“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“The image of these police officers squeezing the life out of Floyd might serve as a metaphor for the way U.S. Administrations have for generations, dealt with the countries many of us come from o- through invasions, occupations, wars, the buttressing of dictators, and the removal of democratically elected governments, among other tactics.” —Edwidge Danticat

Within two months of the murder of George Floyd, we are confronted by the anniversaries of two of the world’s most brutal acts of racist and full spectrum dominance: the 75th anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings on August 6 and 9.  Thousands — many of them Hiroshima school children clearing fire lanes against possible future fire bombings and Catholics in the Urakami district of Nagasaki — were vaporized by the fire ball. Tens of thousands of others were burned beyond recognition, drowned in rivers and cisterns as they sought relief or were crushed under ruins of homes and buildings. By year’s end more than 200,000 — nearly all civilians — had died, many of them suffering agonizing deaths. The bombs’ victims continue to die of cancers and other bomb-related diseases. A U.S. Department of Energy official once reported that the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission’s medical studies of the bombs’ survivors “have been used for everything, including the design of new nuclear weapons.”1DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary. See Empire and the Bomb, Gerson, p. 36.

White supremacy has relied on coercive and often deadly full spectrum dominance at enormous cost.

The A-bombings, and the nuclear arms races that have repeatedly brought humanity to the brink of annihilation, are expressions of campaigns by the ruling elite in the U.S. to ensure their domination at home and abroad. The country is now consumed in a fundamental debate and struggle over if and how to eliminate the symbols and institutional foundations of white dominance, including but certainly not limited to police impunity. From slave patrols, beatings, and whippings in Jim Crow, to lynchings, police brutality, red lining, and the prison industrial complex, white supremacy has relied on coercive and often deadly full spectrum dominance at enormous cost.

Not incidentally, full spectrum dominance is also the Pentagon’s mandate.

Statues Tell a Story

Across the New England landscape, in town commons and public parks, the fusion of racist domestic, foreign, and military policies is honored in Spanish-American War memorials. One memorial graces the margins of the Harvard University campus; atop the plinth is an Anglo-Saxon Cincinnatus, the everyman yeoman with his rifle held astride his body, resolutely prepared for battle. 

More interesting is the plinth’s square plaque. It pictures desperate women, presumably from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines, and Guam, on their knees, arms outstretched appealing for salvation. Behind them appears the image of U.S. warships disgorging white warriors sent to save them, a repetition of the racist and paternalistic trope of white men saving the damsel in distress from dangerous and unseen people of color. The monument informs us that G.I. Joe of the 1890s was saving the day, not creating new imperial colonies in contradiction with the country’s anti-colonial War of Independence.


Spanish-American War Monument in Cambridge, MA
The plinth on the Spanish-American War memorial in Cambridge, MA. Copies of this same monument can be found across the country.

In most instances, a nation’s foreign policies are designed to serve the country’s “national interests”, though they often forged through popular and elite tensions. In the case of the United States, the expansion of U.S. influence and power can be traced to the 1870s, as few liberated slaves received their promised 40 acres and a mule and amid westward expansion and the continued genocide of the continent’s First Peoples. More land was brought under industrial cultivation, leading to over-production, massive crop surpluses, the collapse of market prices, and financial distress and ruin for thousands of farmers and their families. The solution? Pressure on the government to look south to Latin America for new markets.2“Agricultural Problems and Gilded Age Politics” https:/www.austincc.edu/lpatrick/his1302/agrarian.html; William Appelman Williams, From Colony to Empire, pp:136-141.

These forces built over the next generation, with the 1890s a major turning point for the country. The greatest economic depression in U.S. history at that point and labor unrest had corporate leaders desperate and lusting after what they understood to be the “holy grail of capitalism” — the China market.3Author’s student notes; William Appleman Williams: From Colony to Empire, pp: 193-194. If they could carve out markets there, they believed U.S. factories could operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, resulting in “social peace” and enormous profits.

But there was a major obstacle: European colonial powers controlled the “steppingstones to Asia,” the islands that served as coaling stations for the steam powered commercial and warships of the era. These islands couldn’t be seized until the U.S. had warships capable of competing with the British navy, the world’s strongest at the time. Inspired by the naval war theories of Admiral Mahan and pressed by Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, in the 1890s the U.S. built that navy. The 1898 sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Cuba’s Havana harbor, under still undetermined circumstances, served as a casus belli, justification for war. Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa were conquered from Spain. And, under cover of war, Hawaii was annexed. 

Contrary to the mythology communicated by the statues across New England, the people of these conquered nations experienced a change of their colonial oppressors, not liberation. In Cuba and the Philippines, they continued fighting for independence and were defeated in brutal wars, reinforced by torture and the creation of ruthless U.S. controlled police forces (the template that remained in use through the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars). While the number of Cuban dead remains obscure, conservative estimates are that 300,000 Filipinos were killed by U.S. forces, some in massacres reminiscent of the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, and that anticipated the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam decades later. The foundations of the U.S. overseas empire were thus put in place.

The Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the Western Hemisphere was an impregnable element of the U.S. “sphere of interest,” was enforced with repeated deadly wars, military interventions and coups d’états. Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guatemala, Chile and Honduras just begin the list of countries brought within this sphere. In the 1930s and 40s, significant portions of the British empire became collateral for FDR’s Lend Lease aid to Britain. And, with the post-World War II collapse of the British and French empires, followed by political subversions, coups, and military interventions including nuclear threats, North Africa and the Middle East, the Cold War’s oil-rich “geopolitical center of the struggle for world power,” fell to the U.S. sphere.

Competing Imperialisms

Asia was different. In time, the Pacific theater of World War II will be understood less as an anti-fascist war and more as a war between competing imperial powers. In 1905, five decades after the U.S.’s Black Ships “opened” Japan, the two imperial powers in Tokyo and Washington made a deal on the sidelines of the Portsmouth Treaty negotiations in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war. Washington would recognize Tokyo’s colonial control of newly conquered Korea; in exchange Japan would respect U.S. colonial control of the Philippines. Over the next several decades these two emerging powers and Britain managed their tensions — most notably via the Washington Naval Conference of 1920-21, which set proportional limits on the size of each of the powers’ naval forces in the Pacific.

In time, the Pacific theater of World War II will be understood less as an anti-fascist war and more as a war between competing imperial powers.

The Asia-Pacific armed peace was shattered by a schism within the Japanese elite. The “militarist” faction resented being forced to play second fiddle to the Anglo-Saxon empires, especially in China. Others, painfully aware that Japan’s economy was only 1/10th the size of the United States’, argued that Japan should expand its empire under the umbrella of Washington’s and London’s imperial spheres. The “militarists” who seized power opted to go for “the whole melon.” Japanese military provocations opened the way for a full-scale invasion of China and before long Japan controlled Manchuria and many of China’s major cities.

By 1941, even as their forces were increasingly bogged down in China, Japanese troops were threatening Western colonial and economic interests in Asia and their market shares in China. FDR responded by seizing Japanese assets in the United States and more threateningly imposing an oil embargo on Japan. Without adequate oil supplies to pursue its extended war in China, Japan’s leaders opted to simultaneously invade Indonesia and attack Pearl Harbor. Indonesia could supply oil and by sinking much of the U.S. Pacific fleet in Hawaii Japan’s leaders believed they could buy time for their war in China while the U.S. was preoccupied with its more important war against Hitler’s Nazis in Europe.

The Pacific War was fueled by racism and imperial ambitions on each side. As the historian John Dower wrote in War Without Mercy, “To scores of millions of participants, the war was also a race war. …Japan’s belated emergence as a dominant power in Asia…challenged not just the Western presence but the entire mystique of white supremacism on which centuries of European and American expansion had rested.”4John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War. Racist propaganda campaigns on both sides of the Pacific were launched to fuel their troops’ fighting spirits and to reinforce public support for the sacrifices needed to pursue the war.

For Americans, Japanese sanity was not to be “measured by our own standards of logic.” The Japanese were portrayed as “irrational, nonwhite foreigners.” LIFE Magazine taught that Japanese, like Prime Minister Tojo, “show humorless intensity of ruthless mystics.” Hearst newspapers proclaimed that the wars in Asia and Europe were different because Japan was a “racial as well as cultural and religious menace”; a Japanese victory would result in “perpetual war between Oriental ideals and Occidental” and War Department propaganda depicted Japanese people as “vermin to be destroyed”. This dehumanization of the enemy, with its roots in Euro-American racism, made it possible for General LeMay’s firebombing attacks to burn 100,000 Tokyo residents to death in a single night, burn 66 Japanese cities to the ground, and ultimately unleash nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hiroshima & Nagasaki

In the ultimate expression of full spectrum dominance, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked by nuclear weapons. The bombs’ fireballs were three million degrees centigrade. In the first second, everyone within a two-mile radius was irradiated. This was followed by the blast wave that destroyed nearly every structure within a two-mile radius (one mile in the case of Nagasaki due to its hilly terrain.) This was followed by the heat wave that burned people and rubble indiscriminately.

Historian John Dower summarized A-bomb survivors’ testimonies, writing that the people of Hiroshima experienced what they understood as Hell: a “fiery inferno peopled with monsters and naked tormented bodies… a raging inferno, streets full of monstrously deformed creatures; excruciating pain, without medicine and without surcease… Outlines of bodies were permanently etched as white shadows in black nimbus on streets or walls, but the bodies themselves had disappeared… there were innumerable corpses without apparent injury. Parts of bodies held their ground, like two legs severed below the knees, still standing. Many of the dead were turned into statues, some solid and others waiting to crumble at a touch.”5John W. Dower, Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays.

This utter devastation must be remembered, especially given that today’s average strategic nuclear weapons are twenty time more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs.  As Physicians for Social Responsibility has reported, even a small exchange of 50-100 of the world’s estimated 3,720 deployed strategic weapons could result in the deaths of as many as two billion people from the blasts, radiation, fire storms, and the smoke that would cause global cooling and massive famines.

To escape the moral judgement of the U.S. people and history, President Truman lied about the reason he ordered the nuclear attacks, saying that they were necessary to prevent the million U.S. troops being prepared for the invasion of Japan from suffering casualties.

In fact, for months, Japanese diplomats had been suing for peace on the terms Truman accepted after the A-bombings: that Emperor Hirohito be allowed to remain on his throne.6Gerson, Empire and the Bomb, pp 42, 43, 55. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had advised Truman that Japan’s surrender could be arranged “on terms acceptable” to the United States and that he “did not want to have the United States get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.” General Eisenhower opposed the A-bombings saying, “The Japanese were ready to surrender, it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Admiral William D. Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed, saying, “The use of these barbarous weapons at Hiroshima and Nagsaki was of no material assistance to the war.” And General Curtis LeMay, who led the firebombing campaign, was convinced that without a group invasion, Japan would surrender by November when there would be no targets left to attack.

Racism contributed to the decision to attack cities with “densely packed workers homes” with atom bombs. Other contributing factors included bureaucratic momentum and Truman’s fear that if U.S. voters learned that $2 billion ($28.5 billion in 2020 dollars) had been spent to create the A-bomb, but that it had not been used, it could lead to his defeat in the 1948 presidential election. But the decisive factor was articulated by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes when he said, “We wanted to get through the Japanese phase of the war before the Russians came in.” As historian Barton Bernstein wrote in the pages of Foreign Affairs on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the A-bombings, the consensus among historians is that the determinative force behind the A-bombings was a commitment to bring the war to an immediate end. The goal was to avoid having to share influence with the Soviet Union in northern China, Mongolia and Korea.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings were not the last time U.S. nuclear weapons were used.7Gerson, Empire and the Bomb, pp. 9, 37-38. During international crises and wars, they have been repeatedly used in the same way that an armed robber points a gun at his victim’s head. Whether or not the trigger is pulled, the gun has been used. On more than 30 occasions, U.S. leaders have prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war: four times in relation to Vietnam, three times in relation to China, twelve for Korea and a dozen to maintain U.S. hegemony over the oil-rich Middle East.

On more than 30 occasions, U.S. leaders have prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war.

Not to be forgotten in the tale of Washington’s racist exercise of full spectrum dominance are the three million Indochinese killed during what we call the Vietnam War, many of them dehumanized as “gooks,” the 500,000 Iraqi children Secretary of State Madeline Albright said were worth sacrificing during the first Gulf War,  and the uncounted “sand niggers” and “sand monkeys” killed in the course of this century’s endless wars in the greater Middle East.

The Military Industrial Complex

In his valedictory speech on leaving office in 1960, President Eisenhower warned that the total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — of the military-industrial complex “is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government…In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

During the past sixty years, as the U.S. military budget has grown to nearly $1 trillion dollars, equal to the total of the world’s ten next greatest military spending nations, that military industrial complex has deepened and consolidated its power and privilege. It is no accident that everything from chemical weapons to tanks have been sold to police forces across the country, that more than $30 billion will be spent on nuclear weapons this year, and that it has been years since a military audit, even while millions are homeless, without medical care, or decent schools.

It is no accident that everything from chemical weapons to tanks have been sold to police forces across the country.

As Eisenhower noted, the origin of this complex lies in the 20th century’s world wars. During the first four years of WWI, when the U.S. was officially neutral, it became the major supplier of civilian and war materials to European combatants. This, in turn, facilitated the nation’s transition to the WWII wartime economy that prevails to this day.

The organization of finance, workers, technology, and logistics needed to prevail in those wars required the creation of the military-industrial-Congressional complex, as Eisenhower initially termed it. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Smith & Wesson laid their foundations in these wars. Among others, the wealth and power of the Bush family has its roots in four generations of weapons production, beginning with the manufacture of guns for U.S. troops in WWI.

In its early years, the military-industrial complex was seen as a danger to the nation. In 1934, President Roosevelt castigated “the merchants of the engines of destruction”; the popular comic strip Little Orphan Annie featured the munitions profiteer Daddy Warbucks; and in Congress Senator Nye skewered the arms manufacturers, calling out companies like Dupont for making massive profits with their contributions to German rearmament after Hitler came to power. As Secretary of War Henry Stimson observed, “If you are going to try to go to war, or to prepare for war, in a capitalistic country, you have got to let business make money out of the process or business won’t work.”

Forty years ago, during the Reagan Administration’s shockingly rapid military buildup, Ulysses Torres, a Chilean Methodist minister who had been imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet’s military dictatorship was asked how to identify a military government. He answered: “Look at your national budget.”

The military now consumes 61% of the federal government’s discretionary spending and Trump and the country’s militarist Congress recently increased the Pentagon’s budget to $738 billion, bringing the Trump era military spending increases to almost $100 billion a year (the so-called intelligence community’s black budget is thought to approach another $100 billion). And there is the mis-named Department of Homeland Security, which enforces the country’s increasingly militarized borders, manages the concentration camps for desperate immigrants and their separated families, and sends its secretive and heavily armed forces into cities like Portland, Oregon. Taken together, U.S. military spending is closer to $1 trillion.

What does it pay for?  Certainly not COVID-19 tests amid the pandemic that has already taken 150,000 lives. Not for housing. Not for medical care. Not for schools, the country’s crumbling infrastructure, or for the Green New Deal we need to prevent climate catastrophe and to create hundreds of thousands of well-paying 21st century jobs.

As Lockheed-Martin pulls in $50.7 billion, Boeing $23.4 billion, General Dynamics $15.3 billion and Raytheon $14 billion, all in a single year, the military budget is fueling an anti-immigrant and nationally self-defeating wall. It is financing America’s “empire of bases,” more than 800 around the world, at a cost of about $150 billion per year. The endless post-9/11 wars have cost the nation an estimated five trillion dollars, resources that could have salvaged our health care system and built a better one in the wake of the pandemic. And the U.S. is on track to spend $2 trillion for a new generation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, which if ever used would result in the end of all human life as we know it.

Thinking & Acting Systematically

Years ago, the Israeli peace movement had a slogan that the crimes and corruptions inflicted outside the fortress walls would inevitably flow back and corrupt Israel. The same applies to the U.S. empire, most visibly as returning warriors become the foundation of our police forces, now sent to quell peaceful protests across the country.

Since the beginning of the genocide of Native Americans, the building of the American economy on the backs and blood of enslaved people, the conquering of colonies, the creation of neo-colonies, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki holocausts, racism and full spectrum dominance have served as the mutually reinforcing building-blocks of American empire.

As protesters in our streets and people around the world cry out, another world, another America, is still possible. The path away from institutionalized racism, murderous full spectrum dominance, and the corruptions of the military-industrial complex must lead through profound social, economic, political, spiritual, intellectual, and military change.

First, we must face our history and ourselves. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries, in the shadows of the deaths of George Floyd and so many others, are among the most important places to start.

As protesters in our streets and people around the world cry out, another world, another America, is still possible.

This article is an expanded version of the article published in Pressenza, July 8, 2020. Dr. Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion and Moral Imagination and Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.