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John West

U.S. Imperialism at Work

Roosevelt Carves a Latin American Empire

(15 February 1936)

From The New Militant, Vol. II No. 7, 15 February 1936, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Certain recent developments in the foreign policy of the Roosevelt Administration have been receiving less than the attention they deserve. I refer specifically to a new stage openly announced by Roosevelt in his Annual Message to Congress. In that address, Roosevelt lavished a considerable oratorical effort in painting contrasting pictures of dark, war-laden, tyranny-ridden Europe, on the one hand, and the enlightened, happy and peace-enshrined Americas on the other.

The possible inaccuracy of the picture is not important. No doubt, to an imperialist spokesman, such minor disturbances as the Chaco War (the peace treaty has not yet been signed), revolutions in Cuba, violent strikes, insurrections and dictatorial coups in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, etc., are entirely compatible with peace as imperialism understands peace. But Roosevelt was of course speaking for more than the sake of rhetorical effect.

An “American League of Nations”?

The remarks in the Annual Message are being rapidly followed up. Feelers have gone out, looking toward a general conference of the Pan-American nations. The Administration publicity has been vague and inconclusive in stating the purpose of this conference. One report has it that an “American League of Nations” will be proposed. Another states merely that it will attempt to coordinate the various treaties between the American nations in order to provide for a general treaty system guaranteeing peace on these two continents. A third suggests a revision of the Monroe Doctrine from its present status as a “unilateral” policy of the U.S. alone to a “multilateral” declaration of policy on the part of all the American nations.

The particular character and possible results of this proposed conference are not decisive. What must be understood is that American imperialism at this time sees it fit and proper to restate publicly to the world its traditional contention that the exploitation of the American continents is the privileged and special function of the bourgeoisie of the U.S.; and that in the “New World” all others must come a bad second.

The time is indeed propitious. Europe is occupied with grave internal crisis. England, besides being directly involved in the immediate European crisis, faces widespread disturbances throughout her colonial empire. Japan is going steadily forward in her announced policy of reducing, the Far East to her province, and at the present moment neither England nor the U.S. is yet ready to challenge Japan openly. What, then, could be more appropriate than a reminder to the rest of the world from the U.S. that in the struggle for the re-division of the world – now entering the stage of armed conflict – the nations of the Americas are a closed sphere? And, when the reminder is accompanied by the greatest military and naval budget in the peacetime history of any country, it gains much more than abstract significance.

World Interests of the U.S.

It must not be imagined that by announcing proprietorship in the Americas, the U.S. is giving up interests in the rest of the world. The ravenous needs of U.S. finance-capital are not so easily satisfied. The U.S. requires also its outlets elsewhere, especially in the Far East. Japan cannot be allowed to march indefinitely without opposition – either through guns or some more “friendly” diplomatic arrangement. But the present stake in the East is not yet so high as that in the Americas; and the U.S. is not at present required to take action. Leading influence in the Americas, however, is a constant, enduring, and minimum requirement for U.S. imperialism.

The pale liberals, who like us to believe that the U.S. is not an imperialist nation in the full sense of the word, are fond of pointing to its lack of colonies – in contrast, for example, to Great Britain – to its respect for small nations, its rejection of “territorial ambitions” in noble opposition to the greedy tyrants of the Old World. Such a view is extremely useful to the war-makers, who know that they can enlist the masses in support only of such high-sounding and idealistic purposes as the defense of democracy, freedom, the rights of the weak. And such a view is as false and treacherous as all the other phases of the betrayers.

Colonies of U.S. Imperialism

We must not be deceived by forms. A colony is not a colony, in the basic economic meaning, merely because it is called so. Many names are used: dominion, mandate, “free state,” sphere of influence, “union,” even kingdom and empire, are all, for example, names which England employs. A colony means in the economic sense a territory relatively undeveloped industrially which is under the economic domination of some powerful nation, which is exploited primarily by the bourgeoisie of that nation. Such economic domination carries with it inevitably a greater or lesser degree of political domination. When the government of the dominant nation controls the basic direction of the policies of the subject territory, particularly in the sphere of “foreign relations,” that territory is a colony in political as well as economic fact, no matter what name may be used, no matter what the “legal” standing,

In the basic sense, Mexico, the nations of Central America, many of the Caribbean islands (e.g„ Cuba, Porto Rico, Santo Domingo) and to a lesser degree many of the South American countries (especially Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia), and even Canada, are part of the colonial system of U.S. imperialism.

This is a fact well known to U.S. capitalists and to the U.S. government. It is obviously revealed, in one direction, by the heavy government subsidies to the U.S. ships [1] operating within this system, and by the extension of Pan-American Airways with the help of much greater subsidies than those given to any other air line. The War Department analyses of the relative strength of the great powers in material resources necessary to carry on the next war treat these territories as colonies of the U.S. in exactly the same sense that the various dominions are treated as colonies of England.

American Capital

In these nations the basic industries are almost all carried on by U.S. capital. United Fruit handles most of Central America – not only the orchards (the chief industry), but railroads, communications, etc. Standard Fruit exploits the orchards of Mexico. The oil fields of Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, are chiefly in U.S. hands. The silver, copper, and gold mines of Peru and Mexico are owned and run by Cerroda Pasca and the Hearst interests. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler provide the automobiles and trucks and build factories in Canada and assembly plants in the other countries. The sugar industry of Cuba is owned through the great New York banks. The U.S. Utilities and Communications companies operate the power, light, and communications systems. Roads and government works have been built in the period since the war primarily through the huge exportation of U.S. capital – passed on to the U.S. investors in bonds now mostly in default or fantastically depreciated. Every interstice of the economic structure of these nations is plugged with U.S. capital.

In addition, quite naturally, the basic political policies of these nations is [sic!] controlled by Washington. The gloved and friendly hand of “the good neighbor” is supplemented whenever necessary by the iron of battleships and marines.

Growth of U.S. Influence

The present relationship between the U.S. and these nations has, of course, been developed over along period of time, indeed for more than a century. Its first grandiose prophecy was the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine itself, in 1823, This, however, was much more than the young nation could have swallowed by itself in that period. It was made possible only because at that time it fitted into the plans of England, then jockeying in the European arena against the Holy Alliance of Prussia, Austria and Russia. Since then the hegemony of the U.S. has been steadily built up, developed not by the words of diplomatic notes and public speeches, but by the actual relationship of forces among the contending powers. England has always remained the principal contender, and her superb drill and tradition in such matters, added to her dominant position during the 19th century, gave her often the advantage – particularly in such longer term projects as the building of railroads (Argentine, Chile) and in getting the chief trade in “hardware” for English manufacturers. Before the war, Germany came rapidly forward, and threatened both England and the U.S. in South America. But defeat in the War sent Germany a long way back. England remained and continues, and now Japan emerges more and more clearly, aggressively thrusting her cheap textiles and miscellaneous manufactures into the South American market.

Looking Forward to War

The U.S., the most vigorous and powerful nation of the rotting capitalist world, looks to the future. U.S. imperialism sees the war approaching. And already it aims to utilize the war crisis to strengthen its stranglehold on the Americas, to reinforce its own colonial system. From this as a basis, its eyes go out to the potentialities of the war itself: to the chance of remaining aloof, in splendid isolation, until the warring powers approach mutual exhaustion, and then stepping in to decide the issue, and to hold the whip hand on a world scale.

U.S. Marxists must follow with increasing care the course of the U.S. “Pan-American” policy, and the events within the Central and South American countries. Above all, relations between the revolutionists of these nations and those of the U.S. must be greatly and rapidly strengthened. In the majority of these nations, as even a brief survey proves, the revolutionary struggle is identical with ours: in the most direct sense it is precisely the struggle against U.S. imperialism. Their victories, consequently, are our victories, and we are defeated in their defeats.

Note by ETOL

1. Inthe printed version “shops”.

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