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In the years following the Second World War, the leaders of a victorious and confident United States exchanged the God of their Puritan forefathers for the gods of fortresses, war, and imperial ambition. These they would serve — though their fathers knew them not — and by their power, wealth, intrigue, and ruthlessness create in the decades to follow a vast empire that would, at its height, represent the greatest global superpower that ever existed — and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the sole remaining superpower.
The Cold War gave the imperial ambitions of the United States their raison d’être. Anything and everything could — and would — be justified through the harsh lenses of the Cold War’s telescopic perspective. Subjugating the nations of Europe and Japan, as well as their colonies, to U.S. protectorate status also brought the United States and its financial and corporate interests enormous economic benefit. Supported by a Manichean narrative — the eternal struggle of good (the U.S.) versus evil (the Soviet Union) — it was this alignment between the military, political, and commercial interests of the U.S. that made permanent war both desirable and necessary.
The Cold War era coincided with the age of decolonization, in which peoples and nations around the world clamored for freedom and independence from their colonial rulers, whose 19th-century empires were weakened and receding after two devastating and bankrupting global wars. The developing nations of the world, whether in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, were inspired by America’s founding ideals: self-determination, independence, democracy, and equality.
At the same time that the developing world sought to adopt America’s aspirational ideals, the United States government was busy repudiating them. The one thing the Cold War’s governing class could not tolerate was democratic self-determination in countries where the U.S. had a perceived political, economic, or military interest. And within a Cold War perspective, that meant everywhere. When former colonies raised the flag of nationalism and sought to retain their own natural resources and wealth for the benefit their own people, the United States government saw a front for communism and an attack on the U.S.’s economic interests.
Because the Cold War mindset was a wartime mindset, hard following on an actual war in which the principles of jus in bello had long been defenestrated, there were none of the moral or ethical guardrails that had constrained (to a degree) the actions of belligerent powers in previous conflicts.
Power became the only currency, and the U.S. government, especially as it operated overseas though the Central Intelligence Agency and its hired hands, had plenty of it. To maintain the imperial interests of the United States, every American foundational principle on which the nation was formed — including those pertaining to foreign policy enshrined in the Monroe Doctrine — would be desecrated.
Even in the 1950s, Cold War America was becoming a monstrous perversion of its ideals. It was turning to the imperial gods — the idolatry that seduced Babylon, Rome, and many empires before and after. Some in leadership saw the encroaching menace and tried to warn the nation. There is of course President Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he cautioned against the looming danger of what he called the military-industrial complex. He knew that the emerging alliance between large and powerful political, military, and industrial interests was a threat to American democracy and would give rise to an abuse of power beyond comprehension. But Eisenhower wasn’t alone in sounding the alarm.
Consider then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s warning to the nation in a speech on the floor of the Senate on July 2, 1957:
Mr. President, the most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism … it is man's eternal desire to be free and independent.
The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is … imperialism – and today that means Soviet imperialism and … Western imperialism.
Thus the single most important test of American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism, what we do to further man's desire to be free. On this test more than any other, this Nation shall be critically judged …
Kennedy eventually aligned himself on the side of American national interests against those of the U.S. empire and the military-industrial complex that benefitted and supported it. He would pay the price for this misalignment with his life. So too would the democratically elected leaders of emerging nations around the world, including Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, and numerous others. Indeed, since the Second World War, the U.S. has attacked, sabotaged, or overthrown governments in well over 50 countries in defense of empire.
“Soviet imperialism” has now long been laid to rest, but the Western imperialism Kennedy warned of remains as powerful as ever. And of course, what is meant then and now by “Western imperialism” are the imperial ambitions of the United States as it intervenes around the world.
The Cold War’s imperial mindset has been passed down and adopted by generation after generation of U.S. leaders in government, military, and industrial circles. Regardless of which party’s representative sat in the White House, these ever-present forces carried on their dark business unimpeded. Other than President Kennedy, President Trump may be the only postwar U.S. president not to start a new war somewhere, although he wasn’t beyond assassinating senior foreign leaders such as General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s second-most powerful leader.
The U.S. government’s unrelenting determination — at whatever cost in financial and human terms and notwithstanding the contrary interests of the American people — to wage an endless proxy war against Russia proves that the dark forces of imperialism, including the sclerotic bureaucratic state, the financial-military-industrial complex, and the covert intelligences services, are still embedded and in charge.
And yet. At no point in these seventy years of U.S. imperial overreach have the American people been so aware of — and so outraged at — what is happening. In the 21st century, it is no longer possible to hide. Yes, there is still massive government and corporate propaganda and misinformation, yes, there are AI-enabled deepfakes, yes, the surveillance state is more powerful and more dangerous than ever. But at the same time, Americans and people around the world are more informed and are turning a more skeptical eye upon their own governments, independent citizen journalists are abounding, and there are increasing signs that bad actors will be held to account.
Just as it was in Kennedy’s time, the greatest question of the hour is whether or not the United States will renounce the imperialism that wrecked nations while exhausting and bankrupting herself. Going forward from here, we must answer the question: are we a nation or are we an empire? Much hinges on how we respond.
Michael Wilkerson is a strategic adviser, investor, and author. He is the founder of Stormwall Advisors and stormwall.com and the author of the recently published book Why America Matters: The Case for a New Exceptionalism.
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