Case Studies in the History of U.S. Empire and Society
These case-studies in U.S. history attempt to break away from the white racial frame that too often is used to tell the story of America's past. These resources explore the United States from the vantage of the enslaved, exploited, persecuted, conquered and occupied who made possible the realization of others' wealth and dreams.
The John Punch Case
An indentured servant was someone who had their passage paid for to come to the United States in exchange of working off the debt for an agreed upon number of years. The practice was very common until Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 with poor blacks and whites coming to Britain’s American colonies as indentured servants. During the time of their servitude, indentured servants were beholden to the demands and violence of their masters. Unlike a slave, however, indentured servants were granted their freedom after their “debt” was paid off.
In 1640 three indentured servants ran away from their “master” before their time had been completed. They were captured and placed in front of a tribunal to be judged for their crime of running away. The first two runaways, both white, received three years added to their service. The final indentured servant who had fled, a black man named John Punch, was sentenced to a lifetime of service. This was the first time in U.S. history that different treatment based on race found its way into the legal system of the American colonies. (Coates)
The racial classification laws of the 17th century codified differential treatment between white and black people living in the American colonies. Legally and socially, Black Americans became officially outsiders, or “Others”. It is from this point that modern conceptions of race developed in the United States. Racial categories are not natural, and race is not a biologically constructed. Racial categories were created and codified in law overtime to develop and maintain a social and economic system that benefited those at the top—wealthy white men.
Before the ending of the 17th century there were Africans in Britain’s American colonies who had basic economic and political rights. In what would become New York City some Blacks even owned property. However, as “racial” categories began to take hold, laws began to be enacted that would strip Africans, of their social, political and economic rights. Throughout the 18th century, these rights continued to be stripped away, and second-class personhood was enforced for individuals with Black skin.
The Trail of Tears
The Presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and 1830s would decimate the Native population. Jackson, both as a military leader and as President, pursued a policy of removing tribes from their ancestral lands. This relocation would make room for white settlers and often for white land agents who made large profits from the purchase and sale of land.(The Trail of Tears — The Indian Removals)
The Cherokee used legal action in the U.S. courts to resist the Jackson Administration. By the 1830s they had adopted the markers of civilization according to the Southern White Anglo-Americans attempting to push them off their land. The Cherokee developed their own written language, printed newspapers, owned slaves, elected leaders to representative government and formed their own nation. When the government of Georgia refused to recognize Cherokee sovereignty and threatened to seize their lands, the Cherokees took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won a favorable decision. John Marshall’s opinion for the Court majority in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia was essentially that Georgia had no power over the Cherokees, nor to their lands. But Georgian officials simply ignored the decision and President Jackson refused to enforce it. Jackson was furious and personally affronted by the Marshall ruling, stating, "Mr. Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!" (The Trail of Tears — The Indian Removals) To Georgians, President Jackson wrote, “Light a fire under [The Cherokee]. They will move.” (Takaki) White Georgians proclaimed native assemblies illegal, erased the Cherokee borders, violently removed the Cherokee from their homes and divided plots of land among white settlers.
Federal troops came to Georgia to remove the tribes forcibly. About 20,000 Cherokees were marched westward at gunpoint on the infamous Trail of Tears. Nearly a quarter perished on the way, with the remainder left to seek survival in a completely foreign land. A constitutional crisis resolved with devastating consequences for the Cherokee and for the desire by members of the Judiciary and Legislative Branches who hoped to check the power of the President of the United States (POTUS). (The Trail of Tears — The Indian Removals)
The question of Native American sovereignty remains an obstacle for the U.S. legal system. In 2020 the question of the enforcement of laws in native territory in Oklahoma, assigned in 19th century treaties, is before the Supreme Court. In South Dakota a battle between the Sioux and the white governor is being waged over who has authority in the fight against Corona.
The United States has always worked to justify its foreign policy, to frame itself as the “good guy” in a righteous battle between good and evil. The first manifestation of this logic was eventually titled “Manifest Destiny.”
Manifest Destiny explained U.S. expansion westward, by claiming that the seizing of Native and Mexican territory was legitimate because God willed it. In the 1600s Reverend Cotton Mather of Massachusetts explained, “Warfare against the Indians was a conflict between the devil and God.” On the side of God were the Anglo-American colonists who saw their military victory, and the death of Native Americans due to disease as divine proof that they, not the natives, were chosen to inhabit the entire United States. John Winthrop who led settlers to 17th century Massachusetts explained that, “God was making room for the settlers and hath hereby cleared our title to this place.” (Takaki) According to Anglo-Americans, God wanted the Natives gone. To these white colonizers, divine providence justified a war of extermination against native peoples to clear more of the American landmass for Christians whose families came from Europe.
From the founding of the United States well into the 20th century, many White U.S. citizens continued to believe that providence had preserved the land of “Others” for them. By the middle of the 19th century, this belief that a divine power had guaranteed all of the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the United States developed into a deeply entrenched ideology, a story that white Americans told themselves about themselves, for over 200 years. In 1845, this ideology was coined by a journalist as Manifest Destiny.
While continuing to move West and pushing the Natives off their land, White U.S. nationals in the 1830s and 1840s also began to see Mexico as a threat to their ambition to extend U.S. borders.
Undocumented U.S. immigrants flooded into the Mexican province of “Tejas” before waging a war for independence from Mexico between 1835-1836. This conflict arose largely over the issue of slavery which Mexico had abolished and which these White U.S. settlers, many of whom were slave owners, wanted to preserve. U.S. citizens from across the United States rushed to join the fight against the Mexican army.
The independent nation of “Texas” emerged from this conflict, yet Anglo-Americans were not satisfied. Ascending President James K. Polk sought to acquire the rich ports of Mexico’s California province. After creating conditions to justify an invasion, President Polk sent in U.S. forces. In defeating Mexico, widespread atrocities were committed against Mexican civilians by U.S. forces. The behavior of U.S. troops led many immigrant Irish troops, fighting with the United States, to switch sides in the conflict and fight with their fellow Catholics in Mexico’s army.
Mexico Before Texas Revolution (1835)
Mexico After Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848)
In the Mexican American War (1846-1848), the United States, for the first time on a large scale, militarily expanded its territory through a war with another country. The Mexican American War was formally concluded by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty granted the United States the disputed Texas territory, as well as the soon to be states of New Mexico and California. In these territories lived 75,000-100,000 now Mexican Americans. Despite being declared U.S. citizens, for over a century, White U.S. citizens curbed the political, social and economic rights of Mexican Americans throughout the Southwest. The 150,000 Native Americans who lived in these new U.S. territories were slaughtered and brutalized. Within 12 years, the Native population of the area was reduced to 30,000 due to disease, expulsion and a campaign of genocide.
An Overseas Empire
The term Manifest Destiny disappeared from the American vernacular in the years after the Mexican American War, however, it was re-popularized in the 1890s by U.S. citizens looking to expand U.S. influence overseas.
By the 1890s, powerbrokers within the United States were searching for a justification for their occupation and colonization of the Caribbean and Pacific Islands. While the ideas that became dubbed Manifest Destiny would continue to be influential, in the years since the Mexican-American war, slavery in the U.S. had been abolished. African-Americans had been declared citizens and many Black citizens had been elected to represent their communities in state and federal government positions. Non-white populations could no longer be dismissed as sub-human; the stealing of their lands or their forced enslavement could no longer be justified merely for the profits of Whites. Therefore, a new logic was developed to justify the taking of lands and colonizing of people far, and near.
By the end of the 1800s American logic emphasized that the mission to secure U.S. control of new lands was the selfless desire to “modernize” non-white populations so they too could be “civilized.” The White Man’s Burden is a term deriving from a pro-imperialist poem by Rudyard Kipling, representing a paternalistic idea that to lift up and “civilize” people in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Europeans and White U.S. citizens would need to take control of those places. With this logic to justify U.S. imperialism, Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1896. The United States wrested the Philippians, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cuba from Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama and Vera Cruz, Mexico were all occupied in the first decades of the 20th century. Like today, these interventions overseas upset many U.S. citizens, however, their objections were largely ignored as U.S. businesses prospered while the U.S. government increased its own influence in global affairs.
Justification for the War of 1898 or the Spanish American War was secured by circulating propaganda about the evils of Spain’s occupation of Cuba. Before the U.S. intervention in 1898, U.S. political cartoons depicted Cuba as a woman, generally a white woman, in need of rescuing. This trope of the “White woman in need of being rescued” will become part of the psychology and mythology of America. The United States quickly defeated Spain with support from Cuban forces who had been waging a revolution off and on over the previous 30 years. In the [ensuing] peace treaty the United States secured Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippians and Guam from Spain. (Pérez, Cuba in the American Imagination, 77-79)
As was the case in the Spanish American War, the need to save the “virtue” of white women often justified violence. The supposed desire to “avenge” white women time and again justified the lynching of Black men in the U.S. South. More recently the rescuing of Afghani women from the Taliban helped form the logic for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan that began in 2001. In all of these examples, “Femonationalism,” or “the practice of holding up the plight of women to justify racist or xenophobic ideas about, and acts of violence against another group, society or nation,” has been used to influence people to embrace war to “rescue” women.
After the United States won the Spanish-American War, the image of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippians changed in the U.S. Press. In political cartoons Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos were now displayed as “children,” often Black children as were the Dominicans and Haitian during their periods of U.S. Occupation. This was a fate also suffered by other nations that the United States considered under its sphere of influence. By portraying these peoples as kids, the U.S. press was justifying U.S. control.
The Business of Empire
The occupations and newfound influence of the United States throughout the world proved profitable for U.S. businesses. U.S. companies were able exploit their connections with U.S. officials, often dictating policy in U.S. occupied lands. From the Caribbean to the Pacific, U.S. dollars secured contracts to build national railroads or cultivate farmland. Corporations like the United Fruit Company and National City Bank of New York held enormous sway over U.S. decision making in these occupied territories.
The U.S. government also directly benefited from these new territories as they acquired new military bases, laborers and soldiers without having to provide these peoples with equal rights. For instance, Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the United States in 1917 with the passage of the Jones Act, which made them eligible to be drafted into the U.S. Army during World War One. However, despite widespread service in the armed forces, those citizens who live in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands—territories still held by the United States today—were and still are systematically denied voting representation in Congress and are excluded from participating in U.S. Presidential Elections. (John Oliver, “Puerto Rico”) Without the vote, these U.S. territories often experience disadvantageous economic policies and inadequate responses from the Federal Government to natural disasters as when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017. In 2018 Puerto Rico’s poverty rate stood at 43%. (Hurricane Maria)
An “Informal” Empire
By the twentieth century, the U.S. government and its corporations often sought to extract resources without the formal colonization of foreign peoples. The United States was no longer primarily motivated by land acquisition, as had been the case in the conflicts against Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiians, and Spaniards. U.S. powerbrokers remained dependent on the backing of the U.S. military in enforcing U.S. empire; however, most U.S. occupations that began after 1900 were temporary.
Still, a return to local rule did not mean a return to national sovereignty. The United States ensured that formerly occupied territories, even upon the exit of U.S. troops, would remain profitable for, and beholden to U.S. businesses. In Cuba, before the United States left the island in 1902, Cubans were forced to insert the Platt Amendment into their constitution specifying that the United States could intervene in the internal affairs of the island. While forcing this Amendment into the Cuban constitution horrified the Cuban population, it was not a right the United States would shy away from asserting. (Finesurrey, 2018) Platt forced Cuban policymakers to prioritize U.S. economic, political and cultural interests, while severely constraining the effectiveness of Cuban strategies to address Cuban poverty, health care, infrastructure and education. (Finesurrey, 2020)
Dollar Diplomacy in Haiti
In December 1914, New York Financier Roger L. Farnham helped convince Secretary of State Williams Jennings Bryan to send U.S. Marines into Haiti’s Banque Nationale. Farnham made off with the modern equivalent of $2.66 million dollars, which he deposited in National City Bank of New York where he served as Vice President. (Leonard) Predictably, after this theft, Haiti defaulted on its debt payments, which became part of the justification for the U.S. occupation of the nation that lasted from 1915-1934.
The island had been independent since the ousting of the French in a slave revolt in 1804. Haiti was now occupied by the United States. U.S. officials took control of Haiti’s government and created a U.S. trained and managed police force to protect U.S. investments. During the U.S. occupation Haitians built roads and rail under U.S. military or corporate supervision. The railroad was designed to connect ports to coal deposits and agricultural regions deemed by U.S. businessmen to have potential for commercial profit. (Senate Testimony, 1921) To be clear, these tracks were not designed to connect the Haitian people, but laid to capitalize on the extraction of Haitian resources. The nation’s transportation network was built by Haitians paid literally nothing, conscripted to work for the U.S. army engineers. On at least one occasion Haitians conscripted to infrastructure projects were shot for attempting to escape this forced labor. (Senate Testimony, 1921)
The Cold War
Allies during World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union soon after became enemies competing for influence around the globe. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was directed throughout the world as both nations tried to exert their influence. After the Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb in 1949, both the USSR and the U.S. became hesitant to attack each other directly. By the 1960s the U.S. and USSR had so many rockets pointed at each other, an attack by either nation would mean Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Rather than obliterating themselves with a direct attack, each nation cultivated a network of alliances through humanitarian or military aid, shared interests, and often coercion. (American Government and Politics in the Information Age)
The United States and the USSR dodged bilateral conflict with one another. However, proxy wars were fought in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia between US-and-USSR-backed political movements. The CIA, at the directive of the President of the United States, often found itself working on behalf of U.S. business interests to prop up anti-communist and pro-U.S. business dictators. Without the legitimacy garnered by free elections, these dictators were, and are, often dependent on U.S. arms to keep power despite ruling over a populace that largely does not support them. U.S. arms and U.S. training of foreign security forces have often led to violent undemocratic governments that continue to receive U.S. “support” because they support U.S. interests.
During the Cold War countries around the world learned to prioritize U.S. or Soviet interests, often at the expense of their own people’s priorities. After numerous military and diplomatic interventions, many world leaders became aware that their ability to govern depended on the support of one of these two governments as opposed to the support of their citizens.
In the midst of the Cold War, the enemy declared by the U.S. government was Communism. If a world leader was anti-Communist and pro-U.S., regardless of their treatment of their own citizens and/or democratic legitimacy, they could likely count on the support of the United States government. (American Government and Politics in the Information Age) Militarily weaker nations secured U.S. loyalty by establishing a pro-U.S. business government. Those leaders not loyal to U.S. interests were often replaced with those who were through a combination of covert, diplomatic or military actions taken by the U.S. government. (Finesurrey, 2018) U.S. corporations, policy makers, and intelligence agencies all saw themselves as allies in the fight to maintain U.S. economic and political influence worldwide.
While the CIA intervened in Latin American, Middle Eastern, African, and European nations, the first large deployment of U.S. troops into a warzone to contain the influence of the Soviet Union took place in South-East Asia. From China, to Korea, followed by Vietnam, then Cambodia and Laos, U.S. arms preceded U.S. advisors, who often preceded U.S. troops and U.S. bombs.
The United States intervened in Korea to stop the spread of Communism, coming to the aid of a violent repressive government in South Korea. Intervening on behalf of the nearly defeated South, in a radical change in precedent, President Harry S. Truman justified entering the conflict through a United Nations Security Council resolution as opposed to a declaration of war from Congress. The Korean War (1950-1953) was a humanitarian disaster that cost the lives of three-million Koreans and escalated a conflict between North and South Korea that continues to this day.
Overthrowing Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz
Historically, the United States has intervened in sovereign nations culturally, diplomatically, covertly and militarily on behalf of U.S. businesses. U.S. corporations often influence U.S. foreign policy, with U.S. business leaders guiding the President’s actions. Historically, U.S. Presidents have depended on private businesses to arm U.S. troops and advise Presidents on regions where they have investments.
Large corporations upset that they were losing profits contacted officials in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to overthrow the progressive governments of Iran and Guatemala that were demanding more control over their own nations’ resources. U.S. corporations, the CIA and U.S. government officials pushed the U.S. media to cover these coups in a way that justified U.S. intervention. By and large, the media complied. President Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala and Prime Minister Muhammed Mosaddegh of Iran, both intent on reclaiming their nation’s economic sovereignty, were replaced with dictators who made it their priority to protect U.S. financial interests, generally at the expense of their nation’s poor.
The CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, because he attempted to exert economic sovereignty for Guatemalans at the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company’s (UFC) expense. The context for Árbenz’ efforts was that United Fruit was able to gain control over 42% of all land in Guatemala, growing bananas for U.S. consumers. (Background on the Guatemalan Coup of 1954) Before the Presidency of Árbenz, the Guatemalan government had made a deal with United Fruit assuring that the wages of Guatemalan peasants would never rise above 50 cents a day and that the company would be exempt from international taxes. (Schlesinger, 67-71) Guatemalans demanded change.
Jacobo Árbenz won election in 1950 running on a promise to take control of Guatemala from the United Fruit Company. (Kwitny, 220-222) Árbenz demanded United Fruit accept the government as the final arbitrator in disputes between Guatemalan banana pickers and the company. Árbenz called for a reduction in the rail fees, among the world’s highest due UFC’s monopoly on travel. He insisted that United Fruit begin paying export taxes. Árbenz’ Agrarian Reform Law declared 209,842 acres of unfarmed land owned by United Fruit to be given to peasant Guatemalan families. (Background on the Guatemalan Coup of 1954)
These changes angered UFC executives. United Fruit, however, was confident in its ability to alter the direction of the Guatemalan government. Many people in the Eisenhower administration had deep connections to UFC. The Dulles Brothers, serving as Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of State respectively, both had worked at the Sullivan and Cromwell law firm. This firm represented United Fruit. (Turner, 2005) Eisenhower’s Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith expected to be the President of the United Fruit Company for his political support. (Kwitny, 222-223) If this was not enough to guarantee backing from Washington, the United Fruit Company had loyally donated their fleet to the U.S. war effort during World War II aiding the commander of Allied forces General—and then President—Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Richter, 1944) Collectively, these men decided to support the United Fruit Company and overthrow the Guatemalan government.
The truth would have little impact on the CIA’s campaign to undermine Árbenz. On May Day 1954, due to the unusually large number of workers that would be home, la Voz de Liberación, played its first broadcast. The radio station aired propaganda against the government calling on the people of Guatemala to rise up against Árbenz. They claimed to be broadcasting from the jungles of Guatemala. la Voz de Liberación was developed by the CIA; early broadcasts emanated from Miami and their tapes were beamed into Guatemala with a mobile transmitter. The CIA also worked closely with Catholic priests in Guatemala, pushing them to give anti-Árbenz sermons. (Immerman, 1982) With the CIA operation set to begin on June 15, 1954 the U.S. government succeeded in gaining control of the U.S. press reporting from Guatemala. Just before the operation against Árbenz began, the Ambassador met with reporters to chat about “the type of stories they were writing.” The aim was to have this coup covered as a popular uprising, rather than an assault by the United States on Guatemalan democracy. (Cullather)
The U.S.-backed Castillo Armas emerged with a small force of just 480 men. President Eisenhower supplied air support. (Eisenhower, 1963) Meanwhile, la Voz de Liberación radio station distorted the successes of Armas’ forces. The CIA blocked all other radio signals. La Voz de Liberación reported mass desertion from Árbenz’ army. Árbenz resigned the presidency. Armas was elected president in October with a fabricated 99% of the vote after outlawing political parties and screening all potential opponents. President Eisenhower congratulated Armas for the great victory. (Cullather, Immerman)
Two-hundred-thousand Guatemalans would be killed in a 36-year Civil War caused by the coup. The UN concluded in 1999 that the Guatemalan Security Forces, who in large part were trained, funded and given supplies by the United States for the duration of the conflict, committed 93% of the human rights violations during the war. The conflict produced one million refugees. (“Timeline Guatemala”) Today Guatemalans, like Salvadorians and Hondurans, suffer from substantial economic, physical, political and environmental insecurity. The destabilizing influence of U.S. foreign policy decisions in these countries has helped to cultivate the current refugee crisis being played out at the U.S. border and in detainment camps holding Central Americans seeking asylum.
Ironically it was President Eisenhower who warned against corporate influence over foreign affairs in his farewell address where he derided the power of the Military Industrial Complex. However, U.S. policymakers refused to listen to Eisenhower’s warnings and are increasingly dependent on private corporations to arm and supply the U.S. military. This, in turn, has grown the influence of U.S. arms makers and defense contractors over the U.S. government.
The influence of corporate arms manufacturers and defense contractors on U.S. foreign policy has only expanded since the start of the War on Terror in 2001. The United States military has depended more and more on private contractors and mercenaries to fight U.S. wars abroad, supply U.S. troops and provide security to high priority officials in warzones. These private contractors and corporations, operating outside the formal military command structure, have presented many ethical questions about their place in U.S. foreign policy.
The Harlem 9
The Brown case was decided in 1954, and five years later, in 1959, a group called The Harlem 9—nine Black mothers of children in Harlem who were attending segregated, ill-equipped, under-financed schools in New York—conducted a strike and withheld their children from school. The effort was led by an unsung civil rights warrior Mae Mallory, an activist for school desegregation, finance equity and Black power. In 1959, the parents were criminally charged for taking their children out of segregated schools. “We will go to jail and rot there, if necessary, but our children will not go to Jr. High Schools 136, 139 or 120” Mrs. Viola Waddy told the city’s Department of Education and police. The case went to court. In the famous Skipworth decision, Judge Justine Wise Polier determined that the mothers’ mobilization was an act of love, not neglect, mandating that New York City dedicate resources to these schools and toward desegregation. (Back)
The Vietnam War
In 1950s and 1960s the United States supported a number of the anti-communist dictators and generals in South Vietnam, while the Communist Ho Chi Mihn was the undisputed leader of North Vietnam. Since attempting to secure Vietnamese rule of Vietnam from President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, Ho Chi Mihn continued to push for self-rule by founding the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930, which demanded independence from France. During the WWII Japanese occupation of Vietnam, Ho Chi Mihn founded the “Viet Minh” to fight the Japanese invaders. Upon the withdrawal of the Japanese, Ho Chi Mihn declared Vietnamese Independence. The French, encouraged by the United States after the end of World War II, refused to recognize Vietnam’s independence and recolonized the nation.
Ho Chi Minh led the Vietnamese to successfully expel the French from Vietnam in 1954 after the battle of Dien Bien Phu. An election was to be held in 1960 to determine who would lead the nation going forward. When it became clear that Ho Chi Minh and the Communists were poised for a victory, the U.S. government under President Eisenhower pushed to cancel the elections. By cutting off a democratic future for Vietnam, policymakers in the United States and South Vietnam began a conflict that would not end until 1975.
The United States became increasingly involved throughout the 1950s and 1960s in a process called Mission Creep. Early on the United States government supported the leaders in the anti-communist South with military equipment. Soon this gave way to the sending of U.S. military advisors. By the early 1960s, U.S. combat troops were dying alongside South Vietnamese forces. After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the United States publicly embraced its role as the main opposition to Ho Chi Minh’s leadership over a united Vietnam.
By the mid-to-late 1960s media coverage of the war was becoming more critical. The American public was beginning to feel betrayed and lied to by its government. By late March, approval of President Johnson’s “handling of the situation in Vietnam” had dropped to 26 percent and disapproval swelled to 63 percent (Gallup Organization, 1992). On March 31, 1968, the president announced he would not run for reelection and that U.S. bombing of North Vietnam would be restricted. (American Government and Politics in the Information Age)
With the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the failed nomination of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for President in 1968. His support of President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam aided the candidacy of Humphrey’s Republican opponent Richard Nixon who promised he had a secret plan to end the war in 1968.
President Nixon won the election of 1968 and announced he was spreading the war to Cambodia, which provoked uproar throughout the nation. College campuses were shut down because of massive protests, and, on May 4 National Guardsmen who had been brought in to put down the student protests at Kent State University, shot and killed four undergraduates. Less than two weeks later at Jackson State College, a Historically Black institution, a law student and a high schooler were gunned down by law enforcement officers.
By early 1971, just 28% of the nation supported the war in Vietnam. With the publication of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, it became known to all that as far back as the mid-1960s it was clear to U.S. policymakers that the war was unwinnable. The inability to come up with an exit strategy destabilized the region, while undermining Americans’ trust in their government. (Vietnam: The Downward Spiral) By the time the war finally ended, 55,000 U.S. troops had lost their lives in Vietnam and $150 billion was spent on the war effort. Countless veterans returned home traumatized by the experience and were met with a cold reception by an angry nation.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan pursued an aggressively anti-Communist foreign policy. Early in his first term, Reagan authorized a covert CIA operation to overthrow the leftist government in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas had overthrown Nicaragua’s military dictatorship run by the Somoza family that had ruled Nicaragua since the 1930s. Overwhelmingly supportive of U.S. economic and political aims in the region, the fall of the corrupt and repressive Somoza dynasty was a blow to U.S. foreign policy. The Contras were a coalition of armed groups that opposed the Sandinistas.
Fearing the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere, Reagan explained the Contras as “freedom fighters” and sent weapons and CIA support to them. Congress remained skeptical and in 1984 the banned U.S. military aid to the Contras. Reagan officials, however, did not give up their support of the Contras. National security advisors created a plan to fund the Contras with money brought in by the sale of weapons to Iran. Officials also hoped the weapons sales would make Iran more favorable to helping the U.S. negotiate with its allies in Lebanon who had taken several Americans hostage. The proposed sale of weapons, however, was illegal; the U.S. had passed an embargo and publicly denounced Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979.
The profits from this illegal arms trade were used to fund the Contras in their war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Several Reagan officials went to jail, and much evidence suggested that President Reagan had approved the illegal acts. It is clear that Reagan supported the sale of weapons to Iran for the release of hostages and he supported the covert aid to the Contras. No one ever testified that he approved the weapons sales in order to fund the Contras. Although Democratic lawmakers shied away from any effort to impeach the still-popular president, the Iran-Contra Affair nonetheless deprived Reagan of his ability to set the national political agenda for the remainder of his term. (Smith, Decoding U.S. Foreign Policy: The Iran-Contra Affair)
The War on "Terror"
On September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda terrorists armed with simple box cutters took over four passenger planes, transforming them into lethal weapons. They flew two of the jets into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing 2,823 people and injuring many others. They flew the third plane into the Pentagon, causing more casualties and serious damage to the building. Passengers prevented the terrorists from flying the fourth plane to Washington, D.C., and that plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. Shown throughout the world, the horrifying shots of the planes flying into the Twin Towers are enduring images of a spectacular attack on the symbols of U.S. economic might. They graphically exposed the ability of terrorists from abroad to attack on U.S. soil. They shocked American politicians, media members and civilians into a patriotic furor that would lead to the longest conflict in U.S. history and a “War on Terror” that continues to this day.
Osama Bin Ladin explained that he saw the United States as an imperialist nation that held a lot of power in the Arabian Peninsula in pursuit of Saudi Arabian oil. As a Saudi himself, Bin Ladin classified U.S. influence in his home nation as an insult to Arab sovereignty and the Muslim faith. Further, Bin Ladin blamed U.S. support of Israel for the death of countless Palestinians. In response, Bin Ladin organized the 9/11 attacks that he hoped would strike at the heart of U.S. economic, military and political power.
In the months after the attacks, as the nation healed, President George W. Bush saw his approval rise to 73%. Scared of another attack, U.S. citizens rallied behind President Bush who promised to keep Americans safe. By 2002 President Bush felt secure enough to advance his doctrine of preemptive war, where the use of force is justified if an imminent threat is perceived. The President and his team spoke pointedly about the “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” being constructed in Iraq that threatened U.S. and global security. (Kellner, 2004)
The Bush Administration could depend on the news media to support the march towards war in Iraq. Connie Shultz of the Nation explains, “In 2003, virtually every newspaper endorsed the war, and journalists reported as fact the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This was an unchallenged lie pitched by then–Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has since professed remorse. Many journalists later expressed regret for falling for it.” (Shultz, 2020) Before the war, the media uncritically promoted the administration’s propaganda campaign against the Iraqi government, which later proved to be untrue (Massing, 2004; New York Times, 2004; the Washington Post, 2004; Massing, 2004; Kuypers, 2004). The television networks rarely covered the mass movements organizing throughout the United States against the war (Hayes & Guardino, 2010).
The New York Times in particular supported the administration’s rationale for going to war with Iraq by accepting as truth the information provided by the Bush Administration and taking Iraqi exiles’ claims at face value, displaying them on the front page as verified fact. The Times gave glowing coverage to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s monumental United Nations speech and presentation in February 2003, which supposedly documented Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The Times undermined the credibility of Iraqi government denials about building weapons of mass destruction by following them with challenges from U.S. officials, and discredited U.S. and foreign sources critical of the administration’s argument. (American Government and Politics in the Information Age)
Stories challenging the Bush Administration’s case for war were downplayed. Journalist James Risen wrote extensively about the falsehoods told by the Bush Administration in the lead up to the War in Iraq, only to be censored by his employer, The New York Times. Risen’s article “C.I.A. Aides Feel Pressure in Preparing Iraqi Reports,” documented persuasively that intelligence memos were being altered due to political concerns. The article was completed several days prior to the invasion, but not printed until three days after the start of the war, and relegated to page B10 (Okrent, 2004). The Times coverage gave credibility to the administration’s arguments to go to war. Moreover, as the paper of record, many news organizations including CNN and National Public Radio, followed the Times’ lead and the drumbeat to war effort. (American Government and Politics in the Information Age)
The lack of vigorous challenges by leaders of the Democratic Party to the Bush administration in the run-up to the war left little pressure on the news media to investigate the claims of the Bush administration. While many in congress, including Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, and Barbara Lee voted against the conflict, much of the Democratic leadership including John Kerry, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer sided with the GOP and the Bush Administration to authorize the use of force in Iraq. (Vote Count) The Times’ coverage contributed to the Democrats’ complicity. Perhaps, if the Times and other media outlets had published more critical stories, some Democrats could have found the courage to challenge the weapons of mass destruction claim and attack the war policy.
As the war began, much of the mainstream media reproduced the U.S. government’s, and the U.S. military’s priorities to frame their coverage of the conflict. Prominent news stories provided by the Bush administration became highly publicized before turning out to be factually inaccurate. The famous rescue of Private Jessica Lynch and the death of Corporal Pat Tillman are most notable among these. Other news stories were manipulated to support pro-U.S. perspectives. For instance, the pulling down of Saddam Hussain’s statue was reported as a popular uprising culminating in the destruction of a hated tyrant’s statue. In fact, the statue was removed by a small group of Iraqis alongside journalists and U.S. Marines. When troubling accounts of torture and abuse by U.S. troops, including at Abu Ghraib prison began to emerge, the media turned its attention to tales of U.S. military heroism and images that supported the narrative that the United States was a force for good in Iraq.
Media coverage of the war began to change on the eve of the 2004 Election with Democrats running against the conflict. However, the party nominated John Kerry, who initially supported giving the Bush Administration the authorization to go to war, over Howard Dean who had voted against the conflict. The Bush campaign successfully framed Kerry as inconsistent and won reelection. President Donald Trump would be able to do the same thing against Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton in 2016 election, helping him secure victory, in part, as the anti-War candidate. As had been the case for Hubert Humphry in 1968, John Kerry in 2004 and, most recently for Hillary Clinton, initial support for an unpopular war that began under false pretenses helped undermine their ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaigns.
Cost of War
The War on Terror has left thousands of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East dead and tens of thousands dealing with injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An estimated one million Middle Eastern civilians have been killed directly or indirectly by the turmoil since the United States destabilized the Middle East by overthrowing the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. As of September 2020, least 37 million refugees have fled their homes due the instability sparked by the War on Terror. (Ismay) Most have sought refugee status in North America, Europe and Australia. The United States government has agreed to take an extremely small percentage of Middle Eastern refugees. (World Economic Forum)
In March 2011, President Obama ventured into uncharted territory by intervening militarily in Libya. He said his purpose was humanitarian: to prevent the dictator Muammar Gaddafi from massacring the Libyans rebelling against his regime. The intervention, involved missile strikes against Gaddafi’s forces. Its ultimate intention was regime change—that is, to end Gaddafi’s rule. While Gaddafi would be brutally murdered during the uprising, it is difficult to argue that the nation of Libya is better off since his departure. Since 2011, Libya has been involved in a Civil War. The chaos that persists to this day has allowed the reemergence slavery in Libya.