The Role of US Imperialism
Since the Second World War, the USA has been by far the most powerful capitalist state, achieving the status of a superpower. The over-riding aim of its foreign policy has been to maintain its hegemony over the capitalist world, including the underdeveloped lands of the neo-colonial world and, until the demise of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, to contain the economic influence and strategic power of its rival superpower, the USSR, a planned economy ruled over by a bureaucratic elite. At each stage it has acted to protect its global position: its economic dominance, its strategic power, and its prestige.
In order to do this, the USA built up the biggest military machine in history. Since 1945 it has consistently spent more on its nuclear weapons and armed forces, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of national product, than any other advanced capitalist country. In 1960, seven years after the end of the Korean war and four years before active involvement in Vietnam, the US defense budget surpassed 50 per cent of federal spending and accounted for nearly 10 per cent of GNP.
The balance between the superpowers produced a checkmate situation. Nuclear weapons meant that world war would result in the total destruction of the planet. However, the rivalry between the superpowers, representing two antagonistic social systems, capitalism on the one side and planned economy (distorted by bureaucratic dictatorship) on the other, was played out through intervention in third-world conflicts. Until the recent period, when the crisis in the bureaucracy provoked an internal crisis in the Stalinist states, the Soviet Union frequently intervened to support regimes which came into collision with the capitalist powers. The United States, for its part, continued to play its role as world capitalist policeman, striving to maintain a stable world order for Western capitalism. This was done through support for neo-colonial regimes, most of them military-police dictatorships, willing to act as local gendarmerie; and, when required, through direct military intervention against revolutionary movements.
‘Imperialism’ is not a denunciatory slogan: it accurately sums up the role played by US capitalism. It was not an accident, moreover, that in the Gulf war last year, the US was given active military assistance by the former colonial powers – Britain, France, and Italy, second-rank states which have clung to the coat-tails of the USA in the post-war period.
It was a mark of the degeneration of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, how far removed it was from the ideas of genuine Marxism, that it allowed a free hand to imperialism to wage a colonial war in the Gulf. Marxists have always supported the struggle of the colonial peoples for national independence and social liberation. Every blow struck against imperialism strengthens the working class internationally. An intervention by the capitalist powers which tightens their grip on the exploited peoples of the neo-colonial world is fundamentally against the interests of the working class of the advanced capitalist countries. There is a common interest between the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries and the exploited workers and peasants of the neo-colonial capitalist lands.
The ‘New Imperialism’
The ‘new imperialism’ of the post-war period is really a continuation, under present-day conditions, of the old imperialism. In the 19th century, imperialism was based primarily on the colonial empires of Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, etc. The United States, while it did not have direct colonies like Britain and France, nevertheless wielded a dominant influence over various countries, particularly in Latin America. It never hesitated to use its economic weight and military power to maintain its sphere of influence and plunder the raw materials, minerals and manufacture of those countries. Although the US prided itself on being ‘anti-colonial’, having broken away from British rule, US capitalism was nevertheless imperialistic from the very beginning.
In 1845, for instance, Congress annexed 390,000 square miles of Mexican territory (the equivalent in area of the original 13 American colonies). Not surprisingly, Mexico declared war on the US, and the Mexican war of 1846-48 followed. In his message to Congress in May 1846, President Polk asserted that the Mexican war was caused by the armed forces of Mexico having “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil”. In the 1890s, when the expansion of American imperialism continued, the US invaded Cuba and the Philippines, annexed Hawaii and other islands (Puerto Rico, etc), and launched a military and commercial invasion of China to plunder the country. If they did not have formal colonial territories like Britain and France, the US nevertheless exerted de facto control of these conquered lands.
In the post-war period, the old colonial powers were forced to retreat. The awakening of the colonial peoples, who demanded independent nation states and improvements in their economic conditions, gave rise to revolutionary struggles, which forced the colonial powers to retreat from direct domination. This was a big step forward. Colonialism, however, was replaced by economic neo-colonialism. Direct control by the Western powers, each through their own colonial administration, was replaced by the collective exploitation of the neo-colonial world by the advanced capitalist countries. This was reinforced by the military power of the Western powers, especially the power of US imperialism.
The Power of the Multinationals
The United States emerged from the Second World War as by far the strongest economic power. One of the overriding aims of US foreign policy was to create a favorable world environment for the US corporations. In 1945, the US Treasury Secretary, Morgenthau, said that the US required a world system “in which international trade and international investment can be carried on by businessmen on business principles”. This meant primarily US businessmen according to US business principles. The new world economic order – the World Bank, the IMF, GATT, the OECD, etc – was dominated by the US. The dollar became the basic currency of world trade.
International investment and trade was dominated by the giant US companies, the multi-national corporations, which spun a web of exploitation across the globe. By 1980, the top 200 multi-national corporations accounted for approximately 29 per cent of the aggregate domestic product of the capitalist world. About 90 of these companies were based in the United States (with about 20 each in West Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan; and 15 in France). At the height of the post-war economic upswing, US multinationals and their affiliates accounted for between 20 and 25 per cent of all world exports. They particularly dominated the world market in raw materials, minerals, and, of course, oil – all vital ingredients for the American economy. Through the exploitation of cheap labor and terms of trade which sold the underdeveloped countries short, the US corporations extracted super profits from the underdeveloped lands.
The international arms trade is also dominated by US multinationals. Almost half (48) of the world’s top 100 arms producers are US based. They are also the biggest companies, and between them account for two-thirds of the top 100’s arms sales.
The world’s financial system is also dominated by the big US banks. Much of the oil revenues accumulated by the oil producers after the 1974 price rise were deposited in private US banks, who ‘recycled’ it to neo-colonial countries – in some cases to finance arms purchases, in others to keep their economies afloat. This gave rise to the enormous burden of debt now placed on the poor and semi-developed countries. Far from helping these countries, the debt burden acts as a siphon, sucking out additional wealth from them. Owing to accumulated debt, neo-colonial countries as a whole are paying back to the advanced capitalist countries in excess of $50 billion a year more than they receive. The poor countries, or rather the poor in those countries, are being bled to death by the capitalist West.
US Military Intervention
The United States has always been prepared to defend its economic interest with military power. Those it has defended in the name of ‘democracy’ have more often than not been dictators, viciously oppressive and corrupt, who would not have lasted five minutes without US backing. Those who have been crushed in the name of ‘democracy’ have invariably been movements or governments reflecting the struggle of the workers and peasants against exploitation by landlords and capitalists, and against the pillaging of their countries by foreign businesses. In short, US imperialism has always played a counter-revolutionary role on the world arena, ready to use its military power to intervene against any manifestation of social revolution.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States primarily acted as a self-appointed policeman in Latin America and the Caribbean. ‘Banana republic’ became political shorthand for the kind of corrupt and ruthless dictatorship propped up by the US to protect giant companies like United Fruit. Somoza, who ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist until his overthrow by the Sandinista movement in 1979, was a notorious example. For the representatives of US imperialism, their police role is virtually a self-evident right. When US marines were previously sent to Nicaragua, in 1927, President Coolidge blandly explained: “We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman on the street is making war on passers-by.” When the United States emerged from the Second World War as one of the two nuclear superpowers, presidents such as Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan all asserted their right to act as global policemen.
The power of the US rested on its massive nuclear arsenal, its vast conventional forces, and its ability to deploy its forces around the world. The US currently accounts for about 27 per cent of world production, while it is responsible for 33 per cent of world arms spending.
The US’s nuclear forces were matched, during the post-war period, by those of the Soviet bureaucracy. The prevailing balance of forces and the total destruction which would result from nuclear war ruled out a third world war between the superpowers. This, however, did not prevent local and regional wars. There have been 127 wars since World War II. Both US imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy intervened, directly or indirectly, in most of these conflicts. The struggle to maintain spheres of strategic influence was fought out through neo-colonial surrogates, most of them military dictatorships. The thread of US policy has been clear: support for pro-imperialist regimes, military intervention against any regime which, under pressure of the masses, attempts to break out of the framework of capitalist domination, and support for counter-revolutionary insurgencies against any government which takes progressive measures against imperialism.
The bloody catalogue of US interventions in the last 45 years is too long to enumerate fully. But the pattern is clear. In 1961, the ‘liberal’ President John Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. In 1973, after a period of economic and political destabilization of Chile, the CIA and the Pentagon supported General Pinochet’s bloody military coup against the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. Together with British and French imperialism, which played subsidiary but equally violent roles, the United States also intervened to crush social change in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The Vietnam War
The longest, bloodiest US intervention was in Vietnam. The US tried to prop up a series of vicious, corrupt military dictators (Thieu, Diem, Ky, etc) in South Vietnam as a capitalist rampart against the ‘Communist’ North Vietnam, a Stalinist state with a planned economy ruled over by a bureaucratic regime. They also had to defend it against a mass revolutionary movement in the South which was fighting for the overthrow of the landlords and capitalists, and the expulsion of imperialism and its puppets. The peasantry of Vietnam had waged a war for national liberation, linked to the drive for social change in the countryside, against the French, the British, and then the US.
Between 1963 and 1968 the US built up its forces from a few thousand military ‘advisers’ to over 250,000. At the beginning, the military commanders believed that their sophisticated weaponry would ensure the rapid defeat of the ragged guerrilla armies facing them in the jungles of Vietnam. When military success eluded them the US resorted to the most barbarous methods: toxic defoliation of the jungles (which has left a legacy of disease and congenital birth defects); concentration camps; the torture of suspected National Liberation Front (NLF) supporters, and the massacre of whole villages, like the notorious Mai Lai. Despite all the resources they poured in, the US could not defeat the guerrilla forces fighting against them. This was despite the limitations of the leadership of the Vietnamese revolution.
The regime in North Vietnam was a bureaucratic regime modeled on the Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR, which backed North Vietnam during the war. Leadership of the NLF in the South was tied to the leadership in the North, and fought the war on a narrow, nationalist basis, without making a socialist, internationalist appeal to the ranks of the US forces or to the working class of the United States. Nevertheless, a growing rejection of US imperialism’s war aims and revulsion at the barbarous tactics employed in the field led to mass disaffection amongst the US forces. After 1968, the anti-war movement in the United States itself grew into a mass wave of opposition to the war. Protest spread from the students and youth to wider and wider sections, especially the working class who made up the highest proportion of the draft. The rebellion in the black ghettos of the big cities was fuelled by the fact that blacks, while they made up 11 per cent of the population, accounted for over 23 per cent of all combat fatalities.
US imperialism, notwithstanding its economic and military power, found itself bogged down in the quagmire of an un-winnable war. In 1973 President Nixon was finally forced to order US withdrawal from Vietnam, and imperialism was powerless to prevent the unification of North and South Vietnam being carried through in 1975. In the course of the thirteen-year war over one million people were killed in the South and another million in the North. The neighboring states of Laos and Cambodia were also devastated, leaving a legacy of political upheaval and bloody conflict (still continuing today in the case of Cambodia). The US, for its part, lost 57,000 dead and over 150,000 suffered injuries, many of them involving serious disability and disablement. The return of the body bags left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the US people.
Defeat in Vietnam was a shattering blow for US imperialism. ‘Watergate’, the scandal which forced Nixon out of office, revealed a web of corruption and cynical manipulation of power which shook US society to its foundations. Had there been an independent party of the working class guided by the ideas of socialism, the situation could have been transformed, opening the door for a struggle for fundamental change on socialist lines. The passive role of the trade union leaders, many of whom are bound in to the patronage and corruption of the Democratic Party, allowed the ruling class to ride out the crisis.
A New Wave of Colonial Revolution
Nevertheless, the war temporarily undermined both the economic power and the military power of US imperialism. The war cost an estimated $250 billion – at a time when petrol cost only 25 cents a gallon. The inflationary financing of the war through government deficits led to the undermining of the role of the dollar in the world markets. The dollar was forced off the gold standard in 1971 and devalued in 1973. The decline in the dollar, in which oil prices were set, was a powerful factor in the decision of the oil producing states to push for a price rise which restored the massive cut in the real value of their oil revenues. The oil price rise of 1974 was not an ‘external shock’. It arose from the crisis in the world capitalist economy, which had been aggravated by US intervention in Vietnam.
The defeat in Vietnam for a period severely limited the ability of US imperialism to intervene internationally. The enormous toll of death and injury, together with revulsion at the barbarism of the war, left a legacy of opposition to foreign wars which still persists today. Moreover, the US armed forces, at that time based mainly on a conscripted army, were shattered. The ruling class had to rebuild its forces on the basis of a professional army. The 1974-75 economic recession and the fall of the dollar also sapped US imperialism’s ability to finance expensive foreign military adventures.
This curtailment of the worldwide police role of US imperialism became known as the ‘Vietnam syndrome’. It was during this phase of enforced retreat by US imperialism that a new wave of radicalization and revolution swept the neo-colonial countries. Reactionary, pro-imperialist regimes were overthrown in 14 or more countries between 1974 and 1980: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos in South East Asia; Afghanistan and Iran in Central Asia; Ethiopia in North East Africa and Zimbabwe in the South; in five Portuguese colonies (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Cape Verde); and in the US’s own backyard, Grenada and Nicaragua. The success of the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies, moreover, precipitated a revolution in Portugal, in the European heartland of capitalism. This sent a shock through the ruling classes of the Western world. Only the lack of clear revolutionary leadership in Portugal, combined with the counter-revolutionary role of the Socialist Party leadership, ‘saved’ Portugal for capitalism.
In most of these cases the leadership was in the hands of leaders dominated by Stalinist ideology who steered revolutionary movements within narrow national boundaries, and established regimes on the bureaucratic Stalinist model, which limited their impact on the workers and peasants internationally. In the case of Zimbabwe, a pro-Stalinist leadership under Mugabe accepted the compromise by imperialism, establishing a Bonapartist state on the basis of a capitalist economy.
It was in response to this new upsurge of the colonial revolution that the leaders of US imperialism resolved to strengthen their military power and strategic influence. President Carter, following the Iran hostage crisis of November 1979-January 1981, began the policy of increasing US military power, particularly its ability to intervene worldwide against the colonial revolution. The Rapid Deployment Force was set-up and the US Navy expanded from 450 to over 600 major warships.
When Reagan was elected President in 1980, he adopted policies previously outlined by rightwing strategists. In 1977, for instance, the RAND Corporation published a report by counter-insurgency expert Guy Pauker, ‘Military Implications of a Possible World Order Crisis in the 1980s’. “Mankind is entering a period of increased social instability,” Pauker warned, “and faces the possibility of a breakdown of global order as a result of sharpening confrontation between the third world and the industrial democracies.” He admitted that the main cause of the confrontation was that “the gap between rich and poor countries is so wide that no solution satisfactory to both sides is likely to emerge…” Social upheavals within the poor countries with mass movements demanding immediate, radical solutions, meant that “the north-south conflict could get out of hand in ways comparable to the peasant rebellions that in past centuries engulfed large parts of Europe and Asia, spreading like uncontrolled prairie fires.” Pauker’s counter-revolutionary conclusions were absolutely clear. Only the US has the military capacity to contain and control these conflagrations, and therefore it will “be expected to use its military force to prevent the total collapse of the world order…”
Reagan: Arms Build-Up and Intervention
On the basis of the economic recovery and boom which followed the recession of 1979-80, Reagan implemented an unprecedented increase in military spending, both nuclear and conventional. Reagan’s last budget, for fiscal year 1990, included arms spending of $303 billion. Over the decade of the 1980s, the US spent over $2,300 billion on military programs. Reagan’s spending peaked in 1987, exceeding the two previous post-war peaks. In constant 1989 prices, military spending reached $260.5 billion in 1953 (at the time of the Korean war), $293.6 billion in 1968 (at the height of the Vietnam war), and $296.4 billion under Reagan in 1987.
Reagan’s arms spending, in fact, was an important factor which initially contributed to the boom in the advanced countries in the 1980s. Based on government spending, which has given rise to the massive federal deficit of $190 billion and aggregate outstanding debt of $2,000 billion, was a kind of ‘negative Keynesianism’ – deficit state financing, not for social welfare, but for arms expenditure. Reagan’s new arms policy boosted the profits of the corporations involved in the military-industrial complex. However, the burden of defense spending, and the diversion of enormous technical, scientific and industrial resources into military production, eventually contributed to the development of the recession beginning in 1990.
At the same time, while the advanced capitalist countries, especially West Germany and Japan, experienced a boom, there was a decline in the underdeveloped countries. In Africa south of the Sahara, the level of real (after adjusting for inflation) income per head in 1988 was 17 per cent lower than 1981. In Latin America, the corresponding figure was five per cent lower, and in the highly indebted countries over seven per cent lower.
The debt crisis placed an enormous burden on the neo-colonial countries. A great proportion of the loans from the Western banks went either for arms expenditure or repaying debts. In 1980, about 20 per cent of third world debt was due to arms imports. In 1988, Conable, president of the World Bank, estimated that one-third of the debt of some major neo-colonial countries could be attributed to arms imports purchases.
Reagan’s policy of active intervention was intended to check revolutionary movements and harness counter-revolutionary forces throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. Reagan gave massive support to the counter-revolutionary Contras attempting to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, and also to the reactionary Mujaheddin guerrillas in Afghanistan. In 1983 he ordered the invasion of Grenada, when a split in the ruling New Jewel movement provided a pretext for the US to step in and overthrow a radical regime. In 1986, US warplanes attacked Libyan ships in international waters in the Gulf of Sirte, and this was followed by the US bombing raid on Tripoli.
The main imperialist powers, together with the Stalinist bureaucracy, imported massive quantities of arms to third-world countries. In the period 1985-89, over $106,000 million were supplied to 15 neo-colonial states (in 1985 constant prices), the majority going to the Middle East. In 1989, the then Soviet Foreign Minister, Schevardnadze, pointed out that there were 25,000 tanks and 4,500 military aircraft deployed ready for combat in the Middle East. During 1980-88, Iran and Iraq imported roughly one-quarter of the major arms imported by neo-colonial countries in total, their purchases amounting to over $27 billion worth of major weapons. This figure excludes small arms, ammunition, military supplies and spare parts, etc, and therefore underestimates the real cost of military spending during the Iran-Iraq war. In the case of Iraq, about half of its arms came from the Soviet Union, another 22 per cent came from Western Europe (mainly France, but also Britain and Germany), and five per cent came from the US. Between 1985-89, the United States exported arms to the value of between $9 and $12.6 billion a year. At least $3 billion a year of arms exported on the basis of non-repayable military assistance (in effect, grants), went to Israel and Egypt.
Promotion of ‘free market’ policies by the US was accompanied by the more vigorous wielding of US military power. Far from stabilizing world relations, however, the decline in living standards, the intensified economic crisis in the majority of economically underdeveloped states, and the arming to the teeth of Bonapartist regimes, have all served to aggravate the crisis in the neo-colonial world. This is particularly true of the Middle East.