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Lessons from history at a Pacific Ocean outpost

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Joe Marlowe

Although this article does not mention them by name, it is a tribute to a time when America was led by men of knowledge, vision, wisdom, ability, and courage:
Raymond Spruance,
Richmond Turner,
Charles Lockwood,
and, above all,
Chester Nimitz.

Tom Meadowcroft

The United States went through a brief period of aggressive imperialism, from 1890 - 1920 or so, and then a much longer period of passive imperialism where it did not seek new territory, but maintained the status quo, picking up a few small islands as naval bases, and exercising soft imperialism through economic power. None of the territories that were conquered/occupied (Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Panama) were noticeably improved by the experience relative to how they might have developed without US occupation. The US, like any other colonial power, was repeatedly guilty of mistreatment of the natives, war crimes if you like. Teddy Roosevelt, the central political figure of the period, felt that imperialism was the only way to become a "Great Power", and that the "white man's burden" to the rest of humanity was to conquer and civilize them. It's really the darkest period of US external affairs. Nothing that happened in Iraq or Vietnam is as bad as what was done to put down rebellion in the Philippines, for instance, where there were many (often disputed) tales of murder, rape, and torture. By the 1930s, imperialism had turned to isolationism, until internationalism was made necessary by WW2 and the cold war. As Americans look back into history, many pine for isolationism, but few yearn for military imperialism. Like China in some ways, the US today does not wish to grow in territory, preferring to exercise its power through influence and intimidation.


TE still maintains arguments which are effectively supporting for instance limited migration while proposing the argument applies to unlimited one. Similarly arguments about any other aspects of globalization can be made - yet they do not make no borders world where everybody can settle anywhere without any limits. There are reasons flash mobs may get attention of a local police department. Not even multinationals like the idea of no borders at all as this would mean there is no tax paradise anymore. Complete openness is usually not desired nor it is always healthy even if possible. The exact opposite i.e. completely closed society/economy is too: not desired and not healthy.
It is our mind and interests that at then decide what is best for us and not ideology.

A. Andros

And, that's the problem with traipsing about with the brass -- you become their creature.
It is not easy to see what American policy toward small Pacific islands in the years of celluloid collars, mustache-cups and the Flora Dora Girls has to do with America's foreign policy stance in the 21st century. America in the 1890s also had high protective tariffs -- does TE feel that, based on precedent, that is the way to go from here-on out?
The USA acquired several Pacific islands during that long-ago era. Wake was one and what became American Samoa was another. Eventually, in a fit of madness, it acquired the Philippines. So what?
The acquisition of a tiny island like Wake was not a foreign policy statement: it was a practical means of dealing with the technologies of late Victorian warships. These were invariably coal-fired and that, in turn, required coaling stations. These were dotted about the world and often consisted of little more than a few acres of an otherwise submerged mountain and a lot, and I mean a LOT, of coal.
These localities were also useful as cable stations. In the years prior to wireless transmission, international communications depended largely on undersea cables. Those cables, in turn, carried, in effect, telegraph messages.
The last thing the USA wanted in the 1890s was an aggressive forward policy in which America was involved in great power politics. The Navy in the year the Wake was taken consisted for four or five coal-belching "sea-going, coastline battleships" and a few protected cruisers. Japan was not regarded as an enemy because that country had barely emerged from feudalism, relied entirely on a handful of British-built warships and was rather admired than not by Americans (this changed after the Russo-Japanese War.)
No . . . America did NOT choose its international role. It chose to dump coal on remote islands so its ships would not have to use oars when the coal ran out.


An interesting article. If I was Chinese I might be saying that if the USA can claim islands in the middle of the Pacific and use them to project power far beyond its shores, then they can claim/build islands that are much closer to their own. Others might retaliate that Wake Island was not claimed by anyone else and is in no one else’s back yard, but everyone cherry picks the data and history that suits their argument. Might will be all it takes to be right in the end.

Enders Shadow

Just the sort of article I especially enjoy in the Economist - distinctly off the beaten track yet providing a significant insight. Thank you.