point. Bruce quoted at length a Haitian resident of New York who was “greatly astonished” that an African American would vilify a country that had “maintained a Negro government . . . without the aid or consent of any outside nation” for a century. “I am very sorry,” the Haitian confidant told Bruce, “to see that Hayti is a subject of criticism even by the Negroes of this country, seeing that they have so much of their own trouble to mind.” How could a child of former slaves—a product of the Jim Crow South—not see that “in putting down our people he has equally spoken against the people of his own race in this country?”[5]

The salient question raised by Bruce and his Haitian friend was explicit. But their greatest concerns were more indirect. As the 58th United States Congress debated a resolution to annex Haiti, the two men expressed bewilderment over why Pickens would treat his subject with such callous indifference. How could he contribute to prevailing discourses about black inferiority? How could he not realize that white Americans were waiting for an excuse to take control of Haitian political, social, and economic life? How could he fail to see that U.S. imperialism in Haiti would have the same effect as Jim Crow in the United States? In sum, how could Pickens treat occupation as an academic question when it was a looming reality for those Haitians who foreigners disregarded as incapable of self-government?

Next month: “Ten Million Black People . . . are Watching:” Ambivalence at the Outset of the U.S. Occupation

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In December, Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would be taking steps to normalise US-Cuban relations thereby ending decades of animosity between the two governments. In a public statement, Obama declared it time ‘to cut loose the shackles of the past’ and do away with the enmity that brought about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although Cuba is currently in the headlines, the Caribbean island does not figure as prominently in US politics as it once did. During the Cold War, developments in Cuba had a profound effect on US policy towards Latin America as a whole. In particular, Washington officials feared that the Cuban Revolution would pave the way for other communist governments, allied with the Soviet Union, to emerge throughout the region. For President John F. Kennedy, this prospect made Latin America ‘the most dangerous area in the world’.

As a senator, Kennedy had initially called for a ‘patient attitude’ towards Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro who, after coming to power in January 1959, repeatedly denied being a communist. However, as Castro nationalised US property, delayed elections and accepted aid from the Soviet Union, Kennedy’s view shifted. 1 In the run up to the 1960 election, he repeatedly argued that Latin America was threatened by future communist revolutions.  ‘I have seen Communist influence and Castro influence rise in Latin America’ he declared and asked ‘By 1965 or 1970, will there be other Cubas in Latin America?’ 2

As President-Elect, Kennedy’s fears were supported by a government report which warned that ‘the present Communist challenge in Latin America resembles, but is more dangerous than, the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response.’ A response came as, once in office, Kennedy established the ‘Alliance for Progress’ which ostensibly aimed to undermine support for radical social movements by funding Latin America’s economic development. 3  Kennedy asserted that the Alliance should aim to ‘eliminate tyranny’but as historian Thomas C. Field Jnr has revealed, in practice, US aid was used to support the increasingly authoritarian regime of Bolivian President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. 4

In 1961, Kennedy’s advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger cautioned that ‘Bolivia might well go the way of Cuba’ and argued that ‘we simply cannot let another Latin American nation go Communist; if we should do so, the game would be up through a good deal of Latin America.’ 5 By providing Paz with financial support and military hardware, Washington was able to ensure that the country’s leadership maintained an anti-communist stance and liberalised the national economy against the wishes of armed, left-wing trade unions. Yet the authoritarianism that Washington encouraged ultimately inspired civilian and military revolt against Paz, culminating in the 1964 coup that overthrew him. 6

Fears of ‘another Castro situation’ also informed Kennedy’s attitude towards British Guiana which, by 1963, was taking steps towards independence from the British Empire. At the time, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) held a majority in the colony’s assembly but US officials had concerns regarding the possible ‘communist connections’ of its leader Cheddi Jagan. Fearing that British Guiana would emerge as a ‘Castro-type state in South America’, Washington was keen to see the more conservative Forbes Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), assume leadership of the colony following its independence.

The US government persuaded London to alter British Guiana’s electoral system to proportional representation and, in 1964, despite receiving the highest share of the popular vote, Jagan’s PPP lost its majority status in the legislative assembly to a coalition led by the PNC. Subsequently, in May 1966, the colony became an independent state, renamed Guyana and led by Burnam. 7

The Kennedy administration’s interventions in Latin America took a number of forms with each aiming to prevent ‘another Castro’.  As Thomas G. Paterson has argued, US officials were gripped by the ‘fear that the Cuban Revolution would become contagious and further diminish United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.’ 8 Now, with the Cold War concluded, this fear has diminished and at least some US officials desire a more cordial relationship with Havana.

Significant steps have already been taken to improve US-Cuban relations with prisoners released and the announcement that Washington will ease restrictions on commerce and travel between the two countries. Fidel Castro has tentatively backedhis brother’s rapprochement with Obama who intends to set up an embassy in Havana but tensions remain as officials from both countries have continued to criticise the others’ human rights record. While the future of this relationship is uncertain, it seems unlikely that Cuba will ever again be so central to US foreign policy as it was during the Kennedy presidency.

Mark Seddon completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2014. His research focuses on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @MarkSedd0n.

For an overview of Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America see: Stephen G. Rabe, The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999)


  1. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 124-125. 
  2. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29403 
  3. Jeffrey F. Taffet, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York, NY, 2007), pp. 11-28. 
  4. Thomas C. Field Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (New York, NY, 2014). 
  5. Ibid., p. 14. 
  6. Ibid., pp. 189-196. 
  7. Stephen G. Rabe, U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill, NC), pp. 105-151. 
  8. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), p. 127. 

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The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and US Imperialism

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter

Imperial & Global Forum    July 29, 2014

The_Tragedy_of_American_DiplomacyWilliam Appleman Williams is considered the founder of the “strongly influential” Wisconsin School of U.S. foreign relations imperial history that took root from within the History Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Williams’s book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, first published in 1959, was the first of many revisionist imperial histories of American foreign policy that appeared amid what would become the broader radical New Left movement.

Beginning with Tragedy, Wisconsin-School-inspired revisionist histories suggest that, owing to the distinctive nature of American capitalism, imperial presidents embarked upon a bipartisan quest for foreign markets with broad business and agrarian support, culminating in the acquisition of both a formal and informal American empire. Williams termed it “Open Door imperialism,” an American manifestation of “the imperialism of free trade.”

In this episode of the Centre’s Talking Empire podcast series, hosted by Professor Richard Toye, I discuss the significant historiographical influence of Tragedy, particularly how it and subsequent New Left imperial revisionist histories helped overturn longstanding conceptions of American imperial expansion. As a result, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy continues to retain a dominant position within the study of American imperial history and historiography.

Episode 10: The Tragedy of American Diplomacy

Professor Richard Toye interviews Dr. Marc-William Palen about William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy(1959) and its long-term influence within American imperial history and historiography.

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Reflecting on the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, One Hundred Years Later

Brandon Byrd

African American Intellectual History Society

January 13, 2015


U.S. Marines Patrol Haiti, 1915

This year marks the anniversary of two cataclysmic events in Haitian history: the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915 and the earthquake of 2010. While the latter deserves (and is receiving) ample attention, I plan on devoting my posts this year to the centennial of the occupation. This post introduces what I hope will be a compelling series for readers interested in the links among U.S. imperialism, Haiti, and black intellectual history.

In 1915, United States Marines invaded Haiti. U.S. policymakers justified the invasion by pointing to the death of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam at the hands of a mob. But this violence was more a convenience than a concern. U.S. officials had spent the previous decades attempting to obtain Haitian territory for use as a coaling station and sanctioning the seizure of Haitian finances by U.S. banks. Now, with the outbreak of World War I portending a German encroachment in the Caribbean, President Woodrow Wilson and his subordinates identified the unrest in Port-au-Prince as the perfect excuse to realize longstanding military and economic aspirations. It allowed them to act on their racism, too. In the estimation of Wilson’s Secretary of State, Haitians had proven their “inherent tendency to revert to savagery.”[1] It never occurred to him that a government committed to Jim Crow had no business acting as an agent of civilization.

An occupation motivated by these prejudices had an unsurprising effect: it crippled Haiti. Occupation administrators revived old labor laws and conscripted Haitians for public works projects. At the same time, they formed the Gendermarie, a law enforcement body that gave Marines full control over Haitian soldiers. The restructuring of the Haitian political system allowed for both excesses. Occupation authorities arrested dissidents, censored the press, enforced racial segregation, installed a puppet president, seized the state treasury, and crafted a new constitution that eliminated an historic ban on foreign landownership in Haiti. These developments convinced Haitians that the Americans had come to re-enslave a people whose ancestors had dared to emancipate themselves.

The attempt to re-forge the bonds of slavery broken during the Haitian Revolution met considerable resistance, though. Peasants mobilized throughout the countryside to repel the Marines. Moreover, Haitian journalists published anti-occupation articles, politicians resigned their posts, musicians penned songs of liberation, professionals established nationalist organizations, workers unionized, and students went on strike. African Americans joined this resistance. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson implored his peers to take special interest in restoring the sovereignty of Haiti, “the one best chance that the Negro has . . . to prove that he is capable of the highest self-government.”[2] Many did. Black men and women collaborated with Haitian nationalist groups and formed their own anti-occupation organizations. They reported on conditions in occupied Haiti, inspired white liberals to oppose the occupation, and refused to vote for any politician who did not do likewise. Black activists realized a truth voiced by the NAACP: “it was unquestionably the race prejudice which prevails in the United States that made possible the brutalities practiced . . . upon citizens of the Negro Republic of Haiti.”[3] It was their hope that the restoration of Haitian independence in 1934 would hasten the death of white supremacy in America.

Although the occupation has been remembered (if at all) as a minor episode in U.S. imperialism, it had a profound impact on Americans. As historian Mary A. Renda shows, the polemics of Marines who occupied Haiti entrenched a paternalistic concept of empire and a fantastic idea of “voodoo” in the American consciousness.[4] The occupation also transformed black political culture. Black elites had traditionally embraced Western theories of civilization and asserted their equality by stressing their “Americanness.” But as Haiti groaned under the weight of imperialism, black intellectuals now prioritized race over nation. Alongside Haitian intellectuals, they defended black folk culture and critiqued capitalism as well as imperialism. Their decision to challenge the global structures of racial inequality rather than operate from within them provided the foundations of modern black political protest.

The impact of the occupation was, however, most pronounced in Haiti. Besides killing upwards of 11,500 Haitians, U.S. Marines destabilized Haitian economic and political geographies by ensuring that all roads literally led to Port-au-Prince. Occupation officials also militarized Haiti to an unprecedented extent through the creation of the Gendermarie (later changed to the Garde d’Haiti). Finally, the occupation eroded local governance and solidified the influence of the United States and other outside nations upon Haiti. Indeed, the present proliferation of United Nations troops and foreign non-governmental organizations conjures images of the U.S. occupation to many Haitian activists. The comparisons are not baseless.

Historian Laurent Dubois notes that “a different Haiti is—always, and still—possible.”[5] But only if we grapple with its history and the outsized role that the United States has exerted upon it. The centennial of the occupation offers the ideal opportunity to do so. The invasion of Haiti by U.S. Marines transformed U.S. culture and foreign policy. It changed black thought. It devastated Haiti. Any thought of a “different” Haiti must, then, proceed from the acknowledgment that contemporary Haiti is not ahistorical. Instead, it is a product of imperialist intervention. It is the result of Pan-African solidarity. It is the consequence of past decisions made by outsiders who also envisioned a “different” Haiti, for better or worse. I hope, then, that this series becomes just one part of a larger conversation about the material and intellectual effects of an occupation that is more present than past.

Next month: The “Black Republic:” The Meaning of Haitian Independence before the Occupation

[1] Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 213-215.

[2] James Weldon Johnson, “The Truth About Haiti: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation,” Crisis 20, no. 5 (September 1920) 223-224.

[3] Eleventh Annual Report of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the Year 1920 (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Office, 1921), 7.

[4] Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[5] Dubois, 370.

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How Even President Obama Gets U.S. History Wrong: We Weren’t a Colonial Power?

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

HNN October 10, 2014

In a 2009 interview with Al Arabiya Television in Dubai, soon after his first inauguration, President Barack Obama affirmed that the U.S. government could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying, “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power.”

One has to query the president: How did the United States begin with thirteen small colonies/states hugging the Atlantic seaboard and end up in the mid-twentieth century with fifty states over much of North America, and a number of island colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean? Apparently, it was manifest destiny at work.

According to the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it.Under this legal cover for theft, European wars of conquest, domination, and in some cases–such as the United States–settler colonial states devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property. Most of the land appropriated by the United States ended up in the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans.

Arcane as it may seem, the Doctrine of Discovery remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them.

From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine.

This doctrine, on which all European states and the United States relied, thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonizing projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its nineteenth- and twentieth-century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued the colonization of North America begun by the British.

In 1792, not long after the founding of the United States, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new U.S. government as well. In 1823 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Therefore, European and Euro-American “discoverers” had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag. Indigenous rights were, in the Court’s words, “in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired.” The Court further held that Indigenous “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished.” Indigenous people could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States. The decision concluded that Native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.”

In fact, Indigenous peoples were not allowed to continue living on their land under Andrew Jackson’s presidency; with the Indian Removal Act that he pushed through Congress, all the Indigenous nations east of the Mississippi were dissolved and their citizens were forcibly relocated to “Indian Territory,” which itself was later dissolved to become a part of the state of Oklahoma.

The Doctrine of Discovery is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned in historical or legal texts published in the Americas.

In the era of global decolonization of the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans remained colonized. The official celebration of Columbus is a metaphor and painful symbol of that traumatic past, although the United States did not become an independent republic until nearly three centuries after Columbus’s first voyage. None of Columbus’s voyages touched the continental territory now claimed by the United States.

Native American nations and communities are involved in decolonization projects, including the development of international human rights law to gain their right to self-determination as Indigenous Peoples, having gained the United Nations’ 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Obama administration endorsed. It’s time for the United States government to make a gesture toward acknowledgement of its colonial past and a commitment to decolonization. Doing away with the celebration of Columbus, the very face of the onset of colonialism in the Western Hemisphere, could be that gesture. In its place proclaim that fateful date of the onset of colonialism as a Day of Solidarity and Mourning with the Indigenous Peoples. In retiring Columbus, nullification of the Doctrine of Discovery is also required.

The affirmation of democracy requires the denial of colonialism, but denying it does not make it go away. Only decolonization can do that.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her latest book is “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.” –

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“1898”, McGee y el imperialismo progresista

José Anazagasty Rodrìguez


80 grados   3 de octubre de 2014


William J. McGee

La Era Progresista fue un periodo de la historia estadounidense, entre la última década del siglo 19 y las primeras dos del siglo 20, protagonizada por un movimiento social reformista que concretó diversas reformas en los campos sociales, políticos, económicos, y ambientales. Este movimiento acogió la instauración del progreso como su problemática primordial. Se trataba de un progresismo liberal y crítico del Gilded Age que, pese a ello, no se alejaba demasiado del polo conservador del liberalismo.

El progresismo, indeterminado, desafía cualquier intento de definirlo, esto por haber sido un movimiento heterogéneo, dinámico y complejo. Se trataba también de un movimiento que de muchas formas intentó reconciliar varias tendencias opuestas: entre lo nuevo y lo viejo, entre el individuo y la sociedad, entre la racionalidad científica y la lógica del protestantismo cristiano, entre el fomento del crecimiento económico y los excesos del desarrollo capitalista, entre otras tensiones. Sin embargo, muchos progresistas, arraigados a la modernización, defendieron y promovieron tenazmente la racionalidad científica, reclamando eficiencia y apoyando la intrusión tecnocrática en el ordenamiento y control social. Y algunos favorecieron la intervención estatal para garantizar incluso un crecimiento económico eficiente pero sensato, oponiéndose a los monopolios y los excesos corporativos. Pero el movimiento también apoyó la expansión territorial de los Estados Unidos, su ingreso a los círculos imperialistas a finales del siglo 19.

El origen de la Era Progresista coincidió con la génesis de la fase hemisférica del imperialismo estadounidense. Fue en los primeros años de la Era Progresista que Estados Unidos se inició como fuerza imperialista, esto tras adquirir en 1898 un imperio directo transcontinental que incluyó a varias islas. Sin embargo, las conexiones entre el progresismo y el imperialismo estadounidense son pocas veces destacadas por los estudiosos de la historia imperial estadounidense. Entre los historiadores estadounidenses y otros estudiosos de esa nación predomina una interpretación ortodoxa y dogmática que imagina el progresismo y el imperialismo como incompatibles. Pero contrario a esta tesis, y como demostró William E. Leuchtenburg, la mayoría de los progresistas favorecieron el imperialismo, algunos más que otros. Más aún, el contenido ideológico del progresismo y del imperialismo concordó muchas veces, un contenido también palpable en varias políticas coloniales estadounidenses. Un buen ejemplo fue la Ley de los 500 Acres, implantada en Puerto Rico por la administración militar-colonial estadounidense, la que estaba fundamentada en el llamado progresista a regular los monopolios, esfuerzo concretizado en las llamadas “antitrust laws.” Otro buen ejemplo fue el manejo de los recursos naturales en las colonias, como el ordenamiento racional y científico de los bosques puertorriqueños a través de la dasonomía y la silvicultura durante la Era Progresista, prácticas asociadas a Gifford Pinchot, conocido conservacionista progresista. De hecho, el conservacionismo de la época nos permite examinar algunos de los paralelos entre el contenido ideológico del progresismo y el imperialismo.

Me propongo a continuación, y mediante una lectura de uno de los escritos de William J. McGee publicado en National Geographic Magazine en 1898 antes de que este sirviera como oficial gubernamental bajo Theodore Roosevelt, develar algunos aspectos de esa afinidad y del apoyo progresista al imperialismo.

El movimiento conservacionista, antecesor del ambientalismo moderno estadounidense, se dividió en dos tendencias principales. Una de estas tendencias enfatizó el uso y manejo eficiente de los recursos naturales para garantizar el crecimiento económico sostenido de la nación. La otra tendencia enfatizaba la restauración y conservación de los recursos naturales por razones estéticas, morales y recreacionales. La tensión entre estas tendencias han marcado las políticas ambientales estadounidenses desde entonces, como ilustra la historia del US Forest Service. Jhon Muir fue el gestor más importante de la segunda tendencia mientras que Gifford Pinchot fue el gestor más importante de la primera.

William Joseph McGee, quien ya discutí en un artículo previo, también fue un importante representante de esta segunda tendencia y ambos apoyaron el imperialismo estadounidense, inclusive como actores importantes en la administración de Theodore Roosevelt. McGee fue antropólogo, etnólogo, inventor, geólogo y conservacionista. Fue ideólogo del conservacionismo en las esferas gubernamentales de la administración Roosevelt, participando inclusive de la redacción de los discursos presidenciales. McGee fue también Vicepresidente y Secretario del Inland Waterway Commision, dirigente del Bureau of Ethnology, y Presidente y Vicepresidente del National Geographic Society.

Para McGee el conservacionismo era la fase más avanzada de la evolución, esta entendida desde la perspectiva lamarckista. McGee, igual que Frederick J. Turner, consideraba la expansión territorial determinante en la evolución de los Estados Unidos. Es por ello que McGee celebró y justificó la adquisición de un imperio directo transcontinental a finales del siglo 19. Fue precisamente en el mismo año de la Guerra Hispanoamericana, 1898, que McGee pronunció ante una sección conjunta de la National Geographic Society y la American Society for the Advancement of Science un discurso sobre el crecimiento territorial de los Estados Unidos en el que explicaba, elogiaba y hasta legitimaba la expansión territorial. Su discurso sería más tarde publicado en National Geographic Magazine ese mismo año.

Según McGee, la anexión de Hawái, Filipinas y Puerto Rico resumían una larga pero interrumpida historia de expansión territorial estadounidense, la que describió como una carrera sin paralelos, esto por el tremendo y rápido crecimiento territorial que envolvió. Además, McGee afirmaba que esta fue una carrera expansionista amigable y de anexiones voluntarias que no envolvieron conquistas inspiradas en “motivos mercenarios.” Insistía además en que esa carrera benefició a los habitantes de las tierras agregadas tanto como a los estadounidenses. Afirmaba también que el crecimiento territorial de los Estados Unidos no era sino la expresión de su “destino manifiesto”, un destino afín con las leyes naturales de la evolución. En adición, McGee alegaba que el crecimiento territorial envolvió la rápida asimilación y “conquista noble” de la naturaleza, la superación de diversos obstáculos naturales mediante la innovación tecnológica producto del carácter innovador de los estadounidenses. Finalmente, cada extensión territorial, insistía McGee, estuvo precisamente caracterizada por efectos positivos y significativos en el carácter nacional e individual de los estadounidenses.

Para McGee, con toda aquella épica historia expansionista como precedente, no había razones para pensar que sería distinto con “la isla jardín de Porto Rico,” y “las cientos de islas filipinas.” Con esos planteamientos McGee movilizó varios de los mismos conceptos utilizados por los imperialistas estadounidenses, incluyendo la idea de los Estados Unidos como una nación excepcional y benevolente cuyo destino expreso, aparte de perfeccionar continuamente su carácter, era expandirse alrededor del globo, conquistar la naturaleza y llevar las buenas nuevas de sus innovaciones, el progreso, al resto de los habitantes del planeta. Pero quizá lo más interesante de las expresiones de McGee fue su caracterización de la expansión territorial estadounidense, del imperialismo, como un proceso natural.

Según McGee, si los nuevos territorios representaban una pequeña extensión de tierra, una mera “onda en la corriente del progreso nacional,” el proceso y sus consecuencias serían similares a expansiones previas. Los estadounidenses, realizando su destino manifiesto, incorporarían esas tierras y sus habitantes rápidamente para, y guiados por la benevolencia, transferirles grandes beneficios a los habitantes de aquellas tierras, de paso conquistando la naturaleza y sus frenos al progreso humano mediante la ciencia y la tecnología. Para McGee la posesión de las islas les requería a los estadounidenses producir dispositivos que le permitieran acortar el tiempo y aniquilar el espacio, una fuerza naval para McGee. El entonces Vicepresidente de la National Geographic Society vaticinaba, probablemente inspirado en Alfred T. Mahan, que Estados Unidos se convertiría en la “nación naval de la Tierra.” Para McGee, vencer esos obstáculos marítimos significaba, como significó vencer las fuerzas naturales en expansiones previas, el avance del carácter estadounidense, tanto a nivel individual como a nivel nacional. Y eso no era otra cosa para él que el progreso mismo de la humanidad.

En su artículo McGee recurrió a los números y varias tablas y gráficas para detallar la expansión territorial de los Estados Unidos a lo largo de su historia. Para él, cada expansión territorial, medida en millas cuadradas, fue seguida de un aumento poblacional considerable así como de un incremento significativo en la actividad comercial. Pero para McGee el auténtico crecimiento de la nación no estaba en esos indicadores territoriales, poblacionales y comerciales sino más bien en el avance de la iniciativa estadounidense, en la progresión de su vigor intelectual, físico y moral, en lo que llamó la “individualidad inteligente” de los estadounidenses, quienes unidos laboraban para “elevar” la humanidad y mejorar el mundo. Este énfasis en los lazos sociales y la cooperación era característico del progresismo. Para McGee el mejor indicador, aunque indirecto, del crecimiento en dicho vigor e individualidad, donde recaía el verdadero crecimiento de la nación, era la riqueza derivada de la expansión territorial:

The strenght of America is indeed faintly suggested by broad territorial expanse, teeming millions of people, and half the railways of the world; the real strenght lies in the immeasurable capabilities of individuals, who have already made noble conquest of nature’s forces; and there are no units for measuring the spontaneous powers of freemen united by common impulse in the common task of elevating mankind and bettering the world. While there is no direct way of measuring the individuality—much less the unity—of the American people, there are certain values indicating this quality even more clearly tan area or population; one of these is wealth, individual and collective.

McGee, al convertir la lucrativa expansión territorial estadounidense en un proceso natural, y por ende normal, ofreció a sus oyentes, miembros de la National Geographic Society y la American Society for the Advancement of Science, una interpretación lamarckista de imperialismo estadounidense, una similar a la de la “Tesis de la Frontera” de Frederick Jason Turner. Para McGee, y como el mismo expresó, el progreso estadounidense residía en la “conquista de la naturaleza” y no en la “conquista de las naciones” o en políticas nacionales. Para el conocido conservacionista-progresista la historia de Estados Unidos era la de una nación formada en su choque con la naturaleza, una historia en la que los estadounidenses además de acomodarse a las circunstancias ambientales transformaban su entorno a su favor, tomando, como se infiere del evolucionismo de Lamarck, una participación activa en la mutación del ambiente y consecuentemente de su propia especie. Y esa transformación era para McGee tan subjetiva como material. En la lucha con la naturaleza se construían la sociedad estadounidense y su identidad nacional. Allí también se construía el imperio y el futuro mismo de toda la humanidad, con los Estados Unidos a la vanguardia de su evolución.

El resultado ideológico de la narrativa lamarckista, turneriana y progresista de McGee fue conspicuo, coherente y efectivo: la naturalización del imperialismo. Y lo hizo, como es típico también de la retórica colonialista, en dos sentidos. Primero, McGee redujo el imperialismo a un fenómeno natural; el imperialismo estadounidense, parte de la historia humana, solo seguía las leyes naturales. Segundo, McGee convirtió el imperialismo en un fenómeno regular, un fenómeno que corrientemente ocurre, y por ende normal o natural. McGee lo hizo regular, habitual, ordinario. La expansión territorial era para McGee una expresión corriente de la conquista de la naturaleza y además conforme a las leyes de la evolución. El imperialismo estadounidense, como confirmaba el influyente conservacionista, no era una nueva política nacional sino la continuación de un proceso natural, centenario, exitoso y usual en la historia de la nación estadounidense:

He errs who forgets the history of this country. Every citizen of the United States would do well to remember the decades past, and realize that the growth of 1898 marks no new policy, and is but the normal continuation of a course of development successfully pursued for a century.

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The frontispiece from the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, published 1818. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
John Demos

Great failure is often more enduring than we realize. Before the downward spiral, the effort seems to cast the future in its image. It captures a moment and then goes uncommemorated. Yet it does not go away. It is as if the hopes it once contained continue to smolder.

The Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government that ruled the French capital in the spring of 1871, was such a failure: virtually erased from the public memory of modern Paris, but an inspiration to generations of socialists before the Russian Revolution and a corresponding source of fear for their opponents. Another such failure was the Foreign Mission School of Cornwall, Connecticut, the subject of John Demos’s new book, The Heathen School, freshly longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award.

The comparison, I concede, seems grandiose. The Commune left thousands, possibly tens of thousands, dead and large swaths of Paris in ruins. The Foreign Mission School destroyed only itself, leaving disillusioned graduates and an embittered and divided local community that threatened, but never executed, violence. It did its damage at a distance.

What unites the Commune with the Foreign Mission School is the bright and defining hope each originally contained and the disappointment each eventually produced. The Commune was a moment when France seemed to augur a new day; the school embodied equivalent optimism for the United States. Cornwall was a visible world of farms, forests, and villages but also an invisible world where God and Satan contested. God’s victory would be America’s gift to posterity.

The Heathen School, as it was called in everyday speech, became an American exercise in revolutionary uplift designed to transform the vast non-Christian world into something that looked like Connecticut. Instead of sending missionaries to the heathen, the school brought the heathen to the missionaries. The school would transform young men into Christians able to become missionaries or to assist them. It was part of an American project to spread republicanism and Protestant Christianity—for Americans regarded the two as inextricably linked—across the globe.

indexDemos possesses an uncanny ability to see the reflection of a much larger world in the towns of colonial New England and the early republic. In The Heathen School, what Demos discerns is American exceptionalism: the proposition that the United States is a chosen nation whose history diverges from all others and whose destiny will determine the fate of the world. It is an idea still embraced by most American politicians (even when they are smart enough not to believe it) and loathed by most American historians.

Extravagant ideas can alight on modest places. Cornwall is a small town in what was, during the early nineteenth century, the heartland of a New England evangelicalism determined to change the world. Some of the locals were articulate proponents of American exceptionalism and made it the rationale for the school. The United States was, according to Yale College President Timothy Dwight, the place where “Empire’s brightest throne shall rise.” Lyman Beecher of Connecticut—the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who followed the reforming zeal of evangelicalism into abolition—already knew the answer when he asked, “From what nation shall the renovating power go forth?” There was less a fine line between American benevolence and American imperialism than no line at all.

It later became a cliché that Protestant missionaries to Hawaii, including those associated with the Heathen School, “came to do good and did well,” but the original enthusiasm for uplift was genuine. These were people who thought the millennium might be at hand. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, sponsors of the Foreign Mission School, reversed the connections between expanding American trade and spreading the Gospel. “Natives of almost every heathen country” were being drawn from their homes by American commerce, the Board said. If not converted, they would bring the worst of American society back to their lands, corrupting their countrymen and prejudicing them against Christianity. The Foreign Mission School would take non-Christians drawn to the United States by commerce, or those who already lived within its boundaries, educate them, convert them, and send them home to transform their homelands.

The school was thus ancestral to a variety of American projects designed to make foreigners into instruments of conversion, people who would turn their countrymen into people like us. Our current rationale in training military officers and economists is not so different than that for training missionaries. As the sponsors of the Heathen School knew, the results could be disappointing. Frequently, they still are, unless you consider the likes of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Mohamed Morsi, both partially educated on American shores, successful at creating New England in Egypt.

• • •

We tend not to look closely at the societies we expect to transform. We collapse them into largely undifferentiated lumps. This is true now as it was then. The very term Heathen School conveyed the American sense of a vast, indistinguishable mass of non-Christians. The students who came to the school were, however, disparate. Hawaiians dominated the first class, but it also included an Abenaki Indian, a Bengali, and a man named John Johnson, whose father was the child of an “English gentleman” and a “Hindoo woman” and whose mother was “a Jewess of the race of black Jews.” Later Tahitians came, as did at least one more Jew, a student from Timor, a Malay held as a slave in China, a Chinese, and two Greek boys from Malta. The students came from the four corners of the earth, but they were heathens one and all.

Demos breaks the undifferentiated mass into particular people. He concentrates on a small set of individuals—Henry Obookiah, who was Hawaiian, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, both of whom were Cherokees from Georgia, and Sarah Bird Northrup and Harriet Gold, who were from Cornwall. The desire for salvation ran together with more earthly ones. The result is a book as much about psychology as theology and as much about intimacy as commerce.

In Demos’s books people who think they control events find themselves shaken by those supposedly under their influence. But the Hawaiian Henry Obookiah, who both in a sense created the Heathen School and was its chief product, was not the challenge that brought the imperial dream down.

Events far from New England uprooted Obookiah and deposited him in Connecticut. The internal wars that yielded the kingdom of Hawaii orphaned Obookiah, and the China and Pacific trade, of which the Hawaiian Islands were an integral part, set him in motion. He became a Kanaka, an expatriate Hawaiian sailor, who made his way to New England and arrived at Yale in search of an education. In Demos’s interpretation he was in search of family; he thought he found it in Connecticut.

Obookiah underwent a classic Protestant conversion experience and came “home to New Jerusalem,” entering the church on April 9, 1815. It was Obookiah who formulated a plan to return to Hawaii “to preach the Gospel to my Countrymen” in their own language. He became the most celebrated of the group of Hawaiians who formed the nucleus of the Foreign Mission School’s first class. It was, the American Board believed, the hand of providence that brought Obookiah to Connecticut. The founders felt “confident that this thing is from God . . . [and] will, among others, be a means of evangelizing the world.” Obookiah did seem to be the real thing. He invented orthography for writing Hawaiian, learned Hebrew, and grew famous, which proved useful for raising money and advancing the cause.

Obookiah died of typhus in 1818, one of those fortunate deaths that frees a person from responsibility for failures to come. As was the custom, his deathbed scene was fully described and his words recorded. Lyman Beecher preached his eulogy. His ghostwritten Memoirs would go through “about a dozen editions,” according to Demos. His goals, though, were largely unfulfilled. In Hawaii the missionaries, accompanied by several of the graduates of the Foreign Mission School, made converts, but the students were by and large a disappointment. In time the Americans took over the islands, enriched themselves, and largely dispossessed the inhabitants, who dwindled in numbers.

When Obookiah died the Hawaiian missionaries had not yet departed, nor had John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and the other Cherokee students arrived at the Heathen School. After 1818 American Indians would dominate the student body. There was tension between the Indians and the Pacific Islanders; there were issues with truancy, discipline, and uneven academic achievement. But most troubling were relationships between the Cornwall girls and the scholars, or, as officials put it, “the colored boys.”

The desire to save the Indians, and a long history of sexual relations between Indian women and white men, did not prepare Cornwall for consensual sexual relations—in or out of marriage—between its white women and the school’s Indian men. To many readers, this will not come as a surprise, but the history of interracial sex is far more complicated than most Americans believe, and even more complicated than Demos makes it here. In the nation’s first days, it was fairly common and, if not fully accepted in all configurations, not routinely condemned or punished. But as the nineteenth century went on, prejudices against what became known as miscegenation intensified and hardened. The end of slavery—and with it the guaranteed subordination of black men and the coerced availability of black women—alongside worries about inheritance and property transmission and changing ideas about race all made interracial sex less tolerated than it had been earlier in American history. In Cornwall signs of this resistance appeared early.

John Ridge was from a leading Cherokee family and had already been to mission schools within the Cherokee Nation before he came to Cornwall in 1818. His romance with Sarah Northrup would have been utterly conventional had he not been Cherokee and she not been white. He was sick and entered the Northrup home. Sarah and her mother nursed him. He fell in love with Sarah and she with him.

The family sought to disrupt the romance by sending Sarah to her grandparents. The American Board decided it was time for John to return home, but neither distance nor time stilled their passion for each other—a passion that disturbed the social order. John Ridge published a denunciation of racial prejudice that allowed the “most stupid and illiterate white man” to disdain the most polished Indian. With Sarah’s devotion to John remaining strong, and her parents fearful that she would waste away longing for him and become vulnerable to consumption, Sarah’s family agreed to the marriage. It took place in January 1824, after John returned to Cornwall. Although some defended the marriage, much of Cornwall was outraged, and threats of violence accompanied the denunciations. John and Sarah moved to New Echota in the Cherokee Nation.

The marriage of John Ridge’s cousin Elias Boudinot to Harriet Gold bred even greater resentment and brought public demonstrations of disapproval. Harriet’s brothers and sisters and their spouses bitterly opposed the marriage. One of her brothers-in-law, the Reverend Cornelius Everest, wrote, “We weep; we sigh; our feelings are indescribable. Ah, it all is to be summed up in this—our sister loves an Indian! Shame on such love.” A minister from a neighboring town married Elias and Harriet in March of 1826 because the local minister refused to do so. They, too, would depart for the Cherokee Nation.

The school defended racial equality in the abstract, but not the actual fact of the marriages. Its evangelical supporters would not accept intermarriage, and the Ridge-Northrup wedding appears to have precipitated a decline in contributions. The founders had lost faith in their scholars, the last of whom would leave in 1828. Most of the graduates were disappointments to their teachers.

• • •

With the Boudinot-Gold marriage, Demos’s attention shifts to Cherokee country, and he signals the shift with what he calls an interlude. Demos narrates his own journeys paralleling those of his characters. He traveled to Hawaii to find Obookiah’s birthplace. And nearly two centuries after the Ridges and Boudinots settled in New Echota, Demos went for a visit.

We cannot time travel. A stop in Cornwall, or New Echota, or Obookiah’s birthplace leaves the visitor firmly in the present. But the past often lingers; its evidence endures. There are original buildings in Cornwall, fewer in New Echota. And at these sites stories and storytellers meet. Right here, in this house, this happened; here, these people once lived.

The historian’s next step is at once problematic and wondrous. Demos takes it. “In my mind’s eye I can glimpse the scholars passing in and out,” he writes of his visit to Cornwall. Being there “lessened the distance between my own world and that of the school.” Similarly in Georgia he muses that, for Harriet Gold, New Echota was a blank space to be filled in by experience. “So too, in my own case: an equally blank space. Until I have a chance to go there.” He travels to encounter traces of the past that remain visible.

That past was a Cherokee past, and what happened to the Cherokees in the 1820s and 1830s was a disgrace to the United States, but it was not a simple story, and Demos does not try to suggest otherwise. The Cherokee story shadowed, he writes, “on a vastly grander scale, that of the Foreign Mission School—high hopes, valiant efforts, leading to eventual tragic defeat.”

The same sense of mission and providential destiny that created the mission school ultimately did in the Cherokees. This is not to say the American Board destroyed them; many of their missionaries remained ardent supporters of the Cherokees’ attempt to retain their homeland. But the very sense of Christian superiority and providential favor for the United States embedded in the school also inspired those who sought to dispossess the Cherokees. Indians recognized this, and tried to counter it. They sought to separate American providential thinking into its secular and religious strains and pit them against each other. Indians hoped Christians would not evict Christians. They would, and they did.

Both Ridge and Boudinot had reason to doubt the value of the American Board as an ally, and neither thought that the United States would honor existing treaties. Seeing resistance as hopeless, they joined the Treaty Party, which ceded the Cherokees’ homeland to the United States. The Treaty Party had no authority, and the vast majority of Cherokees who followed Head Chief John Ross opposed them and their treaty, which was ratified, if only barely, by the Senate. In what Demos rightly describes as ethnic cleansing, the Cherokees and their neighbors lost their land, and many lost their lives in government roundups and a forced march west. For enabling this dispossession and dislocation, Ridge and Boudinot would pay with their lives when the surviving Cherokees reached Indian Territory.

The removal of the Cherokees would seem to make the tale of the Heathen School a familiar American story in which race takes the center stage. Racial prejudice sought to thwart the marriages of the Ridges and Boudinots and ultimately did in the school itself. Racial prejudice launched the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. But if race in the United States is a familiar topic, it is also a complicated one, and Demos shows its complications. His great strength as a historian is his ability to move effortlessly from the personal to the national, and when he does so here, a story about heathens and “colored boys” expands to include black slaves.

Many members of the Cherokee elite were slaveholders, and when Sarah Ridge, née Northrup, moved to Georgia, she mutated from a Yankee to a plantation mistress. She was in the eyes of both Cherokees and black slaves a “white lady,” the very status that brought so much trouble in Cornwall. With her husband’s assassination, Sarah was described as having “a dead heart in a living bosom.” Her Cherokee relatives sought to strip her and her children of their inheritance since she was “a white lady and had no clan.” She lived by hiring out her slaves. Her sons grew up quarrelsome and violent. They, along with a sizeable number of anti-Ross Cherokees, stood with the Confederacy, as did, although Demos does not mention it, Boudinot’s son, Elias Cornelius.

Lyman Beecher’s descendants became abolitionists, but the descendants of the leading Cherokee graduates of the Heathen School joined the Confederacy in defense of human slavery. Two of them, John Rollins Ridge and Elias Cornelius Boudinot, eventually fled the Cherokee Nation under threat of death and ended up alienated from both their New England and Cherokee roots. The failures of the Heathen School had only ramified.

Demos draws a parallel between Cornwall’s opposition to interracial marriage in the nineteenth century and the illegality of same-sex marriage in the twenty-first. His intent, I think, is something more than to compare inequities, particularly since, with same-sex marriage now legal in Connecticut, the analogy might produce comforting feelings of growing tolerance. Demos is too good a historian to think the past will be much of a comfort to us. He has crafted the book otherwise. His heroes, Sara and John Ridge, do not become villains, but they are more than simply victims of racism. Similarly the Cherokees and Hawaiians were betrayed and despoiled, but they were not innocents.

Demos’s analogies have a deeper target: the American sense of being a beacon to the world, its last best hope. This only leads us astray. We want to shape the world without the world touching us and revealing our own limits and prejudices, but more than that we insist on foreigners being unrealized versions of ourselves. We educate the Sisis and Morsis thinking they will become agents of our desires and in so doing forget that they, like the students at the Heathen School, were never ours to shape.

Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is author, most recently, of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

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