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Rise of the American empire and the imperial presidency

by Arthur Kane Scott

By the end of WWII, 1945, America emerged as the most powerful military nation in world history. America, like Rome, had shed her modest Republican institutions for the grandeur of an Empire. FDR had set the tone for the Imperial Presidency. The roots of the Imperial Presidency can be traced to the philosophy of "Manifest Destiny" in which America saw itself as a chosen nation destined to settle the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and then to dominate the world. Paradoxically; Manifest Destiny has no geographical boundaries - its unfolding determined by nationalistic thought and ambition. Today, America has taken Manifest Destiny into space under the guise of the New Frontier as a way to position itself for strategic reasons in the inter-galactic world of the 21st century. The Apollo moon landing project, the Shuttle and Hubbell telescope are eloquent testimonies to the imaginative dynamics of Manifest Destiny as orchestrated by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency at Mission Central, Houston, and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Lincoln strengthened the office of presidency through his doctrine of unionism and federation. Unionism ended the possibility of states leaving the Union and federalism affirmed the pre-eminence of the National government as the dominant tier. During the Civil War, Lincoln governed imperially, much like Otto Von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Prussia. He suspended the Constitution, conscripted troops, waged war as a minority president, and had critics imprisoned without the benefit of habeas corpus. Lincoln based his actions on the inaugural oath that all presidents take: "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and see to it that the law is faithfully executed." 20th century presidents, likewise have defended their imperial actions on the word "executed" and "executive privilege:" that they alone are capable of determining what constitutes patriotic behavior.

In the early 20th century, the Imperial presidency and the nascent American Empire received a real boost from Teddy Roosevelt who promoted the Spanish-American War of 1898, instigated the takeover of the Philippines as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and created the independent state of Panama by supporting a coup against Columbia. America from 1914-1916 became the arsenal of war, and the House of Morgan, its banker. Wilson, like Lincoln before him, took extraordinary measures once war was declared. He established the War Industries Board under Wall Street banker Bernard Baruch. It set priorities and had authority to seize foundries and mills when industry balked at doing what the government said. War profiteering was so great that industry became a compliant player. In addition, Wilson had Congress pass in 1917 and 1918 the Espionage and Sedition Act. Opposition or criticism of the war or of bond drives, or munitions companies were declared treasonous. More than a thousand protesters were arrested and convicted for violation of these laws. Many were socialists or Union leaders. Union leader and socialist Eugene V. Debs went to prison for 10 years because of his claims that the war enriched the military-industrial complex but did little for the working poor. Idealistic Wilson imperiously violated the constitutional rights of many Americans. Even a liberal of the stature of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes got caught in the jingoism of the time and in 1919 ruled in favor of curtailing the first amendment when free speech "creates a clear and present danger" to national security.

President Harry Truman because of the imperatives of the Cold War transformed the American Empire into a national security state in which national paranoia, the military-industrial complex, and covert operations dominated foreign policy seriously jeopardizing the civil liberties of Americans who questioned the policies of the imperial presidency. The polarity between Washington and Moscow was intensified by Winston Churchill's iron curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, 1946. Churchill's speech led George Kerman to write an article under the pseudonym "X" for the Foreign Affairs Quarterly which advocated a policy of containing the spread of communism politically, socially and economically but not militarily. Fear over the spread of nuclear weapons was another factor that drove containment. In 1949 the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, and this action made the world even more vulnerable to nuclear holocaust. Political containment began in the eastern Mediterranean with the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947 - a doctrine by which America agreed to aid the democratic forces within Greece and Turkey and Iran against internal communist pressure. Economic containment of Communism in Western Europe was announced by Secretary of State George C. Marshall at Harvard University on June 5, 1948 when he called for the European Recovery Act (Marshall Plan). America poured 20 billion dollars into revitalizing the stagnating European economy - a stagnation that accounted for the strong showing by communists at the polls in France and Italy. Flowing from the Marshall Plan was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO established in 1949 as a military defensive league against the Soviet Union and its eastern satellite countries. The year 1949 also marked the triumph of communism in China under Mao Tse-tung against the American supported nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek which fled the mainland for Taiwan. By 1950, the Cold War turned hot in Korea and conflict stalemated over the 38th parallel until a settlement was finally agreed upon in 1953 through the efforts of President Eisenhower who threatened the use of nuclear weapons when negotiations stalled. The Korean War was described as a police action, and conducted under executive action rather than the "advise and consent" of the Senate.

The most significant event that occurred during the tumultuous summer of 1947, for the imperial presidency, was the passage of the National Security Act which established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. The National Security Council advises the President on foreign affairs and the Central Intelligence is responsible for gathering information and organizing clandestine military/terrorist activities against America's enemies. Security agencies work to a large extent independently of Congress and as America became even more crazed by communist fear, their powers grew exponentially. The Red Scare of the late 40's and early 50's was both a by-product of the National Security Act and a conscious decision by the administration to scare the American public. "Scaring America" was Michigan Senator Arthur Vanderburg’s advice to President Truman and that's exactly what the Imperial Presidency did over the decades culminating with George W. Bush description of Iraq, Iran and North Korea in 2002 as the “axis of evil ".

In 1947, President Truman established the Loyalty Review Board which investigated the patriotism of 20,000 federal employees; 2,000 resigned and 300 were found to be security risks. Congress, not to be outdone, reactivated the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1947, Congress investigated the careers of Hollywood film directors and writers. The most sensational of these investigations was described as the "Hollywood Ten". Many took the fifth and saw their careers end. The film Guilty by Suspicion captures the witch-hunt atmosphere that pervaded tinsel town. Ronald Reagan, at this time a leader of the Actors Guild Union, began to work as an informant and moved from liberalism to conservatism. Two other famous cases pursued by HUAV involved Alger Hess and Julia and Ethel Rosenberg. The young California Republican Congressman Richard Nixon accused Hess of passing secret state department documents to Moscow, and the Rosenberg’s of revealing vital atomic secrets. In both cases, the evidence was circumstantial, and their Jewish ethnicity worked against them. The Rosenberg’s were found guilty and executed in 1953.

The "Red Scare" reached its crescendo under Senator Joseph McCarthy when he labeled government officials and military personnel as "security risks." McCarthy terrorized the nation until the Senate moved to censor him for inappropriate behavior in 1954. His unraveling however was due more to people from the arts and the media than the political action of the presidency. In 1953, Arthur Miller published his play The Crucible which was an analysis of the Salem witch hunts, and a metaphor for McCarthyism. The other media giant who confronted the Senator was Edward P. Murrow who had the courage to challenge McCarthy in front of millions of television viewers to produce a list of names and accused him of intimidation and hysteria. Ultimately, McCarthy destroyed himself on TV through his drunken and abrasive behavior toward witnesses. America's fascination with McCarthy evaporated as quickly as it had started. One of the frightening legacies of McCarthyism was that it bred secrecy and fear, and gave rise to a National security state that stands above the law, and argues that to save the country; it must violate the very constitution it has sworn to uphold. This Cold War mentality dominated the oval office from Truman to Bush and led the presidency to rely increasingly upon its Praetorian Guard, the CIA. The use of the CIA as a covert instrument of foreign policy really started with Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was assisted by the Dulles brothers, John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, and Alan Dulles as head of the CIA. John Foster Dulles continued the process of containment by establishing military alliances, especially in Southeast Asia which led to the formation of Southeastern Treaty Organization or SEATO in 1958. Allen Dulles was head of the CIA and had begun his career as a sleuth going back to the WWII days of OSS. Unlike his brother John who was known for "brinkmanship" (the threat of nuclear response), Allen believed in the velvet glove or covert approach to promoting American foreign policies goal. In fact, the CIA joined forces with the Gestapo and other shadowy criminal groups like Costa Nostra to offset the communist threat. These liaisons explain why so many prominent Nazis escaped to Latin America. In exchange for information about communists, the government gave Nazis asylum in the New World including Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyons, Dr. Mengele, Adolf Eichmann and others. Moreover, America needed the knowledge of German scientists, notably Werner Van Braun, to launch its faltering missile program. The danger of an amoral National Security State is that its unholy bargains come back to haunt it. Diplomatic Machiavellism led America to support corrupt, authoritarian regimes that were anti-democratic and made America appear in the eyes of the world as being hypocritical and self-serving. Under Eisenhower, the Iranian premier Mohammad Mosadeq fell to CIA intrigues because of Iran's decision to nationalize the oil fields. He was replaced by the American puppet Reza Pahlavi as Shah of Iran in 1951. The CIA helped the Shah to establish his own secret police called the Savak which arrested, tortured and killed thousands thereby giving rise to powerful anti-American sentiments in Iran. Iran too, was a very profitable client for the military-industrial complex of America buying $18 billion worth of hardware. The Shah remained in power until 1979 when he fell to anti-American/Western Islamic fundamentalism embodied by Ayatollah Khomeini. Similarly, in 1954, CIA overthrew the popularly elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who called for a massive land reform in Guatemala. Three percent of the population controlled 70% of the land and one of the largest owners was United Fruit Co. which had close ties to the Dulles brothers. The overthrow of Arbenz led to the establishment of military dictators who for the next 30 years unleashed reigns of terror in which thousands lost their lives. Some political analysts put the losses in human lives at over 150,000. Even in the 90's, the CIA still funnels millions to reactionary military elements, and has been accused of selective assassinations of pro-democratic leaders. Since the construction of Panama Canal, America has invaded Central America 34 times.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1960 can be traced back to the waning days of Eisenhower's administration and the machinations of Allen Dulles. Fidel Castro inspired a popular uprising of Cubans against the dictator Fulgencio Baptista. Baptista sold Cuba to major American corporation and the American mob had turned Havana into a playground with gambling, prostitution and drugs being key enterprises. Castro himself was not initially a communist although the same cannot be said of his brother Raul and Che Guevara. Castro soon turned toward the Soviet bloc because of America's knee-jerk reaction toward his Marxian leanings, prompting Washington to plot his overthrow. Kennedy upon occupying the oval office gave the green light to a badly planned CIA's covert invasion known as the Bay of Pigs. The invasion forces of 1,500 Cubans got bogged down and were quickly arrested. President Kennedy decided not to provide air support for the invasion as it was clear that there was no popular groundswell for the anti-Castro forces. Many blamed his decision not to provide air support for the failure of the invasion. Because of the public uproar and embarrassment over the affair, President Kennedy had his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general, oversee a top secret conspiracy to assassinate Castro called "Operation Mongoose." In all there were 8 exotic attempts on Castro's life; the Kennedys allegedly even turned to the Mafia for help, specifically the Don of Chicago, Sam Giancoma. The Bay of Pigs episode became so politically convoluted that it probably contributed to the untimely death of President Kennedy in November of 1963. There had been speculation that the person accused of JFK's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, either was set-up for a fall, or even had accomplices and that the accomplices might be "right-wing" Cuban freedom fighters or CIA operatives, or the mob who wanted to get back at Kennedy for not honoring the agreement to go soft on the "rackets". As Malcolm X said upon hearing of the Kennedy assassination: "the chickens have come home to roost" meaning that the cold war morality of the "end justifies the means" had bankrupted the Imperial Presidency, making it vulnerable to the very organization (CIA) that was supposed to protect it. The presidency was now held captive by its Praetorian Guard.

The, next horrific episode of covert operations occurred in Vietnam under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. In Vietnam, Special Forces were established to seek out and destroy the enemy including the use of terror, systematic murdering of village elders and the use of chemical weapons. These practices were continued and expanded under Nixon with his secret war into Cambodia/Laos from 1969-1972. Nixon similarly used the CIA to overthrow the popularly elected socialist president Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973. A cleverly concocted episode of Imperial Presidency chicanery came under Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair of the 80's. Reagan authorized the CIA under Casey to organize a counter-insurgency force in Nicaragua called the Contras. They were to overthrow the popularly elected Sandinistas who had come to power in 1979 by overthrowing the American puppet-dictator Anastasio Samoza. Samoza had ruled since 1936 as a puppet for American business interests. Although Congress, under the Bolen Amendment, prohibited funding of the Contras, Reagan nonetheless continued to funnel monies to the Contras first from wealthy Americans and then later Iran, the American alleged nemesis, by trading hostages for missiles. Israel acted as the conduit for the transactions between Washington and Teheran. The Iran-Contra Affair illustrates the supreme arrogance to which the Imperial Presidency had climbed and its Machiavellian deviousness throwing the country into serious constitutional crisis in which separation of powers and checks/balances is being undermined.

Expansion of Presidential power has intensified under the Presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2008) through the efforts of Dick Cheney, vice-president and the neo-cons who were swept into office with Bush’s 2000 victory. The old neo-conservative guard of President George W. Bush Sr. (1989-1992) including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearle, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld following the first Iraqi War of 1991 had called for the creation of a “New World Order” and they were looking for an event that would provide a smoke screen under which American could assert its military/technological pre-eminence in the oil rich basins of Trans-Caspian/Middle East and simultaneously strengthened the authority of the Imperial Presidency and the geopolitical needs of Empire.

The early morning of September 11, 2001 rose peaceful, quiet and brilliant over Manhattan. It was made to order for neo-cons for without presumed warning, “all hell broke loose” as the Twin Towers were hit by two American commercial airplanes that had been seized by Al Qaeda terrorists at Logan field, Boston, Massachusetts.  The Pentagon was similarly struck and another plane went down in the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania thanks to the heroics of its passengers.  Apparently, this plane was en route to the White House.  The nation was shocked, mourned the death of more than 3,000 Americans who had lost their lives. The Bush administration blind-sided responded slowly at first to the crisis but soon 9/11 galvanized Bush’s conservatives hold on Congress as it rushed patriotically to give the President unlimited war power authority without judiciously thinking through the constitutional implications. For instance, the only Congressional person to vote against the Patriot Act was Barbara Lee of Oakland.  The Patriot Act in the name of national security gave to the Federal Law Enforcement institution carte blanche to spy on American citizens, marginalizing their constitutional protections in the bargain.  Police security measures at airports under Homeland Security heightened as well as at harbors.  Travel by Middle Easterners including American Muslims were heavily scrutinized leading to arbitrary interrogation and detention similar to the Red Scare of the McCarthy era in the 50’s and the Palmer raids in 1919-1920.  Muslim Americans were exposed to hate crimes from jingoistic Americans despite the president’s national speech in which he drew a clear distinction between Osama bin Laden and the vast majority of Muslims.

The events of 9/11 led to the “Bush Doctrine” which significantly increased the powers of the Imperial Presidency and the expansion of the American Empire which saw the “war on terrorism” as a geopolitical deux ex machina which would allow America to dominate the energy “spigots” of the globe.  The military/industrial complex: Halliburton, Bechtel, Carlyle Group (defense investments) Stratsec (electronic securities) ,oil companies and any number of private military corporations (PMCs) including Black water were the main beneficiaries of the war, not the American people who were forced to carry the burden of the war despite Wolfowitz’s statement that Iraq oil would cover its expenditures.  The Bush Doctrine has three corollaries:  America (1) has the right to strike first against its enemies (pre-emptive strikes); (2) has the right to replace governments which are unsympathetic to its security goals; and (3) has the right to bring about cultural change – exporting American values throughout the world but especially in the Middle East. This doctrine became the real justification for the Iraq War although the administration insisted that it was the illusory weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that compelled Washington to intervene. The American government began the Iraq War in March, 2002, leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a continued American military occupation of Iraq and the establishment of a client state that is struggling to give birth to a democratic Iraq within a cultural/historical context hardly conducive to such an ambitious goal.

The reasons for the War (WMDs), the stiff resistance within Sunni triangle, the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo and the human costs of the war (more than 5000 American soldiers lost in action, 50,000 plus wounded), renditions of suspected terrorist who were deprived  of their civil liberties (habeas corpus) as well as the high financial supplemental requests of 80 billion dollars for the last several years has lead many Americans to question the ideological refrain to justify the war; namely  spreading democracy in the Middle East.  The ongoing War and its attendant issues have lead many Americans to call for the impeachment of George W. Bush on the grounds of “high crimes” in which the Oval Office has been guilty of systematically deceiving the American people about WMD, spying, stripping citizens of their civil liberties and underestimating the human/financial cost of the war thereby bringing the country to the brink of a financial meltdown.

At present, the Iraq war has seen Bush’s popularity dramatically wane as America awaits the outcome of election 2008. But the election, unless it leads to a reassessment of the costs of Empire fed by privatization and Reaganomics and the growing power of the Imperial Presidency by Congress, will deepen the constitutional crisis the country is already in leading to the shredding of Bill of Rights and to a system based on the Roman model of Principia in which the Executive is first among equals and the Senate and House become mere appendages. The question confronting all Americans in this year’s election is whether or not the Republic envisaged by the Founding Fathers can be revitalized and saved.

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies of the Dominican University of California
and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.