Excerpt: Arc of Empire, by Michael H. Hunt and Steven I. Levine

Although conventionally treated as separate, America’s four wars in Asia were actually phases in a sustained U.S. bid for regional dominance, according to Michael H. Hunt and Steven I. Levine. This effort, they argue, unfolded as an imperial project in which military power and the imposition of America’s political will were crucial. Devoting equal attention to Asian and American perspectives, Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam follows the long arc of conflict across 75 years, from the Philippines through Japan and Korea to Vietnam, tracing along the way American ambition, ascendance, and ultimate defeat. Hunt and Levine show how these wars are etched deeply in Asia’s politics and culture. 

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Arc of Empire in which the authors explain the importance of approaching America’s wars in the Pacific in terms of empire and suggest that the “arc of empire” continues with current policy toward the Middle East and Central Asia today.

From Arc of Empire (pp. 1-4, 7-8):


Between 1899 and 1973 Americans fought four wars in eastern Asia. This prolonged though intermittent military engagement began with a brutal and now barely remembered struggle in the Philippines (1899-1902). As that conflict was winding down, tension began building between the United States and Japan, another rising Asian power. It exploded at Pearl Harbor. Nearly four years of savage fighting followed, culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the addition of U.S. strong points in eastern Asia, including occupied Japan. Five years after Japan’s surrender, Korea became the third link in this chain of conflict. Civil war in a country divided by Cold War rivalry turned in 1950 into an international conflict pitting American troops against Chinese forces backed by the Soviet Union. The Korean War in turn helped push U.S. policymakers, anxious about China’s seemingly aggressive communism, toward a major commitment in Indochina. The war there that U.S. troops took over in 1965 proved the most protracted and frustrating of all. It ended in a humiliating defeat that wrote finis to U.S. dreams of dominance in eastern Asia.

These four wars—in the Philippines, against Japan, in Korea, and in Vietnam—were not separate and unconnected, although they are conventionally treated as such. They were phases in a U.S. attempt to establish and maintain a dominant position in eastern Asia sustained over some seen decades against considerable resistance. These wars, along with other conflicts in which Americans had a part, such as the Boxer expedition (1900), the Chinese civil war (1946-49), the Huk insurgency in the Philippines (1947 to mid-1950s), and the Cambodian revolution (1970-79) constitute a single historical drama in four acts. The Philippines set the scene, Japan’s defeat brought the American protagonists to the apogee of their dominance, soon challenged in Korea and then broken in Vietnam. These developments carried profound consequences for eastern Asia as well as the United States. Ultimately the political and social changes transforming the region proved beyond the control of Americans despite the military advantage that their vastly superior weaponry and material resources conferred.

[ . . . ]

This study . . . provides a comparative perspective on the U.S. drive by treating it in terms of empire. Our decision to give prominence to this much controverted term requires an explanation. Imperial references have evoked anxieties for as long as Americans have debated their role in the world. Early generations of American leaders, steeped in classical traditions, regarded empire as a fundamental threat to the survival of republics, which history told them were inherently fragile. The fear of imperial tendencies repeatedly sounded in U.S. political debate through the nineteenth century, and though attenuated today, that fear can still be heard. American leaders, loath to acknowledge the existence of an American empire, have been quick to deny even its possibility. To some considerable extent they are captives of the broader popular view of the United States as an exceptional country immune to imperial temptation and frequently at odds with those who have sought dominion over others. Indeed, in major conflicts from the late nineteenth century onward Washington has sought to rally international support by drawing a clear line between its commitment to national liberation and its foes’ record of imperial subjugation. Much of the indictment of Spain in 1898, Germany over the first half of the twentieth century, Japan during the 1930s and early 1940s, and the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War was couched in terms of their imperial ambitions. The avowed U.S. goal was to check empire, not create it.

Only in the last decade or so have the proponents of the uninhibited exercise of U.S. global power sought to sweep aside popular hesitations and doubt. Wearing empire as a badge of honor, they have challenged their fellow citizens to match the standards of service and sophistication set by the British in the nineteenth century. Yet, this argument has had virtually no impact on the outlook of the foreign policy establishment, journalists, policymakers, or the broader public. These latter-day champions of empire have ignored what American leaders have learned the hard way over the last half century. Citizens in a society devoted to the pleasures of personal consumption have proven averse to the personal sacrifices required by distant, dirty wars. The consumer-citizen’s lack of enthusiasm for what it takes to impose and sustain dominance can be measured at the ballot box and by attitudes toward the draft. So even as the classical fears of empire have faded in U.S. political culture, powerful social trends have helped to maintain the allergy to the E word.

Regardless of this long-standing tendency to consider empire a loaded term, it remains a valuable concept capturing a major phenomenon in human history—the assertion by major powers across the millennia of control over other lands and peoples. An examination of empires as diverse as ancient Rome, Han and Tang dynasty China, Russia and the Soviet Union, and Britain suggests a basic working definition that is neither value-laden nor confusing. 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 a 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.

This notion of empire helps make sense of the long U.S. transpacific encounter. Americans followed a familiar imperial path marked by four features. One is the strength and persistence of a strong ideological impulse that stirred dreams of dominance and animated U.S. policy. Nationalist visions together with a commitment to sweeping political, social, and cultural transformation in other lands inspired an ambitious regional project similar to those undertaken by other imperial powers. Infusing this project was a sense of superiority that helped reconcile a people dedicated to freedom to taking freedom, however provisionally, from others and to exercising control, sometimes uneasily.

[ . . . ]

The notion of empire taken seriously and used in a clear, grounded fashion can help us do some serious analytic work. First, this book seeks to highlight the relation of the past to a set of present problems. The history of one long, bloody, and ultimately failed regional project speaks directly to another regional project now in progress. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 and acquiescence in the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975 seemed like the end of a pattern. It was not. To a degree that too few American observers recognize, the United States has replicated in the greater Middle East—in the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the bungled occupation of Iraq—the course that it followed earlier in eastern Asia.

The history of American empire building and warfare in one region speaks to the current imbroglio across the Middle East and Central Asia in a striking variety of ways. U.S. policymakers have ignored or have deliberately forgotten the lessons from the conflicts in eastern Asia. They have revived a misplaced faith in the efficacy of military power to shape a regional agenda to American liking. And as a consequence, they have once more demonstrated how ignorance begets ineffectual and counterproductive policies and how beautiful dreams of democracy and development can easily turn into nightmares of death and destruction. As in the Pacific Wars treated here, Americans are rediscovering in another regional context the constraints under which even the most dominant of powers labor. The present does not replicate the past, but historical parallels can provide fresh ways of understanding and dealing with current challenges.

Second, thinking about empire in a clear, grounded way forces our attention beyond the issues of origins and management to the inevitable and practical problem of retreat. Once constructed, empires are challenging to maintain and ultimately hard to let go. “Natives” become restive, the resolve at home may falter, and available resources for management and defense, always limited, may shrink and force hard choices. The prospect of retreat has perennially wrapped empire builders in a blanket of fears. They worry about diminished prestige and about declining national potency and character that other powers are sure to exploit. They blanch at the idea of humiliation at the hands of upstart subjects or unworthy clients. They quail in the face of the likely backlash from a disillusioned public or angry imperial administrators and warriors. They wring their hands over the loss of markets and natural resources and the betrayal of loyal collaborators. Imperial dissolution does indeed carry consequences, though perhaps overall less serious than proponents of empire imagine and some perhaps even beneficial to the power freed of its burdens. While talk of the fall of empire is often cliched, thinking about that process is essential to understanding how empire works and thus deserves careful consideration. That the U.S. adventure in the Middle East and Central Asia may be approaching an end makes the study of retreat from eastern Asia a matter of some practical urgency.


From Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, by Michael H. Hunt and Steven I. Levine. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

An Online Instructor’s Manual is available, with teaching tips for using Arc of Empire in graduate and undergraduate courses on America’s wars in Asia. It includes lecture topics, chronologies, and sample discussion questions.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives.

Steven I. Levine is research faculty associate in the Department of History at the University of Montana and author or editor of four books, including Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945-1948 and America’s Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach to History and Memory.