Book Reviews Reviews

Review: The United States of War” by David Vine

by Fabrizio Martino
“Vine’s book allows the reader to have a full understanding of the evolution of American imperialism…”

The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic States. David Vine. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020. 426 pp. $29.95 Hardcover

When US troops landed on Sicilian soil in the summer of 1943, in the collective imagination of Italians, the Americani immediately rose as saviors of Italy that, through giving chocolate bars and packs of cigarettes to a multitude of hungry and exhausted people, pushed the country towards freedom and modernity. In other parts of the globe, as in the isle of Diego Garcia, the image of American troops is instead associated with the forced evacuation of the biggest isle of the Chagos Archipelago. The local inhabitants lived there peacefully until US forces decided to establish one of their biggest military bases in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 1966. David Vine’s The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic States is a strong act of denunciation against American Imperialism, perpetrated continuously since the time of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Professor of anthropology at American University, Vine analyzes the evolution of American imperialism by tracing the establishment of US military bases and their different roles in each country. His book, based on eighteen years of research and after visits to more than sixty current and former bases across fourteen countries, is one of–if not the most– comprehensive, about the power of the US military and its hegemonic power over the world. Vine’s book allows the reader to have a full understanding of the evolution of American imperialism, whose story, according to the author, can be divided into five main stages.

The first period shows the historic roots of American imperialism and how the ideals of white supremacy and the role of religion pushed forward the conquest of all territories inhabited by indigenous Americans, along with the systematic destruction of their villages and the indiscriminate annihilation of local nations. This first part starts with the arrival of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) in 1492 at the isle of Hispaniola, currently divided into the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. David Vine purposely uses the Spanish version of the Italian navigator’s name, who reached the coasts of the American continent on behalf of the Kingdom of Spain, to show that the Anglicization of foreign names was the first step of American cultural dominance over other cultures. This part of the book covers a period that includes the establishment of European colonies in North America and the arrival of many Anglo settlers.

The second part of the book focuses on the continuous  westward advance of the American frontier after the Declaration of Independence, and ends before the war with Spain in 1898. Expansionist politics perpetrated by the US relied upon the systematic non-compliance of the agreements stipulated by indigenous nations. Vine shows how the official narrative of American history served the purpose of hiding the crimes committed by American soldiers, often guided by military officials who became an expression of the expansionist desires among many settlers. One such example occurred at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, where US troops, led by the future president Andrew Jackson, defeated the British two weeks after the signing of a peace treaty. Despite the high number of deaths and the absurdity of a battle fought after the hostilities already ceased, Jackson was depicted as a war hero.

The continuous arrival of new settlers in the American territories pushed the US to adopt an aggressive expansion policy towards neighboring countries, such as in the US War of 1812, where American troops tried ten times to invade Canada. It was a war where only a few people wanted to fight. Many militiamen refused to fight and the Federalist Party opposed the war, as Vine (2020) asserts in his book, “some in New England considered secession from the United States” (64).

The 19th century is filled with many tragic events that led to the extermination of indigenous nations, and one of these episodes is the Louisiana Purchase in 1809, when the US bought from the French Empire a huge portion of land – nearly 828,000 sq mi – for a price of eighteen dollars per square mile. This big part of North America was populated by many native tribes, yet  the US felt entitled to take this territory from them. The invasion of Mexican territories and other treaties ensured new fertile lands for  the growing number of settlers, fur merchants and missionaries. Millenary Christianity  influenced the Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823 and asserting the exclusive power of the United States in the western hemisphere. 

Political messianism held a role in the dispossession of indigenous nations, although it was limited at the beginning. Political messianism is based on the idea that all politics adopted are justified by religious beliefs and by a messianic vision, which defines the national historic destiny of the country and prepares it for the future arrival of the Messiah.  Indeed, this form of Christianity, based on the “confusion between God’s battle and the colonies’ battle, between a divine cause and a human cause, between theology and politics”[1], became relevant only after the Civil War. In the US, according to Chip Berlet (2008), this unity between politics and religion derived from some forms of Protestantism, of which the most common was postmillennialism, that prophesied the arrival of Jesus Christ only once the Christians had converted enough people. Postmillennialism became popular during the Civil War, because many Protestants saw in the abolition of slavery, combined with a democracy based on the free market, the way for the redemption of people [2].  

The end of the 19th century saw the US expand its power over national boundaries with a predilection for islands in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, putting into practice the Mahan Doctrine that elicited the importance of foreign markets, the increment of naval power and the establishment of bases in strategic places. His predilection for the acquisition of strategic points drove the US to the construction of Panama Canal and to the acquisition of many islands in the Pacific Ocean, including the Hawaiian islands. The Mahan Doctrine can be considered as the cornerstone of American imperialist policy and his naval strategies became a point of reference for the Japanese empire and for many European countries. Vine elicits the importance of Mahan’s theories for the US in many parts of his book.

The third part of the book covers the birth of the US as an imperialist power showing its strength in the Pacific after defeating the Spanish in 1898 and conquering the Philippines. The annexation of Hawaii, after having backed an independence movement led by Euro-American sugar planters, preceded the annexation of the archipelago of American Samoa and Wake Island. All these small colonies gave the US the possibility to expand its power in the Pacific without dealing with the common issues that all imperialist European powers had to face, such as counterinsurgency conflicts against local population and their incorporation as new citizens, which were considered as a heavy burden by the US. In fact, the US Congress never recognized the population of these colonies as American citizens, demonstrating their ideology of white supremacy.

In accordance with  the Mahan Doctrine, the US started deploying its military forces across the most strategic points of Central America, such as Panama, in order to compete with the European powers in Asia but especially with China. This strategy was adopted to avoid the exclusive control of the Chinese economy by the European imperialist powers, which were already competing among them for the domination of Chinese markets. 

The US soon realized that it was more convenient to adopt the Open-Door policy with China, in order to develop a new kind of imperialism, not anymore based on the occupation of territory, but on the economic domination of markets. The Open-Door policy, introduced by the US at the end of the 19th century, was based on a series of statements which declared the protection of equal rights among different countries to freely trade with China, ensuring its territorial and administrative integrity. While in China the Open-Door policy was never fully implemented, in Mexico it gave the US the possibility to obtain the control of local resources. The same fate struck Honduras and its banana plantations.

Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US momentarily stopped its politics of occupation, but at  the beginning of World War II, the Destroyers-for-Bases deal marked a fundamental step towards the development of US bases around the world. Through this agreement, the US received the right to establish bases in British and French-controlled territories in exchange for  old destroyers, of which only a few were totally functional. As Vine (2020) highlights in his book, “Roosevelt compared himself to Thomas Jefferson, whose purchase of the Louisiana Territory had similarly come without congressional approval” (139). The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor pushed the US to sign agreements for more bases through the Lend-Lease program of 1941 giving origin to a capillary system of military post and air fields and laying the foundations for the air travel industry.

An interesting part of this section of the book is related to the secret development, before the Second World War, of forty-eight airfields in Latin America by Pan American Airways, in order to develop a network of airports, used by both US military and commercial airlines, and to boost the American commercial aviation industry. The author’s choice to include the picture of a Pan American Airways advertisement of 1941, accompanied by several maps of its trade routes, makes clear the importance, for the US, of establishing new military bases around the world.

The fourth part of the book focuses on the new form of imperialism adopted by the US, no longer based on the annexation of new colonies but on the establishment of military bases and on the influence of internal affairs of each hosting country. One example is the electoral propaganda pushed by the US during the first election of the newborn Republic of Italy in 1948, where surprisingly the right-wing Christian Democratic party won, defeating the strong left-wing coalition of the Popular Democratic Front, composed by the Socialist Party and by the Italian Communist Party. Just two years before, they became  the second and third party in Italy, winning respectively 115 and 104 seats, and formed an unsteady coalition with the Christian Democratic party, which won 207 seats. After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the US feared an imminent shift of Italy under the influence of Soviet Union in case of a victory of the leftist coalition for the next elections, so they financially sustained the Christian Democratic party and promoted a massive propaganda campaign against the Communist-Socialist coalition David Vine shows in his book how the Cold War was based on a US simplistic vision of military power as a solution to avoid future aggression. In particular, the threat of imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union was based, according to  Melvyn Leffler (1992), an unfounded assumption. In particular, the US wasn’t concerned about Soviet military power, but about a “growing apprehension about the vulnerability of American strategic and economic interests in a world of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval” (quoted in Vine, 2020, 183).

The establishment of NATO represented the implementation of Kennan’s Cold War strategy, based on ensuring US dominance globally, with the aim of influencing also the political and economic sphere of other countries. The moves on the world stage saw the US invading North Korea in 1950, Vietnam in 1954 and Lebanon in 1958. Meanwhile, the CIA backed authoritarian regimes in Central America, as in Guatemala in 1954. There were two reasons that determined the intervention of the CIA in Guatemala. The first was the start of the Guatemalan revolution (1944-1954), that overthrew the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubíco and allowed the democratic election of Juan José Arévalo, raising concern in the US about a possible influence of Communism. The other reason was the election of Jacobo Árbenz in 1951, who introduced a land reform that negatively affected the business of the United Fruit Company, an American corporation, that started a lobbying campaign to ask the intervention of the US to overthrow him.

In this part of the book, David Vine also shows how the military-industrial complex, as feared by president Eisenhower, became more independent from Congress and how it has a predilection for supporting authoritarian regimes. For example, in Central America, during the 1980s, the US built many bases in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to train the right-wing rebel groups, such as the Contras, and to sustain the local authoritarian governments. The last part of this fully detailed book shows how the growing power of the military industrial congressional complex grewable to bypass all financial limitations imposed by Congress. Vine’s book reports many cases of financial tricks and fraud perpetrated by the Pentagon, which saw its budget increasing exponentially. As Vine (2020) asserts, “total costs for the post-October 7, 2001 wars, including obligated future spending on interest and veterans care, will soon reach $6.4 trillion” (281).

An expression of this unscrupulous power is the creation of many small bases across Africa, defined as “lily pads”, soon after the September 11th attacks, which were followed by the establishment of Africa Command in 2007. Apparently the command was established to guarantee peace in all African countries, even if some countries saw it as a new form of Western colonization. As Vine (2020, 289) reports in his book, there were many critics of the role of AFRICOM within the hosting countries, who feared it “planned to usurp roles played by the State Department and the US Agency for International Development”. Moreover, the command of AFRICOM, established to ensure the peace and security and to promote the development of African countries, wasn’t given to any of them, but its headquarters remained in Germany, in the hands of the US. As Vine (2020) asserts, “Many saw Africom as a new incarnation of nineteenth-century Western colonialism. Cloaked in the language of humanitarianism was a thirst for the domination of African oil and other resources” (289).

The US response to the escalation of terrorism has been endless war on a global scale. According to Vine (2020, 271), “the choice was an easy one in part because the United States had been building a permanent infrastructure of bases in the Greater Middle East for more than half a century”. In 2001, there was an elaborate network of US military bases in the Middle East that, together with all bases in Europe and East Asia, allowed the US to wage war from home. During the presidency of George W. Bush,the Pentagon decided to close many bases that were used during the Cold War. This process led to the closure of many bases in Europe, South Korea and Japan, while the main bases were consolidated, as in Vicenza (Italy). The Pentagon also focused on creating new small and flexible bases, closer to conflict zones in an area that includes the Middle East, the Black Sea area, Asia, Africa and South America. The military construction funding expanded in an uncontrolled way between 2001 and 2009. According to the author, the $33.6 billion, allocated in 2009 for the construction of new bases, is “almost double the previous post-World War II high, reached during the military buildup in Vietnam in 1996” (Vine 2020, 280).

If in the majority of the cases the US bases represented the expression of the strength of an imperialist power, in some cases they represented a source of economic development for the territory, as in the case of the West Germany rural state of Rheinland-Pfalz. After the end of the Second World War, the US allowed family members to join the military personnel abroad, and it determined the construction of Little Americas in Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. In the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, between 1950 and 1951, many families joined the American soldiers, and the rapid construction of new villages boosted the local economy, previously affected by a high rate of unemployment.

One of the most impressive parts of this book is the appendix, which includes a chronological order of all conflicts fought by US forces. The names of the Indian tribes faced by American soldiers characterize the first fifty years of US history, while the other wars show how aggressive imperialist policy has reached the rest of the world. Throughout its history, the US has been in an official state of peace only in 1796, 1797, 1897 and 1977. There are many theories about the origin of innate US aggressivity towards other populations. Some identify the main cause in their settler colonial origin, others think that this attitude is due to the country’s birth in a revolutionary war for independence, others consider the American culture and the capitalist system as the main reasons, while other scholars assert that the strong influence of the military-industrial complex has determined the aggressive foreign policy of the US.

David Vine’s book, enriched by a series of maps, is not just a history book based on a mere chronological sequence of events. It also gives voice to some of the people who were affected by US expansionist policy. The interviews collected during many years of research make this book an important resource not only for all scholars interested in geopolitics and US history, but also for all people who want to understand the reason for so many conflicts around the world and the evolution of American imperialism.

About the Reviewer: Fabrizio Martino holds a Master’s Degree in Science of Communication and is finishing his BA in TESOL. He teaches Italian Language at Kasetsart University and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. As a journalist in Italy, he has published many articles about anthropology, local history and geopolitics.

[1] Robbins, J. W. 1990. “The Messianic character of American foreign policy,” The Trinity Review 1, no. 12:3.

[2] Berlett, C. 2008. “The United States: Messianism, Apocalypticism, and Political Religion.” in The Sacred in Twentieth-Century Politics, edited by Stanley G Payne, Robert Mallett, Roger Griffin and John S Tortorice, 221-247. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan UK

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