Robert Buzzanco

"America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," Secretary of State John Quincy Adams told his audience during a Fourth of July oration in 1821. "She is the well-wisher of the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Should the United States adventure into other lands, Adams warned, "she might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit." It is a great irony that such words, which would constitute a foundation of anti-imperialist thought for future generations, were uttered by the man who acquired Florida, crafted the Monroe Doctrine, and was a principal architect and defender of America's continental empire.

But then, any examination of anti-imperialism in the United States is replete with irony, ambiguity, and complexity. Whereas in other lands anti-imperialism was often closely identified with the political left and followed socialist or even Leninist models, and criticized the occupation and control of less-developed countries, American critiques of empire necessarily evolved differently because the United States did not have as strong a radical tradition and did not possess a formal empire in the European sense. Thus, anti-imperial ideas and actions have to be seen in a broader construction in which individuals or groups challenged the expansion of state hegemony, but did so based on the objective conditions of a particular time rather than on a doctrinaire or sustained ideology. Even more, anti-imperialists in the United States developed a broad comprehension of America's imperial mission, and so might oppose not just the political or military control of other lands, but also an aggressive foreign policy, supporting dictatorships abroad, the establishment of international organizations and compacts, or the excessive accumulation of executive power at home, all of which were perceived as antithetical to national values.

America's imperialism certainly could be coercive and militarized, but it was conceptually a grand strategy of economic penetration, a substitution of dollars in trade and investment for the armies and bullets of wars and occupations. As part of the imperialist pursuit for areas in which to invest, manufacture cheaply, find consumers, or trade, American military forces did in fact frequently intervene abroad, but usually pulled out after those lands were made secure for American political and economic objectives, often leaving proxy armies and puppet governments in their stead. Without a tradition of conquest and occupation, and believing in an ideology of republicanism, Adams and others therefore could champion both unrestrained expansion and anti-imperialism with plausible claims that they were not contradictory. By developing the historical sense, or myth, that the United States was not an imperialist power, the national elite—political leaders, business interests, media—could attempt to counter and delegitimize its anti-imperial critics. Making matters more complex, groups often critical of the state in domestic matters, such as farmers or workers, could be advocates of imperial growth out of self-interest because they needed foreign markets for their crops and manufactures.

Nonetheless, since the earliest days of the Republic, there have been significant opponents of American aggrandizement into new lands. Because U.S. imperialism had many justifications—economics, security, a sense of national purpose, racial identification, and so forth—critics offered an analysis and condemnation of empire based on different factors at different times and to varying degrees. American anti-imperialists could oppose foreign interventions because of a moral repulsion at the consequences of such involvement, the betrayal of self-government in other areas, a sense of geographic insularity or security, the contradictions of empire with democracy, or a rejection of the capitalist economic system. It was, then, a varied line of thought that had economic, political, and moral roots, and was real, effective, and significant, though at times elusive and not part of a sustained and comprehensive historical process. At the same time, however, the words of John Quincy Adams and others with similar views would be invoked a century and a half later as the United States waged war in Indochina and intervened in various Third World areas, so there is indeed a salience to American anti-imperialism that must be recognized.


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See also Continental Expansion ; Dollar Diplomacy ; Elitism ; Imperialism ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; Isolationism ; The National Interest ; Pan-Americanism .

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