A rather hands-off approach to empire

五月 19, 2006

Another book on American imperialism? Why should we read this account of American expansion, which was completed in 1978 and is reissued with a 2004 epilogue by a younger colleague? Should we not just delve into a recent volume that considers the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan with some historical background?

First, V. G. Kiernan writes better than most of those exploring the new imperialists. He does so with flair, charm and incisiveness.

Second, his historical account from the 17th century to the late 20th century is an effort to show the unique American approach to empire. In this he is not alone, and he draws on and joins a line of American critical scholars on the left including Thorsten Veblen, W. A. Williams, Gabriel Kolko and Noam Chomsky. Third, he has a wider knowledge of world history than any American writer on empire, and he enriches every paragraph with comparisons to other empires and historical events.

Kiernan is a member of the remarkable group of British Marxist historians who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s and formed its Historians Group in 1946. Together with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, among others, Kiernan was involved in intense discussions and arguments that later sent them off in their own directions. Most, except for Hobsbawm, left the CPGB, but all these men shaped out a more sophisticated and subtle historiography than orthodox Marxism. The stress for Thompson, Williams, Hobsbawm and Kiernan was more on the complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, culture and ideology, with material factors. This has allowed them to produce rich and suggestive works from the second quarter of the 20th century into its last quarter.

Kiernan's account and analysis of American imperialism to 1978 has now been been reissued with a handsome tribute by Hobsbawm as the preface and an epilogue by John Trumpbour carrying the narrative to 2004.

It may be seen as the second volume of his account of Western imperialism, which begins with The Lords of Human Kind . Despite being written more than 30 years ago, neither volume feels dated (except in particulars near the end of the present volume). Even without the epilogue, Kiernan points the way to America's journey into Iraq by his dissection of the distinctive American approach to empire.

Trumpbour's epilogue provides specifics. Before Kiernan settled into an academic post at Edinburgh University after the Second World War, he spent the war years in South Asia, learnt Urdu, skilfully translated works of two poets into English and gained first-hand knowledge of imperialism at work.

This experience and his Scottish vantage point for viewing imperialism as well, as his encyclopedic knowledge of world history, contribute to his perspective.

Kiernan insists on the connections between domestic and foreign affairs.

Throughout, he compares the treatment of Native Americans and blacks within America to the way Americans treated foreign peoples in Asia and Latin America. He also compares these relations on the frontier of empire across empires so that, for example, he compares the American suppression of the Filipino rebellion with the contemporary Boer War.

The theme of America's mission, in his view combining exploitation and sometimes liberation, carried out in what he calls "neo-colonial" rather than colonial fashion, is what makes America different from European conquerors. The earlier Westerners in Asia and Africa wanted complete control; America after its fiasco in the Philippines preferred indirect economic influence and manipulation rather than long-term responsibility.

In Vietnam, however, the Americans were drawn in deeply but then extricated themselves completely from their quagmire.

But within America, the Native Americans and the blacks had to be dealt with directly. Even here, though, Kiernan's interesting comparisons of famines in India with those among the Native Americans make this a more stimulating account than straight American history.

As Kiernan approaches the late 1970s, he tracks the secret machinations of the CIA and overt American interventions in the Caribbean, in Africa and in Southeast Asia. Some of this is well known (Guatemala, Iran), and he is too facile with pulling in the CIA. At the same time that he is condemning many of these interventions, he realises, as some writers on the Left do not, that America is too big and variegated to be contained in one simple formula. Although he does not disown his Marxist approach, he presents a much more interesting account than many others from this background, and his numberless comparisons make this book a pleasure to read.

Leonard A. Gordon is emeritus professor of history, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, US.

America: The New Imperialism: From White Settlement to World Hegemony

Author - V. G. Kiernan
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 440
Price - £15.00
ISBN - 1 84467 522 X

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