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Maastricht University

Occupying Empire: A Global History of U.S. Military Government?

Justin F. Jackson, Bard College at Simon’s Rock

If U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq sparked a wave of new scholarship on occupations, this work’s relationship to a parallel new and burgeoning literature on American empire remains ambiguous. Post-2001 studies of U.S. interventions and foreign bases have more readily interpreted them as signs of imperial power than as instances of occupation. Yet recent histories of U.S. occupations usually refrain from characterizing them as “imperialist” – perhaps wisely, to avoid ideological and presentist debates that reify “empire” and “occupation” into ideal types and project them back through time, rather than historicize these categories themselves. Yet a reluctance to explore occupation’s imperial genealogy may also encourage ahistorical analysis. U.S. diplomatic rhetoric, think tanks, and international relations scholars, for example, tend to downplay links between occupation and empire by treating military governments as an expression of a timeless U.S. “nation-building” tradition. In this reductionist view, occupations expressed Americans’ essentially liberal and democratic ideals and institutions, and desire for a harmonious world of independent sovereign nation-states made peacefully inter-dependent by trade.

As historians such as Susan Carruthers have argued, however, the “occupation as nation-building” narrative was itself a creature of Americans’ early Cold War attempts to redefine and legitimize Second World War-era occupations. By the late 1940s, Americans who had felt conflicted about U.S.-led allied occupations of Germany and Japan now ennobled them as successful exercises in rebuilding America’s former enemies in its own image. Initially punitive occupations that raised uncomfortable questions about the scope and geographical extent of U.S. imperial ambitions were reframed as altruistic attempts to transform defeated societies into liberal democratic capitalist bulwarks against expansionist Soviet-led communism. At the very least, new imperial histories of the United States prompt us to inquire if all U.S. occupations actually started as, or became, attempts to build sovereign nation-states, and if not, to explore what other purposes they may have served. As a product of the nation-state’s mid-twentieth century universalization, amid world war and decolonization, the “nation-building” narrative of occupation ultimately obscures how the U.S. military expanded Americans’ power in the world beyond battlefields.

A political history of the United States’ long career as military occupant suggests that empire’s specter haunts this paradoxical and peculiar form of rule (as Peter Stirk describes it, in an earlier article on this blog). First, many among the occupied, and domestic critics, opposed U.S. military governments because they saw them as undemocratic regimes, the autocratic nature of which violated prevailing political norms and institutions in the North American metropole itself. Military rule, they believed, unjustly denied the legitimate (and quintessentially American) aspirations of the occupied either to absolute national and popular sovereignty, or equal terms of inclusion within the U.S. nation-state which the federal government extended to individual states and citizens. Over time, U.S. military rulers responded by more readily conceding power to the occupied, especially elites, in their regimes. Second, some Americans opposed military governance at the nation’s periphery as an intolerably imperial internal threat to the U.S. metropolitan state and its liberal and republican ideals. Military governors who acted too independently from civilians’ legal and customary control over war and foreign relations, or encroached upon them, threatened venerable boundaries between “domestic” and “foreign” policy, and “civilian” and “military” authority. Over time, U.S. military rulers who initially enjoyed relative bureaucratic autonomy tended to cede administrative discretion to civilians in the federal state, especially cabinet-level executive agencies such as the State department, and Congress. Third, occupations represented one way that the U.S. military managed shifting imperial interactions between the American state and globalization. If historian A.G. Hopkins argues that the modern British and later U.S. empires fueled globalization, including in ways that ultimately spelled their decline, then U.S. military regimes over time tended to enhance Americans’ power over trans-national and trans-imperial flows of people, goods, and culture. Occupations early in U.S. history that originated as a weak central state’s territorialized response to global forces served more and more as vehicles through which Americans, including soldiers, tried to favourably set globalization’s conditions in a world of de-territorializing sovereignty. In the aftermaths of the 1898 war with Spain and the Second World War, occupation itself globalized as U.S. soldiers serially and simultaneously imposed occupations, moved from one to the next, and imitated other imperial nation’s occupations, and coordinated with them. In a world shaken by anti-colonial nationalist movements, resistance by the occupied also grew less parochial and more trans-national. A longue-durée history of U.S. military governance thus warrants not a “national” or “international” approach so much as a global method in order to explain occupations’ proliferation and effects, and change, continuity, and connection between them, across time and space.

A schematic tripartite periodization illustrates the thesis. First, in the early nineteenth century, the occupations of an expanding United States emerged as a “borderlands” form of governance by which generals ruling Louisiana, Florida, and northern Mexico struggled to confront and subdue powerful indigenous and imperial powers, and upstart nations, along a porous and shifting peripheral zone of Anglophone landed settlement, slavery, and commerce. Borderlands occupations underscored how most Americans worried less about militarized rule over foreigners and unfree labor, on lands seemingly destined for annexation, than ambitious generals who might subvert the young and fragile republic. Second, U.S. occupations in Latin America and Asia between the 1898 war with Spain and the Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s shifted occupations’ imperial politics. Colonial and neo-colonial military governors in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and later Haiti and the Dominican Republic, more often recognized degrees of occupied elites’ local sovereignty, professionally deferred to U.S. civilian authorities in both periphery and metropole, and actively integrated occupied islands in growing global circuits of trade and migration. They also developed a small but effective global U.S. military apparatus that transferred soldiers and governing practices from one occupation to the next, and adopted and adapted policies from Europeans’ colonial empires. Lastly, Second World War-era occupations in Western Europe and East Asia, conducted in a liberal international guise, retained imperial traces that illuminated military governance’s limits and dangers for democracy, at home and abroad. Compared to previous occupations, postwar allied occupations in Germany, Japan, and South Korea ceded more power to local elites and metropolitan civilians. Yet mounting Cold War tensions pushed these regimes away from punitive economic policies toward rehabilitative stances meant to make occupied nations into reliable economic and strategic partners in the global contest with communism. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s fall from grace in 1951, following his rule in postwar Japan, aggressiveness in Korea, and presidential ambitions, signaled the demise of the military’s “external state” as an acceptable form of U.S. foreign relations. As U.S. and foreign diplomats during the early Cold War negotiated mutual-security treaties and basing and status-of-forces agreements that officially recognized “host” nations’ sovereignty over U.S. military-occupied space, the burdens of civil administration passed from American generals to America’s allies, as pillars of an international industrial and security architecture designed to preserve postwar U.S. military and economic hegemony in the world.



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Photo credits:

Cover picture: Colour portrait of General MacArthur by the artist Tim (William Timym).
Source: UK National Archives INF 3/76 via
Wikimedia Commons

Justin Jackson is Assistant Professor of History, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, USA