Opposing U.S. imperialism when it's hard to do

Steve Rosenthal

When enemies of U.S. imperialism have carried out an unprecedented terrorist atrocity mainly against ordinary working people in the U.S., it is not easy to try to remind people that U.S. rulers have repeatedly committed much greater atrocities around the world, or armed and encouraged subordinates to do so.

But, at a time when U.S. leaders and the media are making an immense effort to portray U.S. economic and military institutions as innocent victims of ‘barbarism,’ those of us who reside in the U.S. have a responsibility to combat this nationalistic big lie. We cannot be cowered into silence by the enormity of the suffering caused by this terrorist atrocity.

Indeed, in many parts of the world, those who are trying to organize a progressive movement generally have to try to do it in the face of similar atrocities. In Central Africa, in South Asia, in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, in the Caucasus, and in the Middle East various mixtures of nationalism, religious bigotry, and racism have incited mutual slaughter of millions of people during the past decade.

These are not circumstances of our choosing, but they are the circumstances that global capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century presents, and we must confront these violent hatreds and win masses of people to unite against the system that is the source of our misery.

How do we explain why some two dozen people sacrifice their lives to fly hijacked planes into the WTC and the Pentagon? Why do suicide bombers blow themselves up in occupied Palestine and Israel? Why do workers from Latin America, Africa, or Asia indenture themselves to smugglers and risk their lives to cross into Europe or the U.S.?

Many people cannot fathom the intense oppression and desperation that propels people to make such decisions. Global capitalism confronts billions of people with these conditions, and the absence of a powerful and inspiring workers’ movement in the world today makes it easier for nationalists and religious fundamentalists to harness and misdirect the anger and commitment of the most exploited. It is one of the ways that we are paying a huge price for the mistakes, decay, and disappearance of the old communist movement.

But the despair brought about by the obscene inequalities of contemporary global capitalism and the collapse of the old left are only two factors contributing to terrorism. Two other factors relate to the position of the U.S. in the world.

On the one hand, U.S. imperialism is the dominant power in the post-Cold War capitalist world. It often acts with arrogance and virtual impunity: Abrogating the ABM treaty, extending NATO into Eastern Europe, conducting spy flights over China and bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, rejecting the Kyoto protocol, walking out of the UN Conference Against Racism in South Africa.

But the U.S. soon encounters ‘blowback’ from all of its arrogant adventures. Many of its enemies are former clients it deployed to carry out U.S. dirty work (Saddam Hussein against Iran, Osama Bin Laden against the Soviet Union).

It is the nature of inter-imperialist rivalry that the leading imperialist provokes increasing conflict with many of its rivals. And when economic or political crisis grips large parts of the world, rival capitalists become more desperate, and battles become uglier. Thus, the U.S., despite its dominance, faces more and more adversaries who will grow stronger as time goes by.

U.S. rulers who are struggling to develop a strategy for coming decades perceive some of these contradictions. They are coming to regard China as a strategic adversary. They regard defense of the ‘homeland’ as a crucial priority.

The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century (the Hart-Rudman Commission), a bi-partisan commission set up by Pres. Clinton, has, in its three reports, focused many of its recommendations on the centralization and coordination of government agencies responsible for defense. It focused many others on gaining the popular support the rulers will need to prepare for and actually fight a major war.

A summary of the Commission’s three reports by Air Force Magazine (April, 2001) can be found at:


U.S. rulers have made many comparisons between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. What they mean is that both were examples of horrible sneak attacks that killed thousands. But a brief reexamination of the attack on Pearl Harbor suggests some very different parallels.

This past summer I read Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, by Robert Stinnett, a journalist who spent 20 years gaining access to classified documents that reveal a very intriguing picture of the Pearl Harbor attack. Stinnett demonstrates that by late in 1940 the FDR administration had determined that the U.S. had to get into World War II.

Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to getting into the war, so the FDR administration developed a strategy that they expected would provoke Japan into attacking the U.S., thus providing the rallying point to mobilize popular support for entering the war. Stinnett also documents that the U.S. had broken virtually all the codes Japan used, so that the U.S. more or less tracked the Japanese Navy’s movements toward Hawaii.

Moreover, the U.S. carefully removed from Pearl Harbor all of its newer and more valuable ships, leaving enough older ones to provide an inviting target, but ensuring that U.S. losses would be minimized. The FDR administration also devised an elaborate strategy for keeping the top command at Pearl Harbor out of the loop of intelligence information, so that they were genuinely taken by surprise.

If you are skeptical that this sounds too much like a ‘conspiracy’ theory, I encourage you to read the book. Besides, I don’t think this really is a conspiracy theory. It simply tells a story of how imperialist powers play out the process that draws them into a world war. There would have been war, regardless of what FDR did.

But the important point is that capitalist rulers have a big problem mobilizing popular support for imperialist wars. It is a big political problem that they have to confront. And, since the Vietnam War, U.S. rulers have been struggling to overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome.’ The World War II nostalgia trip is part of that effort. Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg are working hard to reestablish pride in readiness to die for U.S. imperialism. They’ve made some progress, but they haven’t felt ready to get into a war where there would be large U.S. casualties.

They are treating these terrorist attacks as an opportunity to get over that hump. Anybody who kills so many Americans in such a dastardly way must be destroyed, even if many Americans have to die for the cause.

This terrible attack will therefore be used to bring us closer to far more terrible events. Not only will there be U.S. military attacks against those states judged to ‘harbor’ anti-U.S. terrorists. Of course, the many terrorists who are allied with the U.S. (Israelis who terrorize Palestinians, the Turkish forces who terrorize Kurds, U.S. forces who terrorize Serbia, Iraq, and inner city Black and Latin neighborhoods) have nothing to fear from the U.S. government.

Those military attacks will be a large step toward preparing us for many years of escalating war preparations against various foes. The combination of increased fascism at home and imperialist aggressiveness abroad will be the outcomes of this crisis.