"In The Shadows of the American Century": A Review

By David Chamberlain posted 05-11-2019 05:42:49 PM


In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, by Alfred W. McCoy. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.  258 pages. $12.00 paper.

In a candid moment, the celebrated historian Richard Hofstadter once acknowledged, “I know it is risky, but I still write history out of my engagement with the present.” A similar purpose can be discerned in the long and prolific career of Alfred W. McCoy, whose scholarly work began in the early 1970s in the jungles of Southeast Asia investigating the CIA’s role in the heroin trade during the Vietnam War.  Over the ensuing decades, McCoy’s work centered on the history of American colonialism in the Philippines, but he also used his research in that field to illuminate urgent contemporary concerns such as the rise of the American surveillance state and the role of torture in U.S. foreign policy. These seemingly unrelated strands in his scholarship are braided together by McCoy in his provocative and highly original book In the Shadows of the American Century.

At its core In the Shadows of the American Century is a history of the emergence and development of the American empire.  McCoy describes an American empire that has changed its shape and character over the last one hundred and twenty years, but has retained certain key features throughout its evolution.  Following the lead of most contemporary historians, McCoy sees the Spanish American War as a key pivot point in history, the moment in which the United States took it first tentative steps toward acquiring and administering colonies in both the Caribbean and Asia.  The second iteration of the American Empire was birthed amid the exigencies of World War II and then expanded in reach and power until the conclusion of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the current form of empire, one that derives its power from cyber warfare, the weaponization of space, and vast surveillance capabilities.  As different as these three versions of empire may be, McCoy argues that in each period American power was exercised through the creation of unique public-private alliances rather than through formal colonial offices, the establishment of diplomatic and economic pacts with other nations, and reliance on local leaders to carry out Washington’s biddings.

Lost amid the wealth of details about the historical contours of the American Empire is a sustained analysis of just what purpose it all serves and whether there are underlying motive continuities throughout the periods he demarcates. This is somewhat surprising given that McCoy holds the Harrington Chair in history at The University of Wisconsin Madison, a position named after Fred Harrington who did so much to advance an economic interpretation of U.S. foreign policy.  In the opening pages of his book, McCoy does make a nod in this direction by pointing out that the American empire, at least in the immediate aftermath of World War II, served to bolster the living standards of ordinary citizens. The raison d’etre of empire, it would appear, was to damper domestic class antagonism by fostering broadly shared prosperity at home.  However, McCoy does not extend this intimation either backwards in time to the fledgling first American empire nor does he apply it to the current manifestation. This is a curious oversight given that there is certainly a robust interpretative tradition that casts the imperialistic forays of the late 19th century as primarily driven by a desire for new markets for American goods that would ensure the humming of industrial production, thus keeping a lid on union agitation and promoting domestic stability.  McCoy does advance, briefly, the notion that in recent times the “old bargain” of collective prosperity, which organized the United States during the Cold War period, has broken down and that American foreign policy has largely advanced a globalist agenda that has brought with it stark income inequality. If there is indeed a fault line between the second and third American empires in terms of the respective benefits distributed among different economic classes domestically, one wishes that McCoy had parsed this provocative topic at much greater length.  

But In the Shadows of the American Century is much more than a history of the evolution of the American empire since the late 19th century.  It is also a plaintive accounting of the enormous moral and strategic costs entailed with the maintenance of the American imperium.  The immense suffering inflicted by the U.S. military on people throughout the developing world is the most obvious toll of empire. Even readers who are well versed in the history of the Vietnam War will likely be taken aback by McCoy’s description of the American air campaign against Laos, which aimed to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and was heedless of its impact on the peasantry of that impoverished nation.  Sadly since the Vietnam War, the United States has continued to sow indiscriminate destruction across the imperial periphery, most recently as part of the ongoing War on Terrorism.  McCoy’s riveting blow by blow of an ill considered drone strike on a trio of civilian vehicles in Afghanistan in 2010 that killed twenty three people should disabuse readers of the idea that continued use of such terms as smart weapons or surgical strikes is either accurate or morally appropriate.  

Violence that is directed outward, however, has a peculiar and cruel tendency to rebound on its perpetrators.  The book begins with McCoy’s reflections on his childhood during the post World War II period in the United States which is often idealized in popular history as an idyllic time of economic abundance and consensus politics.  But beneath this veneer, the Greatest Generation veterans suffered from the trauma of war and sought relief in “liquid therapy.” McCoy’s own father died in an alcohol impaired accident and his next door neighbor Ed Katzenback committed suicide after a night of hard partying.  The War on Terrorism, now nearly twenty years in duration and with no end in sight, is also slowly consuming its participants here in the United States. The alarming suicide rates of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been well documented elsewhere, but McCoy adds a key point to this larger discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder by detailing the psychological plight of drone operators who act as remote Grim Reapers during their twelve hour shifts in front of video monitors.  

The widespread application of force around the world, whether through air strikes or waterboarding, has hampered the advancement of American interests in recent times.  In Afghanistan, for instance, unremitting drone strikes have hardened the local populace against the United States and increased support for jihadists. But no single policy has been more counterproductive than the torture regime initiated by the Bush administration and carried out at far-flung locations from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib.  Although it may be a jarring, inconvenient truth to accept, McCoy rightly points out that the leadership of ISIS was born in the sadistic prison cells of American run Camp Bucca in Iraq.  And if the spawning of a new generation of radical Islamists is not a sufficiently appalling outcome of the use of torture, McCoy also urges readers to consider that the abandonment of basic human rights principles has also seriously eroded American soft power and undercut its claim to “moral leadership of the international community.”

Since the founding period of American history perceptive and principled voices have warned that if the United States succumbed to imperial ambitions abroad then our democracy here at home would be imperiled.  In McCoy’s estimation, these warnings have proved prescient. Playing on Justice Louis Brandeis’ aphorism that the states are the laboratories of democracy, McCoy argues that America’s colonies have served as laboratories of surveillance and repression.  New technologies and tactics that were first used to monitor and discipline recalcitrant colonial subjects were then turned on the citizens of the United States itself. The Philippines was the first of these vile laboratories. The insurrection there, which took place after the Spanish American War, was crushed by the United States using emerging information technologies that were wed with new policing tactics. The punch card, the Dewey Decimal system, and fingerprinting allowed American authorities to compile extensive dossiers on the local population which then informed brutal counterinsurgency operations. With the template made, it was then used domestically, with chilling efficiency, to surveil and crush labor movements, socialists and anyone else deemed subversive beginning in the 1920s and continuing throughout the Cold War.  These technologies of power and knowledge, to use Foucault’s theoretical formulation, accelerated in reach and sophistication as the United States sought to track and apprehend or kill suspected terrorists after September 11th. The NSA’s metadata project, designed to collect and store information on external enemies, has like its predecessor technologies been loosed on American citizens. McCoy reminds us that Edward Snowden’s revelations showed that the NSA now has both the intent and capacity to monitor virtually every phone call and electronic transmission made within the United States but to what ends one can only speculate.

As the title makes plain, In the Shadows of the American Century is also a reflection on the waning of American global power. The American empire grew in strength and influence throughout the twentieth century, achieving hegemonic status after the implosion of its international rival, the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s.  However, its unipolar historical moment is now being challenged by China and McCoy sees an American empire that is strained and beginning to buckle. One of the book’s most insightful arguments is that American power was at its height when, over the course of several American presidential administrations, it hewed closely to a geopolitical grand strategy of containing the Soviet Union and China through the maintenance of buffer alliances at both ends of Asia and naval control of key shipping lanes.  Drawing on the insights of the political geographer Halford Mackinder, the mid century architects of American foreign policy successfully sought to control the “trade and resources” of what Mackinder called “the world island” of Eurasia.

In the early 2000s, the grand strategy that McCoy outlines began to be undermined by a series of bold, well planned initiatives by the Chinese and by a succession of inept moves by the United States.  The Chinese developed and implemented strategies to circumvent the American containment system by way of its Silk Road strategy of economically integrating the Asian interior through a network of railways and energy pipelines and by challenging American naval dominance by constructing a chain of bases in the South China Sea.  As China moved forward with its own grand strategy, the United States was mired in two intractable land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which spread its forces thinly, sapped its treasury, and opened up fissures with their allies. Although it has become commonplace in the United States for commentators to paint Democrats as critics of empire and Republicans as apologists, McCoy finds this dichotomy wanting.  He demonstrates that President Obama attempted to be a steward of the empire, first husbanding American military strength by drawing down forces in the Middle East and then putting his fingers into the cracking dike of the containment system by creating the Tran-Pacific Partnership and transferring American naval assets to Australia to check Chinese moves in the South China Sea. But in McCoy’s judgement, Obama’s program for shoring up the American empire were immediately subverted by President Trump through his denigration of longstanding allies and America’s abrupt withdrawal from the TPP. Trump came to power under the banner of making America great again but he may prove ironically to be a proverbial fat lady of sorts, singing, or perhaps more accurately tweeting, as he presides over the end of America’s international predominance.  

The historian John Murrin, reflecting on the rise of the Atlantic slave system and the deaths of millions of Native Americans from European diseases, wrote that the early English settlers of North America were “beneficiaries of catastrophe.” Similarly, for more than one hundred and twenty years, Americans have reaped the economic advantages of living within a global empire that often orchestrated catastrophe in the developing world on their behalf.  The American empire has grown long in the tooth, however, and in McCoy’s view it now has a diminishing capacity to either dominate the international system or to deliver benefits to its own citizens. If this assessment is accurate then it would appear that the United States is at a crossroads. It can continue along the well worn tracks of previous empires and attempt to cling to power through a process of imperial reform that will likely be costly and yet insufficient to arrest the decline.  Or perhaps the United States will opt for a different road, one that reduces its footprint abroad and dedicates itself to domestic rehabilitation and the old aspiration of creating a more perfect union at home. The historical hour is getting late and in McCoy’s evocative language the shadows are lengthening. The time for hard choices is at hand.

David M. Chamberlain

History Teacher

Burke Mountain Academy