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Can America become an "empire for liberty"? British historian Paul Johnson believes that it can and should. The United States, he argues, is uniquely suited, as a result of both its principles and its current power, to bring about benevolent change throughout the world. But does empire suit the United States? We ask Johnson just how and why America can be this "empire for liberty" and to place American imperialism in its historical context. Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the United States of America as an empire for liberty--a conversation with British historian Paul Johnson.

He argues that the United States by virtue of its power but also by virtue of its principles, is uniquely situated to accomplish good in the world today.


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But is the role of imperial power suited to this country? We'll ask Paul Johnson just how the United States can become an empire for liberty. Peter Robinson: I quote you to yourself, "America's search for security against terrorism and rogue states goes hand-in-hand with liberating oppressed peoples. America is unlikely to cease to be an empire. Paul Johnson: That's how it begins to look. In the 19th century in Britain we used to call it the white man's burden.

You wouldn't call it that nowadays but it is a burden and it's one which in a limited way, we carried out in the 19th century, which America's failure to carry out up to the beginning of the Second World War was I think probably a contributing factor to those two World Wars and which I am personally very glad to see it is beginning at long last to assume. Peter Robinson: All right. We--that's a very nice summary statement of your case.

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Let's go back to the beginning and build your case bit by bit. I'll push you around a bit if I can. You assert that the United States, that the Americans were imperialists from the very get-go, even as colonialists, they were imperialists. I'm quoting you again. Paul Johnson: Well, you need to go back a bit into history for this purpose. The core meaning of the word "empire" is unlimited rule. That theme was taken up by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs , which was a famous bible of Protestantism.

It was the most popular book in England in the 16th and 17th centuries and also in the early American colonies after the Bible. And the theme arose that because God had been dissatisfied with the Jews, he had replaced the Jews as the elect nation by the English, didn't call them British in those days…. Paul Johnson: And that was one of the inspirations behind the seamen and explorers and colonists who first went across the Atlantic to found colonies there. It was very much the idea that the English as the elect nation, had a duty to give a lead to the world in matters spiritual.

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Peter Robinson: So the trend in the second half of the 20th century history in dealing with this period has been to suggest that what was going on was that the British--the English, excuse me, were driven by economic motives. And you however, want to assert right away the importance of moral or spiritual motives in the enterprise, founding of the Americas as an English empire from the get-go.

Paul Johnson: Yes, and I think this was strongly felt by the colonists themselves.

I'm not talking about the government at home. They felt they were an elect body of people to found what they called a city on a hill….

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Paul Johnson: …for everyone to see. And this theme was tremendously important in early American colonial history. Peter Robinson: Pilgrim John Winthrop, Ronald Reagan's favorite quotation, "We must consider that we shall be a city on a hill, the eyes of all people are on us. Paul Johnson: Because they decided that sooner or later, they had to occupy the whole of the North American continent.

Empire of Liberty

Eventually, of course, it was discovered when America became an independent state, it was discovered that the continent was so big that they had to create new states. But in those days, states like Virginia felt that their Western frontier went right across the continent. And that was a form of internal imperialism, which was much stronger than the home-based English imperialism because one of the reasons why the American colonies fell out with the home country was because the British government did not wish occupation to proceed beyond the Appalachian line.

And for someone like Washington, for instance, who operated on the frontier, that was a more important issue than taxation without representation. Peter Robinson: He's a surveyor and a land speculator and he wants to be able to operate on the other side of the Appalachians? Peter Robinson: Throughout much of the 20th century, the United States displayed strong isolationist tendencies. How does Paul Johnson explain those? Peter Robinson: If the United States has been an imperial power from the get-go, you've got a little trouble explaining its behavior during much of the 20th century, very reluctant to enter the First World War, likewise reluctant to enter the Second World War.

Roosevelt even has trouble getting the Lend-Lease Legislation through Congress to help Churchill out with ships. It's touch and go whether we'll enter the war until Pearl Harbor, until we're actually attacked. Throughout the Cold War, constant chafing at the defense budget and our burdens during the Cold War. During the s, as you, yourself write, President Clinton responds to the terrorist threat, "in traditional U.

Paul Johnson: Yes, there were particular reasons for this. Washington himself used the word imperialism or empire in a positive sense, not in a hostile sense. And Thomas Jefferson spoke of the empire for liberty. He saw the United States as the empire for liberty. It was a collection of states--not a sole, single state, collection of states, which was committed to the pursuit of liberty. And I think that is a very important phrase because if an American empire comes into existence now, it will be precisely that, an empire for liberty, an empire which makes it possible for liberty to be more widely spread in the world.

Now that was the first thing. Imperialism didn't become a nasty word in the United States until the s when it was used as a word of opprobrium by the southern states against the north. And after that, you tend to get Americans using the word exceptionalism, American exceptionalism and so on. Paul Johnson: However, there is a second reason for the ill repute in which imperialism was held during the 20th century and that is communism.

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A man called J. Hobson, as a result of the Boer War, wrote a book about imperialism which was really an attack to some extent, on the Jews, on the capitalist system, on international finance capital and so on. This was avidly seized upon by Lenin and in due course he brought the concept of imperialism in a very hostile way, into the matrix of his communist thought. And he wrote a book about it. And in that book he attacked all the empires including the Czarist Empire, which was one of the biggest.

However, the Czars were still in power and their censors said this book cannot be published under any circumstances unless all allusions to Russian empire are cut out. So Lenin agreed and they were cut out. So this then became a canonical text in the communist armory. Peter Robinson: Next topic: why Paul Johnson believes that America is particularly suited to the role of global hegemon.

Peter Robinson: I quote you to yourself once again. Language, you write, "America has the language of the 21st century.

AN EMPIRE FOR LIBERTY? A Conversation with Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson: Because it is very rapidly becoming a world language. It's a language which increasingly almost everyone can speak a little.


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  • And many people can speak it very well or at any rate fluently. So it is a natural language if you're dealing with a lot of foreign people, it is a natural language to communicate with them in. French has fallen right behind hand in that. Spanish doesn't have the same propensity to be available for technology and all that side of it.

    Anything which is now new in the world, any kind of new machinery, whatever, is now, as it were, scripted in English. Peter Robinson: All right, this brings us to the next one. Besides this instance of their patriotism, before they separated, they unanimously resolved that the Stamp Act was unconstitutional, that they would purchase no more British manufactures unless it be repealed, and that they would not even admit the addresses of any gentlemen should they have the opportunity, without they determined to oppose its execution to the last extremity, if the occasion required.

    Women were responsible for purchasing goods for the home, so by exercising the power of the purse, they could wield more power than they had in the past. Although they could not vote, they could mobilize others and make a difference in the political landscape. From a local movement, the protests of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty soon spread until there was a chapter in every colony.