What do you understand by the term “American Empire”?’ If asked this question, pedestrians on Main Street and Wall Street would probably respond with one of two answers – or possibly both. The term is widely applied to the ‘colonial era’ down to 1783 and to the era of superpower dominance after 1945. Both answers are correct to the extent that they faithfully represent the standard usage found in the relevant texts. They are either incomplete or incorrect, however, because the conventional wisdom has failed to portray historical realities. This, at least is the claim made in this lecture. A perspective from imperial history compels a reassessment of the long period between 1783 and 1945. The United States, though formally independent in 1783 did not attain effective independence until well into the nineteenth century. In 1898, as part of a ‘declaration of effective independence’ she acquired a territorial empire. At that point, the standard histories of the twentieth century fall silent. The last study of the insular empire was published in 1962 – and promptly neglected. Yet, this was the real American Empire that needs resurrecting and researching. After 1945, the United States decolonized at the same time and in much the same way as the other Western Empires. Paradoxically, it was only then, after the territorial empire was dismantled, that the United States began to be called an empire. The label was, and is, a misnomer. The United States was and remains a great world power, or superpower, but in the second half of the twentieth century it was not an empire; nor is it one today. The conditions that encouraged the creation of the Western empires between 1815 and 1950 had changed – irrevocably. This perception explains why the invasion of Iraq ten years ago was an anachronism. However well intentioned, it was condemned to failure before it started, as a reading of history could easily have shown.
Featuring A.G. Hopkins, Walter Prescott Webb Chair of History, University of Texas at Austin