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Authors: Noam Chomsky

Power Systems

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The New American Imperialism

, M
2, 2010)

One of the themes that Howard Zinn tried to address during his long career was the lack of historical memory. The facts of history are scrupulously ignored and/or distorted. I was wondering if you could comment on imperialism then and now, interventions then and now. Specifically about Saigon in 1963 and 1964 and Kabul today?


What happened in Vietnam in the early 1960s is gone from history. It was barely discussed at the time, and it's essentially disappeared. In 1954, there was a peace settlement between the United States and Vietnam. The United States regarded it as a disaster, refused to permit it to go forward, and established a client state in the South, which was a typical client state, carrying out torture, brutality, murders. By about 1960, the South Vietnamese government had probably killed seventy or eighty thousand people.
The repression was so harsh that it stimulated an internal rebellion, which was not what the North Vietnamese wanted. They wanted some time to develop their own society. But they were sort of coerced by the southern resistance into at least giving it verbal support.

By the time John F. Kennedy became involved in 1961, the situation was out of control. So Kennedy simply invaded the country. In 1962, he sent the U.S. Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam, using planes with South Vietnamese markings. Kennedy authorized the use of napalm, chemical warfare, to destroy the ground cover and crops. He started the process of driving the rural population into what were called “strategic hamlets,” essentially concentration camps, where people were surrounded by barbed wire, supposedly to protect them from the guerillas who the U.S. government knew perfectly well they supported. This “pacification” ultimately drove millions of people out of the countryside while destroying large parts of it. Kennedy also began operations against North Vietnam on a small scale. That was 1962.

In 1963, the Kennedy administration got wind of the fact that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem it had installed in South Vietnam was trying to arrange negotiations with the North. Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were trying to negotiate a peace settlement. So the Kennedy liberals determined that they had to be thrown out. The Kennedy administration organized a coup in which the two brothers were killed and they put in their own guy, meanwhile escalating the war. Then came the assassination of President Kennedy. Contrary to a lot of mythology, Kennedy was one of the hawks in the administration to the very last minute. He did agree to proposals for withdrawal from Vietnam, because he knew the war was very unpopular here, but always with the condition of withdrawal after victory. Once we get victory, we can withdraw and let the client regime go.

is an interesting term. The United States was founded as an empire. George Washington wrote in 1783 that “the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as the wolf, to retire; both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape.” Thomas Jefferson predicted that the “backward” tribes at the borders “will relapse into barbarism and misery, lose numbers by war and want, and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forests into the Stony mountains.”
Once we don't need slavery anymore, we'll send the slaves back to Africa. And get rid of the Latins because they are an inferior race. We're the superior race of Anglo-Saxons. It's only to the benefit of everyone if we people the entire hemi sphere.

But none of that is considered imperialism because of what some historians of imperialism call the “saltwater fallacy”: it's only imperialism if you cross saltwater.
So, for example, if the Mississippi had been as wide as the Irish Sea, let's say, then it would have been imperialism. But it was understood to be imperialism at the time—and it is. Settler colonialism, which is what this is, is by far the worst kind of imperialism, because it gets rid of the native population. Other kinds of imperialism exploit them, but settler colonialism eliminates them, “exterminates” them, to use the words of the Founding Fathers.

When the United States reached the geographic limits of what we call the national territory, U.S. expansionism just continued. Immediately. Eighteen ninety-eight, that's the year when the United States essentially conquered Cuba. The U.S. takeover was called “liberating” Cuba. In fact, Washington was preventing Cuba from liberating itself from Spain. Then the United States stole Hawaii from its population and invaded the Philippines. In the Philippines, U.S. troops killed a couple hundred thousand people, establishing a colonial system, which still exists.
That's one of the reasons why the Philippines has not joined the rest of East and Southeast Asia in the economic development of the past twenty or thirty years. It's an outlier. Part of the reason is it still retains the structure of the neocolonial system that the United States established.


But the new American imperialism seems to be substantially different from the older variety in that the United States is a declining economic power and is therefore seeing its political power and influence wane. I'm thinking, for example, of a Latin American hemisphere-wide organization that was recently formed that excludes the United States. Such a thing would have been unthinkable in the more than century-long U.S. domination of the continent.


I think talk about American decline should be taken with a grain of salt. The Second World War is when the United States really became a global power. It had been the biggest economy in the world by far for long before the war, but it was a regional power in a way. It controlled the Western Hemi sphere and had made some forays into the Pacific. But the British were the world power. The Second World War changed that. The United States became the dominant world power. The wealth of the United States at that time is hard to believe. The United States had half the world's wealth. The other industrial societies were weakened or destroyed. The United States was in an incredible position of security. It controlled the hemi sphere, both oceans, the opposite sides of both oceans, with a huge military force.

Of course, that declined. Europe and Japan recovered, and decolonization took place. By 1970, the United States was down, if you want to call it that, to about 25 percent of the world's wealth—roughly what it had been, say, in the 1920s. It remained the overwhelming global power, but not like it had been in 1950. Since 1970, it's been pretty stable, though of course there were changes.

I think what has happened in Latin America is not related to changes in the United States. Within the last decade, for the first time in five hundred years, since the Spanish and Portuguese conquest, Latin America has begun to deal with some of its problems. It's begun to integrate.
The countries were very separated from one another. Each one was oriented separately toward the West, first Europe and then the United States. That integration is important. It means that it's not so easy to pick the countries off one by one. We've actually seen that in crucial cases recently. Latin American nations can unify in defense against an outside force.

The other development, which is more significant and much more difficult, is that the countries of Latin America are beginning individually to face their massive internal problems. Latin America is just a scandal. With its resources, Latin America ought to be a rich continent, South America particularly. Almost a century ago, Brazil was expected to be the “colossus of the south,” comparable to the United States, the so-called colossus of the north. In fact, Latin America has terrible poverty and extreme inequality, some of the worst in the world. Latin America has a huge amount of wealth, but it is very highly concentrated in a small—usually Europeanized, often white—elite, and exists alongside massive poverty and misery. There are some attempts to begin to deal with that, which is important—another form of integration—and Latin America is somewhat separating itself from U.S. control.

But the United States is reacting. In 2008, the United States was kicked out of its last military base in South America, the Manta Air Base in Ecuador.
But it immediately picked up seven new military bases in Colombia, the one country that's still within the U.S. orbit—though so far the Constitutional Court has not granted the United States access to them.
President Barack Obama has added a couple more, as well as two naval bases in Panama.
In 2008, the Bush II administration reactivated the Fourth Fleet, the naval fleet that covers the Caribbean and Latin American waters, which had been deactivated in 1950, after the Second World War.
Government spending on training of Latin American officers is way up.
They're being trained to deal with what's sometimes called “radical populism.”
That has a definite meaning in Latin America, and not a pretty one.

We don't have internal records, but it's very likely that Obama's support for the government installed by a military coup in Honduras—support not shared by Europe and Latin America—is related to the U.S. air base in the country.
Called the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the 1980s, the base was used for attacking Nicaragua and is still a major military base.
In fact, shortly after the military coup government took over, its leaders made a security deal with Colombia, the other U.S. client in the region.

There are plenty of other complicated things happening in the world. There's a lot of talk about a global shift of power: India and China are going to become the new great powers, the wealthiest powers. Again, one should be pretty reserved about that. For example, there is a lot of talk about the U.S. debt and the fact that China holds so much of it. Actually, Japan holds more U.S. debt than China.
There have been occasions when China passed Japan, but most of the time, including right now, Japan holds most of the debt. When you put them together, the sovereign wealth funds of the United Arab Emirates probably hold more debt than China.

Furthermore, the whole framework for the discussion of U.S. decline is misleading. We're taught to talk about the world as a world of states conceived as unified, coherent entities. If you study international relations (IR) theory, there's what's called “realist” IR theory, which says there is an anarchic world of states and states pursue their “national interest.” It's in large part mythology. There are a few common interests, like we don't want to be destroyed. But, for the most part, people within a nation have very different interests. The interests of the CEO of General Electric and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same. Part of the doctrinal system in the United States is the pretense that we're all a happy family, there are no class divisions, and everybody is working together in harmony. But that's radically false.

Furthermore, it's known to be false. At least, it has been for a long time. Take a dangerous radical like, say, Adam Smith, whom people worship but don't read. He said that in England the people who own the society make policy. The people who own the place are the “merchants and manufacturers.” They're “the principal architects” of policy, and they carry it out in their own interests, no matter how harmful the effects on the people of England, which is not their business.
Of course, he was an old-fashioned conservative, so he had moral values. He was concerned with what he called the “savage injustice” of the Europeans, particularly what Britain was doing in India, causing famines and so on.
That's old-fashioned conservatism, not what's called conservatism now.

Power is no longer in the hands of the “merchants and manufacturers,” but of financial institutions and multinationals. The result is the same. And these institutions have an interest in Chinese development. So if you're, say, the CEO of Walmart or Dell or Hewlett-Packard, you're perfectly happy to have very cheap labor in China working under hideous conditions and with no environmental constraints. As long as China has what's called economic growth, that's fine.

Actually, China's economic growth is a bit of a myth. China is largely an assembly plant. China is a major exporter, but while the U.S. trade deficit with China has gone up, the trade deficit with Japan, Singapore, and Korea has gone down. The reason is that a regional production system is developing. The more advanced countries of the region, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, send advanced technology, parts, and components to China, which uses its cheap labor force to assemble goods and send them out of the country. And U.S. corporations do the same thing: they send parts and components to China, where people assemble and export the final products. Within the doctrinal framework, these are called Chinese exports, but they're regional exports in many instances and in other instances it's actually a case of the United States exporting to itself.

Once we break out of the framework of national states as unified entities with no internal divisions within them, we can see that there is a global shift of power, but it's from the global workforce to the owners of the world: transnational capital, global financial institutions. So, for example, the earnings of working people as a percentage of national income has by and large declined in the last couple of decades, but apparently it's declined in China more than in most places.
There is certainly economic growth in China and India. Hundreds of millions of people live a lot better than they did before, but then there are hundreds of millions more who don't. In fact, it's getting worse for them in many ways.

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