Adam Burns: American Imperialism

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You would be forgiven for not expecting America to have an imperialist past, or indeed present; after all, America’s foundations lie in liberating itself from the chains of imperialism. However, in his debut book published in 2017, Adam Burns, who lectures at the University of Wolverhampton, debunks this preconception, effectively arguing that America is deeply ‘imperialist’, with this behaviour being evident from its genesis to present-day.

Burns’ first and second chapters deal with the development of America into a so-called ‘transcontinental empire’. This term stems from America’s often unscrupulous methods in expanding from its eastern seaboard to the Pacific, involving purchases, including the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, wars, like the Mexican War fought by Zachary Taylor in the 1840s, suppression of Indians, with one particularly infamous example being the ‘Trail of Tears’ walked by Cherokees, and settlement, as occurred in Oregon. Through analysing many of these generally undiscussed events which occurred during continentalisation, Burns puts forward a powerful argument that the forty-eight contiguous American states are somewhat of an empire; indeed, it is also an empire forged by the same amoral techniques used by European colonialists derided by Americans.

Whilst this idea is interesting and quite persuasive, it is not clear why America is any more of an empire than any other country. Every region was, at one point, made up of many disparate people groups, as the American continent was in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Consequently, most countries have a history of one group or tribe conquering or merging with another until borders developed to the stage they have today. Hence, if Britain, Papa New Guinea or Lithuania are not going to be considered empires, then it is unclear why America should be. Understandably, Burns does not overly compare the expansion of contiguous America with any of these countries; however, if he is going to label America a ‘transcontinental empire’ then it would be useful to have some clear explanation as to what makes this particular expansion imperialistically exceptional.

Later sections in Burns’ book are not quite as riveting as his opening chapters but they still offer a clear and persuasive breakdown of American imperialism overseas. Burns considers there to be three main types of imperialism: annexation, which happened largely following the 1898 Spanish War; preclusive imperialism, the taking control of a country to prevent another power from doing so; and occupation, as happened in Japan and Germany post-World War Two. When discussing these topics, Burns brings many largely unheard examples, including the Guano Islands, American Samoa and the Artic, into consideration. In so doing, Burns’ argument feels well-researched but also unique from the numerous tomes on American involvement in Cuba and the Philippines, although these are included too.

Inevitably, Burns’ analysis of American imperialism brings into consideration conflicting domestic attitudes of empire. An argument repeatedly brought up by the anti-imperialists was that empire was simply un-American as it forsook American values of independence and freedom. Whilst Burns tentatively addresses some of the counter-arguments put forward by the imperialists – who could forget, for instance, that countries could only understand independence and freedom if it was imposed on them by an authoritarian power? – it is clear that his sympathies lie with the anti-imperialists that imperialism was against American values. As part of his conclusion, Burns writes: ‘Just as Jefferson’s vision of an ‘Empire of Liberty’ was fraught with paradoxes, so the United States has grappled throughout its history to come to terms with being a nation born of a rejection of empire, yet being one itself’. Seemingly, throughout its history, America has continuously and successfully betrayed the values with which it was founded, instead prioritising money, land and raw power.

‘American Imperialism’ is an insightful, wide-ranging and concise book which offers a superb introduction to the theme of American imperialism. I would highly recommend Burns’ well-written book to those of all ages who are interested in American imperialism and the debacle of American exceptionalism.

Rating: 4.25/5