Troubles with empire: Reviewing the reviews of ARC OF EMPIRE

Co-authored with Steve I. Levine, this essay marks the appearance of our book Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Phillipines to Vietnam in paperback.[1]


Empire has had a long and troubled career in U.S. politics and culture—and the old angst is still very much with us. Over the last decade or so we have heard the familiar refrain adamantly denying the existence of an American empire, even as some have insisted just as adamantly on the reality or at least the possibility of an American empire. We embarked on our study of the four U.S. wars in Asia with no intention of getting mixed up in what seemed a tired, unproductive debate. We had our hands full working out the contours of our wars and tracing the relationship of each to the others.

But as we proceeded, we encountered empire at every turn. It was rampant at the beginning of our story in the 1890s, when Americans decided to join the imperial hunting party by taking the Philippines, itself in the midst of an internal struggle to shake off the Spanish empire and achieve independence. Empire remained prominent in subsequent decades when the weakening European territorial hold in Asia was accompanied by rising Japanese ambitions deeply worrisome to American observers. By mid-century the Japanese empire was gone, the Europeans were on their last legs, and anti-colonial and revolutionary fervor was stronger than ever in lands of the western Pacific. The age of empire may have been coming to an end, but American leaders were so transfixed by what they saw as a rising Soviet empire that they launched an anachronistic effort to assert their own control at strategic points in eastern Asia. By 1950 Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—the latter still a French colony, but an area of increasing interest to Washington—stood alongside the Philippines as U.S. strong points on the western side of the Pacific.

That eastern Asia was a cockpit of empire and that the United States was an active, forceful participant in the regional struggles for control of territory seemed such stark features of our emerging story that we began to give serious thought to how we might understand empire and whether it might enrich our understanding of warfare in Asia. Wary of the semantic confusion that seemed to attend much of the popular and some of the scholarly discussions of empire, we took a step back the better to consider the problem historically. After reading in the general literature and reflecting on a variety of cases around the globe and over time, we finally settled on the definition that appears at the very outset of the book:

Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which a state employs coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) to subjugate an alien population within a territorially delimited area governed by another state or organized political force. Once created, empires acquire other structural features. Maintaining control depends on collaboration between metropolitan and colonial elites (with each exercising disproportionate influence within their own societies) supplemented by a variety of other mechanisms. These mechanisms include an army ready to do the dirty work of repressing “restless natives,” a network of proximate military bases to facilitate the movement and rapid response of that army to insurgent threats, a system of intelligence and police to serve as the eyes and arms trained on sources of subversion, a class of imperial administrators to oversee elite clients and monitor social developments, and ideological orthodoxies that rationalize dominance both at home and in the field.[2]

By emphasizing structural feature—including, notably, the role of force—we hoped to transcend the persistent impulse to define empire in terms of the good or bad intentions of policymakers or the even more nebulous standard of good or bad consequences. Such preoccupations had long since turned debates over empire into inconclusive standoffs

Hovering over these debates has been the spirit of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson articulated and helped perpetuate what remains the core dogma of the American nationalist faith­­—namely, that whatever the United States did, however coercive or destructive, no blemish would attach because the United States acted not from self-interest but in the interests of those who were the objects of its supposed beneficence. In 1900 he enthusiastically embraced the conquest of the Philippines, helped by the happy thought that Americans were selflessly responding to a clarion call “to play a part, and a leading part at that, in the opening and transformation of the East.” The United States as well as Britain had an obligation, as Wilson saw it, to help people forced to change to take up liberty, to learn order and self-control, to respect the rule of law. To that end Americans themselves had “to learn colonial administration” and show the Philippines “we have only their welfare at heart.”[3]

Those who follow in Wilson’s footsteps make intentions and outcome the touchstone for understanding empire. They deny the pejorative “empire” is appropriate for instances of outside control that serve the best interests of the subject people. Some other more respectable term such as “tutelage” or “alliance” or “humanitarian intervention” better serves. If the Wilsonian appeal to good works exculpated even such an obvious case of direct control as the Philippines, how could one possibly employ the concept of empire with respect to the informal control the United States exercised no less benevolently in Japan, South Korea, and South Vietnam for much shorter periods?

Setting aside Wilson’s dubious rationalizations and their latter-day incarnations, we took the final step in our quite deliberate approach to the empire problem: we considered whether our formal definition applied to the developments surrounding our four wars. In each case the historical facts seemed to fit. Irrespective of the specific historical context in which it was acquired or the motivations and purposes of U.S. policymakers, American control depended on a major application of force, the negotiation of bargains with local collaborators, and the application of administrative skills of the sort first displayed in the Philippines. Empire lasted as long as collaborators played along, and it disappeared when Americans withdrew their support (South Vietnam) or yielded to regimes able to stand on their own and resist or parry U.S. interference (Japan and South Korea by the 1960s). Empire, we concluded, offered a conceptually refined frame for viewing the conflict-prone U.S. engagement in eastern Asia from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century to its apogee at mid-twentieth century to the retreat in the early 1970s.

Of the twenty-five reviews published of Arc of Empire, we have been gratified that roughly one-third have accepted our empire line of argument and helpfully suggested ways of refining, sharpening, or exploring its broader implications. For example, two of the most acute reviews from this group asked for an account that went beyond our emphasis on the role of war in creating and sustaining empire and that paid more attention to the actual lineaments of the imperial positions—the institutions, practices, and domestic consequences. These two reviewers, it is worth noting, came to our book well prepared by their own scholarly engagement in the study of empire as a historical phenomenon.[4]

Another third of the reviews side-stepped the empire argument or noted it without any evaluation or engagement. This stance left us uncertain whether they were reluctant to grasp this thorny theme, preferred to concentrate on issues that interested them more, or had only enough space for summary.[5]

It is the last third of reviewers that have fascinated us and made us think of Arc of Empire as a kind of conceptual cat let loose among the historian pigeons. Startled by our empire claims, they went fluttering off in a variety of directions.[6]

One direction might be described as Wilson redux: Americans operating in eastern Asia were well intentioned and thus the empire label is not only unfair but inappropriate. A version of this line of thought contended that imposition of U.S. control, however lamentable, promoted better outcomes than if the locals had been left to their own devices. American intervention saved South Korea from takeover by a brutal North Korean dictatorship while also preserving Taiwan from Maoist madness. Following the same logic, it is possible to argue that the control of Japan followed from a just war and was exercised with no malign intentions or grand imperial designs. Moreover, Americans rule was brief and benevolent. Another version emphasized that burdened U.S. policymakers made the best decisions they could. This sympathetic reading of the U.S. record would rule out the indictment Arc of Empire had seemingly lodged.

In both cases the Wilson syndrome seems at work. Both substitute our stress on structural features with the time-honored concern with reading intentions and outcomes. Both torture empire into caricature—malign, calculated, self-interested—that no reasonable person would think to apply to American conduct. With the United States facing multiple counts of empire, these reviews hand down the resounding verdict of “not guilty.”

Another direction followed by those doubtful about the American empire label was to question whether Korea and Japan fit at all. Both instances, the skeptics claimed, failed their test of empire, which required direct control exercised over the long term. The problem with this approach is that it derives from a schoolchild (or perhaps even Hollywood) version of the British empire, above all the long-lasting, formal rule over India. Measured against this standard, the Philippines only make the imperial cut. It may be true, as these reviewers seem to say, that U.S. proconsuls purged, governed, reformed, and relaunched Japan and South Korea as military strong points as well as economic and political dependencies of the United States. Consequently, they followed the French retreat from Vietnam by creating a government whose economic, political, and military dependence on the United States was so complete that it ultimately took a major American military effort to prolong its survival. But whatever these events attended by good intentions and happy endings may be called, they were not empire.

Our suggestion to those who make this claim is that they ought to spend some time with the British empire as depicted in recent scholarship, not the empire of popular imagination. It would reveal the importance of indirect as well as direct rule and even the shifting from one to the other depending on circumstances. Moreover, that literature would also reveal that imperial projects can altogether fail or be relatively short lived, yet they still fit under the imperial rubric.

The quarrel that these reviewers have then is ultimately less with the particular cases than with the definition of empire that we apply to the cases. They might imagine empire as some grand and enduring edifice, but in fact instability is an abiding feature of empire. And at no time has empire been more unstable than in the twentieth century—the very time our story plays out. Anti-colonial and revolutionary nationalism has managed to mobilize elite resistance (as early as the Philippines), to make collaboration illegitimate and risky, to facilitate popular mobilization, and as a result, to render outside control fragile. Even in the Philippines at the beginning of the century, American policymakers were forced to tailor both their goals and their timetable to rising nationalist sentiment. Control in Japan and Korea was brief and in Vietnam ultimately untenable for good nationalist reasons. For Washington to have persisted as though nationalism had not become a potent force would have been stupid, and nowhere does the definition of empire suggest that its practitioners have to be stupid. From history, we can see that this is not the case given the tricky, multifaceted, cross-cultural nature of empire whether in its creation, its maintenance, or its liquidation.

What is most striking in general about this third group of reviews troubled by empire is their neglect of the Asian dimension. Their fixation with what Americans thought and did comes at the expense of Asian nationalism with its capacity sometimes to create rifts that facilitated U.S. control, sometimes to complicate U.S. oversight, and always ultimately to undermine U.S. dominance. A one-sided picture also minimizes the impact of U.S. military operations. In each of our wars, they inflicted massive destruction and disruption that has to be counted against any claim to benevolent intentions or benign outcomes. By ignoring or downplaying these facets of the American entanglement in Asia, those uncomfortable with empire indulge an ethnocentrism that may be critical to sustaining their denial. But in studying empire as well as warfare, looking at only one side of the story is a serious mistake.

Readers drawn to this on-going argument over empire can turn for instructions to a recent batch of admirably broad scholarly treatments.

Julian Go’s Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), is notable for its elaborate, systematic approach. This carefully crafted, illuminating exploration of two oft-compared cases of overseas expansion takes both theory and history seriously. In the process, it makes a strong case for informal, indirect rule as well as formal control as manifestations of empire.

Reacting against recent calls for Americans to live up to their imperial obligations, Timothy Parsons puts the spotlight on the problematic role of collaboration and nationalism in the making and breaking of empires. The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) develops seven case studies—all instances of formal direct rule where the resistance that empire generates was most dramatic. Parsons’ argument closely parallels our concern with including Asian actors and Asian costs noted above.

Herfried Münkler, Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007), deserves attention for its wide-ranging, sophisticated, and stimulating theoretical treatment. To his credit, Münkler draws widely on history though at some key points his grounding could be stronger.

Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), is striking for its treatment of empire as a pervasive historical phenomenon that has shaped the human experience over centuries. This contribution may, however, do more to confuse than clarify the empire debate. Empires are defined here as large political units with an expansionist agenda and distinct hierarchies among its peoples. They are distinct from nation-states, which Burbank and Cooper associate with equality and commonality among peoples within a defined territory.

Perhaps the least helpful of this crop of books in bringing empire into conceptual focus is John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (London: Penguin Books, 2008). This fluent volume follows a succession of great powers, all designated empire because of their considerable span of control and significant impact on the making of the modern world. This amorphous notion of empire serves the purposes of grand narrative if not theoretical precision.

With historical controversies over empire giving no sign of going away, anyone interested in formulating their own informed opinion should find stimulus to further thought in these scholarly works—and others that are sure to follow.


[1]  Thanks to Kevin Hewison for making possible an exchange on empire at the Carolina Asia Center, 6 February 2013. We first articulated some of the points made here in our response to the four reviews commissioned by H-Diplo posted 8 April 2013 and are available at

[2] Arc of Empire, 3-4.

[3] Quotes from Papers of Woodrow Wilson, ed. Arthur S. Link et al., vol. 12 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 18 (on “opening and transformation of the East” in his essay on “Democracy and Efficiency,” October 1900) and vol. 11 (Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 440 (on “administration” and “welfare” from public lecture, February 1900).

[4] The reviewers in question are Anne L. Foster in Reviews in American History 41 (March 2013): 134-39; and Emily S. Rosenberg in the H-Diplo collection of reviews noted above. Others in this group: Zach Fredman in Cambridge Review of International Affairs 25 (December 2012): 690-92; T. Christopher Jesperson, also in H-Diplo; Tom Keyser in On Point: The Journal of Army History 19 (Fall 2013): 55; Qing Simei in Journal of Political Criticism (Seoul) 11 (December 2012): 167-92; David Ryan in International Affairs 88 (November 2012): 1380-81; and Marilyn B. Young in Pacific Historical Review 82 (May 2013): 288-89.

[5] Treatment was necessarily cursory in the thumbnail reviews by M. O’Donnell in Choice 50 (September 2012): 156; Jeremy Spencer in Library Journal 137 (1 January 2012): 113; and Geoffrey Wawro on the History Book Club website at (accessed 13 June 2013). See also Kenton Clymer in American Historical Review 118 (June 2013): 888-89; Robert Entenmann in History Teacher 45 (August 2012): 633-34; Georg Schild in H-Asia posted 10 February 2013 and available at (accessed 13 June 2013); Ronald Spector in Journal of Military History 76 (July 2012): 887-89; Don Spritzer in Missoulian (Montana), 22 July 2012, available at (accessed 13 June 2013); and Jingbin Wang in H-Empire, posted July 2012 and available at (accessed 13 June 2013).

[6] William Stueck and Jeremy Friedman in the H-Diplo collection cited in note 1; Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox in History: Review of New Books 42 (January 2014): 1-4; James C. McNaughton in Army History 87 (Spring 2013): 32-33; Jonathan Mirsky in New York Review of Books 60 (20 June 2013): 63-64; Nathaniel Moir in Military Review 93 (January-February 2013): 80-81; Tal Tovy in H-War posted March 2013 and available at (accessed 13 June 2013); and Edmund F. Wehrle in Journal of American History 99 (December 2012): 987-88. Our letter to the editor responding to the Wehrle review appears in Journal of American History 100 (June 2013): 327.